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Beaton [Betoun], Davidfree

  • Margaret H. B. Sanderson

Beaton [Betoun], David (1494?–1546), cardinal and archbishop of St Andrews, was a younger son of John Beaton (d. 1532), of Balfour, Fife, and Elizabeth Monypenny (d. 1541), daughter of the laird of Pitmilly, Fife.

Early career and appointments

Beaton entered St Andrews University in 1508, transferred to that of Glasgow in 1511, and in 1519 was admitted to the University of Orleans. By then he had held first a canonry and then the chancellorship of Glasgow Cathedral through the influence of his uncle, James Beaton (c. 1473–1539), archbishop of Glasgow. At the French court he gained the patronage of the French-born John Stewart, fourth duke of Albany, governor of Scotland between 1515 and 1524. Albany brought him to Scotland in 1521 and presented him to the young James V. In 1522 Beaton was sent to England on diplomatic business, but he returned to France with Albany in 1524 to negotiate a Franco-Scottish royal marriage, an alliance envisaged in the treaty of Rouen (1517). The same year he received his first major ecclesiastical appointment, the abbacy of Arbroath, resigned to him by his uncle on the latter's translation to the archbishopric of St Andrews. David Beaton, whose papal provision was dated 26 June 1524, was strictly speaking commendator of Arbroath. He never took monastic vows and as late as 1534 he petitioned the pope to be allowed to postpone taking holy orders.

From his return to Scotland at Christmas 1524 until his next embassy to France in 1533 Beaton made a place for himself in the central administration. He became a member of the council, which dealt with both public affairs and legal causes. As abbot of Arbroath he sat in parliament. He was chosen one of the young king's guardians, and on 3 January 1529 he was made keeper of the privy seal. His public career during the minority of James V was not without difficulties. During the ascendancy of the Anglophile earl of Angus (second husband of the queen mother Margaret Tudor) and his Douglas kinsmen, the influence of the Francophile Beaton prelates declined, with long periods when David Beaton was absent from the council. The early 1530s saw a contest of wills between king and clergy over James's taxation of the church for the endowment of a college of justice. The danger of resistance was that it risked provoking the king into following Henry VIII's example and laying hands on monastic property. David Beaton tempered his resistance sufficiently to be able to retain the king's favour, even while his uncle the archbishop was politically under a cloud. The experiences of the 1520s and early 1530s created in him a strong attachment to the Franco-Scottish alliance, a resistance to English influence in Scottish affairs, and an antipathy to the Douglases, who acted as a channel of that influence.

Ambassador and prince of the church

Beaton's knowledge of the French court was to his advantage when in 1533 James V renewed negotiations for a French marriage. Of the next ten years he spent the equivalent of four and a half in France, on seven separate occasions: from late April to late July 1533 and in the spring of 1534; from early September 1536 to mid-May 1537, when he accompanied James V on his visit to France during which the king married Princess Madeleine; in the autumn and winter of 1537 and spring of 1538, when he negotiated James V's marriage to Mary of Guise; in the autumn of 1538 and the summer of 1539, mainly on his own ecclesiastical affairs; and from late July 1541 to early August 1542, his longest diplomatic mission. European observers were impressed by his grasp of international affairs; he was referred to during James V's state visit to France as 'one of his prelati who conducts everything and is a man of a good wit' (LP Henry VIII, 11, no. 1173).

Beaton's diplomatic efforts on Scotland's behalf turned to his own advantage. In 1537 Francis I nominated him to the French bishopric of Mirepoix, to which he received papal provision on 5 December. He crossed to France in the autumn of 1538, probably for his consecration and, as often happened with career-clerics, to receive holy orders on the same occasion. On 20 December 1538, by now also acting as coadjutor (administrator with prospect of succeeding) of St Andrews for his ageing uncle, he was one of five new cardinals created by the pope, European opinion regarding him as one of the French appointees. When concelebrating at the empress's requiem mass in June 1539, he was referred to as 'the cardinal of Mirepoix' (Lestocquoy, 1.443–4). On his uncle's death on 14 February 1539 he became archbishop of St Andrews. Five years later, in the spring of 1544, he received intimation of his appointment as legate a latere, with delegated papal powers over the Scottish church.

Later relations with James V

Having passed the zenith of his diplomatic usefulness there developed a tension in Beaton's relations with the king. This partly arose out of the cardinal's initiatives in tackling the problem of heresy among those whose royal service protected them, and partly from fear of the king's designs on the wealth of the church. In 1538, while coadjutor of St Andrews, he ordered a crackdown on religious suspects in Dundee. At the start of his primacy in 1539 a number of heretics were brought to trial, seven of whom were put to death. This forceful beginning was not followed up, largely because Beaton was unable to lay hands on the leading dissidents, a group of nobles, lairds, and lawyers, some of them his own vassals in Fife and Angus (Forfarshire), who wished closer friendship with England: 'the contagion of English impiety', as he called it (LP Henry VIII, 18/1, no. 494). Early in 1540 the prelates, led by Beaton, presented the king with a list of those who they asserted might be forfeited for heresy. James threw the list back at them, telling them not to come between him and his servants. Beaton's reaction to this rebuff was to summon for trial a trusted royal servant, Sir John Borthwick, who had outlined a recognizably Cromwellian programme for the reform of the church. Having been warned, Borthwick escaped to England and was condemned in absentia. In March 1541 the cardinal put his stamp on a group of anti-heresy statutes whose provisions reflect the extent to which religious dissent had grown since Patrick Hamilton's case in 1528; he targeted criticism of the papacy and of the church's central doctrines and practice, iconoclastic protest, and group discussion of protestant teaching.

The bid for control

Anglo-Scottish relations deteriorated in the autumn of 1542, not least because of James V's failure in 1541 to keep an appointment with Henry VIII at York, a meeting which Beaton had been instrumental in preventing. Border hostilities turned into a campaign for the invasion of England, encouraged by Beaton who in his letters to the pope gave it the character of a holy war against the apostate king of England. The campaign ended with the rout of the Scottish army at Solway Moss on 24 November, followed by the death of the king on 14 December, a few days after the birth of his daughter Mary. The power struggle that followed the king's death arose partly from uncertainty about his last wishes for the government during his daughter's minority. On 19 December Beaton was proclaimed head of a council consisting of the earls of Arran (heir-presumptive), Moray, Argyll, and Huntly, but towards the end of the month Arran confided to an English agent that the cardinal had told lies to the council about the king's wishes. On 3 January 1543 Beaton had to acquiesce in the result of a coup which made Arran sole governor. Yet in spite of their antagonism Arran conferred the office of chancellor on Beaton on 10 January, depriving the archbishop of Glasgow, Gavin Dunbar. It has been suggested that in order to gain the coveted chancellorship Beaton may have brought pressure to bear on Arran, who in the church's eyes was of doubtful legitimacy, the annulment of his father's first marriage being of questionable validity. Besides, Arran's name headed the clergy's list of heretics. But although Arran was putting it about in April that the cardinal had first made the king sign a blank paper and then forged his will, Beaton was never charged with forgery.

By mid-January 1543 it was reported that 'the Cardinal is everything in Scotland' (LP Henry VIII, 18/1, no. 44), but opposition was mobilizing. The earl of Angus and his brother Sir George Douglas, who had been in England since 1528, crossed the border, and a number of the Solway Moss prisoners came home on parole, having promised in return for English pensions to further Henry VIII's plans for the dynastic union of the two kingdoms. On 27 January the cardinal was arrested in council, on a charge of having invited the French to Scotland, and was removed from the court. Three months' detention ended in house arrest in his own castle at St Andrews, where he worked to break the English intervention in Scottish affairs, playing on the vested interests of all parties. He sent for French military help to withstand England and brought home from France two people whose presence he hoped might unnerve the governor and wean him away from the Anglophile reformist party: Matthew Stewart, thirteenth earl of Lennox, who if Arran's illegitimacy were proved was heir-presumptive, and John Hamilton, abbot of Paisley, the governor's half-brother. Meantime, the parliament which met in March confirmed Arran's governorship, passed an act permitting the reading of the New Testament in English, and instructed commissioners to negotiate a treaty for the marriage of Prince Edward and Queen Mary, the terms of which were finalized in London on 1 July. The governor also appointed protestant preachers at court.

On 20 July the cardinal's party signed a band to protect the queen from Henry VIII's plans and to have her and her mother removed from Linlithgow to Stirling Castle. After a conference with Arran's party the royal removal was accomplished. Beaton stayed away from the ratification of the English treaty at Edinburgh on 25 August. His anti-English attitude gained credibility when the English seized some Scottish merchant ships, provoking a riot in Edinburgh in which the house of the English envoy, Sir Ralph Sadler, was attacked. Losing his nerve, the governor left Edinburgh on 4 September, met the cardinal at Callendar (near Falkirk), home of Lord Livingston, and at Stirling publicly recanted his heresy, receiving absolution from the cardinal's hands. Mary was crowned at Stirling on 9 September. At a meeting of the council in the cardinal's Edinburgh lodging, in the presence of the queen dowager, Mary of Guise, and the governor, Beaton told Sadler that the marriage treaty could not stand as the majority of the nobility had not agreed to it. Henry VIII, who saw the cardinal behind all his problems in Scotland, planned revenge.

Beaton in charge of policy

The governor's reconciliation with Beaton shattered the Anglo-Scottish agreements and caused an upheaval in internal Scottish politics. Lennox deserted the cardinal for Angus's party, which became a broadly based opposition, drawing part of its support from the west and including some who had never been compromised by Henry VIII as well as its natural adherents, the Anglophile reformists, who deplored the prospect of war with England and the setback to the 1543 measures for religious reform. Some who had supported Beaton out of enmity to Arran deserted him now that the governor was associated with him. The situation provoked the cardinal into taking punitive action against opponents. In the autumn of 1543 he launched an inquisition which resulted in the arrests not only of some Dundee iconoclasts and a number of priests and laymen in Angus, the Mearns, and Aberdeenshire, but also of lords Maxwell and Somerville (caught on their way to England as Angus's envoys), and the earl of Rothes, Lord Gray, and Henry Balnaves. Beaton had to give up his prominent victims, being warned that the detention of these lords and barons without trial would have serious consequences. Parliament, meeting in December, annulled the English treaty, confirmed the French alliance, and re-enacted the anti-heresy legislation. The chancellorship was restored to the cardinal.

In January 1544 Beaton and Arran descended on Perth, where a group of heretics was put to death, and the cardinal engineered a change of provost in order to demonstrate his authority in the burgh, whose craftsmen had sent a contingent to support Lennox at the end of 1543. After the failure of an attempt at reconciliation between the parties early in 1544, Beaton found it increasingly difficult to hold the unstable political situation together. The LennoxAngus forces took to the field in the west, but were defeated near Glasgow. Lennox departed for England, not before he had soured Franco-Scottish relations by failing to give an account of the money handed over to him by the French ambassadors towards the end of 1543. Acting in his own interests, Lennox's behaviour lowered the cardinal's credit with France at this juncture. Beaton also watched uneasily throughout the year as Mary of Guise tried to form a party which attracted support from the Douglases and even some of the bishops who wished for peace, and which, before it fell apart, held a convention in June at which Arran was formally suspended from the governorship. On Christmas eve 1544 the cardinal wrote asking for the papacy's moral support against England, considering 'our continual obedience to the Holy See, and their disobedience' (LP Henry VIII, 19/2, no. 774).

The English invasions, conspiracy, and murder

In 1544 and 1545 the cardinal paid the price of having broken the marriage treaty, in several devastating English invasions, in which the borders and south-east suffered especially. The initial attack from the sea in May 1544 reached Edinburgh. So instinctive was the Scottish reaction to the assaults of the 'auld enemy' that for a time the Douglases fought on the government's side. However, apart from the battle of Ancrum Moor on 27 February 1545, when Angus led the Scots to victory and the English leaders Eure and Layton were killed, the campaign to withstand the English incursions was a failure. French help, when it came, proved a humiliation for the cardinal. François I, waging a war on two fronts, could not afford an army of the size needed to defeat Henry VIII's invading forces. The French military commander, Jacques de Montgomery, seigneur de Lorges, who arrived in May 1545, regarded himself as answerable only to the French king. He and the cardinal almost came to blows over the Frenchman's role in the campaign, while the Scots leaders refused seriously to invade England under his command. English propaganda pilloried the cardinal as the cause of the war.

Meantime a more personal threat was maturing, born out of growing political, religious, and personal antagonism. Henry VIII eventually agreed to a plot to kill Beaton, his conditions being conveyed through Scottish agents to those who promised him to take out of the way 'the worker of all your mischief' (Sanderson, 202). By the winter of 1545–6 Beaton was financially exhausted, his credit with France was at a low ebb, and dislike of his policies had turned into a personal vendetta. Early in 1546 he seized the protestant preacher George Wishart, whose public preaching in defiance of an episcopal ban and the support he received from prominent adherents of reform had recently been making a mockery of the anti-heresy laws. Beaton's show of authority in the trial and execution of Wishart at St Andrews on 1 March 1546 recoiled brutally on himself. On 29 May he was murdered in his castle in St Andrews by a small group of Fife lairds whose motives combined personal quarrels, political frustration, and religious outrage at the death of Wishart, on whom they had counted to advance publicly the cause of reform. Beaton's body, preserved in salt, was handed over for burial when his killers surrendered the castle at the end of July 1547. It is not known where his remains were interred. Some European reports of the assassination remarked how well the cardinal's removal from the political scene suited the king of England.


Cardinal Beaton has always been prominent in accounts of early sixteenth-century Scotland. Nineteenth- and early twentieth-century biographers, who were largely ultra-protestant and constitutional historians, saw him as an apocalyptic figure whose policies, in the words of Peter Hume Brown, 'ran counter to the development of the country' (Brown, 2.19). He was depicted as the champion of the fading Franco-Scottish alliance and the personification of an ecclesiastical tyranny doomed to destruction. He has sometimes also been seen as a patriot, resisting the aggressions of Henry VIII, and as having a personal interest in the proposals for internal reform of church standards voiced during his primacy. His reputation for profligacy, so much a part of the earlier folk history surrounding him, still gets a mention.

The result of modern research into the voluminous documentation of Beaton's public career has been to strike a balance in assessing his character and impact. Possibly the most notable revision has been to emphasize the difficulties he experienced in trying to control both the political situation and the rise of religious dissent, thereby helping to modify the earlier stereotype of the dreaded tyrant. His resistance to England has to be set against his concern for his own vested interests in France, noted by contemporaries. His ability to control policy may owe something to the fact that latterly he had the malleable Governor Arran to handle in place of James V, and that he was able to play off one party against another. His own private life would appear to negate any supposed support on his part for the reform of clerical standards, and still leaves him as an example of one of the greatest weaknesses in the structure of the unreformed church, demonstrating the ease with which secularly minded career-clerics might aspire to ecclesiastical leadership. In this connection, however, it should be mentioned that research has identified all his eight recorded children as the sons and daughters of Marion Ogilvy (d. 1575), the daughter of the first Lord Ogilvy, whom he treated virtually as a wife for more than twenty years until his death. Beaton lived in the style of a Renaissance magnate, with a large household, French personal servants, and six residences, including the castle of St Andrews, the abbot's house at Arbroath, a substantial Edinburgh lodging, and the private residence of Melgund in Angus, on land which he purchased from the crown for his mistress and their family in 1543. He was an international figure, at home in France where, it was claimed, he might have been taken for a Frenchman.

In Beaton's favour as a statesman it may be said that his approach was more truly international than that of most Scottish contemporaries with whom he had to work, and that he was the last Scottish statesman to keep his country within the arena of European politics, wringing all he could for Scotland out of shifting diplomatic situations. On the other hand, his conservatism, which was largely motivated by his need to preserve the political and ecclesiastical systems that had made him what he was, robbed him of the chance of success, which his wider vision might have won. He failed to see that when he needed the French alliance most, in 1544–5, the French king was unable or unwilling to assist him to the extent that he required, and he underestimated the irreversible commitment of many leading Scots to closer relations with England. At the same time his apparent unwillingness to implement any serious internal reform of the church, which was demanded most in those areas upon which the livings and authority enjoyed by himself and his fellow prelates principally depended, only added fuel to the frustration and resentment of those who wanted radical reform. In the end his temperament and personal priorities betrayed his abilities as a politician and churchman in an era in which Scotland's traditional alignments in those fields were increasingly threatened.


  • M. H. B. Sanderson, Cardinal of Scotland: David Beaton, c.1494–1546 (1986) [has full bibliography and list of archival sources]
  • J. Herkless and R. K. Hannay, The archbishops of St Andrews, 5 vols. (1907–15), vol. 4
  • acts of the lords of council and session, NA Scot., CS 5; CS 6
  • LP Henry VIII, 11, no. 1173; 18/1, no. 494; 18/1, no. 44; 19/2, no. 774
  • The state papers and letters of Sir Ralph Sadler, ed. A. Clifford, 2 vols. (1809)
  • The Scottish correspondence of Mary of Lorraine, ed. A. I. Cameron, Scottish History Society, 3rd ser., 10 (1927)
  • J. Lestocquoy, ed., Correspondance des nonces en France, 3 vols. (Rome, 1961)
  • J. B. A. T. Teulet, ed., Papiers d'état, pièces et documents inédits ou peu connus relatifs à l'histoire de l'Écosse au XVIème siècle, 3 vols., Bannatyne Club, 107 (Paris, 1852–60)
  • register of supplications, Vatican Archives
  • C. Innes and P. Chalmers, eds., Liber s. Thome de Aberbrothoc, 2 vols., Bannatyne Club, 86 (1848–56), vol. 2
  • R. K. Hannay, ed., Rentale Sancti Andree, 1538–1546, Scottish History Society, 2nd ser., 4 (1913)
  • John Knox's History of the Reformation in Scotland, ed. W. C. Dickinson, 1 (1949)
  • A. Hay, Ad illustrissimum tituli s. Stephani in monte Coelio cardinalem, d. Davidem Betoun, primatem Scotiae … de foelici accessione dignitatis cardinalitiae gratulatorius panegyricus Archibaldi Hayi (Paris, 1540)
  • P. H. Brown, History of Scotland to the present time, 3 vols. (1911)
  • Charles, eleventh marquis of Huntly, earl of Aboyne, ed., The records of Aboyne MCCXXX–MDCLXXXI, New Spalding Club, 13 (1894)


  • BL, letters, Royal MS Lat. 18 6
  • NA Scot.
  • U. St Andr. L.
  • U. Glas., department of history, Ross fund microfilm of Scottish material in the Vatican archives


  • oils, 1538, Blairs College, Aberdeenshire; colour transparency, Scot. NPG
National Archives of Scotland, Edinburgh
J. S. Brewer, J. Gairdner, & R. H. Brodie, eds., , 23 vols. in 38 (1862–1932); repr. (1965)