Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Dunbar, Gavin (d.1547)

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DUNBAR, GAVIN (d. 1547), tutor of James V, archbishop of Glasgow, and lord-chancellor of Scotland, was descended from the Dunbars of Mochrum, Wigtownshire, a branch of the Dunbars, earls of Moray. He was the third son of Sir John Dunbar of Mochrum by his second wife, Janet, daughter of Sir Alexander Stewart of Garlies, and was a nephew of Gavin Dunbar, bishop of Aberdeen [q. v.] He received his education at the university of Glasgow, where he greatly distinguished himself in the classical and philosophical studies, as well as subsequently in theology and common law. He obtained holy orders from his uncle, through whose influence probably he was made dean of Moray. In the following year he obtained the priory of Whithorn in Galloway, and shortly afterwards became tutor to James V. For this office he was supposed to possess pre-eminent qualifications as regards both learning and personal character. The excessive influence exercised by the ecclesiastics during the reign of James V must undoubtedly be ascribed to Dunbar, who retained through life his special confidence and respect. On the translation of Archbishop James Beaton [q. v.] to St. Andrews, Dunbar was appointed on 24 Sept. 1524 to succeed him, and was consecrated 5 Feb. 1525. At Dunbar's instigation James V and Margaret brought a variety of influences to bear on Pope Clement VII, to obtain his exemption from the jurisdiction of the archbishop of St. Andrews, who claimed to be primate and legatus natus in Scotland (see numerous letters in Cal. State Papers, Hen. VIII, vol. iv. pt. i.). On 3 Aug. Dunbar was named one of a commission who on 28 Sept. confirmed a peace with England (ib. entry 1668). In the following year he was named a member of the privy council, and subsequently a lord of the articles. He concurred in the sentence passed against Patrick Hamilton 13 Feb. 1527–8 (sentence printed in Calderwood, Hist. i. 78–80), and for this was specially commended in a letter sent to the archbishop of St. Andrews by the doctors of Louvain (ib. 80–2). After the escape of James V from the Earl of Angus, Dunbar was appointed to succeed Angus as lord high chancellor, the seals being delivered to him on 28 July 1528. Buchanan, referring to his appointment, says ‘he was a good and learned man, but some thought him a little defective in politics’ (Hist. of Scotl., Bond's trans. ii. 160). On 13 Sept. of the same year he was one of those who sat on the Earl of Angus's forfeiture (Cal. State Papers, Hen. VIII, vol. iv. pt. ii. entry 4728). It seems to have been on the advice of Lord-chancellor Dunbar that James V instituted the College of Justice, which was made to consist of fourteen judges, the chancellor having the power to preside when he so willed. It was also provided that the president should be a clergyman. The college was instituted in his presence and that of the king 27 May 1532. During the absence of the king in France in 1536 to wed the Princess Magdalene he acted as one of the lords of the regency, and about the same time the king gave him the abbacy of Inchaffray in commendam. In February 1539 Archbishop Dunbar, along with the archbishop of St. Andrews and the bishop of Dunblane, concurred in the burning at the stake of Thomas Forret, vicar of Dollar, and others, for heresy, on the castle hill of Edinburgh (Knox, Works, i. 63; (Calderwood, i. 124). He also shortly afterwards condemned Jerome Russell and a youth named Kennedy to be burned at Glasgow. He would at the last have spared their lives, but for the remonstrances of the agents of Beaton (Knox, i. 65). On the death of James V, Dunbar was continued in the lord-chancellorship under Arran, was appointed a lord of the articles, and was also sworn a member of the governor's privy council. When, at the instance of Lord Maxwell, an act was made on 19 March, permitting the reading of the New Testament in the vulgar tongue, Dunbar in his own name and that of the other prelates of the kingdom protested against it. The same year he was compelled to resign the chancellorship to Cardinal David Beaton [q. v.], who was not satisfied with the amount of zeal displayed by Dunbar in resisting heresy, and whose strenuous ambition pined after an office which carried with it the possibilities of exercising so much power in civil affairs. In 1545, when George Wishart went to preach at Ayr, Dunbar resolved on the experiment of depriving him of an audience by himself preaching in the kirk; but Wishart, by adjourning to the market, attracted nearly the whole audience from the kirk, leaving the archbishop to ‘preach to his jackmen and to some old bosses of the toune’ (ib. i. 127). In the same year the old dispute as to the priority of the archbishop of St. Andrews or Glasgow, which led to the special exemption of Dunbar by Pope Clement VII from the jurisdiction of James Beaton, was the cause of an extraordinary scene between Dunbar and Cardinal David Beaton. The scene is related by Knox with a biting humour, which no doubt exaggerates the ludicrous aspects of the incident. The Archbishop of St. Andrews having had occasion to visit Glasgow, a question arose at the door of the cathedral as to precedency between the cross-bearers of the two archbishops, and the quarrel led to a personal contest, in which, according to Knox, ‘rockettis war rent, typpetis war torne, crounis war knapped, and syd gounis mycht have bene sein wantonly wag from the one wall to the other’ (ib. 147). The incident is no doubt introduced by Knox to exhibit in as odious a light as possible their persecution of George Wishart. He represents the rival archbishops as becoming reconciled through their common zeal in promoting the martyrdom of Wishart: ‘the blood of the innocent servant of God’ burying ‘in oblivion all that braggine and boast’ (ib. 148). Dunbar answered the summons of Beaton to be present at the trial of Wishart in February 1546, subscribed the sentence for his execution, ‘and lay ower the east blok-house with the said cardinall, till the martyr of God was consumed by fyre’ (ib.) Dunbar died on the last day of April 1547, and was buried in the choir of his cathedral. His remains were discovered in 1855 during the repairs on the choir (for description of them see Gordon, Eccles. Hist. Scotl. ii. 525–6). He built the gatehouse of his episcopal palace, on which he inscribed his arms. Knox says that Dunbar was ‘known a glorious fool,’ a description which indicates possibly Knox's contempt both of Dunbar's regard for ecclesiastical ceremony and of his weak personal character, which made him merely Beaton's unwilling tool. But beside Knox's judgment must be set that of Buchanan, which, if not entirely inconsistent with it, supplements and in some respects qualifies it. In the exaggerated language excusable in an epigram, and especially in a Latin epigram, Buchanan affirms that when he sat down as the guest of Dunbar he envied not the gods their nectar and ambrosia; but it must be remembered that Buchanan also states in plain prose that some thought Dunbar ‘defective in politics.’ The seal of Dunbar is engraved in the ‘Reg. Episcop. Glasg.,’ published by the Maitland Club.

[Keith's Scottish Bishops; Crawfurd's Officers of State, pp. 74–6; Haig and Brunton's Senators of the College of Justice, 1–5; Gordon's Eccles. Hist. Scotl. vol. ii.; Reg. Episcop. Glasg. (Maitland Club); Cal. State Papers, Hen. VIII, vol. iv; Knox's Works; Histories of Calderwood and Buchanan.]

T. F. H.