Steven W. May and Alan Bryson (eds), Verse Libel in Renaissance England and Scotland

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Commentary, Poem 44

Robert Bowes, the English Ambassador to Scotland, sent this libel to Lord Burghley from Edinburgh in November 1592, describing it as a 'Copie of the libell Caste in the pulpitt in the great Churche [St Giles, Edinburgh] and in Iohn Carnis house againste the ministers in Edenburgh xxiiij° Octobris 1592'.572 Bowes outlined the poem's context in his cover letter: 'The troubles in Edenburgh are not ceassed', he wrote. The government faced popular opposition to its restraint of trade with Spain, the changing of the market day from Monday to Wednesday 'and the devision of the wholl towne into viij seuerall parishes', where previously there had been only two. Prominent Scottish clergymen supported these measures, eliciting this 'bitter lybell' against the ministers of the Kirk.573

The five ministers named in the poem were highly distinguished in their profession although, ironically, four of them subsequently fell afoul of the regime whose policies provoked the unrest of 1592. The exception was John Cairns (mentioned in l. 2), who had served as a minister of the Kirk since at least 1560. He was Minister of Holyrood in Canongate, Edinburgh, and Reader and Exhorter by 1562. From 1566 he probably served as second charge (curate) to John Craig, then minister of St Giles. Cairns apparently retained this post until his death in 1595.574 William Watson preached at St Giles in March 1584 and was admitted Minister there in April 1585. He was later imprisoned for comparing James with Jeroboam pg 277(who, according to 1 Kings 12:28, ordained the worship of Golden Calves in Israel). The Crown exiled Watson in 1596 for his involvement in an alleged riot in the capital.575 Robert Bruce entered the Kirk in 1581 and was appointed Minister of St Giles in 1587. He was Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1589 and 1592. Bruce acted as Privy Councillor in 1589–90 but fell out with James and was banished with Watson for his part in the 1596 riot. The king effectively ended his career in 1600 after Bruce refused to accept his version of the Gowrie Conspiracy.576

The other clergymen named in 'Will Watson's wordes', James Balfour and John Craig, were likewise punished for their opposition to the Crown. Craig, a former Dominican friar, was one of the most prominent figures in the Scottish Reformation. He was Minister of Holyrood from 1561–2 and second charge of St Giles under John Knox from 1562, replacing him as Minister in 1566. He was Moderator of the General Assembly in 1571, 1576, and 1581, and Minister of St John the Evangelist's, Montrose, in 1571 and St Nicholas's, New Aberdeen, in 1573. Although he was appointed Chaplain to James in 1579, he opposed the king on many key issues, even supporting the government of the Ruthven raiders, who kidnapped James in 1582. Craig rebuked the king to his face (not for the first time) in a sermon in 1592, to which James retorted 'if he had thought his fied [feed] servant . . . would have dealt after that maner with him, he would not have suffered him so long in his hous'.577 Balfour had been Minister of St Giles for three years in October 1592 when the libel was cast into his pulpit. He, too, was banished in 1596 for his purported role in the Edinburgh riot. With Bruce, he later refused to accept the king's version of events regarding the Gowrie Conspiracy in 1600 or to offer public thanksgiving for his safe deliverance from it, for which he was banned from preaching and exiled from Edinburgh.578

The rumours circulating in Edinburgh in autumn 1592 that the merchants, craft guilds, and Catholics conspired together to cause 'these troubles' paradoxically fed into underlying unease with the Kirk's meddling in politics and society. The ministers were, in effect, scapegoated, because ordinary people felt that the dearth was caused by government manipulation of the markets (with Kirk support) not by shortage of victuals.579 Overtly religious issues also stirred the public anger. On 24 September another 'sqibb' had been 'cast into the pulpit' at St Giles, warning that Scottish Catholics were plotting to massacre the Protestants, an alarm distantly inspired by the St Bartholomew's Day massacre of 1572. The ministers were also under attack for their management of the Kirk. The historian David Calderwood reports that 'the people murmured not onlie for change of the mercat, but also for the collection to the poore, and contribution to the big new kirks'. The pg 278libel alludes to these issues by charging that the ministers 'leaves lyk lardes [lords] by bryberye of the poore', and 'crye for Kirks, for furnishinge of your cuir' (ll. 6, 9). This resentment, coupled with that concerning the export ban, change of the market days, and subdivision of the Edinburgh parishes caused the merchants, in Calderwood's words, to 'spread some infamous rymes and libells against the ministrie'.580 In this atmosphere of public unrest and resentment it is not surprising that Cairns was targeted again in summer 1593, when a libel was posted on his door defending the raid against Falkland Palace in Fife of June 1592, when the King was besieged for six hours. Ludovick Stuart, second Duke of Lennox, and John Erskine, second Earl of Mar, conspired James's death, the libel said, and the overthrow of religion, slaughter of the ministers, and poisoning of John, Lord Hamilton.581

Poem 44 is a poetically sophisticated attack on the Edinburgh clergy. It consists of two Scottish sonnets in iambic pentameter (rhyming ababbcbccdcdee). Both stanzas are directly addressed to the offending ministers. The style is alliterative, but not to the point of affectation, and characterized by lively verbs that dramatize the targets' wrongdoing: 'spewe', 'heapes', 'curse', 'craves', 'Detests', 'perverts'. The effect is a concisely detailed sense of contempt and condemnation.

Textual Notes

Texts of 'Will Watson's wordes' are found in Thomas Thomson's edition of Calderwood's History of the Kirk (1842–9), and in Lees, St Giles' Edinburgh (1889). Both deal with the libel in passing and neither offers a critical text.

Two potentially substantive texts of Poem 44 are known, the copy text from PRO SP 52/49/39 [i], in a volume of unfoliated papers and BL Cotton MS Caligula D.2, f. 50v. The Cotton text was probably copied from the State Papers, since Sir Robert Cotton had extensive access to these documents (see the Textual Notes to Poem 39). The Cotton manuscript's variants from the copy text serve mostly to Anglicize the Scots wording and spelling as shown in the selective collation below where the State Papers text is the lemma:

5 Sic as sayles] such as sayle

8 Ye] You; ane] one

9 cuir] Over

13 warrand] warrant

16 sic] such

17 gukket] gukkell

21 na] no

22 Ye] You

28 prescryband] prescribinge

Notes Settings


Editor’s Note
572 PRO SP 52/49/39 [i]. We are grateful to Jane Dawson, Michael Lynch, Laura Stewart, and Sebastiaan Verweij for their advice on this entry. Roderick Lyall argues that Alexander Montgomerie was the probable author of Poem 44, putting forward Captain James Halkerstoun as a possible alternative: Alexander Montgomerie: Poetry, Politics, and Cultural Change in Jacobean Scotland (Tempe, AZ, 2005), 180–5.
Editor’s Note
573 PRO SP 52/49/39 [i]; L. A. M. Stewart, Urban Politics and the British Civil Wars: Edinburgh, 1617–53 (Brill, 2006), 337–9.
Editor’s Note
574 Acts and Proceedings of the General Assemblies of the Kirk of Scotland, ed. T. Thomson, 3 parts, Bannatyne Club 81 (Edinburgh, 1839–45), pt. 1, p. 81; Extracts from the Records of the Burgh of Edinburgh, AD 1557–1571, Scottish Burgh Records Soc., vols. 2–6 (Edinburgh, 1869–92), 97, 105; T. McCrie, The Life of John Knox, 2 vols., 2nd edn. (Edinburgh, 1814), 2.52, 147, 307–9; Fasti Ecclesiae Scoticanae, ed. Scott, 1.52–3; James Kirk, 'Craig, John, ODNB; J. E. A. Dawson, 'Knox, John', ODNB; Michael Lynch, Edinburgh and the Reformation (Edinburgh, 1981), 31–5, 38, 99.
Editor’s Note
575 Fasti Ecclesiae Scoticanae, ed. Scott, 1.53.
Editor’s Note
576 Fasti Ecclesiae Scoticanae, ed. Scott, 1.52; James. Kirk, 'Bruce, Robert', ODNB.
Editor’s Note
577 David Calderwood, History of the Kirk of Scotland, ed. Thomas Thomson, 5 vols. (Edinburgh, 1842–49), 5.143; Lynch, Edinburgh, 32–5.
Editor’s Note
578 Lees, St Giles' Edinburgh, 183–7, 193, 279, 292.
Editor’s Note
579 Calderwood, History of the Kirk, 5.188–91; Lees, St Giles', 183–4.
Editor’s Note
580 Calderwood, History of the Kirk, 5.177–8.
Editor’s Note
581 PRO, SP 52/50/70; R. G. Macpherson, 'Francis Stewart, fifth Earl of Bothwell, 1562–1612: Lordship and Politics in Jacobean Scotland' (PhD diss., Edinburgh University, 1998), 396–8.
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