Crichton, James (1560-1585?) (DNB00)

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Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 13
Crichton, James (1560-1585?)

by Sidney Lee
The ODNB gives date of death 1582.

CRICHTON, JAMES, surnamed The Admirable (1560–1585?), born, probably at Eliock, on 19 Aug. 1560, was elder son of Robert Crichton of Eliock, Dumfriesshire, by his first wife, Elizabeth, daughter of Sir James Stewart of Beath, and Margaret, daughter of John, lord Lindsay, of the Byres. His mother traced her descent to the royal line of Scotland, and was related to many of the chief Scottish families. Robert Crichton, the father, descended from the Crichtons of Sanquhar, acted as lord advocate of Scotland jointly with John Spens from 1562 to 1573, and with David Borthwick from 1573 to 1581. On 1 Feb. 1581 he became sole advocate and senator of the College of Justice. He was at one time suspected of favouring the cause of Queen Mary; hence his slow promotion. He inherited the estate of Eliock, Dumfriesshire, and in 1562 was presented by a kinsman, Robert Crichton (of the Crichtons of Nauchton, Fifeshire), bishop of Dunkeld, with the estate of Cluny, Perthshire. Cluny was the property of the see of Dunkeld; but the chapter, anticipating a forfeiture by the crown, consented to the alienation. On 11 May 1566 the bishop granted a charter in which James (the Admirable) Crichton was designated the heir to the property, and this arrangement was confirmed by the next bishop on 22 March 1576. The father fell ill in June 1582, and made his will 18 June. Nine days later David m'Gill was appointed to succeed him as a lord advocate and senator. But from the fact that confirmation of his testament was not granted till 1586, it may be doubted whether he died, as the ordinary authorities state, in 1582. He married thrice. His first wife, the mother of the famous James and of a younger son, Robert, died before 1572; his second wife was Agnes, daughter of John Mowbray of Barnbougall; his third wife, Isobell Borthwick, survived him (see Brunton and Haig, College of Senators, p. 176; Omond, Lord Advocates of Scotland, i. 27–37; Proceedings of Soc. of Antiquaries of Scotland (1855), ii. 103–18).

Young Crichton was first educated either at Perth or Edinburgh, and in 1570, at the age of ten, entered St. Salvator's College, St. Andrews, where he proceeded A.B. 20 March 1573–4, and A.M. in 1575. Hepburn, Robertson, Rutherford, and George Buchanan were his chief tutors, and his studies covered the widest possible range. Sir Alexander Erskine, James VI's governor, married a relative of Crichton, and invited him about 1575 to become a fellow-pupil with the young king under George Buchanan. On 20 June 1575 Crichton signed a deed granting certain rights in the property of Cluny which was entailed upon him to his kinsman the Bishop of Dunkeld. The document is extant among the Cluny archives, now the property of the Earl of Airlie, and contains Crichton's only known signature. He subscribes himself ‘Mr. James Creichtone.’ In 1577 Crichton resolved to travel abroad. Although only seventeen his intellect seemed fully developed. He was reputed by foreign admirers to be master of Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Chaldaic, Italian, Spanish, French, Flemish, German, Scottish, and English. His memory was such that anything that he once heard or read he could repeat without an error. Nor were his accomplishments as a fencer and as a horseman stated to be less remarkable. It is very probable that he arrived at Paris at the end of 1577. That he visited France is undoubted, but the details are not very well ascertained. According to Sir Thomas Urquhart, a fanciful seventeenth-century writer, whose facts are to be treated with caution, Crichton gave proof of his precocity at Paris by issuing placards announcing that in six weeks he should present himself at the College of Navarre to answer orally in any one of twelve languages whatever question might be proposed to him ‘in any science, liberal art, discipline, or faculty, whether practical or theoretic.’ The appointed day arrived, and the youth acquitted himself admirably, to the astonishment of a crowded audience of students and professors. The next day he was victorious in a tilting match at the Louvre. Contemporary authorities are silent as to all this, but state that he enlisted in the French army. After less than two years' service he retired in 1579 and went to Genoa, where he arrived in a destitute condition in July. This is the earliest fact in Crichton's Italian tour attested by contemporary evidence. He addressed the senate of Genoa in a Latin speech, which was published with a dedication to the doge Johannes Baptista Gentilis. Crichton was well received, but early in the following year left for Venice. At Venice he introduced himself to the scholar and printer, Aldus Manutius (grandson of the founder of the Aldine press), and presented him with a poem in Latin hexameters (‘In Appulsu ad Vrbem Venetam’), which was printed in a thin quarto at the press of the brothers Guerra of Venice in 1580. Aldus was impressed by Crichton's many accomplishments, praised him extravagantly, and gave him the opportunity of pronouncing an oration before the doge and senate. Public and private debates with professors in theology, philosophy, and mathematics were arranged for the young Scotsman, who was only worsted by the scholar Mazzoni, whom he met at a private dinner given him by some Venetian noblemen. Latin odes and verses came freely from his pen, and a handbill was issued in 1580 by the brothers Guerra describing his handsome appearance, his skill as a swordsman, and his marvellous intellectual attainments. An identical account of Crichton's exploits was avowedly written and published by Aldus in the form of a tract in 1581, and again in 1582. Hence the handbill, which is an authority of the first importance in Crichton's career, doubtless came from the same pen. In the earlier edition the tract was entitled ‘Relatione della Qvalita Di Jacomo di Crettone Fatta da Aldo Manvtio. All' Illustrissimo & eccellentissimo S. Jacomo Boncompagno Duca di Sora & Gouer. Gen. di S. Ct. In Vinegia mdlxxxi Appresso Aldo.’ The second edition is entitled ‘Relatione Fatta da Aldo Manucci Al Duca di Sora Adi x Ottobre 1581 Sopra le ammirabili qvalita del Nobilissimo Giouane Scozzese Iacomo Di Crettone … In Venetia mdxxcii Presso Aldo.’ According to the statement printed there, Crichton readily disputed the doctrines of the Thomists and Scotists with Padre Fiamma ‘e con molti altri valorosi prelati’ in the presence of Cardinal Ludovico d'Este, discussed the procession of the Holy Ghost in the house of the Patriarch of Aquileia, and retired to a villa on the Brenta to prepare himself for a three days' public debate in the Chiesa San Giovanni e Paolo at Pentecost, 1581. In the course of 1581 Crichton, whose health was failing, left Venice for Padua with an introduction to Cornelius Aloisi, an eminent patron of letters. Cornelius received Crichton handsomely. The youth eulogised the city in public orations, and disputed with the university professors on their interpretation of Aristotle and in mathematics. Conferences took place almost daily, but the arrangements for a public disputation at the palace of the bishop of Padua fell through, and the misadventure led to the publication of a pasquinade, in which Crichton was denounced as a charlatan. To this Crichton replied with an elaborate challenge to the university, offering to confute the academic interpretation of Aristotle, to expose the professors' errors in mathematics, and to discuss any subject proposed to him. He would employ, he announced, ordinary logical rules, or mathematical demonstration, or extemporaneous Latin verse, according to the nature of the question under discussion. The challenge was accepted, the disputation lasted four days, and Crichton achieved complete success. The incident is fully described by Aldus Manutius in his dedication to Crichton of his edition of Cicero's ‘Paradoxa’ dated June 1581.

According to Urquhart's story, accepted by Tytler, Crichton's latest biographer, Crichton removed to Mantua (1582), and won his first laurels there by killing in a duel a far-famed swordsman. The Duke of Mantua thereupon employed him as tutor and companion to his son, Vincenzo di Gonzaga, a youth of ungovernable temper. At the Mantuan court Crichton is said by Urquhart to have composed a satiric comedy in which he acted the chief parts. Shortly afterwards, while paying a visit to a mistress, he was attacked by a band of midnight brawlers. He drew his sword upon their leader, and at once recognised in him his pupil Vincenzo. Kneeling down, Crichton presented the handle of his sword to the prince, who snatched it from him and plunged the point into his heart. Aldus Manutius dedicated ‘memoriæ Iacobi Critonii’ his edition of Cicero's ‘De Universitate’ (1583). He here lamented Crichton's sudden death, which took place, according to his account, on 3 July 1583, when the young man was barely two-and-twenty. He enlarges on his grief in a dedication of Cicero's Aratus addressed in November 1583 to a common friend, Stanislaus Niegossewski, a Pole. But Aldus gives no details of the occurrence in either passage, and makes no mention of Crichton's visit to Mantua, nor of his connection with the ducal family of Gonzaga.

That Crichton met with a tragic end at Mantua was generally accepted by the earliest writers about him. In 1601 Thomas Wrighte (Passions of the Minde) tells what seems to be the same story as Urquhart's without giving names. As early as 1603 John Johnston wrote of Crichton in his ‘Heroes Scoti,’ p. 41, that ‘Mantuæ a Ducis Mantuani filio ex nocturnis insidiis occisus est, Ao Christi 1581’ (this date is evidently a misprint). In Abernethy's ‘Musa Campestris’ (1609), p. 52, in David Buchanan's account of Crichton (1625), and in Dempster's account the same story is repeated with unimportant additions. Sir Thomas Urquhart, to whom Crichton owes no little of his posthumous fame, worked up the tradition thus constructed into a very exciting story in his ‘Discovery of a most exquisite Jewel’ (1652). No reference has been found to Crichton's death in histories of Mantua, or of the ducal family of Gonzaga (Black, Tasso, ii. 448). But the general agreement among early Scottish writers points to the authenticity of the outlines of the tale. The date (3 July 1583) assigned by Aldus, however, is quite impossible, and Aldus must have written his elegy on hearing some rumours of Crichton's death, which proved false.

It is more than probable that in 1584 Crichton was repeating at Milan the performances which had secured him his fame elsewhere. Immediately after the death, on 3 Nov. 1584, of Cardinal Borromeo, archbishop of Milan, there was published in the city an elegy written by Crichton, of which the authenticity cannot be disputed. Its title runs: ‘Epicedium illustrissimi et reverendissimi Cardinalis Caroli Boromæi Ab Jacobo Critonio Scoto rogatu clarissimi summaque in optimum Pastorem suum pietate viri Ioannis Antonij Magij Mediolanen. Proximo post obitum die exaratum de consensu Superiorum … Mediolani E Typographia Michaelis Tini m.d.lxxxiiii.’ Nor is this the only proof of Crichton's survival. In December 1584 he issued a Latin poem congratulating Gaspar Visconti, the new archbishop of Milan, on his appointment. This little pamphlet is entitled ‘Iacobi Critonii Scoti ad amplissimum ac reverendissimum virum Gasparem Vicecomitem summa omnium ordinum voluntate ad præclaram Archiepiscopatus Mediolanen. administrationem delectum Gratulatio. Superiorum consensu. Mediolani—Ex Typographia Pacifici Pontij mdlxxxiiii.’ Within the book appears the date ‘ciɔiɔxxciv. v Id. Dec.’ Verses to celebrate the marriage of Charles Emanuel, duke of Savoy, to whom Aldus had dedicated the first volume of his ‘Cicero’ in 1583, also came from Crichton's pen in 1584, and were printed at the press of Pacificus Pontius, under the title of ‘Iacobi Critonii Scoti Ad Summum Potentissimumque Principem, Carolum Emanuelem, Sabaudiæ Ducem, &c., sublimi admodum præstantissimorum regum genere procreatum & non modo ætate paribus ingenii felicitate prætendentem sed incredibili etiam virtutis ardore cum maioribus contendentem—eugenesteron, Carmen Nuptiales. Moderatorum permissu. Mediolani. Ex Typographia Pacifici Pontii mdlxxxiiii.’ Crichton published at the same press in 1585 a collection of Latin poems including a defence of poetry, with a dedication to Sforza Brivius, chief magistrate of Milan, dated 1 March 1585. Some verses in the volume, separately dedicated to Sforza's son and brother, prove Crichton to have been high in the favour of the family. After 1585 Crichton disappears. We know that before 1591 his younger brother Robert had become proprietor of Cluny, to which James was heir. Hence he must have died before that date and after 1585. There is nothing to date Crichton's visit to Mantua, where it seems probable that he met his death, but in all likelihood it followed his labours at Milan. Whether he met Aldus again and convicted him of assigning a wrong date to his death is not known.

The Admirable Crichton's extant works are excessively rare. Copies of all are in the Grenville Library at the British Museum. They are: 1. ‘Oratio Iacobi Critonii Scoti pro moderatorum Genuensis Reipubl. electione coram Senatu habita Calen. Iulij. … Genvæ mdlxxxiiii.’ 2. ‘In Appulsu Ad celeberrimam urbem Venetam De Proprio Statu Jacobi Critonii Scoti Carmen Ad Aldum Manuccium … Venetiis Ex Typographia Guerræa ciɔiɔxxc,’ reprinted with an ode to Aldus Manutius, in Aldus's edition of ‘Cicero’ (1583), and in the ‘Deliciæ Poetarum Scotorum,’ Amsterdam, 1637. 3. ‘Epicedium … Cardinalis Boromæi,’ Milan, 1584 (described above). 4. ‘Ad … Gasparem Vicecomitem … gratulatio,’ Milan, 1584 (described above). 5. ‘Ad Carolum Emanuelem Sabaudiæ Ducem … Carmen Nuptiales,’ Milan, 1584 (described above). 6. ‘Iacobi Critonii Scoti Ad Nobilissimum Virum Prudentissimumque summæ questuræ regiæ Mediolanen. Administratorem, Sfortiam Brivium De Musarum ac Poetarum imprimis illustrium authoritate atque præstantia, soluta et numeris Poeticis vincta oratione ab eodem defensa, Iudicium … Mediolani Ex typographia Pacifici Pontij,’ mdlxxxv. This contains a number of Latin poems in praise of poetry and rhetoric, besides epigrams addressed to various persons of influence at Milan. The second edition of Aldus's ‘Relatione’ (1582) contains an interchange of verses between Crichton and Ludovicus Magius of Milan. An ode by Crichton to Joannes Donatus appears in Aldus's edition of Cicero's ‘Cato Major’ (1581), and is dated 1 June 1581. An ode, dated 1581, to Lorenzo Massa, secretary to the Venetian republic, by Crichton, is appended by Aldus to his dedication to Massa of his edition of Cicero's ‘Lælius’ (1581). Crichton's challenge to the learned men of Padua is printed by Aldus in his dedication to Crichton of Cicero's ‘Paradoxa,’ and is dated June 1581. Four hexameters by Crichton are prefixed to ‘I Quattro primi Canti del Lancellotto del Sig. Erasmo di Valvasone,’ Venice, 1580; they follow the preface of the editor, Cesare Pavesio (Notes and Queries, 5th ser. vii. 106). Dempster mentions the following additional works, but there is no proof that they were ever extant, and their titles are obviously constructed from the accounts given by Crichton's early biographers of his oratorical achievements. They are: ‘Laudes Patavinæ;’ ‘Ignorantiæ laudatio,’ an extemporaneous speech; ‘Epistolæ ad diversos;’ ‘Præfationes solemnes in omnes scientias, sacras et profanas;’ ‘Judicium de Philosophis;’ ‘Errores Aristotelis;’ ‘Refutatio Mathematicorum;’ ‘Arma an literæ præstent Controversia oratoria.’ Tanner repeats this list. Crichton's Latin verses are not very pointed or elegant. Sir Thomas Urquhart's fantastic account of Crichton (1652) gave him his popularity and conferred on him his title of Admirable.

The best authenticated portrait of Crichton belongs to Alexander Morison of Bognie, Banffshire. It is the work of an Italian, and is said to have been sent from Italy by Crichton himself to Sir James Crichton of Frendaught, whom he regarded as the head of the Crichton family. An engraving appears in the ‘Proceedings of the Scottish Antiquaries,’ vol. ii., and in the second edition of Tytler's ‘Life.’ Another portrait belongs to William Graham of Airth House, Stirlingshire, and this seems to be the original of which copies belong to the Marquis of Bute at Dumfries House, J. A. Mackay, esq., of Edinburgh, Sir A. W. Crichton of St. Petersburg, James Veitch of Eliock, and Lord Blantyre of Lennoxlove. Mr. Veitch's painting was engraved in Pennant's ‘Tour in Scotland,’ and the one belonging to Sir A. W. Crichton in the first edition of Tytler's ‘Life.’ The original of the engraving in Imperialis's ‘Museum Historicum’ (1640) is not known. The portraits belonging to the Duke of Bedford at Woburn, and to Mr. George Dundas of Edinburgh, are of less than doubtful authenticity. All the portraits show Crichton as a handsome youth, but a red mark disfigured his right cheek.

The estates of Eliock and Cluny, which Crichton, had he lived, would have inherited from his father, passed to his younger brother Robert, usually called Sir Robert Crichton. But these lands he resigned to the crown in 1591. Robert's first notable exploit was to attack, about 1591, with a band of marauders, the castle of Ardoch, where his half-sister Marion, the daughter of his father by his third wife, was living under the guardianship of Henry Stirling. Crichton carried off the girl, who was not heard of again, and cruelly assaulted and robbed her protectors. The privy council in 1593 denounced him as a traitor for this action, but he was not captured. He next took up the cause of his mother's kinsman, the Earl of Moray, who was murdered in 1595, and killed in the chapel of Egismalay the laird of Moncoffer, who was reputed to sympathise with the earl's murderer. He was ordered to stand his trial for the crime, but the matter was hushed up, and in 1602 he appeared at James's court at St. Andrews. There he murderously assaulted a courtier named Chalmers in the royal presence. He was summoned to Falkland to answer this offence, and on his declining to appear his property was forfeited to the crown. He disappears after 1604. He married twice: first, Susanna Grierson; secondly, on 12 Jan. 1595, Margaret, daughter of John Stewart, sixth lord Invermeath. He had sons whose names are not known. His half-sister Margaret, daughter of his father's second wife, married Sir Robert Dalzell, first earl of Carnwath, to whom Robert sold the estate of Eliock in 1596.

[Much fable has doubtless been intermingled with many accounts of Crichton's remarkable career, though some part of the facts appears to be well authenticated. Two copies of the gazette or handbill, printed at Venice in 1580 at the press of the brothers Domenico and Gio Battista Guerra, describing Crichton's marvellous knowledge, are in the British Museum and one is in a showcase. The bill, first discovered by Mr. Hibbert in 1818 pasted inside the cover of a copy of Castiglione's ‘Cortegiano’ (ed. 1545), which had belonged to the Rev. S. W. Singer (see Edinburgh Mag. July 1818), Aldus Manutius's two tracts referred to above, with his description of Crichton's achievements when dedicating his Cicero's Paradoxa to him in 1581, and his eulogy upon him when dedicating Cicero's Lælius to Massa in 1581, are the earliest notices extant. The authenticity of Aldus's testimony has been questioned by Dr. Black in his Life of Tasso, and by Dr. Kippis in the Biographia Britannica on the ground that Aldus was addicted to exaggerated eulogy of his friends, most of whom he represents to be marvellous geniuses. Aldus's account of Niegossewski, a young Pole, coincides so suspiciously with his account of Crichton that his testimony requires to be corroborated by independent evidence. In the Epitaphiorum Dialogi Septem Auctore Bartholomæo Burchelato, Tarvisino Physico, Venice, 1583, an extraordinary account is given (p. 52) of Crichton's mnemonic power (see Notes and Queries, 3rd ser. viii. 85–6). Felix Astolphi, in his contemporary Officina Historica, J. J. Scaliger in his Scaligerana, and Imperialis in his Museum Historicum (1640), follow Aldus; but Trajan Boccalini in Ragguagli di Parnasso, Venice, 1612 (English translation 1656) ridicules some of Crichton's attainments. Dempster is meagre, and he complains that Crichton was too arrogant in claiming descent from the Scottish kings. In John Johnston's Heroes Scoti, 1603, Crichton is described for the first time in verses to his memory as 'admirable' ('omnibus in studiis admirabilis'). Other early accounts by his own countrymen are met with in Adam Abernethy's Musa Campestris, 1603; in David Buchanan's De Scriptoribus Scotis, 1625, first printed by the Bannatyne Club in 1837; in David Leitch's Philosophia illacrymans, 1637, where the epithet Admirabilis is again employed; in Sir Thomas Urquhart's Jewel, 1652 (a very lively story, adding many unauthentic details). A general reference to his early death also appears in Thomas Wright's Passions of the Minde (1601 and afterwards). Dr. Mackenzie wrote a life of Crichton in his Lives of Eminent Writers of the Scottish Nation, 1722, which is quite untrustworthy; Dr. Kippis, in the Biographia Britannica, is diffuse but generally sensible. A chapbook attributed to Francis Douglas and based on Mackenzie appeared at Aberdeen about 1768, and is reproduced by Pennant in his Tour in Scotland, and by Dr. Johnson in his popular account of Crichton in the Adventurer, No. 82; Rev. John Black, in his Life of Tasso, 1810, is useful, but more sceptical than necessary; but David Irving, in his appendix to his Life of George Buchanan, is brief and thorough. The completest account of Crichton is given in P. F. Tytler's biography, 1st edit. 1819, and 2nd and revised edit. 1823; but it depends too much upon Urquhart and omits all mention of Crichton's chief works, as well as of Aldus's 'Relatione.' A valuable paper by John Stuart appears in the Proceedings of the Society of Scottish Antiquaries for 1855, ii. 103-18. Harrison Ainsworth published his romance of Crichton in 1837, and in his very interesting introductory essay and appendices reprints with translations in verse the elegy on Borromeo and the eulogy on Visconti. A poor play entitled Crichton, a Tragedy, by George Galloway, was printed at Edinburgh in 1802. Some amusing references to Crichton appear in Father Front's Reliques. See also J. H. Burton's The Scot Abroad, pp. 255-8.]

S. L. L.