The universe of Adam King part 1: life and times

David McOmish

This month's feature forms one half of a two part examination of the life and work of the humanist scholar and poet Adam King. This first part introduces King and provides an overview of his life and times, with a focus on the religious and political landscape of those times. The second feature (June's feature) will concentrate on his intellectual and cultural universe.

There have been two short scholarly studies on the life and work of the Edinburgh polymath Adam King produced to date. In 2001, John Durkan provided a helpful introduction to King's career and religious life for the Innes Review. 1 In it, Durkan outlined King's catholic religious background, and located much of his literary output within that religious context. In 2008, Jamie Reid-Baxter produced an edition of King's poem the Soteria, to which he appended an introduction to the political and religious background to the poem that attempted to place King's political attachment to James VI within the confines of contemporary political discourse. 2 However, despite these most welcome attempts to resurrect King from obscurity, he still remains someone whose cultural and literary universe is unknown. This is quite remarkable. As one of our previous features drew attention to, Adam King was part of the King family of advocates in Edinburgh who were active from at least the 1550s until the later 17th century, and who had close relations with the Craig and Napier families. 3 King and his family were deeply involved in the political turmoil that followed the Marian civil war, and they made significant contributions to the development of the state in the years after the unrest. During this period, Adam King and his family also made a substantial and marked contribution to the intellectual and academic life of both Scotland and Europe. The legacy of Adam's family is still apparent in the very fabric of modern Edinburgh, where two of his family's former properties are major tourist attractions. But like the written work of the Kings contained in manuscripts in special collections departments across the world, the role played by the Kings in their construction is largely ignored and forgotten. The visiting public have no idea about the family who owned them or the incredible story they can reveal. The obscurity of Adam King and his brothers is therefore somewhat surprising. Yet although surprising, King's relative obscurity can be reasonably explained.

King's work and the life they reveal present the reader with two substantial hurdles to overcome: language and content. The vast majority of King's work is in Latin; in humanist, classicising Latin. The content of his work is heavily informed by his main academic concerns: astronomy and maths. Only three of King's extant writings are in Scots (a translation of Peter Canisius' catechism, a calendar, and a letter to a friend), and it is these three religious texts that provide the frame of reference for John Durkan's article. 4 Durkan lists some of the Latin poems from the DPS that seem to touch upon some of the issues raised by his religious frame of reference, but, naturally, because of the scale of King's corpus (his work on astronomical poetry is almost 200,000 words alone!), and the fact that no critical edition or translation made the work approachable, the texts themselves did not form part of the critical analysis. Jamie Reid-Baxter made some headway in this regard by providing a critical edition of one of King's Latin poems, on the Gowrie Conspiracy (see note above). The introduction to this edition does draw the readers' attention to King's wider Latin corpus, and highlights King's specialist concerns (especially in relation to Adam King's Latin liminary elegy to his vernacular work). The main focus, though, of the introduction to this edition is still on the literary framework outlined by Durkan in 2001 (calendar and catechism), and on the specific subject matter of the poem (the Gowrie Conspirary), rather than King's life and broader corpus (though Dr Reid-Baxter does helpfully provide an appendix containing all of King's extant Latin work and its MS and printed editions). 5

Thanks to the work of the DPS team carried out on King over the last three years it is now possible to say much more about King the poet, academic, and man. In this first feature we'll try to add a little more to the good work that John Durkan and Jamie Reid-Baxter have already undertaken on King's religious and political background. While in the second feature, we'll then begin to examine what must be considered King's greatest legacy: his literary and intellectual work. Adam King was born into a respected and well-connected family of advocates in Edinburgh. King's father, Alexander, was in the employment of Archibald Napier, father to John Napier, at the time of Adam's birth (circa 1560, given the record of his matriculation at St Leonards College, St Andrews in 1576). 6 It is from the letters written by Adam Bothwell, Bishop of Orkney, that we learn that Adam's father and uncle (James) provided family counsel to the Napiers of Merchiston, and that King's father was active in Edinburgh at the time of Adam's birth. 7 Although born into a stable environment and well-established family (by 1570 his father was one of Edinburgh's more successful advocates), 8 Adam's early life was touched in several ways by the political and religious upheaval which followed the Scottish Reformation in 1560. While still a boy his elder sister Janet married James Mossman, a goldsmith and adherent of Mary, Queen of Scots in the period following her forced abdication in 1567. By 1571 Adam's brother-in-law and sister were living in what is now known as John Knox House on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh. 9 James' support for Queen Mary cut short any domestic happiness he and Janet may have enjoyed after their marriage. Within two years of moving into their home on the Royal Mile, James was involved in a siege a few hundred metres up the road in Edinburgh castle. For his role in the siege, Adam's brother-in-law was hung, drawn, and quartered, and his head set upon the Mercat Cross - not far from his home. By the time of his brother-in-law's execution, Adam's elder brother, Alexander, had graduated from St Andrews and had undertaken further study in France that eventually led to his acceptance into the Faculty of Advocates in 1580. 10 Alexander, like his brother-in-law James, was soon to become involved in the political and religious discord that followed the reformation and the deposition of Mary. In 1589 Francis Walsingham, the spy and chief secretary to Queen Elizabeth of England, reported that Alexander King, son of Alexander King, advocate of Edinburgh, was hatching a pro-catholic plot against Elizabeth and James, and advised his contacts at court to advise the King to imprison them. 11 According to Walsingham, King had just returned from Paris with some fellow conspirators. In Paris in the summer of 1589 (the time in which Walsingham said King was in France), he would have undoubtedly met his brother Adam, who was at that very moment (June 1589) in an election to become the rector of the University of Paris. 12 In his report, Walsingham stated that Alexander King and his fellow conspirators were overheard plotting the murder of King James. It is difficult, given the fevered atmosphere that pervaded Anglo-Scottish relations in the immediate aftermath of the Spanish (armada) invasion plot of 1588, as well as the tensions arising from James' claim to the throne of England, to evaluate the extent to which Walsingham's comments reflect what was really happening. What is clear, though, is that, during the period in which Adam was growing up in Edinburgh, his family was not untouched by the political and religious upheaval in the Capital and the country at large - indeed they seemed to be intimately involved in it.

What can be reasonably stated without too much exaggeration is that both brothers were working to promote the catholic cause within Scotland. Three years before Walsingham accused Alexander of being behind a treasonous catholic plot, Adam was writing to his contacts in Scotland from Paris, encouraging them to follow him in returning to the Catholic Church. 13 It was also at this time that King published his calendar of the Saints and his Catholic Catechism (the focus of John Durkan's work) in the proselytising language of the people: Scots. King's entire literary output is otherwise completely in Latin (including his religious poetry). The surprising choice of linguistic medium, however, is perhaps not surprising at all: its demotic tones have an intended demotic audience. King's work was produced for dissemination among his fellow Scots at a time when the religious and political atmosphere back in Britain was at fever pitch. Within the year, Mary, Queen of Scots would be executed. A year after that the Spanish Armada would set sail for Southern Britain. A year after that his own brother would be the subject of Walsingham's pro-catholic plot claim. And in 1595, Adam returned to Scotland and was arrested at the behest of the church for professing Catholicism. 14 During his inquisition, Adam, although catholic, stated that he was ready to take the oath of allegiance to the kirk not because he was convinced by the Calvinists' theology, but simply because he was a good faithful servant to King James' laws. This latter consideration (Adam's articulation of his faith's subordination to James' law) highlights the problems with conflating religious and political identity in this period. Adam's family had a history of very public shows of loyalty to James that got them in very real trouble. Agents of the English crown had, not long before Walsingham's charges against his elder brother, been irritated by actions of the Kings. In early 1586, Thomas Randolph, sent as an envoy to Scotland on behalf Queen Elizabeth, attended a council of session in Edinburgh at which he witnessed a speech by Alexander King. 15 After hearing the speech, Randolph strongly objected to the speech's content and caused King James to have Alexander imprisoned (a contemporary note to the recorded speech reports the exchange). Although King James seems to have placated the envoy and had Alexander imprisoned, no further punitive action was taken against King (the note also states). Without doubt it was Alexander's very strongly-worded justification of James right to claim, and exhortation to take up, the English throne that moved the English envoy to intercede. Actively working for James' VI's right to succeed to the English throne was also something that Adam did. In 1600, a companion piece to Adam's Soteria repeated many of the justifications that Alexander had made in his speech on James' succession (see link to Jamie Reid-Baxter's edition above, where Dr Reid-Baxter highlights some other potential inspirations for Adam's arguments on this point). The Soteria and its companion piece were published anonymously. Not a great surprise when we remember what happened to his brother for 'openlie' making such arguments.

The brothers both had successful careers in Edinburgh after the trials and tribulations that accompanied their lives in the immediate post-reformation period. In 1590, Alexander, a mere six months after the excited English ambassador's claims of treason and heresy, was appointed judge and delegate to the Judge Admiral on the admiralty court. 16 He was also part of the great Latin literary culture that must now been seen as one of the defining aspects of Jacobean culture in King James' Scotland. He completed two Latin treaties on the laws of the seas which survive in Scotland (NLS: MS 28.4.7) and in America (Folger: 'Tractatus legum navalium et de curia admiralli Scotiae'). Alexander also owned property right next to his main place of work (and indeed Adam's too), in the centre of Edinburgh, next to the Tolbooth, where civic and legal business was conducted (and onto which their brother-in-law James' head would have looked after his execution). 17 Today, 'Alexander King's close' is a major tourist attraction in Edinburgh under the name 'Mary King's close'. Given Alexander's colourful life, it is perhaps unfortunate that neither his nor his brother Adam's life-story plays any part in the popular history of the close. Adam followed his family into the law upon returning to Scotland. He became commissary for Edinburgh in the early 17th century, and in 1607, Adam was entrusted by the king with the decision concerning who should produce the grammar book to be used in the Scottish schools for instruction in Latin. 18 As John Durkan revealed in his Innes Review article (p.198), Adam married and settled down, and upon his death left a sizable library in his will (no doubt augmented by some of his brother Alexander's books - Adam was Alexander's heir after his brother died in 1618, as revealed in his retour of 23rd February 1618). However, we will only really be able to fully appreciate who Adam was, and what life was like among his group of friends (his brother Alexander, Thomas Craig, John Napier, John Craig, and others) when we fully examine the contribution he made to intellectual life in Scotland in his magnum opus, the Sphaera, which is contained in Edinburgh University library (a preliminary study of which informs part of the next feature). 19 However, from what evidence we have at the moment, it is clear that Adam was someone of note whom visiting European scholars wished to meet (see next month's feature on King's relationship with Johann Van Reigersberg), and whose contribution to public life was rewarded with public honour (King was chosen to be the first to greet King James in verse, upon the monarch's first return to Scotland in 14 years, which can only be viewed as an honour done to someone of very real significance). 20

From the very brief look at the evidence of the environment he grew up in, and his interaction with that environment, we can see something of a picture emerging. In activities of Adam and his brother we see a strong adherence to the old faith, and a youthful and a (sometimes reckless) willingness to further its cause. We also see an equally strong (if not stronger) adherence to the Crown (even one that advocates a reformed polity). In the next feature we will move on to examine King's academic and vocational activities...


1: John Durkan, 'Adam King: A Church Papist' in The Innes Review 52.2 (Edinburgh 2001) pp.195-9.

2: See Jamie Reid-Baxter, Philological museum

3: See October feature on Thomas Craig.

4: John Durkan, 'Adam King: A Church Papist' in The Innes Review 52.2 (Edinburgh 2001) pp.195 for details of catechism and calendar (note 2), and p.199 for the letter.

5: Jamie Reid-Baxter, APPENDIX: THE EXTANT POETRY OF ADAM KING, the Philological Museum, ed. Dana Sutton.

6: James Anderson, Early Records of the University of St Andrews, (Scottish History Society, 1926), p.289 (not 269 - as Durkan).

7: Printed in Mark Napier, Memoirs of John Napier of Merchiston (Edinburgh, 1834), p.62-3.

8: John Finlay, 'The early career of Thomas Craig, advocate' in Edinburgh Law Review, 8 (3), (Edinburgh, 2004), pp.298-328. See table on p.327 for evidence of Alexander's busy schedule at this time.

9: P. Miller, 'John Knox and his Manse' in Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland vol. 25 (Edinburgh, 1891) p.153. James Mossman's coat of arms are still visible today on the side of the house.

10: See October feature on Thomas Craig.

11: W. Boyd, Calendar of State Papers relating to Scotland and Mary Queen of Scots Volume 10 (Edinburgh, 1936), 138.

12: John Durkan, 'Adam King: A Church Papist' in The Innes Review 52.2 (Edinburgh 2001) pp.196-7.

13: The letter is to one Mr John Dawling, who attended St Andrews (specifically St Leonards College) at the same time as Adam. John Durkan transcribed and printed the letter in full in his article: 'Adam King: A Church Papist' in The Innes Review 52.2 (Edinburgh 2001) 199.

14: Details of the ordeal are helpfully paraphrased from church records by Durkan: 'Adam King: A Church Papist' in The Innes Review 52.2 (Edinburgh 2001) 197.

15: The speech is found in manuscript form in the British Library: Harl. MS.541, p.l46. It is entitled in the MS: Oratio demonstrans Jacobum 6 Scotorum regem totius Albionis legittimum futurum monarcham. Alexandro King authore.

16: See October feature on Thomas Craig, note 21.

17: It is recorded in Edinburgh council records in the early 17th century as Alexander King's close: RCAHMS record 52306. It is situated one close down from the residence of his colleague on Edinburgh town council (which also met in the tolbooth) in 1586 Clement Cor.

18: See Durkan, 'Laying Fresch Foundations' in Humanism in Renaissance Scotland, 140.

19: For the first major scholarly discussion about this text, see Mcomish, 'A community of scholarship: scientific discourse in early-modern Scotland' in Neo-Latin Literature and the Republic of Letters in Early Modern Scotland, Eds. Reid and Mcomish (forthcoming)

20: For this occasion and poem, see here.