George Buchanan: Jacobean Maecenas?

Steven Reid, Principal Investigator

As we saw in our feature on Hercules Rollock's brief sojourn in England, by the end of the 1570s Rollock was increasingly using his poetic talents to flatter leading political figures (including Elizabeth I and Francis Walsingham) and to attempt to drum up patronage for himself. His return to Scotland in 1580 saw him use his literary connections to secure a legal position, this time through no less a figure than George Buchanan. The connection between the two men is shadowy and hard to quantify, but the earliest evidence of it was Rollock's first, and ill-fated, legal appointment. In July 1580, the Lords of Session agreed to dismember the traditional jurisdiction of the commissary court of St Andrews, which embraced all the lands of the pre-reformation diocese of St Andrews north of the River Forth, and to erect a new court in Dundee that included the lands of Angus and the Carse of Gowrie in Perthshire which Rollock would head. 1 The commissary courts had been established in the wake of the reformation as direct inheritors of the old Episcopal courts that dealt with issues of marriage, executry and debt, and the St Andrews court had a long and well-established pedigree prior to the reformation, which immediately prompts a question as to why the council were willing to take such a bold and arbitrary step. In their formal protest before the Privy Council in January 1581, the Commissary of St Andrews William Skene and his clerk David Russell argued that the 'impetratour' Rollock (someone who obtained their post by fraud, usually by circumventing due process through a direct petition to an authority) had used the summer recess when the courts were closed for the harvest to directly obtain 'his Hienes gift and commissioun be sinister information tacita veritate [with the truth kept silent]', and had coaxed the king into ordering the Lords of Session to carry out the necessary changes to the legal boundaries. That the king had been unwittingly manipulated into agreeing to this was further suggested by the final decision of the Privy Council, which argued that while the Lords of Session did have power to carry out such a division of court lands, the presentation should be voided 'quhill [until] the Kings Majestie may be bettir informit of sic thingis as is requisite to be done for the weill of the cuntrie, ease of the subjectis, and the bettir administration of justice'. 2

On the face of it, Rollock appears to have gained access to the king in some form and to have persuaded him that his appointment was a good idea. How could a minor figure like Rollock, freshly returned from travels abroad, accomplish this? The answer appears to lie with the king's former tutor, George Buchanan. It is possible that Rollock had met Buchanan when he was principal of the College of St Leonard in the later 1560s, 3 as Rollock's first ever published piece was a short encomium appended to Alexander Hepburn's Grammatica artis prima rudimenta (Antwerp, 1568), which appeared alongside one by the older man. 4 Buchanan may have secured Rollock's contribution to Hepburn's primer as a means of advertising the skills of a newly-minted graduate with some poetical talent, However, if this was the case, a letter sent by Rollock to James VI's other tutor, Peter Young, in 1578, suggests he did not see himself as a friend of the elder humanist, although he was a devoted student:

...see that Buchanan, thrice great, that is, by his scholarship, his wisdom, his authority, most distinguished knows that I am a great disciple of his, except that the distinction of the man does not allow me to be on such terms of friendship with him. 5

Despite his hesitancy, it is clear that Rollock had plucked up the confidence to make a more intimate acquaintance with Buchanan in subsequent correspondence before he returned to Scotland. Buchanan's English friend Daniel Rogers notes in a letter to him sent from Greenwich on 5 August 1579 that he had forwarded on some comments on Buchanan's recently published De Iure Regni apud Scotos Dialogus ('A Dialogue on the Law of Kingship among the Scots', Edinburgh, 1579) through an earlier letter sent by Rollock. 6

Rollock's next direct link to Buchanan can be found in a short and somewhat mysterious letter that Buchanan sent to James VI, congratulating him on appointing Rollock to the commissary court:

When I understood that you had admitted that youth, Hercules Rollock, among the lesser judges, so that he might speak the law of his nation, truly I was delighted, and owe a debt on his behalf. For I was both rejoicing that you are seeing to the defence of justice (which is not far off the greatest duty of kings alone), and that the very best and learned youth has been placed in that position, where he can give an example to everyone of his virtue and learning: and show to all those who have entered upon the same course of life the hope of arriving at deserved rewards. For which reason, on his behalf, you have placed me and your tutors in a place where I am seen to owe [and] exhort you, that you continue steadfastly in that most beautiful habit of deserving well in all things: and you press on in bestowing honour upon these men, whose virtue and honour can be an advantage to you and your citizens. Farewell. Edinburgh, 31 July 1580. 7

While this letter was sent after Rollock's appointment, Buchanan's veiled discussion of debts owed to the king for services rendered suggests that he had provided Rollock with the recommendations necessary to secure an introduction to the young king, and from there Rollock (if the Privy Council record is to be believed) had managed to secure the approval of the king to dismember the commissary court, either by persuasion or deceit. If this is the correct interpretation of events (and given the limited and fragmentary nature of the evidence it can be no more than a conjectural one), then Rollock clearly had ambitions for a court-sponsored legal career and the audacity to pursue it through unconventional, and somewhat unethical, means.

More importantly, this episode further adds to scattered anecdotal evidence that Buchanan acted as a patron of sorts for young Scottish neo-Latinists returning from the Continent, especially in connection with providing access to his young royal charge. It is well-known that Andrew Melville was close to Buchanan during his studies in Paris in the mid-1560s, and had given him advice and training in poetic composition using his Psalm paraphrases as a guide. It was also through Buchanan that Melville received his first formal audience with the king at Stirling in 1574, while he was en route from Angus to take up teaching at the University of Glasgow. 8

However, Buchanan had also been friends with Melville's later nemesis Patrick Adamson in the same period. In 1566, the year that Adamson wrote his Genethliacum on the birth of James VI which saw him briefly imprisoned in Paris at the behest of Elizabeth for proclaiming James as the heir to all the kingdoms of Britain, 9 he also produced a prefatory epigram for the first edition of Buchanan's Franciscanus, 10 showing that the two had been friends from at least just prior to Buchanan's return to Scotland later that year. Buchanan took up the post of Principal of St Leonard's College St Andrews on his arrival back home, but due to his acceptance in 1570 of the post of tutor for the 'king's presentation and good education', he had to demit this post. Buchanan took the surprising step of petitioning a convention of estates in March of that year to give over:

his charge and place of master of the said college in favour of his well-beloved master Patrick Adamson, and no otherwise, of whose honesty, qualification, literature and sufficiency to administrate the said charge and place not only the said Mr George but the said lords, nobility and estates have good opinion and known experience. 11

Taken individually, these isolated instances of friendship and patronage do not amount to a great deal, but seen together they give rise to an intriguing possibility. In the reign of Caesar Augustus (r. 27BC-14AD), Gaius Cilnius Maecenas (70BC-8BC) was renowned as a promotor of talented poets including Virgil, Horace and Propertius, and as a form of 'cultural minister' for his emperor. 12 Did Buchanan serve a similar purpose for his young protégé James VI in the closing years of his life? Hopefully further investigation of the biographies of the Latin poets of Jacobean Scotland will help to confirm or deny this.


1: F.J. Grant (ed.), The Faculty of Advocates in Scotland, 1532-1943 (Scottish Record Society, Edinburgh, 1944), p. 182. Grant notes that the appointment was formally ratified on 11 September 1580.

2: RPC, vol. 3 (1578-1585), pp. 342-4.

3: See further below.

4: I am grateful to Dr Jamie Reid-Baxter for this information.

5: Bodleian, Smith ms. 77, 33-4, cited and translated in I. D. MacFarlane, Buchanan (London, 1981), p. 471.

6: Daniel Rogers to Buchanan, Greenwich, in Thomas Ruddiman (ed.), Georgii Buchanani ... Opera Omnia (2 vols, Leiden, 1725), vol. 2, pp. 748-751, at p. 749: 'Quidam etiam ipsius comites affirmare non sunt veriti, te gentis tuae Historiam pertexuisse, ac Dialogum quidem De Jure Regni (de quo nuper per Herculem Rollocium ad te scripsi) edidisse.'

7: George Buchanan to James VI, in Ruddiman (ed.), Opera Omnia, pp. xx-xx.

8: McFarlane, Buchanan, pp. 256-7; JMAD, p. 48.

9: Patrick Adamson, Serenissimi ac Nobilissimi Scotiae, Angliae et Hyberniae Principis, Genethliacum (Paris, 1566).

10: Paris, 1566.

11: RPS, A1570/3/1 [accessed 28 January 2014].

12: 'Maecenas, Gaius', in John Roberts (ed.), Oxford Dictionary of the Classical World (Oxford, 2007), [accessed 28 January 2014].