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Distant View of Edinburgh Castle, Where Maitland was Taken Prisoner in 1573
Distant View of Edinburgh Castle, Where Maitland was Taken Prisoner in 1573

Sir William Maitland of Lethington lived from 1525 to 9 June 1573. He was a politician who rose to become Secretary of State to Mary, Queen of Scots. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.

William Maitland of Lethington
William Maitland of Lethington
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Sir William Maitland was the eldest son of Sir Richard Maitland of Thirlestane and Lethington, a judge and a noted poet. He was educated at the University of St Andrews before entering politics. Sir William played a key role in the difficult years of the 1550s and 1560s and spent time as Scotland's ambassador to the court of Queen Elizabeth I of England. He eventually rose to become Secretary of State (in effect, Prime Minister) under Queen Mary I of Scotland: also known as Mary, Queen of Scots. Maitland played a role in the murder of Mary's secretary, David Rizzio, by her husband Lord Darnley, but despite this managed to remain in favour with the queen.

After the forced abdication of Mary, Queen of Scots in 1567, he served in the government of the Regent, James Stewart, 1st Earl of Moray, who was also Mary's half brother. James Stewart was assassinated in 1570, and in the struggle for power that followed, Sir William Maitland took the side of those who wanted the return to power in Scotland of Mary I against those seeking to defend the interests of her son, the child-king James VI. Matters came to a head in 1573 when a number of Mary's supporters led by Sir William Kirkaldy of Grange, including Sir William Maitland of Lethington and his younger brother, John Maitland, 1st Lord Maitland of Thirlestane, took possession of Edinburgh Castle.

The Regent of Scotland, acting on behalf of the young James VI, was James Douglas, 4th Earl of Morton. He sought military assistance from Queen Elizabeth I of England to quell what amounted to an uprising. She dispatched forces including a large train of artillery from Berwick-upon-Tweed under the command of Sir William Drury. The English succeeded in demolishing the defences of Edinburgh Castle and, in return for a promise of clemency from Drury, the defenders surrendered. In the event Drury was ordered by Elizabeth to hand the captured defenders over to the Regent. He had a number of the leaders executed at the mercat cross in Edinburgh, while others were imprisoned. John Maitland was imprisoned in Tantallon Castle before returning to favour and power in 1574. Sir William Maitland was less fortunate, being imprisoned in Leith prison, where he died either from an existing illness, or by suicide.

In about 1563 Sir William Maitland had married the much younger Mary Fleming, one of the "Four Marys" who had accompanied Mary Queen of Scots in exile in France and on her return to Scotland. They had two children.

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