James Halkerston (c. 1540-1615) and the Reign of Henri III of France

Steven Reid

James Halkerston (c.1540-1615) holds the distinction of making the smallest contribution to the DPS - just seven short epigrams over two pages. 1 Described by the editors as a 'commander of soldiers' ('tribuni militum'), Halkerston served as a captain on the Marian side of the civil war between 1570 and 1572, and by 1573 had fled to Antwerp where he was involved in abortive negotiations for a marriage between Mary Stewart and Don John of Austria. Halkerston wrote five poems on King Henri III of France (r. 1574-1589) and on his election as King of Poland (1573-1574) which suggest that he arrived in France when this event was taking place. He may have been the 'Haultayn' fighting as a mercenary for the Dutch against the Spanish in June 1576. However, this seems unlikely as a letter by John Hamilton, written on 1 August, reveals that Halkerston was engaged around the same period in Catholic intrigues in Paris and Normandy on behalf of Hamilton's family. Halkerston's career over the next two decades saw him serve as an agent for his third cousin Henri d'Angoulême, the Grand Prieur of Provence (between c.1580 and c.1585), Patrick, master of Gray (c.1585 to c.1587), and Francis Stewart, earl of Bothwell (c.1588 to c.1595), usually but not always in relation to plots to re-establish the Catholic faith in Scotland, and also as part of Bothwell's various assaults against the king. Halkerston's final epigram in the DPS, 'On the Flooding of the Tiber', 2 suggests that he was personally present in Rome when the river burst its banks on Christmas Eve 1598. 3 The last account of him (though possibly spurious) was recorded by Thomas Dempster, who apparently found him living in abject poverty in London in 1615. In addition to the short sequence of epigrams published in the DPS, Halkerston produced Latin paraphrases of James VI's sonnet on the death of Sir Philip Sidney, printed in Academiae Cantabrigiensis Lachrymae Tumulo Nobilissimi Equitis, D. Phillipi Sidneij Sacratae. 4

Halkerston's contribution to the DPS includes the six poems outlined above and a short but lovely piece on the pleasing pain caused by love. 5 Halkerston's five epigrams on Henri III actually comprise two short cycles - three written around the time of Henri's above-noted short-lived election to the crown of Poland , 6 and two written around 1585. These poems are fascinating as insights into Halkerston's own opinions on Henri's rule, especially as he himself was a Catholic.

In the three poems relating to Henri's Polish election, Halkerston follows the lead of several other Scottish poets and attacks Catherine de Medici as a figure of hate. 7 However, whereas his Scottish counterparts attack her for her persecution of French Protestants, or Huguenots, Halkerston detests Medici for her willingness to seek compromise on matters of religion and for pursuing crowns for her children while failing to deal with issues at home. In the first poem, the Queen is the 'Etruscan (Italian) mother' being addressed, who presides over the political chaos in France and leaves the country ripe for conquering by the Turks. In the second, Halkerston sarcastically argues that Henri is as 'good' a choice of ruler for Poland as Bona Sforza, who had been Queen consort to Sigismundus I between 1518 and 1548. Sforza built a powerful faction for herself at the Polish court, and was reputed to have poisoned her daughter-in-law Barbara Radziwill, who was a member of the leading rival family to the Jagellionian dynasty. Sforza had also consistently favoured a close diplomatic alliance with France, and this example of another power-hungry Italian queen, who was herself murdered by poisoning, was no doubt meant as an unflattering comparison to Henri's mother. 8 Finally, Henri is lambasted in the third poem for providing the Polish nation with nothing while robbing them of their men and arms.

De electione Polonica

Insidiæ, cædes, perjuria, mater Hetrusca,
affectant profugis proxima regna Scythis.
Ad proceres causam discordes Turca perorat,
quam bene conveniunt omnia ad excidium!

[On the Polish Election: Your plots, assassinations and perjury, O Etruscan mother, assail the kingdoms nearest to the fugitive Scythians. The Turk pleads his case to the quarreling nobles: 'how well everything comes together for destruction!']


Reginam regnare Bonam videre Poloni.
E quibus? Unde ortam? Miserat Italia.
At nunc Rege opus est; promittit Gallia; qualem?
Italicæ similem, atque, ut fuit illa, bonum.

[Another on the same event: The Poles saw that Bona ruled as a good queen. From among which people did she come? From whence did she arise? Italy had sent her. But now a king is needed; France promises one; of what kind? Similar to the Italian lady, and as good as she was.]


Moribus et morbis similes tibi Galle Poloni
arma, viros, currus, Imperiumque dabunt.
At tu pollicitis eludes omnibus omnes,
nudaque pro rebus nil nisi verba dabis.

[Another on the same event: O Frenchman, the Poles (like you in their customs and sickness) will provide you with arms, men, war chariots, 9 and dominion. But while you promise you trick everyone out of everything, and you will provide nothing for their interests except empty words.]

The two later poems show that Halkerston clearly shared the same deep-seated distaste for Henri, and the frustration and anger at his leniency towards Huguenots, as the other major opposition party in France that emerged in his later reign - the Catholic League. Although Henri had initially acceded to the throne with popular support, the League had been formed under the leadership of the Guise family in response to the king's policy of toleration (typified by the so-called 'Peace of Monsieur' in 1576 and the Treaty of Bergerac in 1577), his unwillingness to take rigorous action against Huguenots when they failed to comply with limits to their rights of worship, and above all his endorsement of the Protestant Henri of Navarre. 10

Henri was also the victim of a systematic and long-lived satirical campaign, which lambasted him as an effeminate and weak tyrant and has coloured his reputation ever since. 11 It is in this tradition that the final two epigrams should be located. The first criticises Henri's interest in courtly and 'bookish' pleasures, most notoriously exemplified by his creation of an 'Académie' at court where he would withdraw twice a week after lunch to hear lectures and debates on a range of intellectual matters. 12

In Henricum III, Galliarum Regem

Gallia dum nuper civilibus occidit armis,
et cinere obruitur semisepulta suo;
grammaticam exercet media Rex noster in aula,
discere namque cupit Rex generosus, amo.
Declinare cupit, vere declinat; et ille
bis Rex qui fuerat, sit modo Grammaticus.

[Against Henri III, King of the French: While France, recently, was struck down with civil war, and half-buried lies smothered in its own ashes, our King practices his grammar in the midst of the court. And all because our noble King wants to learn 'amo'. 13 He wants to decline, 14 and indeed he declines 15 ; and he who has twice been a King, is only fit to be a Grammarian.

The final poem is a contribution to a battle of wits between Henri's supporters and his detractors in the League on the completion of one of his cultural projects in 1585. Henri's official motto, 'Manet ultima caelo' ('The last [crown] remains in heaven'), reflected the fact that in addition to the crowns of France and Poland he looked forward to the third and final crown he would receive after death. Henri's restoration of the clock tower known as the Tour de L'Horloge in Paris (originally built around 1350 and completed in November 1585) featured a play on this motto, added to its side by the lead sculptor Germain Pilon: 'Qui dedit ante duas, triplicem dabit ille Coronom [sic]' (He who gave two crowns before will give a third'). A satirical corruption of this motto was quickly disseminated by members of the Catholic League who, as the chronicler Pierre de l'Estoile (1546-1611) noted, suggested that the third should be quickly procured for Henri by having his barber slit his throat: 'Qui dedit ante duas, unam abstulit, altera nutat,/ tertia tonsoris est facienda manu' ('He who gave you the first two crowns has taken one away, the second is tottering; the third will be given to you by the hand of the barber'). 16 The text of Halkerston's epigram is virtually identical to that of the one that circulated around the members of the League:

In eundem

Qui dedit una duas unam abstulit, altera nutat,
tertia tonsoris mox resecanda manu.

[Against the same man: He who gave two crowns to one man took away one, the other totters, the third should soon be cut off by the barber's hand.]

No author has ever been identified for the response produced by the League - there is thus an intriguing possibility that Halkerston may have been its creator. However, in the absence of any other data it is impossible to confirm or deny this. Regardless, what is apparent from Halkerston's short contribution to the DPS is the fact that Scots on both sides of the confessional divide took part in the polemic battles that raged among the different parties of the later Wars of Religion. More importantly, Scottish humanists clearly felt a deep personal engagement with French culture and politics in the later sixteenth century, and were motivated enough to express their feelings in verse.


1: DPS, vol I, pp. 376-377.

2: 'In Tiberis Inundationem', DPS, vol. 2, p. 377.

3: However, as Rod Lyall notes, Halkerston states that the poem is taking place in the eighth year of the papacy of Clement VIII (r. 1592-1600), which would date this to 1600. See Roderick J. Lyall, 'Kinship, Kingship and Latinity: the Suprising Career of James Halkerston', in Alasdair A. MacDonald and Julian Goodare (eds), Sixteenth-Century Scotland: Essays in Honour of Michael Lynch (Leiden, 2008), pp. 237-255, at p. 248; Gregory S. Aldrete, Floods of the Tiber in Ancient Rome (Baltimore, MA, 2007), p. 244.

4: Ed. Alexander Neville (London, 1587), at sig. k2r-v. For a full account of Halkerston's life, along with the text and a translation of the verses to Sidney, see Lyall, 'Kinship, Kingship and Latinity'.

5: 'De Amore Suo', DPS, vol. 1, p. 376.

6: Henri was elected king of Poland on 15 May 1573, and entered Poland on 19 January 1574; he was crowned 21 February. News of Charles IX's death, and his succession to the French throne, reached Henri on 14 June 1574. He fled Poland during the night of 18 June, and while the Convocation Diet of 24 August 1574 maintained him as king this was only on condition that he returned on or before 12 May 1575 (he did not). Stephen Bathory, Prince of Transylvania, was appointed in his stead in early 1576. See R.J. Knecht, 'King of Poland', in Hero or Tyrant? Henry III, King of France, 1574-89 (Farnham, 2014), pp. 73-85.

7: See Andrew Melville, 'Vipera Thusca Cum Catulis', DPS, vol. 2, p. 111, and Hercules Rollock, 'De Catharina Medicaea', DPS, vol. 2, pp. 381-2; see also our feature on Hercule's Rollock's early career in France.

8: I am extremely grateful to Dr Jamie Reid-Baxter for identifying Bona Sforza as the subject of this epigram, and for correcting my initial translation accordingly.

9: Used metonymically to denote military triumphs.

10: For an excellent survey in English of Henri's life and career, see Knecht, Hero or Tyrant?, passim.

11: Keith Cameron, Henri III: a Maligned or Malignant King? Aspects of the Satirical Iconography of Henri De Valois (Exeter, 1978); David Potter, 'Kingship in the Wars of Religion: the Reputation of Henri III of France', in European History Quarterly, vol. 25 (1995), pp. 485-528.

12: Robert J. Sealy, The Palace Academy of Henry III (Geneva, 1981); Frances A. Yates, The French Academies of the Sixteenth Century (London, 1988), pp. 105-30.

13: There is a pun here: 'amo, amas, amat' was the standard introduction to conjugating a Latin verb, but 'amo' could also be translated here as Halkerston saying 'because he [the king] wants to learn, I love him'.

14: Words, ie 'decline' in the sense of conjugate.

15: To take any real action.

16: Philip John Usher, Epic Arts in Renaissance France (Oxford, 2013), p. 180.