Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Sempill, Robert (1530?-1595)

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SEMPILL, ROBERT (1530?–1595), ballad-writer on the side of the reformers, born about 1530, was doubtless a cadet of the house of Sempill, of illegitimate birth. Sibbald, Motherwell, and others vainly sought to identify him with Robert, fourth lord Sempill, who succeeded his grandfather in 1572 and died in 1611 [see under Sempill or Semple, Robert, third Lord Sempill]. The ballad-writer received a liberal education. A part of his early life was spent in Paris. In one of his poems he speaks of Clement Marot, who died in 1544, as alive. On his return to Scotland he probably adopted the military profession. Three humorous poems of his of a licentious character that have been preserved in George Bannatyne's manuscript in the Advocates' Library, Edinburgh, may be referred to a date anterior to 1567, in which year Sempill is known to have written political pasquils. That he held some position at court, or had rendered some political service at this time, is proved by an entry in the lord-treasurer's books of 66l. 13s. 4d. paid ‘to Robert Semple.’ According to his poem entitled ‘Ane Complaint upon Fortoun,’ he was present at the siege of Leith in 1559–60. In 1570 he issued from the press of Lekprevik in a broadside ‘The Regentis Tragedie,’ which enjoyed much popularity. During the next two years he wrote a number of pieces of great bitterness, chiefly directed against the Hamiltons, Sir William Kirkcaldy, Sir William Maitland, and others who adhered to the cause of Mary or favoured the catholic faith. In 1572 he was once more in Paris, whence he fled at the massacre of St. Bartholomew. In 1573 he was in Edinburgh, and was probably with the army of Morton during the memorable siege of the castle. In that year he published, in a small quarto volume in black letter—the only known extant copy is in the British Museum—a graphic account of the bombardment of the fortress and the surrender of Grange and Lethington. This poem contains the names of many of the officers of the attacking force, of whom no record has elsewhere been preserved.

Besides ‘Ane Complaint upon Fortoun,’ written in 1581, in which he feelingly laments the downfall of Morton, Sempill wrote in 1584 a merciless but clever pasquinade, entitled ‘The Legend of the Bischop of St. Androis Lyfe,’ in which he held up to ridicule Patrick Adamson [q. v.] Dempster places Sempill's death in 1595.

In his ballads, which enjoyed a very great popularity, Sempill appears as a staunch supporter of Moray and the party of the Reformation. His satires are crude and often coarse, but vigorous. As records they are eminently trustworthy, and have a lasting value. Most of the ballads have come down to us in black-letter broadsides, which are preserved in the state paper office, the British Museum, and the library of the Society of Antiquaries, London. Two manuscripts of ‘The Legend of the Bischop of St. Androis Lyfe’ are extant, one in the library of the university of Edinburgh, the other in that of the Faculty of Advocates.

The three poems in the Bannatyne manuscript were first printed by Allan Ramsay in the ‘Evergreen,’ Edinburgh, 1724. The ‘Sege of the Castel of Edinburgh’ and ‘The Legend of the Bischop of St. Androis Lyfe’ were included by Sir John Graham Dalyell in ‘Scotish Poems of the Sixteenth Century,’ Edinburgh, 1801, 2 vols. The whole of Sempill's pieces are contained in ‘The Sempill Ballates,’ edited by T. G. Stevenson, Edinburgh, 1872, and in ‘Satirical Poems of the Time of the Reformation,’ edited for the Scottish Text Society by James Cranstoun, LL.D., Edinburgh, 1889–93, 2 vols. 8vo.

[The editions of Sempill's ballads, cited above.]

J. C-n.