George Seton, Fifth (and last) Earl of Winton.
George, 5th Earl of Winton was born circa 1678, and was originally brought up to assume his rightful place as head and heir of line of the Seton Family. To this end, his father bestowed upon him the Barony and Lordship of Seton at a very early age, and provided for him well, so that he would be educated at the best schools in Europe. Had he continued in this vein, it is doubtless that he would have continued the line of the family and been as successful as so many of his forbearers had been. Unfortunately he was not disposed to entertaining, as the many generations of the family had been, nor did he express an interest in the political affairs of his country until later in his life which caused his father great distress and grief and for which created a rift in the family. With this, George left to travel Europe and into a life of somewhat obscurity. For a time, he worked as a blacksmith's apprentice in Flander's, though he maintained contact with the doings of the family through a confidential servant in the Seton household back in Scotland.
He was abroad on his travels when his parents died, and “no man knew where to find him, till accident led to the discovery.”
Macky’s memoirs say that he “was at Rome when his father died”: and did not return to Scotland until several years after his succession to the Earldom, much to the detriment of his house and estate, which were dilapidated by sundry kinsmen during this protracted and willful absence. He seems, like all his family, to have been given study and researches of some kind, and to travel; and in 1708 Robert Calder, a minister of the Episcopal Church of Scotland, dedicated to him his edition of the Genuine Epistles of the St. Ignatius.
He was one of the first Scottish noblemen who played an active part in the “Rising” of 1715, to restore the exiled family to the throne. “He took with him three hundred men to the standard of James Stuart; but he appears to have carried with him a fiery and determined temper,--the accompaniment, perhaps, of noble qualities, but a dangerous attribute in times of difficulty.”
The Seton family, as we have seen, had always been noted for their loyalty and their attachment to the old Church, and the last Earl, though he had renounced the Romish faith, held firmly to the political creed of his ancestors. He was living peaceably in his own mansion at Seton when the rebellion of 1715 broke out. It is probable that he would, under any circumstances, have taken the field in behalf of the representative of the ancient Scottish sovereigns; but his doing so was hastened, if not caused, by the outrageous treatment which he received from a body of the Lothian militia, who forcibly entered and rifled his mansion at Seton, as he alleged on his trial, ‘through private pique and revenge.’ ‘The most sacred places,’ he adds, ‘did not escape their fury and resentment.
They broke into his chapel, defaced the monuments of his ancestors, took up the stones of their sepulchres, thrust irons through their bodies, and treated them in a most barbarous, inhuman, and unchristian like manner.’ On this disgraceful outrage the Earl took up arms against the Government, assumed the command of a troop of horse mostly composed of gentlemen belonging to East Lothian, and joined the Northumbrian insurgents under Mr. Forster and the Earl of Derwentwater. Their numbers were subsequently augmented by a body of Highlanders under Brigadier Macintosh, who formed a junction with them at Kelso.
The English insurgents insisted on carrying the war into England, where they expected to be reinforced by the Jacobites and Roman Catholics in the northern and western counties. The Scotsmen proposed that they should take possession of Dumfries, Ayr, Glasgow, and other towns in the south and west of Scotland, and attack the Duke of Argyll, who lay at Stirling, in the flank and rear, while the Earl of Mar assailed his army in front. The English portion of the insurgent forces, however, persisted in carrying out their absurd scheme in spite of the strenuous opposition of the Scots, and especially of the Highlanders, who broke out in a mutiny against the English officers. The Earl of Winton disapproved so strongly of this plan that he left the army with a considerable part of his troop, and was marching northward when he was overtaken by a messenger from the insurgent council, who entreated him to return.
He stood for a time pensive and silent, but at length he broke out with an exclamation characteristic of his romantic and somewhat extravagant character. ‘It shall never be said to after generations that the Earl of Winton deserted King James’s interests or his country’s good.’ Then, laying hold of his own ears, he added, ‘You, or any man, shall have liberty to cut these out of my head if we do not all repent it.’ But though this unfortunate young nobleman (he was only twenty-five years of age) again joined the insurgent forces, he ceased henceforward to take any interest in their deliberations or debates.
The Rev. Robert Patten, who officiated as chaplain to the insurgents, and afterwards wrote a history of the rebellion, indeed states that the Earl ‘was never afterwards called to any council of war, and was slighted in various ways, having often no quarters provided for him, and at other times very bad ones, not fit for a nobleman of his family; yet, being in for it, he resolved to go forward, and diverted himself with any company, telling many pleasant stories of his travels, and his living unknown and obscurely with a blacksmith in France, whom he served some years as a bellows-blower and under-servant, till he was acquainted with the death of his father, and that his tutor had given out that he was dead, upon which he resolved to return home, and when there met with a cold reception.’
The Scottish army, having advanced into England against Lord Winton’s advice, capitulated at Preston, after a fierce engagement on Monday, 14th November, 1715. The Earl fought with great gallantry at the barricades of Preston, but was at last obliged to surrender along with the other insurgents, and was carried a prisoner to London, and confined in the Tower. Among the seventy-five "prisoners of quality" who surrendered there were, besides the head of the family, was George Seton of Barnes titular Earl of Dunfermline.
The 5th Earl of Winton was brought to trial before the House of Lords, 15th March, 1716, and defended himself with considerable ingenuity. The High Steward, Lord Cooper, having overruled his objections to the indictment with some harshness. He was tried apart from the other noblemen, having pleaded “not guilty” –the only one to do so, as it would have been unworthy of a Seton to acknowledge himself (even constructively) as a traitor and throw himself on the mercy of the King George. The other Scotch Lords were the Earl of Nithsdale, Earl of Carnwath, Viscount Kenmur, and Baron Nairn. The young Earl of Derwentwater, an English Catholic involved in the same catastrophy, having pleaded “guilty” at his trial, (which, however, did not avail to save him) was induced by a priest who attended him on the scaffold, and hesitated giving him absolution, to retract the plea. This he did. To plead “guilty” was looked upon by strict theologians as a repudiation of one’s lawful sovereign –James III. Lord Winton defended himself with spirit and ability; but, of course, was condemned to death on the 19th of March, 1716.
His sentence was such a foregone conclusion that he laughed in the face of the Lord High Steward, who presided –Sir William, (afterward Earl) Cowper, telling him: “ I hope you will do me justice, and do not make use of Coupar-law, as we used to say in our country.” ‘hang a man first and then try him’” He was punning on the name of Cowper, which was pronounced Cooper the same as Cupar, the Fifeshire town, which was also sometimes written Cowper. To understand this joke, one must know the old cross of MacDuff, in Fife, was a famous sanctuary and that those “claiming the privilege of the Law of Clan MacDuff were required to appear afterwards before judges assembled at Cowper in Fife.” ; but by a sort of anticipatory Lynch Law, the criminal or suspected criminal who had run to the Cross did not always (after leaving the sanctuary) live to reach Cupar and have a fair trial; he was hanged before he got there.
Lord Winton’s character was very original, and he was calumniated by enemies and misunderstood by friends, as though his plea and defence , so peculiar to himself, were signs of an unbalanced mind. Sir Walter Scott refutes these insinuations: “But, if we judge from his conduct in the rebellion, Lord Winton appears to have displayed more sense and prudence than most of those engaged in that unfortunate affair.” While lying in the Tower under sentence, a trusty servant managed to furnish him with a file or other small instrument (some say it was only a watch-spring), with which he contrived to cut through the window bars in his cell and escaped. This was on Saturday, August 4, 1716, about 9 o’clock at night. The Earl got safe to France, and ultimately made his way to Rome, where all misfortune finds a balm.
Among the many interesting manuscripts preserved in the
He is supposed to have died there, unmarried, on the 19th of December, 1749, when over seventy years of age. The last time we hear of him, brings back to our minds with pathetic interest in the love of these Scottish exiles for their native land and how they would foregather in poverty and distress, keeping up brave hearts, to talk over old-times and sing the songs of other days :” Walked two hours with Lord Dunbar in the gardens, and afterwards went to the coffeehouse to which Lord Winton resorted and several of his stamp, and there fell a-singing old Scots songs, and were merry.”
Male cadets of this family, however, came by intermarriage to represent the great historic families of Huntly and Eglinton, besides the ducal house of Gordon, now extinct, and the Earls of Sutherland, whose heiress married the Marquis of Stafford, afterwards created Duke of Sutherland. The Earldoms of Wintoun and Dunfermline, the Viscounty of Kingston, and the other Seton titles were forfeited for the adherence of their possessors to the Stewart dynasty, and have never been restored; but the late Earl of Eglinton was, in 1840, served heir-male general of the family, and, in 1859, was created Earl of Winton in the peerage of the United Kingdom.
It is not well known where Lord Winton is buried, although several of his name and family have made search. I have heard two traditions which converge substantially to the same conclusion: on that he returned to Scotland in disguise, and died there unknown, except to very few; the other, that he died in the Catholic faith, in obscurity, at Ormiston. I notice this, only because some writers have said empathetically that he died a Protestant, as if they knew anything about it. The original of the illustration I give is in the possession of Sir Alan Henry Seton-Steuart, Bart. It has a stern and resolute expression, indicative of an uncompromising character, which he was. “ Thus terminated,” says Sir Robert Douglas, “ one of the principal houses in Great Britain, after subsisting for upwards of 600 years in east Lothian, and from thence spreading into several flourishing branches in Scotland.”