WILLIAM OF LOCHWINNOCH (1546-1630): A STRATEGIST FOR SPAIN
Sempill of Lochwinnoch (1546-1630), achieved his place in History as
the founder of the Scots College in Spain, which stands to this day.
Unfortunately, other facets of his life, most significantly his
political and military career, have been overlooked by historians.
Sempill, a Scottish mercenary in the service of the Prince of Orange
since 1568, betrayed his garrison in Liere in 1582 and placed his
services at the disposal of Philip II of Spain, under whom he
distinguished himself in military and diplomatic affairs,
particularly as Philip’s envoy to James VI of Scotland to
negotiate James’s collaboration with the Spanish Armada. Until
the end of his
life, he was attached to the personal suite of the succeeding Spanish
monarchs and became the most significant influence on the Spanish
naval policy during the 17th century.
Having become a naturalised Spanish subject, he
founded the Scottish College in Madrid in 1627, entrusting its
administration to the Jesuits. Sempill, a militant Catholic, was
distinguished by his progressive ideas concerning the struggle
against Protestantism, since he always believed that the
the British Isles should be accomplished through the education of its
research is the first attempt at creating a reconstruction of Colonel
William Sempill’s life and career. Sempill
suffered the fate of a servant to a famous master, in being somewhat
overshadowed not only by those he advised, but also by his own
renowned creation, the Scots College in Spain. Although few
historians have widened
their scope by including Sempill’s military and political life
in their works of the Scots College – for
example, Maurice Taylor and his The
Scots College in Spain – there has been little beyond
Fernandez Duro’s La
Armada Invencible (Madrid, 1884), who described Sempill merely as
an agent of Philip II during the period of the Great Armada.
Both works were based on the Spanish state papers,
but none had consulted Sempill’s personal letters, which have
Rev. John Geddes (later to be Vicar Apostolic of the Lowland District
in Scotland) transferred the Scots College from Madrid of to
Valladolid in 1771, he obtained possession of some “fifty
bundles of papers’ which he carried with him to Blairs College,
in Aberdeen. These manuscripts contained quite a number of papers
belonging to Sempill. Together with deeds of foundation, financial
statements of rents, burdens and transactions, there were over thirty
personal letters, various drafts of memorials, letters of
introduction, and passports.
Three decades ago, these documents were moved to
the Scottish Catholic Archives, in Edinburgh, where they have been
catalogued under “Colleges Abroad”, misleading
researchers. Apart from the Scottish Catholic Archives, another four
archives have been used for this research: the National Library of
Scotland, the British Library, the Biblioteca Nacional, Madrid and
the Public Record Office. Thus, this study, based principally on
manuscript sources and especially on William Sempill’s own
letters, intends to offer an in depth study of the figure of the
Colonel and his influence on not only Spanish, but European,
diplomatic, political and military history.
fact, William Sempill, born in Lochwinnoch in 1546, was son, perhaps
of Robert, third Earl Sempill. During his
adolescence, he belonged to the household of Mary, Queen of Scots.
After the Battle of Langside and Mary’s flight to England, he
left Scotland for the Low Countries and accepted a commission in the
service of the Prince of Orange. For some years, therefore, he fought
with the rebel forces against Spain.
In 1573, George Lord Seton and his younger son,
John, who were in the Netherlands trying to secure Spanish aid for
the Scottish Queen, were able to persuade Sempill to pass into the
service of Spain and, thereby, assist in maintaining secret contacts
between Phillip II and Mary and her supporters.
Taylor claimed that “unable to resist such
an appeal to his loyalty for his queen, he conscientiously obeyed and
dedicated the rest of his life to the task”.
Duro also affirmed that Sempill entered into the
service Spain in 1573 by order of Mary Stewart.
However, as the new evidence reveals, during the
next eight to nine years he played both sides as a double agent.
He remained in the Low Countries serving the rebel
forces as captain of a Scottish regiment in Liere,
whilst he was in illicit secret communication with
the Spanish «gobernador
general», Alexander Farnese, Duke of Parma.
On 25 March 1582, Sempill, after not having been
paid in excess of ten weeks, betrayed his garrison, delivered the
town to Parma and offered himself for the subjection of Philip II.
Liere was not a large place, but it had strategic
significance; it was regarded as “the bulwark of Antwerp and
the key of Brabant”.
In recompense for these services, Parma offered
him 70,000 ducats
and sent him to Spain to collect a reward of 2,000
ducats to be given by Philip, himself.
Sempill tells us that he declined the reward
replying that, while his own money lasted, he was content to know
that he had served the King.
At Parma’s request, he made his way to
Spain, where he could also explain to Philip how important “it
was to use Scotland against England”.
arrived in Spain at the end of April 1583, full of hopes of obtaining
Philip’s assistance for Mary and the Catholics of that nation.
Unfortunately, the Spanish monarch was preoccupied
with a rebellion in Portugal and did not have time to see him.
However, the Captain did not waste his time at the
Spanish court, whilst he was waiting to obtain an interview with
Philip, he met with Cardinal Granvelle, Secretary of State and
probably the closest person to the King at this time.
Granvelle, who was very impressed with the
determination and intelligence of the Captain, subsequently wrote a
memorandum, on 9 November, recommending the King to grant an audience
months elapsed before the interview between Philip and Sempill took
place; the Spanish King was as impressed as his minister, and decided
that Sempill would be ideal as the new intelligencer with the mission
to work as the key informant in the British Isles.
If he was going to stay in Spain and accept his
appointment, a net of agents in Scotland was needed. The documents in
the Scottish Catholic Archives reveals that Robert Graham of Fintry –
a declared Catholic and nephew to James Beaton, the Bishop of Glasgow
– and Robert Bruce – an active spy for Spain – were
chosen; Fintry, by the Scottish Catholic nobility, and Bruce, by
Both would send their reports to Sempill, who by
now had already settled at the Spanish court.
The Scottish nobility immediately sent Bruce to
Spain to collect 5,040 ducats,
which would be kept safely in Scotland to be used
at a “special time”;
this being the so-called enterprise of England.
pacification of Portugal in May 1583 had had profound political and
indeed psychological importance for Philip, bringing about a dramatic
rescheduling of his priorities in foreign affairs. Of course, Philip
still had the rebellious Netherlands on his hands, but there were
disturbing signs that he might be on his way to committing himself to
the “Enterprise of England”. Scotland’s strategic
position as England’s Achilles’ heel, and the religious
struggle within the realm was likely to lead to interference by the
European Catholic powers, an opportunity that Spain did not dare to
miss. Despite Scotland’s apparent remoteness, tucked away in
the north-west corner of the British Isles, curiously, it was her
strategic geographic position as a natural stepping-stone to England
that gave her significance. Philip was tremendously concerned with
restoring Catholicism to the British Isles, but he also knew that
instability inside them, could mean the end of English aid to the
rebels in the Netherlands and a cessation of the English piracy of
the Spanish Atlantic fleet. Moreover, Scotland could be used as a
secure base in the North Sea.
by now colonel, decided to stay in the Spanish court waiting for an
opportunity not only to advise the King, but to take a more active
His great chance came when in early January 1587,
he and Captain Baustista Piatti, an engineer from Milan, were
appointed by Philip to create maps of the coast of the British Isles
for the enterprise.
Sempill was unsuccessfully attempting to dissuade
Philip against the Armada, whilst, at the same time, trying to gain
the position as the official adviser for British affairs in the
The Colonel feared that the Spanish invasion of
the British Isles could be seen by the Pope and Catholics everywhere
as Philip’s pan-European expansionism and insisted that the
same results could be achieved with less expenditure and without the
risk of failure of such a large Armada lacking a friendly port at
which to land. He advised Phillip to pursue the English commerce and
instigate an indirect war against England, taking advantage of the
intelligence in Scotland by sending missionaries to preach to the
Thus, once their collaboration was secured, he
proposed to provide the Scottish nobles with money and weapons to
start a war and then use the Isle of Wight as base for the Armada to
launch a more secure invasion.
was not dissuaded, but decided to send Sempill to Paris to serve
Mendoza and advise him and Parma on his dealings with the Scottish
Catholic nobles in light of the proposed enterprise against England.
Even though Sempill was now away from the court,
with Mendoza and Parma being amongst the chief architects behind the
proposed invasion, Sempill’s intelligence and opinions still
had a direct influence on the planning process. In November 1587,
before his arrival, Philip wrote to Mendoza, warning him to be
cautious in dealing with Sempill, as, in spite of his apparent zeal,
he was nevertheless “very Scotch”.
He arrived in Paris in mid-December,
and not had a complete month passed, when Mendoza
reported to Philip that he found Sempill more trustworthy than most
Scotsmen of either sword or gown.
As a consequence, the Colonel was busily employed
in the secret negotiations then being carried out with the Catholic
nobles of Scotland.
clear from Sempill’s own letters that although he was not
supportive of an armada, he also knew that
the conversion of the British Isles to Catholicism could only be
achieved by a Spanish invasion at this time. Thus, in many of his
letters, he deceived the English and Scottish Catholics exiled in
Paris, who still believed that it could be obtained by James VI’s
Sempill’s open opposition to the Scottish
candidature to the English throne gained him many enemies not only
amongst the leaders of the Catholics exiled in Paris, Lord Paget and
Thomas Morgan, but even among the Scottish Jesuits, as for example
Father William Crichton, and some Scottish Catholic nobles, such as
the earl of Huntly, who was a close friend of James VI. Thus, it was
rather surprising that, when at the end of January 1588 Lord Maxwell
arrived in Paris to try to convince Mendoza of James VI’s good
disposition towards Catholicism, the Spanish ambassador decided that
Sempill should go to Scotland in a final attempt to persuade James to
join Spain in the enterprise.
a month before the Armada was launched, Sempill and Maxwell set sail
for Scotland, landing in Dundee in late July.
Immediately upon arrival, Sempill organised a
meeting with the Scottish Catholic nobility in Glasgow.
The evidence indicates that he had been led to
believe that a Spanish army would be welcomed in the realm, since his
sources, mainly Scottish missionaries, had assured him that over half
of the population of Scotland were Catholics.
However, as he wrote, he immediately found it
apparent that there was no united Catholic party in Scotland and that
the number of Catholics in the realm given by the missionaries was
far from reality.
The Spanish diplomatic and political threat to
England, Scotland and Protestantism was less extreme than he might
have supposed because the power of Catholicism in Scotland had been
weakened so by internal dissensions.
Sempill and Maxwell had to convince the Scottish
lords to wait until the Armada reached Scotland and then, and only
then, create a diversion by taking up arms and seizing the port of
Sempill carried with him 500 gold ducats, which
would pay for 300 men for the proposed revolt.
Maxwell believed that the Armada would not sail,
and proposed that the Scots seize the initiative themselves. But many
others knew that without Spanish support such a plot was impossible
and dismissed his opinion.
Sempill had already met with Sorley Boy Macdonnell,
Hugh O’Neil and Rory O’Donnell,
leaders of the Irish discontents.
Moreover, the threat of revolt in Scotland was
boosted by the presence of the Jesuit Father William Chisholm –
the bishop of Dunblane – who had been sent by Parma to assist
Sempill in his dealings in that realm and with the preparations for
the approach of the Armada.
On 5 August, Huntly wrote to Parma urging for the
enterprise and complaining of the sluggishness of the “Spanish
the Scottish Catholic noblemen were being seized by anxiety, Sempill
was trying to obtain an interview with James VI.
Duro claimed that Sempill was sent as a special
envoy of the Spanish King to offer him 42,000 gold ducats for
revenging the death of his mother.
Father George Conn, however, suggested that the
Spanish monarch’s final intention was to dispatch an agent to
the Scottish King in order to carry out negotiations for the intended
marriage of James with the Spanish Infanta.
In fact, Sempill tells us that he had been sent
with two commissions, a public one for James, and a secret commission
“to be used for the benefit of the Spanish crown, to lead the
nobility when the army from Flanders would come into the island”.
actual public and the secret letters of commission that Sempill
carried from Philip II to James VI which are among Sempill’s
letters in the Scottish Catholic Archives. The secret commission is,
in political terms, much more interesting, since there are two
documents that the Colonel denoted as secret commissions from Philip
to negotiate with James before the arrival of the Armada.
first secret letter of commission had seven clauses for James: the
first one was that he should renounce any right – civil, divine
or by conquest – that he would have to the crowns of England
and Ireland. In return, Philip would compensate him with 100,000
ducats before the beginning the Spanish invasion of England. In
addition, during the said war there would be sent 12,000 paid and
armed soldiers, or a combination of troops and money, or even money
alone, depending on Philip’s desire. Also, Philip would have an
ambassador in Scotland to deal with issues of war or peace.
second letter was more focussed on religious matters. Its first, and
most important, clause was the conversion of James and his realm to
Catholicism; thus, pardoning the Catholics in his realm, calling
those from exile to return and restoring their goods, estates and
honours. In addition, he would grant liberty of conscience and
protect all the English Catholics who would pass to his country.
Politically, James would have to sign a defensive
and offensive league with Philip; and wage war against Elizabeth in
Scotland, England, and Ireland. For this, he would give order for all
the Scottish soldiers, captains, pilots and men of war in general,
serving in Holland and Zeeland, to abandon the English and all the
other enemies of Spain. James would also have to help Spain with
10,000 paid soldiers in the war in Flanders. Thus, James would send
two noblemen from his kingdom as ambassadors, to reside in Spain and
Flanders. Once the war in those lands was finished, he would aid,
with the same number of men, in the war against the Turks. Finally,
James would have to pledge his future son to be carried to Spain.
reports of the English intelligence system did not shed much light on
the aims of the final secret commission given to Sempill. Yet,
William Asheby informed Sir Francis Walsingham that “the offers
of the Spaniards are great – to give him pay for 20,000 footmen
and 5,000 horses”.
This seems to point towards the first commission,
as it was of a more military and political nature. Unfortunately,
there is no record now of what was said in this meeting between James
and Sempill. Duro affirmed that the King, trying to gain the
assistance of Sempill, promised him the earldom of the Hebrides, but
he never mentioned such offer when relating his meeting with the King
Nevertheless, just after their interview, word
reached the country of the failure of the Armada; as a result, James
refused Philip’s offers, or exigencies, which had been
presented by Sempill and ordered his arrest.
August, the Spanish fleet was beaten, but the fear of the invasion
was still casting a shadow on a confusing time in Scotland. It was
believed that the Armada was going to “bend there course to
some part of Scotland and joyne with the northern lordes, which are
combined together, and have had intelligence along tyme with the
Prince of Parma, beyng solicited by Coronall Simple of this
On 12 August, Elizabeth was informed
that a cockboat had landed in Scotland with twelve Spaniards who were
conveyed to meet with Sempill in Edinburgh,
with the intention of forcing James VI to leave
Once in the burgh, the Spaniards had a conference
with Sempill, but this secret interview was discovered. They were
arrested and put under ward. Once in prison, they confessed that
there were 100 soldiers with victuals and munitions in their ship.
Sempill escaped and took to the road in great haste for the house of
the earl of Bothwell, in Creighton, eight miles from Edinburgh. Sir
James Carmichael pursued, apprehended him, and brought him back to
Edinburgh to be examined by the Council. James VI decided to commit
Sempill to the same prison as Maxwell was imprisoned in after his
rebellion of the previous May, and subsequently committed Maxwell to
the Black Ness.
was imprisoned in an uppermost apartment of a seven storey house in
the Grassmarket in Edinburgh, owned by one Robert Gourlay,
and was under the vigilance of four sentinels who
remained at all times with him in the room.
Obviously, any diplomatic immunity, which he had
previously enjoyed, was removed. Parma, without any scruple, did not
hesitate in leaving the agent without any support, despite their long
Parma sent a letter to James VI concerning Colonel
Sempill and his behaviour in Scotland, alleging “he dealt
further than he had commission”.
on in his life, the Colonel left a very romantic account of his epic
escape among his documents. According to Sempill, plans were made to
extract a confession from him that might implicate many Scottish
Catholics, but, before that could take place, he escaped, with the
aid of the Earl of Huntly, Robert Bruce and Sempill’s own
sister, Helen Sempill – the
Countess of Ross.
According to him, Helen sent him by means of a
trusty servant what appeared to be three large pies, forewarning him
that only two were in reality pies, and being the third one a silken
cord covered with paste. The servant informed him that he was
condemned to die on the following day, after being made to suffer the
torture of the boot, to make him denounce his accomplices; that in
consequence, if he wished to save his life, it was necessary that he
should make his escape by the window of the prison that night, and
that he would find horses ready at the South Gate. He knew how to
avail himself of this means of escape. At night-fall, he divided the
two pies among the soldiers, and, for this kindness, they consented
to leave him alone while he said his accustomed prayers; he
immediately fastened his door, placed his bedstead at the window, and
having tied the cord to it, and put on his gloves, he began to
descend. On account of his corpulence and the extreme thinness of the
cord, his flesh was cut causing the most acute pain, and he was on
the verge of abandoning the cord and letting himself fall to the
ground, when his foot struck upon a balcony. After resting upon it
for a short time, he reached the ground in safety. He now found
himself in a garden, the wall of which, on account of the inequality
of the ground, was low inside, but higher away from the building.
Before him was the Grassmarket, guarded by soldiers. In this
difficulty, with great presence of mind and assisted by the darkness
of the night, he resolved to act the drunkard, and throwing himself
into a pool which adjoined the enclosure, he purposely besmeared his
clothes and face, and bespattered the soldiers with mud; they
believed him to be drunk, and after a few kicks allowed him to pass.
Sempill’s escape from custody, an order was issued on 20
August by the Privy Council of Scotland against the Colonel,
“who had come on a pretended mission from the Prince of Parma
and had been trafficking treasonably with His Majesty’s
Sempill was able to avoid his persecutors, and
just before departing from Scotland, met part of the nobility,
notably Huntly, Errol – who was at the time Constable of
Scotland – and Lord Hamilton – a protestant but friend of
Mary Queen of Scot’s.
Of the 500 gold ducats that the Colonel had
carried with him, 100 ducats were given to Hugh O’Neil and Rory
Another 20 ducats were given to “trustworthy
friends” to be used “to buy people close to the Earl of
Bothwell, Admiral of Scotland and cousin of the King, to covert him
Fintry and Bruce would continue as intermediaries
for the correspondence between Spain and the Scottish Catholic
According to Sempill, in the same meeting, it was
also agreed that letters signed by the Catholic nobles would be
substituted by ciphered letters, with a code that was designed by
Sempill himself before he left Scotland, or that in grave occasions,
Fintry or Bruce would go in person to Spain or the Low Countries with
a letter of reference.
Sempill arrived at Flanders, he visited Parma. He wanted to make sure
that if James VI decided to arrest the Catholic nobility there, the
same amount of money that had been provided by Mendoza and the Duke
of Alba years before – 5,040 ducats – would be sent again
Sempill had understood that Parma’s actions
when the Armada were politically correct, but he felt deceived.
Immediately after their interview he returned to Madrid, to take up
his prior role as an agent, carrying with him Parma’s
commendation and request for suitable reward.
in Madrid, with Sempill as the coordinator, the net of espionage
seemed to work perfectly. In dealing with his agents Sempill had
always exercised great care. They made use of ciphered letters, which
he normally decrypted in person. However, even coded letters did not
prevent the secret correspondence from being discovered. On 27
February 1589, Thomas Pringle – Sempill’s servant –
was arrested in England with several letters from some Scottish
Catholic earls. Immediately, Elizabeth informed James of the
treasonable correspondence maintained by some of his subjects.
At the end of February, the Privy Council of
Scotland delivered to the English ambassador a collection of
deciphered letters that had been seized from a Scottish man, who was
suspected of trying to carry them to Parma and Philip II.
The letters were from Errol, Huntly, Crawford,
Maxwell, Claude Hamilton and Bruce regretting the failure of the
Spanish Armada a year before and offering, if aided by 6,000
Spaniards, to co-operate in a new invasion of England.
Whilst being interrogated by Walsingham, Pringle
confessed that Sempill had dispatched him from Flanders six weeks
first enclosure was a collective letter of the “Scottish Lords
to the King of Spain”, dated 14 January 1589, and written in
French in which, after expressing their regret for the failure of the
Armada, they solicited Philip II to renew his invasion of the Isle by
way of Scotland, assuring that with the aid of 6,000 Spanish soldiers
and money, within six weeks of their arrival they should be well
advanced inside England; and they would quickly have completed the
invasion of the Isle. Finally, they claimed that Sempill knew all the
details of this plan.
The second letter was a long dispatch from Bruce
to Parma, dated 24 January 1589. Bruce confirmed Parma’s
delivery of 6,272 crowns and 3,700 pistols by Father Chisholm.
Part of the money was given to Lord Livingston,
and the rest was kept in Edinburgh to aid, if needed, the Catholic
nobles. Moreover, Bruce declared that Bothwell, although Protestant,
was “extremely desirous to aid you against England”,
assuring that Bothwell had offered to leave his country in order to
offer himself to Parma, and afterwards to Philip.
The next letter was a response from Huntly to
Parma’s letter sent with Father Chisholm, on 13 October 1588.
There was, also, a letter from Errol to Parma,
asking him “to assure him [Philip II] on my behalf that he has
no servant in this land more devoted than I”.
The last two enclosures were directed to Sempill;
the first letter by Chisholm.
March, the Privy Council, convening at Holyroodhouse, issued a
summons for Fintry, who was also suspected of being involved.
Fintry and Pringle were imprisoned and as a result
the Spanish net of intelligence in Scotland was not completely
broken, but seriously damaged. On 24 May 1589, Huntly,
Bothwell and Crawford were charged with trafficking with Sempill,
Bruce, Hay, and Crichton from whom “they had received foreign
money to execute some treasonable practise against the presente
was requested by the Catholic nobility of Scotland to go with a
commission to Philip to Spain. Firstly, Sempill had to declare the
little hope that there was that of James’s Catholic conversion.
He himself believed that James “had consent the martyrdom of
his own mother”.
Thus, he had to remind Philip of the importance of
Scotland for being able to move against England. Subsequently, he had
to make a study of the ports, beaches or any other places where an
army could disembark; how money – especially for Bothwell –
as well as weapons and munitions could be sent without being
intercepted by the English.
beginning of June, Sempill and Bruce decided to travel to the Spanish
court, to try to convince Philip that a new armada was needed, while
Boyd and Crichton would similarly approach Parma in the Netherlands.
Due to the death of Cardinal Granvelle, Sempill
was remitted to don Cristobal de Moura, who ordered him to accompany
Philip to Tarazona as an adviser.
Parma was more anxious than the Spanish King for
new action in Scotland. Philip was not convinced, and believed that
more information was needed, before taking such a drastic decision.
Sempill presented an unrealistic plan to Philip on “the estate
of the Catholic religion in the kingdom on Scotland”, which
proposed invading the kingdom with 3,000 men who would land in
Once there, Sempill assured:
Para esta empressa no
sera menester mas de tres mil hombres de socorro que abran de
desembarcar en las yslas de orhnay las quales siendo fuertes de suyo
se podran hazer en poco tiempo imprenables de mas de que son fertiles
y abundantes de todas cosas necesarias para el sustento del numero
sobre dicho y muy cercanas de las fuerças de los de mas
principales y poderosos catolicos de escoçia entre los quales
es el conde de Cathenes mi hermano ques siglear de todas las tierras
de Cathenas que son mas çerca de las yslas de orknay y puede
acudirnos con quatro mill hombres.
both armies united, they would pass into the Firth of Forth, which
according to Sempill, would be impossible for the enemy to cross with
cavalry or infantry because of its great volume of water, thus, they
would be forced to enter through the mountain of Athol, which could
easily be defended. Consequently, he pointed out that there were
several advantages to the plan: firstly, that liberty of conscience
would be granted for the Catholics; secondly, the expenses provoked
to the Protestants by the levy of their army would not allow them to
aid the rebels in the Netherlands, nor attack the Spanish fleet
coming from America; and finally, and more importantly, once
Elizabeth died, Philip would be the only successor to her crown.
over optimistic plan was the response to Philip’s declining
interest in Scotland. The Spanish King had clearly expressed his
reticence to send a new armada against England via Scotland without
native support inside the realm; moreover, Ireland was proving a more
appealing route. But the riots of 1591 in Madrid, Toledo and Seville
became Philip’s priority.
Philip did not forget about Scotland, and he wanted to extend his net
of informers and also appoint full time agents and Sempill was
charged with this commission. His recommendation was passed to Philip
in the winter of 1590; thus, Francis Mowbray, George Kerr, William
Hamilton and George Conn, became pensioners of the crown of Spain.
By June, Kerr was sent from the Netherlands back
to Scotland with letters from Sempill, Boyd, Bruce and Crichton.
English had been suspicious of Kerr’s expeditions to and from
Flanders for more than one year.
In April 1591, he had been sent to Flanders by the
Scottish Catholic nobility.
In May, he had returned to Scotland with letters
from Sempill, Boyd and Bruce for the Catholic nobles.
But on 27 December, Kerr was arrested carrying
eight blanks, subscribed by Angus, Huntly, or Errol; some jointly by
all three; and some by the three earls and Adam Gordon of
Aunchindoun. They were not directed to any person in particular, yet
by the humble words in the subscriptions they seem to be addressed to
December, Kerr was brought to Edinburgh.
While he was being interrogated, rumours spread of
the imminent arrival of 7,000 invading soldiers from Spain, under the
command of the Duke of Pastrana.
The news of the conspiracy worried Elizabeth, who
immediately wrote to James to “rake it to the bottom”.
Merely one day after Kerr was imprisoned in
Tollbooth until the authorities could determine his involvement and
By mid-January, Kerr had already confessed that
the blanks were part of a plot for a new Spanish invasion of England
using Scotland as a base. The people he accused of being implicated
were Huntly, Angus and Errol; Fintry, who was imprisoned at the time
in Stirling Castle; the Jesuit Fathers James Gordon and Robert
Abercorn, at that time in Scotland; and Crichton and Sempill, who
were working in Spain.
January, Kerr affirmed that the blanks were letters of credit given
to him by the Scottish Catholic earls, to be passed on to Philip II,
the Pope and others, requesting for a Spanish ambassador to be sent
to Scotland “with money to relieve the Jesuits and instruments
travailing here […] and to entertain the noblemen, courtiers
and parties favouring the cause, and to tempt the King himself”.
after this harsh blow to the Spanish intelligence system in Scotland,
Sempill was suspected to have passed into Scotland to reorganise his
net of agents,
allegedly he arrived in Scotland at the end of
In the autumn, James VI reported to Robert Bowes
that he had received offers from Parma on behalf of Philip II.
Sempill, the messenger, had told James that Philip would provide
40,000 ducats to be delivered to Bothwell, for distribution between
him and the Scottish Catholics.
According to Sempill, Parma’s sudden death
at the beginning of December 1592 was what had halted these
Finally, the Colonel, departed from a port near
Seton at the end of December.
rumours of new Spanish plots rapidly increased during the summer of
It was said that Sempill had travelled from Spain
to Newhaven, in France; and from there to the Water of Clyde, in the
west of Scotland. Supposedly, he carried with him gold for the
Catholic earls. However, Sempill had in fact not left Spain.
The entire international political scene had been
transformed by the assassination of Henry III on 2 August. The
proclamation of Henry of Navarre – the
Huguenot leader – as King of France
forced Philip to concentrate all his efforts on France. As a result,
his plans for an invasion of the British Isles once again were
but secret reports from France remarked upon the
“great preparations of the King of Spain’s ships both by
land and sea” in France and Brittany.
This same source had assured that not only had the
Governor of Bloy Castle [near Bordeaux] sent ships to Spain for
supplies of gun powder, but he was also going to give shelter to the
eight hundred heavy ships that were to sail from Spain for Scotland
before the following October. The reports had claimed that Spain
would “cause the Scottish ships to fight against the English
ships “by extremity”. Supposedly, three ships were ready
at the port of Leith to set sail for Spain.
On 22 December 1593, Robert Bowes finally
confirmed to Burghley that he had been assured that an army was being
prepared in Spain to embark for Scotland, but that the Scottish
nobility had asked Philip through Sempill not only to send an army
from Spain, but also to send another from the Low Countries.
the Scottish Catholic nobility, with their leaders on the continent
since the three rebel earls had been exiled by the government because
of their involvement in the “Spanish Blanks” affair, had
seen themselves forced to conciliate with James;
but, secretly had informed Sempill that they would
be ready for “whatever the Spanish king wanted”. Sempill
reported these words to Philip II, however, the Spanish king, “being
misinformed by English priests in Spain, did not reply to their
The Colonel decided to have the 5,040 pounds
withdrawn from Scotland, which had been given years earlier to Bruce,
who handed the money to Philip’s officials in Flanders.
1597, Philip had recognised that the policy he had pursued towards
England and Scotland, and his many attempts to interfere in their
internal affairs, had failed. In his disillusionment, the King was
finally convinced to use Ireland instead of
Scotland for his plans, starting to support the earl of Tyrone’s
Sempill still refused to accept the situation that
seemed forced upon him and continued presenting proposals to the King
in order to attract his attention towards Scotland. But
these proposals came to nothing since, in September 1598, Philip
the following five years, Sempill spent most of his time writing
memorandums to Philip III trying to convince him to follow his
father’s steps by trying to re-establish Catholicism in the
British Isles and to send missionaries to Scotland.
When in March 1603 Elizabeth died, James was
invited to become King James I of England.
In 1604, Philip III and James signed a peace
Under these circumstances, it was clear that Spain
was not in a situation to aid the dissidents in Scotland any longer.
Only the last of the believers, Sempill, refused
to accept the situation.
remained as the main expert on British affairs at the Spanish court.
Philip III, however, preferred to keep peaceful relations with
England, which meant that his interest in Scotland declined.
Nevertheless, he kept the Spanish King regularly informed concerning
Scottish affairs with series of memorandums stressing the necessity
of aiding Scotland, militarily and religiously.
Although, he knew that Philip was not going to
undertake a military enterprise, as his father had done. His efforts
were not in vain. Sempill was conscious of the primary necessity of
maintaining the ineffable «reputación de España»
[Spanish reputation] at sea; thus, in the early seventeenth century
he became the “father of the Spanish
In fact, his ideas on maritime defence were one of
his greatest achievements.
The outbreak of Bohemian rebellion in 1618
expanded the scope of his duties to include being adviser for the
affairs of north-western Europe.
He was invited before the Council of State in 1618
by Philip to discuss these issues.
However as early as January of that year, he had
written to the Spanish King recommending that “without doubt,
Spain had to prepare for renewed hostilities against the Dutch on
land”, but revenge against these “rebels, fishermen, a
godless people” could be most effectively achieved at sea.
Thus, it might also, he hoped, be combined with a new armada, which
would invade and re-catholicise Scotland via her east coast ports.
December 1619, Sempill provided a memorandum for Philip showing
recognition of the importance of obtaining support in the southern
Baltic for Spanish maritime policy. Sempill had come to the
conclusion that there was only one choice for Castile with regard to
foreign policy: to concentrate her efforts on the land war that was
erupting in central Europe and attempt to gain the Austrian
Habsburgs’ support further west following the cessation of the
treaty with the Dutch, due to expire in three years time. He
advocated the equipping of a new armada of 100 ships, which were to
be formed into four separate squadrons.
He suggested that this particular fleet should
embark from the port of Ferrol, on Spain’s north-western coast,
for “the northern seas”, where it could be employed to
“disturb the trade and fisheries of the enemies in those
parts”; thereby wreaking havoc on the commercial networks of
the powers in this region. Sempill explicitly referred to Dutch and
English merchants as the principal opponents of the house of Austria
in the North Sea and the Baltic.
But Sempill was, in both plans, not envisaging the
sending of this Armada to the Baltic, but rather to the waters near
Orkney, where the English and the Dutch had their fisheries, thus
introducing once again his life-long obsession of a Spanish
intervention against England in Scottish territory.
But as Sempill tells us, his plan was once again
August 1620, Sempill’s approach changed completely. His pleas
subsequently became quite frantic, and he blatantly contradicted his
previous advice. The Colonel now proposed not only a wider
declaration of war “against all the heretics of Germany, the
United Provinces and England” but an abandonment of all support
for the land campaign being fought by Ferdinand II.
Scotland was barely mentioned by Sempill in his
reports before the death of Philip III and during the accession of
Philip IV in 1621.
regeneration of the Spanish monarchy and its reputation were the two
principal ideas that constituted the central element of the new
government of Philip IV. His obsession was to break with the image of
Spanish decline, by restoring it to the image of the Spain of the
Catholic Kings or of Philip II.
Sempill still believed that an active war against
England was the only way to stop the English support for the Dutch
revolt and to secure the arrival of gold and silver from America;
thus, solving the financial wreckage of the Spanish treasury arcs.
However, the possibility of a marriage between the
Prince of Wales and a sister of Philip IV in 1623 pushed Spain
towards more amicable relations with England. Sempill opposed this
marriage, about which he bitterly wrote to the conde-duque of
Olivares, minister and valido [court favourite] of Philip IV.
negotiations for this marriage did not succeed and when Philip IV
claimed, in a session of the Council of State on 8 February 1625,
that “Spain should keep in guard against England maintaining
the contacts with the discontents in Ireland and Scotland”,
Sempill thought that his time had come. Only two
days later, he presented a discourse “on the illnesses of the
Spanish monarchy” to Philip IV.
This discourse was followed by two memorandums;
the first directed to the Spanish monarch in which he suggested a new
military attack against England.
The second, in exactly the same terms, was
directed to Olivares.
The Spanish interests in Scotland was revived
after the Stewart-Spanish Habsburg war over Cadiz broke out in
November 1625, but because of the Spanish involvement in the Thirty
Years War, which was bleeding the royal treasury arcs, once again his
proposals were dismissed.
the next five years, most of his efforts were spent in the attempt to
stir up discontent amongst Catholics in Scotland and Ireland and in
establishing the Scots College in Spain.
Sempill, disappointed with the progress of his
situation in the court, decided to open a college “because if
the Catholic religion wanted to be maintained in Scotland, there must
be a place where the catholic nobles can send their children to be
For this, he used the house of Jacomotrezo in
Madrid, a property that Philip III had granted to him in 1613 as an
equivalent of the sums due to him in arrears of salaries and pensions
This house he designed and endowed as a college
for the education of Catholic missionaries who were to be drawn from
the gentry of Scotland, and by preference from members of his own
family. The government of the college was to be in the hands of the
Jesuit fathers. The original deed of foundation and endowment was
dated 10 May 1623;
however, the Scots College in Madrid was not
finally opened until June 1627.
Although the College occupied most of his time, he
never abandoned the idea of a Spanish military action in the Isle.
lived to a great age, occupying the office of «gentil hombre de
la boca de su Majestad»,
to the King at the Spanish court, and busying
himself with the affairs of the Catholic missionaries in Scotland to
whose support he liberally contributed, as is shown by the letter of
Father Archangel Leslie, addressed to the Colonel, dated 20 June
1630, printed in the Historical Records of the Family of Leslie.
March 1630, Sempill declared that he had for a long time been
thinking about his retirement. Already during the reign of Philip III
he had appointed the laird of Fintry, pensioner of the Spanish crown,
as a possible successor, however, Fintry, whose main attraction for
the Spaniards was that he claimed to be the head of one of the oldest
noble families of Scotland, had died a few years before. Francis
Mombray, who had been thought of as possible candidate for a long
time, had been beheaded. Also, George Kerr, who had been entertained
in the Spanish court with a pension of 100 crowns per month, was
dead. Thus, he now appointed another five possible candidates which
he believed suitable for the position. The first was William Hay, the
brother of the Constable of Scotland; Lord Hamilton, living in
Ireland at that time, brother of the Earl of Abercrombie and the Earl
James Sempill, his own nephew in Scotland; George
Leslie, living in England; and George Conn, who was settled in Rome.
died in his house of Jacomotrezo on 1 March 1630, at the age of
eighty-seven. Philip IV, knowing the necessity of acquiring a new
advisor, had his eyes on Colonel Leslie, a second son from the third
marriage of the tenth baron of Balquhain, near Inverurie,
who had had a surprisingly similar career to
Colonel Sempill’s. By 1624, Leslie had left Scotland and was in
the service of the United Provinces of the northern Netherlands.
Nevertheless, by 1630, he was fighting on the side of Ferdinand II.
However, Leslie was more interested in maintaining
his position with the emperor, and declined the offer to act as
Finally by 1631, Philip IV did not see the
necessity anymore of having a Scottish adviser entertained at the
Spanish court in Madrid, making William Sempill the first and the
last Scotsman ever to hold this position.
words remain to be said regarding William Sempill and the motives
behind his actions. We have long been familiar with the
picture of the typical intelligencer of the sixteenth and seventeenth
centuries, as the traditional historiography has been commonly
represented him, that he was motivated by one motive in all his
conduct – the desire to lay his hands on money. However, as
this research has revealed, William Sempill was no man of a single
motive. Money was clearly not his incentive as his
letters have revealed: he not only rejected Philip II´s money
from the very beginning, but he used his life’s savings to open
the Scots College in Spain.
As we have seen in the
previous pages, Sempill advised the Spanish kings on British matters
for over forty years, but he always did it for what he believed to be
the good of his motherland. He understood the Scottish Catholics’
situation, and so he shrank from the very thought of responsibility
in having to help them to reinstate Catholicism back in the British
Isles. He was conscious of the religiousness of the Spanish monarchs,
and quite understandably, on many occasions tried to exploit it. It
is this use of his strategic position as adviser to the Spanish
rulers what previous historiography has implied as lack of loyalty
Indeed, loyalty was still a rudimentary feeling through the period
under study, but in indicting Sempill for lack of loyalty, we are in
fact arraigning him for a crime which is in truth pointless to lay
specifically at his door, since as this article proves, he was a man
of deep loyalty, not only to those he served and his motherland, but
also to his beliefs.
evaluating Sempill’s influence in Spanish politics, the final
question that has to be answered is whether he accomplished the
purpose for which he started to work for Spain. The answer is
negative. Apart from a few minor successes, Sempill’s
intentions to convert Scotland back to Catholicism and turn it into
the springboard for the enterprise of England, or in any case
persuade the Spanish monarchs to intervene in Scottish politics, was
a complete failure. Sempill’s
intrigues in Scotland did not involve any wars of religion; there had
only been two rather half-hearted rebellions and some occasional
demonstrations of force, as the case of Lord Maxwell’s two
revolts or the «Spanish Blanks» affair. However, as
paradoxical at it seems, Sempill’s failures had taught him the
necessity for Spain to strengthen its maritime power. Thus, he became
the greatest influence on the rebuilding of the Spanish navy in the
clear that when Colonel William Sempill died in 1630, contemporaries
certainly believed that a great figure had passed on and that the
political landscape had shifted substantially with his death.
In truth, Sempill’s death had changed
the very nature of Spanish politics. Religious
controversies did not cease in 1630 and religious motives in
political affairs were prominent of years to come, but the biggest
step toward a predominantly secular approach to Spain’s
political affairs towards British Isles had been taken.