Robert Spottiswood

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For the English football player and manager, see Bob Spottiswood.

Sir Robert Spottiswood, Lord Newabbey (1596–1646), was a Scottish lawyer.

Early life and education[edit]

He was the second son of John Spottiswoode (1565–1637), archbishop of St. Andrews, and Rachel, daughter of David Lindsay, bishop of Ross. Educated at Glasgow Grammar School, he matriculated at Glasgow University in 1609, graduating M.A. 15 March 1613. Thence, he proceeded to Exeter College, Oxford, where he studied under John Prideaux, afterwards bishop of Worcester. He pursued his studies on the continent, chiefly in France, where 'he applied himself to the study of the laws civil and canon, and of theology, especially the oriental languages, the holy scriptures, the fathers, and church history.' His father had projected his 'History of the Church' before Spottiswood set out on his travels and he was commissioned to make researches for documents, many of which had been carried to France at the Reformation. In this search, Sir Robert was very successful, recovering many important papers used by the archbishop, and discovering at Rome the 'Black Book of Paisley,' a manuscript of great value. After spending nine years abroad, Spottiswood returned home, and was received with favour by James VI, who appointed him privy councillor on 25 June 1622.

In 1629, Sir Robert married Bethia, daughter of Sir Alexander Morrison of Prestongrange, one of the senators of the College of Justice, and by her had four sons (including Alexander, father of John Spottiswood, 1666–1728) and three daughters. She died in 1639 and a copy of memorial verses in Latin is in the manuscript of the 'Practicks,' now in Edinburgh.


Sir Robert was promoted to the bench on 12 July 1622, taking the title of Lord Newabbey from the lands which his father had purchased and presented to him. Four years afterwards (14 Feb 1626), he was appointed an ordinary lord of session, in succession to Sir Thomas Hamilton, Earl of Melrose (afterwards Earl of Haddington). In 1633, he was nominated as one of the commissioners for the valuation of teinds and, at the same time, was appointed one of the members of the commission to survey the laws. He continued in favour under Charles I and, on the death of Sir James Skene of Curriehill in October 1633, Spottiswood was, on Charles's recommendation, elected president of the court of session. His speech on that occasion, in which he described the relations then existing between the bench and the bar, is printed in the memoir by his grandson, John Spottiswood (1666–1728), in his edition of Sir Robert's 'Practicks,' and in the first volume of the 'Spottiswoode Miscellany.’

Sir Robert was one of the crown assessors for the trial of Lord Balmerino in 1634 and it was afterwards alleged – without much foundation – that he gave a partial and unfair aspect to the case. His attitude was so distinctly against the covenanters that, in 1638, when episcopacy was abolished by the general assembly, he was forced to flee to England, where he remained until Charles I made his second visit to Scotland. The dominant presbyterian party accused him of fomenting the discord between the king and the people and, when he appeared before the Scottish parliament on 17 August 1641, he was forthwith committed to the castle of Edinburgh. He was specially exempted from the act of oblivion proposed to parliament, but on 10 November, he obtained his liberty on condition that he should appear for trial when called upon. The intention of bringing him and the other 'incendiaries' to trial was at length abandoned, in deference to the king's wish, and Spottiswood returned with Charles I to England. When the Earl of Lanark, secretary of state, was apprehended in December 1643, the king gave the seals of office to Spottiswood at Oxford, and directed him to act as secretary. In this capacity, Spottiswood sealed several commissions, one being a warrant appointing Montrose to be his majesty's lieutenant in Scotland. Sir Robert set out from Oxford with this warrant, travelled through Wales to the Isle of Man, shipped thence to Lochaber, and, meeting Montrose in Athol, gave him the commission.

Remaining with Montrose, Spottiswood was present at the battle of Philiphaugh on 13 September 1645, and was taken prisoner. He was carried to Glasgow, and removed thence to St. Andrews, where he was tried by parliament on the charge of having purchased the office of secretary without the consent of the estates, and also with having joined with Montrose against the state. Sir Robert pleaded that he had taken the office of secretary at the king's command, temporarily and under pressure of necessity, and he urged that, though he had been with Montrose, he had not borne arms, and also that he had received quarter when he submitted himself. On 10 January 1646, the case came on for hearing. The last defence was repelled and, after long debate, Spottiswood was sentenced to death on 16 January. He was executed at the market cross of St. Andrews. On the scaffold, he maintained his customary courage and dignity. He was not allowed to address the spectators, but he had his speech printed beforehand, and it was distributed among the multitude. A copy of it is printed in the memoir preceding the 'Practicks,' and also in Wishart's edition of the 'Memoirs of Montrose.’

The character of Spottiswood has been variously estimated according to the sectarian predilections of his critics. While Wishart describes him as a martyr whose chief crime was being the son of the archbishop, Baillie denounces him as a partial and corrupt judge, and seems to regard his violent end as a meet punishment for his alleged unfairness to Lord Balmerino. Modern opinion inclines to the decision that Spottiswood was the victim of the presbyterian hatred of Charles I.

Sir Robert's only work is his 'Practicks of the Law of Scotland,' the manuscript of which is now in the Advocates' Library, Edinburgh. It was published by his grandson, John Spottiswood, advocate, in 1706, with a memoir.


  • Dictionary of National Biography,1885–1900, volume 53
Political offices
Preceded by
The Duke of Hamilton
Secretary of State, Scotland
With: The Duke of Hamilton
Succeeded by
The Earl of Lothian
Legal offices
Preceded by
Sir James Skene of Curriehill
Lord President of the Court of Session
Succeeded by
Sir John Gilmour of Craigmillar