George Buchanan, outstanding Renaissance humanist scholar, neo-Latin poet, historian, and tutor, died on the 28th of September, 1582.
George Buchanan is chiefly recollected for his radical political ideas, which got him into trouble aplenty, but his contemporaries knew him also as an internationally famous poet and the scholarly tutor of Mary, Queen of Scots and her son, James VI & I. His reputation was such that the best of European printers squabbled for the honour of producing the works of the famous humanist scholar. Renaissance humanism evolved into a pervasive cultural activity after its beginnings in the late 14th - early 15th Centuries, involving educational reform and the ‘studia humanitatis’ i.e., grammar, rhetoric, history, poetry and moral philosophy. Buchanan is also supposed to have been part of the Monarchomach movement, but if he was truly a Monarchomach, he didn’t know it, because the term was only coined by William Barclay in 1600, nineteen years after Buchanan’s death. However, in the sense that Monarchomachs argued for ‘popular sovereignty’ or a sort of contract between the sovereign and the people, the label could be applied to Buchanan.
His ‘De Jure Regni apud Scotos’ (a dialogue concerning the rights of the Crown in Scotland), although dedicated politely to the youthful King James VI “At Stirling on the 10th of January in the year of the Christian Era 1579”, was clearly intended to instil virtuous principles in his pupil. Right up front in its introduction, Buchanan laid down markers for the doctrine that the source of all political power is the people and that it is lawful to resist or even punish tyrants, referring to “the mutual rights of our Kings and of their subjects” and reminding young James of his “duty to the community”. He sent that subtle, sardonic treatise to James, “not only as a monitor, but also as an importunate and even impudent dun; that in this critical turn of life it may guide you beyond the rocks of flattery…”. Whatever the King who came to believe in the ‘divine right of Kings’ actually thought at the time, Buchanan’s book was condemned by the Scottish Parliament in 1584, three years after his death. In fact, the teenage King was mortally afraid of his tutor’s stern discipline and both respected and disliked him in equal measure. Nigel Tranter captures the relationship very well in several of his books featuring those two characters and it is undeniable that James was one of the most educated of Kings thanks to Buchanan.
His relationship with James’ mother, Mary, Queen of Scots, was no less ambiguous. The initially loyal Buchanan was appointed classical tutor to Mary, Queen of Scots when they both returned to Scotland from France in 1661. He was granted the revenues of Crossraguel Abbey, and although he was a layman, he became Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, in 1567. He also became Keeper of the Privy Seal of Scotland, a post which entitled him to a seat in the Parliament. However, after the murder of Darnley, in which Mary was heavily implicated, Buchanan lost faith in his Queen and pamphleteered against her in ‘Ane Detectioun of the Duings of Mary Quene’. He also took a hand in producing the infamous ‘Casket Letters’, which were used in evidence against her and ultimately led to her execution.
As for Buchanan’s formative years; he was born at the farm of Moss in the parish of Killearn in Stirlingshire, in February, 1506, but it appears spent a lot of his childhood in Cardross, in Dunbartonshire, after the death of his father when George was just seven. Buchanan is said to have attended Killearn School, but not much is known of his early education and, if he did indeed live in Cardross, it’s unlikely he went to school in Killearn. Wherever he received his early education, George was recognised as a very apt pupil and, in 1520 when he was fourteen, his uncle sponsored him to attend the University of Paris. His poetic talents were first exposed in France, where, according to his autobiography, he devoted himself to the writing of verses “partly by liking, partly by compulsion.” He was forced to return to Scotland in 1522, when his uncle died and funds ceased, but he was able to attend the University of St Andrews as a pauper student, where he graduated B. A. in 1525. The following year, Buchanan went back to France and graduated B. A. in Paris in 1527 and M. A. in 1528. He was a clever chappie was oor Geordie and he impressed the Parisians enough to be appointed Regent (Professor) at the College of Sainte-Barbe, where he taught for over three years.
Buchanan returned to Scotland in 1537, but two years later he was back in France. His outspokenness had led to his having been imprisoned in St. Andrews by Cardinal Beaton and condemned as a heretic, but he managed to escape. As yet, he wasn’t a committed Lutheran Protestant, but he certainly felt free to criticise and, encouraged by James V, he had written several Latin satirical poems, including ‘Somnium’ and ‘Franciscanus et Fratres’. Buchanan's strongest vein in poetry was 'envenomed satire and these verses contained a stinging critique of the Friars, painting them as the opposite of all they claimed to be. In Paris, he encountered Cardinal Beaton again and, neatly sidestepping his adversary, went to Bordeaux. Later, he pitched up in Portugal and got into more hot water, falling foul of the Inquisition, which nobody expects. In 1551, Buchanan was accused of Lutheran practices and sentenced to listen to the Monks of São Bento in Lisbon. He ignored their attempts at ‘enlightenment’ and spent his time translating the Psalms into Latin verse. He was released in 1552 and made his way back to Paris. By the time he arrived back home to Scotland in 1561, he had become a committed Calvinist.
George Buchanan died on the 28th of September, 1582, and was buried in Greyfriars' Kirkyard in Edinburgh. His legacy is assured as expert critics agree that Buchanan was “the greatest Latin writer, whether in prose or in verse, in sixteenth century Europe.” It seems he wrote Latin as if it were his mother tongue and his translations of the Psalms and Greek plays display a rich vein of poetic feeling. He also penned two tragedies, ‘Baptistes’ and ‘Jephthas sive votum’ (Jephtha or the Vow), the latter of which inspired a Handel libretto. Buchanan’s last major work was ‘Rerum Scoticarum Historia’ (the history of Scotland). Apart from the period Buchanan lived through, which is very reliable, the rewriting of Hector Boece’s history, which forms the earlier part, was designed to correct the mythical falsehoods of England’s origin story and to purge Scottish history “of sum Inglis lyis.”