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Gavin Douglas Biography | Poet

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DOUGLAS, GAVIN (1474?-1522), Scottish poet and bishop, third son of Archibald, 5th earl of Angus (called the “great earl of Angus” and “Bell-the-Cat”), was born c. 1474, probably at one of his father’s seats. He was a student at St Andrews, 1489-1494, and thereafter, it is supposed, at Paris. In 1496 he obtained the living of Monymusk, Aberdeenshire, and later he became parson of Lynton (mod. Linton) and rector of Hauch (mod. Prestonkirk), in East Lothian; and about 1501 was preferred to the deanery or provostship of the collegiate church of St Giles, Edinburgh, which he held with his parochial charges. From this date till the battle of Flodden, in September 1513, he appears to have been occupied with his ecclesiastical duties and literary work. Indeed all the extant writings by which he has earned his place as a poet and translator belong to this period. After the disaster at Flodden he was completely absorbed in public business. Three weeks after the battle he, still provost of St Giles, was admitted a burgess of Edinburgh, his father, the “Great Earl,” being then civil provost of the capital. The latter dying soon afterwards (January 1514) in Wigtownshire, where he had gone as justiciar, and his son having been killed at Flodden, the succession fell to Gavin’s nephew Archibald (6th earl). The marriage of this youth to James IV.’s widow on the 6th of August 1514 did much to 445identify the Douglases with the English party in Scotland, as against the French party led by Albany, and incidentally to determine the political career of his uncle Gavin. During the first weeks of the queen’s sorrow after the battle, Gavin, with one or two colleagues of the council, acted as personal adviser, and it may be taken for granted that he supported the pretensions of the young earl. His own hopes of preferment had been strengthened by the death of many of the higher clergy at Flodden. The first outcome of the new connexion was his appointment to the abbacy of Aberbrothock by the queen regent, before her marriage, probably in June 1514. Soon after the marriage she nominated him archbishop of St Andrews, in succession to Elphinstone, archbishop-designate. But Hepburn, prior of St Andrews, having obtained the vote of the chapter, expelled him, and was himself in turn expelled by Forman, bishop of Moray, who had been nominated by the pope. In the interval, Douglas’s rights in Aberbrothock had been transferred to James Beaton, archbishop of Glasgow, and he was now without title or temporality. The breach between the queen’s party and Albany’s had widened, and the queen’s advisers had begun an intrigue with England, to the end that the royal widow and her young son should be removed to Henry’s court. In those deliberations Gavin Douglas took an active part, and for this reason stimulated the opposition which successfully thwarted his preferment.

In January 1515 on the death of George Brown, bishop of Dunkeld, Douglas’s hopes revived. The queen nominated him to the see, which he ultimately obtained, though not without trouble. For the earl of Athole had forced his brother, Andrew Stewart, prebendary of Craig, upon the chapter, and had put him in possession of the bishop’s palace. The queen appealed to the pope and was seconded by her brother of England, with the result that the pope’s sanction was obtained on the 18th of February 1515. Some of the correspondence of Douglas and his friends incident to this transaction was intercepted. When Albany came from France and assumed the regency, these documents and the “purchase” of the bishopric from Rome contrary to statute were made the basis of an attack on Douglas, who was imprisoned in Edinburgh Castle, thereafter in the castle of St Andrews (under the charge of his old opponent, Archbishop Hepburn), and later in the castle of Dunbar, and again in Edinburgh. The pope’s intervention procured his release, after nearly a year’s imprisonment. The queen meanwhile had retired to England. After July 1516 Douglas appears to have been in possession of his see, and to have patched up a diplomatic peace with Albany.

On the 17th of May 1517 the bishop of Dunkeld proceeded with Albany to France to conduct the negotiations which ended in the treaty of Rouen. He was back in Scotland towards the end of June. Albany’s longer absence in France permitted the party-faction of the nobles to come to a head in a plot by the earl of Arran to seize the earl of Angus, the queen’s husband. The issue of this plot was the well-known fight of “Clear-the-Causeway,” in which Gavin Douglas’s part stands out in picturesque relief. The triumph over the Hamiltons had an unsettling effect upon the earl of Angus. He made free of the queen’s rents and abducted Lord Traquair’s daughter. The queen set about to obtain a divorce, and used her influence for the return of Albany as a means of undoing her husband’s power. Albany’s arrival in November 1521, with a large body of French men-at-arms, compelled Angus, with the bishop and others, to flee to the Borders. From this retreat Gavin Douglas was sent by the earl to the English court, to ask for aid against the French party and against the queen, who was reported to be the mistress of the regent. Meanwhile he was deprived of his bishopric, and forced, for safety, to remain in England, where he effected nothing in the interests of his nephew. The declaration of war by England against Scotland, in answer to the recent Franco-Scottish negotiations, prevented his return. His case was further complicated by the libellous animosity of Beaton, archbishop of St Andrews (whose life he had saved in the “Clear-the-Causeway” incident), who was anxious to thwart his election to the archbishopric of St Andrews, now vacant by the death of Forman. In 1522 Douglas was stricken by the plague which raged in London, and died at the house of his friend Lord Dacre. During the closing years of exile he was on intimate terms with the historian Polydore Vergil, and one of his last acts was to arrange to give Polydore a corrected version of Major’s account of Scottish affairs. Douglas was buried in the church of the Savoy, where a monumental brass (removed from its proper site after the fire in 1864) still records his death and interment.

Douglas’s literary work, now his chief claim to be remembered, belongs, as has been stated, to the period 1501-1513, when he was provost of St Giles. He left four poems.

1. The Palice of Honour, his earliest work, is a piece of the later type of dream-allegory, extending to over 2000 lines in nine-lined stanzas. In its descriptions of the various courts on their way to the palace, and of the poet’s adventures—first, when he incautiously slanders the court of Venus, and later when after his pardon he joins in the procession and passes to see the glories of the palace—the poem carries on the literary traditions of the courts of love, as shown especially in the “Romaunt of the Rose” and “The Hous of Fame.” The poem is dedicated to James IV., not without some lesson in commendation of virtue and honour. No MS. of the poem is extant. The earliest known edition (c. 1553) was printed at London by William Copland; an Edinburgh edition, from the press of Henry Charteris, followed in 1579. From certain indications in the latter and the evidence of some odd leaves discovered by David Laing, it has been concluded that there was an earlier Edinburgh edition, which has been ascribed to Thomas Davidson, printer, and dated c. 1540.

2. King Hart is another example of the later allegory, and, as such, of higher literary merit. Its subject is human life told in the allegory of King Heart in his castle, surrounded by his five servitors (the senses), Queen Plesance, Foresight and other courtiers. The poem runs to over 900 lines and is written in eight-lined stanzas. The text is preserved in the Maitland folio MS. in the Pepysian library, Cambridge. It is not known to have been printed before 1786, when it appeared in Pinkerton’s Ancient Scottish Poems.

3. Conscience is in four seven-lined stanzas. Its subject is the “conceit” that men first clipped away the “con” from “conscience” and left “science” and “na mair.” Then they lost “sci,” and had nothing but “ens” (“that schrew, Riches and geir”).

4. Douglas’s longest, last, and in some respects most important work is his translation of the Aeneid, the first version of a great classic poet in any English dialect. The work includes the thirteenth book by Mapheus Vegius; and each of the thirteen books is introduced by a prologue. The subjects and styles of these prologues show great variety: some appear to be literary exercises with little or no connexion with the books which they introduce, and were perhaps written earlier and for other purposes. In the first, or general, prologue, Douglas claims a higher position for Virgil than for his master Chaucer, and attacks Caxton for his inadequate rendering of a French translation of the Aeneid. That Douglas undertook this work and that he makes a plea for more accurate scholarship in the translation have been the basis of a prevalent notion that he is a Humanist in spirit and the first exponent of Renaissance doctrine in Scottish literature. Careful study of the text will not support this view. Douglas is in all important respects even more of a medievalist than his contemporaries; and, like Henryson and Dunbar, strictly a member of the allegorical school and a follower, in the most generous way, of Chaucer’s art. There are several early MSS. of the Aeneid extant: (a) in the library of Trinity College, Cambridge, c. 1525, (b) the Elphynstoun MS. in the library of the university of Edinburgh, c. 1525, (c) the Ruthven MS. in the same collection, c. 1535, (d) in the library of Lambeth Palace, 1545-1546. The first printed edition appeared in London in 1553. An Edinburgh edition was issued from the press of Thomas Ruddiman in 1710.

For Douglas’s career see, in addition to the public records and general histories, Bishop Sage’s Life in Ruddiman’s edition, and that by John Small in the first volume of his edition of the Works of Gavin 446Douglas (4 vols., 1874, the only collected edition of Douglas’s works). A new edition of the texts is much to be desired. On Douglas’s place in Scottish literature see Scotland: Scottish Literature, also G. Gregory Smith’s Transition Period (1900) and chapters in the Cambridge History of English Literature, vol. ii. (1908). P. Lange’s dissertation Chaucer’s Einfluss auf die Originaldichtungen des Schotten Gavin Douglas (Halle, 1882) draws attention to Douglas’s indebtedness to Chaucer. Further discussion of the question of Douglas’s alleged Humanism will be found in Courthope’s History of English Poetry, i. (1895), T. F. Henderson’s Scottish Vernacular Literature (1898), and J. H. Millar’s Literary History of Scotland (1903). For the language of the poems see G. Gregory Smith’s Specimens of Middle Scots (1902).


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