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A modern recreation of what the full armorial bearings of John Bothwell, Lord Holyroodhouse, may have looked like. Because no illustration or description of these arms exist that are contemporary with either Bothwell who held the title Lord Holyroodhouse, a decision was made to base the design on the description given in 1722 by Alexander Nisbet. Image © 2011 by Kearney Bothwell

Modern recreation

Bothwells and their arms

By Kearney Bothwell

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One of the first things many people look for when they start researching their genealogy is the "Family Coat of Arms."

Unfortunately, for those of Scottish heritage, there is no such thing as a "family (or clan) coat of arms" and the term itself has been rather loosely interpreted to include anything from the basic arms, which consist of a shield bearing a design in the colors of the owner, to the fancy -- and sometime fanciful -- versions called a complete achievement, which consists of the shield and all its surrounding elements.

The question of the right to use a crest or coat of arms is perhaps best answered by the following quote from an article by James Dempster, FSA Scot:

"If you are Scots, or of Scots descent, then the answer is that unless you can prove that you are heir to a properly matriculated Scots coat of arms, you have no arms whatsoever until you matriculate a set at the Lyon Court in Edinburgh. If you use the arms of someone else then you are usurping arms, if you make up your own arms, then you are using bogus arms. In both cases you are committing an offence and may be charged and tried at Lyon Court, which is an active court of law. This makes Scottish heraldry one of the most tightly controlled in the world, as it is one of the few countries where heraldry is protected by law, and that law is still actively enforced. Even if you are the direct heir, it is considered proper to re-matriculate every few generations in order that your due title to the arms be kept up to date.

"The legal position is quite simple - arms belong to the person who records them and the heirs of that person according to the limitations of the grant or tailzie. However, whereas in England, the right to a coat of arms passes to all male descendents of the grantee, in Scotland a coat of arms is considered to be heritable property and thus can only belong to one person at a time. This means that the younger sons of a grantee have no direct right to inherit the arms until elder branches of the family have died out. All younger sons must rematriculate the arms with a difference in order to posess legal arms.

"This of course means that all those people who offer to sell you "Your Coat of Arms" or "Your family's Coat of Arms" are wrong. If you are lucky, you might get a cheaply produced version of the arms of your chief, but there is every chance that the arms will simply be those of the first person of your surname that they can find."

I cannot stress strongly enough that it is both legally and morally wrong to misrepresent the arms of a long-dead Bothwell as a "Family Coat of Arms," especially since there is no evidence of a genealogical link through the male line between any Bothwell alive today and any of those who legitimately had the right to use a Bothwell coat of arms.

With all that in mind, the good news for those researching the Bothwell surname is that several variations of arms have been documented for Bothwells in Scotland during the 16th and 17th centuries.

Fig. 1. The arms used by Francis, David and Adam Bothwell. Colors based on the design shown in the Foreman Armorial of about 1563.

Bishop Bothwell's arms

The earliest example of Bothwell arms appears on a seal used by Francis Bothwell in 1522 when he was a baillie (magistrate) of Edinburgh. It is described in William Rae MacDonald's "Scottish Armorial Seals" (Edinburgh, 1904) as "on a chevron between three slipped trefoils, a star." This refers to a shield and design like that shown in Fig. 1.

Research shows that this design was also used by Francis' eldest son, David, after Francis' death in 1538/9 and later by Francis' third son, Adam, following the death of David in the late 1540s and that of Francis' second son, William in 1552 or 1553. (David died without a male heir and William, a member of the clergy, is not known to have had any children, so the right to the arms would have passed legally to Adam. There also is no evidence to show whether William had his own arms or used his father's, although as a canon of Glasgow and prebendary and parson of Ashkirk it is likely he did.)

MacDonald documents David's use of the design in a seal on a charter dated 24 Dec. 1542 and he identifies David as the son and heir of Master Francis Bothwell, burgess of Edinburgh. The legend on the seal is given as S • M • DAVID BOTHVAL (the initials standing for Sigillum Magister which means "the seal of master"). However, MacDonald creates a bit of a mystery for us by referencing two seals used on charters also dated 24 Dec. 1542. He describes these seals as bearing arms: "on a chevron between two trefoils slipped in chief and another flanked by two stars in base, a star," as shown in Fig. 2. Again, MacDonald identifies these seals as belonging to David, son and heir of Master Francis Bothwell, burgess of Edinburgh. The legend is S • M • DAVID BOITHVEL

Fig. 2. An approximation of one of two designs of the arms of David Bothwell described in MacDonald's "Scottish Armorial Bearings."

David Bothwell's arms

The reference to the two designs, both attributed to the same individual and said to be used on the same date, raises several questions.

Are both seals really those of the same individual? And if so, why would he use two different designs? One possible answer is that one seal could be that of David, son of Francis, and the other could be that of his uncle, David, who was the brother of Francis. Alternately, without access to the actual charters to verify the dates are indeed the same, it could be that the version with the two stars flanking the trefoil in base was used by David to difference his arms from those of his father while his father still lived. Obviously, more research is required to resolve these questions.

MacDonald also noted that a design similar to that of Francis and David appeared on the seal of Isabell Mauchane, widow of Gilbert Lauder, burgess of Edinburgh, on a charter dated June 12, 1556 and described as "a chevron (which may have borne charges) between three trefoils slipped, Ornament at top and foliage at sides of shield." No rendering or blazon of these arms associated with the names Mauchane or Lauder has been found and their possible association with the Bothwell family remains another unsolved mystery.

Next to use the arms was Francis' third son, Adam, who later became Bishop of Orkney and Commendator of Hollyroodhouse Abbey. The first evidence of Adam's use also is reported by MacDonald, citing its use in a seal in 1557 after Adam succeeded his brother, William, as a canon of Glasgow and parson of Ashkirk

Fig. 4. A drawing showing the detail of Adam Bothwell's seal as bishop of Orkney, taken from Rev. J.B. Craven's "History of the Church in Orkney: 1568-1662" published in 1897.

Bishop Bothwell's drawn seal

Fig. 3. A photograph of the seal of Adam Bothwell, bishop of Orkney, on a charter identified as MS 1676 in The Schøyen Collection. Image courtesy Martin Schøyen and The Schøyn Collection.

Bishop Bothwell's wax seal

Adam also incorporated the arms in the design of the seals he used as Bishop of Orkney (Figs. 3 and 4) and as Commendator of Holyroodhouse Abbey.

Up to this point, the search for information on the Bothwell arms from records contemporary with the members of the family has had to rely on the evidence of seals on documents that have survived to modern times. While the Bothwells of Edinburgh were related by marriage to many of the landed gentry and noble families of the time and had been prominent merchants, landowners, churchmen, lawyers, and members of the Scottish Parliament, they apparently lacked sufficient political and/or social status to have their arms included in any contemporary armorials until after Adam became bishop of Orkney in 1559.

Armorials are important in researching the arms of a family, especially one like the Bothwells of Edinburgh whose line died out so long ago, because they usually showed arms in use at the time and because the decision of who was or was not included can provide important clues to the status of those whose arms are depicted. In addition, they provided information about the actual tincture or color used, and sometimes included additional information such as motto, crest and supporters.

According to the website of the Heraldry Society of Scotland, 16 Scottish armorials were created during the lifetimes (1544-1638) of the Edinburgh Bothwells known to have born and used arms.

The earliest armorial to include arms for Bothwell is Foreman's Armorial, which dates from 1563 and includes 258 illustrations. In this armorial, the name is spelled Bodvall and the arms are those of Adam Bothwell, bishop of Orkney: "Azure, on a chevron between three trefoils slipped Or a mullet Gules," as shown in Fig. 1. The Bodvall arms are numbered FAL215.

The next to include arms for Bothwell is the Raithlet Armorial, sometimes called the Kings & Nobles Vol. 2, which dates from 1565 and which is said to have been the source for at least two other armorials, including the Dunvegan Armorial. However, the Raithlet shows the arms in the same design and colors as the Foreman's armorial, but without any symbol on the chevron.

Fig. 5. The arms of John Bothwell, as described in the Dunvegan Armorial.

J Bothwell's arms

The Dunvegan, compiled around 1582 with later annotations, shows the Bothwell arms as: "Azure, on a chevron between three trefoils slipped Or, a crescent Gules," as depicted in Fig. 5.

Annotations on the page with the Bothwell arms in Dunvegan were added later, possibly by Alexander Nisbet while researching his Book, "A System of Heraldry" (Edinburgh, 1722), identifying them as the arms of Lord Holyroodhouse, a title that did not exist until John Bothwell was created a peer under that title on 20 Dec. 1607 by King James I of the United Kingdom (James VI of Scotland).

The most likely explanation for replacing the star with the crescent was that John Bothwell, a friend and favorite of king James, had replaced his father as Commendator of Holyroodhouse Abbey in 1581 but couldn't use the Bothwell arms with the star because his father was still alive (Adam died in 1593).

Fig. 6. A modern interpretation of the arms of Bothwell of Halbank, based on the drawing in "Scottish Arms" by R.R. Stodart, (Edinburgh, 1881). These arms have been linked to Richard Bothwell, who was the abbot of Dumfermline in the mid-15th century. He was known as a stone mason and those arms are found carved in stone at the abby. It is believed he was part of the Bothwell family that owned land in the Halbank area near Dumfermline from the late 1400s into the early-mid 1500s and it appears they were related to the Edinburgh Bothwells. The abbots mitre and the angel supporters were added because an abbot would have been entitled to use supporters.

Bothwell of Halbank

The next armorial containing Bothwell arms was the Armorial of Sir David Lyndsay of the Mount (Secundus), generally referred to as Lord Crawford's Armorial. It was compiled around 1599 with some later additions and contains illustrations of 285 arms. It contains two listings for Bothwell. The first is labeled Bothuel of Furd and is the same as the arms of Adam Bothwell shown in Fig. 1. The second (Fig. 6) is labeled Bothuel of Halbank and shows the arms as: "Azure a chevron between two hammers and a trefoil slipped Or."

In a discussion about the Bothwell arms on the Googlegroups Rec.Heraldry discussion list, Alex Maxwell Findlater (author of Aspilogia Scoticana) supplies an interesting perspective on the inclusion of the Bothwell arms in the Crawford Armorial: "in the context of the Crawford Armorial, which was produced for a courtier, Sir John Bellenden of Broughton, we have to see all the persons entered as being associated with the Royal Court, or with the Bellenden family." Clearly this fits the Edinburgh Bothwells. Not only was Adam's mother, Katherine Bellenden, related to Sir John Bellenden, but Adam himself had presided over the coronation of King James VI of Scotland, served on the Privy Council and was an advisor and mentor to the young king.

In addition, Findlater notes that "an analysis of Bellenden's extended family, i.e. including cousins and in-laws, shows that virtually all are included. Add again that (Adam's son) John Bothwell was a prominent courtier, one of the young blades with whom the King associated in his youth, being much of an age, and certainly a member of the louche set in 1601, although a Senator and Lord of the Articles. He was one of the coterie of favorites who went to England with the king in 1603 (when James VI of Scotland became James I of the United Kingdom)."

Findlater also speculates that the arms of Bothwell of Halbank might have belonged to Francis Bothwell, John's younger brother, who "was recorded as 'servitour' to the king and as his Master Carver, so again a courtier. It is partly through him that the Coutts arms are included in the armorial, his wife being a Coutts."

Another armorial containing an unusual version of the Bothwell arms is the Hague Armorial, published in Holland around 1590-1592 with some later additions. It illustrates 971 arms. I have not seen this depiction, but it was described to me as: "Argent on a chevron Sable betwixt three flowers Gules leaved and slipped Vert a star Argent." Although the design matches that of the arms used by Francis, David and Adam Bothwell, the colors are so different as to call into question its origins and accuracy.

Adam Bothwell's arms are carved in stone on the bishop's memorial plaque at Holyroodhouse Abbey, where he was interned in the Chapel Royale in 1593. The arms (Fig. 7) include the motto: OBDURANDUM ADVERSUS URGENCIA, which translates to "Resolute against Oppression."

Bishop Bothwell's plaque

Fig. 7. The arms of Bishop Adam Bothwell on his memorial at Holyroodhouse Abbey where the bishop is buried. Photo courtesy Richard Huseth.

With Adam's death in 1593, the right to use the arms with the star on the chevron would have gone to his eldest son, John, who, if the Dunvegan Armorial is correct, already had established his own arms with a crescent in place of the star. While it would be customary and usual for him to have adopted the ancestral arms following Adam's death, the trail has become muddled because there is no known seal, description, or armorial that can be dated to the time between when John was named Lord Holyroodhouse in 1607 and his death in 1609. Nor are there any that are contemporary with the life of the second Lord Holyroodhouse, John's only son who also was named John Bothwell. The second Lord Holyroodhouse died in February of 1637/38 without a known male heir.

As the second Lord Holyroodhouse died before the creation of the Lyon Registry, the arms were never registered and the earliest description clearly identified as referencing Lord Holyroodhouse's arms was in the 1716 edition of "The Peerage of Scotland" by George Crawford: "Azure a chevron betwixt three trefoils Or, supported on the right side by a Gray-Hound and on the other with a Goss-Hawk Proper, crest, a palm tree, with a naked boy on it. Motto, Surgendum adversus urgentia."

Six years later, Nisbet gave us a different description of the Lord Hollyroodhouse arms: "Azure, on a chevron between three trefoils slipped Or a crescent Gules, crest a naked child pulling down the top of a green pine tree, supporters Dexter, a spaniel dog collared Gules, Sinister, A goshawk proper, jessed, beaked & belled Or, motto Obdura adversus urgentia."

Thus, we are left with three possible designs for the arms and two versions each of the crest, motto, and supporters. More on the the motto and crest shortly, but the possible versions of the arms are:

  1. The version with the star on the chevron, which John would have inherited upon the death of his father;
  2. The version described by Crawford with no device on the chevron; and
  3. The version described by Nisbet bearing the red crescent in place of the star, which may have been used by John during his father's lifetime.

In order to illustrate what the full armorial achievement of Lord Holyroodhouse might have looked like, I commissioned a modern recreation based on Nisbet's description, as shown in Fig. 8 and at the top of this page, with the realization that it may not be accurate or even correct and with the understanding that modifications and/or corrections will be made as new information becomes available.

Fig. 8. A modern recreation of what the full armorial bearings of John Bothwell, Lord Holyroodhouse, may have looked like. Because no illustration or description of these arms exist that are contemporary with either Bothwell who held the title Lord Holyroodhouse, a decision was made to base the design on the description given in 1722 by Alexander Nisbet. Image © 2011 by Kearney Bothwell

Modern recreation

With the death in 1638 of the second Lord Holyroodhouse without a male heir, the peerage became dormant and remained so for 66 years, until Alexander Bothwell of Glencross served himself heir to the titles and privileges of John Bothwell, Lord Holyroodhouse.

However, the claim of Alexander, who was born the same year the second Lord Holyroodhouse died, was denied because of a defective pedigree -- he claimed descent from Sir Richard, brother of Francis, but Sir Richard never had any children (Note, during the pre-reformation times, the honorific Sir commonly was applied to priests, which Richard was, as well as to knights).

Alexander's eldest son, Henry, resubmitted the claim in 1734 with a revised pedigree, this time claiming descent from another of Francis' brothers, William. Although the king accepted the petition, he deferred action and referred the matter to the House of Lords for a decision, but the Lords never acted on the claim.

Despite the failure of the Lords to act on his petition, Henry assumed the title and used it until his death in 1755. Apparently none of his male heirs chose to pursue the matter and the claim of the Glencross Bothwell ended with the death of the last male member of the line in the mid-1700s.

In the second volume of his book, Nisbet provided an illustration (Fig. 9) that apparently depicts the version of the arms proposed or used by Alexander and Henry Bothwell and labeled as being those of Bothwell of Glencross. It shows the arms without any device on the chevron, the crest as a naked child pulling down the top of a palm tree, and the motto as OBDURANDUM ADVERSUS URGENTIA.

Fig. 9. This version of the Bothwell arms apparently was created by Alexander Nesbit for Alexander and/or Henry Bothwell and appears to have been based on the arms of John Bothwell, Lord Holyroodhouse. Nesbit's original sketch is on the left, a modern recreation showing the proper colors is on the right.

nisbetmodern nisbet

The six Bothwells -- Francis, David, Adam, John the elder, John the younger and (probably Richard) Bothwell of Halbank -- who lived between 1482 and 1638 were the only Bothwells documented to have born arms that were recognized as legitimate during their lifetimes. Two others, Alexander and his son, Henry, who claimed to be heirs of John, 2nd Lord Holyroodhouse, also used the arms or a variant of them, but their right to do so was never recognized and they never matriculated their arms in the Lyon Register, as required by the law that created the "Public Register of All Arms and Bearings in Scotland" in 1672. However, they did record their genealogy with the Lord Lyon, perhaps in anticipation of matriculating their arms once the House of Lords acted on their claim to the Lord Holyroodhouse title.

The Bothwell Crest and Motto

A discussion of the Bothwell arms would not be complete without also examining the crest and motto which, together with supporters for those authorized to have same, make up the full achievement such as that shown in Fig. 8 for Lord Holyroodhouse.

Fig. 10. Illustration of the Bothwell crest from Alexander Deuchar’s “British Crests,” Edinburgh, 1817.

Bothwell crest

Crests often have a meaning or a story behind them, and one had to wonder what strange and fanciful story could explain the Bothwell Crest, a naked boy pulling down the top of a green pine tree (Fig.10) and the meaning behind the motto, variously reported as: Obdurandum adversus urgentia, Obduram Adversus Urgentia, Obdura Adversus Urgentia and even Surgendum Adversus Urgentia.

Except for the 4th version of the motto, which clearly was an erroneous transcription, each is a grammatically correct Latin phrase. The first two are statements that translate, respectively, as 'One must persist against oppressions' and 'I will persist against oppressions." The third is a command, "Persist against oppressions," Given the nature of mottos, and the richer, larger vocabulary available in English than in Latin, a more appropriate translation for the motto, regardless of which Latin version is used, would seem to be "Resolute against oppression."

Surprisingly, it appears the motto and the crest both originated from the same source, a book published in the early 1500s, "The Book of Emblems of that Most Famous Man, Andrea Alciato, Jurisconsult of Milan, to Master Chonrad Peutinger," which can be found at the comprehensive Glasgow University Emblem Website.

The first edition, an unauthorized version printed in 1531 in Augsburg, Bavaria, Germany -- just four years after the birth of Adam Bothwell -- contains the earliest printed version of the motto, along with a rather obscure illustration accompanied by a six-line Latin text which translates as:

The wood of the palm-tree counteracts a weight and rises up into an arch. The heavier the burden pressing it down, the more it lifts it up. The palm-tree also bears fragrant dates, sweet dainties much valued when served at table. Go, boy, edge your way along the branches and gather them. The man who shows a resolute spirit will receive an appropriate reward."

In the 1534 edition, published in Paris, the illustration was changed to show a naked child pulling down the branches of a palm tree. The motto and text remained the same in it and also in subsequent editions in Paris, Lyon, Frankfurt am Main, Keiden, Najera and Padua as late as 1621, though there were some variations in the illustration. Several versions of the illustration are shown in Fig 11.

Fig. 11. Four examples of the emblems accompanying the motto OBDURANDUM ADVERSUS URGENTIA from various editions of the Book of Emblems. Top left is from the 1531 edition and the others are from editions of 1534, 1549 and 1567 respectively. Note the similarity between these images and the crest in Fig. 9. All images reproduced courtesy Glasgow University Library, Special Collections.


It seems likely that Adam Bothwell was exposed to Alciato's work, perhaps during his youth while he studied at St. Andrews and at universities in France, and adopted OBDURANDUM ADVERSUS URGENTIA as his motto, especially since it appears carved in stone as part of his memorial at the Chapel Royale at Hollyroodhouse Abbey as seen in Fig. 7.

Therefore, it seems reasonable to conclude that the "original" version of the motto was "Obdurandum adversus urgentia" and, by extension, that the tree in the original version of the crest most likely was a palm rather than a pine.

Were either the motto or the crest modified by John Bothwell when he became Lord Hollyroodhouse? It generally was acceptable for an individual to make changes in the crest and motto as a means of personalizing the ancestral arms. But we have no contemporary record of either the motto or the crest other than the motto on Adam's memorial plaque and, as previously noted, the next nearest things to contemporary descriptions are those of Crawford and Nisbet, who do not agree. For that matter, Nisbet is inconsistent in describing the crest as having a pine tree while his illustration of the arms of Bothwell of Glencross undeniably shows a palm tree.

However, given that the iconic Scots Pine has long been associated with Scotland and that palms are not native to the British Islands, it seems appropriate to accept the version of the crest with the pine tree, at least until better evidence surfaces.

Similar designs

Finally, let us address an issue that came up after the first version of this article was posted many years ago, the question of whether the use of a similar design of arms by other families indicates a possible connection with the Bothwell family of Edinburgh.

Fig. 12. Seal of Robert Cupif, bishop of Leon 1639-1646 and bishop of Fraud 1648-1659.

Bishop Cupiff

The issue was raised when a researcher in France, Jean Michael Nelly, sent in the seal of Robert Cupif (Fig. 12), who was born in 1607 in Anjou in Brittany to a family of Scottish ancestry. Noting he similarity of designs, he asked it it might suggest a possible relationship between the Cupif and the Bothwell Families.

Two Cupif blazons have been found, one with the shield Argent bearing three green trefoils and a second showing an Azure shield bearing a gold chevron "accosted by three trefoils of the same Color."

Given that there are numerous other blazons that describe similar designs of arms (some in the same colors as the Bothwell arms) including Lynch of Galway, Chambers of London, Lynch of Castle Carra, Bloss of Ireland, Duddin of Scotland, etc., it appears the similarity is merely coincidental.


In addition to James Dempster, FSA Scots, and Alex Maxwell Findlater, author of Aspilogia Scoticana, both of whom are quoted in the above article, I gratefully thank Richard Huseth for the use of his photograph, the Schøyen Collection, the Special Collections of the University of Glasgow, François Velde of the website Heraldica, Derek Howard, the late John W. Bothwell, and many others, including members of the Rec.Heraldry usegroup and the Textkit Greek and Latin Forums, for their valued help, advice, and contributions. Any errors or inane conclusions are, of course, all mine. The modern versions of the arms used in this article were created for me by Fleur-de-lis Designs of Knoxville, TN.

Site created 1 July 1999
Updated 14 June 2024

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All original content in this document is copyright 2005-2024 by Kearney Bothwell. unless otherwise noted. It may be freely copied or distributed to others for research purposes as long as this copyright notice is included. Any other reproduction or republication, including posting on the internet, is prohibited without express written permission of Kearney Bothwell.