LESLIE, John (1679-1722)

LESLIE (formerly HAMILTON), John (1679–1722)

styled 1681-1700 Ld. Leslie; suc. mo. 20 Aug. 1700 as 9th earl of ROTHES [S]

RP [S] 1708–10, 1715–22

First sat 16 Nov. 1708; last sat 28 Apr. 1721

bap. 21 Aug. 1679, 1st s. of Charles Hamilton, 5th earl of Haddington [S], and Margaret, suo jure countess of Rothes [S]; bro. of Thomas Hamilton, 6th earl of Haddington [S]. m. 29 Apr. 1697, Jean (d.1731), da. of John Hay, 2nd mq. of Tweeddale [S], 8s. (1 d.v.p.) 4da. (2 d.v.p.). d. 9 May 1722; admon. 26 Mar. 1735 to Alexander Garden esq., principal creditor.1

Ld. privy seal [S] 1704–5; PC [S] 1704–5; v.-adm. [S] 1715–?d.; ld. high. commr. to Gen. Assembly, Church of Scotland 1715–­21; chamberlain, Fife and Strathearn 1716–d.; commr. planting schools in Highlands 1716.

Hered. sheriff principal, Aberdeen and Fife 1700–d.; ld. lt. Aberdeenshire, Fife, and Kinross 1715, Aberdeen by 1716.2

capt. and gov. Stirling Castle Feb 1718–d.3

Burgess, Edinburgh 1696; provost, Cupar–d.4

Associated with: Leslie House, Fife, and Tyninghame House, Haddington.

Likenesses: oil on canvas by J.B. De Medina, 1694, Clan Leslie Charitable Trust; oil on canvas by J. Scougall, Clan Leslie Charitable Trust; oil on canvas by unknown artist, National Galleries of Scotland.

Not only did Rothes possess a famous Covenanting lineage, he was himself a staunch Presbyterian, regularly attending the General Assembly of the Kirk as an elder (and twice in Anne’s reign being mooted as a possible commissioner to the assembly).5 But it seems that when he entered politics in 1700 his enthusiastic involvement with the ‘country party’ headed by James Hamilton, 4th duke of Hamilton [S] (later duke of Brandon), induced some Jacobite observers to infer that he was sympathetic to their cause.6 Thus his decision in 1704 to follow his father-in-law (and former guardian) the marquess of Tweeddale into the ‘New Party’ administration was a particular blow to a Jacobite like George Lockhart, who could not contain his contempt for a man that did profess ‘great regard for the [Stuart] royal family ... with repeated oaths and asseverations, but, alas ... had neither enough of sense nor honesty to resist the first temptations’: he wrote that Rothes was ‘false to a great degree, a condemner of honour and engagements, extremely ambitious, vain and conceited (though of very ordinary parts and accomplishments), extravagantly proud and scandalously mercenary’.7 The facts of Rothes’s political career, however, paint a rather different picture: he seems to have been a man with a strong religious faith and a firm attachment to constitutional principles (somewhat affectedly so in his youth), although at the same time he was subject to the gravitational influence of family loyalties, which determined both his uncritical adherence to the Squadrone faction presided over by his father-in-law, and his dogged pursuit of ancestral family rivalries in local politics, notably with the Melvilles in Fife.8

Through an entail executed by his mother, who had inherited as countess of Rothes in her own right, John Leslie, barely of age, succeeded to her title on her death in 1700, while his younger brother Thomas took their father’s earldom of Haddington. But in political terms the more significant family connection had been cemented by his marriage three years earlier. It was under the umbrella of the Tweeddale interest that he enlisted in the opposition to the Scottish administration presided over by James Douglas, 2nd duke of Queensberry [S]. He joined Hamilton, Tweeddale and their adherents in seceding from the Scottish Parliament in 1702 in protest at the failure to call fresh elections on the king’s death.9 When a new Parliament met in May 1703 he was a vocal proponent of measures to restrict the power of the crown and preserve the independence of Parliament, first proposing an act to deny Queen Anne’s successor the right to declare ‘peace and war without consent of Parliament’, and later in the session following his cousin James Graham, 4th marquess (later duke) of Montrose [S], in speaking out in favour of an assertion of Scotland’s traditional liberties.10

Following the revelations at the end of 1703 about the so-called ‘Scotch Plot’, Rothes was sent with his close allies John Ker, 5th earl (later duke) of Roxburghe [S], and George Baillie to ask the queen for a recall of Parliament in Scotland.11 In a lengthy audience on 8 Mar. 1704 he defended the loyalty of the Scottish people, and implored the queen to ignore advice to maintain an army in Scotland upon English pay. In reply, Anne affirmed her intention that ‘Parliament should sit very soon’ in order to settle the succession, and that evidence would be presented relating to the Scotch Plot.12 The nature of the response helped persuade Rothes to support the settlement of the succession, but more important was the appointment of Tweeddale as commissioner to the Parliament. Some 35 members of the country party, including Rothes, crossed over with Tweeddale, earning themselves the title of the ‘New Party’, or more pejoratively, and more permanently, the ‘Squadrone Volante’ (subsequently shortened to Squadrone). Their agreement to vote for succession in 1704, having opposed Queensberry’s efforts to do so the previous year, was viewed by some as opportunistic, and the uncompromising patriot Andrew Fletcher was quick to condemn Rothes and his colleagues for deserting the country party: they were ‘the greatest rogues and ought to be despised of all men that in the last parliament stood up for the good of their country’.13 As well as prompting a confrontation between Fletcher, Rothes and Roxburghe in an Edinburgh coffee-house, this accusation may have influenced Rothes’s conduct in Parliament, to the extent that, while supporting his father-in-law’s interest, he also found opportunities to reassert his principles. In proposing a settlement of the succession he again did so on the basis of imposing limitations on the monarchy, and later he intervened in the debate on Hamilton’s proposal for a commercial treaty with England to secure the avoidance of a vote that the administration considered disadvantageous by arguing that the Scots should first ‘secure the sovereignty and independence of the kingdom’.14 The upshot was effectively to postpone discussion of the succession. Informing the English lord treasurer, Sidney Godolphin, Baron (later earl of) Godolphin, of this setback, James Ogilvy, earl of Seafield [S] (later earl of Findlater [S]), made the best of it, and emphasized that Rothes and the other ‘Revolution men’ who had opposed Hamilton’s projected treaty, had ‘acted their parts very fair’.15

Rothes’s attachment to the Squadrone secured him the prestigious post of lord privy seal (at a salary of £1,000 a year) and a seat on the Scottish Privy Council in the ministerial reconstruction that followed the 1704 session, although at the same time lessening his reputation for integrity and thus weakening his power-base in Fife where he ‘very much lost his esteem and interest amongst the gentry’.16 However, the Squadrone’s success was short-lived, and the replacement of Tweeddale as commissioner early in 1705 by John Campbell, 2nd duke of Argyll [S], caused serious problems for the party. Tweeddale had alienated Argyll by refusing (in his capacity as lord chancellor) to pass Argyll’s commission, so his removal from the lord chancellorship was soon determined; he was offered Rothes’s post, which angered both men, to the extent that Lockhart believed Rothes likely to abandon his recent ‘apostasy’ and return to his ‘primitive faith’.17 Roxburghe was not so sure, however, fearing that Rothes would be persuaded to stay with the ministry by the blandishments of Argyll, Seafield, and another of Rothes’s cousins, the presumptuous Commons Member John Cockburn, an outcome that would fatally divide the Squadrone.18 Rothes’s dismissal as lord privy seal in June thus came as relief to his friends, but his subsequent actions showed that Roxburghe was mistaken about his malleability.19 Although Rothes was required to subordinate his personal political agenda to the outcome of negotiations between the Squadrone and Seafield (acting for the court) over supporting union, he made his own priorities clear. Sent as an emissary to Montrose to persuade him to join with the Squadrone, he argued that the only way for Scotland to be ‘saved’ was the settlement of the succession accompanied by limitations on the powers of the new monarch, and gave some idea of what he had in mind when he proposed to Parliament that under a new reign the officers of state and judges should be nominated by it and not by the crown.20 Nevertheless, despite occasional wobbles, he followed his party colleagues in supporting a treaty of union, and presumably was particularly gratified when they voted as a party in favour of according Parliament rather than the queen the nomination of commissioners.21 In January 1706 it was reported that he was not personally convinced of the wisdom of union, but would allow his decision to be ‘determined by the new party’.22 The delicate position that the Squadrone now found itself in was underlined by the fact that in May 1706 Rothes thought it best to resist an offer, originating from Queensberry, of a place as lord of the treasury, even though this risked him being depicted as difficult; but a little while later he welcomed payment of his arrears of salary as lord privy seal.23

Symbolically, Rothes and his father-in-law travelled to the first session of the Union Parliament in Queensberry’s coach, and once there they duly voted for the ratification of the treaty.24 In fact, Rothes voted consistently in favour of the Union, to the extent of seeking to prevent the acceptance of anti-treaty petitions to Parliament once the first article had passed.25 He also used his position as a member of the commission of the General Assembly of the Kirk to push through a moderate address on the treaty, although he ran into difficulties when opposing the attempts of radical Presbyterians entirely to separate church and state and at one stage walked out when subjected to personal attacks.26

Once the Union had been approved tensions between the Squadrone and the court resurfaced. The first issue concerned the choice of representative peers to the Parliament of Great Britain, which was the subject of negotiations with Queensberry. It was agreed that Rothes was to be included, yet John Lindsay, 19th earl of Crawford [S], was elected in his place, ‘the only difference between the commissioner’s [Queensberry’s] list and that which was carried’. Baillie thought the court guilty of not making ‘their people vote for such of the Squadrone as were in their own list … several of them were suffered to be absent, which made Rothes lose it’. In fact, so convoluted were the voting strategies that Rothes was excluded by accident. 27 Rothes also blamed the court, however, and was reportedly ‘in great wrath’.28 Although noting that the ‘New Party is very angry’, Queensberry’s political ally John Erskine, 22nd earl of Mar [S], had no sympathy for them:

it is entirely their own fault, for none of us failed them but stuck close to the commissioner’s list (where three of them were) except such who were in the list whom they first left out in their nomination … So upon the whole I’m sure the New Party have no reason to blame the commissioner nor the queen’s servants for my Lord Rothes’s disappointment; for not one of them failed them but those whom they failed first.29

Rothes had to wait over a year for another opportunity to secure a seat in the Lords. In the meantime he remained in Scotland, pursuing his own and the Squadrone’s political interests there.30 In February 1708 he was involved in the general election campaign in Fife. His personal enmity towards David Melville, 5th earl of Leven [S], was complicated by local opposition to the Union and, of the two magnates, Rothes had been more overt in his support for the Treaty; as a result his candidate lost the seat.31

Rothes’s next chance to be elected a representative peer came in June 1708. He attended the election and was one of the candidates in the list drawn up jointly by Hamilton and the Squadrone in opposition to Queensberry. Rothes received 50 votes, enough to guarantee his election. At the same time he registered his protest against proxies presented by Queensberry and Seafield in favour of court candidates, on the grounds that neither was eligible to vote, Queensberry because of his recent British peerage (as duke of Dover), and Seafield as a judge of the exchequer.32 Rothes reached London in October 1708, and by the middle of November was in discussion with Charles Spencer, 3rd earl of Sunderland, about the controverted Commons election for Dysart Burghs, where he had neither sponsored a candidate of his own, nor supported Hamilton’s interest, much to Hamilton’s disgust.33 On 16 Nov. he took his seat in the Lords, where he attended for 72 per cent of sittings during this first session, but was not particularly active, being named only to nine select committees. 

During his first weeks in the House Rothes watched with interest the first steps taken towards enquiring into the peers’ election. On 20 Nov. 1708 he told Tweeddale that Seafield ‘has found it convenient to lay down the chief baron’s place’, which had been the basis of his protest against Seafield’s right to participate in the election. He also noted with irritation the objections that were being raised by Scottish Members of the Commons against the eldest sons of Scottish peers sitting in the lower House, complaints which he considered ‘very unreasonable’ and the work of ‘the fools of the Parl[iament]’ such as George Lockhart. A fortnight later he wrote that the Commons had ‘incapacitated our sons to be their members which I think is pretty hard upon us, but we are obliged to the 45 Scots for it, for the English would never have made any scruple about it’. His correspondence with Tweeddale also mentioned difficulties between the Squadrone and the Junto. In his view, the Squadrone were ‘not persons that will be led by the nose, and that [the Junto] know, but taking the argument the ordinary way of this world, which is from interest, it would appear that [the Squadrone] and [the Junto] will quickly be at one’. He was present on 11 Dec. at the London home of William Cavendish, 2nd duke of Devonshire, where a meeting was held to resolve differences. Sometime later, on 20 Jan. 1709, he explained to Tweeddale that ‘I think the appearance is better than I have seen it since I came here for there is the greatest probability that we’ll carry our elections and I hope other things shall go well also, but all these things are uncertain till they be done’.34

The enquiry into the peers’ election had finally started in earnest and on 10 Jan. 1709. Rothes was named to the Lords’ committee to consider a petition from a number of defeated candidates from the Squadrone’s list. A week later came the report, confirming the number of votes cast for each peer in the election, together with a list of the protests, amongst which were Rothes’s objections against the proxies presented by Queensberry and Seafield. By the 18th Rothes was hopeful that both protests would go ‘very right’.35 On 21 Jan. he voted against Queensberry’s right to participate in the election as a British peer created since the Union, but when the House considered his protest against Seafield’s proxy, the question was ‘passed over’.

The recalculation of votes cast in the peers’ election, according to the resolutions of the House, reduced Rothes’s total from 50 to 47, enough for him to retain his seat. He was, however, dissatisfied with other aspects of the proceedings, and suspicious of Godolphin’s intentions.36 Queensberry’s appointment as the third secretary of state two days later reinforced his belief that Godolphin had duped the Junto, even though he was far from happy at the Junto’s recent behaviour. He was especially resentful that he himself had received no ‘marks of favour’.37 On 15 Mar. 1709 he wrote to Tweeddale that ‘our affairs ... are worse and worse; all the good things that we are to get is a bill making the laws relating to treason the same in Scotland as they are now in England without so much as enumerating them’. Moreover, when the Squadrone opposed the treason bill and the militia bill (the purpose of which, in Rothes’s view, was ‘to establish the d[uke] of Q[ueensber]ry and his creatures lieutenants’) they were told by the Junto that this course of conduct was difficult to understand, and another example of the Squadrone’s criticising ‘all the good things that are done to make the Union entire and complete’. At the third reading of the treason bill in the Lords on 28 Mar. Rothes protested against the refusal to add a rider allowing defendants to receive five days before their trial a copy of the indictment against them and a list of witnesses. He also protested against passing the bill. His annoyance was so great that, uncharacteristically, he was recorded as attending only seven times between 30 Mar. and 21 April.38 He left London shortly after Parliament was prorogued and was absent throughout the following session of 1709-10, without registering his proxy. 

Having boycotted the peers’ elections in 1710 and 1713, the Squadrone were obliged to oppose the Tory ministry from the sidelines. Rothes kept in close touch with his party colleagues, visiting Roxburghe at Floors Castle in June 1712, from where they went on to a ‘great confluence’ of the Squadrone in Edinburgh.39 He also continued active in the General Assembly of the Kirk, and in electoral politics in Fife and its boroughs, where the real enemy was now the Tory, or as he termed it, the Jacobite interest. In order to stop Tory advances in Fife he was desperate enough to come to terms with his old enemy Leven, ‘to lay aside private quarrels and to unite at this juncture against the common enemy’, but even working together the two magnates could not prevail.40

With the accession of George I the Squadrone (now led by Roxburghe and Montrose) came into their own. In the early days of the new regime Rothes was tipped to become lord clerk register, but in fact his reward was more modest: vice-admiral for Scotland, and commissioner to the General Assembly of the Kirk, a position for which he had been touted previously, and in which he was able to exploit his reputation for personal piety to the government’s advantage.41 He also took a leading part in military actions in Fife in the Fifteeen, and was given a raft of local offices, including the governorship of Stirling castle.42 The remainder of his political and parliamentary career will be examined in the second part of this work. 

Rothes died at Leslie House on 9 May 1722, after an illness prolonged enough to enable him to prepare what his deputy-governor at Stirling described as ‘a Christian, sedate and courageous death’. Having ‘recommended religion’ to his children, he summoned his two chaplains and ‘declared the grounds of his faith and hope of salvation’. After a prayer he then died ‘in the greatest serenity and peace’.43


  • 1 TNA, PROB 6/111, f. 56v.
  • 2 NAS, GD 90/2/194; GD 52/41; CTP 1720–8, pp. 117, 262; TNA, SP 54/10/168.
  • 3 Lockhart Letters, 6; NAS, GD 406/1/5279; GD 220/5/507; GD 1/73/10; GD 124/15/1196.
  • 4 Scot. Rec. Soc. li. 307; TNA, SP 54/13/96, 115, SP 54/14/102.
  • 5 Acts of General Assembly 1708, p. 15; Principal Acts of General Assembly 1711, p. 10; Principal Acts of General Assembly 1713, p. 14; Principal Acts of General Assembly 1714, p. 15; HMC Portland, viii. 175; Baillie Corresp. 37; NAS, GD 406/1/9103.
  • 6 Scottish Cath. Archs. Blairs Coll. mss, BL 2/82/4.
  • 7 Lockhart Pprs. 94–95.
  • 8 HMC Laing, ii. 75; NLS, ms 14415, ff. 67–8.
  • 9 Flying Post, 13–16 June 1702.
  • 10 Seafield Letters, 2; HMC Laing, ii. 18; HMC Portland, iv. 67.
  • 11 Add. 70075, newsletters, 27 Jan., 10, 26 Feb., 2, 7 Mar., 6 Apr. 1704.
  • 12 NAS, GD 158/1140.
  • 13 HMC Laing, ii. 68, 77; CSP Dom. 1704–5, p. 61; Add. 70075, newsletter 22 July 1704.
  • 14 HMC Laing, ii. 70; Add. 70075, newsletters 22, 25 July 1704; Crossrig Diary, 138–9.
  • 15 HMC Laing, ii. 71.
  • 16 Bodl. Carte 180, f. 217.
  • 17 Lockhart Letters, 18; CSP Dom. 1704–5, p. 280.
  • 18 Baillie Corresp. 30, 32, 34, 105–6.
  • 19 Seafield Letters, 50, 52; Baillie Corresp. 102.
  • 20 Baillie Corresp. 97; Seafield Letters, 72–3; HMC Portland, iv. 224, 227; Crossrig Diary, 166.
  • 21 HMC Mar and Kellie, i. 234; Seafield Letters, 87.
  • 22 Baillie Corresp. 146.
  • 23 NLS, ms 14415, f. 123; HMC Mar and Kellie, i. 266.
  • 24 HMC Portland, viii. 250; Seafield Letters, 97; Crossrig Diary, 174; P. W. J. Riley, Union, 334.
  • 25 Seafield Letters, 97; K. Bowie, Scottish Public Opinion and the Anglo-Scottish Union, 131–2.
  • 26 Bowie, 135; HMC Mar and Kellie, i. 315; NLS, Advocates’ mss, Wodrow pprs. letters Quarto 4, ff. 101, 103, 121.
  • 27 HMC Mar and Kellie, i. 372, 375; Baillie Corresp. 188; P.W.J. Riley, Eng. Ministers and Scot. 33.
  • 28 NAS, GD 18/3135/4.
  • 29 HMC Mar and Kellie, i. 375–6.
  • 30 NAS, GD 220/5/142/2.
  • 31 NLS, ms 7021, ff. 126, 130; HP Commons 1690–1715, ii. 852–3.
  • 32 NLS, ms 1026, ff. 1, 10, 23, 28, 39.
  • 33 Add. 61631, f. 156; NAS, GD 406/1/5564; HP Commons 1690–1715, ii. 909.
  • 34 NLS, ms 14415, ff. 163, 165, 167, 168,172.
  • 35 NLS, ms 7021, ff. 147–48.
  • 36 NLS, ms 14415, f. 178.
  • 37 NLS, ms 7021, ff. 157–8, 161–2.
  • 38 NLS, ms 14415, ff. 186, 191.
  • 39 Floors Castle, Roxburghe mss, bdle 1077, Hon. W. Kerr to countess of Roxburghe, 1 June 1712; Blair Atholl, Atholl mss, 45/10/60.
  • 40 NLS, ms 14415, f. 194; HMC Portland, iv. 558; NLS, Advocates’ mss, Wodrow pprs. letters Quarto 7, f. 177; Riley, Eng. Ministers and Scot. 151; HP Commons 1690–1715, ii. 852–3, 910–11.
  • 41 Post Boy, 23–25 Sept. 1714.
  • 42 D. Szechi, 1715: Great Jacobite Rebellion, 117, 165.
  • 43 Wodrow Corresp. ii. 640–2.