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It seems certain that the Maitlands descend from one of the companions of William the Conqueror who later settled in Northumberland. The name is found in many early charters as Matulant, Mautalant or Maltalant. It has been suggested that this was a nickname, meaning ‘bad’ or ‘poor wit’. This seems highly unlikely, however, and Nisbet adds ‘Quasi mutilatus in bello’, ‘As if mutilated in war’, as an alternative translation. Sir Richard Matulant acquired the lands of Thirleston, Blyth and Hedderwick, and became one of the most considerable barons in the Borders in the reign of Alexander III. Thirlestane came to him by his marriage around 1250 to Avicia, heiress to Thomas de Thirlestane. Sir William Mautlant de Thirlstane supported Robert the Bruce in his struggle for the crown, witnessing the great victory at Bannockburn a year before his death. His son, Sir Robert Maitland, inherited not only his father’s lands, but also received a charter to the lands of Lethington near Haddington from Sir John Gifford around 1345. He was survived by three sons: John, William and Robert of Shivas; the latter is the assumed ancestor of the Aberdeenshire Maitlands whose senior line lived at Balhargardy near Inverurie. William’s successors styled themselves ‘of Lethington’, while his older brother, John, became embroiled in the conspiracies of his kinsman, George Dunbar, Earl of March, with the English. Sir Robert Maitland, William’s son, surrendered the Castle of Dunbar to the Earl of Douglas, and thereby escaped being involved in the subsequent ruin of his uncle, John. Sir Robert’s heir, William Maitland of Lethington, received a charter of confirmation to the lands of Blyth, Hedderwick and Tollus. His greatgrandson was killed at Flodden in 1513. The Flodden knight’s heir, Sir Richard Maitland, was a man of extraordinary talent who was appointed a judge of the Court of Session and Keeper of the Privy Seal. He was also a distinguished poet and historian, and died in 1586 at the age of 90. 

Sir Richard Maitland’s eldest son, William, has passed into the annals of Scots history as Secretary Lethington, confidante of Mary, Queen of Scots. He fell from favour after he took part in the conspiracy to murder Mary’s secretary, David Rizzio, but within the year he was allowed to return to court. He supported Mary’s marriage to Bothwell, but later joined the nobles who opposed the queen at Carberry Hill, and fought against her again at the Battle of Langside. He attended the coronation of the infant James VI in July 1567, but kept in secret communication with Mary during her escape from Lochleven Castle. He intrigued with all who were prepared to support his exiled queen, and ultimately, in 1571, Parliament proclaimed Lethington a traitor. He died in Leith on 9 June 1573.

The secretary’s only son, James, died without issue, and the estates passed to his brother, Sir John, first Baron Maitland. His only son was created first Earl of Lauderdale in 1616. He was President of the Council and a Lord of Session.

The earldom passed to his son, John, in 1645, when the fortunes of the family reached their zenith. He went as a Scots commissioner to the Westminster Assembly of Presbyterian divines in 1643. In 1647 he promoted the king’s cause, and the Scots Parliament agreed to send an army into England on behalf of Charles in return for certain undertakings on the Church from him. Lauderdale was sent to Holland to persuade the Prince of Wales to join with the Scots. He fought alongside Charles at the Battle of Worcester, where he was captured, and he spent nine years in the Tower of London. After the Restoration, Lauderdale rose to become the most powerful man in Scotland, ruling virtually as viceroy. In 1672 he was created Duke of Lauderdale, but this title died with him. The duke employed Sir William Bruce to convert his castle at Thirlstane into a renaissance palace. The family earldom passed to his brother, Charles.

Although Prince Charles Edward Stuart stayed at Thirlstane and his army camped in the parklands after the victory at Prestonpans, the family were not noted Jacobites, and they escaped the forfeiture which ruined so many other families after the Forty-five. General Sir Peregrine Maitland commanded the Foot Guards at Waterloo, and Napoleon later surrendered to Captain Frederick Maitland RN, commanding HMS Bellerophon. Sir Thomas Maitland (died 1824), known as ‘King Tom’, was in turn governor of Ceylon, the Ionian islands and Malta. In the twentieth century, Field Marshal Sir Henry Maitland-Wilson commanded in the Middle East during the Second World War. Politics has always fascinated the Maitlands. In 1968 Patrick Maitland, a distinguished journalist and former MP, became the seventeenth Earl. The family traditions have been maintained by his eldest daughter, Lady Olga Maitland, who was for a time a member of the House of Commons. Among their many honours the Earls of Lauderdale are hereditary bearers of the national flag of Scotland, a duty which they regularly perform on State occasions.

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