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Significant Scots
James Kennedy


KENNEDY, JAMES, bishop of St Andrews, was the younger of the two sons of James Kennedy of Dunure, and his wife, the countess of Angus, daughter of Robert III. king of Scotland. He was born about the year 1405 or 1406. The earlier part of his education he received at home, under the eye of his mother, and was afterwards, agreeably to the practice of the times, sent abroad to complete it. Being early destined to the church, the only road to preferment at that period, and the only profession, besides, worthy his dignified descent, he devoted himself to the study particularly of theology and the canon law; but, besides his acquirements in these departments of knowledge, he made a singular proficiency in the languages and other branches of learning, and was altogether looked upon as by far the most accomplished prelate of his day.

On his entering into holy orders, he was preferred (1437) by his uncle James I. to the see of Dunkeld. The good bishop was no sooner installed in his office than he set assiduously to work to reform abuses in the church, and to compel his vicars and parsons to a faithful discharge of their duties. He enjoined them to remain in their parishes, and to instruct their parishioners in the knowledge of religion, to preach to them regularly, and to visit, comfort, and encourage the sick. He himself visited all the churches within his diocese four times every year, preaching in each of them as he went along. On these occasions he never failed to inquire of the people if they were duly instructed by their pastors; if they had no complaints against them; whether their poor were properly cared for; and if their youth were brought up in the fear of God. Such were the pious labours of this excellent man at the outset of his career, and he never deviated from them during the whole of a long and active after-life. Finding his own authority insufficient to enable him to accomplish all the good he was desirous of doing, in reforming the abuses which had crept into the church, he went over to Florence to procure additional powers for this purpose from the pope, Eugenius IV. On this occasion his holiness, as a mark of his esteem for the worthy prelate, bestowed upon him the commendam of the abbacy of Leone.

On the death of Wardlaw, bishop of St Andrews, an event which happened on 6th April, 1440, Kennedy was chosen as his successor in that see; and to this new and more important charge, he brought all that activity and anxiety to do good which had distinguished him while he filled the bishopric of Dunkeld. He continued his efforts to reform the manners and practice of the clergy, and in 1446, set out on a second journey to Italy, to consult with and obtain the co-operation of the pope in his work of reformation. On this occasion he was accompanied by a train of thirty persons; for though moderate and temperate in all his pursuits and enjoyments, he was yet of an exceedingly liberal and generous disposition, and a scrupulous maintainer of the dignity of the sacred office which he held, and he had sufficient penetration to discover how much of this, as of all human dignities, depends upon extrinsic aids. His dislike of turbulence and anarchy, and his constant efforts to reconcile differences where they existed, and to discountenance oppression, and to restrain illegal power, rendered him peculiarly obnoxious to the house of Douglas, which, during the minority of James II., had nearly accomplished the total overthrow of the hereditary royalty of Scotland. In revenge of the part he took in restraining the power of that ambitious family, his lands were plundered by the earl of Crawford and Alexander Ogilvie of Inveraritie, at the instigation of the earl of Douglas, who had farther instructed them to seize, if possible, the person of the bishop, and to put him in irons. This fate he avoided by confining himself to his castle, the only mode of resistance which he thought consistent with his sacred character as a minister of religion. He was, however, eventually the means of reducing the power of the Douglases within limits more consistent with the peace and safety of the kingdom. James II., almost driven from his throne by the increasing insolence and influence of the chief of that house, went in despair to St Andrews, to seek the counsel and advice of its able and amiable bishop. On the prince and prelate meeting, the former laid before him the desperate situation to which the growing power and daring effrontery of the earl of Douglas had reduced him. He informed him that he had learned that Douglas was mustering a large army either to dethrone him or drive him from the country; that he knew no means of resisting him, and was utterly at a loss what steps to take in this emergency. "Sir," replied the bishop, perceiving that the disconsolate king was exhausted with fatigue as well as depressed in spirits, "I entreat your grace to partake, in the mean time, of some refreshment, and while ye do so, I will pass into my chamber and pray to God for you and the commonwealth of this realm."

On retiring, as he had proposed, the good bishop fervently implored the interference of the Almighty in behalf of the unhappy prince, who, friendless and distracted, had sought his counsel and advice; and when the king had finished his repast, he came forth, and taking him by the hand, led him into the apartment in which he himself had been praying, and there they both knelt down and besought the guidance and assistance of Him who directs all things,—a scene than which it would not probably be easy to conceive anything more striking or interesting.

When they had concluded their devotions, the bishop proceeded to point out to the king such a mode of procedure as he deemed the most suitable to the circumstances. He advised the monarch immediately to issue proclamations, calling upon his subjects in the north to muster around his standard, which he afterwards erected at St Andrews, and still more wisely, and as the issue showed, with a still better effect, proposed his offering pardon to all who, having previously attached themselves to the earl of Douglas, would now abandon his cause, and aid that of the king. The consequence was, that James soon found himself at the head of forty thousand men. The final muster took place at Stirling, and a battle, which was to decide whether a Douglas or a Stuart was to be king of Scotland, appeared to be at hand; for the former with an equal force was at that moment encamped on the south side of the Carron. But, while in the very act of advancing with his army to encounter the forces of the king, Douglas detected the effects of the amnesty proclaimed by James by the advice of the bishop of St Andrews. A spirit of disaffection and indications of doubt and wavering appeared in his ranks. Alarmed by these symptoms, he marched his army back to their encampment, hoping to restore their confidence in him by the following day, when he proposed again to march forth against the enemy. The result, however, was directly the reverse of what he had anticipated. The feeling which he expected to subdue, in place of subsiding, gained ground; so that in the morning, there were not a hundred men remaining of all Douglas’s host. Finding himself thus suddenly deserted, the earl instantly fled; and in this manner fell the overgrown power of the house of Douglas,—a circumstance mainly, if not entirely attributable to the wisdom and energy of the bishop of St Andrews.

On the death of James II., bishop Kennedy was intrusted with the charge and education of his son, afterwards James III., then about seven years of age. His known wisdom, prudence, and integrity, pointed him out as the fittest person for this important duty, and on the same ground there was added to it a large share in the management of public affairs during the regency of the queen-mother. He had acquired an authority in the kingdom by the mere influence of his character, which few had ever attained by adventitious circumstances, and which no churchman had at any time before enjoyed; and he was thus enabled to accomplish more amongst a rude and barbarous people, than would have been yielded to the mere force of power or rank. The consequence was, that an unusual quietness and prosperity pervaded the whole kingdom during his administration. He enjoyed the confidence and good-will of all parties, and was no less esteemed for his probity, humanity, and wisdom, than admired for the splendour of his abilities; and so highly was his character appreciated, and so universal the satisfaction which his government afforded, that the chief management of public affairs was still left in his hands even after the death of the queen-mother, and remained with him until his own death, which took place on the 10th of May, 1466, an event which was widely and sincerely deplored.

Bishop Kennedy was not less remarkable for his munificence than for the other splendid qualities which composed his character. He founded the college at St Andrews, called St Salvator’s, in honour of our Saviour, and endowed it with a fund for the maintenance of a provost, four regents, and eight poor scholars, or bursars, at an expense of about ten thousand pounds. He built a ship, which was afterwards known by the name of the Bishop’s Barge, at a similar cost, and his tomb is said to have been equally expensive with the two former. In 1444, he was appointed chancellor of the kingdom, but this office he resigned in a few weeks afterwards, because he found it interfered with those projects for doing good in his clerical capacity, which he had resolved to follow out from the beginning of his career. He was, by his own desire, interred in the collegiate church of St Andrews, where his tomb is still shown, along with several silver maces which were found in it some years ago.


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