Janet Douglas, Lady Glamis (c. 1504–1537), was a member of the Scottish nobility who was convicted and then burned at the stake for treason on 17 July 1537 in Edinburgh. A member of the powerful Douglas family, she was the highest ranking person to be executed during the personal rule of James V of Scotland.
Janet was summoned for trial on three earlier occasions: first in December 1528 for aiding her brothers; then in June 1531 her lands were forfeited; and thirdly, in January 1532 when she was accused of poisoning her first husband who had died almost four years earlier. The final accusation levelled against her in 1537 was that she attempted to cause the death of the King by poisoning.
Historians have questioned whether Janet was innocent, and her execution was simply the King issuing a warning to her family. Some early accounts intimate she was tried for witchcraft; modern day academics consider this to be unfounded, but suggest it indicates how assumptions and magical associations were too readily assumed then mistakenly perpetuated.
Janet or Jonet, born in about 1504, was one of the four daughters and three sons of George Douglas, Master of Angus and his wife Elizabeth Drummond. The family was wealthy, powerful and held significant political sway. Janet was particularly devoted to her brothers: Archibald the sixth Earl of Angus, the stepfather of King James V of Scotland, whom he kept in close custody as a means to retain his power; and George Douglas of Pittendreich, master of the royal household. The young King escaped Archibald’s control in 1528, but “came to loathe the Douglasses in general, [… …] with a fine and near hysterical fervour.”
John Lyon, sixth Lord Glamis, married Janet in 1520 when she was sixteen years old. During 1526 her support of her brothers clashed with her husband’s opinions, causing friction within their household. The couple had four children by the time of the sixth Lord’s death on 17 September 1528; their eldest son, her husband’s heir, was a minor, being only seven years old at the time of his father’s death.
By July 1532 Janet had married her second husband, Archibald Campbell of Skipness. The younger brother of Colin, third Earl of Argyll, he had previously been married and had a daughter from that relationship. His marriage to Janet did not produce any children.
Court cases, conviction and execution
During 1528 the King’s animosity towards the family resulted in Archibald, sixth Earl of Angus facing a charge of treason then forfeiture. Together with his brother George, he resisted exile but eventually the pair capitulated, relocating to Berwick upon Tweed. Janet also became a target of the King’s displeasure. She was summoned to appear before the Scottish parliament in December 1528 and January 1529 to respond to a charge that during the last week of June 1528 she had aided and assisted her brothers in their plotting against the King. Three others were also summoned to the proceedings to face the same accusations: Hugh Kennedy of Girvanmains; John Hume of Blackadder; and Patrick Charteris of Cuthilgurdy; however at a third hearing on 22 January Janet is no longer mentioned. Records show that on 20 September 1529 a licence permitting Charteris and Janet – who was referred to as “our lovittis Dame Jonat Douglas” – to undertake an overseas pilgrimage was issued, although it is unlikely she left Scotland as she was successfully pursuing legal action against a relative from October 1529 until March 1530.[a]Janet raised an action on behalf of herself and her children against John Lyon of Knockany, stating he assumed possession or management of the profits of Glamis lands. A verdict in her favour was made in March 1530.
Evidently another trial against Janet was being contemplated, as in June 1531 all her goods were gifted to a Gavin Hamilton by the Crown with her being labelled as a “fugitive fra the law and at the horne … for intercommonying with our soverane lordis rebellis”. The historian Patrick Fraser Tytler considers a trial must have taken place, and a guilty verdict of treason reached at this time for the forfeiture of her goods to be made.
By the end of January 1532 charges were brought against her alleging that she had poisoned her first husband in 1528. A trial to hear the case was set for early February then re-scheduled for a few weeks later, but on both occasions the lairds called to serve as jurors were fined for non-appearance; her prosecution on that charge then seems to have been abandoned. A few months later her rights as the widow of the sixth Lord Glamis to claim a pension from his estate were restored.
Janet spent the next five years, which coincided with the first years of her marriage to her second husband, free of any accusations being made against her. She is mentioned in court documents during this period but only for actions she raised against others to secure payments she claimed – usually successfully – were her legal entitlement.
The extant criminal records around this time are sketchy, giving no indication of events or actions made against Janet until she was tried on 17 July 1537. The indictment details only two charges against her: treasonably conspiring and imagining the death of the King by poison, and assisting and communicating with her brothers. The jury of fifteen noblemen found her guilty, and she was sentenced to be executed by burning on Edinburgh’s castle hill; the sentence was implemented the same day. Janet was the highest status person to be executed during James V’s personal rule of Scotland.
Around a month before Janet’s execution, on 15 June 1537, the 16-year-old seventh Lord Glamis, her eldest son, was arrested and placed in custody in Edinburgh Castle. Her husband, Archibald Campbell of Skipness, together with a priest and a barber were also imprisoned. The young Lord Glamis was tried on 18 July, the day after his mother’s execution; he was found guilty of concealing Janet’s conspiracy to poison James V. He was sentenced to be executed by hanging and drawingStatutory penalty in England from 1352 for men convicted of high treason. , but as he was a minor he was instead kept imprisoned. His lands were forfeited and he remained incarcerated until the death of the King in December 1542.
Janet’s husband remained confined in Edinburgh Castle on the day of her execution. The following day, unaware that he was about to be freed, he tried to escape from his cell. The cord he used was either too short or snapped resulting in his death on the rocks below the castle.
On 22 August 1537 trials took place of two men, John Lyon of Knockany and Alexander Mackie, who were deemed Janet’s accomplices. Lyon was declared guilty of hiding her conspiracy against the King and was hanged then beheaded. Mackie had his ears cut off before being banished to Aberdeenshire for making and supplying poison and concealing Lady Glamis’ treason.[b]The same John Lyon of Knockany Janet took court action against in 1529-1530
Over the centuries, writers have regularly documented, speculated and offered varied opinions about the motivation behind Janet’s case and execution. Her contemporary Adam Abell, a Franciscan monk, included brief facts in his manuscript “The Roit or Quheill of Tyme”.[c]Adam Abell (1475×80?–1537?), Franciscan friar and chronicler based in Jedburgh, wrote the historical significant manuscript “The Roit or Quheill of Tyme” Early nineteenth-century Scottish antiquarian Robert Pitcairn asserts that Janet was innocent of all charges, maintaining she was a casualty of the King’s loathing of her brothers; his contemporary, Tytler, disagrees feeling her support of her brothers was treason and that she was “not exactly the injured and innocent woman”. Tytler also feels that the extracts reproduced by Pitcairn lamenting Janet’s death “cannot be quoted as authentic evidence”.[d]In a note Pitcairn does state: “These unpardonable errors show strongly how little is to be relied even on the most accurate of our old Historians in matters of this description. A mistake inadvertently made by was sure to run through all future Histories, without examination.” Writing in 1992 Scottish historian Michael Lynch deems “the vindictiveness demonstrated in the execution … was almost unprecedented.”
It was a common practice among early historians to repeat previously published details without checking the facts themselves, hence errors were continually perpetuated while gaining further credence. The first account claiming Janet was convicted of witchcraft was written by David Hume of Godscroft. It appears in his History of the House and Family of Douglas and Angus, published in the middle of the 17th-century. Modern day academics and historians such as Peter Maxwell-Stuart and Jamie Cameron consider the accounts claiming Janet was a witch or that she was tried for witchcraft are erroneous, which reflects the earlier opinions of Pitcairn and Tytler. Maxwell-Stuart states that he includes brief details concerning Janet’s case in his book The British Witch simply because of the incorrect rumours of witchcraft associated with her conviction. Speculating as to why Hume assumed the charge against Janet was witchcraft, Maxwell-Stuart suggests it is indicative of how readily magical associations arose despite evidence to the contrary.
|a||Janet raised an action on behalf of herself and her children against John Lyon of Knockany, stating he assumed possession or management of the profits of Glamis lands. A verdict in her favour was made in March 1530.|
|b||The same John Lyon of Knockany Janet took court action against in 1529-1530|
|c||Adam Abell (1475×80?–1537?), Franciscan friar and chronicler based in Jedburgh, wrote the historical significant manuscript “The Roit or Quheill of Tyme”|
|d||In a note Pitcairn does state: “These unpardonable errors show strongly how little is to be relied even on the most accurate of our old Historians in matters of this description. A mistake inadvertently made by was sure to run through all future Histories, without examination.”|