1902 Encyclopedia > Gawain Douglas (Gavin Douglas)

Gawain Douglas
(Gavin Douglas)
Bishop of Dunkeld
(c. 1474 - 1522)

DOUGLAS, GAWAIN or GAVIN (c. 1474-1522), bishop of Dunkeld, and the ancient classical poet of Scotland, was the third son of Archibald, earl of Angus, known in Scottish history as " Bell-the-Cat." His mother was Elizabeth, daughter of Robert Lord Boyd, high chamberlain of Scot-land. The year when he was born has not been recorded, but it is almost certain that it was 1474, or the beginning of 1475 ; and of bis father's seats the one most likely to have been his birthplace was Douglas Castle, Lanarkshire. Being intended for the church, Douglas studied at the university of St Andrews, where his name appears in the lists of alumni between 1489 and 1494. Having entered into holy orders, he was shortly afterwards appointed rector of Hauch, or Prestonkirk, and parson of Linton in East Lothian. In 1501 he was elected dean or provost of the collegiate church of St Giles's, Edinburgh, an office of dignity and emolument.

In the battle of Flodden (1513\ when James IV. and many of the Scottish nobility and ecclesiastics were killed, the earl of Angus lost his two eldest sons, which so affected him that he retired to St Mains, a religious house in Galloway, where he soon after died. He was succeeded by his grandson, Archibald, a handsome young nobleman, who attracted the attention of the widowed Queen Margaret, sister of Henry VIII. of England, and they were married within eleven months after the death of the king. While this precipitate connection incensed the nobility and caused much jealousy of the Douglas family, it seemed to open up a way for the preferment of Gavin Douglas. By the influence of the queen, Douglas was " postulated" by the Pope to the abbacy of Aberbrothock, or Arbroath. He met with such opposition, however, from a rival claimant, that his appointment was never completed, and he was unable to obtain his abbacy. Douglas was next recom-mended by the queen to the Pope for the archbishopric of St Andrews, then vacant; and, relying upon the validity of this appointment, he attempted by force to obtain possession of the castle of St Andrews. He was, however, unsuccessful, and ultimately was passed over in favour of Andrew Forman. At length, by the united influence of the queen and the Pope, he was nominated for the bishopric of Dunkeld, which shortly afterwards became vacant. The people were so indignant at the marriage of the queen with Angus that the Parliament deprived her of the regency of the kingdom and the charge of the young King James V, and appointed the duke of Albany to be regent in her room. One of the first acts of the duke, who came from France to assume the reins of government, was to bring Douglas to trial for intriguing for ecclesiastical benefices with the queen and the pope without the sanction of Parliament. He was found guilty, and put in prison in what he calls the " wyndy and richt vnplesant castell and royk of Edinburgh," where he continued for about a year. This harsh step of the duke of Albany seems to have brought about a feeling of sympathy for Douglas. He was at length set at liberty, and, to make some amends, the duke permitted him to be consecrated bishop of Dunkeld.

The marriage of the queen with the earl of Angus proved an unhappy one; and, in consequence of his ill-treatment of her, the queen separated from her husband and joined with the regent against the Douglases. Angus fled to the borders for a time; and in 1521 his uncle Gavin was deprived of his bishopric. The bishop then took shelter at the court of Henry VIII., but in 1522 he died of the plague at London, in the forty-eighth year of his age. His remains were interred in the Hospital Church of the Savoy.

The works of Bishop Douglas, though not numerous, are important. They consist of—(1) The Police of Honour, a poem written in 1501,—an allegorical description of many gorgeous cavalcades of famous persons trooping to a magni-ficent palace somewhat like Chaucer's Temple of Fame, in the execution of which Douglas has displayed much originality of treatment; (2) Another allegorical poem called King Hart, or the heart of man, descriptive of the progress of life from youth to age ; (3) A short poem called Conscience; and (4) A Translation of the JEneicl of Virgil, with the supplemental book of Maphasus Vegius. To each book a short prologue is prefixed, of which the one before the 12 th,
" Where splendid Douglas paints the hlooming May," is perhaps the finest effort of his muse.

This Translation of Virgil, by which Douglas is best known, is a work of which Scotland will always be proud, as it was the first metrical translation of a classical author made in Britain, and the precursor of many others. Although it is very diffuse, from the difficulty its author had in adapting the Doric language of his country to the purposes of translation, by the same reason it is a work of considerable philological value in tracing the history of the literary language of Scotland. Although Douglas was the first native writer who applied the name " Scottis " to the language he employed, he has Scotticized many Latin words, and imported many expressions from the French ; while his admiration of Chaucer has induced him to avail himself of some of the grammatical forms used by that poet. Still, his translation, written in the broad and widely spread dialect common at an early period to the north of England and Scotland, will always form one of the most important landmarks in Scottish philology. In concluding it Douglas unfortunately took farewell of poetical composition, and entered the arena of political strife, as the following extract shows:—

'' Thus vp my pen and instramentis full yore On Virgillis post I fix for evirmore. iSfeuir from thens syk matteris to discryue, My muse sail now he clene contemplatiue And solitar as doith the byrd in cage. Sen fer byworn is all my chyldis age, And of my dayis nere passit the half date That nature suld me grantyn, wele I wate; Thus, sen I feill doun sweyand the ballance, Here I resigne vp younkeris obseruance, And wyil direk my labouris euermoir Vnto the commoun welth and Goddis gloir."1
- Works, vol. iv. p. 233. The last two lines occur in the Bl. L. ed. of 1553.

Several early MSS. of Douglas's Translation of Virgil exist. One is preserved in the library of Trinity College, Cambridge, copied by his amanuensis, Matthew Geddes, from the bishop's own papers. Two are in the library of the university of Edinburgh, and one in that of the marquis of Bath at Longleat. Of the printed editions one was issued by William Copland at London in 1553, one was printed by Ruddiman at Edinburgh in 1711, and one was presented to the members of the Bannatyne Club in 1839. The Palicc of Honour was first printed at London by William Copland, without date, but probably in 1553 ; and an edition, printed by " Johne Eos for Henrie Charteris," appeared at Edin- burgh in 1579, of which only two copies are known to exist. This rare edition was reprinted for the Bannatyne Club. The poems called King Hart and Conscience exist in the Maitland MS. in the Pepysian Library, Cambridge. The works of the bishop were first collected and published at Edinburgh in 1874, under the editorship of Mr John Small, with a life prefixed, and a glossary appended. (J. SM.)


Brechin has been stated as the birth-place of Douglas by Mr D. Black in his history of that town (2d ed. p. 287), but no authority for this is quoted.
The authority for the former designation is Myln's MS. Vitae Episcop. Dunkeld., by misreading which Douglas is by Bishop Sage called rector of Herriot, and by Dr Irving and others, rector of Hawick. His latter designation is found in the MS. of his Translation of Virgil preserved in Trinity College, Cambridge.— Works, i. p. 173.

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