James Crichton, the Scottish soldier, scholar, poet, etcetera, was born on the 19th of August, 1560.
James Crichton was the original ‘Admirable Crichton’ and reputed to be one of the most gifted individuals of the 16th Century. He achieved the major portion of his fame through his extraordinary accomplishments in languages, the arts, and sciences, primarily in Italy, but some of his exploits are likely to be more legendary than true. Nevertheless, if half be true; a star he was. He had a good start in life, being the son of the Lord Advocate of Scotland and a descendant of the Royal line of Stewart. He was undoubtedly an unusually gifted prodigy and was noted for his mental prowess. Crichton was said to have had the gift of perfect recall and to have displayed amazing erudition and powers of memory in public disputations. Of course, like any legendary figure, he had amazing physical capabilities and admirable good looks. Well, good looks are relative; let’s say his contemporaries so thought – and he was better looking than most Stewarts, particularly James VI with whom he shared a tutor.
It is said that by the age of twenty, Crichton could speak ten or twelve languages in each of which he was not only fluent, but could also hold forth in verse and prose. Those social graces meant he was considered the very model of a cultured gentleman. The list of his accomplishments is a long one and includes: adventurer; athlete; debater; fencer; horseman; linguist; man of letters; musician; orator; poet; singer; soldier; scholar; and swordsman – although his admirers probably exaggerated. His languages are listed as: Hebrew; Syriac; Arabic; Greek; Latin; Spanish; French; English; Italian; Dutch; and Flemish or Selavonic; to which we must add at least a Scottish dialect.
James Crichton was born at Eliock House in Dumfries on the 19th of August, 1560 or James Crichton was born in Nithsdale or James Crichton was born in Clunie Castle, Perthshire – take your pick; the sources differ. His family, who was from Nithsdale, moved into Clunie Castle in 1562, so that suggests to me that it’s most likely James was born in Nithsdale. He certainly spent his boyhood at Clunie. Although he apparently went to a school in Dunkeld and had some schooling in Perth, what is certain is that he was educated at St Salvators College, in St Andrews, by the noted poet and scholar, George Buchanan, tutor to King James VI. Remarkably, Crichton took his B. A. in 1574 and his M. A. in 1575, at the ages of just thirteen and fourteen respectively.
After University, he left Scotland for the Continent and spent two years in the army of Henry III of France. By 1579, he had pitched up in Italy, where he went on to achieve fame. He initially attracted attention by his scholarly accomplishments, fluency in classical and modern languages, and his undoubted, personal charm, despite having arrived in Genoa in a destitute condition. Orator and polymath that he was, in 1579 he delivered an elaborate Latin oration before the Senate in Genoa. The following year, he went to Venice, where he introduced himself to Aldus Manutius, and challenged all scholars to ‘learned disputations’ – that means to test his knowledge. Then famously in Padua, in 1581, he is said to have overcome the scholars there in a similar debate of three days duration, which took place in the Church of St. John and St. Paul.
He appears to have been something like a vastly conceited Mastermind winner who travelled around Italy, earning his board and lodgings by challenging all comers in tests of knowledge. However extraordinary his achievements sound, there is evidence concerning Crichton's taunt to the learned men of Italy. Crichton's oration before the scholars of Genoa is evidenced by a Latin address to the Doge and Senate entitled ‘Oratio J. Critonii Scoti pro Moderatorum Genuensis Reipubl electione coram Senatu habita’ and printed there in 1579. In addition, two copies of the hand-bill describing Crichton's marvelous knowledge, printed at the Guerra press of the brothers Domenico in Venice, in 1580, can be seen in the British Museum. The hand-bill sports a short biography and an extravagant eulogy of Crichton’s powers. It states that Crichton speaks ten languages and has a command of philosophy, theology, and mathematics. It goes on to say that “[Crichton] improvises Latin verses in all metres and on all subjects [and] has all Aristotle and his commentators at his fingers' ends.” A final flourish avows that “he is of most beautiful appearance; a soldier from top to toe.” This tribute is attributed to Crichton’s friend Aldus Manutius, as it was reprinted several times under Aldus’s name as ‘Relatione della qualità di... Crettone’. However, the skeptical might say that the text was nothing other than 16th Century ‘spin’ by Crichton’s mate and publicist in order to attract an audience for his challenge.
Nevertheless, Joseph Justus Scaliger, the famous Continental scholar, described Crichton in ‘Prima Scaligerana’ as a youth of “very wonderful genius”, but qualified his statement by adding that he was “more worthy of admiration than esteem.” Scaliger was very astute. He once came to England and confessed that he did not like the people, but curiously, he drew a distinction between the English and the Scots, viewing the latter more favourably and according hearty praise to Scottish ballads.
Crichton’s death occurred in a rather more uncouth manner than the course of his life as it is generally believed that he died at the age of twenty-one in a street brawl in Mantua on the 3rd of July, 1582. One of his own pupils, the son of the Duke of Mantua, was either directly or indirectly responsible for the ‘assassination’. Whether or not he or the son or both were drunk, the unfortunate outcome hasn’t seemed to have damaged his reputation. Crichton’s status comes largely from an enthusiastic account of his life and exploits, which was written by his 17th Century biographer, Sir Thomas Urquhart. Published in 1652, that book was called ‘The Discoveryie of a Most Exquisite Jewel’. However, it was in John Johnston's ‘Heroes Scoti’ of 1603, that Crichton was first given the epithet ‘the Admirable Crichton’. His fame is also due to the extravagant praise given him by Aldus Manutius. Needless to say, such a man is also the subject of several novels, not least J. M. Barrie’s 1902 novel about the perfect butler.