Marrying up

The ruins of Cadzow Castle.

In reviewing some late fourteenth- and early fifteenth-century marriages in the Livingston family in Scotland, I was struck by a pair of alliances that must have been important to the Livingstons of that era. This review also underlined my impression that the records of that period – and the later accounts based on those records – can be a challenge, since all too often the compilers shrug and offer “(?) daughter of ______ Somebody of Somewhere” by way of identification.

The fourteenth-century Livingston family, which would achieve national prominence during the next century, was clearly a rising clan, interested in marrying into established families. The marriage of Sir William Livingston (d. 1364) to the heiress of Callendar in Stirlingshire – descended, somehow, from the feudal Earls of Lennox – was an important match, while in the next generation his son Sir John Livingston (d. 1402) married twice. Sir John’s first wife was an unnamed daughter of John Menteith of Kerse, Renfrewshire, kin to the High Stewards of Scotland (and from 1371 the Stewart Kings of Scotland). For his second wife, Sir John made a curious match – at least from our vantage point.

In a contract dated 15 August 1381, Sir John – a man of adult years – married Agnes Douglas, (the elder?) daughter of Sir James Douglas of Dalkeith, Midlothianshire, and his first wife Agnes Dunbar, who married about 1372! Agnes Douglas was not her father’s heiress – she had brothers and a sister – but in marrying her Livingston was allying himself with more powerful families, as Agnes’s stepmother was Egidia Stewart, the half-sister of King Robert II, who must have been older than Sir James (and old enough to be Agnes’s grandmother).[1]

Sir John Livingston had children by both wives, and the Livingston family in America descends from both families: the son and heir, Sir Alexander Livingston (d. 1450), was by the first wife, William Livingston of Kilsyth, Lanarkshire (d. before 1460) by the second. Given Agnes’s age at marriage, it is likely that her children were born in the 1380s or ‘90s.

Her sister, Jacoba (or Janet) Douglas, made another interesting marriage, to Sir John Hamilton of Cadzow, Lanarkshire. They were married by 8 November 1388, some years after Agnes married Sir John Livingston, and they presumably had children starting about 1390.[2]

He reached the heights of power during the minority of King James II – for a few years, the Livingstons were ubiquitous – then fell as far, or further…

Agnes Douglas’s stepson, Sir Alexander Livingston, would become an important figure in fifteenth-century Scotland. He reached the heights of power during the minority of King James II – for a few years, the Livingstons were ubiquitous – then fell as far, or further; he survived one son, Alexander Livingston of Phildes (in Stirlingshire), another ancestor of the American Livingston family, who was executed in the winter of 1449/50.[3]

Sir Alexander’s children – from his marriage to a daughter of “Dundas of Dundas,” Lothianshire – were old enough to marry in the 1410s and early ‘20s, and one of them, Janet Livingston, married her connection Sir James Hamilton of Cadzow,[4] son and heir of Sir John Hamilton and Jacoba Douglas. As the Livingstons’ star rose, so did the Hamiltons’: Janet’s son James was created Lord Hamilton in the palmy days of his grandfather’s power. This Lord Hamilton neatly sidestepped the coming calamity that engulfed the Livingstons and, in due course, married Mary (Stewart), Countess of Arran, the daughter of King James II – the monarch who, as a child, had been in the power of the Livingstons.

Click on the image to expand it.

It was thanks to this Hamilton-Stewart marriage that the Hamiltons remained close to the Scottish throne through the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries: because the throne passed from one child king or queen to another, a succession of Hamiltons played outsized parts in Scottish politics as the nearest adult heirs.

Finally, a descendant reached the uneasy apogee of power, when Henry Stewart, Lord Darnley, descended from the 1st Lord Hamilton (and thus Sir Alexander Livingston and Sir James Douglas), married his cousin Mary, Queen of Scots. This glamorous marriage ended badly, but it resulted in the birth of the future King James VI of Scotland (and I of England).

The Livingstons of Callendar were well aware of their grand Hamilton and Stewart cousins throughout the sixteenth century. Family connections of this sort, after all, were the purpose of those arranged marriages of previous generations … even if, as in the case of more than one Livingston, Douglas, and Hamilton, that promised access to power ended on the executioner’s block.


[1] Sir James Balfour Paul, ed., The Scots Peerage, 9 vols. (Edinburgh, 1904–11), 5: 424–26, 6: 344–48.

[2] Ibid., 5: 426, 6: 349.

[3] Ibid., 5: 429.

[4] This marriage took place before 20 October 1422. Ibid., 4: 348, 352–53, 5: 429.

About Scott C. Steward

Scott C. Steward was the founding editor at Vita Brevis; he served as NEHGS Editor-in-Chief 2013-2022. He is the author, co-author, or editor of genealogies of the Ayer, Le Roy, Lowell, Saltonstall, Thorndike, and Winthrop families. His articles have appeared in The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, NEXUS, New England Ancestors, American Ancestors, and The Pennsylvania Genealogical Magazine, and he has written book reviews for the Register, The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record, and the National Genealogical Society Quarterly.

11 thoughts on “Marrying up

  1. Scott, do you happen to know if the Levestones in the Billerica/Tewksbury area are descendants of these Livingstons?

  2. I do not understand how Sir John in 1382 could contract to marry Agnes Douglas – whose stated parents married in 1371.
    Even If she was the first child of James Douglas and Agnes Dunbar she would have been less than 11 years old in 1382.
    Could this be the second wife of Sir James a widow in 1382 thus the elder or the Douglas- Dunbat marriage date is incorrect.

    1. Since marriage for the upper classes was more about consolidating property than for affection, children married children, and sometimes adults married children. So Sir John Livingston (and perhaps Sir John Hamilton) was marrying for status — just as, it would appear, Sir James Douglas was marrying a woman somewhat his senior for her connections to the Scottish royal family. British noble families continued this trend into the seventeenth century, while European royal houses employed it in the eighteenth — think of Marie Antoinette — since the health and power of the family (or the country) was of greater value than the happiness of the young people involved.

  3. I have a Stewart-Price connection with the Stewart family… and I was was very interested to read your research. I also have a connection to James I… my 14th great uncle was William Tyndale, martyr, who did the translations that the King James Bible was founded on. His niece was my 13th grandmother, married to martyr Rowland Tsylor. Tangled webs indeed!

  4. Your in-depth research is admirable! Wish I had you looking into my 17th century brick wall. My question to you here though is about the child marriages. I read a book about the 15th – 17th century English lifestyles, in which it mentioned that high-ranking families sometimes promised marriages of their children; and I note that your account mentions a “contract” of the girl who might have been 11 years old. Do you, or others out there, know of this being a common practice? Were they raised in their birth families until a later age?

    1. Linda, I’m not sure I can say, definitively. I suspect that the person of the bride brought with it the desired dowry, so I imagine that (in such a case) she was part of her husband’s household at an early date.

  5. I should probably work this into the post above, but for the moment I will add the following information about Agnes’ and Jacoba’s brother, whose early marriage was even more important (and, evidently, urgent) for the connected families:

    “On 22 April 1378 it was proposed that [James Douglas, the younger, whose parents had married in 1372] should marry one of the two daughters of John [Stewart], Earl of Carrick, afterwards King Robert III, and on 24 March 1381-82 he received from her grandfather King Robert II a grant of the lands of Mordington, Whittinghame, and many others, erected into a free regality.” (Paul, The Scots Peerage, 6: 350)

    The point of all this is that the wives of Sir John Livingston and Sir John Hamilton were the sisters-in-law of the daughter of the future King Robert III — a more direct connection even than the one provided by the Douglas siblings’ stepmother, a younger half-sister of King Robert II. Note, too, that Lady Douglas’s stepchildren were marrying her half-brother’s grandchildren — the generations are getting all mixed up.

  6. This is just nuts Alexander Livingston of Callendar is my 20th great grandfather, this isn’t my first relative that was close to the royals and then was executed by them. I’m related to the Tudors and the Stuart’s ( Henry VIII is my 17th great uncle and Mary Queen of Scots is my 13th great grandmother) those families all married cousins so I’m related to a lot of them somehow.

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