Crichton, James

, was a Scotch gentleman, who lived in the sixteenth century, and has furnished a sort of biographical romance. His endowments both of body and mind were esteemed so great, that he obtained the appellation of “The admirable Crichton,” and by that title he has continued to be distinguished down to the present day. The accounts given of his abilities and attainments are indeed so wonderful, that they seem scarcely to be credible; and many persons have been disposed to consider them as almost entirely fabulous, though they have been delivered with the. utmost confidence, and without any degree of hesitation, by various writers. The time of Crichton’s birth is said, by the generality of authors, to have been in 1551; but according to lord Buchan, it appears from several circumstances, that he was born in the month of August, 1560. His father was Robert Crichton of Elliock in the county of Perth, and lord advocate of Scotland in queen Mary’s reign, from 1561 to 1573; part of which time he held that office in conjunction with Spens of Condie. The mother of James Crichton was Elizabeth Stuart, the only daughter of sir James Stuart of Beath, who was a descendant of Robert duke of Albany, the third son of king Robert II. by Elizabeth Muir, or More, as she is commonly called. It is hence evident, that when the admirable Crichton boasted, as he did abroad, that he was sprung from Scottish kings, he said nothing but what was agreeable to truth. Nevertheless, Thomas Dempster, who sufficiently amplifies his praises in other | respects, passes a severe censure upon him on this account; which is the more remarkable, as Dempster lived so near the time, and was well acquainted with the genealogies of the great families of Scotland. James Crichton is said to have received his grammatical education at Perth, and to have studied philosophy in the university of St. Andrew. His tutor in that university was Mr. John Rutherford, a professor at that time famous for his learning, and who distinguished himself by writing four books on Aristotle’s Logic, and a commentary on his Poetics. But nothing, according to Mackenzie, can give us a higher idea of Rutherford’s worth and merit, than his being master of that wonder and prodigy of his age, the great and admirable Crichton. However, it is not to this professor alone that the honour is ascribed of having formed so extraordinary a character. There are others who may put in their claim to a share in the same glory; for Aldus Manutius, who calls Crichton first cousin to the king, says that he was educated, along with his majesty, under Buchanan, Hepburn, and Robertson, as well as Rutherford. Indeed, whatever might be the natural force of his genius, jnany masters must have been necessary, in order to his acquiring such a variety of attainments as he is represented to have possessed. For it is related, that he had scarcely reached the twentieth year of his age, when he had run through the whole circle of the sciences, and could speak and write to perfection in ten different languages. Nor was this all; for he had likewise improved himself to the highest degree in riding, dancing, and singing, and in playing upon all sorts of instruments. Crichton, being thus accomplished, went abroad upon his travels, and is said to have gone to Paris; of his transactions at which place the following account is given. He caused six placards to be fixed on the gates of the schools, halls, and colleges belonging to the university, and on the pillars and posts before the houses of the most renowned men for literature in the city, inviting all those who were well versed in any art or science to dispute with him in the college of Navarre, that day six weeks, by nine o’clock in the morning, where he would attend them, and be ready to answer to whatever should be proposed to him in any art or science, and in any of these twelve languages, Hebrew, Syrlac, Arabic, Greek, Latin, Spanish, French, Italian, English, Dutch, Flemish, and Sclavonian j and this | either in verse or prose, at the discretion of the disputant. During this whole time, instead of closely applying to his studies, he regarded nothing but hunting, hawking, tilting, vaulting, riding of a well-managed horse, tossing the pike, handling the musquet, and other military feats; or else he employed himself in domestic games, such as balls, concerts of music, vocal and instrumental; cards, dice, tennis, and other diversions of youth. This conduct so provoked the students of the university, that, beneath the placard that was fixed on the Navarre gate, they caused the following words to be written: “If you would meet with this monster of perfection, to search for him either in the tavern or t)ie brothel is the readiest way to find him.” Nevertheless, when the day appointed arrived, Crichton appeared in the college of Navarre, and acquitted himself beyond expression in the disputation, which lasted from nine in the morning till six at night. At length, the president, after extolling him highly for the many rare and excellent endowments which God and nature had bestowed upon him, rose from his chair; and, accompanied by four of the most eminent professors of the university, gave him a diamond ring and a purse full of gold, as a testimony of their approbation and favour. The whole ended with the repeated acclamations and huzzas of the spectators; and henceforward our young disputant was called “The admirable Crichton.” It is added, that he was so little fatigued with the dispute, that he went the very next day to the Louvre, where he had a match’at tilting, an exercise then in great vogue; and, in presence of some princes of the court of France, and a great many ladies, carried away the ring fifteen times successively, and broke as many lances on the Saracen, whatever that might be; probably a sort of mark.

The next account we have of Crichton is, that he went to Rome, where he fixed a placard in all the eminent places of the city, in the following terms: “Nos Jacobus Crichtonus, Scotus, cuicunque rei propositae ex improviso respondebimus.” In a city which abounded in wit, this bold challenge, to answer to any question that could be proposed to him, without his being previously advertised of it, could not escape the ridicule of a pasquinade. It is said, however, that being nowise discouraged, he appeared at the time and place appointed, and that, in presence of the pope, many cardinals, bishops, and doctors of | divinity, and professors in all the sciences, he displayed such wonderful proofs of his universal knowledge, that he excited no less surprise than he had done at Paris. Boccalini, who was then at Rome, gives something of a different relation of the matter. According to this author, the pasquinade against Crichton, which was to the following effect, “And he that will see it, let him go to the sign of the Falcon, and it shall be shewn,” made such an impression upon him, that he left a place where he had been so grossly affronted as to be put upon a level with jugglers and mountebanks. From Rome he went to Venice, at his approach to which city he appears to have been in considerable distress, of mind at least, if not with regard to external circumstances. This is evident from the following lines of his poem, “In suum ad urbem Venetam appulsum:

"Sæpè meo animo casus meditabar iniquos,

Sæepe humectabam guttis stillantibus ora."

The chief design of Crichton in this poem was to obtain a favourable reception at Venice, and particularly from Aldus JMamitius, whose praises he celebrates in very high strains. When he presented his verses to Manutins, that critic was struck with a very agreeable surprise; and judged, from the performance, that the author of it must be a person of extraordinary genius. Upon discoursing with the stranger, he was filled with admiration; and, finding him to be skilled in every subject, he introduced him to the acquaintance of the principal men of learning and note in Venice. Here he contracted an intimate friendship not only with Aldus Manutius, but with Laurentius Massa, Spero Speronius, Johannes Donatus, and various other learned persons, to whom he presented several poems in commendation of the city and university. Three of CrichtoH’s odes, one addressed to Aldus Manutius, and another to Laurentius Massa, and a third to Johannes Donatus, are still preserved; but are certainly not the productions either of an extraordinary genius, or a correct writer. At length he was introduced to the doge and senate; in whose presence he made a speech, which was accompanied with such beauty of eloquence, and such grace of person and manner, that he received the thanks of that illustrious body; and nothing was talked of through the whole city but this rara in tcrris avis, this prodigy of nature. He held likewise disputations on the subjects of | theology, philosophy, and mathematics, before the most eminent professors, and large multitudes of people. His reputation was so great, that the desire of seeing and hearing him brought together a vast concourse of persons from different quarters to Venice. It may be collected from Manutius, that the time in which Crichton exhibited these demonstrations of his abilities, was in the year 1580. During his residence at Venice, he fell into a bad state of health, which continued for the space of four months, and before he was perfectly recovered, he went, by the advice of his friends, to Padua, the university of which city was at that time in great reputation. The day after his arrival, there was a meeting of all the learned men of the place, at the house of Jacobus Aloysius Cornelius; when Crichton opened the assembly with an extemporary poem in praise of the city, the university, and the company who had honoured him with their presence. After this, he disputed for six hours with the most celebrated professors, on various subjects of learning; and he exposed, in particular, the errors of Aristotle, and his commentators, with so much solidity and acuteness, and, at the same time, with so much modesty, that he excited universal admiration. In conclusion, he delivered, extempore, an oration in praise of ignorance, which was conducted with such ingenuity and elegance, that his hearers were astonished. This display of Crichton’s talents was on the 14th of March, 1581. Soon after, he appointed another day for disputation at the palace of the bishop of Padua; not for the purpose of affording higher proofs of his abilities, for that could not possibly be done, but in compliance with the earnest solicitations of some persons, who were not present at the former assemhly. However, several circumstances occurred, which prevented this meeting from taking place. Such is the account of Manutius; but Imperialis relates, that he was informed by his father, who was present upon the occasion, that Crichton was opposed by Archangel us Mercenarius, a famous philosopher, and that he acquitted himself so well as to obtain the approbation of a very honourable company, and even of his antagonist himself. Amidst the discourses which were occasioned by our young Scotchman’s exploits, and the high applauses that were bestowed on his genius and attainments, there were some persons who endeavoured to detract from his merit. For ever, therefore, to confound these invidious impugners of | his talents, he caused a paper to be fixed on the gates of St. John and St. Paul’s churches, in which he offered to prove before the university, that the errors of Aristotle, and of all his followers, were almost innumerable; and that the latter had failed, both in explaining their master’s meaning, and in treating on theological subjects. He promised likewise to refute the dreams of certain mathematical professors; to dispute in all the sciences and to answer to whatever should be proposed to him, or objected against him. All this he engaged to do, either in the common logical way, or by numbers and mathematical figures, or in an hundred sorts of verses, at the option of his opponents. According to Manutius, Crichton sustained this contest without fatigue, for three days; during which time he supported his credit, and maintained his propositions, with such spirit and energy, that, from an unusual concourse of people, he obtained acclamations and praises, than which none more magnificent were ever heard by men.

The next account we have of Crichton, and which appears to have been transmitted, through sir Thomas Urquharr, to later biographers, is of an extraordinary instance of bodily courage and skill. It is said, that at Mantua there was at this time a gladiator, who had foiled, in his travels, the most famous fencers in Europe, and had lately killed three persons who had entered the lists with him. The duke of Mantua was much grieved at having granted this man his protection, as he found it to be attended with such fatal consequences. Crichton, being informed of his highness’s concern, offered his service, not only to drive the murderer from Mantua, but from Italy, and to fight him for fifteen hundred pistoles. Though the duke was unwilling to expose such an accomplished gentleman to so great a hazard, yet, relying upon the report he had heard of his warlike achievements, he agreed to the proposal; and, the time and place being appointed, the whole court attended to behold the performance. At the beginning of the combat, Crichton stood only on his defence; while the Italian made his attack with such eagerness and fury, that, having over-acted himself, he began to grow weary. Our young Scotchman now seized the opportunity of attacking his antagonist in return; which he did with so much dexterity and vigour, that he ran him through the body in three different places, of which wounds he | immediately died. The acclamations of the spectators were loud and extraordinary upon this occasion; and it was acknowledged by all of them, that they had never seen art grace nature, or nature second the precepts of art, in so lively a manner as they had beheld these two things accomplished on that day. To crown the glory of the action, Crichton bestowed the prize of his victory upon the widows of the three persons who had lost their lives in fighting with the gladiator. It is asserted, that, in consequence of this, and his other wonderful performances, the duke of Mantua made choice of him for preceptor to his son Vincentio di Gonzaga, who is represented as being of a riotous temper and a dissolute life. The appointment was highly pleasing to the court. Crichton, to testify his gratitude to his friends and benefactors, and to contribute to their diversion, framed, we are told, a comedy, wherein he exposed and ridiculed all the weaknesses and failures of the several employments in which men are engaged. This composition was regarded as one of the most ingenious satires that was ever made upon mankind. But the most astonishing part of the story is, that Crichton sustained fifteen characters in the representation of his own play. Among the rest, he acted the divine, the philosopher, the lawyer, the mathematician, the physician, and the soldier, with such inimitable grace, that every time he appeared upon the stage he seemed to be a different person .*


This may be no improper place to give our readers a specimen of the style of sir Thomas Urquhart, one of Crichton’s biographers, a style which, while it has been censured by modern critics, must be allowed a very happy imitation of the romances which turned don Quixote’s brain, and is no less happily employed on a hero whose exploits are equally romantic. Speaking of the fifteen characters played by Crichton, sir Thomas says, "Summening all his spirits together, which, never failed to be ready at the call of so worthy a commander, he did, by their assistance, so conglomerate, shuffle, mix, and interlace the gestures, inclinations, actions, and very tones of the speech of those fifteen several sorts of men whose carriages he did personate, into an inestimable ollapodrida of immaterial morsels of divers kinds, suitable to the very Ambrosian relish of the Heliconian nymphs, that in the peripetia of this drammatical exercitation, by the inchanted transportation of the eyes and eares of its speclabundal auditorie, one would have sworne that they all had looked with multiplying glasses, and that (like that angel in the Scripture, whose voice was said to be like the voice of a multitude) they heard in him alone the promiscuous speech of fifteen several actors; by the various ravishments of the excellencies whereof, in the frolickness of a jocund straine beyond expectation, the logofacinated spirits of the beholding hearers and auricularie spectators, were so on a sudden seazed upon in their risible faculties of the soul, and all their vital motions so universally affected in this extremitie of agitation, that to avoid the inevitable charmes of his intoxicating ejaculations, and the accumulative influences of so powerfull a transportation, one of my lady dutchess chief maids of


honour, by the vehemencie of the shock of those incomprehensible raptures, burst forth into a laughter, to the rupture of a veine in her body; and another young lady, by the irresistible violence of the pleasure unawares infused, where the tender receptibilitie of her too too tickled fancie was least able to hold out, so unprovidedly was surprised, that with no less impetuositie of ridibundal passion then (as hath been told) occasioned a fracture in the other young ladie’s modestie, she, not able longer to support the well-beloved burthen of so of excessive delight, and intransing joys of such mercurial exhilarations, through the ineffable extasie of an overmastered apprehension, fell back in a swown, without the appearance of any other life into her, then what by the most refined wits of theological speculators is conceived to be exerced by the purest parts of the separated entelechies of blessed saints in their sublimest conversations with the celestial hierarchies; this accident procured the incoming of an apothecarie with restoratives, as the other did that of a surgeon, with consolidative medicaments." See Sir John Hawkins’s Life Johnson, and Urquhart’s Tracts, p. 71—76.

| From being the principal actor in a comedy, Crichton soon became the subject of a dreadful tragedy. One night, during the time of carnival, as he was walking along the streets of Mantua, and playing upon his guitar, he was attacked by half a dozen people in masks. The assailants found that they had no ordinary person to deal with; for they were not able to maintain their ground against him. In the issue, the leader of the company, being disarmed, pulled off his mask, and begged his life, telling him that he was the prince his pupil. Crichton immediately fell on his knees, and expressed his concern for his mistake; alleging, that what he had done was only in his own defence, and that if Gonzaga had any design upon his life he might always be master of it. Then, taking his own sword by the point, he presented it to the prince, who immediately received it, and was so irritated by the affront which he thought he had sustained in being foiled with all "his attendants, that he instantly ran Crichton through the heart. Various have been the conjectures concerning the motives which could induce Vincentio di Gonzaga to be guilty of so ungenerous and brutal an action. Some have ascribed it to jealousy, asserting that he suspected Crichton to be more in favour than himself with a lady whom he passionately loved; and sir Thomas Urqnhart has told a story upon this head which is extravagant and ridiculous in the highest degree. Others, with greater probability, represent the whole transaction as the result of a drunken frolic; and it is uncertain, according to Imperiaiis, whether the meeting of the prince and Crichton was by accident or design. However, it is agreed on all hands, that Crichton lost his life in this rencontre. The time of his decease is | said, by the generality of his biographers, to have been in the beginning-of July 1583; but lord Buchan, most likely in consequence of a more accurate immiry, fixes it to the same month in the preceding year. There is a difference likewise with regard to the period of life at which Crichton died. The common accounts declare that he was killed in the thirty-second year of his age; but Imperialis asserts that he was only in his twenty-second when that calamitous event took place; and this fact is confirmed by lord Buchan. Criehton’s tragical end excited a very great and general lamentation. If the foolish ravings of sir Thomas Urquhart are to be credited, the whole court of Mantua went three quarters of a year into mourning for him; the epitaphs and elegies that were composed upon his death, and stuck upon his hearse, would exceed, if collected, the bulk of Homer’s works; and, for a long time afterwards, his picture was to be seen in most of the -bed-chambers and galleries of the Italian nobility, representing him on horseback, with a lance in one hand and a book in the other. From all this wonderful account we can only infer, with any degree of confidence, that Crichton was a youth of such lively parts as excited great present admiration, and high expectations with regard to his future attainments. He appears to have had a fine person, to have been adroit in his bodily exercises, to have possessed a peculiar facility in learning languages, to have enjoyed a remarkably quick and retentive memory, and to have excelled in a power of declamation, a fluency of speech, and a readiness of reply. His knowledge likewise was probably very uncommon for his years; and this, in conjunction with his other qualities, enabled him to shine in public disputation. But whether his knowledge were accurate or profound, may justly be questioned; and it may equally be doubted whether he would have arisen to any extraordinary degree of eminence in the literary world, which, however, his early and untimely death prevented from being brought to the test of experiment. 1

Biog. Brit. principally from a ms. drawn up by the earl of Buchan.— Mackenzie’s Scots Writers, &.c. &c.