Essays on the Nobility of Medieval Scotland

By K. J. Stringer | Go to book overview

11
WILLIAM SINCLAIR, EARL OF ORKNEY, AND HIS
FAMILY:
A STUDY IN THE POLITICS OF SURVIVAL

Barbara E. Crawford

The Sinclair earls of Orkney have acquired something of a legendary aura about them. As heirs of the most famous earls of the Viking world, remote from the centres of political power in Norway and Scotland, they were almost sovereign in their own territory. The idea that they were semi-regal rulers of a maritime domain has been cultivated by all the family historians, from Father Hay in the eighteenth century to Roland St Clair, a member of a New Zealand branch of the family who compiled a massive amount of information about Sinclairs in all corners of the world at the end of the last century.1 The loss of the earldom of Orkney in the second half of the fifteenth century has been seen by most writers as a shattering blow to the prestige and position of the Sinclair family, reducing it to the status of any other Scottish baronial house. There is no doubt that the family went through an exceedingly difficult period when the process by which the islands of Orkney and Shetland came to the Scottish crown in the 1460s was underway. How they survived the loss of their northern earldom, how they adapted to the changed circumstances, and how they attempted to cling on to lands and power in the north is a highly instructive story in the survival techniques of an ingenious dynasty. It is not possible in the present survey to do more than sketch in the outline of some of these aspects, for not only are the dynasties of the Roslin and Ravenscraig branches concerned but also the flourishing of a separate comital dynasty in Caithness, the establishing of myriad Sinclair branches in Orkney and Shetland in the wake of the independent earldom, and the growth of a new power structure in the Northern Isles. In all these areas, and particularly in respect of the loss of their northern earldom, the Sinclairs had to survive the grasping clutches of a land-hungry crown, and attempt to manipulate the situation so that they retained the substance of their former power, even if they lost their hereditary title to it.

The family's success, for their survival can probably be regarded as a success story, was due primarily to two men. The first of these was Earl William, last Norwegian earl of Orkney and probably the most powerful and wealthy of all the Sinclairs. Not only was he earl of Orkney from 1434 to 1470, but he also managed in 1455 to get back the earldom of Caithness which had been separated from the Orkney earldom in 1375, when a member of the earldom family had resigned it to the Scottish crown. He thus reunited for a brief period the ancient joint Norse earldoms. He managed to do this probably because of the help he had given James II in crushing the Douglases. At that time (1454–6) he was, moreover, Chancellor of Scotland, although as will be seen his relationship with James became less close in

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