George Buchanan was born in Lennoxshire (commonly called the sheriffdom of Dumbarton), in Scotland, in a country town, situated near the river or water of Blane, in the year of our Lord 1506, about the beginning of February, of a family rather ancient than rich. His father died of the stone, in the flower of his age, whilst his grandfather was yet alive, by whose extravagance, the family, which was below before, was now almost reduced to the extremity of want. Yet such was the frugal care of his mother Agnes Herriot, that she brought up five sons and three daughters to men's and women's estate. Of the five sons, George was one. His uncle, James Herriot, perceiving his promising ingenuity in their own country schools, took him from thence, and sent him to Paris. There he applied himself to his studies, and especially to poetry; having partly a natural genius that way, and partly out of necessity, (because it was the only method of study propounded to him in his youth). Before he had been there two years, his uncle died, and he himself fell dangerously sick; and being in extreme want, was forced to go home to his friends. After his return to Scotland, he spent almost a year in taking care of his health; then he went into the army, with some French auxiliaries, newly arrived in Scotland, to learn the military art: But that expedition proving fruitless, and those forces being reduced by the deep snow of a very severe winter, he relapsed into such an illness as confined him all that season to his bed. Early in the spring he was sent to St. Andrews, to hear the lectures of John Major, who, though very old, read logic, or rather sophistry, in that university. The summer after, he accompanied him into France; and there he fell into the troubles of the Lutheran sect, which then began to increase. He struggled with the difficulties of fortune almost two years, and at last was admitted into the Barbaran college, where he was grammar professor almost three years. During that time, Gilbert Kennedy, earl of Cassils, one of the young Scottish nobles, being in that country, was much taken with his ingenuity and acquaintance; so that he entertained him for five years, and brought him back with him into Scotland.
Afterwards, having a mind to return to Paris to his old studies, he was detained by the king, and made tutor to James his natural son. In the mean time, an elegy made by him, at leisure times, came into the hands of the Franciscans; wherein he writes, that he was solicited in a dream by St. Francis, to enter into his order. In this poem there were one or two passages that reflected on them very severely; which those ghostly fathers, notwithstanding their profession of meekness and humility, took more heinously, than men (having obtained such a vogue for piety among the vulgar) ought to have done, upon so small an occasion of offence. But finding no just grounds for their unbounded fury, they attacked him upon the score of religion; which was their common way of terrifying those they did not wish well to. Thus, whilst they indulged their impotent malice, they made him, who was not well affected to them before, a greater enemy to their licentiousness, and rendered him more inclinable to the Lutheran cause. In the mean time, the king, with Magdalen his wife, came from France, not without the resentment of the priesthood; who were afraid that the royal lady, having been bred up under her aunt the queen of Navarre, should attempt some innovation in religion. But this fear soon vanished upon her death, which followed shortly after.
Next, there arose jealousies at court about some of the nobility, who were thought to have conspired against the king; and, in that matter, the king being persuaded the Franciscans dealt insincerely, he commanded Buchanan, who was then at court, (though he was ignorant of the disgusts betwixt him and that order), to write a satyr upon them. He was loath to offend either of them, and therefore, though he made a poem, yet it was but short, and such as might admit of a doubtful interpretation, wherein he satisfied neither party; not the king, who would have had a sharp and stinging invective; nor the fathers neither, who looked on it as a capital offence, to have any thing said of them but what was honourable. So that receiving a second command to write more pungently against them, he began that miscellany, which now bears the title of The Franciscan, and gave it to the king. But shortly after, being made acquainted by his friends at court, that cardinal Beaton sought his life, and had offered the king a sum of money as a price for his head, he escaped out of prison, and fled for England. But there also things were at such an uncertainty, that the very same day, and almost with one and the same fire, the men of both factions (protestants and papists) were burnt; Henry VIII. in his old age, being more intent on his own security, than the purity or reformation of religion. This uncertainty of affairs in England, seconded by his ancient acquaintance with the French, and the courtesy natural to them, drew him again into that kingdom.
As soon as he came to Paris, he found cardinal Beaton, his utter enemy, ambassador there; so that, to withdraw himself from his fury, at the invitation of Andrew Govean, he went to Bourdeaux. -- -- There he taught three years in the schools, which were erected at the public cost. In that time he composed four tragedies, which were afterwards occasionally published. But that which he wrote first, called The Baptist, was printed last, and next the Medea of Euripides. He wrote them in compliance with the custom of the school, which was to have a play written once a-year, that the acting of them might wean the French youth from allegories, to which they had taken a false taste, and bring them back, as much as possible, to a just imitation of the ancients. This affair succeeding even almost beyond his hopes, he took more pains in compiling the other two tragedies, called Jephtha and Alcestes, because he thought they would fall under a severer scrutiny of the learned. And yet, during this time, he was not wholly free from trouble, being harassed with the menaces of the cardinal on the one side, and of the Franciscans on the other: For the cardinal had wrote letters to the arch-bishop of Bourdeaux, to apprehend him; but, providentially, those letters fell into the hands of Buchanan's best friends. However, the death of the king of Scots, and the plague, which then raged over all Aquitain, dispelled that fear.
In the interim, an express came to Govean from the king of Portugal, commanding him to return, and bring with him some men, learned both in the Greek and Latin tongues, that they might read the liberal arts, and especially the principles of the Aristotelian philosophy, in those schools which he was then building with a great deal of care and expence. Buchanan, being addressed to, readily contented to go for one. For, whereas he saw that all Europe besides, was either actually in foreign or domestic wars, or just upon the point of being so, that one corner of the world was, in his opinion, likeliest to be free from tumults and combustions; and besides his companions in that journey were such, that they seemed rather his acquaintances and familiar friends, than strangers or aliens to him: for many of them had been his intimates for several years, and are well known to the world by their learned works, as Micholaus Gruchius, Gulielmus Garentaeus, Jacobus Tevius, and Elias Vinetus. This was the reason that he did not only make one of their society, but also persuaded a brother of his, called Patrick, to do the same. And truly the matter succeeded excellently well at first, till, in the midst of the enterprize, Andrew Govean was taken away by a sudden death, which proved mighty prejudicial to his companions: For, after his decease, all their enemies endeavoured first to ensnare them by treachery, and soon after ran violently upon them as it were with open mouth; and their agents and instruments being great enemies to the accused, they laid hold of three of them, and haled them to prison; whence, after a long and lothsome confinement, they were called out to give in their answers, and, after many bitter taunts, were remanded to prison again; and yet no accuser did appear in court against them. As for Buchanan, they insulted most bitterly over him, as being a stranger, and knowing also, that he had very few friends in that country, who would either rejoice in his prosperity, sympathize with his grief, or revenge the wrongs offered to him. The crime laid to his charge, was the poem he wrote against the Franciscans; which he himself, before he went from France, took care to get excused to the king of Portugal; neither did his accusers perfectly know what it was, for he had given but one copy of it to the king of Scots, by whose command he wrote it. They farther objected |his eating of flesh in Lent;| though there is not a man in all Spain but uses the same liberty. Besides, he had given some sly side blows to the monks, which, however, nobody but a monk himself could well except against.
Moreover, they took it heinously ill, that, in a certain familiar discourse with some young Portuguese gentlemen, upon mention made of the Eucharist, he should affirm, that, in his judgment, Austin was more inclinable to the party condemned by the church of Rome. Two other witnesses (as some years after it came to his knowledge), viz. John Tolpin, a Norman, and John Ferrerius of Sub alpine Liguria, had witnessed against him, that they had heard from divers creditable persons, |That Buchanan was not orthodox as to the Roman faith and religion.|
But to return to the matter; after the inquisitors had wearied both themselves and him for almost half a year, at last, that they might not seem to have causelesly vexed a man of some name and note in the world, they shut him up in a monastery for some months, there to be more exactly disciplined and instructed by the monks, who (to give them their due), though very ignorant in all matters of religion, were men otherwise neither bad in their morals, nor rude in their behaviour.
This was the time he took to form the principal part of David's psalms into Latin verse. At last he was set at liberty; and sueing for a pass, and accommodations from the crown, to return into France, the king desired him to stay where he was, and allotted him a little sum for daily necessaries and pocket expences, till some better provision might be made for his subsistence. But he, tired out with delay, as being put off to no certain time, nor on any sure grounds of hope; and having got the opportunity of a passage in a ship then riding in the bay of Lisbon, was carried over into England. He made no long stay in that country, though fair offers were made him there; for he saw that all things were in a hurry and combustion, under a very young king; the nobles at variance one with another, and the minds of the commons yet in a ferment, upon the account of their civil combustions. Whereupon he returned into France, about the time that the siege of Metz was raised. There he was in a manner compelled by his friends to write a poem concerning that siege; which he did, though somewhat unwillingly, because he was loth to interfere with several of his acquaintances, and especially with Mellinus Sangelasius, who had composed a learned and elegant poem on that subject. From thence he was called over into Italy, by Charles de Cosse of Brescia, who then managed matters with very good success in the Gallic and Ligustic countries about the Po. He lived with him and his son Timoleon, sometimes in Italy, and sometimes in France, the space of five years, till the year 1560; the greatest part of which time he spent in the study of the holy scriptures, that so he might be able to make a more exact judgment of the controversies in religion, which employed the thoughts, and took up all the time of most of the men of these days. It is true, these disputes were silenced a little in Scotland, when that kingdom was freed from the tyranny of the Guises of France; so he returned thither, and became a member of the church of Scotland, 1560.
Some of his writings, in former times, being, as it were, redeemed from shipwreck, were by him collected and published: the rest, which were scattered up and down in the hands of his friends, he committed to the disposal of providence. After his return, he professed philosophy in St. Andrews, and in the year 1565, he was appointed tutor to James VI. king of Scotland; and in 1568, went with the regent to the court of England, at which time and place he did no small honour to his country.
Sir James Melvil, in his memoirs, page 234, gives him the following character. -- |He was a Stoic philosopher, who looked not far before him; too easy in his old age; somewhat revengeful against those who had offended him:| But notwithstanding, |a man of notable endowments, great learning, and an excellent Latin poet; he was much honoured in foreign countries; pleasant in conversation, into which he happily introduced short moral maxims, which his invention readily supplied him with upon any emergency. He was buried at Edinburgh in the common place, though worthy to have been laid in marble, as in his life pompous monuments he used to contemn and despise.|