King James VI with the head of Earl Patrick Stewart
Patrick Stewart was second Earl of Orkney and Zetland (Shetland) from the 1590s until his execution for treason in 1615. He was first imprisoned, and later beheaded, by King James VI of Scotland (who was also James I of England).
As Earl of the Northern Isles, which still adhered to Norse Law having been colonised by Vikings in the preceding centuries, Patrick Stewart had enjoyed a degree of autonomy – however that was to end. He was a tyrannical overlord, who ran up enormous debts with his lavish lifestyle and castle-building programme.
At one time Stewart had served at the court of the King James VI, but he fell out of favour due to his financial mismanagement, brutality, and feuding with the Earl of Caithness (who allied with William Sinclair of Eday). He also objected to James VI‘s plan to impose Bishops across Scotland. James Law was the name of the bishop appointed to Orkney, and he had the ear of the King.
Patrick Stewart allied against James VI with the Earl of Sutherland. He was arrested for treason and imprisoned in 1609.
The Earl, the Bishops, and the King’s rent collector in Orkney, John Finlayson, were all unpleasant, cruel, and deeply unpopular people. When Patrick Stewart was imprisoned, his son Robert took control of Kirkwall Castle and raised arms against the King, but he was defeated and Kirkwall Castle was destroyed so that no-one else could do the same.
The Earls’s Palace in Kirkwall was built by Patrick Stewart, using forced labour. Although it is a late Renaissance building, the architecture displays little understanding of Classical symmetry or proportion. It better reflects the character of the man who built it – ugly.
The cartoon accompanying this article is an acrylic painting inspired by a portrait of James VI by John de Critz, c.1606, which can be found on Wikipedia.