King Henry of Scotland’s Pardon of the Earl of Argyll, March 1566

Mary_Stuart_James_Darnley 2

Guest post by Cynthia J. Neville, 8 April 2020

Among the papers of the Boyd family of Kilmarnock currently housed in the National Records of Scotland is a rare letter of remission, dated 6 March 1566, granted in the name of Henry king of Scots in favour of Archibald Campbell, fifth earl of Argyll and some sixteen other named men for ‘all actionis querrelles and crymis quhatsumever’ relating to recent events.[1] The document is of interest for many reasons, not least of which is that on the front of the tag attached to it is the sign manual of Henry himself in his capacity as king (‘Henry R’), rather than merely as the ‘Lord Darnley’ so infamous to historians. There are extant very few documents subscribed by the hand of King Henry himself (another is a letter of 6 May 1566 addressed to King Charles IX of France now in the British Library).[2] Henry is known to have set his signet or sign manual to several other records, among them a letter of safe conduct to England dated 27 August 1565, and another (10 April 1566), ordering that a proclamation be made at the market cross of Edinburgh on the day after Rizzio’s murder, but neither these nor other acts of Henry survive as single sheet originals.[3] Quite apart from its value as an archival artefact, however, the remission in favour of Archibald Campbell is important because it sheds intriguing light on the practice of royal mercy at a crucial moment in Scottish history.

Henry’s remission is remarkable first because of its text. By the mid-sixteenth century royal letters of remission (known to historians of England as royal pardons) had acquired a standardized number and a systematic layout of carefully worded clauses including, not least, a clear and unambiguous statement concerning the source of the royal gift of mercy: the anointed prince’s ‘special favour and grace’. There normally followed a declaration that the crown had made a decision to remit not merely the ‘rancour’ of spirit that the offender’s actions had caused, but also any and all royal suits and actions that the crown might have reason to make against the offender as a consequence of the latter’s unlawful acts. Typically, then, a royal letter of remission would read much as does this one, another near-contemporary pardon dated 4 July 1566: Sciatis quod ex nostris fauore et gracia specialibus remisimus Willelmo Douglas de Lochlevin [and four other named persons] latoribus presencium omnem rancorem omnem nostri sectam regiam ac omnem actionem quem seu quas erga ipsos habuimus habemus seu quouismodo in futurum habere poterimus[4] Typically, too, a royal letter of remission included, first,  a clause that readmitted the offenders to the royal peace, provided that first they make reparation to any injured parties and, more important, another clause that threatened with heavy sanction anyone who dared violate the protection extended to the newly reconciled subject. The hundreds of extant letters of remission that have come down to us from the fourteenth century, moreover, were typically issued only as the final stage in a series of administrative processes: royal warrants under the sign manual or signet generated a command to the keeper of the privy seal, whose sealed precept in turn directed the chancellor to draw up a letter of remission in the form of a letter patent authenticated with the great seal of the realm.[5] The letter itself was often (though not inevitably) enrolled in the Register of the Great Seal of Scotland.[6] All such documents were written in Latin, which had been (and remained for centuries yet to come) the language of record of the Scottish chancery.

King Henry’s pardon to Argyll and his associates was a hastily composed hybrid of all these elements. It is framed as a letter patent, with its opening clause reading ‘Be it kend till all men be ʒir present lettres….’. Unlike other letters patent, and rather more like other sixteenth-century warrants and precepts, it is written in Scots rather than Latin, that is, the language of most of the business contracted within the offices of the central government in the sixteenth century. The letter includes none of the flowery language normally found in grants of royal mercy, but its intent is that of a genuine and properly executed letter of remission: Henry makes known that ‘we haif remittit and be ye tenour heirof remittis …. all actionis querelles and crymes quhatsumeuir’ that Argyll and his followers had committed. It bears no great seal, chiefly because Henry had no access to it, but perhaps also because the only great seal in use at this time portrayed Queen Mary alone, and its legend referred to Regina Scotorum only.[7] Although a new coin showing the profiles of king and queen had been minted soon after Henry’s marriage to Mary on 30 July 1565,[8] no one had favoured casting a new great seal and in any case Mary’s subsequent refusal to grant Henry the crown matrimonial had meant that he could not bear royal arms. Henry’s pardon to Argyll boasted little more than the sign manual, though this was undoubtedly that of a genuine king.[9]


Just how legitimate was this pardon? In Henry’s mind at least it carried the full legal weight of an authentic act of royal clemency. In early March 1566 the king was in precarious political waters. At odds (once again) with his wife, he remained more desperate than ever to secure the coveted crown matrimonial and the regalian rights associated with it. Both the rebellious Protestant lords and Mary herself had promised him this honour, but only a month earlier Scottish heralds had debated whether it was appropriate for him to bear the royal arms of Scotland at all, a debate that Mary had ended abruptly.[10] Argyll, for his part, was no friend of the king or his Lennox kindred, but he had been in open rebellion against Mary since late the previous year, and as recently as early February, she was still refusing ‘to do any good’ towards him.[11] (Crucially, the earl was later also known to have been a member of the group who murdered Mary’s secretary, David Rizzio). Pardoning Argyll allowed Henry to bring Argyll – and his very extensive affinity- firmly to his side, but also to exercise one of the most prestigious prerogatives associated with a fully fledged king and to ‘do more then to beare the bare name of a kinge, not havinge the due honor pertayninge to suche a dignitie’.[12]

Henry’s delusions on both counts were laid bare less than two weeks later. Within days of the Rizzio murder on 9 March he himself was dutifully back by Mary’s side, his determination to secure the privileges of full kingship no closer to being achieved than they had been before. Argyll, moreover, clearly considered King Henry’s pardon worth less than the parchment it had been written on and had sought and been granted another remission, this one from the queen herself.[13] This pardon, properly executed and sealed, he regarded as genuine.[14] Another extant letter of remission, issued in early July 1566 in favour of William Douglas of Lochleven and four of his associates, all also involved in the Rizzio affair, is worth mentioning here. It employs the traditional language of royal mercy, is drafted in Latin, and was secured following the normal course of chancery practice, that is, Mary’s warrant had passed to the keeper of the privy seal, who had in turn issued a precept to chancery to draft a remission. historyscottish02bircgoog_0282The grant bore the names of Henry and Mary, but it derived its legitimacy – and Douglas the protection it afforded – from the great seal of the realm bearing the image of Mary that was appended to it.[15] By the end of 1566, after several months of further upheaval, all the Protestant lords who had opposed Mary had sought and accepted the queen’s pardon. Very few of the letters of remission that recorded these individual grants of royal clemency have survived as originals, but extant narrative sources make it clear that the queen’s mercy was the only kind that mattered to these men.[16]

There is no little irony in this. Foolish, feckless, unstable and unpredictable though the king and queen may each have been, for the duration of the troubled marriage through to the last day of Darnley’s life (9 March 1567) the offices of the central government all demonstrated a keen belief that the only way through political upheaval lay in keeping the machinery of government moving as routinely as possible. Indeed, the records of central government reveal nary a break in the function of these offices from one day to the next, nor do they cease to maintain the fiction that public acts issued between between 30 July 1565 and 9 March 1567 were performed in the name of king and queen, in many instances flying in the face of clear evidence to the contrary. Grants under the great seal of the realm – confirmations of charters and tacks, gifts of office, estate and new appointments – issued forth in largely undiminished numbers from chancery, now in the names of Rex et Regina. The first of these was dated 5 August 1565, less than a week after the marriage; the last 8 February 1567, just a day before Darnley’s enemies set in motion the plot to kill him.[17] Entries in the Register of the Privy Seal likewise make a smooth transition from acts issued in the name of ‘oure … soverane ladye’ alone (28 July 1565) to letters effected by the will or subscription of ‘oure soveranis’,  ‘thair majesteis’, ‘thair hienes’, SDN regis et regina (all 31 July 1565).[18] The Privy Council that met on 28 July 1565 under the authority (and in the presence of) Queen Mary assembled again a few days later in the name of both king and queen.[19] A royal request for appointment to the vacant bishopric of Brechin in July 1566 became possible only because it had been the subject of a supplication directed to Pope Pius V on 21 July 1566 that bore the names of both monarchs.[20] Despite Mary’s rapid change of heart (given tangible expression on a new coin)[21] and her subsequent insistence that her name appear before that of her husband in official documents, administrative practice did not change. Both George Buchanan and John Knox later accused Mary of ordering a cast made of her husband’s sign manual and/or his seal, so that she might govern on her own, though both (grudgingly) admitted that she was forced to do so because King Henry’s misbehaviour meant that ‘State-Matters were acted unseasonably; or else were wholly omitted.’[22] Whether or not the charge was accurate, Buchanan’s comments, and the story of King Henry’s pardon of the earl of Argyll, reflect the widespread opinion that for better or worse, in the absence of a formal grant of the crown matrimonial (which parliament never made) the power and authority of the crown resided not in Mary alone, but in Mary and Henry conjointly.

Cynthia J. Neville is Professor Emeritus in the Department of History at Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia and Adjunct Professor in the Department of History at the University of Guelph, Ontario.


Feature image: double portrait of Queen Mary and King Henry, artist unknown, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Silver ryal of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scotland, and of Lord Darnley, courtesy of the Trustees of the British Museum, via Google Arts and Culture.

Mary Stuart’s third great seal, from


[1] National Records of Scotland [henceforth NRS], Edinburgh, GD 8/157.

[2] British Library, London, MS Egerton 2805, fo. 7, with contents and description in “Elizabeth: May 1566,” in Calendar of State Papers, Scotland: Volume 2, 1563-69, ed. Joseph Bain (London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1900), 277-282. British History Online, accessed April 8, 2020, [accessed 31 March 2020].

[3] “Elizabeth: August 1565,” in Calendar of State Papers, Scotland: Volume 2, 1563-69, ed. Joseph Bain (London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1900), 188-199. British History Online, accessed April 8, 2020, [accessed 31 March 2020]; A Diurnal of Remarkable Occurrents that have passed within the Country of Scotland, since the Death of King James the Fourth till the year M.DLXXV, ed A. G. Scott and Thomas Thomson (Edinburgh: Bannatyne Club, 1833), 91.

[4] NRS, GD 150/347. ‘Henry and Mary, by the grace of God king and queen of Scots …. Know that of our favour and special grace we have remitted William Douglas of Lochleven [and four other named persons], bearers of these same letters, all our rancour, and all royal suit and all actions that we had, have or may in future have against them ….’. In this instance the recipients were pardoned the support that they had given the rebel earl of Morton and his accomplices, all members of the Protestant opposition to the queen.

[5] Jackson Armstrong, ‘The Justice Ayre in the Border Sheriffdoms’, Scottish Historical Review 92 (2013): 31.

[6] The letter of remission issued to William Douglas, for example, still bears a splendid example of the great seal, but there is no enrolment; another example is the pardon issued to James Hamilton duke of Châtelherault. Registrum Secreti Sigilli Regum Scotorum. The Register of the Privy Seal of Scotland. A.D. 1488-1529 [A.D.1581-1584] [henceforth RSS], 8 vols in 9, ed. M. Livingstone et al. (Edinburgh: H. M. General Register House, 1908-1982), 5.2, no. 2523. There are also, however, examples of remissions issued by expedited process, e.g. NRS, GD8/187.

[7] Henry Laing, Descriptive Catalogue of Impressions from Ancient Scottish Seals … from A.D. 1054 to the Commonwealth, 2 vols (Edinburgh: Bannatyne Club, 1850-1866), i, 15. Pictured below.

[8] David J. Rampling, ‘The Silver Ryals Coinage of Mary, Queen of Scots’, Journal of the Numismatic Association of Australia 27 (2016): 91-92. Pictured.

[9] For Argyll’s movements in the late winter and early spring of 1566, see John A. Guy, My Heart is My Own: The Life of Mary Queen of Scots (London: Harper Perennial, 2004), 245, 247; see also the contemporary account by Patrick Ruthven, 3rd Baron Ruthven, The Murder of Rizzio (Edinburgh, 1891), 5-12.

[10] John Knox, The History of the Reformation of Religion in Scotland, ed. William McGavin (Glasgow: Blackie, 1831), 342.

[11] The Register of the Privy Council of Scotland, [1545-1689], ed John Hill Burton et al., 36 vols (Edinburgh: H. M. General Register House, 1877-1970), i, 388-89; “Elizabeth: February 1566,” in Calendar of State Papers, Scotland: Volume 2, 1563-69, ed. Joseph Bain (London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1900), 252-259. British History Online, accessed April 8, 2020, [accessed 3 April 2020]; Memoirs of His Own Life, By Sir James Melville of Halhill, ed T. Thomson (Edinburgh, Bannatyne Club, 1827), 135.

[12] The comment appears in a letter from the English ambassador to Scotland, Lord Thomas Randolph, to Secretary William Cecil, ironically dated the very same day. “Elizabeth: March 1566,” in Calendar of State Papers, Scotland: Volume 2, 1563-69, ed. Joseph Bain (London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1900), 259-272. British History Online, accessed April 8, 2020, [accessed 2 April 2020].

[13] R. Keith, History of The Affairs of Church and State in Scotland from the Beginning of the Reformation to the Year 1568, ed. J. P. Lawson, 3 vols (Edinburgh: Spottiswoode Society, 1844-1850), ii, 420-21; J. Melville, Memoirs of his Own Life, by Sir James Melville of Halhill, ed. T. Thomson (Edinburgh: Bannatyne Club, 1827), 151-52. The remission itself survives as NAS, GD8/157.

[14] See here Argyll’s letter of 7 April 1566 to his cousin, NRS, GD112/39/6/8.

[15] Precept per signetum in RRS, 5.2, no 2925; great seal remission (with a particularly splendid example of the seal) in NRS, GD150/347.

[16] The events leading up to the killing of David Rizzio, Mary’s ‘imprisonment’ in Holyrood and the crisis that followed are narrated in A Diurnal of Remarkable Occurrents, 89-100.

[17] Registrum Magni Sigilli Regum Scotorum. The Register of the Great Seal of Scotland, A.D. 1306-1424 [henceforth RMS], 11 vols, ed. J. Maitland Thomson et al. (Edinburgh: H. M. General Register House, 1882-1914), iv, nos. 1655-1766. The printed registers reorganises acts included in two of the original register volumes; NRS C2/31, C2/32.

[18] RSS, 5.1 nos 2228, 2229, 2230, 2232. These entries cover two separate volumes in the original registers, NRS, PC1/33 and PC1/34, though interestingly, the break does not occur on the day that conjoint rule began. For joint proclamations issuing from the Privy Council, see Reg. Privy Council, i, 355, 356. The initials SDM were a common abbreviation for S[erenessimi] D[ominorum] N[ostrorum], ‘our most serene lords’.

[19] Reg. Privy Council, i, 344-47.

[20] Text at “Elizabeth: July 1566,” in Calendar of State Papers, Scotland: Volume 2, 1563-69, ed. Joseph Bain (London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1900), 292-298. British History Online, accessed April 8, 2020,  [accessed 7 April 2020].

[21] Designed and issued on 22 December 1565. Reg. Privy Council, i, 413; Rampling, ‘Silver Ryals’, 90-91; see also N. M. McQ. Holmes, Scottish Coins in the National Museums of Scotland, Edinburgh, Part 1 (Oxford: British Academy, 2006), Plates 44-51; idem, ‘The Coinage of Mary and Darnley’, History Scotland 4, no. 1 (Jan 2004), 22-25; Guy, Mary Queen of Scots, 241. Guy’s claim that from Dec 1565 Mary’s name appeared before Henry’s may be be based on Buchanan’s history, but extant documents suggest that he is mistaken.

[22] George Buchanan, The History of Scotland (London: E. Jones, 1690), 178; Knox, History of the Reformation, 342.

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