Mary's Courier, Buchanan's Disciple: introducing Thomas Maitland (c. 1545-1572)

Steven Reid, Principal Investigator

Of the three sons of Richard Maitland of Lethington (1496-1586) who survived into adulthood, the youngest - Thomas (c. 1545-1572) - is perhaps the most mysterious. 1 While his father and his two older brothers, William (1528?-73) and John (1543-1595), were highly pragmatic in their approach to religion and politics, Thomas appears to have stayed loyal to Mary Queen of Scots and her cause until his sudden and early death, en route to Rome, in 1572. Thomas shared the same passion for literature that gripped his father, although Thomas again differed by virtue of the language he chose to predominantly express himself in. While his father's chief pastime was as a writer in Scots, all of Thomas' poetry exists in Latin.

Thomas was born around 1545, assuming that he was fourteen when he matriculated in St Mary's College St Andrews in 1559. 2 A safe conduct to allow him to go to Paris to continue his studies on the completion of his MA was sought by Mary from Elizabeth I in September 1563, and Thomas left in the following month. He may have been back in Scotland as early as 7 February 1567, when an annuity of 500 merks was granted to him as part of a royal grant of Coldingham Priory made to his brother John. While this in itself is not definitive evidence, two of his poems suggest that was certainly back in Scotland and involved in political life by summer of that year. A poem celebrating Prince James' coronation following the forcible abdication of Mary (24 July 1567) 3 also describes the events of the Battle of Carberry Hill (15 June 1567) in great detail, which suggests that Maitland was either present or in close contact with those who were. Another poem on the surrender of one of Bothwell's main strongholds, Dunbar Castle, shows that Maitland was aware not only of its surrender on 1 October 1567 but of the subsequent order to demolish it, ratified by parliament in December of the same year. 4

In May 1570 Maitland was active as a courier of letters from the Earl of Suffolk to his brother William, and in May of the following year was arrested carrying letters back to Suffolk and held first at Leith and then in Stirling Castle. He was only released, in late June, after a protracted negotiation for a hostage exchange with sir Patrick Houston of that Ilk, a Renfrewshire laird and kinsman of the Earl of Lennox. However, Thomas went straight to Aberdeen after obtaining his freedom and joined a mission led by Lord Seton to secure finance and troops from the Duke of Alva to bolster the Marian-held castles of Dumbarton and Edinburgh. Seton and his retinue sailed on 23 August 1570, and had obtained 10,000 crowns from Alva by 19 November 1570. Seton gave 7,000 of these to Thomas, who sailed from Flushing with the gold on 18 December, though it is unknown if the funds he procured eventually went to the direct aid of the castles. 5 During his absence he and his two brothers had been denounced at the Edinburgh market cross as traitors and summoned to appear at the Tolbooth on 29 January 1571; they were formally forfeited at a meeting of the king's supporters known as the 'creeping parliament' on 16 May 1571.

Even if Thomas had received word of these proceedings it is likely that his mind would have been turned to more pressing concerns, namely his health. Robert Melville, who had been a witness to the planning of the Aberdeen expedition in July 1570, noted in a deposition regarding the affair that he believed Maitland had taken the trip with Seton because he was 'sickly' and had a desire to see France. 6 There may be some truth in this, as a poem dedicated to Louis Duret (1527-1586), physician to Charles IX, rather poignantly suggests that Maitland was ill with a quartan fever before he undertook his final fatal journey to Rome. Maitland writes in the poem of a vision of a 'goddess' (presumably either Febris or Bona Dea) advising him to seek out Duret's assistance in Paris, and offering him gifts of wealth from his family and poetic tributes from himself if Duret can heal him. 7 Spottiswoode records that towards the end of 1571 Maitland undertook a journey to Italy for an unknown reason, travelling with Thomas Smeaton, at that stage a Jesuit but who would later convert to Protestantism and become both an able polemicist and principal of the University of Glasgow. 8 He died at some point on the trail between Genoa and Rome, and while Spottiswoode suggests he contracted the sickness on the way it seems likely from the above evidence that he was unwell long before this. It is probable that he died in early 1572.

Maitland is most famous as a literary persona, due to the fact that he was the interlocutor with George Buchanan in the latter's radical tract on the rights and obligations of the Scottish monarch to his people, De Iure Regni Apud Scotos ('The Law of Kingship among the Scots'). 9 Maitland also achieved notoriety as the suspected author of a pasquinade, a satirical sketch of a purported conference held between the Regent Moray and six of his leading supporters (including John Knox), where each of the notable mannerisms of the men are savagely lampooned as they advise the regent on how best to seize the crown for himself. 10 Described by McKechnie as 'remarkable as perhaps the first example of its kind, not only in Scotland but in Christendom', 11 the text circulated in manuscript form shortly after the Regent's assassination on 23 January 1570 and was widely condemned (not least from the pulpit by Knox himself) as an attempt to blacken Moray's memory. However, an earlier draft of the text in the British Library, written under the title 'The copey of ane bill of Adverteisment send be ane freind out of court to ane Kynisman of the Erle of Argillis, the X. of December, 1569, disclosand the consall of sex personis', suggests that the text was written prior to the regents murder and that it was thus merely meant as a satirical swipe.

Despite the importance of the pasquinade as a landmark of Scottish literature, the core of Maitland's written output was in Latin, and includes a 'Letter' (Epistola) to Queen Elizabeth which discusses Mary's situation, around 12,000 words in length, which exists in manuscript in the Drummond Collection at the University of Edinburgh. 12 Maitland's poetry exists solely in the Delitiae and is surprisingly versatile, comprising seven elegies, four sylvae (or occasional poems) in hexameter, and 28 short poems and epigrams, ranging in length from 2 to 30 lines in a variety of meters. In upcoming features we will explore a small selection of these texts.


1: On the Maitland family, see Michael R. G. Spiller, 'Maitland, Sir Richard, of Lethington (1496-1586)', ODNB, and follow the related links.

2: For the narrative of Maitland's life which follows, see William S. McKechnie, 'Thomas Maitland', SHR, vol. 4 (1906-07), pp. 274-93. McKechnie bases the assumption for Maitland's birth date on the fact that Andrew Melville matriculated at fourteen, which he sees as a 'usual time' (p. 257) for entering university, but the average age of entrants was actually slightly younger.

3: 'Sylva I: Iacobi VI, Scotorum Regis Inauguratio', DPS, vol. 2, pp. 154-163.

4: 'Elegia VI: Deditio arcis Dumbarae ad Regem', DPS, vol. 2, pp. 151-152; Calderwood, History, vol. 2, p. 387; RPS, A1567/12/34 [accessed 24/05/2014].

5: McKechnie, pp. 287-88.

6: McKechnie, p. 286; CSPSC, vol. 4, pp. 620-1.

7: 'Elegia III: Ad Ludovicum Duretum, medicum, ut febris quaertanae aegritudine levaret', DPS, vol. 2, pp. 147-149.

8: Spottiswoode, History, vol. 2, p. 320; on Smeaton, see John Durkan, 'Smeaton , Thomas (1536-1583)', ODNB.

9: Edinburgh, 1579. See A Dialogue on the Law of Kingship among the Scots: A Critical Edition and Translation of George Buchanan's De Iure Regni apud Scotos Dialogus, ed. and trans. Roger A. Mason and Martin S. Smith (Aldershot, 2004).

10: For a range of editions of this text, including the one discussed below, see Bannatyne, Memorials, pp. 7-13; Calderwood, History, vol. 2, pp. 515-25; Bannatyne Miscellany, vol. 1, pp. 37-50.

11: McKechnie, p. 279.

12: 'Thomae Metelani Ad Serenissimam principem Elizabetham Anglorum Reginam Epistola', EUL MS De.4.22.