Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Erskine, John (1509-1591)
ERSKINE, JOHN (1509–1591), of Dun, Scottish reformer, was descended from a branch of the family of Erskine of Erskine, afterwards earls of Mar, the earliest of the Dun branch being Sir Thomas Erskine, who had a charter of that barony from Robert II, dated 8 Nov. 1376. The reformer was the son of Sir John Erskine, fifth laird of Dun, by his wife, Margaret Ruthven, countess dowager of Buchan, and was born in 1509. Four of his near relatives—his grandfather, father, granduncle, and uncle—were slain at Flodden in 1513. The wills and inventories of the grandfather and father (‘Dun Papers’ in Spalding Club Miscellany, iv. 10–16) prove that the family was exceptionally wealthy. His uncle, Sir Thomas Erskine of Brechin, secretary to James V, now became his guardian, and was specially careful to give him a good education. Bowick, in his ‘Life of John Erskine,’ states that he was educated at King's College, Aberdeen. m'Crie, in his ‘Life of Melville,’ wrongly interpreting a passage in James Melville's ‘Diary,’ states that Richard Melville, eldest brother of Andrew Melville, in the capacity of tutor accompanied Erskine to Wittemberg, where they studied under Melanchthon; but this Erskine is only described as ‘James Erskine, apperand of Dun,’ and as a matter of fact Richard Melville was more than twelve years the junior of John Erskine, having been born in 1522. In 1530 or 1531 Erskine, probably accidentally, was the cause of the death of Sir William Froster, a priest, in the bell tower of Montrose (Instrument of Sir William Froster's assythment, 5 Feb. 1530–1, in Spalding Club Miscellany, iv. 27–8). This may have been the reason of his going abroad, where he is supposed to have studied at a university. On his return he brought with him a French gentleman, Petrus de Marsiliers, whom he established at Montrose to teach Greek, ‘nocht heardof before’ in Scotland (James Melville, Diary, 31), a step which had no inconsiderable results in hastening the Reformation. From the Frenchman Andrew Melville obtained sufficient knowledge of the language to enable him when he went to St. Andrews to study Aristotle in the original, ‘quhilk his maisters understood nocht’ (ib.); in this way also George Wishart acquired the knowledge of Greek which enabled him to teach the Greek New Testament in Montrose; and David Stratoun of Laurieston, who suffered at the stake in 1534, was probably taught by the same master, for it was when reading the New Testament with Erskine that he chanced on the words which made him resolve never to deny the truth ‘for fear of death or bodily pain’ (Calderwood, Hist. i. 107).
Soon after his return from abroad Erskine married Elizabeth Lindsay, daughter of the Earl of Crawford (Precept of Sasine by David, earl of Crawford, 20 Oct. 1535, Spalding Club Miscellany, iv. 29). In 1537 he, along with his son John and other relatives, obtained a license from the king to travel in France, Italy, ‘or any uther beyond se,’ for the space of three years (ib. 30), and in 1542 he obtained a similar license for two years (ib. 43). His first wife died 29 July 1538, and his marriage to Barbara de Beirle took place possibly when abroad, but at any rate previous to September 1543. A letter of Cardinal Beaton to Erskine, 25 Oct. 1544 (ib. 45–6), asking him to meet him at St. Andrews that they might journey together to the meeting of the estates at Edinburgh, at which the treaties with England were annulled, was probably dictated by his doubts as to Erskine's sentiments towards these proposals. There is no evidence whether Erskine kept the appointment; but as the special friend of Wishart and other reformers, it cannot be supposed that he was quite cordial in his support of Beaton. Before Wishart set out on his fatal journey to Edinburgh in the following year, he visited Montrose, and it was ‘sore against the judgement of the laird of Dun’ (Knox, Works, i. 132) that he ‘entered in his journey.’ Undoubtedly, however, Erskine, as his whole career bears witness, was less extreme in his views than the ecclesiastics among the reformers, and less obnoxious to the catholics, while his wealth and his influence rendered it imprudent to interfere with him. When, after the assassination of Beaton in 1546, the queen dowager in 1547 was deserted by many of the nobility, who combined with the English against her, Erskine gave her valuable support. In the capacity of constable of Montrose he repelled an attempt of the English to land at the town, and received from the queen regent her hearty thanks for his ‘gude service done onto our derrest daughter your souerane and hir auctoryte’ (Spalding Club Miscellany, iv. 48). Some time afterwards the occupation of the fort, or Constable Hill, of Montrose by the French under Captain Beauschattel caused him some uneasiness, for on 29 Aug. 1549 the queen regent wrote to assure him that this was not to be regarded as in any way superseding his authority (ib. 51).
Erskine was one of the first to attend the private exhortations of Knox after his arrival in Scotland in the autumn of 1555 (Knox, Works, i. 246). It was while at supper at the laird of Dun's lodgings that Knox persuaded some of his principal followers openly to discountenance the mass (ib. 249). Shortly afterwards he brought Knox to his house at Dun, where Knox remained a month, the principal gentry of the district being invited to meet him (ib.) The name of Erskine of Dun stands fourth among the signatures to the first bond of the Scottish reformers, 3 Dec. 1557, inviting Knox to return from Geneva (ib. 273) On the 14th of the same month he was appointed one of the commissioners to witness the marriage of the young queen Mary with the dauphin of France, and arrange its conditions, representing, along with James Stuart, afterwards Earl of Moray, the views of the reforming party (Calderwood, History, i. 330). After his return he was chosen an elder, and along with other zealous laymen began to address the meetings held for prayer and the reading of the scriptures (Knox, i. 300). When the reformed preachers were summoned to appear before the queen regent at Stirling on 10 May 1559, for refusing to attend the mass, they prudently determined to send Erskine of Dun—described by Knox as a ‘man most gentill of nature, and most addict to please hir in all things not repugnant to God’—to confer with her on the matter. On the faith of her apparently conciliatory attitude Erskine advised them that they need not appear, but when they failed to do so, she made this an excuse for putting them to the horn, whereupon, fearing imprisonment, he withdrew, and came to the reformers assembled at Perth. His representation to them regarding what Knox calls her ‘craft and falsehood’ was, according to the same authority, the real cause of the outbreak of indignation among the multitude, which found vent in the destruction of the monasteries of the town. Subsequently he was one of the principals in the negotiations which led to a cessation of hostilities. When the queen regent soon afterwards broke her agreement with them, he attended the meeting of the leading reformers summoned for 4 June at St. Andrews to ‘concurre in the work of the reformation.’ He also signed the act of 23 Oct. 1559 suspending her from the regency, and he subscribed the instructions to the commissioners that went to Berwick in February 1560 to form a contract with Elizabeth. In July following he accepted an office which identified him for the rest of his life with the reformed church of Scotland as completely as if he had been an ecclesiastic. When the assembly decided to appoint superintendents for the different districts of Scotland, it followed almost as a matter of course that he, though a layman, should be appointed superintendent for Angus and Mearns (ib. ii. 363).
Erskine was the only person present at Knox's stormy interview with Queen Mary. Mary, exasperated beyond endurance by the terse denunciations of Knox, gave way to a paroxysm of passion. Erskine was never addicted to strong language, and probably recognised that Knox had blundered in his diplomacy as well as violated good manners. At any rate he attempted to take the sting out of Knox's remonstrances by ‘many pleasing wordis of hir beautie, of hir excellence, and how that all the princes of Europe wold be glaid to seak hir favouris’ (ib. ii. 388). Knox unconcernedly adds that the only ‘effect of this was to cast oil on the flaming fire,’ but at all events it diverted her anger from Erskine, and in all probability, but for his considerate persuasions when he remained with her in the cabinet after Knox was dismissed, she would have been content with nothing less than bringing the matter before the lords of the articles. Indeed, the compliments of the laird of Dun, when Mary's pride had been so ruthlessly wounded, seem really to have left a very favourable impression of him; for when at the conference held with the lords at Perth in May 1565, in reference to the marriage with Darnley, she expressed her willingness to hear public preaching ‘out of the mouth of such as pleased’ her, thereby plainly intending to exclude Knox, she mentioned that above all others ‘she would gladly hear the superintendent of Angus, for he was a mild and sweet-natured man, with true honesty and uprightness’ (ib. 482). Erskine's rare union of steadfastness to his convictions with a conciliatory manner gained him at this time a peculiar influence among the reforming party. Many of the nobility of the party were not primarily actuated by ecclesiastical or even religious motives, and Erskine formed in a great measure the bond of connection between them and the ‘congregation.’ It was probably chiefly on this account that, though a layman, he was chosen moderator of the general assembly which met at Edinburgh 25 Dec. 1564, and of the three assemblies succeeding the marriage of Mary with Darnley, viz. 25 Dec. 1565, 25 June 1566, and 25 Dec. 1566. In 1564 he was elected also provost of Montrose. After the murder of Darnley he aided in the coronation of the young prince James at Stirling, 29 July 1567, and along with the Earl of Morton took the oath on the prince's behalf to maintain the protestant religion (ib. vi. 556). In 1569, by command of the general assembly, he held a visitation at Aberdeen, and suspended the principal and several professors of King's College from their offices for adherence to popery (Calderwood, ii. 492). On account of certain letters proclaimed by the regent in St. Andrews in November 1571, dismissing the collectors of the thirds of the benefices, Erskine on the 10th wrote him a remonstrance in the form of a short dissertation on the respective provinces of the civil and ecclesiastical powers (printed in Calderwood, iii. 156–62; Bannatyne, Memoriales, 197–203; and Wodrow, Collections, i. 36–41). Four days later he wrote him, in reference to a proposed convention at Leith, asserting that he saw no reason why he and others should attend a convention where their counsel would not be received (Bannatyne, 203–4; Wodrow, 43–4). To these two letters the regent replied on the 15th (Calderwood, iii. 162–5; Bannatyne, 205–6; Wodrow, 44–6) in such a conciliatory manner, that Erskine was induced to use his influence in securing the attendance of the superintendents and others at the convention, which was finally fixed at Leith for 12 Jan. Wodrow asserts that Erskine agreed to the modified form of episcopacy then introduced, only under protestation until better times; but it is plain from his subsequent conduct that his objections to it were by no means so strong as those of the extreme presbyterians. At the general assembly convened in the Tolbooth of Perth on the 16th of the following August he was again chosen moderator (Calderwood, iii. 219), and his influence doubtless aided in preventing an open breach between the two parties. As a token of his consent to the introduction of episcopacy, he intimated his desire, after the appointment of a bishop to St. Andrews, to be relieved of his duties of superintendent within the diocese, to be followed also with their cessation within the diocese of Dunkeld as soon as a bishop should be appointed there (ib. iii. 273). The new policy, however, met with so much resistance that it was never fully carried into effect, and Erskine retained his office of superintendent to within a few years of his death. In 1578 he assisted in the compilation of the ‘Second Book of Discipline,’ and was appointed moderator at the conference of commissioners convened for this purpose on 22 Dec. in a chamber of Stirling Castle (ib. iii. 433). On 14 May of this year he was commanded by the king to recover Redcastle, near Arbroath, from James Gray, son of Lord Gray, and his accomplices (Spalding Club Miscellany, iv. 60), and having done so to the satisfaction of the king, he was relieved of his trust on 1 Sept. 1579 (Reg. Privy Council of Scotland, iii. 211). At the parliament of the following November he was named one of the twenty-seven persons constituting the king's council (ib. 234). A license from the king, with consent of the privy council, dated 25 Feb. 1584, to John Erskine to eat flesh during Lent, and as often as he pleases during the forbidden days, supplies an interesting proof of the survival of catholic customs in Scotland after the Reformation. Erskine gave his support to the claims made by the king in 1584 to exercise supremacy in ecclesiastical matters, and was induced to use his influence to get the ministers within his district to subscribe an obligation recognising the king's jurisdiction, an intervention whose effectiveness led Calderwood to assert that the laird of Dun ‘was a pest then to the ministers in the north’ (History, iv. 351).
Subsequently Erskine served on various commissions of the assembly, and he held the office of superintendent at least as late as 1589. He died either 12 March 1591 (Johnstone, Poems on Scottish Martyrs) or 17 June of that year (Obitis of the Lairdis and Ladeis of Dune in Spalding Club Miscellany, iv. lxxviii). M'Crie, in his ‘Life of Melville,’ gives the date 21 Oct. 1592, but this is founded on mistaking for his own will that of his son John, who died at that date (ib.) There is no record of any other of his children. He is described by Buchanan as ‘homo doctus, et perinde pius et humanus,’ and by Spotiswood as ‘a baron of good rank, wise, learned, liberal, and of singular courage, who for diverse resemblances may well be said to have been another Ambrose.’[Bowick's Life of Erskine; Dun Papers in the Spalding Club Miscellany, vol. iv.; Hist. MSS. Commission, 5th Rep. pt. i. App. 633–44; Wodrow's Biog. Collections on the Lives of Reformers, Maitland Club Miscellany, vol. i.; Register of the Privy Council of Scotland, vol. iii.; James Melville's Diary; Richard Bannatyne's Memoriales; Diurnal of Occurrents; Knox's Works; Histories of Calderwood, Spotiswood, and Keith; M'Crie's Lives of Knox and of Melville.]