Louise Turner Interviews John Sempill of Ellestoun from Fire and Sword
John Sempill of Ellestoun is a real historical figure who plays the central role in my novel Fire and Sword. His presence in the historical record is modest. His date of birth is not recorded (so this part of his life had to be invented), but we know he died at the Battle of Flodden on the 9th September 1513 along with a substantial portion of the Scots nobility and his king, James IV. By then, John had been made a Lord of Parliament – John, 1st Lord Sempill.
Although the documents which record his life are sparse in number, we can say a little about the kind of man he was. In 1504, he founded the Collegiate Church of Castle Semple, which featured a ‘sang school’ (i.e. ‘song school’) where local boys were taught to read and write and sing. He appears to have been a very cultured man: he had a harper amongst his retinue, and he built a larger, more commodious building on the north-west side of Castle Semple Loch near Lochwinnoch to replace his ancestral tower-house at Ellestoun. The castle is long gone, but the collegiate church remains, with the founder’s tomb contained within its walls, and can still be visited to this day.
LT: I’m sitting in the laird’s chamber at Ellestoun Castle, a well-appointed tower-house which is located in the Parish of Lochwinnoch and the Sheriffdom of Renfrew. It’s the winter of 1488, there’s a warm fire roaring in the very monumental fireplace, and I’m delighted to have been granted an audience with John Sempill of Ellestoun. Master Sempill has recently inherited the titles of Laird of Ellestoun and Sheriff of Renfrew following the recent untimely death of his father, Sir Thomas Sempill of Ellestoun, and he has very kindly agreed to take some time out of his very busy schedule to talk to today.
LT: Firstly, my sincere thanks for the hospitality. I am replete after a most marvellous dinner, and the lute music added a sense of sophistication and culture that I hadn’t quite expected here in the west.
JS: This isn’t exactly Florence, or Linlithgow, but we do our best…
LT: Forgive my impertinence in asking such a personal question, but you seem remarkably young to be shouldering such authority. Might I ask where and when were you born?
JS: I was born here in the Place of Ellestoun, in the year of Our Lord fourteen hundred and sixty eight, under the sign of the Virgin. This means, of course, that I have not quite left my minority, but in times like this, a youth must grow up fast.
LT: You have your whole life before you, then. You must have some idea of the course you will be steering in your years as laird and baron. What do you hope to accomplish?
JS: I suppose it is my aim to be remembered kindly by those who knew me in life, and by those who come after me. In that respect, it has always been my goal to be righteous, to do my duty to my king and to my ancestors, and above all, to God.
But I must confess that I have broader ambitions. I look around me in these turbulent times and I see a land riven by feuding and discontent. If I could accomplish one thing in this life, then my aim would be to leave this world in better circumstances than those which prevail today. I want this kingdom to prosper, and for those who dwell here to live contented lives. I want to live in a world where men’s spirits are lifted above the realms of the beasts. Is this idle fancy? Perhaps, but if we cannot bring ourselves to imagine a brighter future for ourselves and our children, then what hope is there for any of us?
LT: You put great emphasis on the idea of inherited responsibilities and the linear nature of household and family. What influence did your birth family have on you, your choices, your life?
JS: You are quite correct – I can trace my lineage back to the times of the Bruce, earlier even. And as you can imagine, this places a heavy burden upon a man. As the only son and heir to my father, it falls to me to carry on my line, and make it prosper.
I have no choice in this – turning aside from this path would mean betraying these ancestors, and everything they fought for. It is my duty to manage my lands and worldly goods as best I can and to leave a sound legacy to those who follow after me. It is my duty, too, to serve the king with all the skills and knowledge that I possess.
When my father was slain, I inherited many responsibilities. As Laird of Ellestoun, I must keep order amongst my tenants and handle their concerns fairly. As Sheriff of Renfrew, I must apply the law across a broader jurisdiction, both within the Royal burgh and more widely throughout the county. For only when men have confidence in the law of the realm, and those who wield it, will they no longer rely on feud and force of arms to obtain redress from those who wrong them.
LT: You make the responsibilities of leadership seem quite burdensome. Is it a burden you shoulder willingly? What, if you had the choice, would you really want from life?
JS: I see no conflict with my own wishes and desires. I suppose what I really want is to live a good life, and die a good death, safe and warm in my bed, secure in the knowledge that my line will continue on after me and satisfied, too, that I have done everything I can to safeguard their inheritance. Carrying out the duties invested in me by the King is a responsible task, yes, but on the other hand it is one which I am honoured to fulfil.
LT: And one which – I’m sure you will agree – should be recognised and rewarded.
JS: Yes, I must confess… I hope and pray that one the king will acknowledge my efforts by granting me the knighthood that I have sought since I was a boy.
LT: I’m surprised you haven’t been granted this knighthood already. I have, I must admit, been hearing rumours. That perhaps you haven’t quite been seeing eye to eye with the rest of the king’s officers…
JS: This year has been a momentous one for the Scots. A King has died – some say that he was murdered – and another has risen to take his place. Some men have prospered through this change in fortunes, others have foundered – alas, I count myself amongst the latter.
My father died in the service of the old king, and I fought in the Royal host that day, too. Does that make me a traitor? I think not, but others disagree. Those same men now enjoy the new king’s favour, which means that I fear very much for my future, and for the future of those without a voice whom I represent.
LT: Men like the Earl of Lennox, and the Lord Montgomerie. Who has, it is said, been taking a keen interest in your situation. Say I asked you a hypothetical question now… How do you decide if you can trust someone? Experience with others? with this person? First impressions? Intuition? Do you test the person somehow? Or are you just generally disposed to trust or not to trust?
JS: Lord Hugh’s interest is no more than fleetin, I’m sure. He was testing my allegiance, no doubt, on the instructions of king and council…
No, in these difficult days, a man can’t afford to offer their trust blindly. I place my trust in God, and in my kinsmen. When it comes to others, I am more circumspect. I want to trust my king and his officers: indeed I will do so once I receive a solid token of their goodwill, but so far, this has not been forthcoming.
LT: I spoke at length with your mother earlier today. She’s very proud of you, I know, but she seems to imply that you didn’t always see eye to eye with your father. Did you turn out the way you expected? The way your parents predicted?
JS: My father hoped for a warrior cast in the mould of Wallace or the Bruce. I never shirk from battle, but while I’m prepared to fight (and if necessary, die) to protect family and justice and honour, if truth be told, I lean more towards a scholar’s ways. I suppose my father despaired of me on this account. But then he was set in the old ways – he was quite happy to place his trust in the legal process, as long as he was the man sitting in judgement…
LT: How would you describe yourself?
JS: This is a delicate question… I firmly believe that boasting of one’s own virtues too loudly is a sign of vanity. And vanity is, of course, a sin like any other. I try to live a good virtuous life, to be modest in my living and patient in the way I view others. But of course I’m a mortal man; I make mistakes like any other. I succumb to sloth, or gluttony, or avarice, or lust, but unlike some, I at least try and curb my excesses.
LT: We talked in passing about the fine food and the lute-music. From what’s been said so far, I can surmise that you’re not a knight or a soldier at heart. What really moves you, or touches you to the soul?
JS: Architecture, art, and in particular, music: all these things have an important role to play in the lives of civilized men. But I don’t see why an appreciation of the finer things in life cannot go hand in hand with the life of a knight. The old tales tell us that Arthur and his knights were cultured and refined in their tastes and pastimes. Their dedication to chivalry presents a modern student of the knightly arts with an ideal model to follow.
LT: So… You are skilled in the hunting field, and skilled, I daresay, in the arts of war, too. But is this really what you want out of life? If you had the choice, what would you wish your special talent was?
JS: What I would give to be accomplished in the arts, to create works of magnificence and breathtaking beauty. I can sing, and play the lute, and I am content with that, I suppose. Though it would be satisfying to create works of artistic merit which could inspire others…
LT: We’ve talked about the burden of leadership, and authority. This must mean difficult decisions for you sometimes, and actions that you might regret. What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done? And why?
JS: I’ve killed men, I’ve taken their lives. I committed this sin in war, of course, but – God forgive me – such acts cannot be undertaken lightly. These men were Scots, my fellow countrymen…
We called them ‘rebels’ at the time. That justified their deaths, I suppose, but the knowledge of what I did that day still weighs upon me…
LT: On a lighter note now…What’s the most important thing in your life? What do you value most?
JS: I value loyalty. If I can trust a man – or a woman – to honest and truthful in their dealings with me, to be reliable, then that I would consider that person to be worth their weight in gold. I make it my aim to inspire loyalty in others, and conversely, I prefer to surround myself with those who both value my loyalty, and grant me their loyalty in return.
LT: I’ve spoken to some amongst your retinue, and it strikes me how much you’re loved by those around, and how much they want you to prosper and escape from the misfortunes which appear to be hounding you. How do you feel about your life right now? What, if anything, would you like to change?
JS: Sometimes, I confess that I am close to despair. As the only son of my line, it is important that I marry and produce an heir, but with circumstances as they are, I am uncertain that the marriage brokered for me by my parents will ever come to pass.
All this unhappiness is down to affairs unfolding in the east, in Edinburgh, over which I have no power. They say the old king was murdered by men loyal to his son, and now his son is on the throne, the realm is in turmoil.
For those of us who rode behind the old king’s banner, the situation is far from certain. My uncle was the Lord Advocate and he arrayed the King’s host before the battle – now he has fled to exile in London. I’ve heard rumours that he left with much of the King’s gold in his keeping, but I swear I don’t know the truth of this. I suspect, though, that some of the new king’s adherents in the west consider me complicit in the theft, and that they are eager to use this as an excuse to move against me.
Yes, the future is indeed bleak for me just now. But I live in hope. I place my trust in God, and the King, and in my fellow man, too: I hope and pray that somehow I can steer my way through these difficult times and bring prosperity both to myself and to those who follow my banner.
Born in Glasgow, Louise Turner spent her early years in the west of Scotland where she attended the University of Glasgow. After graduating with an MA in Archaeology, she went on to complete a PhD on the Bronze Age metalwork hoards of Essex and Kent. She has since enjoyed a varied career in archaeology and cultural resource management. Writing has always been a major aspect of her life and in 1988, she won the Glasgow Herald/Albacon New Writing in SF competition with her short story Busman’s Holiday. Louise lives with her husband in west Renfrewshire.
On the 11th June in 1488, two armies meet in battle at Sauchieburn, near Stirling. One fights for King James the Third of Scotland, the other is loyal to his eldest son, Prince James, Duke of Rothesay.
Soon, James the Third is dead, murdered as he flees the field. His army is routed. Among the dead is Sir Thomas Sempill of Ellestoun, Sheriff of Renfrew, whose son and heir, John, escapes with his life.
Once John’s career as knight and courtier seemed assured. But with the death of his king, his situation is fragile. He’s the only surviving son of the Sempill line and he’s unmarried. If he hopes to survive, John must try and win favour with the new king.
And deal with the ruthless and powerful Lord Montgomerie…