The Good of This Service Consists in Absolute Secrecy: The Earl of Dunbar, Scotland and the Border (1603-1611)

By Sizer, Jared R. M. | Canadian Journal of History, August 2001 | Go to article overview

The Good of This Service Consists in Absolute Secrecy: The Earl of Dunbar, Scotland and the Border (1603-1611)


Sizer, Jared R. M., Canadian Journal of History


I.

It is true there be some affairs which require extreme secrecy, which will hardly go beyond one or two persons besides the king: neither are those councils unprosperous, for, besides the secrecy, they commonly go on constantly in one spirit of direction, without distraction.(1)

-- Francis Bacon, Of Counsel

Until recently, James VI and I was attacked by historians and biographers alike for his political and personal favouritism, long held to be a factor in his problematic multiple monarchy and its ultimate collapse under his son, Charles I. Reports of his incompetence have been greatly exaggerated, however, and Maurice Lee and Jenny Wormald have done much to rehabilitate James as a powerful, intelligent ruler who refused to devolve absolute power upon even his obvious favourites. Of these, the most prominent were the Scottish-born Earl of Somerset and the English Duke of Buckingham, both of whom initially gained power through physical attractiveness, energy, and powerful patrons hoping to profit from their advancement. Once promoted, both capitalized on their success through personal aggrandisement and an attempt to wield political power, yet James did not entrust Somerset with any major administrative duties, and refused to save him from political fallout of the Overbury Scandal in 1616. Buckingham shared Somerset's haughty tactlessness but combined his own astute political intelligence with the elderly king's decline of the 1620s to commandeer aspects of James's foreign policy, which until that time had been the king's sole preserve. James had not always been so complacent. From attaining his majority in 1585 through his accession to the English throne in 1603, he had been careful to employ statesmen of exceptional talent, whose advice and experience he valued. He was especially fortunate in John Maitland of Thirlestane and Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury, men who had prepared him for his role as Queen Elizabeth's successor; as secretaries of state, both would use their administrative expertise to curb James's financial and ideological excesses at crucial phases in his career. Yet the king was never personally close to his chief ministers, whose deaths in 1595 and 1612 he respectively acknowledged with morbid humour and a cool indifference, doing nothing to minimise the posthumous maligning of their reputations.(2) The worlds of the minister and the favourite rarely collided under James. There is, however, a less celebrated figure who, uniquely, commanded both the king's affection and political confidence, and who would become one of the most powerful players in the newly-unified Great Britain: Sir George Home, Earl of Dunbar. This Scottish courtier, a younger son of the Laird of Manderston, would rise to prominence within both the household and government of King James: lord high treasurer of Scotland (1601-11), chancellor of the Exchequer at Whitehall (1603-6), chief commissioner on the Anglo-Scottish Border (1606-11), and the king's high commissioner in Scotland.(3) His unique success depended upon a seemingly single-minded devotion to the king's policies, constant travel between the political epicentres of Edinburgh and London, and absolute secrecy. Following a brief account of his early rise to power at the Scottish court, this paper will consider Dunbar's remarkable political impact on both Border administration and the parliaments and general assemblies of Scotland from 1603 to 1611.

It is regrettable that Dunbar does not occupy a greater place in the historiography of early Stuart Britain. His sole biography, published by Reverend James Kirk of Dunbar Church in 1918, is a useful but brief collection of three lectures detailing the earl's career from 1585 to 1611. He appears in the Dictionary of National Biography as a nefarious figure excelling in bribery and the malicious deconstruction of Scotland's political and ecclesiastical institutions.(4) However, like King James himself, Dunbar has enjoyed a favourable critical re-assessment in the past two decades, largely thanks to the efforts of Maurice Lee, who devoted a full chapter to the treasurer in his Government By Pen (1980). …

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