"The Legend of the Bischop of St. Androis Lyfe" and the Survival of Scottish Poetry
David J. Parkinson
University of Saskatchewan

Parkinson, David J. ""The Legend of the Bischop of St. Androis Lyfe" and the Survival of Scottish Poetry." Early Modern Literary Studies 9.1 (May, 2003): 5.1-24<URL:

  1. In the early 1580s, Scotland and England experienced a surge of derogatory writing exchanged between the partisans of further reform and the defenders of conformity (Croft 268-69). Cumulatively this exchange "rendered the authorities more vulnerable" (Archer 38-39). Debate coincided with a tremor of curiosity, traceable early in satire and invective, about witchcraft: in the heightened controversies of the decade, the depiction of the counter-religionist as the devotee of witches gained momentum (Elmer 106-07). Accusations of witchcraft were lobbed as arbitrarily across sectarian lines as charges of sex crimes, and under this hail, conjuring and pandering, long associated, coalesced as spectacular modes of deception. Feared for its grasp upon "fantasticall ymaginationis" (APS III: 87; also II: 539), the image of the witch resembled that of the vagrant entertainer or the poet as illusionist (Hamilton 49; DOST s.vv. Igramancie, Juglery, Necro-, Negromancie, Negromantik; cf. Chaucer, CT VI. 477-81, HF 1259-64). "The Legend of the Bischop of St. Androis Lyfe," ascribed to the veteran satirist Robert Sempill, thus assumes precedent-setting importance: in its goadingly contestive satire of witchcraft, "The Legend" exemplifies the survival and even resurgence of Scottish poetry in reformed Scotland; in satire as "in witchcraft, words wage war" (Favret-Saada 10). Founded upon the flyting and the burlesque of dream vision that characterize late-medieval satire in Scots, "The Legend" exerted a lasting influence on reformist polemic in Scotland, especially when that polemic concerned witchcraft - or indeed episcopacy. Relishing the mixture of vituperation with farce in this poem, its influentially reformist readers ensured that its invitation to engage in raucously ad hominem debate would extend into the seventeenth century and beyond (King 75-84, 120). Despite its resoundingly proclaimed mission to inscribe sharp lines of demarcation between evildoers and the righteous, "The Legend of the Bischop of St. Androis Lyfe" reveals the spread of implication across the page and back upon the hands of its begetters.

  2. Like witches, poets are feared for their ability to encroach upon and disgrace the worthy. Pressing in 1585 for the king to dismiss James Stewart of Bothwellhaugh, the intruded earl of Arran, the resurgent opposition charged that the earl had hired "a commoun skold, called Kait the Witche" with "other the like bairds [bards] and naughtie packes [gangs]" to "raile againste the ministrie, his Majestie's most assured and ancient nobilitie, and lovers of the amitie," to the point that "a libell was made in the name of Kait the witche, to disgrace the queene" Elizabeth (Calderwood IV: 273, 442). Kait offended because she intensified the threat posed by any scold: her powers "differed from those of other women only in being exaggerated, mysterious and unsanctioned" (Chaytor 50). Well might a Scottish satirist exploit the force wielded by such women: as with Dunbar's Wedo or, later, Robert Sempill's "Maddie of the Caill Mercat," a "robust style and sharply worded accusation" feature in the recurrent poetic impersonation of female characters (van Heijnsbergen 75). Indulging in travesty and invective, the makars avowedly proceed "on revill raill [in a boisterous whirl] / Quhich semys most to be a wyfis taill"; in this vein, the poet echoes the crabbit wife with "Her Pyat [magpie] toung-her poet toung, I suld say" (Jamieson 33; Colkelbie's Sow, ll. 970-71; Rolland sig. Aiiijr). Equipped with this tongue, a poet could strip the gloss from any great name.

  3. At their most idealised and effective, the strategies that would enable Scottish poetry to survive the Reformation were credited to Sir David Lindsay. In his Preface to Lindsay's Warkis, 1568, the Edinburgh merchant and publisher Henry Charteris declared the principles of vernacular opposition. Let readers call on God, he wrote,

    That he will rais and steir up mony Dauid Lyndesayis: that will continuallie admonische baith Prince and pepill of thair dewtie, and vocatioun, quhairunto the Lord thair God hes callit thame: that will rebuke and repreif and all sic defaltis as salbe fund in thame: that will commit to letteris and wryte the honour, the gloir, the fame, and succes of vertew, and inbraceris thairof: The dishonour, the schame, the defame, and mischeif of vyce and impietie, and enhanteris thairof. (Lindsay I: 403)

    To "commit to letteris" required audacity, if not the sturdy faith in the divine source of one's authority with which Charteris credited Lindsay. Anticipating the hobgoblin of a burgeoning press, the Scottish Parliament had enacted censorship in 1551: "[N]a prentar presume, attempt or tak vpone hand to print ony bukis, ballatis, sangis, blasphematiounis, rymes or Tragedeis outher in Latine or Inglis toung in ony tymes to cum, vnto the samyn be sene, vewit, and examinit be sum wyse and discreit persounis deput thairto be the ordinaris quhatsumeuer" (APS II.488-89). This legal profuseness has an English counterpart: "In 1554 Mary re-enacted the existing statutes on seditious words and rumours, with additional provisos to combat the flow of 'heynous sedicious and sclanderous Writinges Rimes Ballades Letters Papers and Bookes'" (Croft 267; quoting 1 & 2 Phil. & Mary, c. 3, 1554-55). Attempting to cover all the offensive possibilities, legislators in both realms cut an indiscriminate swathe of terms, leaving categories mangled in their wake. These sedulous prohibitors unwittingly open up the full range of literary genres in both "Inglis" and Latin for their radical opponents: when every kind of poem is deemed impertinent, the satirist may as well use each to damaging effect.

  4. Spurred by prohibition, inventiveness and stealth trump the censors. By 1567, for instance, a new irritant had reached Scotland in the form of the pasquil, the scurrilous text deposited secretly by night in a public place to awaken scorn and hatred in the morning (Maidment vi-xiii, 7-12):

    Thair has bene plackardes and billis and ticquettis [notices] of defamatioun sett vp vnder silence of nycht in diuers publict places alsweill within burgh as vtherwys in the Realme to the sclander, reproche and Infamye of the quenis Majestie and diuers of the nobilitie, Quhilk disordour gif it be sufferit langar to Remane vnpunist may redound nocht onlie to the gret hurt and calumpniatoures having be this meanes libertie to bak byte thame, Bot als the commone may be Inquietit And occasioun of querell takin vpoun fals and vntrew sclander. (APS II: 552)

    In Alasdair MacDonald's pungent phrase, the fall of Mary Stewart in that year provoked "a Gadarene rush into invective" (61). Depending on its import relative to one's faction, a pasquil was deemed the product of either "some mirrie heid" or "impudent liaris, or sones of the dewill" (Bannatyne 13, 225). Anticipating such extremes of response, some poets make their own deprecating distinctions: "gif I mell with meiter or with ryme / With rascale rymouris I sall raknit be" ([Alexander?] Arbuthnot, "A General Lament" ll. 171-72). Satire chokes lyric: petition no longer reaches inward to invite the attention of potential patrons; now the doors the poet frequents lead unceremoniously out to the street. Servitors jostle the obstreperous away from their masters: in 1582 John Durie, reforming minister of Edinburgh, was summoned to appear before the duke of Lennox for calling him and the earl of Arran "abusers of the king"; when Durie arrived, "the dukes cookes came out of the kitchin with speates and great knives to invade him" (Calderwood III: 620-21). Amidst this shoving match, poets, deemed to be replete with "grit dispyte and malice," are held to blame for their own low reputation (Sir Richard Maitland, "Of the malyce of poyetis," ll. 1-6, Maitland Folio CV). With each faction maintaining its own blacklist of "rascal rhymers," few poets can escape being regarded as "dispytfull." The doubts that Robert Henryson had voiced a century earlier about the capacity of "fenyeit [feigned] fabill" to embody and impart truth arise afresh (Fables ll. 1391-95). The defect lies less with the unavailing text - although "As fruteles seid it neuer growis a grane" - than in the factionalized, otherwise impervious minds of its readers (Sempill, "My Lord Methwenis Tragedie" l. 211, Satirical Poems; all further references to Sempill's verse are taken from this edition, with some standardization of spelling and punctuation).

  5. Thus depicted, satire provoked spasmodic efforts at repression, with spikes of wrath. A cause célèbre arose when James Douglas, earl of Morton, recently in eclipse as Regent and soon to face execution himself, pursued the writers of an inopportune pasquil:

    Twa poets of Edinburgh, remarking some of his sinistrous dealing, did publish the same to the people by a famous libel written against him; and Morton hearing of this, causit the men to be brought to Stirling, where they were convict for slandering ane of the king's councillors, and were there baith hangit. The names of the men were William Turnbull, schoolmaster in Edinburgh, and William Scott, notar. They were baith well beloved of the common people for their common offices. (Historie of King James the Sext 177)

    William Turnbull and William Scott wes hangit at the croce of Stirling for making of certane ballatis, quhilkis were thocht hable to saw discorde amangis the nobiletie. And this wes thocht ane new preparative [precedent], seing none had beine execut for the lyk of befoir. Notwithstanding quhearof, in the skailing [clearing] of the pepill from the execution, thair wes ten or tuelff inuectiue and dispytfull letters fund in proes, tending mikle to the dispraise of the erle of Mortoun and his predicessouris. (Moysie 24)

    The first of these chroniclers declares the gratitude of the burgh to the executed writers, as if they were performing a public service in extension of their "common offices"; the laconic frustration of this passage finds a contemporaneous reflection in Sempill's aside, "I speik na farther in feir thay sould gar hang vs: / Preichouris and poiettis are put to silence baith" ("Ane Complaint vpon Fortoun" ll. 119-20). The second account is even more intriguing. Attempting to justify the harsh punishment by alluding to the libels' political threat, its writer betrays his shock at the "new preparative," and emphasizes the failure of the remedy: suppression breeds protest tenfold (Calderwood III: 482; cf. III: 770-72). The poet becomes the cunning slave, upsetting the schemes of his uneasy masters.

  6. It might be assumed that the fortunes of Scottish poetry sank during the crisis of 1582, when the Raid of Ruthven toppled the lavish regime of the duke of Lennox and reduced the adolescent James VI to the custody of the earls of Mar, Angus, and Gowrie. To the advocates of reform, James's literary pretensions offered proof of his vulnerability to baleful influence - if any further such were needed (Calderwood III: 689). Reform had rhetorical susceptibilities of its own, however. The Kirk moved to assert its authority over the "feinyeit counterfeit" bishops, whom it disparaged as tulchan, ducts siphoning ecclesiastical revenue into secular hands: "The kingis lordis that obtenit thair beneficeis culd find na way to have proffeit thairof without [unless] thay had ane tulchen lyk as the kow had or [before] scho wald gif milk, ane calfis skin stoppit with stra" (Lindesay II: 345). At the forty-sixth General Assembly in October 1582, the delegates of the Kirk commissioned certain presbyteries to summon and accuse those bishops regarded as most flagrant, the presbytery of Glasgow being assigned to investigate the archbishop of St. Andrews, Patrick Adamson (Calderwood III: 681). Atop the episcopal hierarchy in Scotland, Adamson was bound to gall his reformed brethren. It was not only on account of his figurehead-like prominence, though, that the godly inveighed with particular eloquence upon their extraordinary opponent: wily, brazen, and gross, the archbishop offered his adversaries the ideal target for investigation and invective. At the next Assembly, April 1583, Andrew Melville, principal of St. Mary's College at the University of St. Andrews and a scholar of international reputation, indicated that Adamson was indisposed: the Kirk "could not addere afflictionem afflicto" (BUK II: 614; Calderwood III: 708). In May, the duke of Lennox died in exile. Spurred by news of this loss, James rode out from under his lordly custodians, to St. Andrews. The archbishop miraculously regained his health,

    occupieth the pulpit incontinent, [and] declameth before the king, in a raging maner, against the ministrie and the lords, and all their proceedings. . . . It was constantlie reported that the duke [of Lennox] died a Papist; but [Adamson] stoutlie contradicted the report in pulpit, and affirmed, for certan, that [Lennox] died a Protestant; having in his hand a scroll, which [Adamson] called the duke's Testament. A merchant woman, sitting before the pulpit, and spying narrowlie, affirmed that the scroll was a compt of foure or five yeeres old debt, which, a few dayes before, she had sent to him. The bishop, who professed before that he had not the gift of application [interpretation], now declameth and inveygheth, but inspired with another spirit than faithfull pastors are. (Calderwood III: 716-17)

    This tale epitomizes the reformers' opinion of Patrick Adamson, countered by supporters of the episcopacy, as a flagrant counterfeiter of the authority and inspired eloquence of the true preacher (Satirical Poems II: 226-35; Hewitt 115; Mullan 54-73; Mason 129; Alan MacDonald 24-25; cf. Wilson). Striving for patronage, Adamson opens the spigot of rhetoric, misrepresents documentary evidence, and surfs over the crosscurrents of obligation. Declaiming falsely against the king's critics, as Calderwood spiritedly depicts it, Adamson - no better than a poet - tarnishes the crown.

  7. Allegations made to the Kirk Session of St. Andrews in 1583 that a woman associated with the archbishop was a witch promised to engage both legal and satirical initiative. When the case was submitted to the General Assembly of the Scottish Kirk, a full investigation was ordered (BUK 2.640); in 1584 the royal strategy swiftly interposed with the "Black Acts," as the reformists named them, denouncing the presbyteries and prescribing submission to the king as head of the church. Discomfited, the archbishop's foes resorted to lampoon: "The Legend of the Bischop of St Androis Lyfe" features Adamson swindling burghers, summoning witches, and vomiting copiously. Blurring sober witness and wildest fantasy in the unforgettable depiction of disgraceful and ridiculous characters, "The Legend" imparts a flavour to religious and political discourse in Scotland, and gives a preliminary stir towards the "bursts of panic" about witchcraft in 1590-91 and later (Goodare, "Framework" 250).

  8. Perhaps to forestall accusations about crimes more serious than fraud or fornication, the archbishop seeks in August 1583 to distance himself from a convenient scapegoat, Alison Pearson of Byrehills near St. Andrews, "allegit to be ane wiche, presentlie impresonat"; Adamson communicates a "ressonabill requeist" to the Kirk Session to initiate an investigation of Pearson (Register II: 508 and n. 3). His cooperation with the Session may have extended only so far: the story circulates among his enemies that "This woman, being examined be the Presbyterie and fund a witche in thair judgment, was giffen to the Bischope to be keipe in his castle for execution, bot he sufferit hir to slipe away" (Melville 137); by October the Presbytery of St. Andrews and the Synod of Fife report the affair to the General Assembly (BUK II: 640). For a few years, Pearson seems to elude further scrutiny. In December, the archbishop departs on an embassy to Whitehall and St. Paul's, by which time, Sir Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth's Secretary, has already learned about Adamson's "extraordinary favour towards a witch in saving her from that due punishment which should have been inflicted on her" (Calendar I: 461). In May 1584, a month after Adamson's return, Parliament proclaims the Black Acts, thereby guaranteeing the ascendancy of the archbishop and his colleagues. After the fall of the earl of Arran in 1585, however, the Kirk settles scores with Adamson, and - more punitively - with Alison Pearson. Adamson suffers excommunication and expropriation, "one of the few victims of James's rapprochement with the Kirk" (Graham 153). Pearson undergoes another trial for the same charge of witchcraft in 1588; for this second trial, the General Assembly sends James Melville, apologist of reform, admiring reader of Sempill, and nephew of the formidable Andrew, on a quest along the coast of Fife "for mater of dittay [indictment] against" Pearson; according to the partisan Calderwood, she is convicted and executed (IV: 669-70; cf. ACT I.2:165, in which the evidence of Pearson's fate is ambiguous). Doggedly pursuing her, the presbytery and civil authorities of St. Andrews conclude a sideshow of the larger campaign to destroy Adamson.

  9. However "mediated, rearranged, and possibly rewritten" it may be, Alison Pearson's deposition reflects the lore of her region: tales abound of abductions, forbidden books, herbal lore, wind-tossed fairy cavalcade, the fairy realm's teind to hell, and the offer of help from a departed male relative, all of which feature in her testimony (Gowing 47; Scott II: 336-37; Purkiss, Witch 159-63; Wilby 289). Pearson makes the painful assertion of authority a dominant theme (Maxwell-Stuart 106). The gude nychtbouris - a traditional euphemism for the fairies - tended to threaten more than reward her: "And quhene scho tellis of thir thingis, declarit, scho wes fairlie tormentit with thame: And that scho gatt ane sair straik, the fyrst tyme scho gaid with thame, fra ane of thame, quhilk tuke all the poistie [strength] of hir car [left] syde fra hir, the mark quhairof wes blae and ewill faurrit [livid and ill-favoured]" (ACT I.2: 163; cf. Purkiss, Troublesome 103). Having by her own account endured the incursions of a proscribed old order with its fatal books and cursed rites, she provides Adamson's pursuers, Sempill among them, the means to associate this paraphernalia with the archbishop himself (Ross 398; Favret-Saada 64, 77).

  10. A strong case can be made that Robert Sempill is the author of "The Legend of the Bischop of St. Androis Lyfe", a poem extant in two manuscripts containing Richard Bannatyne's Memoriales, NLS Advocates' 34.2.9, folios 92r-97v and Edinburgh University Library Db.1.1, folios 118r-23v. Appended to the Memoriales in each of these manuscripts is a sequence of controversial writings, most of them also surviving in printed copies, on contemporary events and personages, with Adamson featuring therein as subject or author: "The Confession of James earl of Morton," "The Legend of the Bischop of St. Androis Lyfe," "The Recantation of Mr Patrike Adamsone," "Mr Patricke Adamsone's own Answer and Refutatioune of the Buike Falslie Callit the Kingis Declaratioune," "A Declaratioune of the Kingis Maiesties Intentione and Meaning towardis the Lait Actis of Parliament," and "The Kingis Maiesties Intentiones." Though its poet directs his book "To Edinburgh baillies . . . / Desyrand lycence to gett live to prent it" (Preface, ll. 119-20), "The Legend" does not survive as a printed broadside like most of Sempill's poems. Its mordant partisanship matches that of the main text it accompanies, the Memoriales: were the poet sincere in directing his poem to "Edinburgh baillies" for licence to print it, he might anticipate some judicious pruning to reduce it to a broadside (Croft 266). In the Advocates' manuscript, the initials "R. S." conclude the poem, while the second ends "Finis quod John"; the poem's editor, James Cranstoun, observes that "The rest of the signature, and apparently another word or two, have been obliterated" (Satirical Poems I: 390). Authorship is an especially vexed question in the case of libellous texts, and Sempill is partial to adopting more or less transparent pseudonyms (Reid 38). Assured by prominent stylistic consistencies rather than the teasingly incomplete manuscript marks of ascription, readers from Calderwood and Row onward have consistently regarded "The Legend" as forthrightly Sempillean, and therefore Sempill's.

  11. For his labour to preserve the genres and styles of Scottish poetry as instruments of timely opposition, satirist Robert Sempill (fl. 1566-84) does not receive his due (Satirical Poems I: xxxiii-xxxvi; DNB LI: 238-39). Appearing mainly as broadsides printed by Robert Lekpreuick, his poems championed the Reformation through a pointed, topical series of partisan comments (Dickson and Edmond 198-272; SBTI s.v. "Lekprevik"). Scottish readers during James VI's minority acknowledged Sempill's influence, and relished his style. As a boy in Montrose, James Melville eagerly awaited the Edinburgh post for "ballates, namlie of Robert Semple's making, wherin I tuik pleasour, and lernit sum thing bath of the esteat of the countrey and of the missours [measures] and cullours of Scottes ryme" (23). Recording the death during the siege of Edinburgh Castle of "Robene Semple sonne," in a mishap due to his "foolishnes to goe so neir the wallis of Edinburgh," Richard Bannatyne, amanuensis of John Knox, writes as if the poet's name is too well-known to require further identification (234). In a sonnet addressed to the court musician and poetaster Robert Hudson, Alexander Montgomerie wryly names a select company of decrepit poets, drained after bouts of hard living: "Your self and I, old Scot and Robert Semple, . . . that all our dayis bot daffis" (Poem 72.1). As they appear within the role of scolding and cursing like a wife, outspokenness and even dissidence persist under the umbrella of such daffing [playing the fool]: Calderwood entitles Turnbull and Scott's libel on Morton "Daff [and] do nothing"(III: 482); Patrick Hume of Polwarth insults Alexander Montgomerie thus, "Dastard, thow daffis that with sic dewillrie mellis" (Montgomerie, Poem 99.VIII.10; van Heijnsbergen 83-84). As a satirist and flyter, but also as a reader of Ovid and Bochas ("Boccaccio"; i.e., Lydgate's Fall of Princes), Montgomerie has studied Sempill (Montgomerie II: 31-33, 39, 69, 96, 120, 129, 137). In the seventeenth century, Melville, John Row, and David Calderwood, chroniclers of the Scottish Reformation, call on Sempill as witness and echo his wit (Satirical Poems I: xxvi, xxxii-iii).

  12. Sempill draws his energies from the literary traditions of late-medieval Scotland. Through the churl's tale, de casibus tragedy, and fable, "traditional lines" connect Sempill to Chaucer, Bochas, and Henryson; through complaint, to Dunbar and Lindsay (Alasdair MacDonald 60; cf. Lyall, "Complaint" 57-59; Reid 39-40; Kratzmann 428, 436). His verse draws upon the same energies of style-switching that impel Dunbar's and Douglas's (Aitken 46-48; Lyall, "Stylistic" 78). These poets attacked various interloping abusers of privilege at court and in the church by depicting them in the guise of the usual scapegoats - vagrants, insolent women, and the marauding Gael - or relegating them to a more explicitly degrading level, that of vermin, excrement, disease, and the infernal. In the driving polarities of the Reformation, Sempill unleashes the rhetorical pack of invective, eldritch, and fabliau upon the powerful opponents of reform. Not content merely to demonize the traditional villains of Scottish verse, he adopts the rhetorical tactics of the common claimants for space and profit in the burgh and effectively mimics their voices (Lyall, "Complaint" 57; Milligan 28; van Heijnsbergen 74). Sempill crosses social and literary categories by pressing disparate topics into service.

  13. Marked by rapid and extreme shifts, the vernacular style of the first half of the century befits the political struggle of the second. To depict Sempill's manner as uniformly plain is to underestimate his enlivening of lowness, in accordance with his native tradition, by sudden infusions of high terms and themes. His satirical technique did not emerge fully formed: especially in his early work, the level of style maintains the decorum of persons and topics. In a poem of 1567, an unnamed "bony [bonny] boy" (ll. 3, 15, 209, 229), who speaks for and may betoken the royal infant James, declares his grief and outrage over the murder of Darnley and names Mary Stewart Jezebel, Delilah, and Medea (ll. 12, 99, 168). He invites the narrator to sing and publish his "narratioun of the cryme" in "Inglis toung" and then declares his intention to broadcast the same narrative in "Latine leid" (ll. 221, 223-24),

    My veirsis prompt in style Rethoricall,               fluent verses
    Quhilk pas sall to the Cane of Tartarie,             Khan
    And Peirs sall erthe and air Etheriall                   pierce
    The wickit workis done in Britannie.
           ("Ane Ballat declaring the Nobill and Gude Inclination of our King," ll. 225-28)

    "The wicked deeds done in Britain shall pierce both the earth and the ethereal air": tragic eloquence conventionally transfixes the heart; accordingly the land is envisioned to be Britain, the language Latin. Sempill's verse moves more freely when he adopts instead the voices of the marketplace and tolbooth:

    And sum said, "Best the Secretar to hang.        [William Maitland of Lethington]
    To his ilusiones we beleuit owir lang-
    Ane cruikit Ethnik and ane crewall Tod,              pagan
    Inuentand wichecraft, ay deuysand wrang.        contriving
    Lat nane geue credance to ane drytand God.    defecating
             ("The Sege of the Castel of Edinburgh," ll. 180-84)

    "Wickit Inuentioun" cannot but inform both Maitland's machinations and Sempill's variegated style (Compendious Book 212). The powder of Latinate terms - ilusiones, inuentand, deuysand, credance - is leavened by the coarsely colloquial thrusting from both sides of the dispute: as one of the Marian defenders of Edinburgh Castle put it, "Go, tell Mr Knox he is bot a drytting prophet!" (Melville 34). Diction rears upward, to be brought roughly back to earth:

    Mercurius with his charmed rod,
    The auncient king of Bactria
    That first inventit magica,
    Could not so weill of stowen geir tell               stolen property
    As could this vglie hund of hell.
            ("The Legend of the Bischop of St. Androis Lyfe," ll. 322-26)

    Typical of comic style in Scots verse, this "piling on of outlandish but often closely connected sets of caricatures . . . consistently blurs what is true and what is false" (Aitken 39; cf. Mapstone 29-30, 32). Disharmony is more in earnest than ever: the Scottish readers of satire have learned to scan stylistic oppositions for their political import. The durable repertoire of sixteenth-century Scottish literature - dream, flyting, petition and complaint, the eldritch tale - is liable to be read most attentively at the overlay between contrasting categories - high and low, courtly and homely, fear and laughter, polemic and testimony.

  14. At the outset of "The Legend of the Bischop of St. Androis Lyfe," then, the poet scans the literary scene of Edinburgh from the safe vantage of Newcastle, in order to identify his preferred readers:

    Curious poyetis, I knawe, will vilipend the,           revile
    Saying thou fares but of an saucie lowne.           loon
    Yit with the rascall people vp and downe,
    Finding our freindis, confess to be mine,
    From the New Castle cuming to this towne
                      (Preface, ll. 131-35)

    Sempill plays deftly on the theme of the dismissal of the little book, a Chaucerian gesture of conclusion elaborated by generations of Scottish poets, Dunbar, Douglas, Lindsay, and Rolland among them. This "Legend" need not wander up and down among the rascal multitude of Edinburgh: it need only seek truer friends - "ours" - among whom Robert Sempill's name opens doors. Moved from its traditional location in an envoy, Sempill's initial depiction of his poem displays his rejection of courtly ingratiation. This poetic harbinger seeks friends instead of a dark corner, and in doing so summons its readers, scattered by the resurgence of Arran, back into an assembly.

  15. Printed or not, "The Legend" indeed made friends and influenced people: evidence survives for its readership within Protestant circles (Melville 644; Calderwood IV: 61). In his History of the Kirk of Scotland, David Calderwood presents a selection of related tracts, through which the flood of invective roared after the flight abroad in 1584 of those ministers, James Melville among them, who protested the Black Acts. Adamson, at his zenith, is attacked in floridly scurrilous terms as a low-born interloper who championed a supremacist ideal of literature, religion, and government: in "A Reply of Jonet Guthrie and Margaret Marjoribanks . . . to a calumnious and blasphemous answere putt forth under the name of the pharasaicall prelat of St. Andrewes" (1584), he is called an "Envennomed vespe! sucker of poysoun out of wholesome and comfortable flowers! forging and fostering calumneis upon innocent men, where there is no suche caus in the letter" (Calderwood IV: 129). Writing to the earls of Angus and Mar and the Master of Glamis, in Newcastle (1584), Melville vilified those ministers who acceded to the Black Acts: "[B]elli-godes, fals preists of Baal, maist infamus amangs the peiple, theiffs, drunkards, gluttones, whure and witch mungars, perjurit, sacrilegius, deboshit persones, to mean holiglasses, comoun trickers and deceavers, and finallie men shamles and maist sklanderus in all thair lyff and doings" (Calderwood IV: 176). For Melville, whose attack on conformist clergy in Scotland coincides with the first phase of the puritan onslaught on the English episcopacy, Sempill's satire offered a native precedent and exemplar (Croft 268-69).

  16. Compared to such effusions, however, "The Legend" exhibits a surer sense of pace and proportion. For his invective style, the poet draws wittily upon deep and attentive reading. More wickedly than Chaucer's Miller, threatening to tell "a legend and a lyf / Bothe of a carpenter and of his wyf" (CT I.3141-42), Sempill parodies the hagiographical associations of the life with a saint's calling and miracles, and the legend with a saint's martyrdom (Strohm 157-58). In a Dunbaresque fanfare of abuse, Adamson descends "of the tryb Gog Magoge" and is "Ane elphe, ane elvasche incubus, / Ane fals, forloppen, fenyeit freir" (ll. 6-8); in these terms, the archbishop's poetic forebears are two victims of Dunbar's satire, Andro Kennedy and John Damian (Dunbar II: 463-64, 418, 329). The phrase "fenyeit freir" echoes the misleading title in the Asloan and Bannatyne Manuscripts of Dunbar's "Ballat of the Abbot of Tungland" (Poem 4), a poem about a vagabond who assumes the guise of "a religious man" (l. 10) and practises medicine with royal patronage and lethal consequences; the satirist also works directly from Chaucer, one of Dunbar's sources (CT III.864-81). Repeatedly, Adamson is named "Lowrie," after the fox in two of Henryson's Fables - for Richard Bannatyne, the name has come to signify a Catholic priest ("Legend," ll. 9, 55, 284, 328, 350, 365, 473, 1098; Compendious Book, 209). Adamson is also called "Holiglass," after the eponymous anti-hero of a popular German collection of merry tales, printed in English circa 1528; the Howleglas tradition and its analogues provide models of picaresque narrative (Zall 7). Both names stick to the cunning archbishop: for James Melville, writing in exile in 1584 about his adversary, "What can be hoped for of so constant inconstancie? A jugler, a Holiglasse, a drunkard, a vile Epicurean!" (Calderwood IV: 338). Sempill forges verbal weaponry against royal supremacy and aims it at the "Bellie god bischops" ("Legend," Preface, l. 128); deeply rooted, this invective informs and encompasses that of its apt reader Melville.

  17. "The Legend" hastens towards the mock-passion of 1583-84, the interlude between the failure of the Ruthven coup and the advent of the Black Acts. Playing the duschet ("flute"; ll. 88, 180, 270) of his deceiving tongue like any vagrant performer, Adamson parrots sacred authority. Like Howleglas, he traverses occupations and offences: student, minister, tutor, and writer, a swindler of congregations, printers, and even regents. Early on, he develops a repertoire of hypocritical protest, ingratiating promises, and unpaid bribes - punctuated by well-timed outbursts of vomiting - and worms his way into the household of the earl of Morton and thence into the archbishopric. Depicting Adamson not just breaking his vows, but repeatedly bespewing his colleagues and bespattering himself, Sempill mixes what his predecessor Dunbar had tended to keep separate: the allegorical and the straightforwardly scatological (Prov. 26.11; cf. Bawcutt 285, 291).

  18. The remainder of "The Legend" concerns two recent scandals, first Adamson's dealings with women suspected of witchcraft and then, episodically, his mission to the English court and episcopate, events from the summer of 1583 to spring, 1584. The abundance of incident grows unstoppably, with anecdotes about the archbishop's misadventures in London spilling forth - "Some thingis, indeid, I have forget" (l. 1015)-towards a downright refusal to finish: "We have na tyme for to conclude: / . . . Ewin sa I will augment my bill / As I gett witt in mair and mair / Of his proceidingis heir and thair" (ll. 1097, 1101-03). Much of "The Legend" tumbles along as if its writer has barely had time to assemble the stories as they have come in, from citizens of St. Andrews, merchants, ministers, English correspondents, and possibly even Adamson's own long-suffering servants. The proximity of this verse to the events it depicts is exhibited by the final anecdote, in which Adamson falls out of bed, so drenched in the wine he has vomited that he seems to be bleeding fatally - a scene dated "The threttene day of this November" (l. 1075) in what could logically be 1583, before the departure to London - chronology sacrificed for the wishful aptness of a mock-death. No mention is made in the poem of the great event of 1584, the proclamation of the Black Acts in May, although prudence rather than chronology may explain the omission; Adamson's prominence only grew in the months before the fall of the earl of Arran in November 1585. The possibility that "The Legend" was in circulation by late 1584 is heightened by the abusive phrases Melville and other exiled polemicists seem to echo from it in their writings that year. Showing signs of being rushed into circulation, "The Legend" would have fired a counter-salvo in the crucial year in which Adamson became the main apologist for Arran's policy of royal supremacy.

  19. The tightest, most arresting episode of "The Legend" pertains significantly to accusations that Arran and his allies consorted with notorious witches. This episode (ll. 249-424) repays attention, especially for the fabliau concocted out of information about Alison Pearson's dealings with Adamson. Having swindled a burgher of St. Andrews out of two acres, Adamson incurs his widow's wrath: she damns "Lowrie and the land together" (l. 284). Perhaps her curse takes hold, or perhaps the archbishop's heavy drinking, gormandizing, and more secret excesses overcome him; as Pearson describes it, Adamson suffered "the trimbling fewer [ague], the palp [polyps], the rippillis [gonorrhea] and the flexus [?boils]" (ACT I.2: 164). In Sempill's rendition, Adamson consults not one but three witches: first, a "Phetanissa," located among the detritus of cast-off rituals, "herbis, stanes, buikis and bellis, / Menis members and south rinning wellis" (ll. 296-97; Purkiss, Witch 154-59; Graham 170-72; Clark 334, 360, 387-88, 534-37; Normand and Roberts 208-09; Maxwell-Stuart 41-45, 68, 101). These provocatively mingled items do not come into play: instead the woman gathers her simples, "Cutted off in the cruik of the moone" (l. 306), and prepares a potion with "Halie water and the lamber [amber] beidis" - folk medicine, not sorcery, hallowed by relics of the old faith. Tried on Adamson's horse, the potion proves fatal, and the prelate seeks another healer. Again a luridly allusive fanfare concludes anticlimactically: though this "devill duelling in Anstruther" (l. 314) reputedly outspells Circe, Medusa, Medea, and Mercury, she prepares an efficacious medicine from dregs of white wine, dried roe, and eggs from black hens (Clark 649; Maxwell-Stuart 107 n. 66). This appears to be a comparatively unexciting variation of the more Rabelaisian, or Holiglassian, recipe Pearson claims to have prepared for Adamson: "yow [ewe] milk, or waidraue [woodruff] with the herbis, claret wyne; and . . . ane sottin [stewed] fowll; and that scho maid ane quart att anis, quhilk he drank att twa drachtis, twa sindrie dyetis" (ACT I.2: 164). Detaching the invigorating remedy from Pearson and associating it instead with the unnamed witch from Anstruther, Sempill ensures that his depiction of Pearson's involvement with the archbishop will be bluntly sexual.

  20. To return to Sempill's episode, the archbishop runs into an obstacle following his second consultation. Rebuking the sardonic Adamson for dabbling in witchcraft, the presbytery orders him to imprison his healers so they may be executed for witchcraft. Instead he releases them, averring that the devil rescued them. Despite the admonitions of the Kirk and the success of the medicine he has just taken, he seeks a third healer - a caricature of Alison Pearson - one who has participated in supernatural rides on Hallowe'en with the fairies and those they have taken, including one William Simpson (the detail recalls Pearson's own emphasis in her testimony on this long-departed uncle) who has given her a herbal with which she can cure a thousand maladies. Having detained her at his castle, Adamson visits her and confesses that his underlying ailment is impotence. When the witch resurrects his member by sayning it - mock-euphemistically, blessing it with the sign of the cross - the poem emits a cloud of anti-Catholic allusion: "What dayis of pardone then scho wan: / The relicques of that holie man / Micht save hir saule from purgatorie" (ll. 409-11). The sexual emphasis affords the satirist the definitive exchange, in which the illusory signs of both disgraced traditions, Catholicism and witchcraft, merge.

  21. As has become apparent, Sempill's representation of Adamson's tawdry climax intersects significantly with Pearson's testimony and Melville's memoir. "[E]agerly seizing on diverse materials from diverse cultural layers" (Purkiss, Troublesome 103, 150), Pearson uses numerical recurrence to heighten a sense of symmetry in her account and thereby give weight and momentum to the events of her life. For both Sempill and Melville, meanwhile, triple occurrence belittles Adamson: three times the burlesque pattern is traced of a massive, even apocalyptic, onset with a banal outcome; hereby the satirist may be evoking the theme of the Weird Sisters (cf. Montgomerie, Poem 99.II.26-147). Further, Sempill's depiction of the escape of the first and second women from Adamson's custody anticipates Melville's account of the imprisonment and escape of Alison Pearson. Sempill also impinges on more serious allegations, such as Melville's that Adamson participated treasonably in necromancy: "It was reported for veritie to us, that the Bischope consulted with these witches anent the King's esteat, of the countrey, and his awin; and gat a response, that he sould stand sa lang as the King stud. Bot the devill, as he uses to do, deceavit him ther" (137; Calderwood III.716-17). Sempill's episode of Archbishop Adamson's furtive consultation with Alison Pearson-and even Pearson's own account-affirms Stuart Clark's judgement that "the great age of the witch was also the great age of the fool" (18). It is worth stressing that "The Legend" may well date from 1584, shortly after the much-bruited illness of Adamson, the initial interrogations of Pearson by the Presbytery of St. Andrews, and the ensuing investigations; Sempill's intervention in the case appears, therefore, strikingly early.

  22. Incredulity and greed garner shame for the antihero; in this regard, the fabliau of the witch and the archbishop warrants comparison with a roughly contemporary poem written for the opposing camp, Alexander Montgomerie's "Secund Invective" against Patrick Hume of Polwarth (Poem 99.II). Montgomerie employs outrageously eldritch themes: begotten by an elf on an ape, "Polwart" is found by the Weird Sisters, who predict multiple diseases, misfortunes, and humiliations for him; taken by the "venerabill virginis quhome ye wald call wiches" (l. 157), the horrific infant is given a satanic baptism and mock-feast, during which his howls raise the devils. For the folklorist Jacqueline Simpson, Montgomerie's "relaxed, sportive exploitation of horror" offers "no undertone of mockery, patronage, or blame directed at the beliefs themselves and those who might hold them. The poem thus operates within a shared culture which appears to override any distinction between 'elite' and 'folk'" (18). Seen thus, as a Jacobean conservative, Montgomerie would be imagined parodying these vain traditions: like a Jonsonian antimasque a few decades later, his witchery would thus proclaim the glorious stability of James's court. However, Montgomerie is not sharing but distinguishing: he is driving his opponent into the wilderness of fools and witches, not celebrating the harvest-time of a comfortably integrated culture. He plays to gaudy excess upon his audience's "frisson of recognition" of the supernatural (Maxwell-Stuart 14), while Sempill reduces the occult to the mundane. The archbishop's witches engender shudders that degrade but sustain Sempill's Adamson, for the sake of whose unstoppably grotesque depiction, "I have tane trawell [taken pains]" (l. 1114).

  23. In the same year as Sempill's "Legend," James Melville provided the backbone to Presbyterian protest against Arran's mouthpiece Adamson. Sempill and Melville execrate the archepiscopal foe in analogous terms, and it is tempting to speculate about the minister's role in enlisting the poetic warrior who was his childhood favourite to the worsening struggle, and to locate the rise of satire at the failure of debate. The exchange is mutual between politics and fiction: Sempill's caricature of Adamson colours anti-episcopal polemic in Scotland for generations; his depiction of the witch as a bawdy fool may also have influenced the examination and condemnation of women for witchcraft, specifically the dossier on Alison Pearson gathered by Melville that in all likelihood contributed structure, theme, and emphasis to her testimony for the Court of Justiciary in 1588. Unsurprisingly, a largely urban fraternity has isolated a rural woman and associated her shamingly with their enemy, in part to regain and then capitalize upon political advantage.

  24. During this same period, Patrick Adamson, effectively the propaganda minister for the Arran regime, engaged repeatedly in controversy (Calderwood IV: 83-91, 208, 697-732): at James's court, though, success lasted only as long as one's footing on the shifting sands of favouritism (Goodare and Lynch 15-16). Balancing adroitly awhile, Adamson extolled the adolescent James VI as the superlatively blessed wielder of authority over the Scottish Church: "[A]s Plato affirmeth that commoun wealth to be most happie wherin a philosopher raigneth, or he that raigneth is a philosopher, we may much more esteeme this countrie of Scotland to be fortunat, wherin our king is a theologue, and his heart replenished with the knowledge of the heavenlie philosophie" (Calderwood IV: 255). 1584 was also the year James's Essayes of a Prentise, in the Diuine Arte of Poesie was published, containing his short treatise on "Some Reulis and Cautelis [pitfalls] to be Obseruit and Eschewit in Scottis Poesie": assuming the guise of the apprentice philosopher-king, James preferred to muzzle his nation's poets over banishing them (cf. Shire 88-90; Jack 126-27, 137-38). Behind the king's literary strictures lay a fear of invention, particularly in the hands of preachers, poets, and soon witches, as the persuasive, transformative claim to authority (James I: 79; Roberts 185, 192; cf. Goldberg 18; Sharpe 130). By enclosing poetic invention - that, like witchcraft, might transform heroes into swine - James attempted to dam Scottish culture. It may yet be fair to argue that in his "Reulis and Cautelis," James did more to attenuate Scottish verse than enrich it. Through supporting and imitating satirists like Robert Sempill, his reformist opponents ensured the survival of a heartier poetic tradition than the Scottish court could stomach in the two decades before James went south. Still, the poets themselves envision a comradeship evading political affiliations; because of strictures and not despite them, a breed of poetry survives that demands and creates an unusually interested audience with the liberating thought that dissent can flourish through all attempts to quash it.


Members of the Departments of English at the Universities of Alberta and Regina commented perceptively on this essay, as did this journal's readers. Theo van Heijnsbergen found ways to deepen and refine the argument. I am especially grateful to Heather Giles, without whose alertness, learning, and imagination, the project would have foundered.

Works Cited

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.

© 2003-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).