1. This autobiographical sketch, written two years before the Scottish Humanist George Buchanan’s death in 1582, was first printed in the third part of J. J. Boissard and Théodore de Bry, Icones Quinquaginta Virorum Illustrium…Cum Eorum Vitis Descriptis (Frankfurt, 1598), pp. 23 - 32, and was frequently reprinted in the many collections of Buchanan’s works published in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The statement found in a colophon appended to a number of early editions that he wrote haec de se amicorum rogatu suggests one. In his magisterial biography of Buchanan, I. D. McFarlane presents evidence that his friend Sir Peter Young was instrumental in its creation. NOTE 1
2. The sketch has had its admirers. Buchanan’s early nineteenth century biographer David Irving NOTE 2 quotes from Pierre-Daniel Huet’s Commentaria de Rebus ad Eum Pertinentibus (Amsterdam, 1718) p. 424 :Parcior fuit et verecundior in narrandae vitae suae historia Georgius Buchananus, brevis etiam et adstrictus, et candide quoque se ipse denudans, ut nec de novis pravisque religionibus, quae multorum animos infecerant illa aetate, quid ipse senserit satis dissimulet.
[“George Buchanan was more sparing and modest in telling the story of his life, being brief, terse and candidly self-revealing, so that the did not sufficiently dissimulate his opinion of those novel and depraved sects which infected many men’s minds at that time.”]
3. “Candidly self-revealing” is not the phrase that most readily comes to mind as a characterization of this document. “Outrageous” would be more suitable. As McFarlane put it, the Vita “has naturally been extensively used as a point de d’part for investigation into Buchanan’s life,” and it contains enough unique factual material to rule out the possibility that it was a spurious document passed off “as a piece of hagiography” by Sir Peter Young. But this is only true down to the year 1562.
4. Buchanan’s autobiography is astonishing, in the first place, for its omissions. He gives next to no information about his activities from his return to Scotland from Italy in 1562. At first he served as tutor to the young widow Mary Queen of Scots, wrote an ode on her marriage to Lord Darnley, and dedicated the first edition of his Latin paraphrases of the Psalms to her. Nor did he disdain an annual pension of £500 for his services (although, admittedly, this pension was never paid). But as soon as Mary fell from power he turned on her and wrote a series of vitriolic denunciations of her alleged murder of her consort, Lord Darnley, her supposed adulterous relationship with Lord Bothwell, and her tyrannical government: De Maria Scotorum Regina (1568), its vernacular equivalent Ane Detectioun of the Duings of Marie Quene of Scotes, Touchand the Murder of Hir Husband and of hir Conspiracie, Adultierie and Pretended Marriage with the Erle Bothewell, his subsequent De Iure Regni apud Scotos Dialogus (1579), and also the relevant portions of his Rerum Scoticorum Historia (1582). The purpose of all of these writings, marked by the most bitter invective, was to justify Mary’s deposition and imprisonment by the Protestant Lairds. Not content to use his pen in the service of the Scots Protestants, and most particularly of his patron the Earl of Moray, the Protestant Regent of Scotland during James VI’s minority, he functioned as a prominent spokesman for the Protestants at the 1568 York conference, denouncing Mary to the English. All in all, Buchanan had become, as one recent writer put it, “an official propagandist of the anti-Mary party and an important member of the ruling party.” NOTE 3 He further fails to record his appointments as Principal of St Leonard’s College in St Andrews in 1567, as Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in the following year, and guardian of the Privy Seal of Scotland and member of the Privy Council in 1570. He likewise does not mention his writings emanating to this period, albeit De Iure Regni apud Scotos Dialogus is a milestone of modern political thought and his Rerum Scoticorum Historia probably deserves to be regarded as his most important prose work.
5. The second remarkable feature of his autobiography is the absurd statement (in paragraph 9) that he was appointed tutor to James VI in 1565. This claim magnificently disregards the fact that James was born on June 19, 1566 (Buchanan in fact became James’ tutor in 1570). If it seems unlikely that that Buchanan would have gotten the year of James’ birth wrong (Mary only married James’ father on July 29 of that year), it is wildly implausible to accept the idea that he could have been five years out in remembering the year of his appointment to this most important office.
6. How are we to explain these suppressions and misrepresentations? In his Annales Rerum Anglicarum et Hibernicarum Regnante Elizabetha for the year 1567, William Camden wrote:
Quid Georgius Buchananus hac de re cum in historia, tum in libello cui Detectio titulum fecit, prodidit, ex libris impressis nemo non novit. Cum autem ille partium studio, et Moravii munificentia abreptus, ita scripserit, ut libri illi falsitatis damnati fuerint ab ordinibus regni Scotiae, quorum fidei plus tribuendum; et ipse ingemiscens coram rege, cui fuit paedagogus, subinde se reprehendit (ut accepi) quod tam virulentum calamum in reginam bene meritam strinxisset, moriensque optaverit ut tantisper superesset donec maculas, quas maledicentia falso asperserat, revocata veritate, vel sanguine elueret; nisi (quod ipse dixit) hoc vanum esset, cum prae aetate delirare videretur.
[“What George Buchanan hath written hereof both in History, and also in a little booke intituled The Detection, there is no man but knoweth by the bookes themselves imprinted. But forasmuch as hee, being transported with partiall affection, and with Murray’s bounty, wrote in such sort that his said bookes have beene condemned of falsehood by the Estates of the Realme of Scotland, to whose credit more is to be attributed; and hee himselfe sighing and sorrowing, sundry times blamed himselfe (as I have heard) before the King, to whom he was Schole-master, for that he had employed so virulent a pen against that well-deserving Queene, and upon his death-bed wished that hee might live so long, till by recalling the truth, hee might even with his blood wipe away those aspersions which he had by his bad tongue falsly laid upon her; but that (as he said) it would now be in vaine, when he might seeme to dote for age.”]
Irving (p. 298) refused to believe this testimony (subsequently repeated by a number of Catholic apologists, such as the Jesuit Famianus Strada in his De Bello Belgico Decas Secunda (Antwerp, 1648, 558f.), “for the dedication of his history, in which he certainly retracts none of his former opinions, is dated only thirty days prior to his decease,” and accused Camden (who is admittedly very pro-Mary throughout his history) of currying favor with James, who hated Buchanan for traducing his mother. Nevertheless, the present document may seem to invite reading as a corroboration of the substantial truth of Camden’s report. Buchanan could have stood his ground and stoutly maintained that Mary’s murder of Lord Darnley and subsequent behavior was a sufficient reason for his abandonment of her, and by doing so he could have purged himself of any accusation of ingratitude or personal disloyalty. But this alleged repentance might plausibly be alleged as possible explanation of his silence about his activities during this extensive period of life: Buchanan wished to disown it, and was willing to suppress or fudge whatever facts were necessary in order to do so: having decided to suppress all details of his activities between 1562 and his appointment as James’ tutor, he was painfully aware of the gaping hole he was creating in his life’s story, and moving up the date of his appointment to this tutorship by five years was his feeble and unconvincing attempt to fill the gap.
7. This interpretation, of course, entails the double assumption that the Vita exists in precisely the form written by Buchanan, and that it contains all he intended to write. But our ignorance of the circumstances of its writing and of the document’s history prior to its first appearance in print precludes any such certainty. Could he have broken it off at 1562, with the following small part added by somebody else in an extraordinarily clumsy attempt to round off the document? Or could it have been deliberately doctored so that his account of his subsequent life was suppressed? Unless these possibilities can be excluded, it may well be dangerous to form any definitive conclusions on its basis.
8. For convenience, I have taken my Latin text from George Buchanani Scoti Poemata in Tres Partes Digesta (London, 1686, unpaginated). The English translation used here is a slightly modernized version of the one prefacing the anonymous translation of Rerum Scotiarum Historia printed at London in 1690 under the title The History of Scotland (Short Title Catalogue, second series, B5293, Early English Books, second series, reel 130:6), pp. 1 - 7. The reader deeply interested in this document is referred to the annotated edition in Sir Robert Sibbald’s Commentarius in Vitam Georgii Buchanani ab Ipsomet Scriptam (Edinburgh, 1702) I.g v - iv), and to the modern discussion by McFarlane (pp. 464 - 7).
NOTE 1 I. D. McFarlane, Buchanan (London, 1981) 465, the definitive biography.
NOTE 2 David Irving, Memoirs of the Life and writings of George Buchanan (Edinburgh, 1807) 277.
NOTE 3 Philip J. Ford, Gorge Buchanan, Prince of Poets (Aberdeen, 1592) 10.