A Brief History of the Maxwell Family

To fully understand the history of the Maxwell family one must appreciate that the Maxwells are a family and not a clan in the Scottish sense of the word. A Scottish Clan is a group of related and unrelated families coming together under a powerful lord for mutual protection. The Maxwell family on the other hand, had but a single progenitor and in theory all those who bear the surname Maxwell from birth are descended from that progenitor (see Maxwell Origins). From the earliest days of the thirteenth century the family was split into two parts, one based in the border country and the other on the banks of the Clyde around Glasgow (Strathclyde).

The head of the family or the Chief, who’s line were later to become the Lords Maxwell and the Earls of Nithsdale lived at Caerlaverock Castle in the barony of the same name on the Solway coast of Dumfriesshire. They also held the paternal lands in the barony of Maxwell in the border country near Kelso in Roxburghshire, the barony of Mearns in Renfrew and the lands of Pencaitland around modern day Musselburgh (a corruption of Maxwellburgh) on the Forth estuary below Edinburgh. This main line of the family are regarded as the border Maxwells. The northern Maxwells were based at Nether Pollok, a small barony which had been part of the Mearns holding of the Chief's family. Through marriage, the northern Maxwells had later acquired the baronies of Calderwood, Newark and Finlaystone, and Stainley all in the counties of Renfrew and Lanark. Even with this ancient geographical divide in the family, its members all remained fiercely loyal to the chief and rallied to his call, right up to the end of the seventeenth century.

In the thirteenth century the family was small and being by definition, of noble birth, the men folk were involved in noble pursuits. Several went on the Crusades or became knights in religious orders. The Border Maxwells were much involved in the strife in their lands and on several occasions switched their loyalty between English and Scottish causes. Their castle of Caerlaverock was in the overlordship of the English appointed Scots king, John Balliol and it was to him they offered their first loyalty. Through this service Maxwell lands were greatly expanded. In the 1290’s the chief and his son had swore fealty to the English king, Edward, but soon broke their bond and in 1300, Caerlaverock was under siege by a mighty English Army. The siege is recorded in the celebrated poem the ‘Siege of Caerlaverock’ written shortly after the event. The Maxwell's having broken their bond with the English were then loyal to the new Scots king, Robert the Bruce. The Maxwell Chief applied his signature to the ‘Declaration of Arbroath’, widely regarded as the Scottish declaration of independence from England under who’s authority Scotland had suffered for nearly a hundred and fifty years.

Under Robert the Bruce and the early Stewart Kings, the Maxwell Chief again prospered in the Southwest with lands forfeited from a number of rebel nobles. As the great estate grew the Chief was able to grant members of his direct family portions of these lands thus many border Maxwell families remained landed and therefore retained their noble status.

The Northern Maxwells, who were in the early years more prolific than the borderers, had had some advantageous marriages to heiresses, but generally had not the great land holdings of the Chiefs family and did not gain lands through royal patronage, so the younger sons of the Northern Maxwells sort their fortunes elsewhere. Some offered their swords to great Lords and foreign kings, some were knights in religious orders such as the Knights Templer and yet others entered trades or became merchants. Over the centuries, the landless Maxwells of Strathclyde lost their noble status but proliferated free of the constraints of arranged marriages and so that the real growth of the Maxwell family was amongst these common Scots in the fledgling city of Glasgow and across the central belt of Scotland.

As The Scots resisted English aggression in the borders many Maxwells answered the Chief's call to arms and followed him into fierce conflict with the old enemy. When in the sixteenth century a great feud arose with the Johnstone family of Annandale, Maxwells from Strathclyde and Tayside still answered the call to join the border Chief when he forayed into his feudal rivals territory. Maxwells feuded not only other families but often within their own. In 1583 Maxwell of Cowhill and his son murdered their cousin Maxwell of Kirkhouse. In an act of reprisal, some fifteen years later the sons of Kirkhouse murdered the son of Maxwell of Cowhill. This bloody infighting also extended to the Strathclyde Maxwells, where Maxwell of Newark killed Maxwell of Stainley, also a cousin, where both men were caught up on opposite sides of a bitter feud between the Montgomery and Cunningham Families. Not all feuds were violent, some were fought out in court cases lasting several generations such as in the case of Maxwell of Calderwood verses Maxwell of Nether Pollok, yet again cousins, who were in disagreement over the right of inheritance of the latter's estate.

In the borders as the centuries passed, younger sons were forced off the land to join their cousins in fruitful trade and commerce. With the union of the crowns of Scotland and England in 1603, the border was opened up and Maxwells along with many other Scots headed south into England to seek a more prosperous life. With the coming of the seventeenth century attitudes were changing towards women and they now had the right to inherit and hold land. Where the male line of families failed, daughters would carry the line. Of course in order for their husbands to inherit they were expected to take the name of their wives family hence the great number of conjoined Maxwell surnames.

The eighteenth century saw the rise of the professional soldier. It was the perfect job for the disaffected lowlanders and led to the widespread dispersal of Maxwells throughout the British empire. With the coming of the first Jacobite rebellion in 1715 virtually no Maxwells had the heart to join their chief, the earl of Nithsdale, in the cause of the Old Pretender. In the 1745 rising the Maxwell turn out was little better, there being only six Maxwells recorded in Bonnie Prince Charlie's Army. The 1745 rebellion marked the end of Scottish independence and the country began to become integrated into a British way of life, and the Maxwells, citizens of that nation. Many Maxwells lived extraordinary lives which contributed to the the modern life that we enjoy today but with it has come less kinship and the sense of family which bound together our forbears in the wild borderlands.

Copyright © 2001 Maxwell World Web & George Anthony Maxwell