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Significant Scots
Sir James Melville


MELVILLE, (SIR) JAMES, a courtier of eminence, and author of the well known memoirs of his own life and times which bear his name. In that work he has made effectual provision to keep posterity mindful of the events of his life, and the following memoir will chiefly consist of an abridgment of the facts he has himself detailed. [From the beautiful edition of his memoirs printed by the Bannatyne Club, 1827.] He appears to have been born in the year 1535. His father was Sir John Melville of Raith, one of the early props of the reformed faith, who, after suffering from the hate of Beaton, fell a victim to his successor, archbishop Hamilton, in 1549. [Wood’s Peerage, ii. 112.] Nor were his children, or his widow, who was a daughter of Sir Alexander Napier of Merchiston, spared from persecution. James, who was the third son, was, by the queen dowager’s influence and direction, sent at the age of fourteen, under the protection of the French ambassador returning to France, to be a page of honour to the young queen of Scotland. The French ambassador Monluc, bishop of Valence, besides his embassy to Scotland, had, before his return, to accomplish a secret mission to the malcontents of Ireland, who had begun to breathe a wish to cast off the yoke of England, and might have proved a very valuable acquisition to France. To Ireland Melville accompanied him. Immediately on his arrival Sir James encountered a love adventure, which he tells with much satisfaction. The ship had been overtaken by a storm, and with difficulty was enabled to land at Lochfeul. They were entertained by O’Docherty, one of the bishop’s friends, who lived in "a dark tour," and fed his friends with such "cauld fair" as "herring and biscuits," it being Lent. The bishop was observed to bend his eyes so attentively on O’Docherty’s daughter, that the prudent father thought it right to provide him with the company of another female, in whose conduct he had less interest or responsibility. This lady was so far accomplished as to be able to speak English, but she produced an awkward scene by her ignorance of etiquette, in mistaking a phial "of the only maist precious balm that grew in Egypt, which Soliman the great Ture had given in a present to the said bishop" for something eatable, "because it had ane odoriphant smell." "Therefore she licked it clean out." The consequence of the bishop’s rage was the discovery of his unpriestly conduct. Meanwhile O’Docherty’s young daughter, who had fled from the bishop, was seized with a sudden attachment for Melville. "She came and sought me wherever I was, and brought a priest with her that could speak English, and offered, if I would marry her, to go with me to any part which I pleased." But James was prudent at fourteen, he thanked her, said that he was yet young, that he had no rents, and was bound for France. With the assistance of Wauchope, archbishop of Armagh (a Scotsman) Monluc proceeded with his mission. From O’Docherty’s house they went to the dwelling of the bishop of Roy. Here they were detained until the arrival of a Highland boat, which was to convey them to Scotland, and after more storms and dangers, losing their rudder, they at length landed at Bute. In the person to whom the boat belonged, Melville found a friend, James M’Conell of Kiltyre, who had experienced acts of kindness from his father. Soon after their return to Scotland, Melville sailed with the ambassador to France, and landed on the coast of Brittany. The bishop proceeding by post to Paris, left his young protege to the attendance of "twa young Scottis gentlemen," who were instructed to be careful of him on the way, and to provide him with the necessary expenses, which should be afterwards refunded to them. The three young men bought a nag each, and afterwards fell into company with three additional companions, a Frenchman, a Spaniard, and a Briton, all travelling in the same direction. At the end of their first day’s journey from Brest, they all took up their night’s rest in a chamber containing three beds. The two Frenchmen and the two Scotsmen slept together. Melville was accompanied by the Spaniard. In this situation he discovered himself to be the subject of plot and counterplot. He first heard the Scotsmen--with much simplicity certainly, when it is remembered that a countryman was within hearing—observe, that as the bishop had directed them to purvey for their companion, "therefore we will pay for his ordinair all the way, and sall compt up twice as meikle to his master when we come to Paris, and so sall won our own expenses." [Memoirs, p. 13. partially modernized in orthography.] This was a good solid discreet speculation, but it need not have been so plainly expressed. While it was hatching, the Frenchmen in the next bed were contemplating a similar plot, on the security of the ignorance of French on the part of their companions, and their inexperience of French travelling, proposing simply to pay the tavern bills themselves, and charge a handsome premium "sufficient to pay their expenses" for their trouble. Melville says he could not refrain "laughing in his mind." The Frenchmen he easily managed, but the Scotsmen were obdurate, insisting on their privilege of paying his charges, and he found his only recourse to be a separate enumeration of the charges, and the "louns" never obtained payment of their overcharge. But the Frenchmen were resolved by force to be revenged on the detector of their cunning. In the middle of a wood they procured two bullies to interrupt and attack the travellers, and when Melville and his friends drew, they joined their hired champions. But Melville, by his own account, was never discomfited, and when they saw their "countenance and that they made for defence," they pretended it was mere sport. Melville informs us, how, after his arrival at Paris, his friend the bishop was called to Rome, and himself left behind to learn to play upon the lute and to write French. In the month of May, 1553, Melville appears to have disconnected himself from the bishop, of whom he gives some curious notices touching his proficiency in the art magique and mathematique, and came into the service of the constable of France, an office in the acquisition of which he was much annoyed by the interference of a captain Ringan Cocburn, "a busy medlar." At this point in his progress the narrator stops to offer up thanks for his good fortune. As a pensioner of France, he became attached to the cause of that country in the war with Charles V., and was present at the siege of St Quentin, where his patron the constable was wounded and taken prisoner, and himself "being evil hurt with a stroke of a mass upon the head, was mounted again by his servant upon a Scots gelding, that carried him home through the enemies who were all between him and home; and two of them struck at his head with swords, because his head piece was tane off after the first rencounter that the mass had enforced, and the two were standing between him and home, to keep prisoners in a narrow strait;" but Melville’s horse ran between them "against his will," as he candidly tells, and saved his master by clearing a wall, after which he met his friend Harry Killigrew, who held the steed, while its master entered a barber’s shop to have his wounds dressed. Melville appears to have attended the constable in his captivity, and along with him was present at the conference of Chateau Cambresis, the consequence of which he states to be "that Spayne obtained all their desires: the Constable obtained liberty: the Cardinal of Lorraine could not mend himself, no more than the commissioners of England." After the peace, the king, at the instigation of the constable, formed the design of sending Melville to Scotland to negotiate its terms with reference to this country, and to check the proceedings of Murray, then prior of St Andrews, and the rising influence of the Lords of the Congregation. The cardinal of Lorraine, however, had influence sufficient to procure this office for Monsieur De Buttoncourt, a person whose haughty manner, backed with the designs of the "Holy alliance" he represented, served to stir up the flame he was sent to allay, and the more prudent Melville, whose birth and education certainly did not qualify him to conduct such a mission with vigour, or even integrity to his employers, was sent over with instructions moderate to the ear, but strong in their import. A war for mere religion was however deprecated; the constable shrewdly observing, that they had enough to do in ruling the consciences of their own countrymen, and must leave Scotsmen’s souls to God. Melville was instructed "to seem only to be there for to visit his friends." He found the queen regent in the old tower of Falkland, in bitterness of spirit from the frustration of her ambitious designs. Quietly and stealthily the emissary acquired his secret information. The ostensible answer he brought with him to France was, that the prior of St Andrews did not aspire to the crown; a matter on which the bearings were probably sufficiently known at the Court of France without a mission. Such, however, is the sum of what he narrates as his answer to the constable, who exhibited great grief that the accidental death of Henry, which had intervened, and his own dismission, prevented a king and prime minister of France from reaping the fruit of Melville’s cheering intelligence. Scotsmen becoming at that time unpopular in France, Melville obtained the royal permission to travel through other parts of the continent. With recommendations from his friend the constable, he visited the court of the elector Palatine, where he was advised to remain and learn the Dutch tongue, and was courteously received. At the death of Francis II., he returned to France as a messenger of condolence for the departed, and congratulation to the successor, from the court of the Palatine. He returned to the Palatine, with "a fair reward, worth a thousand crowns;" whether to the Palatine or himself, is not clear. When Melville perceived queen Mary about to follow the advice of those who recommended her return to Scotland, he called on her with the offer of his "most humble and dutiful service;" and the queen gave him thanks for the opinions she heard of his affection towards her service, and desired him, when he should think fit to leave Germany, to join her service in Scotland. The cardinal of Lorraine, among his other projects, having discovered the propriety of a marriage betwixt Mary and the archduke Charles of Austria, brother to Maximilian, Melville was deputed by secretary Maitland to discover what manner of man this Charles might happen to be; to inquire as to his religion, his rents, his qualities, his age, and stature. Melville had a very discreet and confidential meeting with Maximilian, who made diligent inquiry as to the intentions of the queen of Scots and her subjects, regarding the alleged right to the English throne; while it struck the wily Scot, that he was not particularly anxious to advance his brother to a throne, presently that of Scotland, but not unlikely to be that of the island of Britain. To obtain such information as might prove a sure footing for his future steps, he procured his companion, Mons. Zuleger, to drink with the secretaries of Maximilian, and ascertained his suspicions to be well founded. Notwithstanding a cordial invitation to join the court of Maximilian, (no other man ever had so many sources of livelihood continually springing up in his path,) Melville returned to the Palatine. On his way he enjoyed a tour of pleasure, passing to Venice and Rome, and returning through Switzerland to Heidelberg, where the elector held his court. He afterwards revisited Paris on a matrimonial scheme, concocted by the queen-mother, betwixt her son and Maximilian’s eldest daughter, acting in the high capacity of the bearer of a miniature of the lady. The welcomes of his friend the constable, not on the best of terms with the queen-mother, seem now to have fallen with far less cordiality on the heart of Melville, and he seems to have looked with some misliking at that dignitary’s taking the opportunity of presenting the picture, to appear at court, where "he sat down upen a stool, and held his bonnet upon his head, taking upon him the full authority of his great office, to the queen-mother’s great misliking." While at Paris, he received despatches from Murray and secretary Maitland, requesting his immediate return to his native country, to be employed in the service of the queen, a mandate which he obeyed. Meanwhile the Palatine and his son, duke Casimer, showed an ambition for a union of the latter with Elizabeth of England; a measure which Melville found curious grounds for dissuading, in fulfilment of his principle of using such influence as he might command, to interfere with the appearance of an heir to the crown of England. But Melville could not refuse the almost professional duty of conveying the young duke’s picture to England. He obtained an interview with Elizabeth, who was more attentive to the subject of the marriage of queen Mary, than to her own; expressing disapprobation of a union with the archduke Charles, and recommending her favourite Dudley. He proceeded to Scotland, and was received by Mary at Perth, on the 5th May, 1564. He was informed that it had been the queen’s intention to have employed him in Germany, but she had now chosen for him a mission to England. He is most amiable in his motives for following the young queen. He was loth to lose "the occasions and offers of preferment that was made to him in France and other parts: but the queen was so instant and so well inclined, and showed herself endowed with so many princely virtues, that he thought it would be against good conscience to leave her, requiring so earnestly his help and service;" so that, in short, he "thought her more worthy to be served for little profit, than any other prince in Europe for great commodity." He proceeded to England with ample instructions, the amicable purport of which, either as they were really delivered, or as Melville has chosen to record them, is well known to the readers of history. Melville made sundry inquiries at "very dear friends" attending the court of Elizabeth, as to his best method of proceeding with the haughty queen; and having, on due consideration, established in his mind a set of canons for the occasion, stoutly adhered to them, and found the advantage of doing so. He was peculiarly cautious on the subject of the marriage; he remained to witness the installation of Dudley as earl of Leicester and baron of Denbigh, cautiously avoiding any admission of the propriety of countenancing a union betwixt him and the queen, while he bestowed on him as much praise as Elizabeth chose to exact, and consented to join in invectives against the personal appearance of Darnley—his being "lang, lusty, beardless, and lady-faced," &c.—"albeit," continues the narrator, "I had a secret charge to purchase leave for him to pass in Scotland, where his father was already." Melville spent nine days at the court of England, and made excellent use of his time. His memorial of the period contains many most ingenious devices, by which he contrived to support the honour of the queen of Scotland, while he flattered the queen of England on her superiority. He delighted her much, by telling her the Italian dress became her more than any other one, because he saw she preferred it herself,—this was no disparagement to his own queen. He said they were both the fairest women in their country; and, being driven to extremities, told Elizabeth he thought her the whiter; but that his own queen was very "luesome;" leaving the inference, when Elizabeth chose to make it, that she was as much more "luesome" as she was whiter, though by no means making so discreditable an admission. It happened fortunately that the queen of Scotland, being taller than the queen of England, the latter decided the former to be too tall. Melville, who had no foresight of the more enlarged opinions of posterity, reviews all his petty tricks and successful flatteries, with the air of one claiming praise for acts which increase the happiness of the human race. The following paragraph is exemplary to all courtiers. He had been giving moderate praise to the musical abilities of Mary. "That same day after dinner, my lord of Hunsden drew me up to a quiet gallery, that I might hear some music; but he said he durst not avow it, where I might hear the queen play upon the virginals. But after I had hearkened a while, I took by the tapestry that hung before the door of the chamber, and seeing her back was towards the door, I entered within the chamber, and stood still at the door cheek, and heard her play excellently well; but she left off so soon as she turned about and saw me, and came forward, seeming to strike me with her left hand, and to think shame; alleging that she used not to play before men, but when she was solitary her alane, to eschew melancholy; and asked how I came there. I said, as I was walking with my L of Hunsden, as I passed by the chamber door, I heard such melody that ravished and drew me within the chamber I wist not how; excusing my fault of homelyness, as being brought up in the court of France, and was willing to suffer what kind of punishment would please her lay upon me for my offence." The result is as, that he acknowledged Elizabeth a better musician than Mary, and she said his French was good. After so much politeness, the opinion of Elizabeth, which he retailed to Mary, was, "there was neither plain dealing, nor upright meaning, but great dissimulation,--emulation that her (Mary’s)’ princely qualities should over soon chase her out and displace her from the kingdom."

The next public duty in which Melville was engaged, was as bearer of the intelligence of the birth of the prince, afterwards James VI., to the court of England, for which purpose he left Edinburgh on the 19th June, 1566. He found Elizabeth dancing after supper, in a state of jovialty and merriment, which was momentarily quashed on the reception of what she termed the welcome intelligence. But next morning the queen had prepared herself to receive her complimentary friend, who had excused his homeliness on the ground of his having been brought up in France, and the spirit of their previous conference was renewed; the courtier turning his complimentary allusions into a very hideous picture of the evils of marriage, as experienced by his own queen, that no little bit of endeavour on his part, (according to his avowal,) might be lost, conducive to settling in the mind of the English queen, a solid detestation of matrimony. He takes credit to himself for having given sage and excellent advice to the Scottish queen, on the occurrence of her various unfortunate predilections, particularly on her conduct towards Bothwell during the life of Darnley, and happened to be among those attendants of the queen who were so very easily taken prisoners by the aspirant to the crown. After this event, he considered it prudent to obtain leave to return home, and enjoy his " rents;" but so long as he was able to transact messages and carry pictures, the atmosphere of a court seems to have been to him the breath of life; he appears to have waited in quiet expectation for whatever little transactions might fall to his lot, and, among other occasions, was present at the marriage of the queen to Bothwell, after that nobleman’s "fury" against him, before which he had been obliged to flee on account of his advice to the queen, "more honest than wise," had been propitiated. On the formation of the party for crowning the young prince, he was, as far as his book is concerned, still a zealous servant of his fallen mistress. He was chosen commissioner or emissary to the opposite party,—a post he declined to accept, until advised to become the instrument of peace, by Maitland, Kirkaldy, and "other secret favourers of the queen." On the same principle of attention to the interests of Mary, he acted as emissary to meet Murray at Berwick, on his approaching Scotland to assume the regency. He was equally accommodating in furthering the introduction of Lennox, and was engaged in his usual employments under Mar and Morton. It would be tedious to follow him in his list of negotiations, any thing which is important in them being more nearly concerned with the history of the times, than with the subject of our memoir. The character in which he acted is sufficiently exemplified by the details already unfolded; and it would require more labour and discernment than most men command, to determine for what party he really acted, or on what principles of national policy he combated. It may be mentioned, that he alleges the busy temper of finding fault with the proceedings of the great, with which he so complacently charges himself on divers occasions, to have lost him the countenance of Morton, while with superlative generosity he recommended the laird of Carmichael to avoid a similar course; and the laird, profiting by the advice, forgot that injured man, the giver of it. When James wished to flee himself from the unceremonious authors of the Raid of Ruthven, he requested the counsel and assistance of Melville, who, although he had taken leave of the court, and resolved to live "a quiet contemplative life all the rest of his days," graciously assented to the royal petition. He read his majesty a lecture on the conduct of young princes, and assisted in enabling him to attend the convention at St Andrews; or, according to his own account, was the sole procurer of his liberty. He was appointed a gentleman of the bedchamber, and a member of the privy council; but Arran, whom he opposed, managed to supplant him, notwithstanding an unmercifully long letter, reminding James of his services, and the royal promises, and bestowing much advice, useful for governors. He was deprived of his offices, and had no more opportunity "to do good." But he was not entirely excluded from the sun of royalty; he was directed to prepare instructions for himself as an ambassador to the court of England, and held a long conference with the king about the state of the nation, full of much sage advice. He was appointed to "entertain" the three Danish ambassadors, whose mission concerning the restoration of the islands of Orkney, terminated in the king’s marriage with a Danish princess: and when these gentlemen were plunged into a state of considerable rage at their reception, he was found a most useful and pacific mediator. He was appointed the confidential head of that embassy proposed to Altry, and afterwards accepted by the earl Marischal, for bringing over the royal bride; but he had arrived at that period of life, when he found it necessary or agreeable to resign lucrative missions. The portion of his memoirs referring to this period, introduces a vivid description of the machinations of the witches to impede the wishes of king James, by which a relation of his own was drowned in crossing the frith of Forth. On the arrival of the queen, Melville was presented to her as her counsellor, and gentleman of her bedchamber. His last public duty appears to have been that of receiving the presents of the ambassadors at the christening of Prince Henry. He declined

following James to his new dominions, but afterwards paid him a visit, and was kindly received at the English court. His latter days appear to have been spent in preparing his memoirs, so often quoted as a model of wisdom for the guidance of his descendants. Two mutilated editions of this curious work were published in English, besides a French translation, before the discovery of the original manuscripts, which had passed through the hands of the Marchmont family, produced the late genuine edition. Sir James died on the 1st November, 1607, [Wood’s Peerage, ii. 112. The introduction to the last edition of his works, says aged 72. This is inconsistent with his having been 14 years of age in 1549, when he accompanied Monluc to France.] in the eighty-second year of his age. In his character there seems little either to respect or admire; but it is to be remembered that he lived in an age, when those who were not murderers or national traitors, were of a comparatively high standard of morality.


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