Scotland in the century of the Reformation was a fully enfranchised province in the republic of letters. Despite its geographical remoteness, and in part because of it, it sent its more ambitious and industrious sons almost everywhere abroad to study. The three universities of medieval foundation were essentially undergraduate colleges, but, as John Durkan has shown, Scots as students and teachers had roamed abroad since the 15th century to the higher faculties of the Northern universities – some to England, but far more to the Continent. While they were to be found in significant numbers from Louvain to Vienna, most of them went to Paris, and it was in the Paris of the 16th century that three of European reputation whose careers were also intertwined were chiefly trained: Hector Boece, John Mair or Major, and Major’s most famous pupil, George Buchanan. If the pitch and intonation of Scottish intellectual life have always seemed somewhat alien to English ears, the influence of these Continental schools must not be forgotten in accounting for it.
Of the three, the one who has left the greatest mark on British history, rightly or wrongly, is George Buchanan. His master in St Andrews and in Paris, John Major, was involved in questions ranging from the state of peasant society to the mythical origins of Scottish history (in which, unlike his pupil, he was on the right side), favoured union with England, and was a leading theorist of Gallican conciliarism. He remained stubbornly scholastic at a time when the humanist reaction against that method was at high tide. Buchanan, on the other hand, came of age in the Paris of the late Twenties and early Thirties, a world dominated by Guillaume Budé and Lefèvre d’Etaples, by the new modes of literary humanism, and by the great Lutheran controversies. His formation was that of a rhetorician, whether as a Latin poet or historian, and as such, he was in a much better position to speak to the cosmopolitan élite of his day. His life and works now for the first time have received a detailed and scientific study, including a complete catalogue of his writings, a list of his letters and his library, examination of the history of each of his books, and a wealth of incidental documentation that will make it the indispensable foundation of editorial work now under way on Buchanan’s achievement. It will be an appropriate centrepiece to the quatercentenary celebrations commemorating Buchanan’s death next year.
In his own time, Buchanan was known as a supreme master of Latin verse, a virtuosity that would have guaranteed his obscurity in our day but for the political writings which emerged late in his career. It was the career of a teacher, chiefly in France at the college of Sainte-Barbe in Paris and as professor of Latin at Bordeaux, and in Portugal at Coimbra. He was tutor to Montaigne and, most famously, to James VI and I, whose political views he can have engendered only by opposition. He was a friend to Ronsard and Joachim du Bellay and many of the Pléiade company; to Nicholas de Grouchy, the editor of Aristotle, Elie Vinet the mathematician and cosmographer, Peter Ramus, Henri Estienne, his collaborator and printer in a variety of works, and to Julius Caesar Scaliger, who held him in high regard. As these connections suggest, although his associates in these years were Catholic, ‘the evidence,’ in McFarlane’s words, ‘points to Buchanan’s association with a great number of people who, to put it mildly, were to be found in the no-man’s-land between heresy and orthodoxy.’ In 1538 he was arrested as a ‘Lutheran’ in Scotland, and in 1551 tried by the Inquisition at Lisbon. McFarlane’s careful examination of the evidence shows that on the latter occasion he was convicted of having held, in the distant past, a number of opinions that do smack strongly of Protestantism. Through most of his adult life, however, his views seem the common attitude of evangelical humanist intellectuals. In Lisbon he was required to make public abjuration of his former errors and to reside in a monastery for several weeks, during which time he worked on his paraphrases of the Psalms, but there is no evidence of strong confessional conviction. After a return to Paris as tutor to the son of Charles de Cossé, Comte de Brissac and Maréchal de France, it is clear that in ‘the France of Henri II and the chambre ardente’, he enjoyed the reputation of an orthodox if undemonstrative Catholic.
Buchanan appears to have left the employ of the Comte de Brissac in 1560 and shortly afterwards to have followed Mary Stuart back to Scotland; in the royal accounts, his salary is paid for Martinmas Term 1561-2. Thomas Randolph, the Marian exile who was charged with the task of bringing the Earl of Arran back to Scotland in 1559, reported to Cecil in April 1562 that the Queen, instructed by a learned man, ‘Mr George Bowhanan’, read daily after dinner ‘somewhat of Lyvie’: a natural enough employment for a tutor in good standing with the Guises. He was one of those appointed in December 1563 by the General Assembly to revise the Book of Discipline, and, in the following year, was put on another committee to examine the legal framework of the Kirk. His participation in the affairs of the Assembly grew throughout the early 1560s, and it is no doubt from this involvement that he came to form an allegiance to Mary’s half-brother, the Earl of Moray. On 2 July 1567, the 14th General Assembly was held, and this time the Moderator was George Buchanan.
After 1567, he seems to have been little involved with the business of the Kirk, but with that year his opportunity had come. The murder of Darnley was a profound shock to Buchanan, McFarlane argues, both as one who had loyally accepted him as King, and as a fellow clansman. But the subsequent marriage was the cause of final revulsion, and reinforced the misogynist Buchanan’s deep-rooted suspicion of female rulers. McFarlane also speculates that when Buchanan was in France in 1566, when the wars of religion were well under way, his contact with his Huguenot friends and the behaviour of the Guises and of Catherine de Medici may have had its effect on his later attitude to Mary, Queen of Scots. Be that as it may, one may also see Buchanan’s behaviour in the light of the recent verdict of Jenny Wormald: ‘given Darnley’s wholly unsatisfactory personality, [the Queen’s] choice of ally, no doubt encouraged by Darnley’s own place in the English succession, shows political ineptitude of staggering proportions.’ It fell to Buchanan, by now ‘patently Moray’s man’, to provide the apologetic for the Scottish revolution in a series of tracts and treatises, of which by far the most important was the De iure regni apud Scotos.
More than any other of his writings, this dialogue ensured Buchanan’s reputation. Mary’s deposition precipitated the formulation of theories that had long been in his mind, and, at the same time, its theme is interwoven with that of his Rerum Scoticarum historia, which he also resumed at this time. The De iure seems to have circulated in manuscript as early as 1569, although it was not published for another decade, and after Buchanan had done more work on it. The delay is not difficult to explain. Its thesis approving tyrannicide, among other things, was quite as obnoxious to Queen Elizabeth, upon whose support the Confederate Lords had to count, as it was to her successor. McFarlane cites her instruction to Morton in 1573 that Buchanan was to be ‘warned of setting forth of the booke without advise from hence touching matters therein conteyned touching some of our nation’. The deaths of the Regent Moray and of Lennox also made its publication less immediately important. Moreover, in 1572 the Commentarioli descriptionis Britannicae fragmentum of the antiquary Humphrey Lluydd was published posthumously by Abraham Ortelius, demolishing the account of the early Scottish kingship of Hector Boece which Buchanan (unlike Major) so faithfully upheld, and upon which he rested so much of his theory of a popular monarchy. In the event, Buchanan’s dialogue was more popular with Calvinists abroad than it was at home; two years after Buchanan’s death the De iure regni and the Historia were both denounced in Parliament ‘as not meet to remain for records of truth to prosperity’, and those owning copies were to hand them over to be purged within 40 days. Thereafter the fortunes of Buchanan’s political treatises rose and fell with the popular cause: in 1683 his writings were publicly burnt at Oxford, with those of Milton.
The De iure regni was not an original work. Figgis asserted that it contains a theory of social contract, an error repeated by Mesnard. McFarlane speaks of ‘a sort of contract’; at best it is implied, a mutual obligation (‘pactio’) between a king and his people. Buchanan was concerned to vindicate the sovereignty of the people, the harmony of political society with the nature of man, and the subordination of the monarch to law. It is a conventional work in harmony with the political tradition of John Major and of standard humanist political theory going back to Aristotle, although his insistence that the people can revoke powers bestowed on a ruler, and the justification of tyrannicide, went farther than some. In its day, its most original element lay less in what it contained than in its omission of any significant religious sanction for political authority. This laicism pervades the Historia, too, where the principles of Scottish kingship were established before Christianity came on the scene. If Divine Right was alien to Buchanan’s world, so was Genevan theocracy. In that respect at least, this cosmopolitan humanist poet and teacher, whose Guise connections took him back to his homeland in time to become the classic apologist for the overthrow of all that was dear to their interest, remained loyal to his French formation.