When King James I ascended to the throne, the Scottish nobility had unprecedented access to power in England. James was king of both England and Scotland. Although Elizabeth I and her allies separated him from his mother, Mary Queen of Scots, when he was just a baby, they never smothered his Scottish sympathies. James Maxwell, a Lowland Scott from Kirkhouse, was the kind of man who knew how to exploit such an opportunity. He followed James I south to his court in England in 1603.
Maxwell’s had abrasive manners and a loud Brogue that did little to endear him to the English nobility. Maxwell’s nubile political mind stood him in good stead; he was one of the most successful “courtly silkworms” who embedded themselves around James. Maxwell knew how to please his superiors, all the while profiting himself and compelling his inferiors to obey him. Maxwell stayed at court after James died and his son, Charles, took the throne. He became a “groom of the bed chamber.” Stations within the royal household, especially the bed chamber, were coveted. Maxwell had direct access to the king’s ear as he orchestrated the ceremonies of the king’s daily life. He decided what letters the king saw and shaped how he understood political squabbles. One bitter critic called Maxell an “ill-natured, dogged Scot,” and dogged was an apt word for Maxwell’s commitment to expanding his wealth.
The annual salary of an official in the royal household was low, but Maxwell became a rich man. Petitioners paid handsomely for Maxwell to present a case favorably to the king. Maxwell secured grants of land and powerful offices for himself and his brothers, who followed him south to England. Maxwell was “a gentleman born, but never bred” complained one Englishman who resented him for selling off an influential post to the highest bidder. Others, usually those who benefitted from his machinations, praised Maxwell for his honesty. Maxwell won monopolies on international trade and gold and silver mines. James and then Charles granted him property in England and Scotland. In the 1630s, he added Fenton Tower to the growing list of properties that he won through his shrewd political maneuverings.
Maxwell was the kind of politician who profits from his superior’s weaknesses, not just his power. When Charles I trampled on Parliament’s rights, Parliament retaliated by cutting off the flow of taxes into the royal purse. Charles was too stubborn to relent to Parliament’s squeeze, but he needed money. Maxwell obligingly loaned thousands of pounds to replace the public revenue. But he made a profit or amassed land with every loan. Charles, desperate for cash, pawned many of the crown jewels to Maxwell. Charles failed to redeem many of the jewels. Maxwell wore them in his portraits, flaunting the power of his purse.
But not even Maxwell could maneuver the winds of political change with ease. Charles I and Parliament broke with each other in 1629, sewing the seeds of civil war. Maxwell’s loyalties were divided. In 1622, he had become “Black Rod,” the official overseeing the House of Lords, but his first loyalty was to the king. Maxwell was wary of the radical, egalitarian impulses in Parliament, and Parliament resented him as a Scot and a Royalist. Still, he did not follow Charles I when he established a government without Parliament in Oxford. Instead, he returned to Edinburgh, where he watched as civil war submerged the British Isles in chaos. Oliver Cromwell, a strident Puritan and radical member of Parliament, took power. He and his allies executed Charles I. The news that the king, who so many believed to be divinely ordained, had been killed reverberated across the three kingdoms, jarring Royalist families. Maxwell’s brother, John, was a Scottish bishop who championed the traditional, Catholic rituals that Charles I favored. When he heard that the king was dead, he retired to his private chambers to pray. He was found dead, still kneeling, the next day.
When Scottish Royalists refused to fall into line behind the new government in 1650, Cromwell marched his men across the Scottish border. They won battle after battle even though they were vastly outnumbered. Morale was high, and Cromwell instilled in the men a sense of moral righteousness. As they marched to Edinburgh, they destroyed Fenton Tower. They likely used mortar, a form of artillery that was new technology in 17th-century Europe. Maxwell, well over 70, died that same year. He did not live to see Cromwell’s dictatorship rise or the Stuart kings return to power. Fenton Tower lay in ruin until 1998.
Useful Sources and Further Reading:
“A Biographical Note on James Maxwell, Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod” by J.C. Sainty
The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
The King’s Smuggler: Jane Whorwood, Secret Agent to Charles I by John Fox