Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Sempill, James

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SEMPILL, Sir JAMES (1566–1625) of Beltrees, called by Knox ‘the dancer,’ was eldest son of John Sempill (son of Robert, third lord Sempill [q. v.]). His mother, Mary Livingstone, is described by Knox as ‘the lusty’ daughter of Alexander, fifth lord Livingstone, and one of the ‘four Marys’ of Mary Queen of Scots. Both John Sempill and Mary were special favourites of the queen, from whom they received on 9 May 1564–5 the lands of Auchtermuchty in Fifeshire, and various lands in Ayrshire. In 1577 doom of forfailture was pronounced against John Sempill for his part in a conspiracy to assassinate the regent Morton. The conspiracy was revealed by Gilbert Sempill, his associate, and John Sempill made confession and was sentenced to be hanged, drawn, and quartered, but was reprieved and sentenced to be imprisoned in Edinburgh during the regent's pleasure. He died soon after obtaining his liberty, 25 April 1579.

The son was born in 1566, and, being about the same age as the young prince (afterwards James VI), he was, to use his own quaint language regarding the circumstances of his upbringing, ‘devoted to his [the prince's] service’ by his parents before he ‘was;’ ‘thereafter named in, and after his majesty's own name, before himself could know it; yet after knowledge, confirmed, in his H. court, almost ever since nursed and schooled.’ ‘And so,’ he continues, ‘is our David, the king of my birth, the master of my service, the father of my name, framer of my nature, and the Gamaliel of my education, at whose feet (no, at whose elbow and from whose mouth) I confess I have suckt the best of whatsoever may be thought good in me’ (‘Sacrelege Sacredly Handled,’ quoted in Paterson's Sempills of Beltrees, p. xxiv). After a course of instruction with the young king, under the direction of George Buchanan, he completed his education at the university of St. Andrews.

Sempill assisted James VI in preparing for the press his ‘Basilicon Doron,’ 1599; and of the seven copies, all privately printed, one was presented to him. This he privately showed to Andrew Melville, who, having taken note of certain statements on ecclesiastical policy, communicated them to his nephew, James Melville, which led to the matter being brought before the synod of Fife, much to the king's indignation [see under Melvillem Andrew, (1545–1622)]. When Andrew Melville was in 1606 committed to the Tower of London, Sempill did his utmost to befriend him and secure his liberation.

In 1599 Sempill was resident in London as ‘agent’ in the affairs of the king of Scots, and in February 1599–1600 he received a passport from Elizabeth to return to Scotland (cf. Paterson's Sempills of Beltrees, pp. xxx–xxxi). Shortly after his return he was made knight-bachelor, and in 1601 he was sent on an embassy to France. In February 1602–3 the king, in token of the good service done by him both at home and abroad, ‘granted and disponed to him, his heirs and assignees,’ a jewel of great beauty and value, formerly belonging to the king's mother, with full power to ‘sue all persons who have the said jewel in their keeping for delivery thereof to him;’ and ‘with command to the advocate to assist in the delivery to him of the jewel, or the value thereof’ (Reg. P. C. Scotl. vi. 534). When King James visited Paisley in 1617, Sempill prepared an oration which ‘a pretty boy of nine years’ delivered before him in the hall of the Earl of Abercorn.

Sempill died at his house at the Cross of Paisley in February 1625–6, and is described in the obituaries of Robert Boyd of Trochrig as a ‘grand enemie à la pseudo-hierarchie.’ By his wife, Egidia, daughter of Elphinstone of Blythswood, he had two sons, Robert [see below] and George, the latter of whom died young, and five daughters, of whom Marion was married to Colin Campbell of Ardkinlas, and Margaret to Walter Macfarlane of Macfarlane.

Sempill was the author of several controversial works displaying some learning and no small dialectic skill: 1. ‘Cassandra Scoticana to Cassander Anglicanus,’ Middelburg, 1618. 2. ‘Sacrelege sacredly handled, that is, according to Scripture only; for the use of all Churches in general, but more especially for those of North Britaine,’ London, 1619 (against Scaliger and Selden). 3. ‘Scoti τοῦ τυχόντος Paraclesis contra Danielis Tileni Silesii Parænesin, cuius pars prima est de Episcopali Ecclesiæ Regimine,’ 1622; written at the suggestion of Andrew Melville, and with his help, against a work of Tilenus, a late colleague of Melville's at Sedan, entitled ‘Parænesis ad Scotos, Genevensis Disciplinæ Zelotas,’ London, 1620. He also continued the poetic tradition of the Sempills by producing the ‘Packman's Pater Noster,’ a clever satirical attack, but outrageously partisan in tone, against the church of Rome; an edition published at Edinburgh in 1669 bore the title, ‘A Pick-Tooth for the Pope, or the Packman's Pater Noster set down in a Dialogue betwixt a Packman and a Priest; translated out of Dutch by S. I. S. and newly augmented and enlarged by his son, R. S.’

The son, Robert Sempill (1595?–1665?), who was born probably about 1595, and educated at the university of Glasgow, where he matriculated in March 1613, enlarged his father's satire, ‘The Packman's Pater Noster,’ and won for himself a place of his own among Scottish poets by his famous elegy on ‘The Life and Death of Habbie Simson, Piper of Kilbarchan.’ The intrinsic merits of the piece, as well as its graphically humorous picture of the amusements of the olden time, would alone entitle its author to a high place among Scottish poets, but it is specially notable besides for its stave, a revival of an ancient one which had passed into desuetude. Through the popularity of the poem the stave became the standard one for Scots elegiac verse long before Burns gave it his special imprimatur. The elegy is supposed to date from about 1640, and had achieved wide popularity as a broadside before it was included in Watson's ‘Choice Collection,’ 1706–1709. Sempill is also credited with the authorship of the epitaph on ‘Sawny Briggs, nephew to Habbie Simson and brother to the Laird of Kilbarchan,’ in the same stanza; and he no doubt was the author of other poems—it may even be of some attributed to his son Francis [q. v.] Robert Sempill died between 1660 and 1669. By his wife, Marie Lyon, daughter of Lyon of Auldbar, he had a son Francis, and a daughter Elizabeth, married to Sir George Maxwell of New Wark.

[James Melville's Diary in the Wodrow Society; m'Crie's Life of Andrew Melville; Reg. P. C. Scotl. vol. vi.; Calderwood's Hist. of the Kirk of Scotland; Paterson's Poems of the Sempills of Beltrees, 1849.]

T. F. H.