Attributed to Frans Pourbus the Elder, 1545 - 1581
Portrait of George Buchanan, 1506-1582, poet, historian, and administrator
Portrait of George Buchanan, Poet & Historian


oil on oak panel
35.54 x 27.94 cm. (13.3/4 x 11in.)


Buchanan, George (1506–1582), poet, historian, and administrator, was born about 1 February 1506 at a farm called The Moss in Killearn parish, Stirlingshire, the fifth of eight children of Thomas Buchanan (d. c.1512) and Agnes Heriot, traditionally said to be of the Heriots of Trabroun, Haddingtonshire. His father and grandfather, Robert Buchanan of Drumikill, died while he was a child and he was brought up by his mother, who was given a lease of lands near Cardross, Menteith, in 1513. He probably spoke Gaelic. One of his five brothers, Patrick, became known as a humanist. A nephew Thomas succeeded him as keeper of the privy seal, and Thomas's wife Janet was Buchanan's executor.

A few details of Buchanan's early life are given in his autobiographical Vita, first published in 1598. Its authenticity is generally accepted, though Peter Young, assistant tutor to James VI, has been suggested as a possible author. At the instigation of his uncle James Heriot he left local schooling at the age of fourteen to go to Paris. His uncle's death caused him to return to Scotland within two years. During 1523 he undertook military service with French troops led by the duke of Albany in a campaign of retaliation against English invasion, and was present at the siege of Wark in October. After a winter's illness he went to St Andrews to study under John Mair or Major. He took his BA degree at St Andrews on 3 October 1525 and though in a later epigram he described his teacher as ‘Major in name alone’ (Buchanan, Opera, 2.373), he followed him to Paris where he was admitted BA on 10 October 1527. He began to teach in the Collège de Ste Barbe, noted for its Greek studies, and became procurator of the German nation in 1529. For the next five years he was tutor to Gilbert Kennedy (later third earl of Cassillis) to whom he dedicated his first published work, a translation from English into Latin of Linacre's Rudimenta grammatices (1533), and whom he later commemorated in an elegy.

Buchanan had returned to Scotland with Kennedy by 1536 and was appointed tutor to Lord James Stewart, an illegitimate son of James V who died in 1557. He wrote a satirical poem describing a dream in which St Francis asked the author to join the Franciscan order. He replied that there was more honesty found outside the church. He developed the themes of the Somnium at more length in the Palinodiae, intended as a middle way between offending the Franciscans and being too mild for the king, and in the more pointed Franciscanus. These poems, not published until later, showed Buchanan's familiarity with classical models. They also involved him in religious controversy: he had eaten meat in Lent and taken an interest in Lutheran questions. Condemned as a heretic he was thrown into prison, but he escaped and fled to London, where he stayed about six months and was assisted by Sir Thomas Rainsforde. After a month in Paris he left for Bordeaux in September 1539.

While Buchanan was at the Collège de Guyenne in Bordeaux (he had been invited by the principal, André Gouvea, nephew of the principal of Ste Barbe) he continued his acquaintance with scholars including the elder Scaliger, as he did during a year or so at the Collège du Cardinal Lemoine in Paris. He visited Toulouse in 1544 and then returned to Bordeaux where Montaigne was among his pupils. At this time he did not appear to be in danger on account of his religious views.

During these years Buchanan worked on his plays: Baptistes, written and produced in 1542, Medea which was produced in 1543 but may have been drafted earlier, and Jephthes and Alcestis which were not produced at that time. Medea and Alcestis were translations of Euripides; the two original plays, on biblical themes, were directed against tyranny and religious hypocrisy, Baptistes being of more interest for the author's political views but Jephthes being more mature in structure. Various suggestions have been made for the target of Baptistes, and James V of Scotland, François I of France, and Henry VIII of England have all been identified with King Herod.

In 1547 André Gouvea was invited by King João III of Portugal to become principal of the college at Coimbra, and Buchanan was among those who accompanied him there to teach the classical authors and the rudiments of Aristotelian philosophy. Gouvea died the following year, however, and under his successor Diogo Gouvea, probably a brother, the administration of the college deteriorated and the inquisitor-general decided to make enquiries about some of the college staff. Buchanan was taken into confinement and put on trial for heresy between August 1550 and January 1551. He was afraid that the Franciscanus would be held against him, and may also have feared the after-effects of the hostility of David Beaton, with whom he had clashed in Scotland, but a variety of theological matters were discussed, including the sacrament, justification, and confession. Buchanan was directed to make public abjuration on 29 July 1551 and to be sent to the monastery of San Bento for further instruction. He was released from there in February 1552. Buchanan's own account of the inquisition episode was not wholly accurate. The reasons behind the proceedings probably included personal jealousies at Coimbra involving Diogo Gouvea; Beaton was dead, while the Jesuits were unlikely to have had much influence, and Buchanan's response was neither ignominious nor heroic. He left Portugal and reached Paris later in the year after a few months in England.

Buchanan wrote several poems relating to Belchior Beleago who taught at Coimbra. The satirical tone was continued in poems about the meretricious Leonora; other poems conveyed a tone of sincere respect. There were also a few poems commenting unfavourably on Portuguese politics, for instance the colonization of Brazil by undesirable characters. The best-known work associated with his period of detention was his Latin version of the Psalms which he may have planned earlier as it was a genre which attracted contemporary French writers. Dedicated to Mary, queen of Scots, when published, it is the work which does most to justify Henri Estienne's description of Buchanan as easily the leading poet of his time. His principal characteristics as a poet may be described as mastery of the Latin language and variety of subject matter. He uses several metrical forms and follows different literary traditions, such as pastoral and the epigrams of the Greek anthology, as well as echoing the major Latin authors. His allusions may be to classical mythology or to contemporary events, and his tone ranges from sharply satirical to devotional. His personal epigrams convey admiration, as for the earl of Moray, hostility, as for John Hamilton, archbishop of St Andrews, or respect, as for John Calvin.

In Paris Buchanan continued his literary and scholarly links and also his contacts with members of aristocratic society. He was appointed tutor to Timoléon de Cosse, son of the maréchal de Brissac, in 1554 or 1555, and spent the next five years in northern Italy and Paris, probably also making a visit to Lyons which apprised him of the death of Florence Wilson and led to a poem in tribute. According to Estienne, Buchanan was invited to join the maréchal's council of war. In 1560 Brissac was replaced as commander in northern Italy by the duc de Guise, and Buchanan returned to Scotland about that time. In 1558 he obtained the prebend of Mulleville in Coutances Cathedral, a gift which demonstrates the gratitude of the Brissac family but does not imply that he was in holy orders. In these years his court poetry developed and the unfinished De sphaera, five books on the old Ptolemaic system of cosmology, was dedicated to Timoléon. Buchanan probably first thought of this work in the 1540s—when the Copernican theory revived ancient controversy over whether the earth moved—began it in the 1550s, and continued it until the 1570s (book 5 refutes the emphasis on astrology in Tycho Brahe's De nova stella, published in 1572). He was well-informed rather than expert on astronomy and besides using classical sources such as Pliny's Natural History and Aristotle's De caelo he presented a synthesis of contemporary thinking on astronomy and features of the earth, including such topics as the relationship of the intellect to heaven. The subject matter was traditional, and the work original perhaps only in its literary improvement and moralizing, for instance on the futility of strife and the insanity of avarice.

On his return to Scotland Buchanan quickly gained the favour of the crown. He is mentioned in a letter from Randolph to Cecil dated 7 April 1562 as reading Livy with the queen. In the treasurer's accounts, payments of £125 to Buchanan were recorded for the terms of Martinmas 1561, Whitsunday 1562, and Martinmas 1562. He was named by the privy council on 6 February 1562 ‘to interpreit the writtis producit in proces, writtin in Spanis langage, furth of the samin in Franche, Latyne or Inglis, that the Quenis Grace and Counsale mycht thaireftir understand the samin’ (Reg. PCS, 1545–69, 234), and in 1563 parliament included Buchanan among commissioners to investigate the University of St Andrews. In 1564 he was granted the temporalities of Crossraguel Abbey, and in an entry under 16 October the privy council, following a complaint by Buchanan that the earl of Cassillis had refused to hand the abbey over following the death of the last abbot, ordered the earl to do so within six days. The queen, Randolph noted that month, would have made Buchanan abbot: but ‘with spiritualities he wyll not meddle, bejcawse he cane not preache’ (CSP Scot., 1563–9, 88). About 1566 Buchanan was in France again, possibly on government business. Over the next few years he was closely associated with James Stewart, earl of Moray (c.1531–1570). He became principal of St Leonard's College in St Andrews in 1566, an appointment in the hands of Moray as commendator of St Andrews Priory.

In 1567, following Darnley's murder, Mary's marriage to Bothwell, and her forced abdication and imprisonment at Lochleven, Buchanan attached himself to the party opposed to her. His exact motives are still not entirely clear. Some have argued that he owed a duty of loyalty to Mary. Form of religion does not seem to have been a dominant factor (he had conformed to protestantism from his return to Scotland), nor opposition to women rulers. Nor is the theory that the educated and well-travelled Buchanan had a particular ancestral attachment to Darnley wholly convincing. In fact there is no simple explanation of the issues dividing the queen's party and king's party. Loyalties fluctuated. For instance the earl of Moray, whom Buchanan admired, had been opposed to Mary's marriage to Darnley. In the early 1560s Buchanan may have established personal links with men like the lawyer James MacGill, who remained loyal to the queen when Moray rebelled in 1565, though he later turned against her. Buchanan may have done the same.

In September 1568 Buchanan went to York as secretary to the commission attending the conference summoned by Queen Elizabeth which was subsequently transferred to Westminster. Buchanan declared that the casket letters, passed to Moray by the earl of Morton, were genuine, and he probably took part in formulating the book of articles containing the charges against Mary. His Detection, first printed in a Latin edition in 1571, may also have been written under political instructions. At any rate it contains allegations, for instance Mary's impulsive ride from Jedburgh to visit Bothwell in October 1566, which are clearly false. Another pamphlet against Mary, the Actio contra Mariam Scotorum reginam, has been attributed to Buchanan but was probably not written by him. In 1570 he wrote his two vernacular works, the Admonition, directed against the Hamiltons, and Chamaeleon, against William Maitland of Lethington.

During Moray's regency and after—he was reported to have been much distressed by the regent's murder on 23 January 1570—Buchanan continued to play a significant part in public affairs. He had been moderator of the general assembly of the kirk in 1567. The treasurer's accounts record letters sent to Buchanan in St Andrews in May and June 1568 and allocations of black velvet and money in August and November 1570 by the regent's command. For a short time in 1570 Buchanan was director of chancery, and he was keeper of the privy seal from that year until 1578 when he was succeeded by his nephew. He attended the privy council at intervals until 1579, being made temporary secretary by parliament sitting at Stirling in 1578. He served on commissions for digest of the laws, reform of the universities, and compilation of a Latin grammar.

One of the best-known of Buchanan's duties in those years was his tutorship, along with that of Peter Young, to King James, an appointment which was renewed in 1572 and 1578. James Melville in his memoirs wrote that Buchanan held the king in great awe, unlike another of the four principal masters who carried himself warily ‘as a man who had a mind to his own weal, by keeping of his majesty's favour’. Melville wrote:
Mr George was a Stoick philosopher, who looked not far before him. A man of notable endowments for his learning and knowledge of Latin poesie. Much honoured in other countries, pleasant in conversation, rehearsing on all occasions moralities short and instructive, whereof he had abundance, inventing where he wanted. He was also of good religion for a poet; but he was easily abused, and so facill that he was led with any company that he haunted for the tym, quhilk maid him factious in his old dayis; for he spoke and writ as they that were about him for the tym informed him; for he was become sliperie and careless, and followed in many things the vulgar opinions; for he was naturally populair and extreme vengeable against any man that had offendit him, quhilk was his gratest fault. (Memoirs of His Own Life, 262)
Although the king trembled at the approach of an official who reminded him of his pedagogue and later denounced Buchanan's History, he was not wholly averse to his former tutor:

Buchanan I reckon and rank among poets, not among divines, classical or common. If the man hath burst out here and there into some traces of excess or speech of bad temper, that must be imputed to the violence of his humour and heat of his spirit, not in any wise to the rules of treu religion rightly by him conceived before. (Willson, 21)
In a speech at Stirling he praised his master's Latin learning: ‘I follow his pronunciation, both of his Latin and Greek, and am sorry that my people of England do not the like; for certainly their pronunciation utterly fails the grace of these two learned languages’ (Grant, 1.174).

Not until 1579 did Buchanan publish his De jure regni, a dialogue between the author and Thomas Maitland which defended a kind of constitutional monarchy in which bad kings could be legitimately deposed. Earlier writers such as John of Salisbury and John Mair had proposed the punishment of kings for misdemeanours, depriving Buchanan's doctrine of some of its originality, and in any case the latter did not expound the actual working of the constitution, giving the De jure something of the character of a literary exercise after the manner of Plato. Nevertheless, it provoked contemporary opposition from Adam Blackwood, Ninian Winzet, and William Barclay, and in 1584 it was condemned by act of parliament, though it still had considerable influence on political thought in the seventeenth century.

Buchanan's most substantial work, Rerum Scoticarum historia, was published in the year of his death. The preface to James, suggesting that it could be a substitute for the tuition which ill health prevented him giving, and the reference to Bothwell's death, which took place in 1578, confirm that Buchanan was working on the History late in his life. A few of his letters have survived, as have letters to him from Theodore Beza, Elias Vinet, Hubert Languet, and Tycho Brahe, and this correspondence shows his friends' anxiety to see his History completed, notwithstanding the increasing illness of its author during the 1570s. A letter from Ferrerius to Robert Reid in 1555, on the other hand, implies that Buchanan may have written some historical work much earlier.

In his letters Buchanan reveals something of his approach to his work: ‘I am besy with our story of Scotland to purge it of sum Inglis lyis and Scottis vanite,’ he writes (Brown, 377), and later adds, ‘I am occupiit in writyng of our historie, being assurit to content few, and to displease mony thar throw’ (Buchanan, Opera, 1, fol. 2v). His wish to eradicate the vanity of fables is also emphasized in the text. Another aim, expressed in the preface, is to provide exemplars for King James to follow. Although he does not explicitly write much about the practice or philosophy of history there are indications of weighing up evidence and consciously arranging material. It is perhaps surprising, given his tenure of senior administrative posts, that he showed no interest in consulting official records, perhaps because of infirmity or because he was writing about the recent past from his own recollection.

The first two books of the History comprise a philological discussion of the nomenclature of the British Isles, a geographical description of Scotland, and an account of the origins of the peoples of Britain. Some have thought that this was one of the latest portions to be written, others that it was written, or at least drafted, first. There have been equally diverse opinions about the value of this section: on the one hand that it shows Buchanan's academic expertise, and on the other that his dispute with Humphrey Llwyd, who had attacked the historical writings of Hector Boece, was trivial and old-fashioned. On the Scottish-origin legend and the mythical forty kings from Fergus I to Fergus II in book 4, Buchanan, though still in error, was more sceptical than his predecessor Boece and the earlier chroniclers. The doctrine that underlay Buchanan's political theory was also fundamental to his historical writings. He stated that the source of power was the people, that the king must accept limitations upon the authority committed to him, and that it was lawful to resist and punish tyrants. For him this was not simply an abstraction, but was borne out by the fortunes of Scotland's early kings. His critics later claimed that he had composed his account in order to support his own views, but similar opinions were probably widely held in late sixteenth-century Scotland, and are ascribed to a figure as eminent as the Regent Morton. However, the accusation by Thomas Innes in the early eighteenth century that Buchanan knew the falsity of his own account but retained it for political purposes goes too far.

The third book consists of passages from ancient authors on Britain. The historical narrative proper begins in book 5, with a disproportionate number of the twenty books on the recent past. Although the author had already penned an account of Mary's deposition, the treatment in the History is in some respects different and the narrative continues up to 1572 when it comes to an unpolemical conclusion. Commentators have likened his style to various authors but in outlook he perhaps reflects a growing Renaissance interest in Tacitus.

In September 1581, when Buchanan's work was in the press, Andrew and James Melville, who had been his pupils at St Andrews, and his cousin Thomas Buchanan, came to see him in Edinburgh. They found him teaching his servant to read, and after they had spoken of his industry he showed them his epistle of dedication to the king. Andrew Melville pointed out some defects in it. ‘Sayes he,’ James Melville wrote in his diary:

‘I may do na mair for thinking on another mater.’ ‘What is that?’ sayes Mr. Andro. ‘To die,’ quoth he, ‘but I leave that and many ma things for you to helpe.’ We went from him to the printars' wark hous, whom we fand at the end of the 17 Buik of his Cornicle, at a place quhilk we thought verie hard for the tyme, quhilk might be an occasion of steying the haill werk onent the buriall of Davie. Therefor steying the printer from proceiding, we cam to Mr. George again and fund him bedfast by his custome, and asking him how he did, ‘Even going the way of weilfare,’ says he. Mr. Thomas his cusing schawes him of the hardness of that part of his Storie, that the king wald be offendit with it, and it might stey all the wark. ‘Tell me man,’ sayes he, ‘giff I have tauld the treuthe?’ ‘Yes,’ sayes Mr. Thomas, ‘sir, I think sa.’ ‘I will byd his fead and all his kins then,’ quoth he. ‘Pray to God for me, and let him direct all.’ Sa be the printing of his Cornicle was endit that maist lerned, wyse, and godlie man endit this mortall lyff. (Autobiography and Diary of … Melvill, 120)

Buchanan died on 28 September 1582 and was buried the following day in Greyfriars churchyard, Edinburgh. The exact place is not known, but a monument was erected in 1878 and a memorial window was inserted in the church. A monument was also erected in Killearn. Perhaps surprisingly Buchanan died poor, his only resources being £100 due from his allowance from Crossraguel. Several portraits exist, but their authenticity is not certain. His skull, held by Edinburgh University's anatomy museum, was used in 1996 for a forensic reconstruction to establish which was the best representation.

Although his reputation has fluctuated Buchanan has never ceased to be a figure of considerable stature. The first reasonably complete edition of his poems and the first to be published in Scotland was Andro Hart's in 1615; the verse had been gathered into a somewhat artificial arrangement, partly by metre. In the constitutional struggles of the seventeenth century Buchanan's works were a powerful influence on political thinking. The edition of Opera omnia (1715) by Thomas Ruddiman, later principal keeper of the Advocates' Library, was a great achievement but did not meet with universal approval. Particularly in editing the History, Ruddiman was criticized for his treatment of earlier editions and for the intrusion of his own political views. The outcome was a series of controversies which kept Buchanan at the centre of attention. When William Lauder expressed a preference for Arthur Johnston's version of the Psalms over Buchanan's, John Love supported Buchanan. When William Benson repeated Lauder's opinion Ruddiman came to Buchanan's defence, but with the passing years he became less sympathetic to his author, not least because of controversy over the crown in Scotland touching such questions as the succession of the early kings, the relative merits of Bruce and Balliol, and the marriages of Robert II. Thus when Love published A Vindication of George Buchanan in 1749 Ruddiman replied bitterly with Animadversions. In 1753 James Man published A censure and examination of Mr Thomas Ruddiman's philological notes on the works of the great Buchanan, with contributions from Love. Although this and Ruddiman's two responses, Anticrisis and Audi alteram partem (which also contained notes on Burman's 1725 edition), included some trivial disputes, mainly concerning the text of the History, a good deal of learning was in evidence and Buchanan was never again subject to such detailed study. The History was not reprinted after Man's edition of 1762, though James Aikman's translation in 1827 has been much consulted.

To Sir Walter Scott (in a note in his novel Ivanhoe) Buchanan was ‘the celebrated George Buchanan’. The sympathetic biography by Peter Hume Brown (1890), which views the History as an ‘honest attempt to produce a narrative such as he believed would be finally accepted as just and true’, long remained the standard account. It was soon followed by publications in 1906 and 1907 respectively by the universities of Glasgow and St Andrews, marking the quatercentenary of Buchanan's birth, and by a study in 1939 of the inquisition records concerning him. I. D. McFarlane's Buchanan (1981) is outstanding on Buchanan's continental connections and on the complex background to the publication of his poetry. The Miscellaneorum liber (a collection of Latin verses) was published in 1983 in Philip J. Ford's George Buchanan, Prince of Poets. However, the development of Scottish historical studies in the later twentieth century in some ways did not benefit Buchanan, not least because the study of other sources showed how much his History had been superseded. A further problem was that knowledge of Latin and Greek from the schools upwards was in decline and even those with a reasonable knowledge could find it difficult to assess Buchanan's writings competently, ranging as they do from composition in lyric metres to sixteenth-century politics. Moreover, although a great deal is known about Buchanan, there are still points at which lack of information makes interpretation difficult. A further obstacle to study has been the lack of easily available basic texts. It was planned that this should be remedied by a programme of publications to commemorate the quatercentenary of his death in 1982, but the programme was not completed.

D. M. Abbott DNB

Artist biography

Frans Pourbus was the son of the painter Pieter Pourbus, who was possibly his earliest teacher. By 1564 he had entered the studio of Frans Floris in Antwerp. Floris was heavily influenced by his travels in Italy, especially by the boldness and energy of the pictures he saw by artists such as Michelangelo and Raphael. Pourbus picked up this aspect of Floris’s style in his own paintings. He was mainly a painter of portraits and religious subjects, and most of his patrons were wealthy aristocrats. Around 1570 he became a master in the Antwerp Guild of St Luke. His son, also named Frans, became an artist like his father. He, too, painted portraits and subsequently worked for some of the most illustrious courts in Europe, including that of Marie de Médicis of France.