Hamilton of Finnart

Womaniser, courtier, soldier and pioneer royal architect: Charles McKean investigates the rise and fall of a 'Renaissance man' in 16th-century Scotland.

James, Lord Hamilton, 1st Earl of Arran, was a lusty dog. He begat nineteen children of whom only three, conceived late in life, were legitimate. His eldest son, James the Bastard (c.1500-1540) inherited the propensity, begetting thirteen, of whom only three were legitimate. James, as oldest male representative of the next generation of the powerful Hamilton dynasty, remained likely inheritor of the great house of Hamilton until his late teens, when his father achieved legitimate succession upon his third wife. After his father's death twelve years later, James the Bastard assumed the role of tutor or guardian of the young 2nd Earl for the nine years until the latter's coming of age in 1538. Thus, for almost forty years, James the Bastard – formally Sir James Hamilton of Finnart – was dominant in the house of Hamilton, one of the five principal dynasties in Scotland, and heirs presumptive to the Scots throne if the royal line failed.

His interest to us lies neither in his lust, nor in his military exploits which – according primarily to vehement but unsubstantiated Protestant historians like George Buchanan and Robert Lindsay of Pitscottie were marked by singular bloodthirstiness. Instead, the fascination of Finnart's career, James V's 'lovit familiar', Master of Horse, principal cup-bearer and sewer, (server at the king's table) and eventual occupier of a new post created for him – Master of Works Principal – lies in two signal features of his career: first, his role as architect for the greatest and most prolific of all Scots building monarchs; and second, the conspiracy leading to his summary execution on Monday, August 16th, 1540.

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