Spanish blanks plot

The Spanish blanks plot was an alleged pro-Spanish Catholic conspiracy in Scotland, discovered in late 1592. A number of letters to Spain were discovered, which included blank sheets signed by prominent nobles.


The Spanish Armada had failed in its attempt to conquer England in 1588. The undeclared Anglo-Spanish War continued, however. The Kingdom of Scotland under James VI was divided over religion, despite the formal ascendancy of the Church of Scotland at this time in a presbyterian form. The Scottish nobility were turbulent, while the king was working to assert administrative and political control of the country against factional and religious strife. A Jesuit mission concerned with Scotland included William Crichton and Robert Abercromby; it looked to help from Spain to further the aims of the Counter-reformation in the British Isles.


Andrew Knox, Minister of Paisley was sent to arrest George Kerr,[1] son of Mark Kerr of Newbattle. George Kerr was about to sail to Spain from the west coast of Scotland, and carried incriminating correspondence. He was arrested at night on the Isle of Cumbrae.[2] The "Spanish blanks" which were found with other letters in a chest on Kerr's boat, were documents signed by four members of the Catholic nobility of Scotland, and otherwise left to be filled in. At first, the English diplomat Robert Bowes supposed the blanks had writing in invisible ink written with "white vitriol".[3]

George Kerr, his servant, and the letters were taken to Edinburgh and examined by the Privy Council on 2 January 1593.[4] Under torture, Kerr said that the blanks were to be filled in by Crichton, to forward a Spanish invasion.[5] Damagingly for James VI (it has been said), Kerr was also carrying a copy of a position paper by the king on the possible advantages to him in accepting Spanish help.[6]


Three prominent Earls were directly implicated:

The fourth signature on the papers discovered was that of Sir Patrick Gordon of Auchindoun.[10] Erroll and Huntly were given a date of 5 February to appear and explain themselves: they did not do so, and went to ground in the north. The king was confronted by them on 24 October, on the road from Soutra to Fala, south-east of Edinburgh; they explained that the blanks related to their support for the Jesuits in Scotland.[5]

Others involved were:


An official account of the plot appeared in February 1593; it is assumed it was edited by John Davidson. It by no means included all the intercepted letters; but it printed a number concerned with William Sempill in 1589; the connection was that when Sempill's servant Pringle was found in England carrying letters to the Duke of Parma, they had included some from Huntly and Erroll.[15][16]

Perceptions of James VI shifted after the discoveries: some assumed the affair showed the king had at least tacitly approved dealings with Spain, and many more put it down to slackness in anti-Catholic measures.[17]


  1. Kirk, James. "Knox, Andrew". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/15780. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  2. Thomas M. McCoog; Campion Hall (University of Oxford) (1996). The Reckoned Expense: Edmund Campion and the Early English Jesuits : Essays in Celebration of the First Centenary of Campion Hall, Oxford (1896-1996). Boydell & Brewer Ltd. p. 216. ISBN 978-0-85115-590-6. Retrieved 24 May 2012.
  3. Calendar State Papers Scotland, vol. 10 (1936), pp. 823, 828–9, describes the blanks.
  4. Calendar State Papers Scotland, vol.10 (1936), pp. 829–833, with a list of the letters, not including the royal "position paper."
  5. 1 2 3 4 Thomas M. McCoog (1 January 2012). The Society of Jesus in Ireland, Scotland, and England, 1589-1597: Building the Faith Saint Peter Upon the King of Spain's Monarchy. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd. pp. 81–4. ISBN 978-1-4094-3772-7. Retrieved 24 May 2012.
  6. Marion A. Taylor (1 June 1975). Bottom, Thou Art Translated: Political Allegory in a Midsummer Night's Dream and Related Literature. Rodopi. pp. 180–1. ISBN 978-90-6203-038-5. Retrieved 24 May 2012.
  7. White, Allan. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/7931. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  8. Saenz, Concepcion. "Hay, Francis". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/12715. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  9. Sizer, J. R. M. "Gordon, George". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/11036. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  10. W. B. Patterson (14 September 2000). King James VI and I and the Reunion of Christendom. Cambridge University Press. p. 14. ISBN 978-0-521-79385-8. Retrieved 24 May 2012.
  11. Molland, George. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/19758. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  12. P. G. Maxwell-Stuart (2001). Satan's Conspiracy: Magic and Witchcraft in Sixteenth-Century Scotland. Dundurn Press Ltd. p. 158. ISBN 978-1-86232-136-6. Retrieved 24 May 2012.
  13. Helena Mennie Shire (26 August 2010). Song, Dance and Poetry of the Court of Scotland Under King James VI. Cambridge University Press. p. 113. ISBN 978-0-521-14829-0. Retrieved 25 May 2012.
  14. Loomie, A. J. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/20600. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  15. John Rawson Elder, Spanish Influences in Scottish History (1920), p. 188;
  16.  "Sempill, William". Dictionary of National Biography. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1885–1900.
  17. Crawford Gribben; David George Mullan (2009). Literature and the Scottish Reformation. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd. p. 138. ISBN 978-0-7546-6715-5. Retrieved 24 May 2012.

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