Prospero, The Tempest, RSC, Aldwych Theatre, 1983
Stewart was implicated in plots to kill the King and was rumoured to be heavily involved in witchcraft and sorcery. In 1590 he was said to have dressed as the devil during a witches’ sabbath, and cast a spell, summoning up a storm – just as Prospero did – in an attempt to wreck the king’s ship. He failed, and James survived to ascend the English throne as well 13 years later.
Exiled earl may have been the model for Prospero
Prospero, the exiled Duke of Milan, has always been one of Shakespeare’s most mysterious creations. Part mystic, part wizard, he weaves spells and conjures up storms. At the end of The Tempest he utters one of the great speeches in all the Shakespearian canon – “Now my charms are all o’erthrown; and what strength I have’s mine own.”
No one has ever been able to say with certainty what, or who, inspired the creation of Prospero, though many of Shakespeare’s characters were based on real people and events. Now, however, an amateur historian, rifling through the papers of an eccentric 16th-century Scottish Earl, has uncovered the life of a man he says may have given Shakespeare the idea for the character.
Brian Moffat, a 64-year-old retired policeman from Teviothead, in the Borders, said he stumbled upon the revelation after he and his wife bought an old chest that turned out to be the marriage trunk of Francis Stewart, the Fifth Earl of Bothwell, whose extraordinary antics and rebellious behaviour caused a political and religious scandal.
Mr Moffat decided to investigate carvings of Christian, pagan and satanic symbols on the trunk.
Stewart believed that his cousin, James VI, should invade England to avenge the execution of Mary Queen of Scots. When the King refused to consider it, he turned against him.
Stewart was implicated in plots to kill the King and was rumoured to be heavily involved in witchcraft and sorcery. In 1590 he was said to have dressed as the devil during a witches’ sabbath, and cast a spell, summoning up a storm – just as Prospero did – in an attempt to wreck the king’s ship. He failed, and James survived to ascend the English throne as well 13 years later. Stewart was imprisoned.
Mr Moffat believes that Shakespeare may have heard the stories of his eccentric behaviour from King James’s jester, Archie Armstrong, a high-ranking member of the king’s court who is thought to have inspired the character of the fool in King Lear.
“In 1590 Francis Stewart appeared in a pulpit at North Berwick Kirk dressed as the devil and summoned a storm to sink the King’s ship,” said Mr Moffat. “That incident is the starting point of The Tempest. There you have an exiled nobleman, who is also a necromancer, who summons up a storm to sink the ruling Duke’s ship. The similarities between the accounts and Shakespeare’s plot are striking. It is very likely Stewart is the inspiration for Prospero.”
Now Mr Moffat has written a book, Death, Resurrection and the Sword, in which he claims that Stewart’s link to Shakespeare’s play has been over-looked by scholars because, at the time, Stewart’s links to Freemasonry and the occult, along with his “dangerous” political beliefs, caused him to be “written out of history”.
He said: “This is an incredibly important piece of our history. Francis Stewart’s castle, Branxholme Castle, still stands. This is Prospero’s castle. This is Homecoming year, so we should really be celebrating this important link.”
Like Prospero, Stewart was finally exiled by his political rival, James VI. He was charged with treason for his part in a plot to abduct the King from Holyrood Palace in 1589, and also stood trial in 1591 on charges of witchcraft after the North Berwick Kirk incident. In 1594 he fell out with the King again.
He was finally exiled in 1595 and died penniless in Naples in 1612.
Dr Sarah Carpenter, who lectures on Shakespeare at the University of Edinburgh, said Moffat’s theory could not be proved beyond doubt, but a link with Stewart was possible.
Francis Stewart, Earl Bothwell (b. c December 1562 – d. April 1612, Naples), was Commendator of Kelso Abbey and Coldingham Priory, a Privy Counsellor and Lord High Admiral of Scotland. Like his stepfather, Archibald Douglas, Parson of Douglas, he was a notorious conspirator, who died in disgrace.
Francis was son to John Stewart, Lord Darnley, Prior of Coldingham (d.1563), an illegitimate child of James V of Scotland by his mistress Elizabeth Carmichael. John Stewart’s wife was Jane Hepburn, Mistress of Caithness, Lady Morham (d.1599) sister to James Hepburn, the fourth Earl Bothwell. Francis is said to have been born in his mother’s tower house at Morham.
Nephew of the 4th earl; by his dissolute and proud behaviour he caused King James VI of Scotland (afterward James I of Great Britain) gradually to consider him a rival and a threat to the Scottish crown and was made an outlaw. Through his father, John Stewart, prior of Coldingham, he was a grandson of King James V and was thus related to Mary, Queen of Scots, and the regent Moray.
Created earl of Bothwell in 1581, he became lord high admiral of Scotland and was a person of some importance at the court of James VI during the time when the influence of the Protestants was uppermost. He was eager that Mary Stuart’s death should be avenged by an invasion of England, and in 1589 he suffered a short imprisonment for his share in a rising. By this time he had completely lost the royal favour. Again imprisoned, this time on a charge of witchcraft, he escaped from captivity in 1591 and was deprived by Parliament of his lands and titles; as an outlaw his career was one of extraordinary lawlessness. In 1591 he attempted to seize Holyroodhouse, and in 1593 he captured the King, forcing from him a promise of pardon. But almost at once he reverted to his former manner of life, and, although James failed to apprehend him, he was forced to take refuge in France about 1595. He died at Naples in extreme poverty. He had three sons, but his titles were never restored.
Both ground breaking and revelationary, this book reveals the life, times and associates of Francis Stewart,”The King Devil” who has, until now, been almost entirely written out of history, although he came within an ace of becoming King of both Scotland and England.