The Semples of Beltrees, 1 John Semple, 1st Laird of Beltrees – the Dancer

The Semples of Beltrees was a cadet family of the Semples of Castle Semple. The first Laird of Beltrees, John Semple, was the illegitimate son of Robert, 3rd Lord Semple, (c1505-1573) and his mistress, Elizabeth Carlyle, who were later married. John was legitimised in 1546, at the time of the marriage of his parents.
John was gifted the lands of Beltrees in Lochwinnoch Parish and Thirdpart in Kilbarchan Parish by his father. The Semples were a privileged family and moved in court circles. In the early 1560s John, the first Laird of Beltrees (c1536-1579), spent much of his time at the court of Mary, Queen of Scots. He was said to have a happy disposition and was popular at court. However, in this period of political and religious turmoil caused by the Reformation in Scotland, the Presbyterian preacher, John Knox, scathingly named John of Beltrees ‘the Dancer’.
John ‘the Dancer’ married Mary Livingston, the daughter of Alexander, 5th Lord Livingston, in 1565. Mary had been a close friend of the Queen since infancy. She was one of the ‘four Marys’, chosen by Mary of Guise (1515–1560) to be companion ladies-in-waiting to her infant daughter. When Queen Mary returned from France to Scotland in 1561, Mary Livingston is said to have been in charge of the Queen’s jewels. She, too, was a keen dancer and also an accomplished horsewoman. In court circles she was known as ‘the Lusty’.
John Semple and Mary Livingston must have met at court where both were great favourites of the Queen. On their marriage on 6 March 1565, Queen Mary paid for the wedding dress. Soon after, the Queen further promoted the couple’s wealth with the gifts of lands in Ayrshire and Fife, and subsequently with gifts of more land in Ayrshire and Aberdeenshire. Their eldest son and heir, James (1566-1626), was educated with King James VI (1566-1625), by George Buchanan, and completed his education at the University of St. Andrews.
John of Beltrees remained unfailingly loyal to Queen Mary. His loyal support of the Queen appears to have resulted in the long-term enmity between John and Regent Morton, the last of four Regents during the minority of James VI. This resulted in what appears to have been a trumped-up charge of treason accusing John of involvement in a conspiracy to murder Regent Morton. In 1577, under the severe torture of the Boot, John was eventually forced to confess involvement. He was sentenced to imprisonment in Edinburgh Castle ‘during the Regent’s pleasure’. He was released the following year when Regent Morton was forced to resign. John, the Dancer, sadly died in 1579.
© Helen Calcluth, Renfrewshire Local History Forum