Spy history: An assassination first

The murder of President John F Kennedy by Lee Harvey Oswald in November 1963 was, arguably, the most famous assassination in history. What is less well known is how disturbingly similar that attack was to the very first assassination of a public figure with a firearm.

James Stewart, the First Earl of Moray and Regent of Scotland, was an enemy of Mary, Queen of Scots. As a Protestant, Stewart had common ground with the English against Mary because of her Catholicism. His revolt against her rule had forced her to flee to England where she was being held prisoner and where she would eventually be executed. Mary’s supporters had sworn revenge on Stewart and there had already been at least one attempt on his life.

On 23 January 1570, Stewart was travelling on horseback through the Scottish town of Linlithgow. He was accompanied by a group of armed supporters. They were all travelling to Edinburgh where Stewart intended to meet with English diplomats and other Scottish nobles. Ideally, Stewart would have travelled by coach so that he had some protection from an assassin. But for some reason Stewart had insisted on riding. As they passed along the main street at the centre of the town, his bodyguard were watchful for an attack.

Suddenly a shot rang out. Stewart slumped in his saddle as his horse skittered forwards. He slid slowly to the ground blood seeping from between his fingers as he grasped at his stomach. He had been shot, but at first no-one seemed sure where the shot had come from. There was panic and confusion all around as people fought to get out of the street. Stewart’s bodyguard crowded around his body to give him protection. He was lifted to his feet and was able to stagger to a nearby house. But it was too late. In those days a belly wound was almost always fatal and Stewart died shortly before midnight that evening.

Stewart had been shot by James Hamilton of Bothwellhaugh. He had been tracking Stewart for some time, but had not found an opportunity for an attack. When he heard that Stewart’s party would be passing through Linlithgow, he realised that there might be a chance. His uncle, the Archbishop of St Andrews, owned a property in the High Street. This house included a shuttered balcony that projected over the street. It would be perfect for an ambush.

Hamilton armed himself with a matchlock carbine. The rifle depended on a length of smouldering matchcord which was snapped into a pan of gunpowder when the trigger was depressed. Hamilton chose a carbine which had a rifled barrel for greater accuracy, but he also double-shotted the weapon. He knew that he would only have one chance and he wanted to inflict as much damage as possible. The slight loss of power and accuracy caused by double-shotting would almost certainly be negated by the fact that he was able to attack at close range.

The one problem with a matchlock carbine as the assassination weapon was that the fumes from the burning match might be spotted by one of Stewart’s entourage. Either by design or happy accident, sheets were left hanging to dry in the windows of the balcony. They allowed Hamilton to lie in wait and masked the smoke from the match. When he attacked he was able to achieve compete surprise. It is not clear how many of the shots hit Stewart. Some reports talk of two wounds in the stomach around the navel, but another report says that one of the shots killed a horse ridden by one of Stewart’s companions. Either way, the attack was fatal.

Unlike Oswald, who was quickly apprehended, Hamilton managed to escape after the attack. He had a horse tethered at the rear of the house. Still holding the carbine, he raced downstairs and galloped away. He was chased by some of Stewart’s entourage, but evaded his pursuers by forcing his horse to leap a massive ditch. It is said that he persuaded his horse by stabbing it in the rump with his dagger. His pursuers were unable to follow. Hamilton was subsequently smuggled out of the country and lived the rest of his life in exile in France. Only one person paid the ultimate price for the assassination and that was the Archbishop of St Andrews whose house was used to launch the attack.

Hamilton’s movements were closely watched by agents working for Cecil’s secret service in England. Cecil also made sure that Hamilton’s correspondence was intercepted. (Some of it is still in the public archives.) Cecil knew that Hamilton had killed an important English ally. Having been successful against one Protestant target, there was a chance that he might become involved in a plot to assassinate Elizabeth I herself.

But Hamilton found life difficult in France. Soon he had run out of money and was writing to friends in Scotland begging for more funds. He died in 1581 although the exact circumstances are not known. He returned his weapons to Scotland and they remained in the possession of the family for many years which is how we know so much about the carbine that he used. In the end, his attack achieved little. His patroness, Mary, Queen of Scots, was executed in 1587.

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