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The Dark Side of The Semples


Dr Brian Smith


During this time Scotland was riven with internecine strife. There was scarcely a family of note which had not one or more private feuds upon its hands, or which was not more or less mixed up with the feuds of others. Neither property nor life was safe. On August 2nd 1440 Parliament met at Stirling to consider the disordered state of the country. It achieved little as feuds continued for another 200 years. Laws were not enforced, they were simply ignored by the rich and powerful. The bitterest and most inveterate of the feuds in Renfrewshire was that between the Montgomeries (Earls of Eglinton) and the Cunninghams (Earls of Glencairn). It culminated in the murder of Hugh, 4th Earl of Eglinton on April 18th 1586.

The Semples were mixed up in most of the feuds of the county as well as some of their own. They had feuds with the Lyle’s of Duchal, Houston’s, Pollocks, and Mures of Caldwell. Another was with the Lennox family, its origin is unclear and an agreement between John Earl of Lennox , Mathew his son, and Sir John, 1st Lord Semple, rather uncharacteristically settled this particular feud in a peaceful manner sometime prior to 1513. Other were not so quietly or easily settled.


At the beginning of 1526 some tenants of the land of Bar were “put to the horn” that is declared rebels and their possessions were to be seized. In literal terms 3 blasts were made from a horn at the great cross in Edinburgh. This was followed by formal paperwork. William, Lord Semple and some 200 hundred others prevented this from happening. Lord William was Sheriff of the County, responsible for its peace but was instead flouting a decree from the King. He was summoned to appear before the Privy Council but failed to appear. In a similar vein shortly thereafter other members of the Semple family were summoned before the Lords for ejecting John Knox and James Erskine, tenants of Paisley Abbey, and stealing their cattle.


Towards the end of 1526, William and his son, Robert, Master of Semple (later to become 3rd Lord Semple and later known as the Great Lord Semple) besieged John Muir of Caldwell. He was summoned to appear before the Privy Council but did not turn up.


On June 27th 1527 parliament in Edinburgh had indicted Lord Semple for treason. It was considered that he was part of the conspiracy that resulted in the death of the laird of Lochleven. While parliament was in session Semple entered Edinburgh with a force of 586 men. During this time in Edinburgh they killed a dutchman, however on the 17th of the following month the King issued a letter of respite protecting Semple and his followers.


In 1533 William and his son together with others murdered William Cunningham of Craigends and his servant John Alanson. Sir John Semple, vicar of Erskine, Semple of Ladymure, Semple of Fulwood, Mathew Semple, Lord Semple, the Master of Semple and others were all implicated in this crime. Two of the accused, Alexander Pinkerton and John Bruntscheils were found guilty and beheaded.


While the trial was going on Alexander, son of the Master of Glencairn (the Cunninghams), Craufurd of Auchinames and 30 others were summoned to Court and were charged with lying in wait to murder William Lord Semple. This feud with Craufurd of Auchinames continued till 1537 when William, Lord Semple, and others lay in wait for Thomas Craufurd and murdered him.


The trial of Lord Semple had yet to be heard and it became known that it would be held before the Justice-General, Archibald Earl of Argyll and not his deputies as previously understood. There was a blood relationship between the Semples and Archibald. As expected William Lord Semple and nine others were acquitted, three others were beheaded. Robert, Master of Semple, failed to appear and was declared a rebel.


Justice was hard to obtain in those days. Ultimately, Robert was to become known as the Great Lord Semple. The original old boys network. Well not original because it went on long before the 15th century and goes on today. Power depends entirely on the support of those around you so is it any wonder this was how it worked. In simple terms you do this for me and I will do that for you, in other words - patronage. Even the King relied on the support of his barons to supply the men to fight his wars. We have probably all done it at some time to a greater or lesser extend – supporting a friend when we know they are in the wrong. It’s a question degree.


On April 16th 1545 Robert, Master of Semple was appointed hereditary bailie and justiciar of the lands of Paisley Abbey by its Abbot John Hamilton (John was the illegitimate son of the 1st Earl of Arran). This took place against the backdrop of the Reformation. This appointment was made to secure support. The Abbot was Catholic, as were the Semples, however the Abbots neighbours, the Earls of Glencairn and Lennox were Protestant. The Abbot was already in debt to the Master of Semple. This is clear from the letter of appointment which says:-


“In these days the wickedness of men so increases, that nothing pleases them better than to invade the possessions of monks and to overturn their monasteries; nor had we ourselves been saved from that disaster but for the help and assistance of that noble man, Robert Semple, Master of the same, the son and heir of William Lord Semple. We who are unwarlike and whom it becomes to abhor arms, have by the same Master been valiantly defended with arms not only against the madness of heretics, but also against the insults of more powerful tyrants, and unless he continue unweariedly in our defence with arms, counsel and assistance, soon nothing will remain safe to us.”

The stipend was three chalders of oatmeal yearly (about 200kg) and 43 shillings and 4 pence from the lands of Glen. Lord Semple in return bound himself and his heirs and successors to bring the whole power of his family, whenever necessary, to the defence and protection of the monks and their property, failing which the appointment would become null and void. Sounds a bit like a protection racket.


In the 1550s Robert, now 3rd Lord Semple, who was Catholic and a staunch supporter of Mary of Guise, decided to build a fortified tower where his family and retainers could find refuge from the threat of marauding local or government attackers. Semple himself, along with others continued to pursue their own private feuds and was accused of:-

 “not sparand to sla auld men of fowr skoir yeris off age, lyand decrippit in their beddis” - (did not spare to slay 80 year olds lying helpless in their bed).


Instead of appearing before the Justice General to answer for these crimes he fortified and garrisoned Castle Semple and had “off new fortit ane hows within ane ile in the loch of Lochquhinyeoch” ie contructed the Peel Castle on an island in the loch.


Not much remains of the Peel Castle as can be seen below in this photograph taken May 2011.


On 11th June 1552 Robert murdered William Crichton, 5th Lord Crichton of Sanquhar in the Edinburgh residence of the Regent Arran. This was apparently over an argument about the new religion being introduced through the Reformation. He was arrested and would have been beheaded had it not been for his influential friends, see later (if you can’t wait click here read the paragraph "One last twist" at the top of the page).


In 1560 a peace was brokered between the French, English and Scots and proclaimed that the rule of law should prevail. Furthermore, on the 1st of August the Scottish Parliament met and called upon John Knox and 5 other ministers to draw up a new confession of faith. Within 4 days this was completed, voted upon and approved. A week later 3 Acts were passed in the one day: the first abolished the jurisdiction of the Pope in Scotland, the second condemned all doctrine and practice contrary to the reformed faith and the third forbade the celebration of Mass in Scotland. The Scottish Reformation had just taken effect.


In the September of 1560 an attack was carried out on Castle Semple by the Earl of Glencairn’s brother. It breached some of the fortifications but in the end was repelled. In October the Earl of Arran arrived to besiege Castle Semple. For seven days nothing could be done due to an extremely violent storm. On the eighth day the artillery was placed so close that it “astunysshed his enemies and was to be wondered at of all men that beheld it.”  By the following afternoon the gate-house tower fell giving entry to the besiegers, however the defenders managed to repel them; the following morning Castle Semple surrendered, the date was October 19th 1560. Semple himself had retired to Dunbar which was held by Captain Charlebois for the French. He had left Castle Semple in the charge of his son. The captured Master of Semple pled the case for his father with the Earl of Arran and in February 1561 Lord Semple was “released from the horn”.


John Knox wrote of this episode :- 

“the lord thereof disobeyed the laws and ordinances of the Council in many things, and especially in that, that he would maintain the idolatry of the Mass, and also that he beset the way of the Earl of Arran with a great gathering as he was riding with his accustomed company.”

Old Lochwinnoch 749_2013.jpg

In the 18th and 19th centuries several bronze cannon with octagonal barrels were found in the loch around the Peel tower, each carrying a falcon and the insignia 'IRS' for James V of Scotland. Probably used at the siege, one was kept at Castle Semple House and is now lodged in the collection of Kelvingrove Museum, Glasgow. These may have originally been lost during transportation or were deliberately placed there to disarm the peel tower and prevent further use. The adjacent photograph shows the canon on the left with an enlargement of the detail on the barrel on the right and two cross sections of the weapon between these outlines.

These were turbulent times. James Hamilton the 2nd Earl of Arran in 1536 became next in line to the throne of Scotland after the Kings descendants. On 14th December 1542 on the death of James V the Earl was second in line to the king’s six-day old 

daughter Mary, Queen of Scots. Arran was appointed Governor and Protector of Scotland. He was initially a Protestant and he tried to negotiate a marriage between the Queen and the infant Prince of Wales.

In 1543 he became a Catholic and consented to the marriage of the Queen to the French Dauphin and gained the Duchy of Châtellerault in the process. This resulted in the seven-year war (1543-1550) with England called the Rough Wooing. In 1547 Robert Semple fought at the Battle of Pinkie and, despite a rescue attempt by his friends, was taken prisoner by the English.


In 1554 Arran surrendered the regency to Mary of Guise, Queen Mary’s mother, on the condition that if Mary died childless, he would become King. During the Scottish Reformation in June 1559 he, along with French support, faced a Protestant army. In August 1559 he switched allegiance and joined the Protestant Lords of the Congregation (Lords who favoured Scotland becoming protestant, ie the Reformation) to oppose the regency of Mary of Guise and lost his French dukedom as a result. This switch was probably because he found out the Scottish succession had been secretly promised to France.


After the death of Guise, Hamilton persuaded the Parliament of Scotland to back a plan to marry his son James to Elizabeth I of England. Following the death of Francis II of France in 1560 he attempted, without success, to arrange for James to marry the young widowed Queen Mary. After Mary married Lord Darnley in 1565 he withdrew to his estates in France.


James Stewart, 1st Earl of Moray became Regent of Scotland for his half nephew, the infant King James VI from 1567 until his assassination in 1570. In 1569, Hamilton returned to Scotland and was imprisoned until, in 1573, he agreed to recognise Mary's infant son James as King of Scotland. By 1568 and the Battle of Langside Lord Semple had switched sides and gone over to the Protestants. By some accounts he was the Regent Morays most influential advisor on the eve of the battle.


It was an age when men changed sides in religion, as well as politics, as readily as they changed their clothes. To complete this picture of ever-changing allegiances John Hamilton who had been the Abbot of Paisley, by 1546 he was Archbishop of St Andrews. He was the half-brother of the Earl of Arran and present at the battle of Landside (13th May 1568) on the side of Mary. After the battle he took refuge in Dumbarton Castle and Paisley Abbey was given over to his bailie Lord Semple which he retained from 1569 till 1573.


In 1553 Archbishop Hamilton made Claud Hamilton the Commendator of Paisley Abbey. He was the Archbishops nephew and younger son of James Hamilton the 2nd Earl of Arran. Claud was 7 years old in 1553. Until he came of age the estates were managed by his uncle the Archbishop. Talk about keeping it in the family! In 1561 just after the Reformation the Earl of Glencairn along with others received a commission to destroy “all monumentis of ydolatrie”. It is thought this was to extend to images, vestments and such like, Glencairn and his fellow iconoclasts put a liberal interpretation on it and in their fanaticism left the Abbey and its church in ruin.


The Regent Moray was murdered in 1570 by a relative of Hamilton and in the confusion that followed the Archbishop again took possession of Paisley Abbey. Lord Semple himself was captured by the Hamilton’s and imprisoned in Argyll for a year in the custody of Lord Boyd. Mathew the 4th Earl of Lennox became Regent (his grandson was King James VI) and marched to the relief of Lord Semple. Archbishop (John) Hamilton was captured after a surprise night attack on Dumbarton Castle. Accused of the murders of Lord Darnley and Regent Moray, three days later at 6pm on the 6th April 1571 he was hanged at Stirling and his body quartered. So much for Semple swearing to come to the aid of the monks of Paisley Abbey. In a raid on Stirling on 4th September 1571 led by the Earl of Huntly and Claud Hamilton and the lairds of Buccleuch and Ferniehurst, Lennox was shot dead. As they say “What goes around comes around”. In 1573 Lord Claud was restored to his commendatorship by the Treaty of Perth. In 1579 he lost the Abbey again this time to the Master of Glencairn. On 29th July 1587 Lord Claud was made a Lord of Parliament with the title Lord Paisley and restored to his possessions.


One last twist in this tale of intrigue, murders and changing alliances, Archbishop Hamilton had three children by his mistress, Grizzel Semple, the daughter of Robert Semple, 3rd Lord Semple. She was instrumental in saving her father from the death penalty for the murder of the 5th Lord Crichton of Sanquhar mentioned above. And, as mentioned previously, the Archbishop was the half brother of the Regent in whose house the murder was committed. Its who you know!!!!

The 19th Lord Semple


Almost 400 years later the Semple’s were still untouchable. William Francis Forbes-Semple, 19th Lord Semple AFC, AFRAeS, (24 September 1893 – 30 December 1965) was a Scottish peer and record-breaking air pioneer who was later shown to have passed secret information to the Imperial Japanese military before the Second World War. Educated at Eton, he began his career as a pilot in the Royal Flying Corps and then served in the Royal Naval Air Service and Royal Air Force during the First World War. In 1921, Semple led an official military mission to Japan that showcased the latest British aircraft. In subsequent years he continued to aid the Imperial Japanese Navy in developing its Navy Air Service.


In the 1920s, Semple began giving military secrets to the Japanese. Although his activities were uncovered by British Intelligence, it was decided that it was not in the interests of the British government to prosecute Semple. Firstly, Semple’s father was then aide-de-camp to King George V; any public trial would be a grave embarrassment to both the Crown and the British establishment. Secondly a prosecution would have revealed to the Japanese that British Intelligence had cracked the cypher codes of its diplomatic service. He was allowed to continue in public life but was eventually forced to retire from the Royal Navy in 1941 after being discovered passing on secret material to Tokyo shortly before Japan declared war in the Pacific. Semple died peacefully in 1956 having never faced punishment or public criticism for his crimes.


This refusal to prosecute Semple for treason is in sharp contrast to the treatment of Alan Turin. It is speculated that his work on code breaking and computer development shortened the war by 2 years and saved over 14 million lives. He is widely considered to be the father of theoretical computer science and artificial intelligence. However, he was treated with suspicion by the establishment elite due to his non-aristocratic background, eccentric nature, intimidating genius and his homosexual tendencies which were a crime in the UK at this time.


In 1952 Turing was charged with the "crime" of Gross Indecency after admitting to having had a homosexual relationship with a man who later robbed his house. He was found guilty and given the choice of imprisonment or chemical castration. Turing chose to be chemically castrated rather than face imprisonment. This conviction meant that his security clearance was revoked, which meant that he was barred from continuing his cryptographic work with the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ). On the 8th of June 1954 Turing was found dead by his cleaner.


Turing's brilliance was not recognised until years after his death. In 1966 the Turing Award was established for technical contributions to the computing community. It is widely considered to be the computing world's highest honour, equivalent to a Nobel Prize in computing. It took until 2009 for the British establishment to make an official apology, which was made by Prime Minister Gordon Brown on behalf of the British government for the way in which Turing was treated after the war.


What is remarkable about the contrasting fates of these two men is the way that members of the British establishment (including the Prime Minister and the Attorney General) repeatedly intervened to protect one of their own, despite his fascist tendencies and decades of treasonous behaviour, whilst the establishment people Turing had known and associated with during his time at Cambridge University and at Bletchley Park refused to intervene to help him when criminal charges were brought against him for the trivial offence of engaging in homosexual acts, despite his outstanding contribution to the war effort.


The history of 1533 repeating itself when Semple was accused of murder and acquitted but his “lesser” accomplices were beheaded.


It was announced in July 2019 that Alan Turin would be the face of the new £50 note. He was selected from a list of over 1000 scientists. Making the announcement Mark Carney the Governor of the Bank of England said:-

“Alan Turing was an outstanding mathematician whose work has had an enormous impact on how we live today. As the father of computer science and artificial intelligence, as well as a war hero, Alan Turing’s contributions were far ranging and path breaking. Turing is a giant on whose shoulders so many now stand.”

Turin and Semple.jpg

Alan Turin 

             Lord Semple

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