Alexander Seton, 1st Earl of Dunfermline

Alexander Seton, 1st Earl of Dunfermline (1555–1622) was a Scottish lawyer, judge and politician. He served as Lord President of the Court of Session from 1598 to 1604, Lord Chancellor of Scotland from 1604 to 1622 and as a Lord High Commissioner to the Parliament of Scotland.

Alexander Seton, 1st Earl of Dunfermline, aged 53, by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger.

Early lifeEdit

George, Lord Seton, and his children in 1572, including Margaret, Lady Paisley, Robert, Earl of Winton, Sir John Seton of Barns and Alexander Seton
Entrance to Seton's Fyvie Castle

Born at Seton Palace, East Lothian, he was the son of George Seton, 7th Lord Seton, and Isobell Hamilton. The Setons remained a Roman Catholic family after the Scottish Reformation of 1560, and continued to support Mary, Queen of Scots, after her abdication and exile in England.

Alexander Seton was educated at the German and Roman College in Rome from June 1571 to December 1578.[1] Alexander was noted learning Italian and science (philosophy) in Rome by Baptista da Trento in 1577 in a letter describing plots to marry Elizabeth I of England to the Earl of Leicester and re-instate Mary in Scotland.[2] The family historian Viscount Kingston heard that he was skilled in mathematics, heraldry and architecture, and might have been made a Cardinal if he had stayed at Rome.[3] A Venetian diplomat, Giovanni Carlo Scaramelli, heard that Pope Gregory XIII had subsidised Seton's study in Rome, and that Seton had a doctorate from the University of Bologna.[4]


In 1583, Alexander Seton joined his father's embassy to France. William Schaw, the Master of Work to the Crown of Scotland was his companion. They left from Leith in Andrew Lamb's ship.[5] According to the Jesuit Robert Parsons, Lord Seton considered sending the youthful Alexander back to Scotland as his representative at one point.[6]

Alexander became a Privy Councillor in 1585 and was appointed a Lord of Session as Lord Urquhart in 1586. He rose to be Lord President of the Court of Session and was created Lord Fyvie on 4 March 1598.[7] From July 1593 he led a council convened to manage the estates of Anne of Denmark,[8] and she made him 'bailie and justiciary of the regality of Dunfermline on both sides of Forth on 15 February 1596.[9] In December 1596 Richard Douglas wrote that Seton's mother was a great favourite of Anne of Denmark, and that she "rules the king her husband" as an explanation for his promotions.[10]

At the end of August 1596 according to James Melville, the King arranged a Convention of the Estates at Falkland Palace which included the allies of the forfeited earls. Alexander Seton made a speech like those of Coriolanus or Themistocles calling for the re-instatement of these earls to strengthen the country. The reference to Themistocles, who spoke about naval power to the Athenians, perhaps refers to the forfeited Lord High Admiral of Scotland, Francis Stewart, 5th Earl of Bothwell.[11]

On 7 November 1598 he was made burgess, Guild-brother and Provost of Edinburgh. In March 1598 he took delivery of Spanish and Bordeaux wine, probably for the banquet for Ulrik, the younger brother of Anne of Denmark at Riddle's Court. Other notes in the town's records include a dozen torches supplied by a waxmaker for the baptism of Princess Margaret in April 1599, and another dozen for the baptism of Prince Charles.[12]

Union of the CrownsEdit

Seton was regarded as one of the finest legal minds of the time, and he became an advisor to James VI and guardian and tutor to Prince Charles, then called the Duke of Albany. After the death of Queen Elizabeth, Anne of Denmark went to Stirling Castle hoping to collect her son Prince Henry. During heated discussions at the castle, she had a miscarriage. Seton wrote to King James in London advising him to treat the queen with care, writing, "physic and medicine requireth a greater place with Her Majestry at present than lectures on economics and politics,"[13]

After the Union of the Crowns when the Scottish royal family relocated to London, Seton remained on the committee supervising Anne's Scottish incomes, while James VI went to England, and the infant Charles remained with Seton at Dunfermline Palace.[14] On 14 March 1604 Seton wrote to Robert Cecil on the subject of the union and opinion in Scotland;

This Union is the most at this time of all men's hearts and speeches. I find none of any account here but glad in heart to embrace the same in general: some suspect the particular conditions may engender greater difficulties. I hope the wisdom of the Prince who is both the ground and the cornerstone of this happy Union, with your and other wise men's assistance shall set by all such difficulties: as also I think there can be no particular condition desired for the weal (commonwealth) of one of the nations, but it must be profitable to the other, nor nothing prejudicial to one, but must be hurtful to the other, albeit only by the distracting of their due concord which wise men will think of greater consequence, nor any particular may be subtly cozened (brought) in. This is all I can write even of our thoughts here-away: I doubt not there are divers apprehensions there also."[15]

In 1604 he was appointed Lord Chancellor of Scotland and was created Earl of Dunfermline in 1605. Alexander Seton brought Prince Charles, Duke of Albany, to England in August 1604.[16] He stayed in London till January 1605 in London, co-inciding with the visit of the Ulrik, Duke of Holstein, and had a tour of armouries of the Tower of London. While he was at Whitehall, Viscount Cranborne arranged for him to read the original Treaty of Greenwich, which had led to the war of the Rough Wooing in 1543, and other documents, which he returned to Cecil on 3 November.[17]

Alexander returned to Scotland with more funding to reward his keeping of Prince Charles, made Duke of York on Twelfth Night, and his expenses for his 'pains in the Union' amounting to £200 a year.[18] He had made friends with the Venetian ambassador in London, Zorzi Giustinian, who sent him pamphlets about Venetian politics.[19]

He corresponded with the Chancellor of England, Lord Ellesmere. His letter of 30 October 1606 mentions the plague in Scotland which had been continuous in Edinburgh for four years, and although the outbreak was not vehement at this time, it interfered with the sitting of law courts. The plague was worse in Ayr and Stirling and 2,000 people had died in the last two months.[20]

After the death of George Home, 1st Earl of Dunbar, Seton was made Keeper of Holyrood Palace and the park and gardens, with power to appoint gardeners to the north and south yards, and the small garden.[21]

In 1611 he helped a French clockmaker Nicolas Foucanote settle in Edinburgh. He had served Henry IV of France and came to London asking help from Anne of Denmark, who sent him to Seton. Seton helped him become a burgess of Edinburgh by arranging his marriage to Elizabeth Robesoun, daughter of John Robesoun of Leith, burgess of Edinburgh, who had been butcher and supplier of foodstuffs to the royal households.[22]

In February 1616 he was again in London and saw Anne of Denmark at Greenwich, writing that he spoke to her in the old familiar manner, although she was ill and kept to her bedchamber. He felt that the Scots were left out of government business as "we ar leitill bettir nor idill cifres heir" - "we are little better than idle ciphers here."[23] Seton received medical treatment from the court physician Théodore de Mayerne.[24]

Later in 1616, in preparation for the royal visit to Scotland, he was required by the Privy Council of Scotland to declare what remained of the Scottish Royal tapestry collection at Dunfermline Palace. He stated there were 10 pieces "of auld and worne tapestrie of the storie of Aeneas, the storie of Troy, and of the story of Mankynd."[25]

His modern humanist and neo-stoic attitude was demonstrated by his energetic defence of Geillis Johnstone accused of witchcraft in 1614.[26]

Artistic and literary patronageEdit

Doocot (English 'Dovecote') at Pinkie House with Seton's characteristic cipher of a crowned crescent and cinquefoil over door to right

A portrait of his wife Margaret Hay, painted by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger in 1615 is in the Dunedin Public Art Gallery. Part of a painted ceiling bearing his monogram and heraldry from Pinkie House is displayed at Edinburgh's Huntly House museum: his painted long gallery is still preserved at Pinkie House, now Loretto School. Of Pinkie House the family historian wrote, "he built ane noble house, brave stone dykes about the garden and orchards, with other commendable policie about it."[27]

The gallery at Pinkie is a plain wooden vault, and the painting subdivides into compartments filled with emblems and mottoes. The general theme may have been to celebrate the Union of the Crowns.[28] The painting was not to the taste of later generations, in 1668 John Lauder of Fountainhall saw the gallery and other paintings which do not now survive, and wrote that Seton had "been mighty conceity in pretty mottoes and saying, whereof the walls and roofs of all the roomes are filled, stuffed with good moralitie, though somewhat pedantick."[29]

Archaeologists have discovered parts of his garden at Fyvie.[30] Seton also had a lodging in Edinburgh, and in July 1597 James VI held a lengthy audience with the ambassador Robert Bowes in this garden.[31] He rented accommodation from John MacMorran, probably at Riddle's Court on the Lawnmarket.

His will referred to tapestry of "portrait and forest work" and gilt leather hangings and curtains, almost as valuable as his library at Fyvie and Pinkie.[32] A catalogue of a part of his library at Pinkie survives.[33]

In 1599 Robert Pont, the father of the cartographer Timothy Pont dedicated his book, A Newe Treatise of the Right Reckoning of Yeares and Ages of the World, to Alexander Seton. The dedication addressed Seton as "amongst the rare Maecenases of this Land." In 1617, John Napier of Merchiston dedicated his Rabdologiae seu Numerationis per virgulas libri duo to Seton. The book describes the method of multiplication using the rods called "Napier's bones," and its Latin dedication acknowledges the help of Seton as the "illustrious Scottish Maecenas."[34]

Alexander Seton also commissioned the tomb of his friend the architect William Schaw at Dunfermline Abbey.[35]

Death and funeralEdit

After 15 days of illness, Alexander died on Sunday 16 June 1622 at Pinkie. On 19 June his body was taken by boat across the Forth to his house at Dalgety Bay near Dunfermline. He was buried in his vault in Dalgety Church, on 9 July 1622. A manuscript describes in detail the elaborate procession from the house (long demolished) to the kirk, which included his Master Stabler riding in full armour, and his Master Household with a black flag painted with a skull and tears. John Spottiswoode, Archbishop of St Andrews, gave the sermon.[36]

Marriages and childrenEdit

Margaret Hay, Countess of Dunfermline, by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, Dunedin Public Art Gallery

Alexander Seton first married Lilias Drummond, daughter of Patrick Drummond, 3rd Lord Drummond, their children were;

Alexander Seton married secondly in 1601, Grizel Leslie, a daughter of James Leslie, Master of Rothes,[37] their children were;

  • Charles (I), died young.
  • Lilias Seton, (b. 1602)
  • Jean Seton, (b. circa 1606), married John Hay, 8th Lord Yester.

Alexander Seton married thirdly, circa 1607, Margaret Hay, daughter of James Hay, 7th Lord Hay of Yester.

Seton's widow Margaret Hay married James Livingstone, Lord Almond and Earl of Callendar, in 1633.[38]


  1. ^ Dilworth, Mark,Innes Review, 'Scottish Students at Collegium Germanicum', vol. 19, no. 1 (1968), 20.
  2. ^ HMC Salisbury Manuscripts at Hatfield, vol. 2 (London, 1888), pp. v-vi, 168, Baptista di Trento to Elizabeth.
  3. ^ The history of the house of Seytoun to the year 1559 (1829), p. 63.
  4. ^ Horatio Brown, Calendar State Papers, Venice: 1603-1607, vol. 10 (London, 1900), p. 106 no. 147.
  5. ^ Calendar State Papers Scotland, vol. 6 (Edinburgh, 1910), pp. 645, 649
  6. ^ Calendar State Papers Scotland, vol. 7 (Edinburgh, 1913), 235.
  7. ^ Maurice Lee jnr, 'King James's Popish Chancellor', in Cowan & Shaw ed., Renaissance and Reformation in Scotland (Scottish Academic Press, 1983), pp. 170-182.
  8. ^ Annie I. Cameron, Calendar of State Papers: 1593-1595, vol. 11 (Edinburgh, 1936), p. 696.
  9. ^ George Seton,Memoir of Alexander Seton (Blackwood, Edinburgh 1882), p. 102.
  10. ^ HMC Calendar of the papers of the Marquis of Salisbury at Hatfield, vol. 6 (London, 1895), p. 540.
  11. ^ Mr James Melvill's Diary, (Bannatyne Club, 1829), pp. 243–4.
  12. ^ George Seton,Memoir of Alexander Seton (Blackwood, Edinburgh 1882), pp. 84, 86-7.
  13. ^ Rosalind K. Marshall, Scottish Queens: 1034-1714 (John Donald: Edinburgh, 2007), p. 149.
  14. ^ Register of the Privy Seal of Scotland, vol. 6 (Edinburgh 1884), p.556-7.
  15. ^ HMC Calendar of the Cecil Papers in Hatfield House, 1604, vol. 16 (London, 1933), under date.
  16. ^ Seton, Walter W., 'The Early Years of Henry Frederick, Prince of Wales, and Charles, Duke of Albany, 1593-1605', Scottish Historical Review, vol. 13, no. 52 (Jul., 1916), pp. 366-379.
  17. ^ G. Seton, Memoir of Alexander Seton, (Blackwood, Edinburgh 1882), pp. 64-5: HMC Calendar of the Cecil Papers in Hatfield House, 1604, vol. 16 (London, 1933), see 3 November 1604.
  18. ^ Sawyer, Edmund, ed., Memorials of the affairs of State under Queen Elizabeth and James I, vol.2 (1725), p.46, Chamberlain to Winwood, 26 January 1605.
  19. ^ Horatio Brown, Calendar State Papers, Venice: 1603-1607, vol. 10 (London, 1900), pp. 416 no. 599, 453 no. 659.
  20. ^ John Payne Collier, Egerton Papers (Camden Society: London, 1840), pp. 406-7.
  21. ^ HMC 6th Report: Gordon (London, 1876), p. 644.
  22. ^ P. Hume Brown, Register of the Privy Council of Scotland: 1554-1660, 2nd series vol. 8 (Edinburgh, 1908), p. 415: Charles Boog Watson, Roll of Edinburgh Burgesses (Edinburgh, 1929), p. 196, as "Nicolas Funtanet"
  23. ^ William Fraser, Memorials of the Earls of Haddington, vol. 2 (Edinburgh, 1889), 130-1, 134.
  24. ^ Joseph Browne, Theo. Turquet Mayernii Opera medica (London, 1703), pp. 234-41
  25. ^ Register of the Privy Council of Scotland, 1613-1616, vol. 10 (Edinburgh, 1891), p. 521.
  26. ^ David Allan, Philosophy and Politics in Later Stuart Scotland, (Tuckwell, East Linton, 2000), 114.
  27. ^ Kingston's Continuation of Maitland's House of Seytoun, p. 64
  28. ^ Michael Bath, Emblems in Scotland (Brill, 2019), p. 161.
  29. ^ Donald Crawford, Journals of John Lauder of Fountainhall (Edinburgh, 1900), p. 189.
  30. ^ Shannon Fraser, 'To receive guests with kindness’: Symbols of Hospitality, Nobility and Diplomacy in Alexander Seton's Designed Landscape at Fyvie Castle', Architectural Heritage, 26:1 (2016), pp. 121-140.
  31. ^ John Duncan Mackie, Calendar State Papers Scotland, vol. 13 (Edinburgh, 1969), p. 50.
  32. ^ George Seton, Memoir of Alexander Seton (William Blackwood, Edinburgh, 1882), p. 160
  33. ^ Ian Campbell, 'An ‘Inventair of som of the Earill of Dunfermline his buiks in Pinkie June 1625’: a fragment of the library of Alexander Seton', Innes Review, 67:1 (2016), pp. 31.54: Peter Davidson, 'Alexander Seton, First Earl of Dunfermline: his library, his house, his world', British Catholic History, 32:3 (May 2015), pp. 315-342.
  34. ^ Seton, George, Memoir of Alexander Seton, William Blackwood (1882), pp. 38-40, 121-123, (Vir Illustrissime, ... tanto Maecenate indigni.): The dedication was reprinted in the Peter Rammasen Leiden editions.
  35. ^ Church Monuments Society Feb. 2011
  36. ^ The Scottish Antiquary, or, Northern Notes and Queries, vol.13, no.52 (April 1899), pp. 160–168.
  37. ^ HMC 4th Report: Countess of Rothes (London, 1874), p. 509.
  38. ^ Seton, George, Memoir of Alexander Seton, William Blackwood (1882), pp. 150-4

Further readingEdit

Legal offices
Preceded by
William Baillie of Provand
Lord President of the Court of Session
Succeeded by
James Elphinstone, Lord Balmerino
Political offices
Preceded by
3rd Earl of Montrose
Lord Chancellor of Scotland
Succeeded by
1st Earl of Kinnoull
Peerage of Scotland
New creation Earl of Dunfermline
Succeeded by
Charles Seton
Lord Fyvie