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James Douglas, 4th Earl of Morton, lived from 1525 to 2 June 1581. At one time the Lord Chancellor of Scotland, he was one of those who forced Mary, Queen of Scots to abdicate in favour of her son, James VI. He later served as the last of the four Regents of Scotland during James VI's minority. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.
James Douglas was the second son of Sir George Douglas. Some time around 1543 he married he married Elizabeth Douglas, daughter of James Douglas, 3rd Earl of Morton. In 1553 he succeeded his father-in-law to the title of Earl of Morton, and by 1563 he was the Lord Chancellor of Scotland, one of the most powerful men in the country.
Thereafter, his story became intimately entwined with that of Mary Queen of Scots, whose Catholicism he increasingly opposed alongside a group of Protestant lords. Matters first came to a head in March 1566. Morton played a leading part in encouraging Mary's husband, Lord Darnley, to take direct action against her Italian secretary, David Rizzio: and - with others including Darnley, had a personal hand in Rizzio's murder in the presence of a heavily pregnant Mary at the Palace of Holyroodhouse.
With Darnley's assistance, Mary managed to escape what was little short of an attempted coup against her, and Morton and the other conspirators fled to England, returning to Scotland the following year after being pardoned. Shortly afterwards, Scotland was scandalised by Mary's marriage to James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell, on 15 May 1567: most Scots believed that Bothwell had murdered Lord Darnley. Morton was amongst the Scottish nobles who led troops out to meet Mary and Bothwell at Carberry Hill on 15 June 1567; effectively bringing them back to Edinburgh in custody. Nine days later, on 24 June 1567, he was among those who met Mary, Queen of Scots, then under imprisonment at Lochleven Castle and offered her the choice between abdication in favour of her infant son, James VI, or death.
After Mary's escape from Lochleven Castle, Morton helped James Stewart, 1st Earl of Moray defeat her at the Battle of Langside on 13 May 1568, the event which led to her ill-judged flight to seek support in England. The Earl of Moray, as well as being Mary's half brother, was the first of four Regents to govern Scotland during the minority of James VI. The last, appointed on 28 October 1572 after loyally supporting his three predecessors, was James Douglas, 4th Earl of Morton.
At the time of Morton's Regency, Scotland was still deeply divided between supporters of James VI on the one hand and supporters of Mary Queen of Scots on the other. Morton was very effective in furthering James's cause (as defined by the Protestant nobles Morton now led). He had crushed the last real support for Mary in Scotland by early 1573.
Meanwhile, however, Morton had himself been making enemies amongst the hard-line Presbyterians who increasingly held much of the ecclesiastical power in Scotland. One result was an accusation publicly levelled against him by Robert Stewart, 1st Earl of Orkney, that he had conspired in the murder of Lord Darnley. It emerged that Morton had probably been aware of Bothwell's intentions to murder Darnley, though was not himself an active participant. For the young James VI (notwithstanding the fact that his mother was also party to the conspiracy to kill his father) this was enough to condemn Morton to death. James Douglas, 4th Earl of Morton, was executed in Edinburgh on 2 June 1581: ironically with a guillotine called "The Maiden" which he had himself procured some years previously from a manufacturer in Halifax in England.