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Mary Queen of Scots' Spies


‘And as for your daggers and knives they are ready to be sent to you, but I only wait for Mr William Kinlowgch’s coming to London, who is in this country at present and ready to pass to London, and by who I shall write more at length…’ – A letter from court musician James Lauder to his son John Lauder


Court musicians would fulfil the duties that you would expect, performance, tutelage, and composition, but with access to Kings and Queens at their most private moments they were also sent into the shadowy world of espionage. Three of renaissance Scotland’s most revered musicians: Alexander Montgomerie, poet and songwriter; James Lauder, court musician, viol player and composer; and keyboardist William Kinloch were all possibly involved in relaying information to and from a captive Mary Queen of Scots, in a Catholic conspiracy to retake the Scottish, and then English, throne. The evidence is patchy as is so often with espionage: allusions in letters, poetic anagrams, and travel abroad. But with Montgomerie being outlawed on the 14th July 1597 for his involvement in a Catholic plot to seize the rocky outcrop Alisa Craig, the suspicion was warranted.


Mary Queen of Scots was the centre of many Catholic conspiracies to take the throne, with a legitimate claim to the English Throne as the only successor of Queen Elizabeth I, a threat which would eventually lead to Mary’s execution. James Lauder was devoted to Mary, serving as musician, groom, and valet from 1569 to 1576. He first received the favour of Mary on the 8th November 1562, receiving ‘by the Quenis grace preceptis and speciale command…20 livres’, and his services must have been exceptional, as later in 1575 he was in receipt of a pension from Mary worth 200 livres. Finally, in a letter to his son John Lauder in 1582, James was still devoted to his Queen saying ‘whome of I hawe onlie help of her majestie and none others’. By this time James was in the service of King James VI, and his son in the service of a captive Mary Queen of Scots, a vital conduit of communication. A year before Mary’s execution in 1586, James VI allowed James Lauder to travel to France, possibly in the hope that, later like Montgomerie, he would be unmasked as a conspirator.


Montgomerie is linked to James Lauder through a cryptic poem he addressed to him. As was common in poetry of the time, the first phrase ‘I would se mare’ is an anagram for IAMES LAWDER, aka James Lauder. The unusual spelling of Mary may also be significant, with ‘Mare’ shorthand for Mariam Reginam, a tacit recognition of their allegiance to the Catholic Queen. Much like the conspiracies of James Lauder, little of his music survives, with only one piece, My Lorde of Marche Pavan known today. This piece became a hit in the seventeenth century, being transmitted in Robert Edward’s commonplace book, and the Melvill, Rowallan, and Stirling partbooks. The piece shows James Lauders connections with England and France, sharing similarities with similar sources associated with violin bands.


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