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Significant Scots
William Elphinstone

ELPHINSTON, WILLIAM, a celebrated Scottish prelate, and founder of the university of Aberdeen, was born in the city of Glasgow in the year 1431. His father, William Elphinston, was a younger brother of the noble family of Elphinston, who took up his residence in Glasgow during the reign of James I., and was the first of its citizens who became eminent and acquired a fortune as a general merchant. His mother was Margaret Douglas, a daughter of the laird of Drumlanrick. His earliest youth was marked by a decided turn for the exercises of devotion, and he seems to have been by his parents, at a very early period of his life, devoted to the church, which was in these days the only road to preferment. In the seventh year of his age he was sent to the grammar school, and having gone through the prescribed course, afterwards studied philosophy in the university of his native city, then newly founded by bishop Turnbull, and obtained the degree of Artium magister in the twenty-fifth year of his age. He then entered into holy orders, and was appointed priest of the church of St Michael’s, situated in St Enoch’s gate, now the Trongate, where he officiated for the space of four years. Being strongly attached to the study both of the civil and canon law, he was advised by his uncle, Lawrence Elphinston, to repair to the continent, where these branches of knowledge were taught in perfection. Accordingly, in the twenty-ninth year of his age, he went over to France, where he applied himself to the study of law for the space of three years, at the end of which he was called to fill a professional chair in the university of Paris, and afterwards at Orleans, in both of which places he taught the science of law with the highest applause. Having in this manner spent nine years abroad, he was, at the request of his friends, especially of Andrew Muirhead, his principal patron, (who, from being rector of Cadzow, had been promoted to the bishopric of Glasgow,) persuaded to return to his native country, where he was made parson of Glasgow, and official or commissary of the diocese. As a mark of respect, too, the university of Glasgow elected him lord rector the same year. On the death of bishop Muirhead, which took place only two years after his return, he was nominated by Schevez, bishop of St Andrews, official of Lothian; an office which he discharged so much to the satisfaction of all concerned, that James III., sent for him to parliament, and appointed him one of the lords of his privy council. It may be noticed here, as a curious fact, that at this period men of various degrees sat and deliberated and voted in parliament without any other authority than being summoned by his majesty as wise and good men, whose advice might be useful in the management of public affairs. So little, indeed, was the privilege of sitting and voting in parliament then understood, or desired, that neither the warrant of their fellow subjects, nor the call of the king, was sufficient to secure their attendance, and penalties for non-attendance had before that period been exacted. Elphinston was now in the way of preferment; and being a man both of talents and address, was ready to profit by every opportunity. Some differences having arisen between the French and Scottish courts, the latter, alarmed for the stability of the ancient alliance of the two countries, thought fit to send out an embassy for its preservation. This embassy consisted of the earl of Buchan, lord chamberlain Livingston, bishop of Dunkeld, and Elphinston, the subject of this memoir, who so managed matters as to have the success of the embassy wholly attributed to him. As the reward of such an important service, he was, on his return in 1479, made archdeacon of Argyle and as this was not considered as at all adequate to his merits, the bishopric of Ross was shortly after added. The election of the chapter of Ross being speedily confirmed by the king’s letters patent under the great seal, Elphinston took his seat in parliament, under the title of electus et confirmatus, in the year 1482. It does not appear, however, that he was ever any thing more than bishop elect of Ross; and in the following year, 1483, Robert Blackadder, bishop of Aberdeen, being promoted to the see of Glasgow, Elphinston was removed to that of Aberdeen. He was next year nominated, along with Colin earl of Argyle, John lord Drummond, lord Oliphant, Robert lord Lyle, Archibald Whitelaw, archdeacon of Loudon, and Duncan Dundas, lord lyon king at arms, to meet with commissioners from Richard III., of England, for settling all disputes between the two countries. The commissioners met at Nottingham on the 7th of September, 1484, and, after many conferences, concluded a peace betwixt the two nations for the space of three years, commencing at sunrise September 29th, 1484, and to end at sunset on the 29th of September, 1487. Anxious to secure himself from the enmity of James at any future period, Richard, in addition to this treaty, proposed to marry his niece, Anne de la Pool, daughter of the duke of Suffolk, to the eldest son of king James. This proposal met with the hearty approbation of James; and bishop Elphinston with several noblemen were despatched back again to Nottingham to conclude the affair. Circumstances, however, rendered all the articles that had been agreed upon to no purpose, and on the fatal field of Bosworth Richard shortly after closed his guilty career. The truce concluded with Richard for three years does not appear to have been very strictly observed, and on the accession of Henry VII., bishop Elphinston with Sir John Ramsay and others, went again into England, where they met with commissioners on the part of that country, and on the 3d of July, 1486, more than a year of the former truce being still to run, concluded a peace, or rather a cessation of arms, which was to continue till the 3d of July, 1489. Several disputed points were by this treaty referred to the Scottish parliament, which it was agreed should assemble in the month of January following. A meeting of the two kings, it was also stipulated, should take place in the following summer, when they would, face to face, talk over all that related to their personal interests, and those of their realms. Owing to the confusion that speedily ensued, this meeting never took place. Bishop Elphinston, in the debates betwixt the king and his nobles, adhered steadfastly to the king, and exerted himself to the utmost to reconcile them, though without effect. Finding the nobles nowise disposed to listen to what he considered reason, the bishop made another journey to England, to solicit in behalf of his master the assistance of Henry. In this also he was unsuccessful; yet James was so well pleased with his conduct, that on his return, he constituted him lord high chancellor of Scotland, the principal state office in the country. This the bishop held till the death of the king, which happened a little more than three months after. On that event, the bishop retired to his diocese, and applied himself to the faithful discharge of his episcopal functions. He was particularly careful to reform such abuses as he found to exist among his clergy, and for their benefit composed a book of canons, taken from the canons of the primitive church. He was, however, called to attend the parliament held at Edinburgh, in the month of October, 1488, where he was present at the crowning of the young prince James, then in his sixteenth year. Scarcely any but the conspirators against the late king attended this parliament, and aware that the bishop might refuse to concur with them in the measures they meant to pursue, they contrived to send him on a mission to Germany, to the emperor Maximilian, to demand in marriage for, the young king, his daughter Margaret. Before he could reach Vienna, the lady in question had been promised to the heir apparent of the king of Spain. Though he failed in the object for which he had been specially sent out, his journey was not unprofitable to his country; for, taking Holland in his way home, he concluded a treaty of peace and amity with the States, who had, to the great loss of Scotland, long been its enemies. The benefits of this treaty were so generally felt, that it was acknowledged by all to have been a much more important service than the accomplishment of the marriage, though all the expected advantages had followed it. On his return from this embassy in 1492, bishop Elphinston was made lord privy seal, in place of bishop Hepburn, removed. The same year, he was again appointed a commissioner, along with several others, for renewing the truce with England, which was done at Edinburgh, in the month of June, the truce being settled to last till the end of April, 1501.

Tranquillity being now restored, bishop Elphinston turned his attention to the state of learning and of morals among his countrymen. For the improvement of the latter, he compiled the lives of Scottish Saints, which he ordered to be read on solemn occasions among his clergy; and for the improvement of the former, he applied to pope Alexander VI. to grant him a bull for erecting a university in Aberdeen. This request pope Alexander, from the reputation of the bishop, readily complied with, and sent him a bull to that effect in the year 1494. The college, however, was not founded till the year 1506, when it was dedicated to St Mary; but the king, at the request of the bishop, having taken upon himself and his successors the protection of it, and contributed to its endowment, St Mary was compelled to give place to his more efficient patronage, and it has ever since been called King’s college. By the bull of erection this university was endowed with privileges as ample as any in Europe, and it was chiefly formed upon the excellent models of Paris and Bononia. The persons originally endowed, were a doctor of theology (principal), a doctor of the canon law, a doctor of the civil law, a doctor of physic, a professor of humanity to teach grammar, a sub-principal to teach philosophy, a chanter, a sacrist, six students of theology, three students of the laws, thirteen students of philosophy, an organist, and five singing boys, who were students of humanity. By the united efforts of the king and the bishop, ample provision was made for the subsistence of both teachers and taught, and to this day a regular education can be obtained at less expense in Aberdeen, than any where else in the united kingdoms of Great Britain. The bishop of Aberdeen for the time, was constituted chancellor of the university; but upon the abolition of that office at the reformation, the patronage became vested in the crown. Of this college the celebrated Hector Boece was the first principal. He was recalled from Paris, where he had a professional chair, for the express purpose of filling the office, which had a yearly salary of forty merks attached to it—two pounds three shillings and fourpence sterling. While the worthy bishop was thus laying a foundation for supplying the church and the state with a regular series of learned men, he was not inattentive to other duties belonging to his office. His magnificent cathedral, founded by bishop Kinnimonth in the year 1357, but not completed till the year 1447, he was at great pains and considerable expense to adorn. The great steeple, he furnished with bells, which were supposed to have peculiar efficacy in driving off evil spirits. He was also careful to add to the gold, the silver, and the jewels, with which the cathedral was liberally furnished, and particularly to the rich wardrobe for the officiating clergy. He also added largely to the library. While he was attending to the spiritual wants of his diocese, the worthy bishop was not forgetful of its temporal comforts; and especially, for the accommodation of the good town of Aberdeen, was at the expense of erecting an excellent stone bridge over the Dee, a structure which continued to be a public benefit for many ages.

In consequence of his profuse expenditure, James IV. had totally exhausted his treasury, when, by the advice of the subject of this memoir, he had recourse to the revival of an old law that was supposed to have become obsolete. Among the tenures of land used in Scotland, there was one by which the landlord held his estate on the terms, that if he died and left his son and heir under age, his tutelage belonged to the king or some other lord superior, who uplifted all the rents of the estate till the heir reached the years of majority, while he bestowed upon his ward only what he thought necessary. By the same species of holding, if the possessor sold more than the half of his estate without consent of his superior, the whole reverted to the superior. There were also lands held with clauses called irritant, of which some examples we believe may be found still, by which, if two terms of feu duty run unpaid into the third, the land reverts to the superior. From the troubled state of the country during the two former reigns, these laws had not been enforced; so that now, when inquiry began to be made, they had a wide operation, and many were under the necessity of compounding for their estates. Had the bishop been aware of the use the king was to make of the very seasonable supply, he would most probably have been the last man to have suggested it.

James now permitted himself to be cajoled by the French court, and especially by the French queen, who, aware of the romantic turn of his mind, addressed letters to him as her knight, expressing her hope, that as she had suffered much rebuke in France for defending his honour, so he would recompense her again with some of his kingly support in her necessity; that is to say, that he would raise her an army, and come three feet of space on English ground for her sake. Pitscottie adds, that she sent him also fourteen thousand French crowns to pay his expenses, a circumstance that detracts in a considerable degree from the wildness of the enterprise, and brings the whole nearly to the level of a foolish bargain. James, thus prompted, called a parliament, where, contrary to the declared opinion of all the wiser members, the promises of La Motto the French ambassador, the subserviency of the clergy, who either enjoyed or expected Gallic pensions, and the eagerness of James, caused war to be determined on against England, and a day to be appointed for assembling the army. The army was raised accordingly, and James, crossing the borders, stormed the castles of Norham, Wark, and Ford, wasting without mercy all the adjoining country. In a short time, one of his female prisoners, the lady Heron of Ford, ensnared him in an amour, in consequence of which he neglected the care of his army, and suffered the troops to lie idle in a country that could not yield them subsistence for any length of time. His army, of course, soon began to disperse. The nobles, indeed, remained with their relations and immediate retainers; but even these were highly dissatisfied, and were anxious to return home, taking Berwick by the way, which they contended would yield them a richer reward for their labour than all the villages on the border. James, however, obstinate and intractable, would listen to no advice, and on the 9th day of September, 1513, came to an action with the English, under the earl of Surrey, who, by a skilful countermarch had placed himself between James and his own country. James, whether from ignorance or wilfulness, allowed his enemies quietly to take every advantage, and when they had done so, set fire to his tents, and descended from a strong position on the ridge of Flodden into the plain to meet them. The consequences were such as the temerity of his conduct merited; he was totally routed, being cut off himself, with almost the whole of the Scottish nobility, together with the archbishop of St Andrews, and many of the dignified clergy. The news of this most disastrous battle so deeply affected the gentle spirit of bishop Elphinston, that he never was seen to smile afterwards. He, however, attended in parliament to give his advice in the deplorable state to which the nation was reduced. The queen had been by the late king named as regent so long as she remained unmarried, and this, though contrary to the practice of the country, which had never hitherto admitted of a female exercising regal authority, was, from the scarcity of men qualified either by rank or talents for filling the situation, acquiesced in, especially by those who wished for peace, which they supposed, and justly, as the event proved, she might have some influence in procuring. It was but a few months, however, till she was married, and the question then came to be discussed anew, and with still greater violence.

Such a man as Elphinston was not to be spared to his country in this desperate crisis; for as he was on his journey to Edinburgh to attend a meeting of parliament, he was taken ill by the way, and died on the 25th of October, 1514; being in the eighty-third year of his age. He was, according to his own directions, buried in the collegiate church of Aberdeen.

Bishop Elphinston is one of those ornaments of the Catholic church, who sometimes appear in spite of the errors of that faith, He seems to have been a really good and amiable man. He wrote, as has been already remarked, the Lives of Scottish Saints, which are now lost. He composed also a history of Scotland, from the earliest period of her history, down to his own time; which is still preserved in the Bodleian library at Oxford. It is said to consist of eleven books, occupying three hundred and eighty-four pages in folio, written in a small hand, and full of contractions, and to be nearly the same as Fordun, so that we should suppose it scarcely worthy of the trouble it would take to read it. Of all our Scottish bishops, however, no one has been by our historians more highly commended than bishop Elphinston. He has been celebrated as a great statesman, a learned and pious churchman, and one who gained the reverence and the love of all men. He certainly left behind him many noble instances of his piety and public spirit; and it is highly to his honour, that, notwithstanding his liberality in building and endowing his college, providing materials for a bridge over the Dee, the large alms that he gave daily to the poor and religious of all sorts, besides the help that he afforded to his own kindred, he used solely the rents of his own bishopric, having never held any place in commendam, as the general practice then was, and he left behind him at his death, ten thousand pounds in gold and silver, which he bequeathed to the college, and to the finishing and repairing of his bridge over the Dee. As he was thus conspicuous, continues his biographer, for piety and charity, so he was no less so for his having composed several elaborate treatises that were destroyed at the reformation. This panegyrist goes on to say, "that there never was a man known to be a greater integrity of life and manners, it being observed of him, that after he entered into holy orders, he was never known to do or say an unseemly thing. But the respect and veneration that he was held in, may appear from what is related to have happened at the time of his burial, by the historians who lived near his time, for they write, that the day his corpse was brought forth to be interred, the pastoral staff, which was all of silver, and carried by Alexander Lauder a priest, broke in two pieces, one part thereof falling into the grave where the corpse was to be laid, and a voice was heard to cry, Tecum, GULIELME, Mitra sepelienda – With thee the mitre and glory thereof is buried."

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