St Germain Des Prés is a beautiful old church on the left bank of the Seine in the centre of Paris, which I had the pleasure of visiting at Christmas. It is what remains from a major abbey of the same name. The church predates Notre Dame, and was the place where the Parisian upper classes worshiped. The French philosopher René Descartes chose to be buried. It also has several 17th century Douglas tombs. But who were they, and how did they end up so far from Scotland? The date of death is the clue.
During what is called the “Auld Alliance” (Old Alliance), Scotland had a close relationship with France. England was often both countries’ enemy, and on the basis that “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” it was in Scotland and France’s interest to have a close relationship. But that changed in about 1560, when Scotland became officially Protestant. Rather as we see between Sunni and Shia Muslins today, at the time there was real ill-feeling and often conflict between Protestants and Catholics, so Scotland’s religious reformation created a major religious divide between Scotland and Catholic France. However those Scots who were Catholic still saw France as their ally and a place of safety.
William Douglas (c.1554–1611), who was to become the 10th Earl of Angus, visited France in 1577, and converted to Roman Catholicism. Shortly afterwards Douglas was ordered to leave Scotland because of his faith, but didn’t do so.
In 1591 he inherited the earldom of Angus on the death of his father. This allowed him to become a major player in the politics of the time. In 1592 he was accused of involvement in a conspiracy to land Spanish troops in Scotland, to impose Catholicism on the Scots and to invade England. This was only four years after the Spanish Armada, so Spain was seen as a deadly enemy of England. England and Scotland were then becoming much more friendly, particularly as King James of Scotland hoped to inherit the English crown when his relation, Elizabeth I of England, died.
Because of Angus’s likely involvement in the plot, King James imprisoned him in Edinburgh Castle, but Angus escaped after six weeks. There are two versions of his escape. One is that his wife smuggled a rope into his cell, the other that one of the warders helped him.
Angus made his way to the North of Scotland where he joined with two other Catholic earls, Huntly and Erroll. After several years, sometimes trying to raise an insurrection and at other times in hiding, he was reconciled with the king, and given a royal appointment to police the unruly Scottish Borders. But his barely disguised Catholicism increasing became a problem with the staunchly Protestant church, and in 1609 the church took proceedings against him and he was forced to retire to France, where he died in 1611. His tomb, with a statue of the earl in armour, is in a prominent side chapel in St Germain Des Pres, an indication of his high status.