The origin of the Douglas family

The original Douglas was a William de Duglas who is recorded as having witnessed a charter by the Bishop of Glasgow in 1175. Probably of Norman or Flemish origin (although no one is quite certain) he derived his name from the Vale of Duglas or Douglas in (Douglas being most likely derived from the Brythonic 'du' and 'glas' meaning 'Black water'.) There was a later William Douglas known as 'le Hardi' who fought and died for William Wallace in 1298, and his son James Douglas known as 'Good Sir James' who was one of the staunchest supporters of Robert the Bruce, and is thus sometimes ranked third in the pantheon of Scottish patriots.

James had a brother Archibald Douglas, killed at the battle of Halidon Hill in 1333, whose son William Douglas was created the first Earl of Douglas in 1358; receiving the lands of his kinsman William Douglas, Knight of Liddesdale whom he had earlier killed at Ettrick Forest in 1353. He later came into posession of the estates and the earldom of Mar through his marriage with Margaret, sister and heiress of Thomas, 9th Earl of Mar in 1374, and as Justiciar of Scotland south of the Forth, spent much of his later life either raiding in England or defending against English counter-raids.

On his death in May 1384 he was succeeded by his son James, whose tenure was brief as he was killed at the battle of Otterburn in 1388. As James died without issue the earldom and entailed estates of Douglas passed in accordance with the terms of the original patent of 1358 into the hands of Archibald Douglas, who was the llegitimate son of the 'Good Sir James' previously mentioned.

Oddly enough the 1st Earl William Douglas had an illegitimate son of his own. Not content with marrying the former Earl of Mar's sister he had also entered into a relationship with Thomas's widow Margaret Stewart. As Margaret was the Countess of Angus in her own right she arranged for their son George Douglas to inherit the earldom of Angus. Thus George, the illegitimate son of the 1st Earl became the founder of the Red Douglas branch of the family, whilst Archibald Douglas the illegitimate son of the 1st Earl's uncle became the founder of the Black Douglas line.

The Black Douglas

Archibald Douglas was already a substantial landowner in his own right having become the Lord of Galloway in 1369, purchased the earldom of Wigtown in 1372 and later acquired the Lordship of Bothwell through marriage to its heiress Joanna Moray. Known as 'Archibald the Grim' the 3rd Earl thus grew to be the most powerful figure of his time whose influence and authority far outweighed that of the rather ineffectual Robert III. In 1399 he married his daughter, Marjory Douglas to David Stewart, Duke of Rothesay, Robert's eldest son and heir, upsetting the previous arrangements made between the king and the Earl of March, having already married his eldest son in 1390 to Margaret Stewart, eldest daughter of Robert III.

Archibald the Grim was succeeded by his eldest son, Archibald, the 4th Earl. He was taken prisoner by the Percys after defeat at the battle of Homildon Hill, later fought on behalf of his captors at the battle of Shrewsbury in 1403, when was again taken prisoner by the victor Henry IV. Eventually released in 1409 he was later to be found as the leader of a force of 10,000 Scots sent to assist the French in their struggles against their common enemy, in recognition of which he was created Duke of Tourraine by the French king. But Archibald was not left to enjoy his dukedom for very long, being one of the many Scots who met their death at the battle of Verneuil in 1424.

His son naturally named Archibald, succeeded as the 5th Earl and 2nd Duke of Tourraine, although having fought on behalf of the French at the battle of Baugé in 1421 he had already received his own French title as the Count of Longueville. The 5th Earl died in 1439 and was succeeded by his son William, the 6th Earl who was scarcely more than a teenager at the time. In his desire to break the power of the Douglases, king James II summoned both William and his younger brother David to appear before William Crichton, Lord Chancellor of Scotland. The infamous 'Black Dinner' took place at Edinburgh Castle on the 24th of November 1440, when both William and David were subjected to a mock trial and condemned to death under spurious charges and summarily beheaded at the courtyard of the castle.

With the death of the 6th Earl, whilst the Douglas lands and earldom passed into the hands of William's great-uncle James Douglas of Balvany, (a younger son of the 3rd Earl of Douglas, and himself the Earl of Avondale since 1437), those of Bothwell, Wigtown and Galloway passed into the hands of William's sister Margaret, Fair Maid of Galloway', thus dividing the inheritance built up by Archibald the Grim. (The distinction here is between lands entailed on the male line, and those not subject to such an entail and thus inherited in accordance with common law of Scotland.)

It was James Douglas' son William Douglas who succeeded as the 8th Earl in 1444 who did much to re-establish the family's power. Armed with a papal dispensation he married his cousin, the aforementioned Fair Maid of Galloway, and thus recovered the lands of Wigtown, Galloway and Bothwell. Initially in favour with James II, the two later quarelled as result of which James murdered the Earl with his own hands on the 22nd February 1452. His brother James Douglas succeeded him as the 9th Earl and although James initially took up arms against his brother's killers but was soon forced to submit to the king. The Earl however continued to conspire against the king and in 1455 he rebelled once more, but much of his promised support deserted him whilst his kinsman George Douglas, 4th Earl of Angus took sides with the king. James fled to England, leaving his brothers to face the Earl of Angus who defeated them at the battle of Arkinholm on the 1st May 1455.

James Douglas was shortly therefter attainted and his titles forfeited but he remained at large in England until 1484 when he was captured while raiding southern Scotland. He was imprisoned at Lindores Abbey where he remained until his death in 1488.

So ended the line of the Black Douglas. Although George Douglas, 4th Earl of Angus, representative of the the Red Douglas branch was rewarded by the king for his valuable assistance by the grant of the Lordship of Douglas together with ancestral estates in the Vale of Douglas. The peerage dignity of Douglas thereafter remained unused until it was revived in 1633 and granted to William Douglas, 11th Earl of Angus only in the form of the Marquess of Douglas.



Title forfeit in 1455


  • The 1911 Encyclopedia Brittanica entry for DOUGLAS, EARLS OF
  • History of the Douglas Family at
  • Charles Arnold Baker The Companion to British History (Longcross Press, 1996)
  • A genealogical survey of the peerage of Britain at
  • Stirnet Genealogy at
  • The Peerages of England, Scotland, Ireland, Great Britain and the United Kingdom at

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