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Significant Scots
James Crichton

CRICHTON, JAMES, commonly styled the Admirable Crichton. The learned and accurate Dr Kippis, editor of the Biographia Britannica, was the first, we believe, who thoroughly sifted and critically examined the truth or consistency of those marvelous stories which had so long attached to and rendered famous the name of the Admirable Crichton. Many had long doubted their credibility, and many more had been deluded by them. It fell to the lot of this keen critic, by a minute and candid investigation of the truth, to confirm and rectify the minds of both. Biography is but a part of history, and the chief value of both most always rest upon their veracity; and it is no unimportant service rendered to letters, to disabuse them of those apocryphal portions which deteriorate the worth, or render suspicious the quality of what is really genuine. It is but an ungrateful task, we allow, to destroy in the mind its favoured prejudices or delusions; yet these can never be allowed to stand in the way of investigation; and we make no doubt of showing, before the end of this article that inquiry, in the present case, has not been without its advantage.

The biographer whom we have mentioned, has expressed the diffidence and anxiety which he felt on entering upon this life; "being," says he, "desirous, on the one hand, not to detract from Crichton’s real merit, and, on the other, to form a just estimate of the truth of the facts which are recorded concerning him." We hope to observe the same principle of impartiality; and, after having given the reader the current narration regarding this singular individual, shall afterwards leave to his own discrimination the proofs which, either way affect its authenticity.

James Crichton was the son of Robert Crichton, of Eliock, lord advocate of Scotland, partly in the reigns of queen Mary and king James VI. His mother was Elizabeth Stuart, only daughter of Sir James Stuart of Beith; a family collaterally descended from Murdoch, duke of Albany, third son of Robert III. by Elizabeth Muir, and uncle to James I.

[Note: The information on his mother  is incorrect as she was not the only daughter of Sir James Stewart. I quote from my book "Ogilvy of Balfour":
In 1554, Mr James (Ogilvy of Balfour) married Margaret Stewart sister to James Stewart the Commendator of Inchcolm Abbey and daughter of Sir James Stewart of Beath, Captain of Doune, and Dame Margaret Lindsay. Their contract of marriage was made on 6 February 1553/4.  It is probable that she was born in the early 1530's and may have been a sister uterine of his first wife, for Dame Margaret Lindsay had family by her first marriage to Richard Stewart third Lord Innermeath.  Margaret Stewart's only surviving sister german, Elisabeth, married Mr Robert Crichton, their son being the famous "Admirable Crichton". Interestingly, John Stewart of Innermeath and James Commendator of Inchcolm were both given as nearest of kin to James Crichton on his mother's side in 1566.  The document does not indicate which was her half brother although it was James Stewart.

Margaret died without issue about 1560. There followed a family dispute regarding her jewelery when the Lord Advocate brought an action against Mr James Ogilvy to recover them for his wife and their brother, Archibald Stewart "in and to yare pertis of abulziements, jewellis, and executry of Margaret". My Ogilvy of Balfour Book awaits publication but several of my books can be found at the Scottish Genealogy Shop  or Blair of Balthayock (published in USA) at the Clan Blair Society Shop and Wishart of that Ilk in e-book format (free) at Stirnet - Jack Blair]

He was born in the castle of Cluny, in Perthshire, sometime about the year 1560. This residence had recently been in the possession of the bishopric of Dunkeld, from which it was dissevered during the reformation; and was esteemed, at that time, one of the best houses in Scotland. It is beautifully situated upon a little island in the middle of the lake of the same name.

Crichton received the first rudiments of his education at Perth, from which place he was removed at an early age to the university of St Andrews, at that time esteemed the first school of philosophy in Scotland. John Rutherford, a name now unknown, but who in his day was famous for his writings upon the logic and poetics of Aristotle, was provost of St Salvator’s college; and it was to the care of this professor that the instruction of young Crichton seems to have been principally confided. "Nothing," according to M’Kenzie, "can give us a higher idea of Rutherford’s worth and merit than his being master of that wonder and prodigy of his age, the great and admirable Crichton." Aldus Manutius also informs us, that he was educated along with the king under Buchanan, Hepburn, and Robertson. The progress which he made in his studies is said to have been astonishing. He had hardly passed his twelfth year when he took his degree as bachelor of arts; two years afterwards, that of master of arts; being then esteemed the third scholar in the university for talents and proficiency. His excellence did not stop here. Before attaining the age of twenty he had, besides becoming master of the sciences, attained to the knowledge of ten different languages, which he could write and speak to perfection. He had every accomplishment which it is befitting or ornamental in a gentleman to have. He practised the arts of drawing and painting, and improved himself to the highest degree in riding, fencing, dancing, singing, and in playing upon all sorts of musical instruments. It remains only to add, that this extraordinary person possessed a form and face of great beauty and symmetry; and was unequalled in every exertion requiring activity and strength. He would spring at one bound the space of twenty or twenty-four feet in closing with his antagonist; and he added to a perfect science in the sword, such strength and dexterity that none could rival him.

Crichton, now about the age of twenty, and thus accomplished, set out upon his travels; and is said first to have directed his course to Paris. It was customary in that age to hold public disputations in which questions alike abstruse and useless in the scholastic philosophy were discussed. Soon after his arrival in this city, he determined, in compliance with such a usage, to distinguish himself, by a public display of part of those great acquirements of which he felt himself possessed. To this end he affixed placards to the gates of the different schools, halls, and colleges belonging to the university, and to the posts and pillars before the houses of men of learning in the city; inviting all those versed in any art or science, discipline, or faculty, whether practical or theoretic, to dispute with him in the college of Navarre, that day six weeks, by nine of the clock in the morning, where he would attend them, and be ready to answer to whatever should be proposed to him in any art or science, and in any of these twelve languages, Hebrew, Syriac, Arabic, Greek, Latin, Spanish, French, Italian, English, Dutch, Flemish, and Sclavonian; and this either in verse or prose, at the discretion of the disputant. We give the challenge pretty fully in this place, that we may have no further occasion to repeat it.

During the interesting interval of the six weeks, Crichton, we are informed, so far from showing the least flutter or uneasiness, or any necessity of preparation, did nothing but divert himself with the various amusements of the gay city. He devoted his time almost entirely to hunting, hawking, riding on a well managed horse, tossing the pike, handling the musket, and other feats of the like kind; or to more domestic trifling, such as balls, concerts, cards, dice, or tennis. This nonchalance is said to have provoked the sneers of the students; and their (as it proved) unlucky satire went the length of affixing a placard containing the following words on the gate of the Navarre college. "If you would meet with this monster of perfection, to make search for him either in the tavern or the brothel, is the readiest way to find him."

The decisive day at length arrived which had been looked forward to with so much confidence of triumph by the one party, and, we are to suppose, with mixed feelings of curiosity, scorn, or ridicule, by the other. There attended, we are told, at this singular convocation, about fifty professors, doctors of law and medicine, and learned men; and above three thousand auditors. He acquitted himself beyond expression in the disputation, which lasted from nine o’clock in the morning till six at night. "So pointedly and learnedly he answered to all the questions which were proposed to him, that none but they who were present can believe it. He spake Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and other languages most politely. He was likewise an excellent horseman; and truly, if a man should live a hundred years without eating, drinking, or sleeping, he could not attain to this man’s knowledge, which struck us with a panic fear; for he knew more than human nature can well bear. He overcame four of the doctors of the church; for in learning none could contest with him, and he was thought to be Antichrist." [Mackenzie’s Scottish Writers, vol iii, p. 119.] At the conclusion the president after a speech of high commendation, rose from his chair, and amidst the admiration and acclamations of the whole assembly, presented him with a diamond ring and a purse full of gold. From the event of this day he attained the title of The Admirable Crichton.

Crichton was so little fatigued, we are told, by this Herculean trial of mental prowess, that, on the succeeding day he appeared with all the fire and freshness of youth at a tilting match in the Louvre, and in the presence of several of the ladies and princes of the court of France, carried away the ring fifteen times successively, and broke as many lances on the Saracen, a chivalrous pastime of the period so called.

We next find Crichton at Rome; where he soon took occasion to exhibit a similar challenge to that of Paris. Here, in presence of the pope, many cardinals, bishops, doctors of divinity, and professors in all the sciences, he again delighted and astonished all spectators by the amazing proofs which he displayed of his universal knowledge. Boccaline, who was then at Rome, relates the transaction somewhat differently. According to this authority, Crichton’s placard runs thus: "Nos Jacobus Crichtonus, Scotus, cuicunque rei propositae ex improviso respondebimus." This was a bold challenge in the capital of Christendom; and the ridicule which it could not fail to excite shewed itself in a pasquinade, the humour of which is not amiss, though it be local: "And," said this addendum to the challenge, "he that will see it, let him go to the sign of the Falcon and it shall be shown." The Italian further informs us, that this affront, which put Crichton upon the level of jugglers and mountebanks, nettled him so much that he left the place.

He next proceeded to Venice; and it was on his way thither, that he composed one of the four little Latin poems, all, by the way, which remain to prove the literary and poetical talents of Crichton. Of its merit we may remark afterwards; but Aldus Manutius, the younger of the celebrated family of printers, to whom it was inscribed, thought so very highly of it, and on further acquaintance with its author, was so greatly delighted, that he forthwith formed a friendship with him. He was of service in introducing Crichton to some of the principal men of Venice; and among the rest to Laurentius Mass, Sperone Speroni, and Joannes Donatus. A presentation soon followed to the doge and senate, before whom he made an oration, which for brilliant eloquence and consummate grace, we are led to understand, could not be surpassed. In effect, in the words of Imperialis, talking of him on this occasion, "he was esteemed a prodigy of nature." Here, he likewise disputed upon different subjects in theology, philosophy and the mathematics, before the most eminent professors, in large assemblies. Many people from a distance came to hear and see him; and as a late biographer has alleged, "lives of him were drawn up and published." His visit to Venice was, it is conjectured, in the year 1580.

After a residence of about four months in Venice, during the latter part of which time, he was afflicted with a severe illness, Crichton repaired to Padua, where was a university, whose fame, in that age, was spread over Europe. The day after his arrival, there was convened in honour of him at the house of Jacobus Aloisius Cornelius, a meeting of all the learned men of the place, when Crichton opened the assembly with an encomiastic poem in praise of the city, the university, and the persons present. He then disputed for the space of six hours on matters in general; and, in particular exposed with great judgment the errors of Aristotle and his commentators, which he did, nevertheless, with such engaging modesty, as excited universal admiration. In conclusion, he thought proper to deliver an extempore oration in verse, in praise of ignorance, which was conducted with so much ingenuity, ("in order," says one of his biographers "to reconcile his audience to their comparative inferiority,") [Tytler’s Life of Crichton, p. 34.] that his hearers were astonished, and no doubt highly gratified. Another disputation was to have been held in the bishop of Padua’s palace, which some unforeseen circumstances, according to Manutius, prevented. Imperialis, however, differs from this statement; and relates that his father, (then thirteen years of age) had witnessed Crichton upon such an occasion; that he was opposed by Archangelus Mercenarius, a famous philosopher; and that be acquitted himself so well as to obtain the approbation of a very honourable company, and even of his antagonist himself.

In the midst of the great reputation which Crichton now enjoyed, there were not wanting many persons who took occasion to detract from it, affecting to consider him as a literary impostor, whose acquirements were totally superficial. To put an end, at once, to all such cavils or invidious reflections, he caused a challenge, similar to the others already made mention of, to be fixed on the gates of St John and St Paul’s church. The chief novelty on this occasion was, that he engaged, at the pleasure of his opponents, to answer them, either in the common logical way, or by numbers and mathematical figures, or in a hundred different sorts of verse. According to Manutius, Crichton sustained this contest without fatigue, for three days; during which time he supported his credit and maintained his propositions with such spirit and energy, that from an unusual concourse of people, he obtained acclamations and praises than which none more magnificent were ever heard by men. It by much exceeded any of his former contests of a similar nature; and it is the last of them, of which we have any account.

To Sir Thomas Urquhart, posterity is alone indebted for the next incident recorded in the life of the Admirable Crichton, and its interest has certainly suffered little in coming from the graphic pen of that redoubted fabler. We cannot do better than give the exordium in his own words— "A certain Italian gentleman, of a mighty, able, strong, nimble, and vigorous body, by nature fierce, cruel, warlike, and audacious, and in the gladiatory art so superlatively expert and dextrous, that all the most skilful teachers of escrime, and fencing-masters of Italy (which, in matter of choice professors in that faculty needed, never as yet to yield to any nation in the world), were by him beaten to their good behaviour, and, by blows and thrusts given in, which they could not avoid, enforced to acknowledge him their overcomer: bethinking himself, how, after so great a conquest of reputation, he might by such means be very suddenly enriched, he projected a course of exchanging the blunt to the sharp, and the foils into tucks; and in this resolution, providing a purse full of gold, worth near upon four hundred pounds, English money, travelled along at the most especial and considerable parts of Spain, France, the Low Countries, Germany, Pole, Hungary, Greece, Italy, and other places, wherever there was greatest probability of encountering with the eagerest and most atrocious duellists; and immediately after his arrival to any city or town that gave apparent likelihood of some one or other champion that would enter the lists and cope with him, he boldly challenged them, with sound of trumpet, in the chief market place, to adventure an equal sum of money against that of his, to be disputed at the sword’s point, who should have both." Sir Thomas goes on to relate the success of this bravo of Italy, whose person and character he has sketched with so masterly a pencil. "At last returning homewards to his own country, loaded with wealth, or rather the spoil of the reputation of these foreigners, whom the Italians call Tramontani, he, by the way, after his accustomed manner of aboarding other places, repaired to the city of Mantua,." Having received the protection of the duke, and published his challenge, it was not long before he found opponents willing to engage him on his own terms. "For it happened at the same time, that three of the most notable cutters in the world, (and so highly cried up for valour, that all the bravoes of the land were content to give way to their domineering, how insolent soever they should prove, because of their former-constantly-obtained victories in the field,) were all three together at the court of Mantua; who hearing of such harvest of five hundred pistoles, to be reaped (as they expected) very soon, and with ease, had almost contested among themselves for the priority of the first encounter, but that one of my lord duke’s courtiers moved them to cast lots who should be first, second, and third, in case none of the former two should prove victorious." Next ensue the successive calamitous combats of these brave men: for he "whose fortune it was to be the first of the three in the field, had the disaster to be the first of the three that was foyled; for at last with a thrust in the throat he was killed dead upon the ground." The second "was laid flat dead upon the place, by means of a thrust he received in the heart;" and the 1ast, "his luck being the same with those that preceded him, by a thrust in the belly, he, within four and twenty hours after, gave up the ghost."

Sir Thomas manages with the ability, and indeed pretty much in the style, of a standard romancer, the scene which was to wind up the interest of his story to its height. And first he pauses in his narration, to take notice, how these lamentable spectacles caused shame and grief to the "duke and citie of Mantua;" and how "the conquering duelist, proud of a victorie so highly tending to both his honour and profit, for the space of a whole fortnight, or two weeks together, marched daily along the streets of Mantua (without any opposition or controulment) like another Romulus or Marcellus in triumph." The way thus artfully prepared, the true knight, for whom, as in books of romance, this adventure had been reserved, is introduced—.

"—Which the never-too-much-to-be-admired Crichton perceiving—to wipe off the imputation of cowardice lying upon the court of Mantua, to which he had but even then arrived, (although formerly he had been a domestic thereof,) he could neither eat nor drink till he had first sent a challenge to the conqueror, appealing him to repair with his best sword in his hand, by nine of the clock in the morning of the next day, in presence of the whole court, in the same place where he had killed the other three, to fight with him upon this quarrell; that in the court of Mantua, there were as valiant men as he; and, for his better encouragement to the desired undertaking, he assured him, that to the foresaid five hundred pistoles, he would adjoin a thousand more; wishing him to do the like, that the victor, upon the point of his sword, might carry away the richer booty. The challenge, with all its conditions, is no sooner accepted of, the time and place mutually condescended upon, kept accordingly, and the fifteen hundred pistoles, hinc inde, deposited, and the two rapiers of equal weight, length and goodness, each taking one, in presence of the duke, duchess, with all the noblemen, ladies, magnificoes, and all the choicest of both men, women, and maids of that city, as soon as the signal for the duel was given, by the shot of a great piece of ordinance, of three score and four pound ball, the two combatants, with a lion-like animosity, made their approach to one another."

The combat, as it resembles much in management and fashion those with which the reader of old romances must be well acquainted, so does it likewise come up to them in minuteness, we can hardly say tediousness, for of that the author is incapable. Crichton long kept upon the defensive with his adversary, and showed such excellent dexterity, "that he seemed but to play while the other was in earnest." After long fencing, falsifying, and parrying, warding from tierce to quart, priming, and seconding; and after every variety of posture had been gone through, "the never-before-conquered Italian finding himself a little faint enters into a consideration that he may be overmatched; "and sad thoughts seize upon all his spirits. We may indulge the reader with the conclusion of this eventful conflict in the words of its original chronicler; and in these it may possibly be invested with a propriety and interest, which we would but vainly labour to bestow upon it.

"Matchless Crichton, seeing it now high time to put a gallant catastrophe to that so-long-dubious combat, animated with a divinely inspired fervencie, to fulfill the expectation of the ladies, and crown the duke’s illustrious hopes, changed his garb, falls to act another part, and, from defender turns assailant: never did art so grace nature, nor nature second the precepts of art with so much liveliness, and such observance of time, as when, after he had struck fire out of the steel of his enemie’s sword, and gained the feeble thereof, with the fort of his own, by angles of the strongest position, he did, by geometrical flourishes of straight and oblique lines, so practically execute the speculative part, that, as if there had been remoras and secret charms in the variety of his motion, the fierceness of his foe was in a trice transqualified into the numness of a pageant. Then was it that, to vindicate the reputation of the duke’s family, and expiate the blood of the three vanquished gentlemen, he alonged a stoccade de pied ferme; then recoyling, he advanced another thrust, and lodged it home; after which, retiring again, his right foot did beat the cadence of the blow that pierced the belly of this Italian; whose heart and throat being hit with the two former stroaks, these three franch bouts given in upon the back of the other: besides that, if lines were imagined drawn from the hand that livered them, to the places which were marked by them, they would represent a perfect isosceles triangle with a perpendicular from the top angle, cutting the basis in the middle; they likewise give us to understand, that by them he was to be made a sacrifice of atonement for the slaughter of the three aforesaid gentlemen, who were wounded in the very same parts of their bodies by other three such venses as these; each whereof being mortal, and his vital spirits exhaling as his blood rushed out, all he spoke was this, That seeing he could not live, his comfort in dying was, that he could not die by the hand of a braver man: after the uttering of which words he expiring, with the shril clareens of trumpets, bouncing thunder of artillery, bethwacked beating of drums, universal clapping of hands, and loud acclamations of joy for so great a victory." Crichton generously bestowed the prize of his victory upon the widows of the brave gentlemen whose deaths he had thus avenged.

In consequence, it is said, of this achievement, and the wonderful proficiency of the young Scotsman, the duke of Mantua made choice of him as tutor to his son, Vincentio di Gonzaga, a young man of dissolute conduct and unsettled principles. The appointment seems to have been gratifying to all parties; and, as Sir Thomas Urquhart informs us, Crichton composed a comedy on the occasion, which he exhibited before the court. This, we must by no means enlarge upon; for though that author’s account of the matter is complete and curious, it is of great length, and may with more pleasure and advantage be read at large in the original. The piece, we may only remark, belonged to a class of the drama known by the name of the Comedia a soggetto; in which one actor performs all the characters, however numerous; and must appear in the various dresses appropriate to each. The admirable Crichton had his usual success. The composition was regarded as one of the most ingenious satires that ever was made upon mankind. It was the last display, too, of those wonderful talents and endowments which their possessor was destined to make on the stage of this world; and if, in any part of our narrative, we may have betrayed symptoms of incredulity, we lay all such feelings aside, in coming to the concluding circumstance, the tragic nature of which must always excite deep sympathy and regret.

On a night of the carnival, as Crichton was returning from some serenading party, and amusing himself as he went solitarily along, by playing upon his guitar, he was suddenly set upon by five or six armed persons in masks. These with great vigour and bravery, he either put to flight, wounded, or kept at a distance. The one who seemed to be the leader he contrived to disarm; and this person proved to be the prince, his pupil, Vincentio di Gonzaga; for, pulling off his mask and discovering himself he begged his life. Crichton, on this, fell upon his knees, and expressed the concern he felt for his mistake, alleging that what he had done, he had been prompted to by self-defence; that if his prince had any design upon his life he might always be master of it. Saying this, and taking his sword by the point, he presented it to Gonzaga, who immediately received it; and, the evil passions by which he had been actuated, being inflamed rather than subdued by his shameful discomfiture, he is said instantly to have run his defenceless victor through the heart.

It ought, however, in justice to be said, that the above, though the popular statement of Crichton’s death, has been qualified, by more than one of his biographers, in its circumstances of atrocity; and indeed, though such actions assume a different character in Italy from what, happily, we are acquainted with in this country, he ought to have the advantage of every extenuation which impartiality can allow of. It is uncertain whether the meeting occurred by accident or design. Sir Thomas Urquhart, with his usual romance, has told a most extravagant, and it must be allowed, absurd, love story; thus implicating jealousy in the transaction; but the most probable version seems to be, that Crichton was stabbed in a drunken frolic; that the high rank of the one party, and great merit of the other; the relation in which they stood to each other; and the concealment of the real circumstances, came, at length, from the natural love all people, and especially the Italians, have for amplification and exaggeration, to invest the whole in the tragic garb which it now wears.

Great and general, according to the old author we have so often quoted, was the grief and lamentation which this sad event caused in Mantua. The whole court went into mourning for nine months. The epitaphs and elegies written to his memory, and stuck upon his hearse, would exceed, if collected, the bulk of Homer’s works; and long after, his picture had its place in the closets and galleries of the Italian nobility; representing him on horseback, with a lance in the one hand, and a book in the other. In a summary of excellences which we cannot help transcribing, the same author thus takes leave of the individual he has in so great a degree tended to exalt:—"Crichton gained the esteem of kings and princes, by his magnanimity and knowledge; of noblemen and gentlemen, by his courtliness and breeding; of knights, by his honourable deportment and pregnancy of wit; of the rich, by his affability and good fellowship; of the poor, by his munificence and liberality; of the old, by his constancy and wisdom; of the young, by his mirth and gallantry; of the learned, by his universal knowledge; of the soldiers, by his undaunted valour and courage; of the merchants and artificers, by his upright dealing and honesty; and of the fair sex, by his beauty and handsomeness, in which respect he was a masterpiece of nature."

Sir Thomas did not stand so altogether upon his own authority in this, as in other matters we have had to speak of; and he scarcely, indeed, required so to do. Imperialis, in his account of Crichton’s death, declares, That the report of so sad a catastrophe was spread to the remotest parts of the earth; that it disturbed universal nature; and that, in her grief for the loss of the wonder she had produced, she threatened never more to confer such honour upon mankind. He was the wonder of the last age; the prodigious production of nature; the glory and ornament of Parnassus, in a stupendous and unusual manner; and farther, in the judgment of the learned world, he was the phoenix of literature, and rather a shining particle of the divine Mind and Majesty, than a model of what could be attained by human industry. After highly celebrating the beauty of his person, he asserts, that his extraordinary eloquence, and his admirable knowledge of things, testified that he possessed a strength of genius wholly divine.

Crichton is supposed to have been in the twenty-second year of his age at the time of his death. One or two pictures are preserved of him; and there is reason to believe, that they are originals. By these it would appear that his frame was well proportioned, and his head well shaped, though rather small than otherwise. His face is symmetrical and handsome, but has no particular expression of character. There is a print of him in the Museum Historicum et Physicum of Imperialis, which, though poorly executed, is probably authentic.

It now remains that something should be said regarding the truth or falsity of accounts so extraordinary as those which we have, with considerable fulness, presented to the reader; and in this we cannot do better than have recourse to the learned biographer, Dr Kippis, who has already been of so much service to us in the composition of this life. So full, indeed, has that author been upon the subject, and so complete, in his collection and arrangement of the authorities which bear upon it, that it would be difficult, or vain, to pursue another course. One work only, to our knowledge, attempting a refutation of the positions and inferences of the editor of the Biographia Britannica has appeared during a space of forty years. This is a Life of the Admirable Crichton, with an appendix of original papers by Mr P. F. Tytler. We can see no cause to incline us to give any weight to the arguments of this author; and should rather say, that the effect of his work, bringing forward and advocating as it does, all that can be advanced and urged in favour of the authenticity, has been to place in a more conspicuous point of view the error and falsity he would attempt to remove. There are few new facts adduced, and these not material. They shall be noticed as they properly suggest themselves to our observation. In the first place, as to Sir Thomas Urquhart, to whom we are indebted for several of the facts altogether, and who wrote between sixty and seventy years after Crichton’s decease, Dr Kippis has objected, generally, that his testimony as to facts is totally unworthy of regard: "his productions are so inexpressibly absurd and extravagant, that the only rational judgment which can be pronounced concerning him is, that he was little, if at all, better than a madman;" that "his design in this, a design which appears from his other writings, was to exalt his own family and his own nation at any rate." "So far, therefore, as Sir Thomas Urquhart’s authority is concerned, the wonderful exhibitions of Crichton at Paris, his triumphs at Rome, his combat with the gladiator, his writing an Italian comedy, his sustaining fifteen characters in the representation of that comedy, the extraordinary story of the amour which is described as the cause of his death, the nine months mourning for him at Mantua, and the poems hung round his hearse to the quantity of Homer’s works, must be regarded as in the highest degree doubtful, or rather as absolutely false." It is likewise to be observed, that earlier biographers had no knowledge of the facts enlarged upon by Urquhart. Mr Tytler says not one word of any consequence in defence of this author; at the same time, he takes every advantage of his information, carefully suppressing, which is not a very easy task, whatever is ridiculous or overwrought in the original.

Sir Thomas paved the way for Mackenzie, a writer of a very different character, but who has materially, only in a more sober manner, related the same story. Mackenzie, in regard to the prodigious exertions of Crichton both corporeal and mental at Paris, imagined he had found a full confirmation of them in a passage from the "Disquisitiones" of Stephen Pasquier. In this he was under a mistake. The "Disquisitiones" are only an abridgment, in Latin, of Pasquier’s "Des Recherches de la France;" in which work there is indeed mention made of a wonderful youth, such as is related in Mackenzie’s quotation, and from which the passage is formed; but Pasquier, who does not tell his name, expressly says, that he appeared in the year 1445. The writer by whom this fact was discovered and pointed out, makes remark, that "Pasquier was born in Paris in 1528; passed his life in that city, and was an eminent lawyer and pleader in 1571; so that it is impossible the feats of Crichton, had they been really performed at Paris, could have been unknown to him, and most improbable, that, knowing them, he would have omitted to mention them; for, in the same book, vi., ch. 39, in which the wonderful youth is mentioned, he is at pains to produce examples of great proficiency, displayed by men in a much humbler rank of life than that of philosophers and public disputants." Dr Kippis observes, that Thuanus was likewise a contemporary, and he, who, in his own life, is very particular in what relates to learned men, makes no mention of Crichton. The "Des Recherches" of Pasquier were printed at Paris in 1596, and their author lived till the year 1615. Thuanus’ Memoirs of Himself were published in 1604; and that author lived between the years 1553 and 1617.

Mr Tytler finds much more fault with Mackenzie than we think at all necessary, or to the purpose. "Never, perhaps," says he, "was any biographical article written in more complete defiance of all accurate research." He has said Crichton was born in 1551, instead of placing that event ten years earlier, (an error which it is far from unlikely was a typographical one); he places Robert Critchton of Cluny at the head of the queen’s troops at the battle of Langside, instead of the earl of Argyle; he affirms erroneously, that Trajan Boccalini "tells us he (Crichton) came to Rome, Boccalini being then at Rome himself; he might have known that Crichton was killed in July, " had he weighed the account of Imperialis,’ and known that the assertion of Urquhart, that his death happened at the carnival, could not be correct, "yet this accommodating author adopts both stories, without perceiving that there is any inconsistency between them;" he adds expressions of his own to the account of Aldus, and mistakes the testimony of Astolfi; and "concludes his career of misquotation, by placing amongst the catalogue of Crichton’s works a comedy in the Italian language," which should not have been there, if, as he asserts, he copied that list from Dempster.

There is a much more important point to settle before coming to these minutiae; and however much the existence of such inconsistencies and inaccuracies may make against these, their correction by no means advances the favourite hypothesis of this author. What matters it spying out little faults on the surface of a great error? Mackenzie had three large folio volumes to write, and could not weigh every little matter with the minute accuracy Mr Tytler would expect of him; as, whether the death of Crichton occurred in July or February, by drawing inferences about the time of the carnival. Nor are his slight variations from ancient authorities, at all more, than what were perfectly warrantable in the process of incorporating them into a continuous narrative. It was not from such blunders, as Mr Tytler would endeavour to persuade us, "that Baillet, Kippis, and Black regarded with doubt, and even treated with ridicule," the fame of Crichton; but it was, in the first place, from the monstrous and unheard of nature of that reputation, and, on inquiry, its untenable and chimerical foundation.

After Mackenzie, followed Pennant, as a biographer of the Admirable Crichton; and in his account, all the errors of which Mr Tytler complains are perpetuated; it being an exact reprint from that author; "with this difference," says he, "that he rendered detection more difficult; because the Latin passages, which, might possibly have excited curiosity, and provoked a comparison with the text and the original, were left out entirely, and a translation substituted in their place." And here we may remark the curious and inadvertent manner in which error will often take place. Sir John Hawkins acknowledges, that Sir Thomas Urqubart has produced no authorities in support of his surprising narrations; but this defect, Sir John thinks, is supplied, in the life of Crichton, which is given in Pennant’s tour. Now, Pennant copied immediately from a pamphlet printed at Aberdeen, which, with a few verbal alterations, was identically the life written by Mackenzie; so that his account was but, in a genealogical sense, the great grand relation of the good knight himself. We may notice in this place, for the advantage of the polite reader, that Dr Johnson fell into the same error with his biographer; and credited, if not the whole, at least the greater part, of this marvellous life; and, as we are informed, dictated from memory to Hawkesworth, that delightful sketch of the Admirable Crichton which forms the 81st number of the Adventurer.

Having thus cleared the path to the ancient authorities, we come, for the first time, to consider who and what the Admirable Crichton really was. The account which we have already given of his birth, parentage, and success at the university, we hold to be authentic; and to that part, therefore, of the biography we have no occasion to refer. Of the matters spoken of by Urquhart upon his own authority, we have said enough, and they come not within the sphere of such investigation.

And, firstly, we shall take up Aldus Manutius, whose dedication of the "Paradoxa Ciceronis" to Crichton, is to be considered as the foundation upon which all the biographies of that individual are built. Of Manutius, Dr Kippis has remarked, that he is to be regarded as the only living authority on the subject; he was contemporary with Crichton; he was connected with him in friendship; and he relates several things on his own personal knowledge. That he is a positive and undoubted witness of Crichton’s intellectual and literary exertions at Venice and Padua. Nevertheless, that even this author is to be read with some degree of caution; that dedications are apt to assume the style of exaggeration; and that, with regard to the present, such is the case. That the younger Aldus, besides that he might be carried too far by his affection for his friend, was not eminent for steadiness and consistency of character. That, independently of such considerations, the narrative, previously to Crichton’s arrival at Venice, could not be derived from personal knowledge, and in that part he is very erroneous. That he does not appear to have been an eye-witness of the whole of the disputations held at Padua, as, in speaking of the oration in praise of Ignorance, he speaks from hearsay. That he was present at the disputation which lasted three days; but, at the same time, allows, that Crichton’s extraordinary abilities were not universally acknowledged and admired; that some there were who detracted from them, and were displeased with Manutius for so warmly supporting his reputation.

Little more than this can, indeed, be said with regard to Aldus, without approaching too near to a flat denial of his assertions. With no such intention, it is not a little instructive to see how he has written upon an occasion similar to the one under consideration. There is prefixed to his edition of Aratus a dedication to a certain Polish scholar of the name of Stanislaus Niegoseusky, part of which we shall present to the reader:"I send to you," says he, " those verses of Aratus, which have been translated by Cicero—one part to another— but with this difference, that it is a poet of inferior, to one of superior genius. My book, De Universitate,’ was dedicated to my friend, alas! my departed friend, Crichton. Now that I inscribe to you the verses of Aratus, say, shall I dedicate them to you, as his rival, or his panegyrist, or his superior; or shall I ascribe to you all these characters at once?"—"It is not enough to say that you write verses; you pour them forth with that unexampled animation and facility, which instantly declares that you were born a poet." This dedication was written very shortly after Crichton’s decease, as it bears date, 4th November, 1583.

Aldus, we have observed, from Dr Kippis, is to be considered as the only living testimony regarding our subject. Mr Tytler has discovered another, in the shape of an anonymous leaf, bearing the imprint of Venice, 1580. "This," says he, "is a most curious and valuable document."— "It exhibits a minute, but confused and ill-arranged catalogue of his (Crichton’s) various accomplishments, both mental and physical; of the books he had studied, the feats he had performed, the intellectual battles, in which his prowess had been so remarkably conspicuous. The beauty of his person, the elegance of his manners, the nobility of his descent and his services in the French army, are all particularly insisted upon; and upon all these points the highest praise is given, the richest colouring employed." We cannot quote all that Mr Tytler says of this paper; but shall, at once, consider it authentic, and proceed.

We have, indeed, every willingness to consider this as a genuine document; and, with some little deduction on the score of Italian exaggeration, and some little correction of the idolatrousness of expression natural to that people, may, probably, with assistance of it, arrive at a truer notion of the real Crichton, than we have effected hitherto.

The confusion which pervades this production, in so far as it indicates absence of design, we prefer to the studied eulogium of Aldus; and, at the same time, it declares a face well known to literary men, that the person so writing could not have very clearly understood what he was writing about. We have in it the confirmation of a suspicion long entertained, that Crichton’s wonderful intellectual excellence did, in a great measure, consist in a most astonishing memory. With what discretion he used that faculty, there is not, and there cannot be, any satisfactory proof. His knowledge of so many languages, we at once admit; and this admission but makes the solution of the problem more easy. What mind, we would ask, so divinely endowed as Crichton’s is represented to have been, could, in its young feelings, have voluntarily submitted to the drudgery of these twelve tongues; unless memory had been the paramount and principal faculty which it possessed. The paper before us is satisfactorily explicit on this point: "His memory is so astonishing that he knows not what it is to forget; and whenever he has heard an oration, he is ready to recite it again, word for word, as it was delivered. He possesses the talent of composing Latin verses, upon any subject which is proposed to him, and in every different kind of metre. Such is his memory, that, even though these verses have been extempore, he will repeat them backwards, beginning from the last word in the verse." In a conference with the Greeks upon the Holy Spirit, he "exhibited an incalculable mass of authorities, both from the Greek and Latin fathers, and also from the decisions of the different councils." "He has all Aristotle and the commentators at his finger end; Saint Thomas and Duns Scotus, with their different disciples, the Thomists and Scotists, he has all by heart." With a memory so uncommon and astonishing, and it is within our compass to imagine such, it did not require that it should be conjoined with transcendent talent to produce effect.

One passage we ought by no means to omit quoting, as its effect is, in some measure, to bring more familiarly home to our ordinary conceptions, the life and feelings of a man whose fortune it has been to be made the subject of so many strange representations: "He has at present retired from town to a villa, to extend two thousand conclusions, embracing questions in all the different faculties, which he means, within the space of two months, to sustain and defend in the church of St John and St Paul; not being able to give his attention both to his own studies, and to the wishes of those persons who would eagerly devote the whole day to hear him."

Another thing we have to remark upon in this place, is the assertion that Crichton held a command in the French army. We would have inserted this piece of information in the narrative we have given of his life; but confess, that we were at a loss where it should be placed, and so, preferred the old tract as it was. What else remains, may be summed up in a few words. Crichton was handsome in his person; and his address that of a finished gentleman. He possessed also the accomplishments befitting a military man; was an expert swordsman, and rode well.

We shall not task the reader’s patience much longer. Of Imperialis, Dr Black very truly remarks, that "his work is a collection of heads, with short eulogies, in which almost every person is represented as a phoenix: and a mass of pompous epithets are heaped together, less for the purpose of celebrating the person, than of showing the eloquence of the author;" and that is "useless for every biographical purpose," as containing the most absurd panegyric. The character of Crichton, by Imperialis, we have already quoted; and by re-considering that piece of silly extravagance, the reader may judge of the modernation of these observations. Independently of all this, Imperialis did not publish his "Museum Historicum" till the year 1640; nearly sixty years after the events recorded by him happened. Dr Kippis has remarked, that "the information this author derived from his father was probably very imperfect. Imperialis the elder was not born till 1568; and, consequently, was only thirteen years old, when Crichton displayed his talents at Padua; and, besides, his authority is appealed to for no more than a single fact, and that a doubtful one, since it does not accord with Manutius’s narrative: and who ever heard (asks the learned critic with great simplicity) of the famous philosopher Arcangelus Mercenarius?" Mr Tytler, after a painful research, has discovered that he was a professor in the university of Padua.

The only other authority, which we at all think it necessary to animadvert upon, is that of Astolfi; and, as much is made of his testimony, we shall lay it fully before the reader:—"The abilities of this Scotsman," says he, "are known to all. His name was James Crichton, who appeared like a prodigy in these our times, and was admired for the stupendous powers of his memory. Although a youth of only twenty-two years of age, he yet penetrated into the most recondite sciences, and explained the most difficult passages and the most obscure processes of reasoning in the writings of theologians and philosophers; so that, to all who considered only his early youth, it seemed impossible that he could have read through, to say nothing of committing to memory, such a mass of erudition." That we may not appear invidious in reducing this account, as we have already done a similar one, to, what we conceive to be, consistency; we shall balance it with another contemporaneous document of a rather opposite tendency, that, between the two, we may possibly arrive at something like the truth. This authority is no other than that of the learned Scaliger; the most respectable name which has come in our way, in the course of this inquiry.

"I have heard," says this author, "when I was in Italy, of one Crichton, a Scotsman, who had only reached the age of twenty-one, when he was killed by the command of the duke of Mantua, who knew twelve different languages; had studied the fathers and the poets; disputed de omni scibili, and replied to his antagonists in verse. He was a man of very wonderful genius; more worthy of admiration than of esteem. He had something of the coxcomb about him, and only wanted a little common sense. It is remarkable that princes are apt to take an affection for geniuses of this stamp, but very rarely for truly learned men." We do not agree with Mr Tytler, when he says, that the encomium of Scaliger, ‘he was a man of very wonderfull genius,’ "comes with infinite force when we take into account the sarcastic matter with which it is accompanied;" amid we cannot but be painfully sensible of the utter poverty of this well-intentioned writer’s cause, when he makes appeal to the reader of the fact, that Crichton was even on terms of intimacy with Spreone Speroni.

It still remains, that we notice the four Latin poems, written by Crichton; and we shall do this in the words of Dr Kippis. "Some fancy, perhaps," says he, "may be thought to be displayed in the longest of his poems, which was written on occasion of his approach to the city of Venice. He there represents a Naiad as rising up before him, and, by the order of the muses and of Minerva, directing him how to proceed. But this is a sentiment which so easily presents itself to a classical reader, that it can scarcely be considered as deserving the name of a poetical invention. The three other poems of Crichton have still less to recommend them. Indeed, his verses will not stand the test of a rigid examination, even with regard to quantity."

"What, then," concludes the same learned authority, "is the opinion, which, on the whole, we are to form of the Admirable Crichton? It is evident, that he was a youth of such lively parts as excited great present admiration, and high expectations with regard to his future attainments. He appears to have had a fine person, to have been adroit in his bodily exercises, to have possessed a peculiar facility in learning languages, to have enjoyed a remarkably quick and retentive memory, and to have excelled in a power of declamation, a fluency of speech, and a readiness of reply. His knowledge, likewise, was probably very uncommon for his years; and this, in conjunction with his other qualities, enabled him to shine in public disputation. But whether his knowledge and learning were accurate or profound many justly be questioned; and it may equally be doubted, whether he would have arisen to any extraordinary degree of eminence in the literary world. It will always be reflected upon with regret, that his early and untimely death prevented this matter from being brought to the test of experiment.

Life of James Chrichton of Cluny
By Patrick Fraser Tytler (1819) (pdf)

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