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Archibald Douglas, 5th Earl of Angus

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Archibald Douglas
Earl of Angus
Archibald 'Bell-the-Cat' depicted as a notable figure in Scottish history by the Victorian artist William Hole
PredecessorGeorge Douglas, 4th Earl of Angus
SuccessorArchibald Douglas, 6th Earl of Angus
Bornc. 1449
DiedOctober 1513 (aged 63–64)
Whithorn, Kingdom of Scotland
BuriedWhithorn Priory[1]
FatherGeorge Douglas, 4th Earl of Angus
MotherIsabella Sibbald
Arms of Archibald Douglas up until 1491.svg

Archibald Douglas, 5th Earl of Angus (c. 1449 – October 1513) was a Scottish nobleman, peer, politician, and magnate. Tradition has accorded him the nickname Archibald 'Bell-the-Cat' due to his association with the 1482 rebellion against James III of Scotland. He became one of the most powerful nobleman in Scotland through his influential position on the Scottish Marches, and a willingness to be involved in multiple rebellions in the reigns of James III and James IV of Scotland.

Parents and succession


Archibald Douglas, eldest son of George Douglas, 4th Earl of Angus, head of the Red Douglas line, was born at Tantallon Castle, East Lothian, around 1449.[citation needed] His mother was Isabella Sibbald, daughter of the Master of the Household of James II of Scotland.[citation needed]

During the turbulent 1450s, when Archibald was growing up, his father came out in support of James II, thereby pitching himself against many of his own clan, and the Black Douglas line in particular, who were in rebellion against the king. He was also at the siege of Roxburgh in 1460. After the accidental death of the king during the siege, it was the earl, Archibald's father, who is said to have placed the crown on the new child king's head, reputedly declaring as he did so: "There! Now that I have set it upon your Grace's head, let me see who will be so bold as to move it."[2]

Archibald succeeded his father as fifth Earl of Angus about two years later, in 1462 or 1463, aged fourteen.

Actions against James III


In 1481, during a time of gathering war with England, Angus was appointed Warden of the East March by James III, but the following year took part in the surprise action against the king carried out by a league of Scottish nobles at Lauder on 22 July 1482. This was at a moment when English forces had just invaded Scotland[3] and the secretly disaffected nobles were ostensibly part of the army that James had mustered to repel the invasion. According to David Hume of Godscroft, writing in a later age, it was here that Archibald earned his nickname by offering to "bell the cat", initiating the action against the king's favourite, Thomas (or Robert) Cochrane, as a prelude to the arrest of the king.

Angus is said to have begun the attack by seizing the gold chain from Cochrane's neck, then ordering him and others of the king's favourites to be hung from Lauder Bridge (Lauder Brig in Scots), located today in the grounds of Thirlestane Castle.[4][5] The phrase "to bell the cat" comes from the fable "The Mice in Council", misattributed to Aesop, and refers to a dangerous task undertaken for the benefit of all.

Angus subsequently joined the party of the king's disaffected younger brother, Alexander Stewart, Duke of Albany, who was part of the English invasion. Albany had entered into a treaty with Edward IV which gifted suzerainty over Scotland to the English king in return for the right to rule Scotland in place of his brother. While James was in captivity in Edinburgh, Albany did indeed make a short-lived attempt to rule under the name of "Alexander IV". Eventually, however, by March 1483, both Albany and Angus returned to their allegiance to James who, despite the treasonous alliance with Edward,[6] granted them pardons.[4]

Later in that same decade a more open state of rebellion broke out against the king, this time with greater support of the Scottish nobility, with the king's eldest son, James, Duke of Rothesay, counted among their ranks (although not as leader). Angus once again came out against the king. In 1488, he marched against James III at the Battle of Sauchieburn, in the immediate aftermath of which the defeated king was secretly murdered.

Reign of James IV


After Sauchieburn, Angus became for a time one of the guardians of the young king James IV, but soon lost influence to the Homes and Hepburns, and the wardenship of the marches went to Alexander Home. Although outwardly on good terms with James, Angus treacherously made a treaty with Henry VII around 1489 or 1491, by which he undertook to govern his relations with James according to instructions from England. He also agreed to hand over Hermitage Castle, commanding the pass through Liddesdale into Scotland, on the condition of receiving English estates in compensation.[4]

In October 1491 he fortified his castle of Tantallon against James, but had to submit and to exchange his Liddesdale estate and Hermitage Castle for the lordship of Bothwell.[4]

In 1493 Angus again returned to favour, receiving various grants of lands. He became Chancellor, which office he retained till 1498.[4] In June 1497 he opened talks for the surrender of Perkin Warbeck at 'Jenyn Haugh'.[7] In 1501, in disgrace once more, he was confined to Dumbarton Castle.

Final weeks


Angus's two eldest sons were killed at the Battle of Flodden in early September 1513. He himself had not been present at the battle. As the Scottish nation was coming to terms with the disastrous defeat, Angus won appointment as one of the councilors of the Queen Regent, Margaret Tudor. Shortly afterwards, by the end of October, he too was dead.[8] His successor to the Earldom of Angus was his grandson, Archibald Douglas, 6th Earl of Angus.

Marriages and children


Angus married twice:[8]

  1. On 4 March 1468: Elizabeth (d. 1498), daughter of Robert Boyd, 1st Lord Boyd[8]
  2. In the summer of 1500: Katherine Stirling, daughter of Sir William Stirling of Keir[8]

Janet, daughter of John Kennedy, 2nd Lord Kennedy, was one of his mistresses.[8]

Children by first marriage

Name Birth Death Notes
George Douglas, Master of Angus 1469 9 September 1513[9] married in March 1488, Lady Elizabeth Drummond; had issue, killed at the Battle of Flodden
Lady Mariot Douglas 1470 married Cuthbert Cunningham, 3rd Earl of Glencairn; had issue
Sir William Douglas 1471 9 September 1513 married Lady Elizabeth Auchinleck; had issue, killed at the Battle of Flodden
Gavin Douglas, Bishop of Dunkeld c. 1472[8]  
Lady Elizabeth Douglas 1474  
Sir Archibald Douglas of Kilspindie c. 1475[8] 1522 Given the nickname Greysteil by James V
Lady Janet Douglas 1476  


  1. ^ Angus's heart was removed and is buried at St Bride's Kirk, Douglas. Fraser vol ii p106 & p608
  2. ^ Maxwell Vol II, p.17
  3. ^ A. D. M. Barrell, Medieval Scotland, (Cambridge University Press, 2000), p. 177.
  4. ^ a b c d e  One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Angus, Earls of s.v. Archibald Douglas, 5th earl of Angus". Encyclopædia Britannica. Vol. 2 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 43.
  5. ^ Macdougall, Norman (1982). James III: A Political Study. Edinburgh: John Donald. pp. 287–8. ISBN 0859760782.
  6. ^ A. D. M. Barrell, Medieval Scotland, (Cambridge University Press, 2000), p. 178.
  7. ^ Bain, Joseph, ed., Calendar of Documents relating to Scotland, 1357-1509, vol. 4, HM Register House, Edinburgh (1888), 329
  8. ^ a b c d e f g Norman Macdougall, 'Douglas, Archibald, fifth earl of Angus (c. 1449–1513), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004.
  9. ^ Guthrie, William (1767). A General History of Scotland. Vol. 4. Paternoster Row, London: A. Hamilton, Robinson and Roberts. pp. 371-372. Retrieved 7 May 2023.


Peerage of Scotland
Preceded by
Earl of Angus

Succeeded by
Political offices
Preceded by Lord Chancellor of Scotland
Succeeded by
Military offices
Preceded by Lord High Admiral of Scotland Succeeded by