2nd June 1581

James Douglas is beheaded by his own invention

James Douglas is reputed by some (and disputed by others) to have either invented or imported a form of guillotine, called the Maiden, that was used to execute convicts in Edinburgh and the city’s surroundings.

If he was indeed responsible for its introduction, he could not have known at the time that it would later be the method of his own demise.

Mary, Queen of Scots

Douglas was the 4th Earl of Morton, and the story of his eventual downfall stretches back to the murder of Lord Darnley, second husband of Mary, Queen of Scots, in 1567. Darnley had been strangled, and an explosion where he was staying had apparently been staged to cover up the real cause of his death.

Mary was not present at the time of the explosion, having left the building earlier in the evening, and within three months she had married James Hepburn, who was the chief suspect in her husband’s murder.

Darnley’s murder and the subsequent marriage caused such upset that Mary was forced to abdicate in favour of her son, James VI, who was then just a year old, and thus too young to reign in his own right (just as Mary had been when she had inherited the throne herself, aged just six days). Thus, a series of four regents acted on his behalf until he was old enough to assume power in his own right. The first three of these were murdered – two being shot and one poisoned. James Douglas, Earl Morton, was the fourth.

James Douglas’ rise and fall

Douglas was largely successful in his role, bringing the civil war to an end, and seeing to it that William Maitland, Mary’s strongest supporter, was ejected from Edinburgh Castle, the last stronghold of the Marian claim.

However, his successes also made Douglas more powerful than some would have liked, which may in part have inspired the accusation that he had been involved in Darnley’s murder 13 years earlier. After all, had he not ultimately benefited from Darnley’s death, Mary’s subsequent abdication and the period of regency under her son and heir? He was arrested, tried and convicted, and sentenced to death. On 2 June 1581, he became a victim of the Maiden that he may – or may not – have introduced to Scotland himself.



Other events that occured in June

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