Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Beaton, James (d.1539)

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BEATON or BETHUNE, JAMES (d. 1539), archbishop of Glasgow and St. Andrews, was the sixth son of James Bethune of Balfour in Fife. He was educated at St. Andrews, where he took his master's degree in 1493. His first preferment was the chantry of Caithness, to which he was presented in 1497. He rose by rapid strides to the highest honours in the church and state. He was made provost of the collegiate church of Bothwell in 1503, prior of Whithorn, and abbot of Dunfermline in 1504. He also held the two rich abbacies of Kilwinning and Arbroath. He was elected bishop of Galloway, but was translated to the archbishopric of Glasgow in 1509, and became archbishop of St. Andrews and primate in 1522. He then resigned Arbroath to his nephew David, reserving half the Revenue for his own use for life. He also held the offices of lord treasurer from 1505, and chancellor from 1513; but he resigned the treasury on his advancement to the see of Glasgow, and was nominally deprived of the chancellorship in 1526, though his successor was not appointed till some years later. During the minority of James V, Beaton is one of the most prominent figures in Scottish history. Albany, the regent, withdrew to France whenever he could; and though the government was nominally in the hands of a commission of regency, the country was distracted by the feuds of the factions of the Douglases and the Hamiltons. Beaton, who was one of the regents, was more apt to stir the strife than to stay it. When appealed to by Bishop Douglas of Dunkeld to avert a fray that seemed imminent, Beaton swore on his conscience he could not help it; but as he laid his hand on his heart to give weight to his words, the ring of the coat of mail he wore beneath his vestments betrayed that he had come ready armed for the fray, and provoked the retort: 'Methinks, my lord, your conscience clatters.' In the tumult which followed, known as 'Clear-the-causeway,' the Douglases won the day. Beaton sought sanctuary at the altar of the church of the Greyfriars, and would have been torn from it and slain but for the timely interference of Bishop Douglas. At this period the nation was hanging in the balance between France and England. Both countries were eager to secure Scotland, and each made offers of finding a bride for the young king. Margaret Tudor, the queen mother, and Angus, favoured England. Beaton threw all his weight into the French scale, and it was chiefly due to him that the old league with France was maintained, and James wedded to Magdalen of France instead of to Mary of England. The 'greatest man both of lands and experience within this realm, and noted to be very crafty and dissimulating,' was the report of Beaton which the English ambassador sent home, and Wolsey, who well knew that all his schemes concerning Scotland were futile as long as Beaton was at large, laid many a crafty plot for getting hold of him. He suggested diets on the border and conferences in London, at which the chancellor must represent the kingdom of Scotland, having an understanding with Angus that he was to be kidnapped on the way; but Beaton was too wary for him. Secure in his sea-girt castle of St. Andrews, he pursued a policy of his own, and would not pledge himself to either party. He kept up direct and independent communication with France through his nephew David, who was Scottish resident at the French court. During the latter years of his life this nephew acted as his coadjutor.

As primate, Beaton was constant in his efforts to assert his superiority over the see of Glasgow. The strife between the two archbishops led to unseemly brawls at home, and pleas carried to the court of Rome, whereof the expenses, the estates complained, caused 'inestimable dampnage to the realme.' He also strove to smother the seeds of the new religious doctrines by burning their most diligent sower, Patrick Hamilton, lay abbot of Fern in Ross-shire. He is called the proto-martyr, as being the first native-born Scot who suffered death for teaching the doctrines which afterwards became those of the established kirk. He died at the stake in St. Andrews in 1628. His death proved even more persuasive than his living words, insomuch that a shrewd observer counselled the archbishop to burn the next heritics in the cellar, for the 'smoke of Mr. Patrick Hamilton had infected as many as it blew upon.' Nevertheless, Henry Forest was burned at St. Andrews, and Daniel Stratton and Norman Gourlay at Edinburgh, during Beaton's primacy. Beaton founded the new Divinity College at St. Andrews, and built bridges and walls at Glasgow. He died in 1539 at St. Andrews.

[Register of the Diocese of Glasgow, edited by Cosmo Innes; Keith's History of the Church of Scotland; Spottiswood's History; Keith's Catalogue of Bishops; State Papers, Henry VIII; Chambers's Biographies of Eminent Scotchmen.]

M. M'A.