Tuesday, 25 February 2020

Iron Box of Jewels #3

The documents transcribed in the last two blog-posts leave us these questions:
1. Where did the jewels come from?
2. Why were they in Orkney, when the main person connected with them came from Benholm in Kincardineshire?
3. Why were Cromwell's men involved in the inventory of the jewels?
4. Why were a group of men who were leaders and landowners of the county listing the contents of the box?
5. What happened to the jewels?

The Palaeography Group have clues and/or theories for each question.

1. Where did the jewels come from?
The jewels are linked to James Keith of Benholm. Benholm is a parish in Kincardineshire about 30 miles south of Aberdeen. The Keiths were the lairds of Benholm and they lived at Benholm Castle. According to The Dictionary of Eminent Scotsmen, James Keith was involved (with his mother!) in a burglary of Benholm Castle in 1622.
BDES volume 3, p297

BDES volume 3, p298

Could the jewels described here be some of the Jewels in the Iron box? Some of them sound very similar: "a rich jewel set with diamonds...a chain of ''equall perle'' wherein were 400 pearls great and small...a diamond set in a ring...other rich stones in gold". It also states that the case was eventually dropped by the courts but that James Keith was "outlawed for not appearing". The hoard worth £26,000 in 1622 would be worth £6,246,602 in today's money.

2. Why were the jewels in Orkney, when James Keith was from Kincardineshire?
In July 1643, in return for his help to Charles I, the 7th Earl of Morton received a grant of the Earldom of Orkney and Lordship of Zetland. James Keith turns up in Orkney records in November 1649, when the 8th Earl of Morton (Robert Douglas) grants him a commission to be co-factor for his estate alongside his brother John Douglas.

Transumpt off Commissione be the Earle of Mortown to the Laird off Benholme, Novr, 1649.
Why did the Earl of Morton pick James Keith? Well, after some internet searching and a bit of genealogy, we find that James Keith's sister Lady Anne Keith was mother to Robert Douglas, the 8th Earl of Morton.
You'll see also from this small family tree that James Keith of Benholm had a son called James Keith. We have not found out anything about this man yet. At the moment, we are not ruling him out as being the man who brings the Iron Box to Orkney, except that he is not termed as being "of Benholm".

3. Why were Cromwell's men involved in the inventory of the jewels?
These were turbulent times in Scotland and Orkney. Scotland was still an independent country in 1649 with a shared monarchy with England, Wales and Ireland. The king, Charles I, was beheaded in 1649 and Oliver Cromwell invaded Scotland in 1650. Major defeats at Dunbar and Worcester resulted in Cromwell's troops taking over Scotland, even though the Scots had crowned Charles II as their king.

Orkney, siding with the Royalists and Charles II, had sent 1000 men to the Battle of Carbisdale in April 1650, where the Royalists were also defeated. The Earl of Morton fled Orkney and a garrison of Cromwell forces moved in in 1651. They built two forts on either side of Kirkwall Bay to defend the town, and were known to stable their horses in St Magnus Cathedral. Nothing remains today of either fort, except the name of the one on the east of the bay.

Cromwell's Fort, Kirkwall. The Ordnance Survey Name Book (ONB) notes from 1881 state that 'very little of the original of this fort remains -when Cromwell's soldiers penetrated as far north as Orkney, they threw up a rude temporary fort on the spur of the headland to the east of Kirkwall Harbour. It is now converted into a fort or battery for the use of the 1st Orkney Artillery Volunteers'.
In April 1654, the Council of State issued an Ordnance for uniting Scotland into one Commonwealth with England, which would be the "Commonwealth of England Scotland and Ireland", under the authority of the Instrument of Government that made Cromwell Lord Protector. This remained the legal basis of the union until the Ordinance became an Act of Union under the Second Protectorate Parliament on 26th June 1657.

4. Why were a group of men who were leaders and landowners of the county listing the contents of the box?

The group of men who witnessed the opening of the box were:
Charles was Charles Seton, Earl of Dunfermline who features on the family tree above as being married to the 8th Earl of Morton's sister Mary Douglas.
Major Henry Ronnall, was Cromwell's Governor of Orkney.
Captain Edmund Leister and Captain John Hobblethorne were probably captains of the garrison stationed in Orkney.
Patrick Blair, of Littleblair,  Sheriff of Orkney
William Stewart, elder of Maynes and James Stewart, younger of Maynes - we don't know much about these two yet.
William Craigie of Gairsay, related to Hugh Craigie who was a Member of Commonwealth Scottish Parliament in 1652.
Captain Robert Irving, writer.
So probably a mixture of Cromwell's men and those loyal to Charles II.

As to why they were listing the box of jewels, we are very grateful to the work of Dr Charlotte Young whose PhD subject is invaluable to our mystery and describes sequestration in the time of Oliver Cromwell. Here is a quote from her PhD page:

"Sequestration was the process by which land, money and goods were confiscated from delinquent families during the English Civil War. This tactic was primarily utilised by the Parliamentarians as a method of reducing the revenue available for Charles I to draw upon, and simultaneously finance their own military campaign, but the Royalists also launched their own sequestration policy in the mid-1640s, albeit on a smaller scale."

In a message to us she also added: "It's possible that Keith did fear a sequestration raid and so sent his most precious possessions as far away as he possibly could to stop them being confiscated. I've got multiple examples from England of people leaving valuables with friends and relatives because they know they're about to be raided and they want to protect things."

5. What happened to the jewels?
It is likely the jewels would have been secured as per General Monck's instructions in document 3, possibly sent to Leith and used to fund Cromwell's army.

I received yors of the 9th December conteining the jewells into the
iron chist belonging to the Laird of Benholme and desired yow that
yow will secure the same till forder (further) order. I have writtin to the commissioners
for sequestration concerning the same whose directions therin I would
have you observe I likeweell yow and yor [---?] caire in ordering
the keeping of the fast the first of November in regaird my letters came
to yow after the day of the observation of it heer and in England.
I remaine                         yor very loving friend and servant
Subscryved thus George Monck
Dalkeith the 18th Jan 1654
For Major Henry Ronnall Governor of Orknay
Can you help us find out more? What do you think of our theories and answers? Do you agree? Have you got theories or answers of your own? Please do get in touch. Personally, I would like to know more about James Keith of Benholm and where the jewels went next and more about Orkney during this time.  This is certainly a fascinating time period of history.

Sources used:
Who was Who in Orkney by W.S Hewison, 1998 [Orkney Room 920 Y]
A Biographical Dictionary of Eminent Scotsmen, Volume III edited by Robert Chalmers, 1855. [Archive Reference 920]
Cromwellian Scotland 1651-1660 by F D Dow, 1979 [Adult non-fiction 941.06]
Orkney and the Earls of Morton, 1643-1707 by Jane N Ross, 1977 [Orkney Room 941.06 Y]
D24/9/106 Baikie of Tankerness Papers: Authentic transumpt and copy of the commission by the Earl of Morton to James Keith of Benholm, 6 Nov 1649 [Original document]
GD150/2531/3 General statement made before the Sheriff regarding the iron box of jewels, 1654 [Original document]
TK032 - Photograph of Kirkwall from Cromwell's Fort area by Tom Kent
Ordnance Survey Name Books (ONB), 1881 [on Microfilm in the Archive Searchroom]


  1. This is a fascinating glimpse into a part of history most Americans don't learn much about. Thanks for educating us.

  2. You're welcome Sue. Actually many British people don't know this either.

  3. That's interesting, Dusty. As a historian (that's what my degree is), it's exciting to read about people like you and the others at the Archives who are doing their best to bring historical details to light like this. In my dream world, I'd be right there beside you (or in an archives somewhere) working on preserving and conserving all those interesting documents! ^_^

  4. I have been studying the Keith robbery for several years and it is part of my theory for the treasure buried on Oak Island, Nova Scotia.

    I've written six books already on Oak Island with a seventh in the works. The connections of Al Strachan to Oak Island are many.

    What is most exciting for me in this post is that, in 1654, the same year James Keith's treasure box was confiscated and opened, the Alexander estate in Nova Scotia was also raided, torn apart and burned to the ground by Cromwell's men.

    There is absolute evidence that Strachan spent some of his money on Nova Scotia as he helped finance a ship to go there (the document still exists), and he paid the fee to become a Knight Baronet of Nova Scotia (the document still exists).

    In 1630, he even signed as witness to a deed to an area that included Oak Island, that was granted by William Alexander to a Frenchman he was forming an alliance with.

    The story is slightly complex, but understandable. I don't mean to advertise here, but if you want to know more, there are three books of mine that might entertain you. The first is non-fiction and is called Oak Island Knights. The second is historical fiction and begins with the Keith robbery. It is titled Oak Island The Novel. The final one I'd recommend is the one I am finishing up right now Oak Island And New Ross. All of my books are packed full of history and many people but all of them. I'm not here today to sell them bu to tell the reader where they can get more information.

    Search Amazon under James A. McQuiston.

    Thank you and I hope to learn more on this end of the story.


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