Dukes of Hamilton

The name Hamilton is currently very much in the air, as music and theatre fans all over the world learn about this Founding Father of the great experiment in a republican form of government established in North America in the late 18th century. But Alexander Hamilton has always been around, as someone you study in American History courses as that guy who helped define the legalistic and financial framework of the new nation, or more simply, as that guy on the ten-dollar bill.

Few people are aware, however, that he was part of a grand and ancient ducal, almost royal, dynasty from Scotland. Even the famous biography by Ron Chernow on which the musical Hamilton is based only alludes to this ancestry vaguely, though he does comment that the social climbing New Yorker did sometimes boast about his blue-blood ancestors. The musical downplays this somewhat, and with reason, since any connection Alexander Hamilton had to this family of grandees, with multiple branches and a string of titles including four dukedoms and numerous marquisates and earldoms, was fairly limited, having been abandoned by his father (who may not have even been his father, notes Chernow, pp. 27-28) at a young age, penniless, on an island in the West Indies. But the family’s wider story is worth knowing, as significant players in the struggles of the reign of Mary, Queen of Scots, the Civil Wars of the 1640s; and interacting with various intriguing figures of history, from Admiral Nelson’s beloved Emma, to the Deputy Führer Rudolf Hess.

Alexander Hamilton’s father, James Hamilton of Grange, came from a junior branch of a junior branch of a junior branch of the House of Hamilton…most genealogical sources are even unsure how exactly this line is connected, with some crucial details missing in the early 17th century. It seems likely, they conclude, that these lords of a patch of land in the west of Scotland, near Kilmarnock (in Ayrshire), were a continuation of the line of Cambuskeith, which branched off from the main line as early as the late 14th century. It is interesting to learn that Alexander Hamilton, first Secretary of the Treasury of the United States, decided to memorialise this connection in the naming of his own mansion in upper Manhattan The Grange, which still stands, in a neighbourhood fittingly called Hamilton Heights.

Hamilton Grange, New York

This persistence of a family name is certainly evident across the Atlantic in Scotland, where there is a town called Hamilton and numerous houses, castles, streets and shopping malls with the name. At one point, Hamilton Palace, about 15 miles southeast of Glasgow, was considered the largest non-royal residence in Europe. It was torn down in the 1920s and today is the rather unlovely site of a sports complex, a supermarket, and a McDonalds. But other monuments to the family remain, across Scotland, which this blog post will explore.

The significant size of Hamilton Palace was no accident, and for several centuries the family acted as a sort of second royal family for Scotland, ready to take over in place of the Stuarts. This was no empty pretension—for much of the 16th century they were indeed next in line to the throne, sometimes with only a tiny infant standing in their way. As such they needed to be respected, so were given high positions of leadership in the Kingdom, and in 1643 created the first (with one brief exception) non-royal dukes in Scotland. They had already been created Dukes of Châtellerault (in Poitou, France) by King Henri II in thanks for efforts maintaining the Auld Alliance between France and Scotland in 1548. After the union of Scotland and England in 1707, a new dukedom was created, Brandon, based in England (1711). Over a century later, the junior branch, established in Ireland since the 17th century, was elevated to its own dukedom, Abercorn (1868). Both branches continue to use the title Duc de Châtellerault (and Napoleon III even confirmed it for the Duke of Hamilton, his distant kinsman, in 1864). Four dukedoms in one family is pretty impressive, and as one begins to contemplate how to write a short overview of this family, the sheer length of the histories of multiple branches (literally dozens, though most become fairly minor nobles), involvement in the histories of not just Scotland and England, but also Ireland, France and even Sweden, and numerous castles and residences, it is a little overwhelming.

To add one further twist to this complex history—the main line of the Dukes of Hamilton are not actually Hamiltons at all, strictly speaking, but Douglases. As the second great rival of the Stuarts for power in the late Middle Ages, the Douglas lords were sometimes enemies, sometimes allies of the House of Hamilton. But in 1656, Anne, 3rd Duchess of Hamilton, married Lord William Douglas and they formed a new dynasty, Douglas-Hamilton, which continues to the present. They are considered by most to be Hamiltons, but by strict patrilineal descent, the chief of Clan Hamilton is the Duke of Abercorn, while, ironically, the Duke of Hamilton is regarded by most as the head of Clan Douglas.

But it seems a little artificial to me to refer to this House as a ‘clan’, as their story has little to do with Gaelic culture or life in the Scottish Highlands. They are a lowland family, with power bases—lands and castles—in both the west (chiefly Lanarkshire) and the east (in both West Lothian and East Lothian) of what is known as the Central Belt. As hinted at by the name Hamilton itself, they are of ‘foreign’ origin. Their origins are obscure and there are a variety of stories that appear in the genealogies. Most agree that the first historically documented member, Walter FitzGilbert ‘de Hameldone’, who was active in the 1290s to 1320s, came from England. Some say he might have been a member of the family of the Earls of Leicester, or the Umfraville family of Northumberland—both of these families used a Cinquefoil (a heraldic representation of a five-petal rose) in their coats of arms, and there are likely candidate place-names in both locations (for example Hameldon or Hambledon in Leicestershire; or Humbleton in Northumberland). One account says his father Gilbert married a sister of a nephew of Robert the Bruce, so was drawn into Scottish service during the Scottish wars of independence; while another suggests that either this Gilbert, or his son Walter, praised the valour of The Bruce in the court of Edward II, was attacked for it by the King’s favourite Despencer, and fled north of the border. Historical record seems to suggest that Walter was indeed a soldier in service of the English Crown in its struggle to achieve overlordship over Scotland in the early 1300s, captain of Bothwell Castle in the valley of the Clyde, until he switched sides and joined the cause of Robert the Bruce, for which he was rewarded with lands nearby, Dalserf and Cadzow, in about 1315, and later given more lands in West Lothian, including Kinneil. Cadzow and Kinneil would form the twin power bases for the family, west and east, for the next two centuries.

Cadzow Castle (pronounced ‘cadyou’, as the z is in fact a different letter, a yogh, in old Scots) was a fortified tower possibly built as early as the 12th century, overlooking the gorge of the Avon (or Aven), a tributary of the Clyde. It was rebuilt in the 16th century, utterly destroyed in the civil wars of the 1570s, and later redeveloped as a Romantic ruin in the 18th and 19th century to provide ‘scenery’ for hunting parties. It’s worth a hike up from the large country park called Chatelherault (as it is spelled in Scotland, more on that later), but mostly inaccessible to explore close up.

19th-century tourists visiting Cadzow

The lands in this area of the Clyde Valley, Lanarkshire, and the neighbouring county of Ayrshire, were divided and sub-divided into the numerous sub-branches of the family, including Cambuskeith, Dalserf, Udston, Wishaw, Orbiston, Silvertonhill, Bothwellhaugh, etc. An important split occurred in the very first generation after Walter, his second son John FiztWalter de Hamilton being given lands in Haddingtonshire (the old name of East Lothian), at Innerwick, near Dunbar, which formed a major cadet branch, later the earls of Haddington (created 1627), which continues to the present. The earls maintained two wonderful country seats: one in the area of Haddington, Tyninghame House, and one in the Borders, Mellerstain, near Kelso, though the former was sold in 1987.

Mellerstain, seat of the Hamiltons of Haddington

Returning to Lanarkshire and the lands to the south of Glasgow, the lairds of Cadzow were given a great social boost when they aligned with the powerful Black Douglas family in the 1450s, linked through marriage to the widowed Countess Douglas, then even further by switching sides mid-rebellion, to become one of the chief supporters of King James II in the west of Scotland, rewarded with some of the lands of the now crushed Douglases (notably Craignethan, a bit further up the Clydesdale), and the tremendous honour of marriage of the King’s daughter, Princess Mary, the widowed Countess of Arran. Through the first alliance, they had been summoned to Parliament as ‘Lord Hamilton’ (1445), and their holdings in the valley below Cadzow were renamed Hamilton. Through the second, they were given large estates on the island of Arran, in the Firth of Clyde, and their son was created Earl of Arran in 1503. Their seat on the island was the ancient fortress of Brodick, with roots as far back as the Gaelic chieftains who came across the water from Ireland in the 5th century, and the Norse sea lords in the 10th century who gave it its name, Breiðvik (‘broad bay’). Granted to the first Lord Hamilton by his brother-in-law, James III, in about 1470, this castle became a very useful place of security in the 16th and 17th centuries when politics got too hot on the mainland.

Brodick Castle

From this point, the Hamiltons of Arran quartered their arms (the cinquefoil) with a galley or ‘lymphad’ (another heraldic word, derived for the Gaelic word for longship, long fhada). This had long been a symbol of power in the western isles, and features in other coats of arms of insular noble houses such as the Macleans or MacDonnells, or even the Prince of Wales in his capacity as Lord of the Isles.

cinquefoils and lymphads

The other key benefit from marriage to a royal Stewart princess of course was that her son the Earl of Arran was, for much of his life, quite close to the royal succession. As one of the most prominent figures at the court of King James IV, he was involved in negotiations for the King’s marriage to Margaret Tudor in 1503, and commanded the Scottish fleet in engagements in Scandinavia, the Western Isles and off the coast of France. During the minority of James V, he was President of the Regency Council, but struggled for power once the Douglases again rose to prominence through marriage to the widowed Queen Mother. He also had to defend himself against the Stuarts of Lennox who saw themselves as next in line for the throne should the King fail to produce heirs. He himself felt some dynastic urgency, as he too had no heirs, causing him to press the King to legitimise one of his many bastard sons (James Hamilton of Finnart, later famous as the King’s chief builder of palaces), and even two bastard uncles, in 1512-13. From a second marriage, he finally produced James, 2nd Earl of Arran, heir presumptive to Mary, Queen of Scots from 1542, and probably the most famous member of the family, as Regent of Scotland from 1542 to 1554.

James, 2nd Earl of Arran, Regent of Scotland

The Regent Arran, James Hamilton, attempted to navigate the difficult path between great rivals France and England, and at the same time keep a handle on the bubbling religious reform movement then taking hold in Scotland. At first pro-English and pro-Protestant, he soon reversed position, re-embracing the Catholic faith and the alliance with France. He negotiated the marriage of the young Queen Mary with the Dauphin of France and was rewarded with a French duchy, Châtellerault. It is unusual for a king to grant a duchy to a foreign nobleman, but not the first time this had happened in the history of the Auld Alliance: a century before, Archibald Douglas had been created Duke of Touraine by King Charles VII during the Hundred Years War.

While he was regent, the new Duke of Châtellerault expanded the family’s principal residence in the east, Kinneil House, about 20 miles west of Edinburgh on the road to Falkirk. Today, it is a poorly preserved example of a tower house, at least on the outside—but on the inside are to be found genuine treasures, in the painted walls and ceilings commissioned by the Duke and his wife, Margaret Douglas. The paintings include numerous Biblical and Classical scenes, many having to do with the power of women, such as Bathsheba, Delilah, Lucretia and Mary Magdalen. Ceiling paintings and an elaborate wall carving clearly demonstrate the Hamiltons’ new ducal status (with a coronet of strawberry leaves) and the alliance with France (the Order of St. Michael). It is emblematic display of the highest order.

Kinneil, painted ceiling

In later times, Kinneil House (sometimes called Arran House) acted sometimes as a fortress, sometimes a prison for the family, and was used on occasion as a setting for the court of James VI. It was largely rebuilt in the late 17th century, but was mostly abandoned by the family in the 18th, often being let out to people employed in their service, for example, James Watt who developed his steam engine in a cottage on the estate. Kinneil was nearly a ruin by the 20th century, but was saved from demolition by the Director of the National Galleries of Scotland who had heard about its unique 16th-century painted walls and ceilings. Today it is looked after by Historic Environment Scotland.

Kinneil House today

Back in 1543, the renewal of the alliance with France brought on war with England, reaching its low point for Scotland at the Battle of Pinkie, outside Edinburgh, in 1547. The Duke of Châtellerault held on to the regency for a few more years then was forced to relinquish power to the Queen’s mother, Mary of Guise, in 1554. By the terms of the agreement, he was re-confirmed as heir to the throne, but later discovered he had been betrayed and the Scottish throne had been promised to France. Pretty miffed, in 1559, he switched sides again, joined the Protestant rebellion, lost his French dukedom, and attempted to forge an alliance with Queen Elizabeth by offering his son (and thus potentially the Scottish throne) as her groom. By 1566, he withdrew to France, to try to recover his duchy; failing in this he returned to Scotland, was imprisoned by the new Regent, the Earl of Moray, and possibly had a hand in the latter’s murder (at the hands of another Hamilton, James, of Bothwellhaugh; along with Arran’s illegitimate half-brother, John, Archbishop of St. Andrews). By now he became a strong supporter of the Queen of Scots, until he once again switched sides and supported the reign of her infant son James VI in 1573, and died two years later.

The other Hamilton residence that features in this period, the Marian Civil Wars, is the castle of Craignethan, further up the Clyde valley from Cadzow and Hamilton. Built as a model of innovative fortification by the King’s chief builder, Hamilton of Finnart in the 1530s, after his fall in 1540, his half-brother the Regent used it as his stronghold in the west. It was rendered defenceless by James VI in the 1580s, and was mostly a ruin when it was sold by the family in the 1650s.

Craignethan Castle

The Regent Arran’s eldest son John had become mentally ill, so although he succeeded as 3rd Earl, he was governed by his younger brothers John and Claud. Both were accused of participation in the murders of the regents Moray and then Lennox, and were exiled to England (and the title of Arran temporarily taken away from the family). Lord John was restored at the point of a sword (and with the backing of Elizabeth I) in 1585, and by 1599 had regained favour with the King so much that he was created Marquess of Hamilton (thus outranking his older brother) in 1599. This new title, between dukes and earls, was recently imported from France; Hamilton’s was one of the first and there would be very few others like it in the peerage of Scotland.

The youngest son of the Regent Arran, Claud, had been created Lord Paisley (an important ecclesiastical and market town southwest of Glasgow) by James VI in 1587—in spite of his plotting with Spain on behalf of the imprisoned Mary, Queen of Scots. Lord Paisley founded the branch of the Hamiltons, earls (1606), later dukes, of Abercorn, who were part of the great expansion of Scots into Ulster in the 17th century. While Abercorn itself is an estate (with an already long ruined castle) in West Lothian, their power base soon became the barony of Strabane, in County Tyrone, and they would remain a force in the history and politics of this part of Ireland for the next three centuries. In the 1740s, they built a large mansion at Baronscourt, which remains the seat of the Duke of Abercorn today (I will do a separate post about these dukes). Unlike their cousins in Scotland, this branch remained Catholic, and some of their cadet lines emigrated to Continental Europe to serve in Imperial or French (Catholic) armies. Four brothers, George, Anthony, Richard and John, all became officers in the armies of Louis XIV, and their sister, Elizabeth, Comtesse de Gramont, became one of the celebrated beauties of the French court, and Dame du Palais of the Queen. Anthony (or Antoine), Comte Hamilton, wrote a memoir about the court which is probably mostly fiction, but is full of gossipy stories and quite fun to read.

“La Belle Hamilton” (Elizabeth, Countess of Gramont), by Lely (Hampton Court Palace)

Meanwhile, a Protestant branch, from the line of Hamilton of Dalserf (branched off in the early 15th century), also emigrated to Ireland in the early 17th century, establishing themselves in County Fermanagh. They too sought employment in the wars raging on the Continent, this time the Protestant armies of the King of Sweden. They were created Friherre (or baron) of Dalserf in the 1650s, and a line was established permanently in Sweden, with two prominent members in the later 18th century: Count Gustav David Hamilton, of Barsebäck, a field marshal and commander of Swedish forces in Pomerania in the Seven Years War; and his son Count Adolf Ludvig, one of the leaders of the opposition against the absolutism of King Gustav III in the 1780s. There are still Counts Hamilton in Sweden today.

Count Gustav David Hamilton, Swedish Field Marshal

Other branches of the House of Hamilton established in Ireland in the 17th century include the Viscounts Boyne (1717, in Leinster, which continue to present); and the Earls of Clanbrassil (1647, in Armagh, extinct 1798), whose seat of Killyleagh in County Down (about 20 miles southeast of Belfast) is still a mighty fortress that dominates its town, and is still lived in by Hamilton descendants.

Killyleagh, seat of the Hamiltons of Clanbrassil

Coming back to the main line and the history of Scotland, the 1st Marquess of Hamilton’s son James succeeded as 2nd Marquess in 1604, and was a favourite of James VI, newly crowned as James I of England. He was involved in early colonial ambitions, investing in the expeditions to Virginia (and for whom Hamilton Parish in Bermuda is named; though not the capital city, Hamilton, which is named for a later royal governor, from the Abercorn branch). As part of King James’s efforts to integrate his two kingdoms, Hamilton was created Earl of Cambridge in the English peerage, in 1619, so he could attend the English Parliament. The Marquess was important dynastically as he remained in the line of succession to the throne of Scotland, after the King’s three children, and was given offices in both realms: in 1621, he was named Lord High Commissioner, the King’s representative in the Scottish Parliament; and in 1623 he was appointed Lord Steward of the Household in England. James VI and I died in March 1625, as did the 2nd Marquess only a few weeks before.

James, 2nd Marquess of Hamilton

The 3rd Marquess of Hamilton would be one of the major players of the next reign, and in the Civil Wars that destroyed it. Loaded with court offices by Charles I, notably Gentleman of the Bedchamber and Master of the Horse, in 1638 he was sent to Scotland to quell the rebellion of the Convenanters who did not wish to see English-style episcopacy re-imposed by an increasingly absolutist king. Hamilton failed in his various attempts, notably being stood down by his own mother, a colonel in the Covenanter army, who threatened to shoot him with her own pistol if he disembarked in Edinburgh. He continued to try to mediate between the King and the Scots, and was shown royal favour by the promotion of his marquisate to a dukedom in 1643, along with a second marquisate, of Clydesdale (to be used as the courtesy title for his heir). But he vacillated in his loyalty to the King, and was arrested in 1644 and imprisoned on St. Michael’s Mount until he was freed by Parliamentary Forces two years later. Still the King wished to secure his loyalty, so he created him Hereditary Keeper of Holyroodhouse, the seat of the monarch in Scotland, a position which the dukes of Hamilton continue to hold today. This worked, and the new Duke led a Scottish army into England in support of Charles in 1648, but was defeated at Preston in August and executed in March 1649, a few weeks after the King’s own execution. March was turning out to be an ill-favoured month for the Hamiltons.

James, 1st Duke of Hamilton

The 1st Duke of Hamilton’s brother William had also been honoured by Charles, as Earl of Lanark, 1639, and Secretary of State for Scotland in 1641. He succeeded as 2nd Duke while in exile in Holland, then joined the Scottish army trying to re-establish Charles II in England, and was killed at the Battle of Worcester in September 1651.

The main line of the Hamilton family suddenly found itself consisting of six unwed young women. In normal circumstances, heiresses would take lands and minor titles into another family by marriage, or perhaps be married to another person from the same dynasty. In this case, the creation of the Dukedom of Hamilton was generous—more than almost any other dukedom—in that it specified female succession in default of male heirs. The eldest daughter of the first Duke, Lady Anne, therefore succeeded her uncle as the 3rd Duchess, and a few years later married Lord William Douglas, Earl of Selkirk, a younger son of the Marquess of Douglas.

Anne, 3rd Duchess of Hamilton

Together Anne and William started a new dynasty, the Douglas-Hamiltons, and of their thirteen children, four sons bore separate titles (the ‘Marquess of Clydesdale’ as heir, plus the earls of Selkirk, Ruglen and Orkney), and three daughters made prestigious titled marriages (the Duchess of Atholl, the Marchioness of Tweeddale, and the Countess of Panmure). Some of these bore the surname Hamilton and some Douglas, and some established new cadet branches of their own. The fourth son, Orkney, was Governor of Virginia for nearly forty years in the early 18th century—though he probably never visited—while the youngest son, Archibald, was a naval commander and Governor of Jamaica. The main line of the House of Douglas continued for a few more generations (also elevated to a dukedom, 1703), but when they became extinct in 1761, many of their titles were added to those of the Dukes of Hamilton, notably the marquessate of Douglas, the earldom of Angus, and the lordship of Abernethy, an ancient royal and ecclesiastical site in Perthshire, which brought with it the hereditary title Bearer of the Crown of Scotland—this title is still in use today, for example in the formal opening of the new Scottish Parliament in 1999.

A new coat-of-arms, Hamilton quartered with Douglas

As premier peer of Scotland (and still maintaining claims of her own to the Scottish throne), Duchess Anne decided to rebuild their residence at Hamilton in Lanarkshire to suit her exalted rank. Hamilton Palace was built by the architect James Smith in the 1680s in the style of a Palladian Villa. It was surrounded by Lanarkshire coalfields, which brought in lots of money, and by the 19th century, the house was further expanded, in part to house the huge collections of art and furniture of the 10th Duke. But the coal mining was too enticing, and led to mining under the house itself—by the 1920s, subsidence was so bad, and the family’s debts substantial, that the Palace was torn down. Little remains of the interiors except a preserved and re-assembled dining room in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts; and nothing of the estate buildings save the Mausoleum built by the 10th Duke (below), a coach house and a riding school.

Hamilton Palace

James Douglas-Hamilton was granted his mother’s titles in 1698 to become 4th Duke of Hamilton. He invested heavily in the Darien Scheme in Panama, a Scottish attempt to circumvent the English stranglehold on colonial trade, which failed utterly by 1700, bankrupting many Scots and leading in great part to the forging of the Union of the Crowns in 1707. Hamilton wasn’t in favour of the union (perhaps he continued to harbour some hopes that the Scottish Parliament would choose him to succeed Queen Anne, not her cousins the Hanoverians), yet he benefited through the creation of another dukedom, of Brandon, in Suffolk, to allow him to sit in Parliament in his own right not as a representative peer from Scotland. Shortly after this great honour (thus far, the only people who had multiple dukedoms in more than one peerage were royal), this was followed by an appointment as Master General of Ordinance and Ambassador to France—it looked like a glittering military and diplomatic career would follow. But in November 1712, he was killed in a famous duel in Hyde Park by a rival for a disputed inheritance, Lord Mohun.

James, 4th Duke of Hamilton, 1st Duke of Brandon

With the 4th duke’s passing, the history of the dukes of Hamilton goes into slumber for a century. There is nothing very much to say about the 5th Duke, the 6th Duke or even the 7th, 8th or 9th dukes… They lived well, they loved well. Like many Georgian aristocrats, they drank to excess and conducted scandalous affairs. The 5th Duke did add to the cultural landscape of greater Glasgow by commissioning William Adam in 1734 to build a hunting lodge in the hillside above Hamilton Palace, which they named ‘Chatelherault’ in memory of their lost French dukedom. It houses kennels, stables and accommodation for guests partaking in the hunt. It was given to the nation in lieu of death duties in 1973 and opened as a country park in 1987. I am sure the name continues to bewilder even locals to this day.


The 6th Duke of Hamilton married the society beauty Elizabeth Gunning (famous as a ‘double duchess’ for later marrying the Duke of Argyle); the 7th Duke died as a teenager. The 8th Duke had no legitimate children, so the title passed to his uncle, the 9th Duke. His daughter Anne was known as one of the few loyal supporters of Queen Caroline of Brunswick, and was an unmarried grand dame in her own right. One of the cousins of these 18th-century dukes was Sir William Hamilton, ambassador to Naples from 1764 to 1800,  one of the most interesting people in the period, as a connoisseur and collector, whose youthful second wife, the former actress Emma Hart, became world famous as the lover of Admiral Nelson.

Emma Hamilton, by Vigée Le Brun (1790)

With the 10th Duke of Hamilton (and 7th Duke of Brandon) the main line starts to get more interesting again. Alexander Douglas-Hamilton succeeded his father in 1819. He had already served as Ambassador to Imperial Russia (as ‘Marquess of Douglas and Clydesdale’, the courtesy title) in 1806, and in 1810 married Susan Beckford, the heiress of one of Britain’s richest men and grandest art collectors. Contemporaries said he was a very proud aristocrat, “with a great predisposition to over-estimate the importance of ancient birth”.

Alexander, 10th Duke of Hamilton (Brodick Castle)

He was passionate about Egyptology, and went a bit further than most in his interests, acquiring a Ptolmaic sepulchre for himself and constructing a giant Mausoleum in Egyptian-Classical style in the 1840s in which to bury himself, and indeed to re-bury his ‘pharaoh-like’ ancestors. The Mausoleum, by the architect David Hamilton, at over 120 feet tall, and, it has to be said, with its rather phallic appearance, is one of the more extraordinary buildings in Britain.

Hamilton Mausoleum

This sense of exalted lineage and princely status was raised even higher in the next generation, as the 11th Duke, William, married a German princess, Maria Amalia of Baden, daughter of the Grand Duke and maternal cousin of the Bonapartes. Through her he became related to a number of royal houses of Europe. Their daughter Mary Victoria married the heir to the Principality of Monaco and became ancestress of the current House of Grimaldi. The Hamiltons spent most of their time living abroad, in Paris or Germany, but unfortunately they also spent like princes, purchasing a grand house in London, enlarging Brodick Castle on the Island of Arran (to resemble a German hunting schloss), and debts began to accumulate.

Their son, the 12th Duke of Hamilton, succeeded in 1863. The next year, his cousin Emperor Napoleon III confirmed (or re-created) his Duchy of Châtellerault in the French Empire, but also confirmed it for the Duke of Abercorn (the actual heir male), and it is the latter who added ‘France en surtout’ to his coat of arms (ironically the old royal arms, in a new Imperial France). The façade began to crumble when the Duke was forced to sell much of his grand-father’s huge collection of art and furniture, in 1882. And worse, from a strictly dynastic perspective, he had only a single daughter, who couldn’t succeed to the dukedom(s) and other titles, because, unlike her ancestor Duchess Anne, there were other male heirs. Nevertheless, she inherited much of the fortune and the lands, including Brodick Castle, and these passed through marriage to the dukes of Montrose.

The Dukedom and most other titles passed to a distant cousin, Alfred, who had a naval career, oversaw the demolition of Hamilton Palace in 1921, and moved his family to a nearby estate, Dungavel, originally one of the family’s hunting lodges and summer retreats in the hills of South Lanarkshire. He also bought an English country house, Ferne House, in Wiltshire, in which he and his wife set up an animal sanctuary, which it remains.

Dungavel House

The 14th Duke, Douglas Douglas-Hamilton, succeeded his father in 1940, and a year later had an interesting guest ‘drop in’ (literally), when the Deputy Führer Rudolf Hess parachuted onto his estates near Dungavel, hoping to establish contact with someone he had (most likely) met when the British lord had visited Berlin in 1936, in order to forge a deal for peace between the United Kingdom and Germany. The Duke immediately turned Hess over to authorities, and no peace deal emerged. Watching the skies was not unusual for the Duke, as he had been an early aviator, and was appointed Air Commodore responsible for air defence for Scotland during the war.

Douglas, 14th Duke of Hamilton

In 1947, the Duke sold Dungavel (it became a prison), and purchased an ancient castle on the other side of Scotland, in East Lothian: Lennoxlove. Built way back in the 14th century, it had been the seat of the Maitland family for centuries, reaching their peak in the person of the Duke of Lauderdale, virtual viceroy of Scotland for Charles II in the 1670s. At the time, however, it was known as Lethington Castle, and received its new name after the death of Lauderdale in 1682, when its new owner, the Countess of Lennox, gifted it in her will to one of her kinsman, as ‘Lennox’s Love’. When the last Stuart of Blantyre died in 1900, the castle passed through a number of hands before it was purchased as the new ducal seat for the House of Hamilton. I visited Lennoxlove just last summer, and can highly recommend it, as a genuine ancient fortress, only moderately impacted by developments of the 18th or 19th centuries. It is not very easy to get to, and is only open to tours on certain days, so I was pleased, and a bit embarrassed, to have my very own private tour by an extremely knowledgeable guide who was also comfortable in making it more conversational once she found out I was a historian specialist on the aristocracy.


The 14th Duke died in 1973, and his son the 15th Duke inherited the titles, the house and its contents (much moved from Hamilton Palace), as well as his interests in aviation: he too had a career in the Air Force, then worked as a test pilot. The 15th Duke also played his part in the ceremonial life of Scotland, continuing to act in his capacity as Hereditary Keeper of Holyroodhouse on the Queen’s behalf, and Bearer of the Crown of Scotland at state ceremonies. He died in 2010, and was succeeded by his son, Alexander (b. 1978). The current Duke is married and has children, and it is his uncle who is more in the spotlight, as a prominent Conservative politician (a Minster of State in the 1990s), now seated in the House of Lords as Baron Selkirk of Douglas (life peerage, 1997).

the current Duke of Hamilton & Brandon, Bearer of the Crown of Scotland, opening of Scottish Parliament, 2011

With branches still extant in Scotland, England, Ireland, Sweden, and the United States, the Hamiltons can be described as one of the most widespread ducal families in the history of the nobility. I wonder how many of them have managed to obtain tickets to see the show on Broadway?

(images from Wikimedia Commons or my own photos)

Published by Jonathan Spangler

I am a historian of monarchy and the high aristocracy of Europe. I focus primarily as an academic on the early modern period and France, but my interests range from early medieval Ireland to 20th-century Russia. I teach history at Manchester Metropolitan University in Manchester, England, and am the senior editor of The Court Historian, the journal of the Society for Court Studies. I am also a musician and an avid traveler. I love heraldry and genealogy. My ancestors came from Germany to the American colonies in the 18th century and I am a proud Virginian.

5 thoughts on “Dukes of Hamilton

    1. thanks! A think a great topic for further study more generally are ‘legendary histories’–so many noble houses had them! (Lusignan and Luxembourg probably most famously: Melusine)

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  1. As a resident of East Lothian and having competed in a car Rally on the roads of Archerfield Estate while Angus the 15th Duke was alive, I found this a fascinating account of the Hamilton dynasty.


  2. What a fantastic detailed account of the Hamilton family. I enjoyed reading this.

    Have a look for a book called the Days of Duchess Anne, written by Rosalind k Marshall, you will love it.



    1. Thanks Garry–I really enjoyed writing it, though it was frustrating trying to keep the length down… there is much much more to day! I have the book you mention by Marshall and like it very much. –Jonathan

      Liked by 1 person

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