This month for our ‘Remembrance’ theme we at EYA spoke with University of St Andrews Special Collections to gain an insight into the role archives play in remembering events of national significance. In this article we discover how a single diary provides first-hand evidence of the execution of Mary Queen of Scots, the Gunpowder Plot, the Great Fire of London and the spread of bubonic plague in the 17th century.
John Lamont: diarist and dweller by the Firth of Forth
One way into the past is through diaries. Seeing what people chose to record is a way to remember events important to them, either from their own lives or of wider significance.
John Lamont is one such diarist. We have two of his diaries at the University of St Andrews. We don’t know much about him. In fact, all we really know is that he lived in the Largo area of Fife, about an hour north of Edinburgh on the Firth of Forth. His father was probably a minister. Meanwhile his brother was chaplain and factor to the local landed family, the Lundins of Largo. John may have worked for the same family.
Ref: msDA880.F4L2 vol 1 and 2
The diaries are full of local Fife gossip, church news, marriages and deaths of important local people, stretching from 1641-1671. Just occasionally, he notices something which happened in the wider world.
“tucked away… is the Great Fire of London”
In the second volume of his diaries, tucked away between a Jew being given permission to teach Hebrew for the first time at St Andrews University, and that year’s diocesan synod under Archbishop Sharp (later murdered by covenanters), is the Great Fire of London.
Above: Lamont describes the Great Fire of London. Free from copyright.
“1666 Sept. 2. Ther hapned a great fyrre at the citie of London in England, it begane upon the sabath in the morning abowt one a’clock & continued all the sabath, Moneday & Twesday, & being qwenched it bracte owt againe on Wedensday at night, & was qwenched the nixt day, so that a great pairt of the citie was burned into ashes, some say that two pairts of thrie within the walls were consumed & brunt up, to the number of eghtie-five parishes.”the diary of john lamont – transcription of the original
“There happened a great fire at the city of London in England, it began upon the Sabbath in the morning about one in the morning and continued all the Sabbath, Monday and Tuesday, and being quenched it broke out again on Wednesday at night, and was quenched the next day, so that a great part of the city was burned into ashes, some say that two parts of three within the walls were consumed and burned up, to the number of eighty-five parishes.”the diary of john lamont – modern transcription
This is surprisingly accurate. We now think 86 or 87 parish churches were destroyed – and the pattern of the outbreak tallies with other accounts. We don’t know if he got his information from accounts in the London Gazette, or from letters or travellers coming from London bringing information to Fife. But he certainly had good sources.
The bubonic plague strikes Scotland
On the same page is a note on another recent calamity: the bubonic plague or ‘plague of pestilence’ that had killed so many in London just the previous year. Plague did not spread that time to Scotland – as the government imposed restrictions on trade with plague countries, mainly England and the Netherlands. Closing the border with England was suggested during the recent coronavirus pandemic but never implemented. Indeed, it seemed to work in 1665. But plague had struck at intervals in Scotland throughout the 17th century – Lamont would have known what it meant.
News of Mary Queen of Scots, ‘Our quein’, rings across Scotland
In an earlier hand in the diary are two more national events: the execution of Mary Queen of Scots in 1587, and the gunpowder plot in 1605. Although deposed in favour of her Protestant son James VI, the Catholic queen in Scotland was a constant focus of opposition to the Protestant Queen of England, Elizabeth. Consequently, to stop these plots, Mary had to be disposed of. We are not sure who wrote these lines – but it sounds personal, referring to ‘Our queen’:
“1587 Our quein executed at Fotheringham in Ingland”
Our queen was executed at Fotheringham in Englandthe diary of john lamont – transcription of the original and into modern
Above: Lamont’s diary entry for the execution of Mary Queen of Scots. Free from copyright.
In particular, Robert Lindsay of Pitscottie’s “The Historie and Chronicles of Scotland” fleshes this out. Lindsay recounts her reign up to 1565 while a later chronicler has continued the account, giving many more details on her capture and imprisonment at Lochleven, her escape, re-capture and subsequent house arrest in England.
Right: Extract from Pitscottie’s Chronicle on the execution of Mary Queen of Scots. Free from copyright.
He writes of a procession of the Lord Major of London, earls and barons, and alderman of the city. In coats of velvet and chains of gold, they all rode on horseback, parading out to proclaim the sentence passed against the queen by the nobles, with trumpeters to sound their way. It ends in the same way – the ascension to the scaffold in the Great Hall at Fotheringhay, with the Earl of Shrewsbury and the Earl of Kent, and many others, in attendance.
Ref: msDA784.L6 (ms7)
Mary Queen of Scots hits the stage!
This scene was the inspiration for a play in 1935 by English poet and playwright Gordon Bottomley, The White Widow, which imagines her last moments.
Left: Last scene from The White Widow by Gordon Bottomley. Free from copyright.
Ref: msPR6003.O67W6 (ms680)
Mary’s son ascended the English throne in 1603 as heir to Elizabeth and became James I of England. He was soon targeted in a plot by Catholic conspirators to blow him up at the opening of Parliament in 1605 and restore a Catholic monarchy, noted in Lamont as:
1605 Nov. 3 The trasson of gunpudder in Lundon discoverit
The treason of gunpowder in London was discoveredthe diary of john lamont
Guards had found Guy Fawkes underneath the Houses of Parliament with 36 barrels of gunpowder waiting to be detonated. This audacious attempt to murder the king and members of Parliament is still commemorated in Guy Fawkes Night fireworks and bonfires today.
Above: Lamont’s diary entry for the gunpowder plot. Free from copyright .
Written by Maia Sheridan, Manuscripts Archivist at University of St Andrews Special Collections
Edited by Jake Doyle, Blog Coordinator for Explore Your Archive, MLitt Archives and Records Management Student and Archive Assistant at Suffolk Archives