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Henryson, Robert (d. c.1490), poet, is first recorded in the muniments of Glasgow University, where he was incorporated on 10 September 1462. Incorporation usually meant matriculation as a student; Henryson, however, is described as vir venerabilis (‘venerable man’), as magister (master, of arts, that is to say), and as ‘licentiate in arts and bachelor of decrees’. This implies that he was already of some age and standing and that he had studied at a university, as yet unidentified but perhaps on the continent, where after four years he had gained the licentiate and mastership in arts, and after another two years the bachelorship in canon law. At Glasgow it is possible that he was incorporated as legens (‘reader’), lecturing in canon law. Almost certainly he was also a priest. In March 1463 David Cadzow, first rector of the university, who had himself given lectures in canon law in 1460, founded a chaplaincy of 12 merks (£8 Scots) yearly, the clerk of which was to celebrate a daily mass for the donor's soul and to lecture publicly in the faculty of canon law. Henryson may have been the first incumbent. His narrative poem Orpheus and Eurydice is based on Boethius's De consolatione philosophiae, III, metrum xii, together with the commentary of Nicholas Trevet (d. 1328). During the fifteenth century the library of Glasgow Cathedral contained a copy of this work—a possible indication that the poem is a product of Henryson's residence in Glasgow.

Henryson's academic qualifications were soon outshone, in particular by Master Thomas Lauderdale, doctor of canon law and licentiate in civil law, whose name first appears in university muniments in 1468. Henryson is usually connected with Dunfermline and often described as schoolmaster there; he may have made the move in or about 1468 at the invitation of Richard Bothwell, abbot of Dunfermline, who had Glasgow connections, and who in that year provided a house and land for the town schoolmaster, together with yearly rents of the value of 11 merks (£7 6s. 8d. Scots) and more, for the maintenance of poor scholars, whom the master was to teach free of charge. Henryson's interests may have suited him more for a grammar school than a law faculty. He was certainly resident in Dunfermline during the 1470s and probably the 1480s. One of his Morall fabillis, ‘The Trial of the Fox’, may be interpreted as referring to the increased secularization of monastic life during the reign of James III (r. 1460–88), exemplified, according to John Leslie, bishop of Ross (d. 1596), by the royal intrusion in 1472 of Henry Crichton as abbot of Dunfermline in place of Alexander Thomson, whom the monks had duly elected. On 18 and 19 March and 6 July 1478 Henryson, described as notary public, witnessed three grants made by Crichton of lands near Dunfermline. Another fable, ‘The Lion and the Mouse’, may plausibly be interpreted as containing some reference to the Lauder Bridge incident of July 1482, in which James III was made prisoner, but afterwards released, partly through the efforts of the burgesses of Edinburgh. Two fables, ‘The Fox and the Wolf’ and ‘The Fox, the Wolf and the Husbandman’, may show the influence of Caxton's History of Reynard the Fox (1481), and another, ‘The Wolf and the Wether’, is almost certainly based on a similar episode in Caxton's Aesop (1484). The Testament of Cresseid is probably referred to in The Spektakle of Luf, a prose treatise completed by G. Myll in St Andrews on 10 July 1492.

The earliest text of any of Henryson's poems appears in additions made to the Makculloch manuscript (Edinburgh University Library, MS La.III.149), additions probably made c.1500, a terminus ad quem for the composition of the two poems included, namely, the ‘Prolog’ and its sequel, ‘The Cock and the Jasp’. If the unique text of ‘The Annunciation’ in the Gray manuscript (NL Scot., Adv. MS 34.7.3) was in fact written by James Gray (d. c.1505), it belongs to the same period and carries similar implications for date of composition.

The earliest of Henryson's poems to be issued in printed form were ‘The Praise of Age’, Orpheus, and ‘The Want of Wise Men’, which appeared in tracts printed by Chepman and Myllar in or about 1508. ‘The Praise of Age’ is the second item in the seventh tract; the other two make up the eighth with the colophon: ‘Heir begynnis the traitie of Orpheus kyng and how he yeid to hewyn & to hel to seik his quene And ane othir ballad in the lattir end’ (Beattie, 149). Neither tract mentions Henryson's name as author. Indeed, none of the shorter poems is to be regarded as certainly his work.

Henryson's death in Dunfermline is mentioned by William Dunbar in his poem ‘Timor mortis conturbat me’, a printed text of which appears in a black-letter tract of undetermined provenance and date, but approximately contemporary with the Chepman and Myllar prints. Dunbar commemorates a number of dead poets, the latest of whom are ‘gud gentill Stobo and Quintyne Schaw’ (line 86). Stobo is known to have died in 1505; Schaw was still alive in 1504. Henryson's death must therefore have been earlier than 1505. His poetry contains no obvious reference to events in the reign of James IV, who succeeded in 1488; Henryson may therefore have died between 1484 and 1488 or very shortly thereafter. In 1519 a priest, Sir John Moffat, is first mentioned as schoolmaster in Dunfermline; he is recorded in the burgh as early as 1493 and it is possible that by then he had already succeeded to Henryson's post. Sir Francis Kinaston (d. 1642) preserves an entertaining anecdote of Henryson's death as a very old man, but impossibly makes his floruit towards the end of the reign of Henry VIII, in the 1540s.

Other evidence confirms that in the first quarter of the sixteenth century Henryson's poetry had achieved some reputation. In its present condition the imperfectly preserved Asloan manuscript (NL Scot., MS Accession 4233), dated c.1520, contains only two of his poems, Orpheus and ‘The Two Mice’, but when complete it also included six other fables, in an order different from that found in later prints and manuscripts, together with the Testament and the lost ‘master Robert hendersonnis Dreme On fut by forth’ (Craigie, 1.xiv). Parts of the manuscript appear to have been copied from earlier prints. In a note to the first book of his own translation of the Aeneid Gavin Douglas (d. 1522) makes a complimentary reference to Henryson and Orpheus. The poetry of Sir David Lindsay (d. 1555), in particular The Dreme (1528), contains many Henrysonian reminiscences.

In the later sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries the number of surviving prints and manuscript versions multiplies. Only the more important need be noted. The Testament of Cresseid was included as Chaucer's work in William Thynne's London edition of Chaucer of 1532 and often subsequently. The Bannatyne manuscript (NL Scot., Adv. MS 1.1.6.), completed in 1568, contains all but three of the Fabillis, not in the order now generally accepted, as well as Orpheus and two of the twelve shorter poems. The Charteris print of the Fabillis, first to give the order now generally accepted, appeared in 1569, the Bassandyne in 1571, and the Hart in 1621. The Charteris print of the Testament appeared in 1593. All were printed in Edinburgh. In England too there was some interest. An Anglicized version of the Fabillis, ‘translated’ and printed by Richard Smith, appeared at London in 1577. In 1639 the Englishman Sir Francis Kinaston produced, as an appendix to his Latin translation of Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde, an annotated version of the Testament. This is preserved in a single manuscript (Bodl. Oxf., MS Add. C.287, pp. 475–509).

The apparent direct simplicity of Henryson's poetry conceals many difficulties of both text and interpretation. A major, if largely unrecognized, problem with the Fabillis is the order and internal relationship of the individual tales, which may not have been intended to form a unified collection.

As a narrative poet Henryson's chief characteristics are his brevity and moral force—‘In breif sermone ane pregnant sentence wryte’ (Fox, 119)—with which he combines human sympathy, an ironic sense of humour, sometimes embracing the grotesque, and a subtle use of allegory. Courts of law, together with legal pleas and decisions, figure extensively. His numerical composition is based partly on biblical sources, partly on medieval and early Renaissance Platonism. In terms of his favourite rhyme-royal stanza and other more lyrical forms, Henryson is a metrical virtuoso, melding elements of the earlier Chaucerian and alliterative traditions. His tendency is to base his poems on older material—Chaucer, for instance, Boethius, or the verse Romulus, a twelfth-century collection of Latin fables attributed to Gualterus Anglicus—but to develop it in ways which are highly individual. Orpheus and Eurydice best illustrates his method of Platonic numerical composition. The Testament of Cresseid heightens the tragedy of Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde, on which at the same time it makes an oblique comment. Its 616 lines contrast with Chaucer's 8239. Cresseid's suffering is subjected to profound but sympathetic moral analysis, some, as in her trial before the planetary gods, at once allegorical and vivid. The planetary portraits, especially that of Saturn, illustrate Henryson's use of the grotesque. His humour also is felt here, as in the ironic presentation of the narrator in the proem. The 85 stanzas (plus 1 for the epilogue) naturally fall into 3 divisions, each of 203 lines, two containing 29 stanzas, the other 27. Every number and its factor has its own significance. The variety of effects compassed by the stanza forms, rhyme-royal, and the nine-line structure of ‘The Complaint of Cresseid’ demonstrate Henryson's metrical virtuosity.

Tragedy and pathos are present in individual fables, ‘The Preaching of the Swallow’, for instance, or ‘The Paddock and the Mouse’. Comedy, however, is more characteristic, whether of the gentle variety found in ‘The Two Mice’, the more serious kind found in ‘The Lion and the Mouse’, or the savage farce found in the three episodes of ‘The Talking of the Tod’. A trial features prominently in the last two. Most have a numerical structure, illustrated by the forty stanzas of another fable, the Lenten comedy, ‘The Fox, the Wolf and the Cadger’. Henryson's greatness is most plainly to be seen in the range of general principles and ideas which informs his poetry and which allows it to encompass tragedy and comedy alike. He is the most Shakespearian of the early Scottish poets.

John MacQueen


C. Innes, ed., Munimenta alme Universitatis Glasguensis / Records of the University of Glasgow from its foundation till 1727, 4 vols., Maitland Club, 72 (1854) · Register of Dunfermline Abbey, NL Scot., Adv. MS 34.1.3A, nos. 478–80 · CEPR letters, vol. 12 · E. Beveridge, ed., Burgh records of Dunfermline (1917) · D. Laing, ed., The poems and fables of Robert Henryson (1865) · D. Fox, ed., The poems of Robert Henryson (1981) · J. MacQueen, ‘Poetry: James I to Henryson’, The history of Scottish literature, ed. C. Craig, 1: Origins to 1660, ed. R. D. S. Jack (1988) · J. Durkan, William Turnbull bishop of Glasgow (1951) · J. D. Mackie, The University of Glasgow, 1451–1951: a short history (1954) · W. Beattie, ed., The Chepman and Myllar prints: a facsimile (1980) · The Asloan manuscript, ed. W. A. Craigie, 2 vols., STS, new ser., 14, 16 (1923–5), vol. 1


Bodl. Oxf., MS Add. C.287, pp. 475–509 · NL Scot., Accession MS 4233 · NL Scot., Adv. MS 1.1.6 · NRA, priv. coll., literary papers · U. Edin. L., MS La.III.149