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The Ghost of Janet Douglas is said to haunt Glamis Castle.

Janet Douglas: Witch, Poisoner or the Grey Lady of Glamis?

As Janet Douglas, Lady Glamis was led towards the waiting pyre on that fateful day on July 17th, 1537, her eyes must have fallen upon one in the gathered crowd. Her young son, John Lyon, 7th Lord of Glamis, stood between his captors. Perhaps he called to his mother. Perhaps he hung his head in shame, overcome with the guilt of being unable to withstand the agony of the King’s torturers. At sixteen years of age, he was no more than a boy. Had the King’s guard broken his body as surely as they had broken his spirit?

Janet’s only crime was that she had been born with the surname Douglas. This coupled with her great beauty had left her at the mercy of two men hell-bent on vengeance. One was a love-crazed admirer whose obsession took a sinister turn. The other was King James V, King of Scots, who was looking for reprisals on her brother, Archibald who had escaped across the border in England and beyond the reach of James’ long arm. Even in death, false accusations would be continued. She would be remembered as someone sentenced to death as a witch.

The Douglases and Stewarts

Janet Douglas’ tale begins not with herself but with her brother, Archibald, Earl of Buchan. The Douglas’ rise as one of the most powerful families in Scotland was meteoric.  Sir James Douglas had been Robert the Bruce’s most loyal lieutenant and boldest soldier during the Scottish Wars of Independence which culminated at Bannockburn in 1314.

Meanwhile, the crown had passed from the Bruce dynasty to the House of Stewart. Whatever rhetoric had been written in the Declaration of Arbroath which made the King of Scots accountable to the people had quickly been swept aside by the Stewart kings. It seemed that intrigue and corruption were at the heart of the monarchy. It was inevitable that the Douglases and Stewarts would clash. By the 15th Century, the Douglases were seen as a threat to the stability of the nation. The infamous Black Dinner, inspiration for the Red Wedding in the Game of Thrones series saw the Douglas power dramatically cut.

Kidnapping the King

However, fate is a strange thing. James V became King of Scots at just 17 months old. His father was killed at the Battle of Flodden. The power-hungry Archibald Douglas saw an opportunity. He wed James’ mother, Margaret Tudor.

Then, in 1525 Douglas took custody of James and made him a virtual prisoner. Archibald Douglas had Scotland in a stranglehold, and he wielded his power with impunity. But such power is a fragile thing.  The young King escaped three years later and took control of his kingdom. Hatred burned in James’ veins and he would embark on a ruthless vendetta against all who bore the name Douglas. Meanwhile, Archibald Douglas skipped the country.

Janet Douglas as Lady Glamis

Janet Douglas became Lady Glamis through her marriage to John Lyon sixth Lord of Glamis. Alas, in 1528, John Lyon died, and their son John inherited the title, aged 7 years old.   Janet was left without a protector. One of King James’ first actions, as he came of age, was to accuse Janet Douglas of poisoning her husband. Implicit with this charge was the idea that she was conspiring with her Douglas relatives against the King.  Records show that there was a surety made on 31st January 1531 for her appearance at the forthcoming Justice aire at Forfar but none of the Barons would agree to sit on the jury. She was acquitted and, in an attempt, to prove her innocence, broke off communication with the Douglas Clan.

She went on to marry Archibald Campbell of Skipness in 1532.

Janet Douglas and her appearance

Janet Douglas was a woman of singular beauty. In David Scott’s History of Scotland (London, 1727) she is described as follows:

She was of middle stature, not too fat; her face of an oval form, with full eyes; her complexion extremely fair and beautiful, with a magestick mein.  Besides all these perfections, she was a lady of singular chastity…Her modesty was admirable, her courage was above what could be expected in her sex; her judgement solid, her behaviour affable and engaging to her inferiors as well as her equals.

Janet Douglas and her Obsessed Admirer

It seems that she caught the eye of many an admirer. In Robert Pitcairn’s ‘Ancient Criminal Trials’, he states that:

Several of the first Nobility of the Kingdom had courted her; but she was not so much inclined to marry for wealth and title, as for merit; so that she plac’d her affection of one Archibald Campbell of Kepneath [sic], who commanded the Third Regiment in the King’s Army, to whom she was married, to their mutual satisfaction. 

Meantime William Lyon, a near relation of her first husband, having made violent addresses to her, and seeing that she was married to this gentleman, became almost distracted upon the disappointment:  but though he had lost her in marriage, yet did not forbear his addresses to her in an unlawful way, and continued to importune her to consent to his designs; which she resented with the utmost disdain, and told him, that she had treated him with the respect due to the relation of her first husband and child, and not out of any regard to his own person or merit; but, since she found that he had such designs, she hated the sight of him, and assured him that she never would comply with such abominable crimes.

Janet Douglas Arrested for Treason

William Lyon’s obsession soon turned to hate, and he accused Janet, Archibald Campbell and ‘one John Lyon, an aged Priest, and his own near relation’ of planning to poison the king.  He had them arrested. Lyon found the King all too ready to listen to his allegations.

Janet and Archibald Campbell were imprisoned in Edinburgh Castle. However, getting a conviction proved more difficult. James had to resort to torture to extort ‘evidence’ form her servants and family. Young John Lyon was also sentenced to death but was pardoned because of his young age. However, his lands were confiscated.

Janet Douglas Burnt at the Stake

Medieval Edinburgh was overcrowded and hemmed in by its defensive walls. Smoke belched from the houses giving it the name ‘Auld Reekie’. However, on the day Janet Douglas died, the name ‘Auld Reekie’ took on a new meaning. She was sentenced to death by burning at the stake. Her young son allegedly was forced to watch as the flames consumed her flesh.

An eyewitness of the execution described her suffering ‘with great commiseration’.

Three days prior to Janet Douglas’s death, John, Master of Forbes was also put to death for conspiring against the crown. Forbes’ wife was Elizabeth Lyon, daughter of Janet and her first husband, Lord Glamis.

The day following Janet’s death, her husband Archibald made a bid for freedom. However, the rope he used either snapped or was not long enough. He plunged to his death.

The alleged supplier of the poison, Alexander Makke, was also tried.  His punishment was to have both ears cut off and be banished to the country of Aberdeen.

Lord Glamis after the Death of Janet Douglas

After the death of James V, Lord Glamis was set free, and his lands were eventually reinstated. However, anything of value had been taken by the King including his sister Margaret Lyon. Margaret was born deformed and James described her as that ‘thing’ residing in a locked room at Glamis. He had her removed to the North Berwick Nunnery in 1537.

Alas, the events in Edinburgh appear to have taken their toll. John Lyon’s health was broken, and he died in 1559, after many years of illness.

Janet Douglas and The Accusations of Witchcraft

It seems that in life Janet Douglas was never accused of witchcraft and yet her name has become synonymous with the Scottish Witchcraft trials. Perhaps it was the nature of her death which lead to this misconception. However, burning at the stake was a common punishment at the time for both murder and treason.

Robert Pitcairn studied the documents relating to her trial and found that at no point was she ever accused of witchcraft. At some time a historian wrongly made this connection and the misinterpretation was continued by subsequent historians such as John Pinkerton and has found its way onto the Internet today.

It was during the reign of James V’s daughter, Mary Queen of Scots, that laws were first passed making witchcraft a capital crime. However, it wasn’t until James VI’s reign that the law was really enacted.  The ‘burning times’ would come, thousands of women would pass through the flames and Edinburgh Castle would yet see many more fires. However, unfortunately for Janet Douglas, she was not sentenced to death as a witch. If she had been, she might have been granted the small mercy given to accused witches. They were normally strangled before being put on the flames. Even this kindness was denied her.

 The Grey Lady of Glamis Castle

Is it any wonder that her spirit is said to roam the corridors of Glamis Castle to this day?  Apparently, she made her appearance as the Grey Lady of Glamis, immediately after her death. However, she is not alone. There are allegedly at least nine ghosts at Glamis, making it one of Scotland’s most haunted castles.

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