Vox Populi: What Andrew Melville really thought of James VI

Bookplate from a book belonging to James VI (Sp Coll Mu20-y.18)

Apparent bookplate belonging to James VI (Sp Coll Mu20-y.18) – see note at end for clarification & correction

Yesterday Alec Salmond and David Cameron, the respective heads of the Scottish and UK governments, met in Edinburgh to sign an historic deal to hold a referendum on Scottish independence. This much anticipated event is being commemorated by the University of Glasgow Centre for Scottish and Celtic Studies in a landmark series of seminars running from September 2012 to May 2013 that will offer a unique perspective on how the “voice of the people” has been heard in Scotland since medieval times. Historians, political commentators and literary scholars will consider the role that ordinary Scots played in some of the most significant events over the past seven hundred years, and whether their views and opinions were taken into account.

Tonight is the turn of the University of Glasgow’s Dr Steven Reid who will discuss: What Andrew Melville Really Thought of James VI in a talk subtitled Popular Sovereignty and the Role of the Magistrate in Early Jacobean Scotland. Since we hold a range of interesting items relating to both Melville and James VI, Special Collections has decided to support the talk by drawing people’s attention to some of these items!

Melville's autograph (partially scored out by a later owner) in a book he previously owned (Sp Coll T.C.L. q13)

Melville’s autograph (partially scored out by a later owner) in a book he previously owned (Sp Coll T.C.L. q13)

While his name is perhaps not as widely recognised today as fellow-reformer John Knox, Andrew Melville (1545-1622) was a colossal political and religious figure in Jacobean Scotland. Indeed, as an educational reformer and moderniser, he is perhaps one of the most important figures in the history of the University of Glasgow itself. Born near Montrose in Angus, he was educated at St Andrews University before moving abroad to study and teach. In Paris he attended lectures by a whole range of humanist luminaries on various subjects from medicine to Hebrew, before moving to Poitiers to study law, and finally settling in Geneva – the home of Calvinism – to study divinity in 1569. His travels afforded him the opportunity to listen to, learn from and debate with, some of the most important intellectual figures of the day including Peter Ramus, Joseph Scaliger, Theodore Beza, Francois Hotman and two exiled English Presbyterians, Thomas Cartwright and Walter Travers.

In spring 1574 Melville returned to Scotland and was appointed Principal of Glasgow University. Once installed he set about a root-and-branch revitalization of the university curriculum and teaching methods. The new curriculum focussed on the liberal arts: rhetoric, geometry, arithmetic and particularly languages such as Hebrew, Syriac and Chaldaic, considered vital for accurate biblical exegesis. In addition, the outdated practice of regenting, where one academic would teach students in every subject, was replaced by subject-specialist teaching.

Detail from the titlepage of James VI's Basilikon Doron (Sp Coll Bl4-k.7)

Detail from the titlepage of James VI’s Basilikon Doron (Sp Coll Bl4-k.7)

If Melville’s role in educational reform was significant then his impact on Church politics and government was arguably even greater. He used his role as University Principal to weigh into debates on all manner of topics connected with the Church and what he perceived as defects in its practices. His primary goal seems to have been the continued reform of the Church along Calvinistic lines, an aim that saw him take a particularly sceptical view of the role of bishops and the legitimacy of the head of state – King James VI – to intervene in Church matters. His stance, questioning the jurisdiction of the King over the Church, was a courageous one, given that it was hotly disputed by the King himself! Indeed, King James’s biographer Jenny Wormald has described his struggle with Andrew Melville as, “the major political as well as religious issue of the reign, as well as the main inspiration … for James’s own theory about kingship [by divine right]”. The divergence in views between Melville and the King over how far the monarch’s authority in clerical matters carried weight inevitably led to disputes. In perhaps the most notorious of their bust-ups Melville apparently grasped the King’s sleeve, called him “God’s sillie [weak] vassal”, and told him that

“thair is twa Kings and twa Kingdomes … Thair is Chryst Jesus the King, and his Kingdome the Kirk, whase subject King James the Saxt is, and of whase kingdome nocht a king nor a lord, nor a heid, bot a member”.

Detailed marginal comments in Melville's hand in a Hebrew Bible he previously owned (Sp Coll T.C.L. q13)

Detailed marginal comments in Melville’s hand in a Hebrew Bible he previously owned (Sp Coll T.C.L. q13)

In another example of appealing to the authority of Christ over the King and the privy council in matters of doctrine, he was said to have unfastened a small Hebrew Bible from his belt and slammed it on the table claiming that it was his warrant since he stood for “Jesus Chryst and his Kirk”. Books were clearly very important to both of these men and Special Collections is fortunate to hold various works either written by or owned by them. Included is a Hebrew Bible packed with marginal notes and comments in Melville’s hand. Since it is a reasonably large quarto edition it is very unlikely to be the one Melville seems to have carried around with him everywhere – and used so dramatically in the above example – but it is a fascinating survival nevertheless. In addition to a few other items previously owned by Melville, including a work by the German reformer Martin Bucer and a Chaldaic dictionary, we hold a few works written by Melville too, including a volume of poetry and theological theses from St Andrews University set by Melville.

We are also fortunate to hold a range of items relating to King James VI (1566-1625). Of particular interest is his Basilikon Doron, a practical manual on kingship written for his son. The book became notorious for its attack on Melville and his followers; he advised his son to take heed of

“Puritans, very pests in the Church & co[m]mon-weale: whome no deserts can oblishe, neither oaths or promises binde; breathing nothing but sedition and calumnies …. [of who] ye shall never finde with any Hie-land or Bordour theeves greater ingratitude, and mo[r]e lies and vile perjuries, than with these phanatick spirites.”

A section of text critical of "Puritans" (Melville and his followers) in the Basilikon Doron (Sp Coll Bl4-k.7)

A section of text critical of “Puritans” (Melville and his followers) in the Basilikon Doron (Sp Coll Bl4-k.7)

We also hold some volumes previously owned by the King including a slim volume (*please see note at end for correction*) with two interesting works bound in. The first, perhaps surprisingly, is a work by the French lawyer and political theorist Francois Hotman. Hotman is now often best remembered for his Franco-Gallia, an assertion of the sovereignty of the people over their King, making him a strange choice of reading for James! However, the second work in the volume, by the first master and regent of Edinburgh University Robert Rollock, seems more fitting. Although a Presbyterian ally of Melville in the Church and a keen modernist in educational practice, Rollock seems to have been readier to acquiesce than Melville to the King’s ways of thinking on Church government. In quoting contemporary sources his biographer James Kirk has noted that “he was thought too ready to follow the ‘humours of the king’ which impaired his reputation among the godly”.

If you would like to learn Dr Reid’s thoughts on the dynamic between these famous men please come along to this evening’s talk and read his article in today’s Scotsman! Also, if you’d like to pop up to Special Collections to see any of the above items, you’re more than welcome.

Categories: Library, Special Collections

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5 replies

  1. We were recently contacted by Anthony Pincott from the Bookplate Society who noted that the above bookplate for King James was not listed in secondary sources (notably Brian Lee’s “British Royal Bookplates”). Surprised by this I investigated further only to discover that what appears to be a bookplate (and what seems to have been sold to the book’s previous owner, David Murray, as a bookplate) is in fact nothing of the sort. It is a printer’s device of Printer to the King, Robert Waldegrave, that has been cut from a titlepage and pasted in as a bookplate. As such, we have no evidence that this book ever belonged to James (which may explain the inclusion of the Hotman text!). Apologies for misleading! We do hold a number of other volumes previously owned by James though, so please don’t be deterred by the oversight from visiting us to look at them if you’re interested!


  1. Vox Populi: National Opinion and the Union Question in the Union of Crowns « University of Glasgow Library
  2. Vox Populi – The Referendum of 1997 « University of Glasgow Library
  3. Vox Populi: ‘What Andrew Melville Really Thought of James VI: Popular Sovereignty and the Role of the Magistrate in Early Jacobean Scotland’ | Centre for Scottish and Celtic Studies
  4. Scotland’s forgotten language « University of Glasgow Library

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