Buchanan, George

, a Scottish historian, and Latin poet, of great eminence, and uncommon abilities and learning, was descended from an ancient family, and was born at Killairn, in the shire of Lenox, in Scotland, in the month of February 1506. His father died of the stone in the prime of life, whilst his grandfather was yet living; by whose extravagance the family, which before was but in low circumstances, was now nearly reduced to the extremity of want. He had, however, the happiness of a very prudent mother, Agnes, the daughter of James Heriot of Trabrown, who, though she, was left a widow with five sons and three daughters, brought them all up in a decent manner, by judicious management. She had a brother, Mr. James Heriot, who, observing the marks of genius which young George Buchanan discovered when at school, sent him to Paris in 1520 for his education. There he closely applied himself to his studies, and particularly cultivated his poetical talents but before he had been there quite | two years, the death of his uncle, and his own ill state of health, and want of money, obliged him to return home. Having arrived in his native country, he spent almost a year in endeavouring to re-escablish his health; and in 1523, in order to acquire some knowledge of military affairs, he made a campaign with the French auxiliaries, who came over into Scotland with John duke of Albany. But in this new course of life he encountered so many hardships, that he was confined to his bed by sickness all the ensuing winter. He had probably much more propensity to his books, than to the sword; for early in the following spring he went to St. Andrews, and attended the lectures on logic, or rather, as he says, on sophistry, which were read in that university by John Major, or Mair, a professor in St. Saviour’s college, and assessor to the dean, of Arts, whom he soon after accompanied to Paris. After struggling for about two years with indigence and ill fortune, he was admitted, in 1526, being then not more than twenty years of age, in the college of St. Barbe, where he took the degree of B. A. in 1527, and M. A. in 1528, and in 1529 was chosen procurator nationis, and began then to teach grammar, which he continued for about three years. But Gilbert Kennedy, earl of Cassils, a young Scottish nobleman, being then in France, and happening to fall into the company of Buchanan, was so delighted with his wit, and the agreeableness of his manners, that he prevailed upon him to continue with him five years. According to Mackenzie, he acted as a kind of tutor to this young nobleman; and, during his stay with him, translated Linacre’s Rudiments of grammar out of English into Latin; which was printed at Paris, by Robert Stephens, in 1533, and dedicated to the earl of Cassils. He returned to Scotland with that nobleman, whose death happened about two years after; and Buchanan had then an inclination to return to France: but James V. king of Scotland prevented him, by appointing him preceptor to his natural son, James, afterwards the abbot of Kelso, who died in 1548, and not, as some say, the earl of Murray, regent of that kingdom. About this time, he wrote a satirical poem against the Franciscan friars, entitled, “Somnium;” which irritated them to exclaim against him as a heretic. Their clamours, however, only increased the dislike which he hud conceived against them on account of their disorderly and licentious lives; and inclined him the more | towards Lutheranism, to which he seems to have had before no inconsiderable propensity. About the year 1538, the king having discovered a conspiracy against himself, in which he suspected that some of the Franciscans were concerned, commanded Buchanan to write a poem against that order. But he had probably already experienced the inconveniency of exasperating so formidable a body; for he only wrote a few verses which were susceptible of a double interpretation, and he pleased neither party. The king was dissatisfied, that the satire was not more poignant; and the friars considered it as a heinous offence, to mention them in any way that was not honourable. But the king gave Buchanan a second command, to write against them with more seventy; which he accordingly did in the poem, entitled, “Franciscanus;” by which he pleased the king, and rendered the friars his irreconcileable enemies. He soon found, that the animosity of these ecclesiastics was of a more durable nature than royal favour: for the king had the meanness to suffer him to feel the weight of their resentment, though it had been chiefly excited by obedience to his commands. It was not the Franciscans only, but the clergy in general, who were incensed against Buchanan: they appear to have made a common cause of it, and they left no stone unturned till they had prevailed with the king that he should be tried for heresy. He was accordingly imprisoned at the beginning of 1539, but found means to make his escape, as he says himself, out of his chamber-window, while his guards were asleep. He fled into England, where he found king Henry the Eighth persecuting both protestants and papists. Not thinking that kingdom, therefore, a place of safety, he again went over into France, to which he was the more inclined because he had there some literary friends, and was pleased with the politeness of French manners. But when he came to Paris, he had the mortification to find there cardinal Beaton, who was his great enemy, and who appeared there as ambassador from Scotland. Expecting, therefore, to receive some ill offices from him, if he continued at Paris, he withdrew himself privately to Bourdeaux, at the invitation of Andrew Govea, a learned Portuguese, who was principal of a new college in that city. Buchanan taught in the public schools there three years; in which time he composed two tragedies, the one entitled, “Baptistes, sive Calurania,” and the other “Jephthes, | Votum;*


A translation of the Baptistes was published, in 1641, which Mr. Peck supposed to have been made by Milton, and therefore reprinted it with his New Memoirs of the Life and Poetical Works of Milton, published in 4to, in 1740. The Baptistes, though the first written, was not published till the year 1578, when it was printed at London, His translation of the Medea of Euripides was acted at Bordeaux in 1543. His Jephthes was published at Paris in 1554, and his translation of the Alcestis of Euripides at the same place in 155S.

and also translated the Medea and Alcestig of Euripides. These were all afterwards published;-but they were originally written in compliance with the rules of the school, which every year required some new dramatic exhibition; and his view in choosing these subjects was, to draw off the youth of France as much as possible from the allegories, which were then greatly in vogue, to a just imitation of the ancients; in which he succeeded beyond his hopes. During his residence at Bourdeaux, the emperor Charles V. passed through that city; upon which Buchanan presented his imperial majesty with an elegant Latin poem, in which the emperor was highly complimented, and at which he expressed great satisfaction. But the animosity of cardinal Beaton still pursued our poet: for that haughty prelate wrote letters to the archbishop of Bourdeaux, in which he informed him, that Buchanan had fled his country for heresy; that he had lampooned the church in most virulent satires; and that if he would put him to the trial, he would find him a most pestilentious heretic. Fortunately for Buchanan, these letters fell into the hands of some of his friends, who found means to prevent their effects: and the state of public affairs in Scotland, in consequence of the death of king James V. gave the cardinal so much employment, as to prevent any farther prosecution of his rancour against Buchanan.

In 1543, he quitted Bourdeaux, on account of the pestilence being there; and about this time seems to have had some share in the education of Michael de Montaigne, the celebrated author of the Essays. In 1544, he went to Paris, where he taught the second class of the college of Bourbon, as Turnebus did the first, and Ivluretus the third; and it appears that in some part of this year he was afflicted with the gout. In 1547, he went into Portugal with his friend Andrew Govea, who had received orders from the king his master to return home, and bring with him a certain number of learned men, qualified to teach the Aristotelian philosophy, and polite literature, in the university | which he had lately established at Coimbra. He says, that he^the more readily agreed to go to Portugal, because that “all Europe besides was either actually engaged in foreign or domestic wars, or upon the point of being so; and that this corner of the world appeared to him the most likely to be free from tumults and disturbances. Besides which, his companions in that journey were such, that they seemed rather his familiar friends than strangers, or foreigners; for with most of them he had been upon terms of much intimacy for some years; and they were men well known to the world by their learned works *.

During the life of Govea, who was a great favourite of his Portuguese majesty, matters went on extremely well with Buchanan in Portugal; but after the death of Govea, which happened in 1548, a variety of ill treatment was practised against the learned men who followed him, and particularly against Buchanan. He was accused of being author of the poem against the Franciscans, of having eaten flesh in time of Lent, and of having said that, with respect to the Eucharist, St. Augustine was more favourable to the doctrine of the reformers, than to that of the church of Home. Besides these enormities, ibwas also deposed against him by certain witnesses, that they had heard from divers reputable persons, that Buchanan was not orthodox as to the Romish faith and religion. These were sufficient reasons in that country for. putting any man into the inquisition; and accordingly, Buchanan was confined there about a year and a half. He was afterwards removed to a more agreeable prison, being confined in a monastery till he should be better instructed in the principles of the Romish church. He says of the monks under whose care he was placed, that “they were altogether ignorant of religion, but were otherwise, men neither bad in their morajs, nor rude in their behaviour.” It was during his re-­sidence in this monastery, that he began to translate the


Mackenzie says, that “before Buchanari undertook this voyage for Portugal, he caused his friend Andrew Govea to inform the king of Portugal, by a letter, of the whole affair between him and the Franciscans in Scotland, and that the satire he had writ against them, was not, as his enemies gave cut, to defame the catholics, but obedience to the king his waster’s command, whom the Franciscans had offended. The king of Portugal being satisfied with this apology, Govea, Nicholas Gruchius, Gulielmus Garaniaeus, Jacobus Taevius, Helius Venerus, Mr. Buchanan, and his brother Mr. Patrick Buchanan, embarked for Portugal, where they safely arrived in the wrote year 1547.

| Psalms of David *

Mr. Granger observes, that “the most applauded of Buchanan’s poetical works is his translation of the Psalms, particularly ef the 104th.”“This psalm has been translated into Latin by nine Scottish poets. Eight of these translations were printed at Edinburgh, 1699, 12mo, together with the Poetic Duel of Dr. George Eglisem with Buchanan. The former accused that great poet of bad Latin, and bad poetry, in his version of this psalm, and made no scruple of preferring his own translation of it to Buchanan’s.” Eglisem made an appeal to the university of Paris, concerning the justice of his own criticisms on Buchanan. In the second volume of the “Poetarum Scotorum Musae Sacrae,” published at Edinburgh, in 1739, is reprinted the piece mentioned by Mr. Granger, under the following title: “Poeticum Duellum: seu Georgii Eglisemmii cum Georgio Buchanano pro dignitate Paraphraseos Psalmi civ. certamen. Cui adnectitur Gul. Barlaii, amceuiorum artium & medicina doetoris, cle eodem certamine judicium; nee non consilium collegii medici Parisiensis de ejusdem Eglisemmii mania, quod carmine exhibuit Arcturns Jonstonus, M. D.” The vanity and absurdity of Eglisem are ridiculed in this with much humour. Barclay says, that “it would be more difficult to find in Buchanan’s translation any verses that are not good, than it would be to find any in EglisenVs that are not, bad.” In the Poeticum Duellurn the versions of the 104th psalm by Buchanan and Eglisern are printed opposite to each other; and at the end of the second volume of the Poetarum Scotorum, besides the pieces concerning Buchanan and Eglisem, are six other versions of the same psalm, by Scottish poets, the last of whom is Dr, Archibald Pitcairne. These are the versions mentioned by Mr.Granger, but he enumerates one more than there are, there being only eight in the whole, including those of Buchanan and Eglisem.

into Latin verse; and which he executed, says Mackenzie, “with such inimitable sweetness and elegancy, that this version of the Psalms will be esteemed and admired as long as the world endures, or men have any relish for poetry.” Having obtained his liberty in 1551, he desired a passport of the king, in order to return to France; but his majesty endeavoured to retain him in his service, and assigned him a small pension till he should procure him an employment. But these uncertain hopes did not detain him long in Portugal; and indeed, it was not to be supposed that the treatment which he had received there, could give a man of Buchanan’s temper any great attachment to the place. He readily embraced an opportunity which offered of embarking for England, where, however, he made no long stay, though some advantageous offers were made him. Edward VI. was then upon the throne of England, but Buchanan, apprehending the affairs of that kingdom to be in a very unsettled state, went over into France at the beginning of the year 1553. It seems to have been about this time that he wrote some of those satirical pieces against the monks, which are found in his “Fratres Fraterrimi.” He was also probably now employed at Paris in teaching the belleslettres; but though he seems to have been fond of France, | yet be sometimes expresses his dissatisfaction at his treatment and situation there. The subject of one of his elegies is the miserable condition of those who were employed in teaching literature at Paris. His income was, perhaps, small; and he seems to have had no great propensity to ceconomy; but this is a disposition too common among the votaries of the Muses, to afford any peculiar reproach against Buchanan. In 1555, the marshal de Brissac, to whom he had dedicated his “Jephthes,” sent for Buchanan into Piedmont, where he then commanded, and made him preceptor to Timoleon de Cosse, his son; and he spent five years in this station, partly in Italy, and partly ill France. This employment probably afforded him much leisure; for he now applied himself closely to the study of the sacred writings, in order to enable him to form the more accurate judgment concerning the subjects in controversy between the Protestants and Papists. It was also during this period that he composed his ode upon the taking of Calais by the duke of Guise, his epithalamiuni upon the marriage of Mary queen of Scots to the Dauphin of France, and part of his poem upon the Sphere.

In the year 1561, he returned to Scotland, and finding the reformation in a manner established there, he openly renounced the Romish religion, and declared himself a Protestant, but attended the court of queen Mary, and even superintended her studies. In 1563 the parliament appointed him, with others, to inspect the revenues of the universities, and to report a model of instruction. He was also appointed by the assembly of the church, to revise the “Book of Discipline.” In 1564 the queen gave him a pension of five hundred pounds Scotch, which has been, not very reasonably, made the foundation of a charge of ingratitude against him, because he afterwards could not defend the queen’s conduct with respect to the murder of her husband, and her subsequent marriage with Bothwell. About 1566 he was made principal of St. Leonard’s college, in the university of St. Andrew’s, where he taught philosophy for some time; and he employed his leisure hours in collecting all his poems, such of them excepted as were in the hands of his friends, and of which he had no copies. In 1567, on account of his uncommon abilities and learning, he was appointed moderator of the general assembly of the church of Scotland. He joined himself to the party that acted against queen Mary, and | appears to have been particularly connected with the earl of Murray, who had been educated by him, and for whom he had a great regard. He attended that nobleman to the conference at York, and afterwards at Hampton -court, being nominated one of the assistants to the commissioners who were sent to England against queen Mary. He had been previously appointed, in an assembly of the Scottish nobility, preceptor to the young king James VI. *


It appears from a story related by Mackenzie, that Buchanan had not the most profound reverence for the rank of his royal pupil. The young king being one day at play with his fellow pupil, the master of Erskiue, the earl of Mar’s eldest son, Buchanan, who was reading, desired them to make less noise. Finding that they disregarded his admonition, he told his majesty, that if he did not hold his tongue, he would certainly whip him. The king replied, he should be glad to see who would bell the cat, alluding to the fable. Upon this, Buchanan threw his book from him in a passion, and gave his majesty a severe whipping, The old countess of Mar, who was in an adjoining apartment, hearing the king cry, ran to him, and inquired what was the matter. He told her, that the master, for so Buchanan was called, had whipped him. She immediately asked Buchanan “how he durst put his hand on the Lord’s anointed?” His reply was, “Madam, I have whipped his a you may kiss it if you please.

During his residence in England, he wrote some encomiastic verses in honour of queen Elizabeth, and several English ladies of rank, from whom he received presents. He appears to have been very ready to receive favours of that kind; and, like Erasmus, not to have been at all backward in making his, wants known, or taking proper measures to procure occasional benefactions from the great. In 1571 he published his “Detectio Marise Reginae,” in which he very severely arraigned the conduct and character of queen Mary, and expressly charged her with being concerned in the murder of her husband lord Darnly. At the beginning of 1570, his pupil, the earl of Murray, regent of Scotland, was assassinated, which, Mackenzie says, “was a heavy stroke to him, for he loved him as his own life.” He continued, however, to be in favour with some of those who were invested with power in Scotland; for, after the death of the earl of Murray, he was appointed one of the lords of the council, and lord privy seal. It appears also that he had a pension of one hundred pounds a year, settled on him by queen Eliza* beth. In 1579 he published his famous treatise “De Jure Regni apud Scotos;” which he dedicated to king James. In 1582 he published at Edinburgh, his “History of Scotland,” in twenty books, on which he had chiefiy employed the last twelve or thirteen years of his life. He | died at Edinburgh the same year, on the 5th of December, in the seventy-sixth year of his age. Towards the close of his life, he had sometimes resided at Stirling. Ife is said, that when he was upon his death-bed, he was informed that the king was highly incensed against him for writing his book “De Jure Regni,” and his “History of Scotland j” to which he replied, that “he was not much conterned about that; for he was shortly going to a place where there were few kings.” We are also told, that when he was dying, he called for his servant, whose name was Young, and asked him how much money he had of his; and finding that it was not sufficient to defray the expences of his burial, he commanded him to distribute it amongst the poor. His servant thereupon asked him: “Who then would be at’the charge of burying him?” Buchanan replied, “That he was very indifferent about that; for if he were once dead, if they would not bury him, they might let him lie where he was, or throw his corpse where they pleased.” Accordingly, he was buried at the expence of the city of Edinburgh. Archbishop Spotswood says of Buchanan, that “in his old age he applied himself to write the Scots History, which he renewed with such judgment and eloquence, as no country can shew a better: only in this he is justly blamed, that he sided with the factions of the time, and to justify the proceedings of the noblemen against the queen, he went so far in depressing the royal authority of princes, and allowing their controulment by subjects; his bitterness also in writing of the queen, and of the times, all wise men have disliked; but otherwise no man hath merited better of his country for learning, nor thereby did bring to it more glory. He was buried in the common burial-place, though worthy to have been laid in marble, and to have had some statue erected to his memory; but such pompous monuments in his life he was wont to scorn and despise, esteeming it a greater credit, as it was said of the Roman Cato, to have it asked, Why doth he lack a statue? than to have had one, though never so glorious, erected.

Mr. Teissier says, that “it cannot be denied but Buchanan was a man of admirable eloquence, of rare prudence, and of an exquisite judgment; he has written the History of Scotland with such elegancy and politeness, that he surpasses all the writers of his age; and he has even equalled the ancients themselves, without excepting either Sallust | or Titus Livius. But he is accused by some of being an unfaithful historian, and to have shewn in his history an extreme aversion against queen Mary Stuart; but his master-piece is his Paraphrase upon the Psalms, in which he outdid the most famous poets amongst the French and Italians.

Mr. James Crawford, in his “History of the House of Este,” says, “Buchanan not only excelled all that went before him in his own country, but scarce had his equal in that learned age in which he lived. He spent the first flame and rage of his fancy in poetry, in which he did imitate Virgil in heroics, Ovid in elegiacs, Lucretius in philosophy, Seneca in tragedies, Martial in epigrams, Horace and Juvenal in satires. He copied after these great masters so perfectly, that nothing ever approached nearer the original: and his immortal Paraphrase on the Psalms doth shew, that neither the constraint of a limited matter, the darkness of expression, nor the frequent return of the same, or the like phrases, could confine or exhaust that vast genius. At last, in his old age, when his thoughts were purified by long reflection and business, and a true judgment came in the room of one of the richest fancies that ever was, he wrote our History with such beauty of style, easiness of expression, and exactness in all its parts, that no service or honour could have been done the nation like it, had he ended so noble a work as he begun, and carried it on till James the Fifth’s death. But being unhappily engaged in a faction, and resentment working violently upon him, he suffered himself to be so strangely biassed, that in the relations he gives of many of the transactions of his own time, he may rather pass for a satirist than an historian.

Burnet says, that “in the writings of Buchanan there appears, not only all the beauty and graces of the Latin tongue, but a vigour of mind, and quickness of thought, far beyond Bembo, or the other Italians, who at that time affected to revive the purity of the Roman style. It was but a feeble imitation of Tully in them; but his style is so natural and nervous, and his reflections on things are so solid (besides his immortal poems, in which he shews how well he could imitate all the Roman poets, in their several ways of writing, that he who compares them will be often tempted to prefer the copy to the original), that he is | justly reckoned the greatest and best of our modern authors.

The celebrated Thuanus observes, that “Buchanan, being old, began to write the history of his own country; and although, according to the genius of his nation, he sometimes inveighs against crowned heads with severity, yet that work is written with so much purity, spirit, and judgment, that it does not appear to be the production of a man who had passed all his days in the dust of a school, but of one who had been all his life-time conversant in the most important affairs of state. Such was the greatness of his mind, and the felicity of his genius, that the meanness of his condition and fortune has not hindered Buchanan from forming just sentiments of things of the greatest moment, or from writing concerning them with a great deal of judgment.

Dr. Robertson, speaking of Buchanan’s History of Scotland, says, that “if his accuracy and impartiality had been, in any degree, equal to the elegance of his taste, and to the purity and vigour of his style, his history might be placed on a level with the most admired compositions of the ancients. But, instead of rejecting the improbable tales of chronicle writers, he was at the utmost pains to adorn them; and hath clothed with all the beauties and graces of fiction, those legends which formerly had only its wildness and extravagance.” In another place, the same celebrated historian observes, that *‘ the happy genius of Buchanan, equally formed to excel in prose and in verse, more various, more original, and more elegant, than that of almost any other modern who writes in Latin, reflects, with regard to this particular, the greatest lustre on his country."

The genius and erudition of Buchanan have procured him, as a writer, the applause even of his enemies: but, as a man, he has been the subject of the most virulent invectives. Far from confining themselves to truth, they have not even kept within the bounds of probability; and some of the calumnies which have been published against him, related by Bayle, are calculated only to excite our risibility. The learned John Le Clerc has very ably shewn, that there is much reason to conclude, that many of the severe censures which have been thrown out against Buchanan, were the result of ignorance, of prejudice, and of | party animosity. That he was himself influenced by some degree of partiality to the party with which he was connected, that he was sometimes deceived by the reports of others, and that in the earlier part of his History, his zeal for the honour of his country has led him into some misrepresentations, may be admitted: but we do not apprehend that he wilfully and intentionally violated the truth, or that there is any just ground for questioning his integrity. Le Clerc observes, that as to the share which Buchanan had in public affairs, it appears even from the Memoirs of sir James Melvil, who was of the opposite party, that “he distinguished himself by his probity, and by his moderation.” The prejudices of many writers against him have been very great: he had satirized the priests, and many of them therefore were his most inveterate enemies; he was generally odious to the bigotted advocates for the Romish church, and to the partisans of Mary; and his free and manly spirit rendered him extremely disagreeable to court flatterers and parasites, and the defenders of tyranny. His dialogue " De Jure Regni/’ which certainly contains some of the best and most rational principles of government, whatever may be thought of some particular sentiments, and which displays uncommon acuteness and extent of knowledge, has been one source of the illiberal abuse that has been thrown out against him. But it is a performance that really does him great honour; and the rather, because it was calculated to enforce sound maxims of civil policy, in an age in which they were generally little understood. Some farther testimonies of authors concerning him may be found in our references.

Dr. Lettice concludes a well-written life of him by remarking, that Buchanan, with regard to his person, is said to have been slovenly, inattentive to dress, and almost to have bordered upon rusticity in his manners and appearance. The character of his countenance was manly but austere, and the portraits remaining of him bear testimony to this observation. But he was highly polished in his language and style of conversation, which was generally much seasoned with wit and humour. On every subject he possessed a peculiar facility of illustration by lively anecdotes and short moral examples; and when his knowledge and recollection failed in suggesting these, his invention immediately supplied him. He has been too justly reproached with instances of revenge, and forgetfulness of | obligations. These seem not, however, to have been characteristic qualities, but occasional failures of his nobler nature, and arising from too violent an attachment to party, and an affection too partial towards individuals. To the same source, perhaps, may be traced that easiness of belief to which he is found too frequently to resign his better judgment. His freedom from anxieties relative to fortune, and indifference to outward and accidental circumstances, gained him, with some, the reputation of a Stoic philosopher; but as a state of mind undisturbed by the vicissitudes of life, and a disposition to leave the morrow to take care of itself, are enjoined by one far better than Zeno, let us not forget that Buchanan is affirmed moreover to have been religious and devout, nor unjustly place so illustrious a figure in the niche of an Athenian portico, which claims no inferior station in the Christian temple. 1


Biog. Brit.—Chalmers’s Life of Ruddiman passim, but especially from p. 310.—Hume, Robertson, and Stuart’s Histories, as far as respect queen Mary. —Laing’s History of Scotland, and an elaborate review of it in the British Critic. —Mackenzie’s Scotch writers, vol. III. &c. &c.