John, Master of Sutherland

John, Master of Sutherland (son of William, 5th Earl of Sutherland)


John, Master of Sutherland, 1st and only s. and h. ap., by 1st wife, b. about 1346, was a hostage for King David II, 5 Sep. 1351, and (with his father) 3 Oct. 1357, in which year he went to reside in London with the Chancellor, William Edington, Bishop of Winchester.[1] He d. v.p. and unm. of the plague, about 8 Sep. 1361[2] at Lincoln.

[1] Foedera, vol. iii, pp. 231, 367, 372.
[2] Fordun, Scotichronicon (Goodall), vol. ii, p. 366; Sutherland Book, vol. i, pp. 40-41. According to Hector Boece (Bellenden's Boece, 1822 edn., vol. ii, p. 448), King David II, some years after his return from England, proposed to make his junior nephew, the Master of Sutherland, heir-presumptive in place of his senior nephew, Robert, the 7th High Steward of Scotland and his half-sister's son, who had been declared heir-presumptive, 3 Dec. 1318 (and who became King Robert II, 22 Feb. 1370/1), on the ground that Robert had been the chief cause of the defeat at Neville's Cross.

Source: White, G. H. (1953) The Complete Peerage, vol. XII. London: The St. Catherine Press.



We have now arrived at a very important epoch in the history of the Sutherland family. William, the fifth Earl of Sutherland, died in or about the year 1370, having had issue by his first and second wives, three sons, John, Robert , and Kenneth. A detailed memoir of the eldest son, John, Master of Sutherland, is here given, in which all available evidence bearing upon him is carefully considered.
     It was long a belief in the Sutherland Family, which was fostered, if not originated, by Sir Robert Gordon, that by the marriage of William, the fifth earl, to Margaret Bruce, the blood of the royal family of Bruce ran in their veins. That this belief was held by the family in the beginning of the eighteenth century is shown by the grant of the addition of the double tressure to their arms by King George the First in 1719.[1] In the light of later investigations there is good ground for rejecting the belief, and even then the Lyon king-at-arms questioned the ground on which the grant was claimed, although it was ultimately conceded. While the case was pending, the family law-agent, Alexander Ross, writing to the Earl of Sutherland, reports the substance of a conversation he had on the subject with the Lyon and his deputes. He says: "The difficulty they had formerly will still remaine. For tho' they be satisfied of Earl William's mariage with the king's daughter, nothing appears to instruct your lordship's descent of that mariage. I observed to your lordship formerly, that as your lordship has it likewise, our historians all aggree that the name of the hostage sent for his uncle was Alexander; and yet Rhymer, in his letters to the bishop of Carlisle (as noticed also in your own information in the precedency), calls him John. From this they seem to think Earl William had two sons, and perhaps of two different mariages. If so, any retour which instructs your lordship's descent from Earl William, might as well be by another mariage as that with the king's sister."[2]
     The dispensation for the marriage of William, Earl of Sutherland, and Margaret, daughter of King Robert the Bruce, by Lady Elizabeth de Burgh, daughter of the Earl of Ulster, as already stated, was obtained towards the end of the year 1342. She and her elder sister, Matilda, were probably born after 1315, as neither of them is named in the settlement of the crown made by their father in April of that year.
     From the record of the king's household expenses it appears that the two princesses lived at Cardross in family with King David the Second and his queen, and went with them to their coronation at Scone in 1331. Four sergeants of the chambers in waiting upon the king, the queen, the lady Matilda and her sister, while going towards Scone to the parliament, receive as wages for thirty-nine days' staying and returning, each four pennies per diem, 52s. The rents of the thanage of Kintore and of the burgh of Crail were in 1341 set apart for the support of the two sisters of the king. Payment is made to their tailors and those of the queen at Aberdeen for making their clothes. Roger Tiphill, custumar of Inverkeithing, in 1342 brings thence to Dumbarton the clothes and furs of the king's sisters, who then, for apparel and divers expenses, receive from the chamberlain the sum of £93, 16s. 8d. The last entry about the princesses when together refers to the king and queen and his sisters staying at Banff for one night between May 1342 and July 1343, as if they had then been convoying their sister to her norther home. In 1330 payment is made for sundry head-dresses for Lady Margaret alone, 26s. 8d., and for a bed for her is paid 33s. 4d.[3]
     The exact date of the birth of John, son of William, Earl of Sutherland, and the Princess Margaret has not been ascertained, but it was probably in 1344, and Fordun says that his mother died in childbed. Certain it is that the married life of the princess was short; and that John, the Master of Sutherland, her son, while only six or seven years of age had to become a hostage for his uncle, King David the Second, who had been made prisoner at the battle of Durham. Some years later, in 1351, it was resolved that King David should be liberated to visit Scotland, but only after a number of hostages, sons and heirs of the principal families of the country, were given up as security for his return; and in choosing these the son and heir of Princess Margaret, and nephew of the king, was not overlooked.
     King Edward the Third accordingly granted a safe-conduct to John, son and heir of the Steward of Scotland, John of Dunbar, son and heir of the Earl of March, John, son and heir of the Earl of Sutherland, and others, to come to Berwick-upon-Tweed, with a hundred horsemen, and to go to other places assigned to them in England, in exchange for David of Bruce, the exchange to take place at Berwick or Newcastle-on-Tyne, while no action was to lie against the hostage for any deed done by them against either the nation of England or Scotland till the return of the king. The safe-conduct was afterwards extended to the 1st of May following, when the hostages were released. Instructions were given to the constable of Nottingham Castle, and the sheriff of York, ot receive the hostages from Henry de Percy and Randulph de Nevill, and to keem them safely.[4]
     In a convention made on 13th July 1354 for King David's release, the son and heir of the Earl of Sutherland is the first named of the twenty hostages proposed for payment of the ransom;[5] but this convention, owing to the outbreak of hostilities, never took effect. The final agreement hor his release was made at Berwick-on-Tween on 3d October 1357, the ransom being fixed at 100,000 merks. Twenty hostages were required as security for its payment, and again John, son and heir of the Earl of Sutherland, occurs as one of them.[6] In the memorandum of the names and destinations of the hostages, the entry regarding the earl's son is - John, son and heir of the Earl of Sutherland, was sent to London in company with his father to abide with the chancellor - who at this time was William Edington, bishop of Winchester.[7] William, Earl of Sutherland, as already stated, was one of the three noblemen who were selected to be hostages "en afforcement," or as an additional security for the payment of the ransom, and so father and son travelled together to London, and no doubt resided together in the house of the chancellor.
     The Master, however, fell a victim to a pestilence which raged in England in 1361,[8] a fact specially commemorated by the historians of Scotland, and it is from them we gather the most important facts regarding him.
     John of Fordun, in his Gesta Annalia, written between 1363 and 1385, gives in one chapter the issue of King Robert by his first wife, Isabella, daughter of Gartney, Earl of Mar; and in the following chapter his issue by Elizabeth, daughter of Aymer de Burgh, Earl of Ulster. He mentions that by her he had two daughters Matilda and Margaret, and states that Margaret wedded the Earl of Sutherland, of whom he began an only son, John by name, who was a hostage in England along with his father, for the deliverance of David the Second, King of Scotland, but that his mother departed from this life immediately after his birth.[9]
     Wyntoun, who was made prior of St. Serf's Inch in Lochleven previous to the year 1395, and whose Chronicle was finished between 1420 and 1424, when he was an old man, also refers to Earl William's marriage. When enumerating the children of King Robert Bruce and Elizabeth de Burgh, he says of the Princess Margaret--
The Erle of Swthyrland in his lyf
Tuk this Margret til his wyf.
A swne on hyr this Erle gat,
That Jhon he cald eftyr that:
He ostage for his Eme wes send
In Ingland, for that he wes kend
The Kyng Dawys systyr swne:
Thare ware all hys dayis dwne.[10]
.   .   .   .   .   .   .   .
That ilke yere in til Yngland
The second Dede was fast wedand
Of the ostagis bydand thare
For the King Dawy dede than ware:
The Erlys son of Suthirland
In that Ded deit in Yngland:
And of Moraue Schir Thomas
Dede that yere in London was."[11]

     Bower, writing much later than the two authors named, simply amplifies Fordun's account, adding that John, Master of Sutherland, died at Lincoln about the 8th of September 1361.[12] From the statements of these writers, the first of whom was actually a contemporary, it is impossible to doubt that John, Master of Sutherland, was the only child of Princess Margaret Bruce, and that he died without issue.[13]
     There is another consideration, which of itself conclusively proves that after the death of John there was no issue surviving of the marriage of Earl William with the Princess Margaret. The earldom of Sutherland was erected by King David the Second, in 1345, into a regality in favour of them and the heirs of their marriage, but this privilege of regality entirely lapsed upon the death of Earl William. As it affected merely the earldom of Sutherland, and was entirely distinct from the other territorial grants of thanages and lands made on this occasion by the king, the right of regality should certainly have continued to the descendants of this marriage had any existed other than John. But it entirely disappears from the family after Earl William's death, until it was restored in 1601, by a regrant in express terms from King James the Sixth in favour of John, twelfth Earl of Sutherland, for his own personal services to the king, and not as inheritor of the regality thorugh descent.
     Besides, the fifth Earl of Sutherland, in 1365, obtained from King David the Second a regrant of the half-thanage of Formartine, in Aberdeenshire, which he had in possession at the time. The first grant was made, as formerly stated, in 1345, to the earl and the Princess Margaret, and the heirs of their marriage. But on this occasion it is to the earl and the heirs male of his body. This alteration in the destination, coming thus after the death of the princess and her son, John, corroborates the other evidence already stated, that there was no issue then surviving to fulfil the former destination, and that the lands were intended by the new and extended grant to descend to the earl's issue by any other marriage.

[1] Vol. iii. of this work, pp. 220-222.
[2] Original letter, 21st November 1717, in Sutherland Charter-chest.
[3] Exchequer Rolls, vol. i. pp. 339, 340, 381, 382, 389, 390, 484, 493-495, 505, 516.
[4] 5th September 1351, Rymer's Foedera, edition 1825, vol. iii. Part i. p. 231.
[5] Ibid., p. 281.
[6] Ibid., p. 372.
[7] Ibid., p. 367. Bain's Calendar of Documents relating to Scotland, vol. iii. p. 435.
[8] In 1360 and 1361, the chamberlain of Scotland twice pays for the expenses of John of Sutherland, the sum of £6, 13s. 4d. But this John of Sutherland was not the earl's son. There was another John Sutherland at the time, who, with Nicholas of Crichton, of Scotland, on 14th May 1360, receives a safe-conduct to visit William, Earl of Sutherland, when in England. [Exchequer Rolls of Scotland, vol. ii. pp. 49, 78; Rymer's Foedera, vol. iii. Part i. p. 494.]
[9] Fordun's History, edition 1871, vol. i. p. 318; vol. ii. p. 312.
[10] The Orygynal Cronykil of Scotland. Be Andrew of Wyntoun. Edited by David Macpherson, vol. ii. pp. 66, 67, Book viii. cap. vii. lines 125-132.
[11] Ibid. Book viii, cap. vii. lines 91-98.
[12] Fordun à Goodall, vol. ii. p. 366.
[13] In the celebrated Sutherland Peerage Case, between the years 1766-1771, the counsel for Lady Elizabeth Sutherland, the successful claimant, at first adopted the view that the Sutherland family were descended from John, the son of Princess Margaret and William, Earl of Sutherland. In the tabular genealogy appended to the printed Case John is stated as the fifth Earl of Sutherland, and ancestor of the subsequent earls. Sir Robert Gordon, the opposing claimant, pointed out in his Supplemental Case that John, the only son of Princess Margaret, died without issue while a hostage in England, and then Lord Hailes, in writing the Supplemental Case for Lady Elizabeth, omitted John as an Earl of Sutherland. In letters to the law-agent of the Sutherland family he says: "It is impossible for us to retain John, the hostage, i.e. the fifth earl. I have made the best excuse I could for our former error." And again, "I wish we had not meddled with John, the hostage. I suspect that he did not carry on the line of the f amily, but that his brother William, mentioned in Rymer, did, and that the Robert in our pedigree was his, not a son of John." [Letters in Sutherland Charter-chest.] In this, however, the eminent counsel was again in error, for, as has been already shown, this William was apparently illegitimate.

Source: Fraser, W. (1894) The Sutherland Book. Edinburgh: Privately Printed.



Vnto Earle William succeeded his sone John Southerland, Earle of Southerland, who mareid Mabella, the Earl of March his daughter, by whom he had two sones, Nicolas and Hector. From this Hector, the lairds of Dilred descended. In the beginning of the Earle of Southerland his dayes, Sir John Gordoun of Huntlie and Strathbogie obteyned a memorable victorie against the Englishmen at Carram, the yeir of God one thowsand thrie hundred thriescore-and-ten, wher the Scottshmen wer fyve tymes overthrowne, and fyve tymes victorious, in one day; yet at last Sir John Gordon (after many chazes and changes of fortun) cleirlie overthrew the Englesh army, took ther generall, Sir John Lilburn, with his sone, (or brother, as some say) who wes a most expert souldier, and careid them home prissoners into Scotland; in the which battell Sir John Gordon wes grivouslie wounded. To revenge these injuries or displeasurs, Henrie Percy, Erle of Northumberland, entered into Scotland with seaven thowsand men; to whose succours Thomas Musgrave, captan of Bervick, came with his whole garison, and happened to meit with Sir John Gordon vpon the way, who, after a shart conflict, overcame the Englishmen, killed many of them, and took ther captayne Thomas Musgrave, whom he led prissoner with him. The Earle of Northumberland lykwise, with his army, being frighted by a stratagem, the same night returned home, without any farder attempt. Sir John Gordon, pressing vpon the enemie, and following his victorie, took the toun of Bervick witout much resistance, which wes shortlie efter lost by the Scottshmen.
     The yeir of God one thowsand thrie hundred thriescore-and-eleven, James Lindsay of Glenesk was created Erle of Crawfoord, at Scone, by King Robert the Second; and therefore I can sie no reasone why the Earles of Crawfoord should clame any precedencie from teh Earles of Southerland; seing, untill this tyme, they were not Erles of Crawfoord. Yow may sie, in the cathedrall church of Aberdein, the noblemen of Scotland ranked in order vpon the sylerin of the rooff of the bodie of the church, wher the Earle of Southerland is placed befor Crawfoord, Huntlie, Argile, Erroll, and Marshall. Bot I leave to vrge this further at this tyme.
     Sir John Gordon wes so incouraged with his victories which he had befor obtayned against the English, (as sayeth Ayscu) that the yeir of God one thowsand thrie hundred thriescore-and-eighteen, he, together with fourtie others, chosen men, fittest to initerpryse such a difficultie, came to Bervick the last day of November, (being St Andrew his day) in the deid tyme of the night; and haveing mounted the walls, they killed the watchmen whill they wer yit sleiping, and became masters of the castle and toun. Sir Robert Boynton, constable of the castle, and such as were with him, not being able to resist the enemie, wer all slain efter some resistence. Bot Sir John Gordon permitted his wyff, children, and some few of ther servants, to depart frielie.
     In the later dayes of King Robert the Second, the yeir of God one thowsand thrie hundred fourscore-and-eight, Richard the Second, king of England, sent ane army into Scotland, which did great hurt in the Mers. King Robert haveing intelliggence thereof, (being then at Aberden) assembled tuo armies, to revene these injuries. The one, of fyften thowsand men, (sayeth Buchannan) wes conducted by the Earle of Fyff, the king's sone, the Erles of Southerland and Marr, and Archbald Douglas, Lord of Galloway. The other armie, of lesse number, wes comitted to the charge of the Erles of March, Douglas, Crawfoord, and Morray. These tuo companies parting at Jedbrough, the Erles of Fyff and Southerland, with ther armie, entred into Cumberland, spareing nether fyre or sword all the way as they passed. The Erles of Douglas, Southerland, and Murray, with some others of the nobilitie, to try iff by any meanes they might take the toun of Newcastell, wher the flower and choysest men of Yorkshyre, Northumberland, and the Englesh borders, wer gathered together, commanded by the Earle of Northumberland and his tuo sonnes, Henry Hotspurr, and Ralph Pearsies, verie fordward and valiant gentlemen. Bot the toun was so weill defended, that the Scottishmen wer glaid to give over the seidge, and took ther voyage homeward into Scotland, heavelie loaded with the spoile which they had gathreed in that journey; and incamped by Otterburn, a good way from Newcastell. The Pearsie haveing assembled a great army, (sufficient, as he thought, to overmatch the Scotshmen) followed them in all hast. The night wes at hand, and they themselues might weill have been wearied with ther labor and travell at the seidge, the one in defending, the other in assailing; yit all this culd not stay nor hinder them from incountring. They prepared themselues for battell, equall both in courage and ambitious desires, equall in confidence of ther fortune. A right fierce and terrable feight ensued, wherein the Scottishmen behaved themselves so weill, that they quyte overthrew the English army, and pat them to flight, continueing killing and taking till break of day. Henrie and Ralph Persies, the Erle of Northumberland's sones, wer both taken prissoners, with many others. The Erle of Douglas and Sir John Gordon of Huntlie and Strathbogie were ther slain, to the great losse of ther cuntrey, which maid the victorie lesse pleasing to the Scottishmen.
     About day light the Scottishmen assembled themselves together, haveing strgled in pursute of the chase; and being advertised by ther spies, that ane army of Englesh men wes at hand, they gathered all the prissoners that were taken int eh battell, whom they disarmed; taking ther oathes, that, dureing the tyme of the fight, they should not assist ther cuntriemen, bot still remayn ther captives; and therwith they appoynted a small company of men to attend them, hard by the cariage; thinking it ane execrable thing to kill prissoners in cold blood. So preparing themselues for battell, they wernt fordward, crying and showting as iff they had not foughtin the night befor. The Englesh hearing the terrible noyse, and being abashed at the fresh courage and cheerfulnes of the Scots, and also vnderstanding of ther cuntriemen and fellowes evill luck, (which cooled their stomaks) they turned their baks and reteired themselues home, suffering the Scottishmen peaceablie to depairt with ther spoile and the prissoners. This English army wes conducted by the Bishop of Durehame, who, coming fordward with his company to Newcastle late that evening, thought to overtak the pearcy, and to assist him in that memorable battell, which wes foughin and lost by the Englesh, at Otterburn, the fyfth day of August, the yeir of God one thowsand thrie hundred eightie-eight.
     Sir John Gordon, who wes slain at this battell, mareid the Erle Marishall of Scotland his daughter, by whom he had Sir Adam Gordon, killed afterward at the battell of Hamildoun, and a daughter called Marie, who wes mareid to the Hamilton of Cadzo. This Sir John Gordon obteyned from King Robert the Second a confirmation of all his landsd within the kingdome.
     This John Earle of Southerland wes of singular manhood and wisdome, traceing the steps of his forebears. He manteyned his owne cuntrey in peace with his nighbours at home, and valantlie assisted his prince in his warrs abroad. He died in his owne cuntrey, much regreted, and we buried at Dornogh, in the sepulchre of his fathers, the yeir of God one thowsand thrie hundred fourscoure-and-nyne.

Gordon, R. (1813) A Genealogical History of the Earldom of Sutherland, from its origin to the year 1630; written by Sir Robert Gordon of Gordonstoun, Baronet. With a Continuation to the Year 1651. Edinburgh: Ramsay & Co.

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