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Significant Scots
Sir John Maitland


MAITLAND, (SIR) RICHARD, of Lethington, the collector and preserver of our early Scottish poetry, and himself a poet of no mean rank, was the son of William Maitland of Lethington and Thirlstane, and Martha, daughter of George, lord Seaton. He was born in the year 1496; but his father having perished at the calamitous battle of Flodden, he was at an early period of life deprived of paternal guidance and instruction. After going through the usual course of academical education at St Andrews, he repaired to France, then the resort of all young Scotsmen of rank, and more especially of students of law. The time of his return is altogether unknown; he is supposed by one of his biographers [Biographical Introduction to Sir Richard’s Poems, printed by the Maitland Club, p. xxii.] to have been absent from his native country during the earlier part of the minority of James V.; or if he did return previous to that period, his name is not connected with any of its turmoils. Before his departure from Scotland, he is believed to have been connected with the court of James IV. We are at all events certain, that on his return he was successively employed by James V., the regent Arran, and Mary of Lorraine. To his services, during the regency of the latter, he alludes in his poem on "The Quenis Arryvale in Scotland:"—

Madam, I wes trew servand to thy mother,
And in hir favoure stude ay thankfullie
Of my estait, als weill as ony other.

A passage in Knox’s history has attached some suspicion to the good name of Sir Richard, at this period of his life. He is alleged to have been instrumental in procuring, for bribes, the liberation of cardinal Beaton from the custody of his kinsman, Lord Seaton. Of his share in the guilt of this transaction, such as it is, no proof exists; while there is something very like direct evidence that he was attached to the English and protestant party, and consequently, in favouring Beaton, would have been acting against sentiments which the most of men hold sacred. That evidence consists in an entry in the Criminal Record, to the following effect:—"Richard Maitland, of Lethingtoune, found George, lord Seytoune, as his surety, that he would enter within the castle of Edinburgh, or elsewhere, when and where it might please the lord governor, on forty-eight hours’ warning: and that the said Richard shall remain a good and faithful subject, and remain within the kingdom, and have no intelligence with our ancient enemies the English, under the pain of 10,000. [Pitcairn’s Criminal Trials, i. 338.]

We soon after find Sir Richard engaged in diplomatic transactions for the settlement of the borders. In 1552, he was appointed, along with others, to make a division of what was called the debatable land, which division was ratified in the following November; [Keith’s History, p. 58.] and in 1559, he was nominated in a commission of a similar nature. The result of the last was, the conclusion of the treaty of Upsetlington.

In 1563, he was appointed one of the commissioners to decide on the application of the act of oblivion; and in the month of December of the same year, to frame regulations for the commissaries then about to be established for the decision of consistorial causes.

While he was thus employed, he was also rising rapidly in the profession which he had more peculiarly adopted. He is mentioned on the 14th of March, 1551, as an extraordinary lord of session; and about the same period, or soon afterwards, he received the honour of knighthood. Ten years afterwards (12th November, 1561) he was admitted an ordinary lord, in the room of Sir William Hamilton of Sanquhar; and on the same day his son, William Maitland, was received as an extraordinary lord, in place of Mr Alexander Livingston of Dunipace. Sir Richard was soon afterwards made a member of the privy council; and upon the 20th of December, 1562, appointed lord privy seal, which office he resigned in 1567 in favour of his second son, John, then prior of Coldinghame, and better known by his subsequent title of lord Thirlstane. When we consider that these appointments were bestowed on Sir Richard, in circumstances that seemed to oppose an almost insurmountable barrier to the performance of their duties, they will be considered as the most decided proof of the estimation in which he was held as a good man, and an able lawyer. It does not exactly appear whether his health had been impaired by the performance of the duties of his various and important offices,—it is only certain that about this period he had become blind. This calamity must have overtaken him before October, 1560, and most probably after his last appointment as a commissioner for the settlement of border disputes, in 1559. The allusion to it in his poem on "The Quenis Arryvale in Scotland," (which must have been written in the latter part of 1561,) is clear and unquestionable.

And thoch that I to serve be nocht sa abill
As I was wont,
becaus I may not see;
Yet in my hairt I sall be firme and stabill
To thy Hienes with all fidelitie,
Ay prayan God for thy prosperitie, &c.

The state of the administration of the laws at this period was sufficiently deplorable. The nobles and barons, while they assembled in parliament for the purpose of making statutes, felt no scruple in breaking them, on the most trifling occasions, and then appearing, when called to the bar of justice, surrounded by armed followers. So common, indeed, did this practice become, and so little regulated by the goodness or badness of the cause, that when some of the reformers were cited before Mary of Lorraine, the queen dowager and regent of Scotland, a large body of their friends assembled to accompany them to Stirling, where the queen then was; and it was not till a promise of pardon (which was in the most unprincipled manner immediately violated) had been given, that they could be prevailed on to disperse. In like manner, when the borderers or Highlanders extended their depredations beyond their usual limits, it was necessary that an army should be assembled for their suppression; and if the king did not accompany it in person, the command was given to some nobleman of high rank. In most cases, the nobles were by far too powerful to fear the most energetic measures of a government which, receiving as yet no support from the people, depended upon themselves for its very existence. Feeling their inability to punish the real criminals, the king and his ministers frequently wreaked their vengeance on some unfortunate individual, who, though far less guilty than his feudal lord, was too feeble to oppose the ministers of the law. In such cases, the wretched criminal was prevailed upon by intimidation, perhaps in many cases where the necessary proof of guilt could not be adduced, to "come in the king’s will,"—a phrase meaning to submit without condition to the royal mercy,—or the jury were terrified into a verdict, the nature of which no one can doubt, by the threats of the king’s advocate to prosecute them for wilful error, if they did not comply. No one who has looked into the publication of the "Criminal Trials, and other Proceedings before the High Court of Justiciary," by Mr Robert Pitcairn, will accuse us of over-colouring the picture which we have now drawn. "In truth," (to quote the words of an admirable review of that work, supposed to be one of the last critiques from the pen of Sir Walter Scott,) "no reader of these volumes—whatever his previous acquaintance with Scottish history may have been, will contemplate without absolute wonder the view of society which they unveil; or find it easy to comprehend how a system, subject to such severe concussions in every part, contrived, nevertheless, to hold itself together. The whole nation would seem to have spent their time, as one malefactor expressed it, ‘in drinking deep and taking deadly revenge for slight offences.’" [See Quarterly Review, No. 88, p. 470.] That the judges themselves, if not exposed to the fury of the more lawless part of their countrymen from the unpopular nature of their office, were not at least exempted from it by its sacred character, the subsequent part of this sketch will sufficiently show.

Setting out of the question the calamitous nature of Sir Richard Maitland’s malady, and his country’s loss from being deprived of his more active services, his blindness may be supposed to have contributed much to his peace of mind. The transactions of this unhappy period,—the murder of Darnley,—the queen’s marriage with Bothwell, and all the subsequent events of the different regencies, are too well known to require notice here. But although the venerable knight did not engage in these transactions, he was not spared the pain of having his lands ravaged, and his property forcibly kept from him. His lands of Blythe were overrun by the border robbers, [This was not the first time that his property had been destroyed or carried off. Diurnal of Occurrents in Scotland, printed by the Bannatyne and Maitland Clubs, p., 48.] as we know by his poem, entitled "The Blind Baronis Comfort," in which he consoles himself for his wrongs, and puns upon the name:—

Blynd man, be blyth, althocht that thow be wrangit;
Thocbt Blythe be herreit, tak no melancholie.

Happy indeed must have been the man who, dismissing from his mind the misfortunes of his lot, could devote it to the pursuits of literature; and who, estimating the good things of this world at their real value, could at the same time cultivate the temper here exhibited.

It seems to have been about the same time that the king’s party took possession of the castle of Lethington, which had been the temporary abode of the secretary Maitland, and a ready justification of this violent measure was found in the conduct of that statesman. After the death of the son, the enmity of the regent Morton was transferred to the aged and unoffending father, and his house and lands were still violently withheld from him. Although Sir Richard appears to have requested the intercession of the English court, and for that purpose to have transmitted a representation to lord Burleigh, the queen, with her usual crafty and cautious policy in regard to Scottish affairs, did not interfere: the document is thus marked—"This must be well considered before any thing is done." It was not, therefore, till the fall of Morton, that the worthy knight obtained restoration of his lands. He did not, however, droop into despondency during the long period of eleven years that he was thus "wrangit." In that period his poem of "Solace in Aige" is believed to have been written. It concludes thus:—

Thocht I be sweir to ryd or gang,
Thair is sumthing I’ve wantit lang,
Fain have I wald
Thaim punysit that did me wrang,
Thoucht I be auld.

Some attempt seems to have been made by Sir Richard to obtain compensation at least for his losses. There is extant a list of "the guidis tane frae ye ald laird of Lethingtoun of his awin proper geir forthe of Blythe and ye Twllowss;" but it is to be feared that his endeavours were unsuccessful. At a later period of his life, he renewed his application for compensation; and, although he obtained an act of parliament, recognizing his claims, and rescinding an act made in favour of captain David Hume of Fishwick, who had possessed Lethington, and intromitted with the rents of that estate, the benignity of his temper warrants our supposing, in the absence of historical evidence, that he did not pursue his rights with any violent or revengeful feelings.

The age and infirmities of Sir Richard now appear to have incapacitated him in a great measure for the performance of his duties as a judge. Throughout his career the conduct of his brother judges towards him was marked by the utmost kindness and sympathy for his distressing malady. As early as January, 1561, they had ordered the macers "to suffer one of the old laird of Lethintone’s sones to come in within all the barres as oy’r prors doe, and to issue as they doe, for awaiting on his father for the notoriety of his father’s infirmity," and he now (3d of December 1583,) obtained leave to attend court only when he pleased, with the assurance that he "should lose no part of the contribution in consequence of absence." In May 1584, he was further exempted from the examination of witnesses, "provyding he cause his sone (Thirlstane), or his good-son the laird of Whittingham, use the utter tolebooth for him in calling of matters, and reporting the interloquitors as use is." When he was at last under the necessity of retiring altogether from the bench, it was under circumstances which no less strongly show the public estimation of his character. He was allowed the privilege of nominating his successor,—a privilege of the extension of which lord Pitmedden considers this as the first instance. Accordingly on the 1st of July, 1584, he resigned in favour of Sir Lewis Bellenden of Auchnoull, being now, as his majesty’s letter to the court expresses, "sa debilitat that he is not able to mak sic continual residens as he wald give, and being movit in conscience that, be his absence, for laik of number justice may be retardit and parteis frustrat." At length, after a life, certainly not without its troubles, but supported throughout by the answer of a good conscience and by much natural hilarity, he closed his days on the 20th of March, 1586, at the venerable age of ninety. Living in an age, marked, perhaps more strongly than any other in our history, by treachery and every vice which can debase mankind, he lived uncontaminated by the moral atmosphere by which he was surrounded, and has had the happiness,—certainly not the lot of every good man,—of being uniformly noticed, whether by friends or enemies, by his contemporaries or by posterity, with the highest respect. There is but one exception to this general tribute to his virtues,—the accusation in John Knox’s History, of his having been bribed to allow cardinal Beatoun to escape from imprisonment. The foundation of this charge is, however, doubtful; for, although the candour and accuracy of Knox’s History cannot be impeached, it may still be admitted, from the peculiar position of the parties, that the historian’s mind was liable to receive an erroneous impression of Maitland’s conduct.

The works of Sir Richard Maitland exhibit him in the characters of a lawyer, a poet, and an historian. Of the work belonging to the first of these classes it is only necessary to say, that it consists of "Decisions from the 15th December 1550, to the penult July 1565;" being a continuation of the body of decisions known by the title of Sinclair’s Practicks, and that a copy of it, with the additions of the viscount Kingston, is preserved in MS. in the library of the Faculty of Advocates. His poetical collections consist of two kinds,— those works which were merely collected by him, and specimens of which have long been before the public,—and his own poems, the greater portion of which have not been printed till a very late date.

If it be true, as has been often asserted, that the habits and feelings of a people are best known by their poetry, surely the collectors in that department of a nation’s literature are entitled to no inconsiderable portion of its gratitude. The labours of Asloan, Maitland, and Bannatyne have especial claims on our attention, as in them are to be found nearly all that remains of the Scottish poetry composed before their times. Of the first, John Asloan,—whose collections are preserved in the Auchinleck library, but unfortunately in a mutilated state,—little or nothing can be ascertained; and of George Bannatyne a notice has already been given in this work. Our attention must therefore be directed to the collections of the subject of this memoir.

Sir Richard Maitland appears to have been engaged in forming his collections of poetry before he became blind,—probably about the year 1555,-—and although one of the volumes is dated 1585, it is conjectured that it was the arrangement of them only that could have been the work of his later years. The collections consist of two volumes,—a folio, comprehending 176 articles, and a quarto of 96 pieces; the latter in the handwriting of Mary Maitland, Sir Richard’s daughter. They are now preserved in the Pepysian library, Magdalene college, Cambridge; but, from the regulations prescribed by the founder of that institution, they cannot be consulted except within its walls, and although its officers afford every facility which their duty permits, it must be a subject of regret to every lover of Scottish poetry that they are not in a more accessible situation. It is true, indeed, that in 1784 or 1785, the late Mr Pinkerton was furnished by Dr Peckhard with all the means of consulting them with advantage, and that he published selections from them in his Ancient Scottish Poems; but the charges of interpolation which have been brought against him, must make his work a subject of doubt and suspicion.

Sir Richard Maitland did not produce any of his own poems at the period when ardour of mind or ambition for distinction may be supposed to prompt men to enter that walk of literature. They were all written after his sixtieth year. They are the tranquil productions of age, and of a mind regulated by the purest principles. The subjects, too, correspond with the age at which they were written, most of them being of a moral or historical description. By far the most frequent subjects of his poems are lamentations for the distracted state of his native country,—the feuds of the nobles,—the discontents of the common people,--complaints "Aganis the lang proces in the courts of justice,"--"The evillis of new found lawis," and the depredations "Of the border robbers." Not the least interesting of his productions—are those which he entitles Satyres: one of these, on "The Town Ladyes," in particular presents us with a most curious picture of the habits and dispositions of the fair sex in his day, and amply demonstrates that the desire of aping the appearance and manners of the higher ranks is by no means the peculiar offspring of our degenerate age. Sir Richard’s poetical writings were for the first time printed in an entire and distinct form, in 1830, (in one 4to volume) by the Maitland Club, a society of literary antiquaries, taking its name from this distinguished collector of early Scottish poetry.

It may probably be unknown to most of our readers, that a poet from whose mortal sight the book of knowledge was no less shut out than from the eye of the poet of Paradise Lost, has also written a poem on the subject of—

—Man’s first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste
Brought death into the world and all our woe.

Except in the subject, however, there is no resemblance between the Paradise Lost of Milton and Sir Richard Maitland’s "Ballat of the Creatioun of the World, Man his Fall and Redemptioun." From the latter poem, the following passages are selected:--

God be his Word his wark began,
To forme the erth and hevin for man,
The sie and watter deip;
The sone, the mune, the starris bricht,
The day divydit frome the nicht,
Thair coursis for to keip;
The beistis that on the grund do mufe,
And fische in to the sie,
Fowlis in the air to fle abufe,
Off ilk kind creat hee;
Sum creeping, sum fleiting
Sum fleing in the air,
So heichtly, so lichtly,
In moving heir and thair.

The workis of grit magnificence,
Perfytet be his providence,
According to his will;
Nixt maid he man; to gif him gloir.
Did with his ymage him decoir,
Gaif paradice him till;
Into that garding hevinly wrocht,
With plesouris mony one;
The beistis of every kynd war brocht,
Thair names he sowld expone;
Thame nemming and kennyng,
As he list for to call;
For pleising and eising
Of man, subdewit thame all.

In hevinly joy man so possest,
To be alone God thoct not best,
Maid Eve to be his maik;
Bad thame incress and multiplie;
And eit of every fruit and trie,
Thair plesour thay sowld taik,
Except the trie of gud and ill,
That in the middis dois stand;
Forbad that thay sowld cum it till,
Or twiche it with thair hand;
Leist plucking or lucking,
Baith thay and als thair seid,
Seveirly, awsteirly,
Sowld dye without remeid.

The poem thus concludes :—

Behald the stait that man was in,
And als how it he tynt throw sin,
And loist the same for ay;
Yit God his promeiss dois performe,
Send his Sone of the Virgeny borne,
Ours ransome for to pay
To that grit God let us gif gloir,
To us has bene so gude,
Quha be his death did us restoir,
Quhairof we war denude;
Nocht karing nor sparing
His body to be rent,
Redemyng, relieving,
Ws quhen we war all schent.

The historical writings of Sir Richard Maitland were the productions of an earlier period than his poems. The principal historical work of Sir Richard that has come down to us, is "The Historie and Cronicle of the Hous and Surename of Seytoun, to the moneth of November, in the yeir of God, Jm. Vc. lix. yeiris; collectit, gaderit, and set furth be Schir Richart Maitland of Lethingtoun, Knycht, Dochteris Sonn of the said Hous." This work was printed in 1829 for the Maitland Club. Another of his works bears the following title: "Heir followis ane Brief and Compendious Tabill or Catholog of the Names of the Kingis of Scotland, France, and Ingland, with the dait of thair Reignis; togidder with the Successioun of King Malcolme Cainmoir, and of all Kingis of Scotland sensyn, to the dait heirof; quham thay Mareit; quhat Successioun they had; with quham they war Allyat. Collectit, gatherit, and set furth be Sr. Richart Maitland of Lethingtoun, Knyt. The yeir of God, Jm. Vc. and three scoir yeiris, the xiiij day of the moinethe of October."

By his wife, Mary, daughter of Thomas Cranston of Corsby, Sir Richard Maitland had a numerous family. It is said that he had seven sons, three of whom, William, John, and Thomas, rose to eminence—and four daughters— Helen, married to John Cockburn of Clerkington; Margaret, to William Douglas of Whittingham; Mary, to Alexander Lauder of Hatton; and Isabel, to James Heriot of Trabroun.


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