1. George Buchanan’s Rerum Scotarum Historia is generally and correctly recognized as about as tendentious as a history could be, as much a political pamphlet as a history of Scotland. Its qualities as a history have been discussed at length by W. A. Gatherer (in his Introduction, p. 1 - 41) and by I. McFarlane (in his Chapter XII, pp. 416 - 440), to which the reader wishing to learn more about that aspect of the present work may be directed. It is doubtful that any competent historian would use Buchanan as a primary source, at least without plenty of reservation and caution, but Buchanan is an significant figure in the development of British political thought, and it is chiefly for this reason that his history has a claim on the attention of the modern reader. Hence I would prefer to devote this introduction to investigating in some detail, and with more sympathy than is sometimes accorded them and their author, what Buchanan’s political ideas actually were.
2. In 1571 a Scots delegation appeared before Queen Elizabeth, and, as a means of justifying the deposition of Mary Queen of Scots, delivered a lecture on their political philosophy. The gist of this is described in the present work (XX.34):
Gens enim Scotorum cum ab initio libera esset, reges eo iure sibi creavit ut imperium populi suffragiis eis mandatum, si res posceret, eisdem suffragiis admire possent. Eius legis multa ad nostram usque aetatem remanserunt vestigia. Nam et in circumiectis insulis et in plaerisque continentis locis in quibus sermo priscus et instituta haeserunt is mos in phylarchis creandis adhuc servatur. Huius quoque iuris expressam habent imaginem, quae in regno ineundo usurpantur ceremoniae, ex quibus facile apparet regnum nihil aliud esse quam mutua inter populos et reges stipulationem. Idem vero apertissime potest intelligi ex inoffenso veteris iuris tenore, ex quo apud Scotos regnari coeptum est ad nostram usque memoriam servato, cum nemo interea hoc ius non modo abrogare, sed nec convellere aut ulla in parte imminuere tentaret. Cum tot reges, quos enumerare longum esset, maiores nostri regno exuerint, exilio damnarint, carceribus coercerint, supplicio denique affecerint, nec unquam tamen de legis acerbitate minuenda mentio facta est, nec immerito fortasse cum ea non sit de illarum factionum genere quae mutationibus temporum sunt obnoxiae, sed in primo generis humani exortu in mentes hominum incisae et mutuo prope gentium omnium consensu comprobatae, et una cum rerum natura infragiles et sempiternae perennent. Ipsaeque nullius imperiis obnoxiae omnibus dominentur et imperent. Haec quae in omni actione oculis et animis nostris sese offert, velimus nolimus in pectoribus nostris habitat, maiores nostri secuti semper adversus violentiam armati, impotentiam tyrannorum compresserunt.
The nation of the Scots, being at first free, by the common suffrage of the people set up Kings over them conditionally, that, if need were, they might take away the government by the same suffrages that gave it. The footsteps [traces] of this law remain to this very day, for in the circumjacent islands and in many places of the continent [mainland] too, which have retained the ancient speech and customs of our fore-fathers to this day, the same course is yet observed in creating their magistrates. Moreover, those ceremonies which are used in the inauguration of our Kings themselves have an express representation of this law, by which it easily appears that the kingly government is nothing else but a mutual stipulation [contract] betwixt King and people, and the same is most clearly evidenced by the inoffensive tenor of the old law, which hath been observed ever since there was a King in Scotland, even unto this present time, no man having ever attempted to abrogate, abate, or diminish this law in the least. ’Tis too long to enumerate how many Kings our ancestors have put by their kingdoms, have banish’d, have imprison’d, have put to death; neither is there the least mention made of the severity of this law, or the abrogating thereof, and that on good grounds. For ’tis not of the nature of such sanctions, which are subject to the mutations of time, but in the very original of mankind ’twas ingraven in mens hearts, approv’d by the mutual consent of almost all nations, and, together with Nature it self, was to remain inviolate and sempiternal, so that these laws are not subject to the empire of any men, but all men subject to the dominion and power of them. This law prescribes to us in all our actions, ’tis always before our eyes and minds whether we will nor no. It dwells in us. Our ancestors followed it in repressing the violence of tyrants by armed force.
3. The great Scots Humanist George Buchanan [1506 - 1582] had no difficulty framing the ideas set forth in the lengthy rhetorical set-piece he puts in the mouths of the Scots delegates, for he himself was their likely author. Buchanan was the indefatigable spokesman for his patron, the Earl of Moray, Regent of Scotland after Mary’s deposition, and the other Protestant lords who had participated in her overthrow. In his earlier De Maria Scotorum Regina (printed 1571), Buchanan had sought to justify Mary’s imprisonment and enforced abdication by demonstrating that she had behaved tyrannically toward the people of Scotland. By itself, that work fails to convince. Buchanan set forth a case therein that Mary (in being a likely accomplice to her husband’s murder, and even more so in presiding over an attempt to sabotage the execution of justice upon his assassins) had violated the laws of the nation. Yet that conclusion only managed to raise an obvious question: does the fact that a ruler is a tyrant provide his subjects with an ipso facto justification for deposing him? Therefore, in his 1579 De Iure apud Scotos Dialogus he created a theoretical basis by asserting that ultimate sovereignty resides in the people, and that the king is created for their benefit, not vice versa. The king is subject to the law and, if he conducts himself illegally, he is a tyrant and his subjects have both the right and the responsibility to depose him. More specifically, as part of his coronation ceremony he swears to uphold the law, thereby entering into a contractual relationship with his people; if he violates his oath, the contract therefore becomes null and void. In that work, he could only support that assertion by a few historical exempla. To a large extent the Rerum Scotarum Historia invites reading as a programmatic attempt to put flesh on these assertions and to document the claims advanced by the Scots delegates who preached this doctrine to Elizabeth.
4. The delegates may not have been fully conscious of the degree to which these ideas scandalized Elizabeth’s Court. The English reaction can be gathered from the account of the meeting given by William Camden in his Rerum Gestarum Angliae et Hiberniae Regnante Elizabetha for the year 1571:
Venerat enim de rebus Scotics nomine regis Scotorum comes Mortonius, Petcarnius abbas Dunfermlini, et Iacobus Mac-Gillius, qui Elizabethae iubenti ut causas reginam abdicandi clarius explicarent, et iustas esse probarent, commentarium prolixum exhibuerunt. Quo insolenti quadam libertate, et verborum asperitate populum Scoticum regibus esse superiorem ex veteri regni Scotici iure, exemplis obsoletis et novis undiquaque conquisitis, imo et ex Calvini authoritate, populares ubique magistratus ad libidinem regum moderandam constitutos esse, iisque licere malos reges carceribus coercere, et regno exuere probare conati. De sua autem erga reginam abdicatam lenitate gloriose praedicabant, quod filium in suum locum subrogare, tutoresque dare permiserint. Ex populi misericordia, non ex ipsius innocentia fuisse, quod supersit, et alia multa quae tumultuantia ingenia contra regiam maiestatem petulanter comminiscuntur. Hunc non sine indignatione legit Elizabetha, atque ut in regum iniuriam scriptum tacite damnavit. Delegatis vero respondit se nondum videre iustam causam ita exagitandi reginam, velle itaque ut ad discordiam in Scotia extinguendam rationes quamprimum inirent.
For there were come about Scottish matters in the name of the King of Scots, the Earle of Morton, Petcarne Abbot of Dunfermelin, and James Mac-Gilly; who being willed by Queene Elizabeth to expresse more plainely their causes for deposing the Queene, and to prove them to be just, exhibited unto her a large discourse. Wherein, with insolent liberty and sharpnesse of words, they went about to prove by an ancient priviledge of the Kingdome of Scotland by outworne examples, and new ones gathered heere and there that the Scottish people are above their Kings; yea, and by the authority of Calvin that popular Magistrates are ordained every where to moderate the lust of Kings, and that it is lawfull for them to restraine bad Kings by imprisonment, and to depose them. But of their owne lenity towards the deposed Queene they made glorious bragges, as that they permitted her to substitute her sonne in her roome, and to appoint him Tutors; that it was out of the peoples mercy, not her own innocency that she lived; and many other things which tumultuous spirits insolently devise against the Royall Majesty. This discourse Queene Elizabeth read, not without indignation, and tacitly condemned, as written in injury to Kings. But to the Delegates she answered that she saw not yet any just cause to molest and persecute their Queene. She willed them therefore to enter forthwith into some course to extinguish the discord in Scotland.
5. Other English loyalists were equally shocked. The 1588 Sphaera Civitatis by John Case of Oxford, for example, is ostensibly a commentary on Aristotle’s Politics, but actually a magisterial exposition of Tudor political orthodoxy, and in the course of this work its author was moved to devote a special section to a refutation of Buchanan’s theories (IV.x.2). Buchanan sounded a new note in Anglo-Saxon political discourse, disturbing to royalists and comfortable to friends of parliamentary government. In his article on Buchanan in the Cambridge History of English and American Literature P. Hume Brown wrote of Buchanan’s history of Scotland, “Dedicated to James VI, with whose education he had been entrusted, the underlying object of the book is the inculcation of those principles of political and religious liberty of which Buchanan had been the consistent champion throughout his career.” W. A. Gatherer wrote at greater length (4f.):
The publication of the Rerum Scoticarum Historia was in itself an event of some importance in the history of Scots printing. It was, as Hill Burton remarks, “the most eminent piece of typography that in its day had come from the Scots press.” The book’s chief importance, however, is amply demonstrated by the large number of editions issued, both in Latin and translation, during the next two centuries. It was important for several reasons: it was the most comprehensive and up-to-date History of Scotland that had been written until the eighteenth century; it was written with all the eloquence of one of the world’s greatest Latin stylists; above all, it was a work conceived and executed in the stress of a great religious and social movement, and it illustrated and in a sense represented a new political outlook which acquired more and more contemporary significance as time passed. Coupled with the De jure regni apud Scotos, the Rerum Scoticarum Historia remained politically “live” as long as society struggled to resolve the problem of the true relationship between King and people.
In the long controversies of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries Buchanan was regarded as a primary exponent of the principles of anti-monarchism. The De jure regni laid down the theory of government by Rex subject to Lex, and of the subjects’ right to depose an unfit sovereign, which formed the basis of anti-royalist belief throughout this period. Though there was little in Buchanan’s pamphlet which was philosophically new—he was not an original thinker—he expressed his views so cogently that even as late as the mid-nineteenth century his treatise was called “the very primer…of constitutional liberty.” Buchanan’s authority was the greater because his History illustrated his political theory. The treatise was considered to be the thesis proposita and the History a compendium of “proofs” illustrating and lending authority to the principles enunciated in the tract. Thus both sides in the constitutional struggles of the seventeenth century studied Buchanan’s work. For the Scots Presbyterians, Buchanan’s statement of traditional medieval democratic theory was all-important. His History was at once a primer and an inspiration. At the outbreak of the civil war, wrote Sir James Turner, almost every minister in the Scots army (and there was one in every regiment) could “produce Buchanan’s story as readily as a Bible.” Most of the officers, even, possessed a copy of the History; and their children learned Latin from its pages. “So universally was he cried up by all that I imagined his ghost was returned to earth to meander a little among the Covenanters.”
6. What precisely was it in Buchanan’s theory of kingship that so scandalized the Elizabethans? In reading this history, the reader will be struck by the fact that, even if Buchanan scoffingly dismisses early legends of Scotland’s foundation (in a passage beginning at II.6), and likewise the Arthurian legends (at V.25), with deadpan seriousness he rehearses the lives of no less than sixty-eight kings prior to Kenneth MacAlpin, Scotland’s first true king, in an unbroken line going back to the fourth century B. C. It may seem surprising that he failed to apply the same rationalistic critique to much of the material he presents in Books IV and V (inherited from earlier Scottish historians, most notably Hector Boece), NOTE 1 but the stories of these early kings were necessary for his program, since they provided the scope for making points necessary for his argument. For, if you are trying to float a legal theory, nothing is more comforting than precedent. The first of his kings, Fergus I, was elected by the free consent of the people of Scotland, who bound themselves by oath thenceforward to choose their kings from his progeny. At most, a king such as Aidanus or Mordacus could be recommended by his predecessor, but such a recommendation required the ratification of a vote. The original idea was the best candidate should be elected, not the oldest son (VI.33), and in some cases the man selected as best was in fact the youngest (e. g. Donald II). This custom survived until the early tenth century, at which time Constantine III introduced a new arrangment, whereby a king could effectively pick his own successor by creating him Earl of Cumberland. Buchanan’s opinion is unequivocal (VI.14):
Is eodem anno Milcolumbo proximi regis filio Cumbriam donavit, qui honor velut augurium et argumentum erat eum proxime regnaturum. Ac deinceps in proximis aliquot regibus id fuit observatum manifesta adversus veterem comitiorum rationem fraude, quae omnem liberorum suffragiorum vim prope tolleret, non minus ac consulibus a Caesaribus designatio.
He gave, the same year, Cumberland to Malcolm, son of the last King, which was an honourable omen to him that he should reign after him. And afterwards the same custom was observed by some succeeding Kings, to the manifest disanulling of the old way of convening the Estates, whose free suffrages ought not to have been abridged.
7. Commencing with the reign of Malcolm II later in the same century, a new system was introduced whereby the eldest son automatically received the kingship. Buchanan waxes even more outspoken (VII.1 and VII.2):
…ista lex enervat vires consilii publici, sine quo nullus legitimus dominatus potest consistere…Quid enim est ad diuturnitatem minus fidum quam tyrannis? At ad eam haec nova lex gradum struit.
That law doth enervate the force of all public councils without which no lawful government can subsist. For what is less conducive to perpetuity than tyranny? Yet this new law makes a great step thereto.
Another point made twice by Buchanan (VIII.6, IX.1) might appear inconsequential, but is in fact of considerable importance for his view of kingship. Prior to the coronation of David II in 1329, the sovereigns of Scotland were not anointed at their investiture. The anointing of a king invokes the whole ghostly rigmarole of the creation of the king of Israel set forth in I Samuel (a book of Scripture repeatedly quoted in the English coronation ceremony and of fundamental importance for adherents of the theory of Divine Right), whereby the king is chosen by God and is responsible directly to Him, rather than chosen by and responsible to his subjects.
8. Buchanan writes of a number of these early kings who were killed, deposed, or forced to abdicate because their evildoing had offended the nobility: these include Evenus III, Luctacus, Mogaldus, Conatus, Athirco, Romachus, Ferchardus I, Eugenius VIII, Donald V, Ethus, and Constantine III. Ferchardus II would have suffered the same fate, had he not mended his ways, and Eugenius VII was put on trial by the nobility, but acquitted. More recently, James III was not legally removed from the throne, but the vote of Parliament after his death described at XII.44 was tantamount to a posthumous deposition. As part of their 1571 presentation, the Scots delegates said to Elizabeth (XX.33):
Primum, factum ipsum nec animadvertendi in reges vetus maiorum consuetudo novum videri sinit, nec moderatio poenae invidiosum. Nam tot reges a nostris maioribus morte, vinculis, exilio punitos enumerare nihil est opus. Externis autem exemplis nostrorum factum confirmare multo minus, cum tot ex antiquis historiarum monumentis ultro sese offerant.
First, as for the matter of fact, in punishing our princes the old custom of our ancestors will not suffer it to be called new; neither can the moderateness of the punishment make it invidious. ’Tis not needful for us to reckon up the many Kings whom our forefathers have chastis’d by imprisonment, banishment, yea, death it self; much less need we confirm our practice by foreign examples, of which there are abundance in old histories.
It is of no small importance for Buchanan’s political program to rehearse the real or at least fanciful historical and legal precedents justifying his claim that the people of Scotland, as represented by its nobility, are entitled to remove a malfeasant sovereign upon just cause.
9. The upshot is that Buchanan presents a view of kingship radically at odds with the then-prevalent theory of the Divine Right of Kings, and highly congenial to advocates of parliamentary rule. His kingship is entirely demystified and stripped of any theological trappings (such as are found in that great Scriptural support for monarchical absolutism, I Samuel). The sovereign enjoys no special relationship with the Almighty, he is not His earthly vicar, and revolt against him upon just cause is no act of sacrilege. Kingship is a purely secular institution having its origin in human choice and social convention, and evolved over time (not always for the better) as the result of further human choice. The power of the king is distinctly limited. He is not above the law, he is answerable to his people rather than to God alone, and he is subject to removal. This view is bluntly enunciated at various points. At VIII.43 Buchanan writes quippe qui ex more Scotorum rex decreto ordinum penes quos est omnium rerum summa potestas factus esset [“According to the Scottish custom, the King is made by the decree of the Estates, who have the supream power in their hands.”] At XVII.15:
…cum euangelii ministri tulissent aegerrime et in publicis coetibus magnis querimoniis rem prosecuti fuisset ac nobilitatem sui officii commonuissent, controversia in domo privata inter paucos est agitata possente idololatriam iamiam in omnium perniciem grassaturam compescere et summum magistratum, quando ipse nullum sibi modum statuat, inter legum praescripta per vim reducere. Ecclesiae ministri in sententia superioribus temporibus approbata constanter permanserunt, posse videlicet magistratum sub leges vi cogi
The Reform’d ministers of the Gospel took this very grievously and complain’d much of it in their pulpits, putting the Nobility in mind of their duty. Hereupon a dispute was agitated betwixt a few in a private house, whether ’twere lawful to restrain idolatry, which was likely to spread and ruin all, or whether might by force reduce the chief magistrate to the bounds of the law, who set no limits to his own arbitrariness. The Reform’d ministers persisted constantly in their opinion, which had been approv’d in former times, that a magistrate might be compell’d by force to do his duty.
And at XVII.44:
… regum Scotorum legitimum esse imperium, nec unquam ad unius libidinem sed ad legum praescriptum et nobilitatis consensum regi solitum. Si qui regum contra attentasset, graves suae temeritatis poenas luisse.
That Scotland was a kingdom bounded by laws, and was never wont to be govern’d by the will and pleasure of one man, but by the rule of law and the consent of the Nobility, and if any former King had done otherwise, he had smarted severely for it.
Although Buchanan’s account of early Scottish history depends heavily the work of his predecessor Hector Boece, it is tailored to fit this political philosophy. A significant difference, for example, is visible in their accounts of the coronation of Aidanus in the sixth century. Boethius (IX.49) includes a fictitious speech by St. Columba, in which he says Enimvero non tam vestris adhortationibus quam divino imperio ego ad hunc celeberrimum admotus consessum Aidano regiam admoveo coronam [“For I am inspired not so much by your urgings as by divine command to come to this very crowded assembly and set the royal crown on Aidanus.” This is simplified by Buchanan (V.31) to a bald statement that Columba crowned the new king, who had been nominated by his predecessor Kinatellus and confirmed by the vote of the Scottish people and the effect is to erase any suggestion that his selection had any supernatural aspect.
10. Buchanan’s history, according to Gatherer, “was a work conceived and executed in the stress of a great religious and social movement,” and Buchanan was no mere observer of events. As a follower of the Earl of Moray, he was, as one recent writer has put it, “an official propagandist of the anti-Mary party and an important member of the ruling party” [Ford p.10]. In the latter capacity he discharged various responsibilities. He served as a prominent spokesman for the Protestant lords at the 1568 York Conference (described by him in a passage beginning at XIX.15), seeking to justify their actions to the English. He was made Principal of St Leonard’s College at St Andrews in 1567, 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. In the same year he was also appointed to his most important responsibility, tutor to the young King James, and it is in this capacity that he wrote Rerum Scotarum Historia.
11. So if this work is in one sense “the most comprehensive and up-to-date History of Scotland that had been written until the eighteenth century,” in another it is obviously a piece of partisan pleading, strongly biased in favor of the Protestant party. To understand further features of Buchanan’s political program, it is would be well momentarily to consider his patron and faction leader, the Earl of Moray. Moray’s biographer, Maurice Lee, Jr., has sensibly summed up his role in Scots history [pp. 278f.]:
As might be expected, there are wide differences of opinion among historians as to Moray’s character and accomplishments. To the more rabid of Mary’s defenders no epithet is too strong to describe his villainy. To staunch believers in the “scarlet woman” interpretation of the Queen, such as Froude, her brother was “among the best and greatest men who have ever lived.” Among moderates on both sides of the fence Moray has excited a good deal of suspicion; while admitting his abilities, they question his motives. In the opinion of the writer, virtually no one, with the exception of Hume Brown, has judged Moray correctly, because as a rule historians have not permitted themselves to consider him on his own merits. They have first made up their minds about Mary, and have judged Moray almost exclusively on the basis of his relations with her. This does somewhat less than justice to the Earl.
Hume Brown says that “of the two men (Moray and [John] Knox) it was Moray who indubitably did the most to ensure the success of the Scottish Reformation.” This is, in the writer’s opinion, an accurate judgment, and states succinctly one of the most important of Moray’s achievements, and the least recognized. Knox has almost always received the lion’s share, if not all, of the credit for the triumph of Protestantism in Scotland, because most people quite naturally assume that a religious revolution requires a religious leader to dominate it and to carry it through, Henry VIII being regarded as the awful exception. This is, of course, sometimes true, but there certainly would have been an upheaval in Scotland without Knox…When Knox appeared on the scene, in 1555, there were two questions to be answered: what form would the revolution take, and would it succeed? Knox definitively answered the first. Thanks to him, the Scottish Reformation became distinctively Calvinistic. He also helped to answer the second, by supplying the new movement with the type of leadership without which it could not succeed. This leadership was not his own, but that of the feudal nobles whom he converted, for in Scotland only the nobility could ensure the success of a movement of any sort.
12. Lee’s concluding words help us understand a pronounced feature of Buchanan’s political thinking, his strong bias in favor of the Scottish nobility. A modern reader of Rerum Scotarum Historia might be tempted to conclude he was anything but a champion of modern parliamentary government, and his political outlook contained at least as many backward-looking elements as progressive ones. In his mind (such a reader might think), there is a pervasive tendency to identify “the people” with the powerful nobles of Scotland, often represented by historians as selfish, ambitious and grasping, with every Earl in actuality a clan lord able on short notice to field a fighting force of kinsmen and tenants (identified by Buchanan, not entirely without reason, with the Latin word clientes and, by his own admission at XIV.25 as “little better than slaves.”) For Scotland to survive as a sovereign power, one could reason, it was needful to construct a strong central state, and this required curbing the power of the great lords. But when they were brought to trial for their malfeasances, they came with their clansmen at their backs, as Buchanan observes at XIX.49, so it was extremely hard to impose on them the restraint of law. Furthermore, “...chance had resulted in a total of seven royal minorities — there had been no adult succession since the fourteenth century — which had an inevitable effect of weakening the power of the crown and increasing that of the nobility.” [Frazer p. 3] Lords repeatedly held sway as Regents, and each new interregnum provided fresh opportunity to flout central authority and advance private ambitions. In this atmosphere of tribalistic clan loyalties, the source of the lords’ strength and semi-autonomy, competed against allegiance to the nation and often prevailed. It could be read as an ominous sign of Scotland’s weakness that, on the whole, she had held her own against England on the battlefield down to the beginning of the sixteenth century. But military disasters such as Flodden Field, Solway Moss, and Pinkie Cleugh went to show that she was incapable of competing against the powerful modern state created by the Tudors. Then too, the fact that in every generation the kings of Scotland were obliged to suppress banditry (latrones) is an important indication of how little ground they had gained in making their writ run throughout the land. England had the King’s Peace, but Scotland usually seemed to be teetering on the brink of anarchy.
13. By the sixteenth century, a modern reader might conclude, Scotland was coming dangerously close to being ungovernable, and in one way or another faced a serious risk of becoming an appanage to either England or France. Her only hope was a stronger central government. A modern might reason this could only be achieved by restraining the great lords. And yet to Buchanan, the Scots nobility is a repository of political wisdom, and their freedom appears to be synonymous with that of the people of Scotland as a whole. This attitude is revealed in a number of ways. At many points he seems to invest assemblies of the nobility (conventus procerum, which at XI.11 he acknowledges were usually poorly attended) with a status equivalent to that of the Parliament of Scotland (conventus ordinum), even though he was well aware that the Parliament consisted of the three orders of nobility, clergy and commons (acknowledged, for example, at XVI.12). His attitude toward the nobility is perhaps best revealed in his appraisal of the aftermath of the loss at Flodden Field in 1513 (XIII.28):
Haec est illa nobilis ad Fluidonum pugna, inter paucas Scotorum clades memorabilis non tam caesorum numero (nam pluribus aliis praeliis duplo plures perierunt) quam rege et procerum principibus amissis, et paucis superstitibus qui multitudinem natura ferocem et spe impunitatis infraenem regere possent.
This is the famous fight of Floddon, amongst the few overthrows which the Scots have received from the English one of the most memorable, not so much for the number of the slain (for they had lost more than double that number in former battels), but for the quality of the persons, the King and prime of the Nobility falling there, so that few were left to govern the rabble, who were fierce by nature and lawless also in hope of impunity.
To Buchanan, Marie of Guise, the single ruler of Scotland who strove hardest to create a strong central government by taking such forward-looking measures as instituting a graduated income tax to ensure its fiscal viability (always precarious), creating an efficient civil service, and also a standing army, is an object of loathing, and his Book XVI is a chronicle of resistance to her tyranny.
14. But Buchanan’s attitude is explicable in terms of his Protestantism. The predominant fact in his thinking was that after the death of James V in 1543 Scotland’s central government was both Catholic and intolerably dominated by France, and therefore posed at all times the double threat of religious persecution and loss of national independence. These fears were no mere phantoms. Even when Mary of Guise and Mary Queen of Scots pursued a policy of toleration, the possibility always existed that they could shift to one of persecution (at various points in his narrative Buchanan reflects anxieties that such aspirations were harbored). His description of the martyrdom of the preacher George Wishart at the hands of Cardinal Beaton at XV.28ff. provides a theatrically vivid foretaste of how England’s Marian persecutions could have been imitated in Scotland, and indeed, as he relates in his autobiography, he himself had had nasty personal experiences both with Beaton and with the Inquisition on the Continent. Mary of Guise quartered French troops in Scottish castles, there was a heavy-handed although abortive French initiative to make Mary Queen of Scot’s husband François II King of Scotland (described at XVI.14) and French money and promises of aid gave support and encouragement to the hateful and grasping pro-Catholic Hamilton faction, whose malfeasances Buchanan had denounced in another political pamphlet. And, after the deposition of Mary Queen of Scots, only the young James VI stood between James Hamilton, Duke of Châtelherault and the throne of Scotland. If a dynasty of Hamiltons had replaced the Stuarts, the damage to the Kirk and to Scotland herself would have been incalculable.
15. In these particular circumstances, resistance to the tyrannical authority of a powerful central government was necessary for the survival of the Protestant cause. The sole effective force warding off these twin threats to Kirk and nation consisted of the Protestant nobility under the leadership of Moray. They were champions both of Gospel Religion and national independence, who had taken up arms to frustrate the strivings of Mary of Guise in the so-called Wars of the Covenant, who had deposed Mary and defeated her and Bothwell at Langside, and who had engaged the forces of the Hamiltons in a protracted civil war described in the final two Books of this work. Thus they seemed a bulwark against tyranny, and it was some of the very characteristics of the Scottish nobility that may strike a modern as obnoxious — their disregard of central authority and its law together with their extreme pugnaciousness — that made them useful for the Cause. Under these conditions, it is no wonder that Buchanan values the Scottish nobility and its freedom as highly as he does, more than a modern reader might deem realistic or reasonable.
16. Another distinctive element in Buchanan’s political thinking was his brand of moralism. This was appreciated by McFarlane [p. 433]:
We find signs that he hankered after a sort of Golden Age from which we have somehow withdrawn…The description of Rona and the Western Isles shows appreciation of what a primitive society has to offer: simplicity, innocence, good health, the absence of luxury, greed, and indulgence. He expatiates on the ease with which human nature can sink into vice, and virtue is likened to the ascent of a steep hill…Above all, idleness is the source of evil, not only in rulers, but among the ordinary folk, and it can lead to a lack of manliness. He shows sympathy for the common people who in better days gone by benefited from a unity of feelings and of religion, and who lived in poverty, but not in servitude.
This attitude is evident in his description of the simple, rugged, but altogether idyllic life of the Islanders (I.30), and another use to which he puts his account of the many legendary or semi-legendary kings prior to Kenneth McApin is to present the reader with a series of positive and negative moral exempla: the good kings live according to this formula themselves and inculcate it in their subjects, the bad ones do the opposite. One particular theme emerges from these accounts (it is in fact inherited from Hector Boece): that the manner of life fostered by the good kings makes the young men of Scotland fit for war, while their opposites destroy their manly vigor and hence their fighting ability. In the same passage McFarlane goes on to observe:
His stress on manly virtues also leads him into confused thinking about warfare. At a conscious level, he normally deplores war and all it brings in its train, but his onslaught on certain vices — luxury, avarice, sloth — may be linked with the conviction that peace too long maintained brings its own inner destruction.
17. This appraisal may not be quite right. Writing of the early monks of Scotland, Buchanan observes (IV.48):
Hoc genus monachorum Culdeos appellabant, mansitquen omen et institutum donec monachorum genus recentius in plures divisum sectas eos expulit, tanto doctrina et pietate illis inferius quanto divitiis et ceremoniis caeteroque culto externo, quibus oculos capiunt et animos infatuant, sunt superiores.
This sort of monks were called Culdees, whose name and order continued till a later sort of monks, divided into many sects, did expel them. Yet these last were as far inferiour to the former in learning piety as they did exceed them in wealth, in ceremonies, and in pomp of outward worship, whereby they please the eye but infatuate the mind.
In his description of the reign of Aidanus in the seventh century, he tells how these Culdees were subsequently replaced by a very different species of monk (V.33):
Eo regnante venit in Britanniam a Gregorio Romano pontifice missus Augustinus quidam monachus, qui sua ambitione dum novam religionem docet veterem vehementer turbavit. Nam non tam Christianam disciplinam quam ceremonias Romanas docebat. Superiores enim Britanni Christianismum ex Ioannis Euangelistae discipulis edocti a monachis, quos aetas illa adhuc eruditos et pios habebat, instituebantur. Ille dum ad unius episcopi Romani dominatum omnia revocat ac se unum totius Britanniae archiepiscopum edit, et disputionem de die celebrandi pascha nec necessariam nec utilem introducit, magnopere turbavit ecclesias ac disciplinam iam in superstitionem prolabentem ita ceremoniis novis fictisque miraculis oppressit ut syncerae pietatis vix relinqueret vestigium.
He reigned 34 years and died in the year of our Lord 604. In his reign it was that a certain monk named Austin came into Britain, being sent by Gregory Pope of Rome, who by his ambition in preaching a new religion mightily disturbed the old, for he did not so much preach the Christian religion as the ceremonies of the Roman Church. Yea, the Brittons before his coming were converted to and taught the principles of John the Evangelist and were instituted in the same by the monks who were learned and pious in that age. As for Austin, he laboured to reduce all things to the dominion of the Bishop of Rome only, and gave himself out to be the only Arch-bishop of the isle of Britain; and withal introduced a dispute, neither necessary nor advantageous, concerning the day on which Easter was to be kept; and did by this means mightily trouble the churches; yea, he so loaded the Christian discipline, which was then inclining towards superstition, with such new ceremonies and feigned miracles that he scarce left any mark or footstep of true piety behind him.
18. And thus Scotland’s religious troubles began, as the infection spread from Rome and the Church of Scotland became ever more worldly and corrupt. It does not appear entirely implausible to suggest that in Buchanan’s mind there existed an association between the early Culdees of what he regarded as Scotland’s Golden Age and contemporary Calvinism, so that the struggle to establish Protestantism was simultaneously one to refurbish Scotland and reassert the ancestral moral values he so admired. And in this context it must be borne in mind that in the sixteenth century Protestantism all over Europe was a fighting religion, that could only survive and spread where there were effective soldiers prepared to defend it. It was therefore easy for Buchanan to identify the qualities that go to make an effective fighting man, such as his early kings are supposed to have fostered, as moral ones, and to regard the Protestant nobility, a social class devoted to fighting, as a repository of virtue and a class capable of producing the best possible champion of Protestantism and liberty. This is his eulogy of the Earl of Moray, his history’s hero:
Mors eius omnibus bonis sed praecipue plebi fuit luctuosa, quae velut parentem publicum ac vivum amabat et mortum deflebat, quippe quae praeter plurima ab eo praeclare gesta meminerant res ubique turbatas nondum expleto anno ita per omnes regni partes fuisse compositas ut nemo domi suae quam per itinera et diversoria tutior esset. It iam, decedente invidia qui vivo iniquiores erant, mortuum veris laudibus prosequerentur. Admirabantur fortitudinem in bello cum summo studio pacis coniunctam, celeritatem in rebus gerendis, sed semper tam felicem ut divina quaedam providentia in omni negotio affuisse videatur. Tantam lenitatem in suppliciis sumendis, tantum aequitatis in rebus iudicandis studium ut quoties a bello vacaret totum diem iudicum collegio assideret. Ea praesentis verecundia fiebat ut neque tenuiores per calumiam opprimerentur neque in potentiorum gratiam litibus in longum dilatis exhaurirentur. Domus eius velut sanctissimum sacrarium non solum a flagitiis sed verbis etiam petulantioribus pura erat. Legebatur a prandio et coena semper caput aliquod e sacris bibliis. Et quanquam ad eum usum eruditum hominem secum semper habebat, tamen si qui aderant doctrinae nomine illustres (aderant autem fere semper, ac summo in honore apud eum erant), eorum sententias exquirebat. Neque id ambitione vana faciebat, sed studio vitam ad eam normam componendi. Liberalitatis prope nimius erat. Dabat enim et multis et frequenter, et munus etiam in dando animi alacritate commendabat. Et plaerisque ne accipientium verecundiam oneraret ipse clam sua manu donabat. Cum amicis et domesticis simpliciter et aperte vivebat. Si quis autem eorum deliquisset, acrius multo quam externos increpabat. His moribus et vitae innocentia non modo civibus sed exteris etiam nationibus et carus erat et venerabilis, sed praecipue Anglis, quibus in omni fortuna virtutes eius erant magis cognitae.
His death was lamented by all good men, especially by the Commons, who lov’d him alive, and lamented him dead, as the publick father of his country. For, besides his many other noble atchievements, they call’d to mind that not a year before he had so quieted all the troublesome parts of the kingdom that a man was as safe on the road or at his inn as in his own house. And, envy dying with him, they who were disaffected to him when alive did really praise him when dead. They admir’d his valour in war, which yet was always accompanied with a great desire for peace; his celerity in business as always so successful that an especial Providence of God seem’d to shine on all his actions; besides, his clemency was great in moderately punishing, and his equity as great in his legal decisions. When he had any spare time from war he would sit all day long in the Colleg of Judges, so that his presence struck such a reverence into them that the poor were not opprest by false accusations, neither were they tir’d out by long attendances, in regard their causes were not put off to gratify the rich. His house, like an holy temple, was free not only from flagitious deeds but even from wanton words. After dinner and supper he always caus’d a chapter out of the Holy Bible to be read. And tho he had still a learned man to interpret it, yet if there were any eminent scholars there (as there were oft many, and such were still well respected by him), he would ask their opinions, which he did not out of a vain ambition, but out of a desire to confirm himself to the rule thereof. He was, in a manner, too liberal. He gave to many, and often too, and his alacrity in giving commended the gift. To a great many who were modest in receiving he presented privately with his own hand. In a word, he was honest and plain-hearted to his friends and domesticks. For if any of them did amiss, he reprov’d them more sharply than he did strangers. By these his manners, deportment, and innocency of life he was dear and venerable, not only to his country-men, but even to foreigners, especially to the English, to whom, in all the vicissitudes of Providence in his life, his virtues were more known than to any other nation.
In this passage one catches sight of more than a few of the qualities of his good early kings. At its freest, best, and most uncorrupted, the Scotish nobility was capable of producing a leader like Moray, endowed with the moral qualities as well as the political and military prowess to be a model Protestant ruler.
19. But Moray was dead, and Buchanan was looking to the future as much as to the past. The ultimate solution to the problems besetting Scotland during the time this history was written was for James VI to grow to maturity as a sound Protestant, firmly steeped in the moral uprightness of the ancient times, carefully instructed to profit by the examples of Scotland’s good kings of ancient times and to shun those of her bad ones, and with a due reverence for the laws of his nation. As Buchanan states in his dedicatory epistle addressed to the young king, and as was appreciated by the various contributors of the gratulatory epigrams that adorn this volume, Rerum Scotarum Historia was in essence written for a readership of one, as a means of educating the young prince so that he could be molded to succeed Moray as an ideal Protestant ruler (Hector Boece had written his history in just this way, for the consumption of the youthful James V). In this way, no doubt, Buchanan aspired to shape the future of his nation. But although Buchanan's political thinking had a long reach, its immediate impact was not what he hoped. Both the present work and De Iure apud Scotos Dialogus were condemned by the Parliament of Scotland in 1584, and his attempts to indoctinate the mind of his royal pupil both with his theory of kingship and his condemnation of his mother failed spectacularly. James’ reaction to Buchanan was not substantially different from that of such English loyalists as Camden and Case. In his 1599 book of advice to his eldest son, Basilikon Doron (p. 40 McIlwain), he wrote:
And next the Lawes, I would have you to be well versed in authentick histories, and in the Chronicles of all nations, but specially in our owne histories (Ne sis peregrinus domi) the example whereof most neerly concernes you: I mean not of such infamous invectives as Buchanans or Knoxes Chronicles: and if any of these infamous libels remaine untill your dayes, use the Law upon the keepers thereof…
20. Gatherer [pp. 205 - 207] presents a special appendix on the printing history of Rerum Scotarum Historia which shows how the work continued to exert influence well into the nineteenth century. It was first published at Edinburgh in 1582, by Robert Arbuthnet (Short Title Catalogue 3991, Early English Books reel 181). Subsequent printings are those of Geneva or Obserwesel 1583 (S. T. C. 3992, E. E. B. reel 917), Frankfurt 1594, Frankfurt 1624, Amsterdam 1643 (Elzevir), Frankfurt 1648, Amsterdam 1643 (again), 1644, 1663, 1668, Utrecht 1697, Amsterdam 1697. It was included in Ruddiman’s Georgii Buchanani Opera Omnia, but with a text doctored by the editor in the interest of what he regarded as historical accuracy, and this was the text reprinted at Leyden in 1725 and Edinburgh in 1727. The Aberdeen text of James Chalmers, 1762, was firmly founded on the 1582 editio princeps. Various whole and partial seventeenth century translations exist only in manuscript; they are itemized by Gatherer. It was not until 1690 that the political atmosphere in England permitted the publication of an anonymous translation, which appeared at London under the title The History of Scotland (Short Title Catalogue, second series, B5293, Early English Books, second series, reel 130:6). This was reprinted in 1722, 1733, 1751-2, 1766, 1772, 1799, and 1821. In 1705 an anonymous translation of Books XVI - XX appeared, reprinted in 1722, and in 1827 James Aikman produced an annotated translation with a continuation bringing the history of Scotland down to the reign of Queen Anne. In the same year, John Watkins also published a modernized version of the 1690 translation with a continuation down to his own day. The bulk of Gatherer's volume consists of his own translation of Books XVII - XIX followed with one of Buchanan’s earlier De Maria Scotorum Regina (together with a useful itemization of the discrepancies between Buchanan’s two accounts of Mary’s doings). As would only be expected of such an outspokenly tendentious history, Rerum Scotarum Historia inflamed passions and generated a considerable literature of controversy, which need not be detailed here.
21. The present edition is based on the 1582 editio princeps. Gatherer [p. 205] quite unfairly describes it as being “full of typographical errors.” While it of course contains some printer’s errors together with occasional lacunae, on the whole it is a creditable job by the standards of the time. Likewise, the 1690 translation is serviceable enough to be used here. To be sure, his interest in achieving a Latinate style sometimes inspires its anonymous author to produce rather torturous syntax, and his carelessness in the employment of pronouns stands in the way of clarity, but he is on the other hand capable of writing strikingly muscular and memorable prose that often does full justice to the Latin original, and he was intelligent enough to be able to spot and fix many of the mistakes in the Latin text (so much so that an editor can often fill the gaps in the original text by the simple expedient of translating his English into Latin). His annotations, chiefly topographical, are also worth reproducing as commentary notes here.
NOTE 1 Boece states that he got this stuff from the early writers Veremund, John Campbell and Cornelius Hibernicus (see p. 22 of the 1575 Paris edition of his Scotorum Historiae). For these supposed authorites see the discussions of Thomas Innes, A critical essay on the ancient inhabitants of Britain, or Scotland. (London, 1729) 132 - 140 and Colin Kidd, Subverting Scotland's Past: Scottish Whig Historians and the Creation of an Anglo-British Identity 1689 - c. 1830 (Cambridge, 1993) 103f.
Brown, P. Hume, Article “George Buchanan” in The Cambridge History of English and American Literature (1907 - 1921), Vol. III (electronic text available here)
Ford, Philip J., George Buchanan, Prince of Poets (Aberdeen, 1592)
Frazer, Lady Antonia, Mary Queen of Scots (London, 1969)
Gatherer, W. A., The Tyrannnous Reign of Mary Stewart: George Buchanan’s Account (Edinburgh, 1958).
Lee, Maurice, Jr., James Stewart, Earl of Moray: A Political Study of the Reformation in Scotland (New York, 1953)
McFarlane, I., Buchanan (London, 1981)