John Chisholm (soldier)

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John Chisholm, 16th-century Scottish soldier and chief officer, Comptroller and Prefect of the Scottish artillery for Mary, Queen of Scots and James VI of Scotland, and keeper of the King's Wark in Leith. Chisholm was a supporter of Mary, Queen of Scots after her exile in England.


Mary's fireworks[edit]

Mary, Queen of Scots was eager for Chisholm's arrival as a messenger in Perth in April 1564.[1] As Comptroller of the Royal Artillery for Mary, he received in 1565 the large sum of 10,000 Scottish marks on behalf of the Queen, from the Burgh council of Edinburgh, for the right of superiority of Edinburgh over Leith. The money was used to take the royal artillery to the west of Scotland during the rebellion called the Chaseabout Raid.[2]

John Chisholm arranged the firework display for the baptism of her son Prince James at Stirling Castle in December 1566. The preparations were expensive, and John had to send to the Queen twice for extra money. John's account for the event lists his ingredients, including, colophony, orpiment, quicksilver, arrows and dozens of small pottery vessels. The fireworks were made in Leith and shipped to Stirling in great secrecy, being carried to the castle at the dead of night "for feir of knowledge thairof." John also arranged the making of costumes used in a pageant of an assault on a mock castle.[3]

King's Wark in Leith[edit]

King's Wark
Leith, Scotland
The King's Wark, Shore Leith.jpg
Site of the King's Wark Royal Arsenal
King's Wark is located in Scotland
King's Wark
King's Wark
Coordinates55°58′34″N 3°10′10″W / 55.9761°N 3.1695°W / 55.9761; -3.1695
Site history
Builtin royal occupation since 1434
In usedisused as arsenal since 1647
Battles/warsdestroyed May 1544
Garrison information
John Chisholm (1564-1606)

In April 1567 Mary, Queen of Scots confirmed in Parliament John Chisholm's possession of the King's Wark in Leith,[4] which he had held in feu since May 1564.[5] There, John was in charge of the long established Shore-side arsenal which served the Royal Scots Navy. The arsenal had been founded by James I of Scotland in 1434. The buildings, which included a tower had been burnt in May 1544 during the war of the Rough Wooing after 80,000 cannonballs were looted by the English army.[6] In 1545 Robert Logan of Restalrig used the tower as a Tolbooth for Leith.[7] Now demolished, the tower was depicted in a drawing by John Slezer in 1693.[8] The site is now a bar and restaurant.

Anne of Denmark arrived in Scotland on 1 May 1590 with James VI, and stayed five nights in the King's Wark.[9] The path from the ship to their throne room in Chisholm's house was strewn with tapestry.[10] The ceremony of the reception at Leith and the King's Wark had been carefully planned the previous September. A special wooden stair was built for her to enter directly into the first-floor hall. There were chairs for Anne and James VI on this "scaffold", where they sat in public and listened to a speech of welcome called an oration or "harangue," made by James Elphinstone in French. The directions included the order of entry, seating, and even where people should look. Once Anne was in the King's Wark, the scaffold was taken away, and the people of Leith were ordered to unload any guns and forbidden to mend ships on the Shore until she left.[11]

The buildings passed to Bernard Lindsay of Lochhill in 1606 by Act of Parliament. Bernard Lindsay, a chamber servant of James VI, was required to reserve a cellar for storing wines for the King's use.[12] He also added a tennis court. As a courtier Lindsay had brought Henry Wotton to James VI at Dunfermline Palace in 1601, when Wotton was masquerading as an Italian "Octavio Baldi".[13] In preparation for James's "salmonlike" return to Scotland in 1617, cannon wheels and stocks were kept there, and in 1623 the Master of Work, James Murray of Kilbaberton stored cannon and shot from a Dunkirk ship in Bernard Lindsay's Close.[14] It is thought that Bernard Street takes its name from Lindsay of Lochhill. In 1647 the site was acquired by Edinburgh burgh council from William Dick of Braid.[15]


John Chisholm was appointed Prefect and "Second Person" of the royal artillery of Scotland (S. D. N. Regis Machinarii Bellitarii Prefecti) on 23 August 1569, during the Regency of the James Stewart, Earl of Moray.[16] In 1570, Chisholm joined William Kirkcaldy of Grange in the garrison of Edinburgh Castle that remained loyal to Mary, Queen of Scots. During the following 'Lang Siege' of the Castle and Marian civil war, Chisholm travelled abroad seeking support and supplies. In February 1571 he was in London and wrote about ongoing peace negotiations, hoping that Elizabeth I of England would act to restore Mary to the Scottish throne. He hoped that the frustrating talks would be concluded soon; "I hoip seurlie within sax ouilkis (six weeks), we salbe at our wittis end and sooner."

Chisholm visited Mary at Sheffield Castle, and took letters to France in April, borrowing £3 from John Lesley, Bishop of Ross. The Bishop kept a note of Chisholm's movements; he returned to Scotland from Dieppe in June 1571, carrying money sent by the exiled Bishop of Glasgow, cannonballs of four different calibres and pikes. These supplies were obtained from Charles IX of France.[17] Chisholm and his ship were captured at North Queensferry in July by Patrick, Lord Lindsay, but he managed to pass some of the money to Mary's supporters. It was thought he had intended to take Tantallon Castle, linking up with Mary's supporters who unsuccessfully attacked the castle on 2 July 1571.[18]

Chisholm was allowed to return to France and joined the Bishop of Glasgow. In March 1573 William Maitland of Lethington thought his adversaries had discovered the key to the cipher code he used in his letters when James Kirkcaldy was captured. He used John Chisholm's code in a letter to the Bishop. Agents of the English Secretary of State, William Cecil, intercepted and easily decoded this letter.[19] John wrote to Mary, Queen of Scots from Paris in August 1575. He asked that he might come to England and serve in her household with his wife, and concluded his letter with his hopes of Mary's "suddane" delivery from her troubles.[20]


After this period of exile,[21] in July 1576 Chisholm gained an official pardon for his support of Mary and Grange and unauthorized travel abroad. On 31 May 1579 he was re-appointed as "Comptroller and Second Person of the Artillery and Munition within all parts of Scotland."[22] The gift of the King's Wark, "Opus Regium," was confirmed in May 1588, giving his title as; Compotorus Rotulatori Tormentorum Bellicorum – Controller of the accounting rolls for war machines.[23]

The French Ambassador Bertrand de Salignac de la Mothe-Fénelon noted that Chisholm was still active as a supporter of Mary in February 1583, and Chisholm asked that Mary should continue paying him a pension. In May 1583 The English diplomat Robert Bowes reported him as a "notorious instrument" for Maineville, the agent of the Esmé Stewart, 1st Duke of Lennox who was expelled from Scotland by the Gowrie Regime.[24]


  1. ^ J. H. Pollen ed., Papal Negotiations with Mary Queen of Scots (SHS, Edinburgh, 1901), p. 450.
  2. ^ J. Marwick ed., Extracts from the Records of the Burgh of Edinburgh, 1557–1571 (Edinburgh, 1875), p. 228.
  3. ^ Accounts of the Treasurer of Scotland vol.12 (1970), pp. 58 and 403–9.
  4. ^ The Records of the Parliaments of Scotland to 1707, K.M. Brown et al eds (St Andrews, 2007-2013) Retrieved: 3 March 2013.
  5. ^ Robertson, David, The Sculptured Stones of Leith, (1851), p.67 citing charter in City archives.
  6. ^ Patten, William, in Tudor Tracts, (1903), p. 44.
  7. ^ RCAHMS Canmore database: King's Wark
  8. ^ Slezer drawings, Edinburgh City Collection
  9. ^ Calendar State Papers Scotland, vol. 10, (Edinburgh, 1936), 863.
  10. ^ Stevenson, David, Scotland's Last Royal Wedding, (1985), pp. 100 and 139: Papers Relative to the Marriage of James VI, (1828) pp.37-8: Moysie, David, Memoirs of the Affairs of Scotland, (1830), p. 83.
  11. ^ Thomson, Thomas, ed., David Calderwood's History of Kirk of Scotland, vol. 5 (1844), pp. 60–64, 94. (James Elphinstone also had a house on the Shore in Leith, "Balmerino's House".)
  12. ^ Acts of the Parliaments of Scotland, vol.4 (1816), p.315
  13. ^ CSP. Scotland, vol. 13 (HMSO 1969), p. 876: H. Wotton, Reliquiae Wottonianae (London 1654), 29–35.
  14. ^ Imrie & Dunbar, ed., Accounts of the Master's of Work, vol. 2, HMSO, Edinburgh (1882), pp. 81, 157 and 159.
  15. ^ Wood, Marguerite, ed., Extracts Burgh Records Edinburgh, 1604-1624, (1931), p.376: Tales, Traditions, & Antiquities of Leith (1865), pp. 36–38.
  16. ^ Register of the Great Seal of Scotland, vol. 6 (1963), p. 141, no. 723.
  17. ^ Correspondance Diplomatique De Bertrand De Salignac De La Mothe Fenelon, vol. 4, Paris (1840), pp. 203–4.
  18. ^ Calendar State Papers Scotland, vol. 3 (1903), pp. 478–80, 485–87, 529, 532–33, 535, 620–21, 623–24 and 636.
  19. ^ Calendar State Papers Scotland, vol. 4 (1905), p. 523, no. 586.
  20. ^ Calendar State Papers Scotland, vol.5 (1907), pp. 158–60, no. 167.
  21. ^ Accounts of the Treasurer of Scotland, vol. 12 (1970), p. 379.
  22. ^ Register of the Privy Council of Scotland, vol. 7, HMSO Edinburgh (1966), p. 97, no. 659, and pp. 312–13, no. 1909.
  23. ^ Register of the Great Seal of Scotland, 1580–93, (1888), pp. 529–30, no. 1547.
  24. ^ Calendar State Papers Scotland, vol. 6 (1910), pp. 312, 375, 441 and 449.