1902 Encyclopedia > David Beaton

David Beaton
Archbishop of St Andrews and the last Scottish Cardinal prior to the Reformation
(c. 1494 – 1546)




DAVID BEATON, archbishop of St Andrews and cardinal, was a younger son of John Beaton of Balfour in the county of Fife, and is said to have been born in the year 1494. He was educated at the universities of St Andrews and Glasgow, and afterwards studied at Paris. His first preferment was the parsonage of Campsie and the chancellorship of the church of Glasgow, to which he was presented in the year 1519 by his uncle James Beaton, then archbishop of Glasgow. When James Beaton was translated to St Andrews he resigned the rich abbacy of Arbroath in his nephew's favour, under reservation of one half of the revenues to himself during his lifetime. The great ability of Beaton and the patronage of his uncle ensured his rapid promotion to high offices in the church and kingdom. He was sent by King James V. on various missions to France, and in 1528 was appointed keeper of the privy seal. He took a leading part in the negotiations connected with the king's marriages, first with Magdalen of France and afterwards with Mary of Lorraine. At the French court he was held in high estimation by King Francis I., and was presented to the bishopric of Mirepoix in Languedoc, to which he is said to have been consecrated on 5th December 1537. On the 20th of December 1538 he was appointed a cardinal priest by Pope Paul III., under the title of St Stephen in the Ccelian Hill. He was the only Scotsman who had been named to that high office by an undisputed right, Cardinal Wardlaw, bishop of Glasgow, having received his appointment from the Anti-pope Clement VII. On the death of Archbishop James Beaton in 1539, the cardinal was raised to the primatial see of Scotland. He showed his sense of the additional responsibility he had now undertaken by requesting the Pope to relieve him, to some extent, by the nomination of a suffragan or coadjutor in the diocese of St Andrews; and this was effected by the appointment to that office of William Gibson, dean of Restalrig, who received consecra-tion as titular bishop of Libaria.

Beaton was one of King James's most trusted advisers, and is said to have taken a part in dissuading him from his proposed interview with Henry VIII. at -York. On the death of James in December 1542 he attempted to assume office as one of the regents for the infant sovereign Mary, founding his pretensions on an alleged will of the late king; but his claims were disregarded, and the Earl of Arran, head of the great house of Hamilton, and next heir to the throne, was raised to the regency. The cardinal was imprisoned by order of the regent, but after some time was set at liberty. He was subsequently reconciled to Arran, and in September 1543 crowned*-the young queen at Stirling. Soon afterwards he was raised to the highest office under the regent, that of Chancellor of Scotland, and was appointed legate a latere by the Pope. The cardinal, in virtue of the latter dignity and of his primatial authority, claimed precedence over Archbishop Dunbar of Glasgow, even within the precincts of the cathedral of St Kentigem. This led to an unseemly brawl between the attendants of the two archbishops, as set forth in a formal complaint made by the cardinal to the Pope, and related at more length and with characteristic glee by Knox. The attention, however, of the cardinal was directed to matters of more importance than disputes with a brother metropolitan.





The two questions which agitated Scotland at this time were the struggle for ascendency between the supporters of English and French influence, and that between the friends of the hierarchy and the teachers of the Reformed opinions, —questions which frequently became complicated in conse-quence of the assistance given by France to the bishops, and the encouragement which, for political reasons, the king of England secretly gave to the adherents of the Reformation. In this contest the cardinal supported the interests of France, resolutely opposing the selfish intrigues of King Henry and his party, which had for their object the extinction of the ancient independence of the Scottish kingdom and its subjection to the supremacy of England. Had he been content with this he would have won for himself the gratitude of his countrymen; but his evil deeds as an ecclesiastic made them overlook his patriotic exertions as a statesman. During the lifetime of his uncle he had taken his share in the persecuting policy of the hierarchy, and the same line of conduct was still more systematically adopted after his elevation to the primacy. Having won over the regent to his opinions he became more open and severe in his proceedings. The popular accounts of the persecution are no doubt exaggerated, and it sometimes ceased for considerable periods so far as capital punishments were concerned. When the sufferers were of humble rank general attention was not much directed to them. It was otherwise when a more distinguished victim was selected in the person of George Wishart. This preacher, whose ecclesiastical opinions resembled those of Patrick Hamilton and Hamilton's teacher, Francis Lambert, returned to Scotland after an absence of several years about the end of 1544. His sermons produced a great effect, and he was protected by several of the barons who were leading men in the English faction. These barons, with the knowledge and approbation of King Henry, were engaged in a plot against the cardinal, in which his assassination was con-templated as the speediest mode of removing the chief obstacle to the influence of England. Of the reality of the plot and the intentions of the conspirators there can be no doubt: whether Wishart was aware of these has been a matter of controversy during the present century. There are strong suspicions against him but no sufficient evidence ; and all the presumptions which may be drawn from his personal character are entirely in his favour. The cardinal, though ignorant of the details of the plot, perhaps sus-pecting Wishart's knowledge of it, and in any event desirous to seize one of the most eloquent supporters of the new opinions, endeavoured, with the aid of the regent, to apprehend him, but was baffled in his efforts for some time. He was at last successful in seizing the preacher, and bringing him a prisoner to his castle of St Andrews. On the 28th of February 1546 Wishart was brought to trial within the cathedral church, before the cardinal and other ecclesiastical judges, the regent declining to take any active part. He defended his opinions with temper and moderation; but as he admitted certain of them which were held by his judges to be heretical, he was condemned to death and burnt.

The persecution of Wishart, and the meekness with which he bore his sufferings, produced a deep effect on the mind of the Scottish people, and the cardinal became an object of general dislike. Those who hated him on other grounds were encouraged to proceed with the design they had formed against him. Naturally resolute and fearless, he seems to have undervalued the strength and character of his enemies, and even to have relied on the friendship of some of the conspirators. He crossed over to Angus, and took part in the magnificent ceremonials of the marriage of his illegitimate daughter with the heir of the Earl of Crawford. On his return to St Andrews he took up his residence in the castle. The conspirators, the chief of whom were Norman Leslie, Master of Rothes, and William Kirkaldy of Grange, contrived to obtain admission at daybreak of the 29th of May 1546, and murdered the cardinal under circumstances of horrible mockery and atrocity. The assassination excited very different feelings among the partisans on either side. The zealous adherents of the Church of Rome, as a matter of course, viewed it as a cruel murder aggravated by sacrilege; the most violent of the Protestant party justified and even applauded it. Those who, without any strong feelings either way, disliked the cardinal on account of his arrogance and cruelty, spoke of the deed as a wicked one, but hardly professed to regret the victim. Ignorant of the treasonable designs of his enemies, viewing him as the champion of ecclesiastical supremacy, and attributing to him all the evils of the unsuccessful war with England, they looked upon his death as an advantage to the Scottish kingdom. The men of that age were too much accustomed to such violent deeds to entertain a great abhorrence of assassination, and such feelings.and crimes were not confined to the adherents of the Reformation. A few years afterwards Martinuzzi, the jardinal archbishop of Gran, was murdered by the express jommand of a Roman Catholic prince, Ferdinand, king of the liomans, brother of the Emperor Charles V.





The character of Beaton has already been indicated. As a statesman he was able, resolute, and in his general policy patriotic. As an ecclesiastic he maintained the privileges of the hierarchy and the dominant system of belief conscientiously, but always with harshness and some-times with cruelty. The immoralities of the cardinal, like his acts of persecution, were exaggerated by his oppo-nents ; but his private life was undoubtedly a scandal to religion and the church, and has only the poor excuse that it was not worse than that of most of his order at the time. The authorship of the writings ascribed to him in several biographical notices rests on no better authority than the apocryphal statements of Dempster. (G. G.)




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