Vox Populi: ‘What Andrew Melville Really Thought of James VI: Popular Sovereignty and the Role of the Magistrate in Early Jacobean Scotland’

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On 16 October 2012, the Centre was delighted to welcome the University of Glasgow’s very own Dr Steven Reid, who discussed ‘What Andrew Melville Really Thought of James VI: Popular Sovereignty and the Role of the Magistrate in Early Jacobean Scotland’. This lecture was part of the on-going ‘Vox Populi’ series and below is this listener’s brief summary of the lecture.

As befits the theme of the ‘Vox Populi’ series, this lecture was framed as a historical perspective on the continuing Union debates and tied in coincidentally with the Independence Referendum agreement between Alex Salmond and David Cameron just days before.

Dr. Reid began the lecture by contextualising the Union of the Crowns of 1603. He called it ‘arguably the biggest ever shift in foreign policy’ for Scotland, a country that previously aligned herself more closely with France through the ‘Auld Alliance’. This relationship seemed ever stronger around the time of Mary Queen of Scots, so what changed in the intervening years before 1603? Religion seems to be the main factor, with Protestantism now a shared faith between England and Scotland.

Before outlining Andrew Melville’s opinions, Dr. Reid sketched out the two opposing sides of contemporary political thought. Firstly, George Buchanan argued strongly that kings should be subject to the rule of law and drew upon classical sources like the ‘true democracy’ of Sparta, in which the king was only the mouthpiece for the law. Buchanan argued the king should heed his council and be a moral exemplar, but should not legislate himself and should be subject to all civil law like any other subject. Following Cicero, ‘the well being of the people is the ultimate law’.

In direct contrast is James VI’s own intellectual argument on the Divine Right of kings. In Basilikon Doron, a handbook to rule for his son Henry, he claims that monarchs are above the law. No citizen can touch the king, only God can, thereby ensuring their good intentions. For James, the king is the supreme voice of the people, which obviously clashes with Buchanan’s invocation of Cicero.

A key proponent and supporter of the Protestant, specifically Presbyterian, religion was the aforementioned Melville, one of the most important ecclesiastical and educational reformers of the time period. He is well-known for this apparent rebuke of James VI: “Sirrah, ye are God’s silly vassal; there are two kings and two kingdoms in Scotland: there is king James, the head of the commonwealth; and there is Christ Jesus, the king of the Church, whose subject James the Sixth is, and of whose kingdom he is not a king, not a lord, not a head, but a member”.

So where did Melville stand in this debate? Many have aligned him with Buchanan due to the above quote, ‘God’s silly vassal’, but it seems that there was a great deal of tension in Melville’s ideas. One of his poems, ‘The Small Crown given to the King of Scots on the coronation of the Queen’, was written for King James VI, and was spoken at the heart of the coronation ceremony before a large assembly of international dignitaries. In this poem, he seeks to educate the new Queen on the nature of rule and espouses the great gift of royal rule, with its unique responsibility. For all comic book fans out there, this is highly reminiscent of Spider-man’s moral motivation, ‘With great power comes great responsibility’. This is also very close to the Jacobean conception of a monarch. Later in the poem, some ideas more akin to Buchanan come to the fore.

He speaks of the Divine Contract between the monarch and the people and is well aware of the frailties of humans (specifically kings). He outlines the symbiosis of the king and the people, a tie that cannot be severed: ‘…bound in a tight knot, as the common good, so the common danger…’. Yet after this he notes that the king’s laws are made either with nobles or of his own free will, the latter an idea that Buchanan would surely have hated. This is followed with a near overt paraphrase of Buchanan (and by extension Cicero) in which he claims the ‘salvation of the people (is) a golden law for a king.’.

Dr. Reid described this tension as Melville ‘walking a tightrope’ between Buchanan’s controversial ideas and the conception of the Divine Right of kings. After this poem, the Tollbooth Riot led to a changing relationship between Melville and James, with the latter banning the former from all Church Genera Assemblies. Despite this chastening, Melville’s opinion of the king does not seem to change, although he begins to focus on more anti-episcopal arguments.

In subsequent poems, Melville’s hopes for a reformed church led by James VI becomes the most obvious theme. In ‘To Elizabeth (I) the Languishing Queen, 28 April 1603’, he sarcastically compliments Queen Elizabeth as the defender of the Protestant minority across Europe. He then turns to James and says that Elizabeth’s ‘golden age’ continues with him and the way forward is clear so long as he ‘live(s) in God’. In ‘To the most serene king of the British Isles 1603’, he ‘aggressively encourages’ James to reform the church along Presbyterian lines and he seems to truly expect that James will ‘see sense’ and extend the purity of the Scottish kirk across the whole realm.

In conclusion, Dr. Reid outlined that Melville clearly respected royal authority and was bound to obey scripture, like the famous Romans 13 passage, in a way that Buchanan was  not. Melville’s word view was theological, not classical. Although bound to serve, the trade-off for Melville is that James could be a unifier of the faith (and country) and cause the downfall of the episcopal world.

Some interesting questions and comments were given after the lecture, with Catherine Steel pointing out the possible influence of Virgil on Melville. Dr. Reid agreed and noted that Melville’s ‘chief refreshment’ was reading Virgil! There were also several questions on the role of the people, the identity of ‘the people’ and what popular consent really means for Melville. For Dr. Reid, ‘the people’ are the landed elite who can vote and sadly, Melville never outlines any methods for including the wider population of the parishes (or ‘the flock’) in this ‘popular consent’.

As with the last ‘Vox Populi’ seminar on the Declaration of Arbroath, the Scotsman has published an article by our speakerhttp://www.scotsman.com/news/dr-steven-reid-a-union-of-two-crowns-1-2577461

We also have an informative blog post from the University of Glasgow Library, which outlines some of the items relating to Melville and James that are currently held in the Special Collections of the libraryhttp://universityofglasgowlibrary.wordpress.com/2012/10/16/vox-populi-what-andrew-melville-really-thought-of-james-vi/

The Centre‘s seminar series continues next Tuesday with Thomas Clancy’s lecture on ‘Language and land in 12th- and 13th- century Ayrshire: place-names in the earliest Cunninghame charters’. 

The ‘Vox Populi’ series continues on Tuesday, October 30th, with Karin Bowie’s lecture on ‘National Opinion and the Union Question in the Union of Crowns’. 

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