Sir Thomas Kerr 1529-1586

SIR THOMAS KERR 1529 - 1586

It is certain Mary Queen of Scots would have visited Ferniehirst Castle when she attended the assizes in the town, and records show her renting a house belonging to the Kerrs in October 1566, the year of  her famous ride to Hermitage to see Bothwell.  A riding accident resulted in a period of illness suffering from exposure and it is probable she may have been brought for her recovery to Ferniehirst Castle.   In 1569  a letter to Sir Thomas Kerr from the Queen in captivity in England expresses ‘her esteem’ for him and ‘that affairs will go well while he keeps good order in his bounds’, and enjoining him to ‘give ready service. Fail not to give our commendations to Sir Andrew Kerr and all our other good friends in these parts. Your richt good and assured frind,  Marie R.’ The Queen was Godmother to Sir Thomas oldest son Andrew, to whom she refers in the letter and knighted when he was still a boy at Ferniehirst.

Thomas Kerr married Janet Kirkaldy in 1561, the daughter of Sir William Kirkaldy of Grange,  the Governor of Edinburgh Castle.  In November 1569 the Catholic Rising by the Earls of Northumberland & Westmorland failed. Westmorland found sanctuary at Ferniehirst and partook in a joint raid with the Kerrs into Northern England before making his escape to the safety of Flemish lands.  In September 1571 Sir Thomas Kerr was among those who attacked the Convention of Parliament at Stirling, when in the conflict the Regent Lennox was killed.  Declared a traitor and outlaw by the supporters of the young King James VI  resulted in the confiscation of  his lands and the destruction of Ferniehirst Castle by Lord Ruthven in 1571. 

In 1579 James VI granted Sir Thomas Kerr liberty to return and restored to him ‘all his lands and possession of his whole estate’ acknowledging that his loyalty to his Mother’s interests had been ‘his greatest crime’.   There is a protection, dated 14 February 1579, to Sir Thomas Kerr, sometime of Ferniehirst, for two years after his return from France”  In 1581 he was granted ‘ The Benefitt of Pacification dated 29 November 1581 and in that year he was elected Provost of Jedburgh at the King’s command.” It seems he incurred the wrath of the Royal Court over certain lands held by the Rutherfords and once more  had to seek asylum on the continent.  In November 1583 he received a full pardon from James VI  under the Great Seal.

Troubled times were far from over as Sir Thomas continued to represent one of the most powerful riding families in the Border Middle Marches, he was appointed Warden of the Marches on 13th November 1584 and in February 1585 the process to rid the country of this powerful and independent knight began.  Elizabeth I of England who once described Sir Thomas Kerr ‘as ane greit enemie’ requested a meeting of March Wardens ‘for making mutual redress’, Sir Thomas representing the Scottish Middle Marches while Sir John Forster was the English Warden.  On the 28th July 1585 the meeting took place at Windy Gyle at the eastern end of the middle marches.   Also present was Lord Francis Russell, son-in-law of Forster.  During an affray,  frequent at March meetings, Lord Russell was shot and the murderer remained undetected.  Sir Thomas was cast as the villain and Queen Elizabeth insisted he be arrested.   James VI resisted the demands that Sir Thomas should be delivered into the hands of the English and instead had him taken to Aberdeen in November  1585 where he perished,  imprisoned in the Tolbooth in February 1586. One year later on 6th February 1587 Mary Queen of Scots was executed  at Fotheringay.

Sir Thomas Kerr secondly married Janet Scott, the sister of  Sir Walter Scott of Buccleuch, the date recorded  is c.1569 however research has shown his first wife Janet Kirkaldy as dying c.1572 in London. and this would suggest a more accurate period for this second marriage.

Sir Thomas Kerr was born at Ferniehirst Castle in 1529, the oldest son of Sir John Kerr and Katherine Ker of Cessford.  He became Laird of  Ferniehirst in 1562 at the beginning of the turmoil that surrounded Mary Queen of Scots return from France. Her disasterous monarchy and her long imprisonment, when she sought sanctuary in England.  John Knox and the reformers influenced the politics of Scotland and Mary’s retinue of fops and wolves did little to enhance the stability of a country divided.  These were dangerous times.

Representing ‘The Queen’s Party’ Thomas Kerr supported Kirkcaldy’s  defence of Edinburgh Castle. Referred to as  ‘The Lang Siege’ lasting from the summer of 1571 until May 1573 when 20 heavy guns on loan from Queen Elizabeth I of England arrived in Edinburgh.  After a ten day bombardment the garrison finally surrendered to Queen Elizabeth of England. Thomas Kerr and Kirkaldy were immediately arrested by the Regent Morton, despite the agreed terms of their surrendering  the castle.  Sir Thomas was briefly jailed before going into exile abroad and Kirkaldy hanged.  It is interesting that Sir Thomas Kerr’s personal papers, kept with him at Edinburgh Castle were confiscated, they were first given to William Drury the English commander and an inventory made of the contents. Afterwards the Earl of Angus took possession and the papers have never been seen again, only the inventory of land holdings and feifs still exist giving us an insight into the strength of the Laird of Ferniehirst at this time.  The Earl of Angus profited handsomely from the arrangement claiming Ashiesteel, Crailing and others for his own.  A petition unsigned and undated now held at the British Library was prepared for Sir Thomas Kerr’s signature denouncing the Queen’s cause and acknowledging Morton as Regent.  The petition would have been made shortly after the surrender of Edinburgh Castle and we find Sir Thomas obliged to seek refuge in France, Spain and Holland indicating his possible refusal to sign the document presented to him.

Sir Thomas remained a loyal and undying supporter of the queen he welcomed home at Leith in 1561, playing a supporting role in many of her ill-fated campaigns  In October 1565 he was first noted in the royal limelight when he  accompanied Darnley and the Queen to Dumfries to finally quell the insurrection of  Moray and his supporters  in the final episode of the ‘Chaseabout Raids’.  On this occasion he raised the royal standard and the Queen placed herself  under his immediate protection.  On the 2nd May 1568 Sir Thomas was among those knights who joined the Queen at Hamilton following her escape from Loch Leven and on the 13th day of the same month.  At the final battle of Langside Sir Thomas Kerr figured among the numbers of feudal barons who resisted the call for Mary to abdicate.

Queen Mary’s House in Jedburgh was built by Sir Thomas Kerr for Mary Queen of Scots. The architecture is similar to Ferniehirst Castle and includes a left hand staircase typically found in houses and castles built by the Kerrs.

Children of Sir Thomas Kerr and Janet Kirkaldy (d.1572 London)

1.Sir Andrew Kerr, 1st Lord Jedburgh  d. c1631

2.William Kerr  d. 13 Jan 1598/99

3.Mary Kerr

4.Julian Kerr

5.Margaret Kerr  d. 24 May 1594

Children of Sir Thomas Kerr and Janet Scott

1.Sir James Kerr  d. c1645

2.Thomas Kerr  d. 14 Sep 1601

3.Ann Kerr  d. 15 Feb 1649/50

4.Robert Carr, 1st and last Earl of Somerset  b. c1587  d. c1645