"The feast was over in Branksome tower, And the Ladye had gone to her secret bower; her bower that was guarded by word and by spell, Deadly to hear, and deadly to tell--"
--the Lay of the Last Minstrel by Sir Walter Scott
Scott's opening lines to his seminal work introduced a new kind of heroine who had the power to bewitch Georgian and Regency readers and catapult her creator to instant fame. She was a true wizard lady, her presence shivering and felling the rational, elegant pillars of verse so prized by the classicists in the previous century.
The age of Romanticism had dawned with a spell.
I say Sir Walter Scott created her, but in truth the wizard lady of Branxholm was based on a true historical figure--Janet, Lady of Buccleuch and Branxholme (1519 - 1569). Her father was John Beaton, Laird of Creich, a Scottish border lord who, as the poem relates, bestowed on his daughter a keen interest in the occult. Whether this is true or not, it is absolutely certain that Janet had an almost supernatural power over men's hearts. Even as she grew older, her youthful looks remained remarkably preserved.
Witchcraft, it was whispered. Not Oil of Olay.
If she didn't cast spells, she certainly had enthusiasm. Janet married four husbands, the last one at the advanced age of sixty-one. She also had at least two affairs out of wedlock, both significant enough to be documented in court filings during litigation!
When Janet's first husband died, she married Sir Simon Preston, Lord of Craigmillar Castle. He was a busy man, rebuilding the castle after it was destroyed during England's "Rough Wooing" of Scotland during the minority of Mary, Queen of Scots. Janet was busy as well. She was divorced when Sir Simon discovered her infidelity with another man.
She then married her lover, a much older man known (alarmingly!) as "Wicked Wat," the Laird of Buccleugh and Branxholm. Like the poet, his name was Sir Walter Scott and was Janet's senior by twenty-four years. Perhaps it was his mortal hatred for the English which attracted her, for he was not the last man with this quality she was linked to. Together they had several children, including Margaret, the inspiration for Scott's Lady of the Lake.
According to some, Margaret was nothing like her mother, being rather insipid.
Sir Walter met his end at the hands of his hereditary enemies, the Kerrs in Edinburgh's High Street. He was still breathing after the attack, but was finished off by servants' daggers. The Queen Regent of Scotland, Marie of Guise, ordered the Kerrs to be banished.
Not to be satisfied, the widow of Buccleuch went after those who had supported the Kerrs. She set out with a party of some two hundred armed men after one of them, the Laird of Cranstoun. The hapless man fled at her approach, seeing sanctuary in a church called Kirk of the Lowes. He locked and barred the door. Undeterred, Janet took an axe and forced her way in. It is not too far-fetched to imagine the grief-wracked widow tearing the man from the altar with her own hands.
As they say, "Wicked Wat" was the love of the wizard lady's life.
Not to doesn't diminish her other romantic exploits: at the age of forty-three and having borne seven children, Janet ensnared another English-hater. James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell, was "as naughty a man as liveth" and all of twenty-four at the time when they began their liaison. Hardly a secret, the affair became the subject of testimony during a lawsuit, of all things:
A man sued the wizard lady and demanded the judge be removed. On what grounds? he was asked. Because the judge, being the Earl Bothwell was "either quietly married or handfast" to the Lady of Buccleugh, disqualifying him from deciding the case. Any other grounds? You bet. There were "other causes of suspicion between them as is notoriously known."
I wish I had been there.
In any case, there were not the events that inspired the poem's claim that the Lady of Buccleugh could "bond to her bidding the viewless forms of the air." Janet had always been a respected member of the aristocracy, received at court by both Queen Mary and her mother when that lady was Regent. Indeed, others were suspected of witchcraft at this time. Mary Fleming, one of the Queen's attendants, was said to have cast Mary's labor pains onto Lady Margaret Reres, later wet-nurse to the baby prince.
Maybe the wizard lady wasn't up to that job. After all, Lady Reres was Janet's sister.
Janet's reputation as a witch began, ironically, right about the time the Queen's character was being sullied. Notorious placards calling Mary whore and murderess were circulated in Edinburgh, a city whose citizens were formerly captivated by the glamour of their queen. One of the pamphlets declared Janet had persuaded the Queen through witchcraft to marry Bothwell. It was a preposterous claim but widely accepted as truth. She was his former mistress, they said, and bound to do him a favor.
The date of the Queen's wedding was whispered to have been chosen by witches and sorcerers. "The people say that wantons marry in the month of May."
The brutal deposition of Mary from her throne cannot have failed to instill caution in even so intrepid a female as the wizard lady. Supporters of the former queen were hounded in the aftermath of the Queen's imprisonment. Janet had been her attendant and was almost certainly aware that there was a precedent for burning a witch to death, even if she were a noble one.
Who could forget the fate of Janet Douglas, Lady Glamis? She was the sister to the Earls of Angus yet that had not saved her from being burned as a witch on Castlehill in Edinburgh only decades before.
The wizard lady eventually returned to history's pages to be heartily welcomed by an audience hungry for castles, medievalism and the supernatural. She was the sensation of the Regency. Many fancied themselves caught up by her command to go to the "holy pile" of Melrose Abbey (pictured below) and "win the treasure of the tomb," a book of spells that would give her the power to wreak her vengeance.