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In 1603, Sir Robert Carey was the Warden of the English Middle March. He was the younger brother of George, Lord Hunsdon, Privy Counsellor and Governor of Berwick-upon-Tweed.
Robert was a colourful character, who recorded his exploits in his Memoirs. He fought at sea against the Spanish Armada, and on land against the Scots on the Border and in the army in the Netherlands.
On one occasion, to clear a gambling debt, he won the sum of £2,000 in a wager that he could walk all the way from London to Berwick.
In London at the time of Queen Elizabeth’s last illness, he was determined to be the man who carried the news of the Queen’s death to her nearest living relative, King James VI of Scotland.
Some time earlier, King James had sent a blue sapphire ring to Sir Robert’s sister, Lady Scrope, one of Queen Elizabeth’s courtiers with whom James had kept constant correspondence for many years. He instructed her to return it to him by special messenger as soon as the Queen had actually expired, which the King would take as proof of Elizabeth’s death.
Between one and two o’ clock on the morning of Thursday 24th March, Carey received the news that Elizabeth had died from a contact who had been present in the Queen’s chamber.
Queen Elizabeth’s court was alive with factional back-biting and intrigue. Many of the Queen’s counsellors had their own agendas and would do all they could to prevent Carey from taking the news to Edinburgh, to ensure their own preferment with King James. The Lords of the Council summoned Carey and informed him that he would not be allowed to set off for Scotland until he received their warrant. In fact, they planned to imprison him and send a messenger of their own choice instead.
With the aid of his brother, Lord Hunsdon, Sir Robert managed to evade his potential captors and left Whitehall.
Lady Scrope had been unable to give King James’s ring to her brother, as evidence of the Queen’s death. However, as Sir Robert passed beneath her window in the Palace, she threw the ring down to him. Despite the lack of authority from the Lords of the Council, between 9 and ten o’clock that night, Carey took horse and rode to Doncaster.
The following day, he rode to his own house at Widdrington in Northumberland, where he stayed for the night and from where he gave orders the next morning that King James of Scotland should be proclaimed King of England at Morpeth and Alnwick.
Very early on the morning of Saturday 26th March, Carey left Widdrington for Edinburgh. He came to Norham at about 12 noon, and expected to arrive in Edinburgh by supper time. Unfortunately, Sir Robert fell from his horse on the way, and was hit on the head by his horse’s hoof, which made him so weak that he was forced to ride at a “soft pace after, so the King was newly gone to bed by the time that I knocked at the gate” of Holyrood House.
Sir Robert was taken up to the King’s chamber, where he gave the news of Elizabeth’s death. Asked what letters he carried from the Council to prove the fact, Sir Robert replied that he had none, but that he brought the King a blue ring from a fair lady, that he hoped would give him assurance of the truth of what he reported.
The King sent for his surgeons to attend Carey’s wound, and Sir Robert left for the house of Lord Home, where he was to spend the night.