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Douglas, Gavinfree

(c. 1476–1522)
  • Priscilla J. Bawcutt

Douglas, Gavin (c. 1476–1522), poet and bishop of Dunkeld, was the third son of Archibald Douglas (Bell-the-Cat), fifth earl of Angus (c. 1449–1513), and Elizabeth (d. 1498), daughter of Robert Boyd, Lord Boyd [see under Boyd family]. The earliest surviving reference to Douglas, in a supplication to the papal curia dated 13 February 1489, stated that he was in his thirteenth year, and he himself, in July 1515, claimed to be a 'man of forty yeris or tharby [thereabouts]' (Bawcutt, New light, 95–6). It is likely that Douglas was born in Tantallon Castle, Haddingtonshire, one of the chief seats of the fifteenth-century earls of Angus.

Early years and education

Douglas was educated at the University of St Andrews: having matriculated in 1490 he became a licentiate, or master of arts, in 1494. There is no firm evidence that he later studied at the University of Paris—though John Mair (Major) stated in 1516 that he had enjoyed Douglas's friendship both at home and in Paris—or that he had higher degrees in theology or law. None the less Douglas was a learned man and well read, both in vernacular poetry and in classical and humanistic authors. His writings reveal an intensely bookish man, who was acquainted with recently printed editions of Ovid and Virgil, and who read Mair's Historia majoris Britanniae ('History of greater Britain', 1521) almost as soon as it was published. In later life he travelled to England, France, and Italy.

Douglas was designed, from an early age, for the church. During the late middle ages the church in Scotland, as elsewhere in Europe, was characterized by nepotism, pluralism, and frequent struggles for wealthy benefices. Douglas was highly ambitious, and was aided in the search for ecclesiastical preferment by his intelligence, noble birth, and the favour of James IV. In the competitive and litigious climate of the age, however, he did not retain permanently all the benefices with which his name was associated in the 1490s. According to an entry in the chancery register of Pope Alexander VI, Douglas was granted the deanery of Dunkeld in 1496, but his right to that office was vigorously contested by George Hepburn; though Douglas had royal support, Hepburn's persistence in litigation seems to have been ultimately successful. On 6 May 1498 Douglas was 'presented' with the parsonage of Glenholm, when it should become vacant, but there is some doubt as to whether it ever came into his possession, since the presentation was provisional. There is more certainty as to the parsonage of Linton, a small village in Haddingtonshire, not far from Tantallon, which had been appropriated to the collegiate church of Dunbar in the fourteenth century. Douglas probably became parson of Linton and canon of Dunbar about 1504, though the precise date is not known.

Douglas's first important benefice was the provostry of St Giles, Edinburgh, a rich and well-endowed collegiate church, whose patron was the king. Douglas was in possession by 11 March 1503. During his time as provost St Giles was substantially enlarged, and several side chapels were added. There are only a few sparse testimonies to Douglas's activities at St Giles: on 30 July 1510, for instance, he supplicated the pope that he should be granted a special faculty to dispense those within the fourth degree of consanguinity who wished to marry, 'for the making of peace and avoidance of bloodshed', and on 27 February 1511 he and the other prebendaries bound themselves to celebrate the mass of the holy blood regularly throughout the year. There is no reason to doubt Douglas's genuine piety, which is evident in his poetry. Between 1503 and 1513, however, there is far more evidence for Douglas's involvement in secular affairs. He was present at meetings of the lords of council in February and March 1505, and again in 1509. He was one of those appointed to counsel the rector of St Andrews University in 1512 and 1513 (Acta rectorum, vol. 1, fols. 59 and 61). He frequently witnessed charters for his father and other members of the Douglas family. He also served as their legal representative: on 11 October 1503 he acted as procurator for his brother George in a dispute concerning lands in Jedworth Forest, and on 26 November 1512, in another dispute concerning property, he was one of the procurators for his sister-in-law, Elizabeth Auchinleck.

Douglas's friendship with John Mair played some part in the offer to Mair, in December 1509, of the treasurership of the Chapel Royal, Stirling. Mair draws an interesting portrait of Douglas, clearly based on life, in the 'Dialogus inter duos famatos viros magistrum Gawinum Douglaiseum et magistrum Davidem Crenstonem', which is prefixed to his commentary on Peter Lombard's Sentences (29 April 1510). In the 'Dialogus' Douglas aligns himself with the opponents of scholastic theology, and advocates a return to the biblical and patristic sources of Christianity.

Poetical works

All Douglas's surviving poetry belongs to the early years of his life, during the reign of James IV. In the brief 'Mensioun of hys pryncipall warkis' (Virgil's Aeneid, 4.139), Douglas refers to a mysterious juvenile translation 'Of Lundeys lufe the remeid'; this is no longer extant, but was possibly a translation of Ovid's Remedium amoris. His second work, completed c.1501 and dedicated to the king, was The Palice of Honour. This long and complex poem employs an ancient but still very popular form, the allegorical dream, to explore the nature of honour. The varied processions, led by Minerva, Diana, Venus, and the Muses, that pass before the dreamer represent some of the different paths by which men and women have sought to attain honour, such as learning, asceticism, love, or poetry. From the fourteenth to the sixteenth century this was a topic that fascinated poets, who frequently placed a deified Honour in temples and palaces. Douglas's dreamer is taught, at the end, that true honour must be distinguished from worldly glory, and that pre-eminence should be given to heroic honour won by martial virtue. Yet the central section of The Palice of Honour is dominated by the Muses, and voices Douglas's tribute to the power of imaginative literature. This is the poet–dreamer's preferred route to honour. The poem shows evidence of Douglas's wide reading: it abounds in allusions to Ovid's Metamorphoses, and the humorous self-mocking characterization of the dreamer owes much to Chaucer. Yet, despite the highly literary framework, there are interesting links with Douglas's own career. One is the trial scene, which makes comic use of the terms and procedures of the Scottish law courts. There must have been much piquancy for contemporary readers in finding the poet who had recently litigated with George Hepburn now bandying legal precedents with Venus. Two other poems are attributed to Douglas in the Maitland folio, a literary miscellany compiled in the 1580s. The longer of these, usually known as 'King Hart', is an impressive homiletic allegory; Douglas's authorship of this poem, however, has been vigorously contested on stylistic and linguistic grounds. The attribution to him of 'Conscience', a witty, punning poem on corruption in the church, is more convincing.

Douglas's greatest claim to fame rests upon the Eneados, a translation of Virgil's Aeneid. In the early 1500s no major classical work had been translated into English, and Douglas's Eneados was a pioneering work; what is more, it was not a free paraphrase nor a mere sample of one or two books, but a careful translation of the whole of Virgil's great poem. Douglas was aware of the novelty of his undertaking. He proudly asserted his own fidelity to Virgil's text, and voiced pungent criticisms of William Caxton's recent version of the Aeneid, which was no more like Virgil 'than the devill and Sanct Austyne' (prologue 1, 143). It might well seem inconsistent that Douglas also translated the so-called thirteenth book, written by the Italian humanist Maffeo Vegio, but it should be recalled that most editions of Virgil included this supplement to the Aeneid until the seventeenth century. The Eneados was affectionately dedicated to Henry, Lord Sinclair, whom Douglas characterized as a keen bibliophile and 'fader of bukis' (prologue 1, 85). He did not design his translation, however, solely for aristocratic readers, but envisaged a wider audience, including 'masteris of grammar sculys', teaching on their 'benkis and stulys' (Virgil's Aeneid, 4.189). Douglas shared the values of the humanists: an antipathy to scholasticism, respect for classical authors, and a zeal for education. He wished to communicate to his countrymen a knowledge of the Aeneid, and also to enrich his native 'Scottis' tongue with something of the 'fouth', or copiousness, of Latin.

Douglas attempted to acquaint his readers with the Virgilian scholarship of his age. Much in his translation that might seem extraneous is closely related to the contents and apparatus of contemporary editions of Virgil. He is thought to have used an edition published in Paris by Jodocus Badius Ascensius (1501), and often incorporates into his translation the explanatory glosses of Badius and Servius. He is occasionally diffuse and over-explicit, but this springs from a desire to convey the full implications of Virgil's 'sentence', or inner meaning. Douglas, like many translators, is better at rendering some aspects of the Aeneid than others. He seems to have found particularly intractable those passages which are densely packed with historical or mythological allusion. He is more successful with narrative, portraiture, and battle scenes, where a debt to the vernacular tradition of alliterative poetry is evident. Douglas excels at rendering the more timeless parts of the Aeneid—the similes, and descriptions of nature or of the underworld. At his best he is a responsive and sensitive translator: 'he makes the world of the Aeneid seem almost contemporary; Virgil's characters might be just around the corner' (R. G. Austin, Some English Translations of Virgil, 1956, 16–17).

Knowledge of Douglas's critical ideas on a wealth of topics, including Virgil and Chaucer, and the problems of translation, derives largely from the prologues which he furnished for each book of the Eneados, and the series of epilogues, in which he took a leisurely farewell of Virgil, his patron, his readers, and even his critics. The prologues vary greatly in tone, length, and metrical form—this includes rhyme royal, the decasyllabic couplet (used also for the translation), and the archaic 13-line alliterative stanza of prologue 8. Critics have debated the relevance of some of them to the Aeneid, and whether they might better be regarded as independent poems. There is no doubt, however, that they contain much of Douglas's finest and most original writing. Several offer glimpses of the poet in the process of composition; prologue 7 contains a brilliant vignette, in which the poet rises from bed on a wintry morning and shudders at the cold, before he turns to resume work at his lectern. Douglas's tone is often highly colloquial: sometimes he chats familiarly with his readers, sometimes he exhorts them to read poetry attentively—'Considdir it warly, reid oftar than anys [once]' (prologue 1, 107). Prologues 7, 12, and 13, commonly entitled the ‘nature prologues’, are outstanding for their perceptive description of the natural world in winter and summer, moving from tiny and vivid details to grand panoramic vistas.

After Flodden

Douglas completed the Eneados on 22 July 1513; on 9 September 1513 occurred the disastrous battle of Flodden, at which James IV died, to be succeeded by James V, a child of eighteen months. Flodden marked a watershed in Douglas's life. Poetry seems to have been abandoned, and his attention diverted to the power struggles within Scotland, and the advancement of himself and his family. On 30 September 1513 Douglas was made a free burgess of Edinburgh: this, though possibly a tribute to his poetry, is more likely to be a sign of the high status of the Douglases in the city. In August 1514 his nephew Archibald Douglas, now the sixth earl of Angus, married James IV's widow, Margaret Tudor. Henceforward Douglas's fortunes were closely linked with those of his nephew. The queen was held to have forfeited the regency by her marriage to a powerful nobleman, and the duke of Albany, who had lived in France for most of his life, was summoned to be the governor. The queen's supporters, led by Angus and Gavin Douglas, were opposed by many of the lords of council, including James Beaton, the chancellor. Beaton was temporarily deprived of the great seal, and its keys were handed over to Douglas, who himself for a short time had pretensions to the high office of chancellor.

Many important churchmen died at Flodden, and at a time when several rich benefices were vacant Douglas's family connection with the queen was at first advantageous to him. During 1514 Margaret wrote several letters, in the name of the infant James V, to Pope Leo X, urging Douglas's appointment to the abbey of Arbroath. She also supported his claim to the archbishopric of St Andrews, and on 23 November 1514 persuaded Henry VIII to write on his behalf to Rome. Henry praised Douglas lavishly—though hardly from firsthand acquaintance—for his extraordinary learning, probity, and great zeal for the public good. Douglas was so confident that he occupied St Andrews Castle with his servants, but was forced to surrender it. There were more powerful contestants for both benefices: Leo X granted Arbroath in commendam to James Stewart, earl of Moray, and Andrew Forman, bishop of Moray, was appointed archbishop of St Andrews.

Douglas was thus doubly disappointed. In January 1515, however, another benefice fell vacant, on the death of George Brown, bishop of Dunkeld. A letter written by Douglas on 18 January to Adam Williamson, one of his agents, leaves no doubt concerning his resentment towards Forman: 'yon evyll myndyt Byschop of Murray trublys all our promociones, and has sped Sanct Andris to himself'. No less evident is his ambitious desire for Dunkeld, 'a rycht gud Byschopry of rent and the thryd Seyt of the realm' (Poetical Works, 1.xxxvi). The queen, with the consent of some lords of council, presented him to the bishopric on 20 January 1515. Leo X consented to the appointment, but in May 1515 the governor, Albany, gave his support to another contestant, Andrew Stewart, brother of the powerful earl of Atholl. In July Albany and those lords of council hostile to Douglas charged him with breaking the laws concerning the purchase of benefices at Rome. He was imprisoned for nearly a year, but was released some time before 30 July 1516, and was officially appointed to the see of Dunkeld on 16 September 1516. Even when Douglas arrived in Dunkeld, after his consecration, he still met with armed resistance from Andrew Stewart. One of the canons, Alexander Myln, who was probably an eyewitness, gives a vivid account of the incident, describing how 'shooting began from the steeple and the episcopal palace, and the nobles who were with the bishop disposed themselves for his defence' (Myln, 333).

According to Myln, Douglas now devoted himself to good works, one of which was to complete the building of a bridge over the River Tay, begun by his predecessor. But his life as bishop was by no means calm and uneventful. Dunkeld, which is in the highlands, was notorious as the haunt of criminals and outlaws: Queen Margaret, in urging Douglas's preferment, had written that it required 'a strong man to curb an unruly people' (Letters of James V, 17). Douglas's hostility to Andrew Forman continued: as late as 1518 he refused to render obedience to Forman as archbishop of St Andrews, and when Forman sent messengers to Dunkeld, Douglas's servants repelled them forcibly, threatening to throw them in the Tay. Douglas seems to have yielded at last, possibly because of papal pressure. He was often absent from Dunkeld, travelling to Edinburgh for consultations with Albany, or attending meetings of the lords of council. In the spring of 1517 Douglas was sent on a diplomatic mission to France, together with Patrick Panter, the royal secretary, and Robert Cockburn, bishop of Ross. The chief object of the embassy was to renew the alliance between France and Scotland, and to arrange for a marriage between James V and a daughter of Francis I. Douglas returned to Scotland in the autumn, shortly after the treaty of Rouen was confirmed on 26 August 1517.

After Albany's departure to France in June 1517, Scotland grew more anarchic and faction-ridden. There was a long-running dispute between the Hamiltons and the Douglases, which had as its focus the office of provost of Edinburgh. When this dispute turned to pitched battle on the streets of Edinburgh (30 April 1520), Gavin Douglas took no part in the fighting, but acted as a mediator between the two sides. Lindsay of Pitscottie, a vivid but unreliable historian, describes a picturesque conversation between Douglas and James Beaton, bishop of Glasgow, on this occasion, and states that Douglas later intervened to save Beaton's life.

After 1517 the marriage of Margaret Tudor and the earl of Angus grew increasingly troubled. Margaret accused her husband of wrongfully appropriating to his own use the revenues of her properties. In this quarrel Douglas supported Angus, and acted as his advocate when the legal dispute was heard before the lords of council on 28 February 1519. It is not surprising that he lost the friendship of Margaret, who considered him partly responsible for Angus's harshness towards her. When Albany returned to Scotland in November 1521, Douglas again supported his nephew, who had fled to the borders and was openly rebellious. In December of that year Douglas travelled to London, and attempted to secure English support for Angus. His last surviving letters, written to Cardinal Wolsey between December 1521 and January 1522, vividly illustrate Douglas's hatred of Albany, whom he called a 'dedelie inimye to me and all my hous' (Poetical Works, 1.xcix), and exasperation with his nephew, that 'young wytless fuyll' (ibid., 1.civ).

Douglas's spirit was by no means crushed. About this time he formed a new friendship, with the Italian historian Polydore Vergil, resident in London since 1502. Vergil reports that they discussed Scottish history, and that Douglas, ever a controversialist, 'vehementlie' criticized John Mair for his scepticism concerning Gathelus and Scota, the mythical founders of Scotland. Despite his absence from Scotland, Douglas sought to obtain the archbishopric of St Andrews, vacant upon the death of Andrew Forman. He seems to have enlisted the support of Wolsey, who wrote on his behalf to the pope. On 21 February 1522, however, James V ratified a decreet issued by Albany, proclaiming Douglas guilty of treason and stating that letters were to be sent to the pope to prevent his promotion. (The Scottish parliament later declared this charge of treason unfounded.) On 8 April James Beaton, Albany's nominee to St Andrews, sought the aid of the king of Denmark to 'impede the ambitious schemes of a proscribed exile' (Letters of James V, 90).

Death and reputation

Whatever Douglas's schemes, they were frustrated by his death, in London, apparently from the plague, in September 1522. In his will, dated 10 September 1522 and made while he was staying in the house of his friend Lord Dacre, he requested that his body should be buried in the hospital church of the Savoy. A brass tablet, reading 'Gavanus Dowglas, natione Scotus, Dunkellensis praesul, patria sua exul', formerly marked his grave.

Douglas attained high office in the Scottish church, and he briefly played an important political role in the turbulent years of James V's minority. He cannot be regarded as a great bishop or statesman, comparable in stature to James Kennedy, bishop of St Andrews, or William Elphinstone, bishop of Aberdeen. But his career is more richly documented than those of other early Scottish churchmen and poets, and vividly illuminates many aspects of contemporary Scotland, such as the strong attachment to kin and ‘house’, and the intense rivalries and power struggles within the church. More positively, Douglas throws valuable light on the education and literary culture of Scotland in the early sixteenth century, through his friendships (and occasional quarrels) with scholars such as John Mair and Polydore Vergil, through the impressive width of his reading, and, above all, through his own writings. Douglas's lasting importance lies in his poetry, which was highly esteemed, in England as well as Scotland, throughout the sixteenth century. The Eneados circulated in several manuscript copies (five of which survive) and in an edition printed at London (1553). No manuscript survives of The Palice of Honour, but it was printed at least three times, in Edinburgh (c.1540 and 1579) and in London (c.1553). It was the Eneados, however, that was most famous and influential: it was imitated by Tudor poets, notably Henry Howard, earl of Surrey. In later centuries Douglas's reputation remained high, assisted in part by the association of his name with that of Virgil, and also by the interest of his language to antiquarians and scholars, such as Francis Junius. More recently critics have debated whether Douglas should be regarded as a medieval or Renaissance figure, and to what extent he had a political purpose in translating the Aeneid. The Eneados, however, has an importance that is more than merely historical. In Ezra Pound's opinion 'Douglas gets more poetry out of Virgil than any other translator' (Literary Essays, 1954, 245). In all Douglas's writings, including his letters, a distinctive voice may be heard, trenchant, acerbic, and often witty.


  • P. Bawcutt, Gavin Douglas: a critical study (1976)
  • The poetical works of Gavin Douglas, ed. J. Small, 4 vols. (1874) [incl. introduction by J. Small; also letters]
  • P. Bawcutt, ‘New light on Gavin Douglas’, The Renaissance in Scotland: studies in literature, religion, history, and culture offered to John Durkan, ed. A. A. MacDonald and others (1994), 95–106
  • P. Bawcutt, ‘The correspondence of Gavin Douglas’, Stewart style, 1513–1542: essays on the court of James V, ed. J. Hadley Williams (1996), 52–61
  • Virgil's Aeneid translated into Scottish verse, ed. D. F. C. Coldwell, trans. G. Douglas, 4 vols., STS, 3rd ser., 25, 27–8, 30 (1957–64)
  • The shorter poems of Gavin Douglas, ed. P. Bawcutt, STS, 4th ser., 3 (1967)
  • W. Fraser, ed., The Douglas book, 4 vols. (1885)
  • A. Mylne, ‘Lives of the bishops of Dunkeld’, Rentale Dunkeldense, ed. and trans. R. K. Hannay, Scottish History Society, 2nd ser., 10 (1915)
  • The letters of James V, ed. R. K. Hannay and D. Hay (1954)
  • A history of greater Britain … by John Major, ed. and trans. A. Constable, Scottish History Society, 10 (1892) [incl. Dialogus inter duos famatos viros]
  • A. I. Dunlop, ed., Acta facultatis artium universitatis Sanctiandree, 1413–1588, 2 vols., Scottish History Society, 3rd ser., 54–5 (1964)
  • P. Vergil, Polydore Vergil's ‘English history’, ed. H. Ellis, CS, 36 (1846)
  • acta rectorum, U. St Andr., vol. 1, fols. 59 and 61
  • Scots peerage, 1.178ff.
  • F. Ridley, ‘Douglas’, A manual of the writings in Middle English, 1050–1500, ed. A. E. Hartung, 4 (1973), 1180–204


  • BL, Cotton MSS, MSS
  • LPL, MS of Eneados
  • NA Scot., will, GD, 254/331
  • TNA: PRO, corresp., SP 49/1/127, 128, 130
  • Trinity Cam., MS of Eneados
  • U. Edin., MSS of Eneados

Wealth at Death

see will, Poetical works, ed. Small, vol. 1, pp. cxix–cxxv

Scottish Text Society
Camden Society
J. B. Paul, ed., , 9 vols. (1904–14)