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Thomas Pennant

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Appendix III: The Life of James Crichton of Clunie

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The Admirable CRICHTON.

A P P E N D I X.


commonly called the ADMIRABLE CRICHTON.

THIS compilation was some years ago printed at Aberdeen . I have had opportunity of comparing it with most of the authorities quoted in support of the history of so extraordinary a person, and find them used with judgment and fidelity. Excepting a few notes, I present it to the readers in the state I found it: and shall only acquaint them that the life of this Glory of North Britain may be found in the 81st Number of the Adventurer , treated in a more elegant, but far less comprehensive manner.

THIS gentleman was descended from a very antient family; his father Robert Crichton of Clunie and Eliock , was one of those who commanded Queen Mary's army at the battle of Langside in the year 1568. He was born at Clunie ,1 his paternal inheritance, in the shire of Perth , in the year 1551. He was taught his grammar at the school of Perth , and his philosophy at the university of St. Andrews 2 under Mr. John Rutherford 3 He had hardly attained to the 20th year of his age, when he had run through the whole circle of the sciences, and could speak and write to perfection in ten different languages; but this was not all; for he had likewise improved himself to the utmost degree in riding, dancing, singing, and playing upon all sorts of instruments.

Having thus accomplished himself at home, his parents sent him abroad to accomplish him further by travelling. And coming to Paris , it is not to be imagined what consternation he raised in that famous university; as we have it from an eye-witness, who gives us this account of it:4

There came," says he, to the college of st Navarre , a young man of 20 years of age, who was perfectly well seen in all the sciences, as the most learned masters of the university acknowledged: in vocal and instrumental music none could excel him, in painting and drawing in colors none could equal him; in all military feats he was most expert, and could play with the sword so dexterously with both his hands, that no man could fight him; when he saw his enemy or antagonist, he would throw himself upon him at one jump of 20 or 24 feet distance: He was a master of arts, and disputed with us in the "schools of the college upon medicine, the civil and canon law, and theology; and although we were above fifty in number, besides above three thousand that were present; and so pointedly and learnedly he answered to all the questions that were proposed to him, that none but they that were present can believe it. He spake Latin, Greek, Hebrew , and other languages most politely: he was likewise an excellent horseman, and truely if a man should live an hundred years without eating, drinking or sleeping, he could not attain to this man's knowledge, which struck us with a panick fear; for he knew more than human nature could well bear; he overcame four of the doctors of the church; for in learning none could contest with him, and he was thought to be Antichrist.

Sir Thomas Urquhart of Cromarty giving an account of this dispute, says, that Crichton , when he came to Paris , caused fix programs on all the gates of the schools, halls and colleges belonging to the university, and on all the pillars and posts before the houses of the most renowned men for literature in the city, inviting all those who were well versed in any art or science, to dispute with him in the college of Navarre , that day six weeks, by nine of the clock in the morning, where he should attend them, and be ready to answer to whatever should be proponed to him in any art or science, and in any of these twelve languages, Hebrew, Syriack, Arabick, Greek, Latin, Spanish, French, Italian, English, Dutch, Flemish or Sclavonian , and that either in verse or prose, at the discretion of the disputant; and during all this time instead of making a close application to his studies, he minded nothing, but hunting, hawking, tilting, vaulting, riding of a well managed horse, tossing the pike, handling the musket, and other military feats, or in house games, such as balls, concerts of music vocal and instrumental, cards, dice, tennis, and the other diversions of youth; which so provoked the students of the university, that they caused write beneath the program that was fixt on the Sorbonne gate,

If you would meet with this monster of perfection, to make search for him either in the tavern or bawdy-house, is the readiest way to find him.

Yet upon the day appointed he met with them in the college of Navarre , and acquit himself beyond expression in that dispute, which lasted from nine till six of the clock at night: At length, the Præses having extolled him highly, for the many rare and wonderful endowments that God and nature had bestowed upon him, he rose from his chair, and accompanied by four of the most eminent professors of the university, gave him a diamond ring and a purse full of gold, as a testimony of their love and favor, which ended with the acclamations and repeated huzza's of the spectators. And ever after that he was called, The Admirable Crichton . And my author says, that he was so little fatigued with that day's dispute, that the very next day he went to the Louvre , where he had a match of tilting, an exercise in great request in those days, and in the presence of some princes of the court of France , and a great many ladies, he carried away the ring fifteen times on end, and broke as many lances on the Saracen .

The learned M. du Launy , in his history of the college of Navarre , finding the history of this dispute recorded in a MS. history of the college of Navarre , and the like account of a Spaniard in Trithemius , confounds the two together, and robs our author of the glory of this action, and places it in the year 1445, whereas it should be in the year 1571, as we have reason to believe, from the authority of those that were cotemporary with him, and knew him, and have recorded this of him; but we need not be surprized at M. du Launy's denying him the glory of this action, when we find M. Baillet , another learned Frenchman , denying there ever was such a man as our author,5 notwithstanding that Aldus Manutius dedicates his book of Cicero's paradoxes to him in the year 1581, and that the most of the eminent men in Italy in that age were acquainted with him, as we shall show in the remaining part of the history of his life. About two years after his dispute at Paris, Trajano Boccalini in his advertisements from Parnassus, tells us, that he came to Rome; Boccalini being then at Rome , himself, and by a placad which he affixed upon all the eminent places of the city, he challenged all the learned men in Rome , in the following terms, Nos Jacobus Crichtonus Scotus, cuicunque rei propositæ ex improviso respondebimus . That is to say, he was ready to answer to any question that could be proposed to him, without being previously advertised of it. Upon which the wits put a paper in Pasquin's 6 hand, endeavouring to ridicule him; but that noways discouraging him, he came at the time and place appointed by his placad, and in the presence of the pope, many cardinals, bishops, doctors of divinity, and professors in all the sciences; he gave such surprizing instances of his universal knowledge, that they were no less surprized with him, than they had been at Paris .

From Rome he goes to Venice , where he contracted an intimate friendship with Aldus Manutius, Laurennius Massa, Speron Speronius , and several other learned men, to whom he presented several poems in commendation of the city and university, and among the rest, one to Aldus Manutius , which we have still extant in the Delitiæ Poetarum Scotorum .7 This poem gave him a very agreeable surprize, being presented by a stranger, whom he judged by the performance to be a person of an extraordinary genius; but when he came to discourse with him, he was struck with admiration, and finding him known in every thing, he brought him to the acquaintance of all the people of learning of note that were in Venice , and all of them were so surprized with him, that they thought him, as he really was, the wonder of the world, and never spoke of him but with admiration; at length being brought before the doge and senate, he made a handsome speech to them, which being accompanied with all the graces and beauties of eloquence and nature8 that appeared in his person in their utmost lustre, he received the thanks of the senate, and nothing was talked through the whole city, but of this prodigy of nature. Having stayed for some time at Venice , he went to Padua to visit the learned men that were at that famous university; and he had no sooner arrived there, but there there was a meeting of all the learned men in the city, in the house of Jacobus Moysius Cornelius , to wait upon him, and converse with him: He opened the assembly with an extemporary poem in praise of the city, university, and the assembly that had honored him with their presence at that time; and after six hours of a dispute, which he sustained against them, in whatever they could propose to him in all the sciences, he concluded with an extemporary oration in praise of ignorance, that Aldus Manutius 9 says that they all thought that they were in a dream, and that he had almost persuaded them that it was better to be ignorant, than learned and wise. Some time after this he fixed a paper on the gates of St. John and St. Paul's churches, wherein he offered to prove before the university, that there was an infinite number of errors in Aristotle's philosophy, which was then only in vogue, and in all his commentaries, both in theological and philosophical matters, and to refute the dreams of several mathematicians: He likewise made an offer to dispute in all the sciences, and to answer to whatever should be proposed to him, or objected against him, either in the common logical way, or by numbers and mathematical figures, or in a hundred sorts of verses as they pleased.

Aldus Manutius , who was present at this dispute, says,10 that he performed all that he had promised, to their greatest amazement: And he tells us likewise of another dispute that he had before a great concourse of people in the bishop of Padua's house, without mentioning the occasion or particulars of it; but Joannes Imperialis tells us,11 that he was informed by his father, who was present at this dispute, that it was with one Archangellus Mercenarius , a famous philosopher, upon philosophical subjects, in which he acquitted himself so well, that his adversary owned before the assembly that he had overcome him.

From Venice he went to Mantua ; at this time there was a gladiator at Mantua , who had foiled in his travels the most famous fencers in Europe , and had lately killed in that city three persons who had entered the lists with him; the Duke of Mantua was highly offended that he had granted this fellow his protection, since it had such a fatal consequence: Crichton being informed of this, offered his service to the Duke, to rid not only his dominions, but Italy of this murtherer, and to fight him for fifteen hundred pistoles: though the Duke was unwilling to expose such a fine gentleman as our author, to such an hazard, yet relying upon the report of his performances in all warlike atchievements, it was agreed to; and the time and place being appointed, the whole court were witness to the performance. In the beginning of the combat, Crichton was upon the defensive, and the Italian attacked him with such vigor and eagerness, that he began to grow faint, having overacted himself; then our author attacked him with such dexterity and vigor, that he run him through the body in three different places, of which he immediately died. The huzza's and acclamations of the spectators were extraordinary upon this occasion, and all of them acknowledged, that they had never seen art grace nature, nor nature second the precepts of art, with so much liveliness as they they had seen that day; and to crown the glory of this action Crichton bestowed the prize of his victory upon the widows who had lost their husbands in fighting with this gladiator.

These, and his other wonderful performances, moved the Duke of Mantua to make choice of him for preceptor to his son Vincent de Gonzagua , a prince of a riotous temper, and dissolute life. The court was highly pleased with the Duke's choice, and for their diversion he composed a comedy, wherein he exposed and ridiculed12 all the weaknesses and failures of the several employments that men betake themselves to; which was looked upon as one of the most ingenious satires that ever was made upon mankind; but that which was most wonderful and astonishing was, that he himself personated the divine, philosopher, lawyer, mathematician, physician, and soldier, with such an inimitable grace, that every time he appeared upon the theatre, he seemed to be a different person; but from being the principal actor of a comedy, he became the woful subject of a most lamentable tragedy, being most barbarously murthered by his pupil, which happened thus:

One night as he was walking amongst the streets in the time of the carnaval, and playing upon his guittare, he was attacked by half a dozen people in masks; but they found that they had not an ordinary person to deal with, for they were not able to stand their ground against him, and having disarmed the principal person amongst them, he pulled off his mask, and begged his life, telling him, that he was the prince his pupil. Crichton , who immediately knew him, fell down upon his knees, and told him that he was sorry for his mistake, and that what he had done was only in his own defence, and that if he had any design upon his life, he might always be master of it; and then taking his own sword by the point, he presented him with it; which the prince taking in his hand, and not being able to overcome his passion for the affront that he thought he had sustained, in being foiled with all his attendants, he immediately run him through the heart.

What moved the prince to this ungenerous and brutal action, is variously conjectured; for some think that it was jealousy, suspecting that he was more in favors with a young lady whom he passionately loved than he was. Others say, that it was only to try his valor, and the effect of a drunken ramble; but whatever was the cause of it, 'tis certain that thus he died, in the beginning of the month of July ., in the year 1583, in the thirty-second year of his age, or, as Imperialis says, in the twenty-second.

His death was extraordinarily lamented by all the learned men in Europe , and from these Italian writers, who knew, and were cotemporary with him, it is, that I have most of all that I have said of him. Joannes Imperialis , a doctor of medicine of Vicenza in Italy , who has wrote our author's life, and who could not but know the truth of all, or most of what he has said of him, since he lived upon the places in which they were acted, and who had them from his father, who was an eye and ear witness to them, says,13

That he was the wonder of the last age, the prodigious production of nature, the glory and ornament of Parnassus in a stupendous and an unusual manner, and as yet in the judgement of the learned world, the Phoenix of literature, and rather a shining particle of the Divine Nature and Majesty, than a model of what human nature and industry can attain to. And what can be more, continues he,14 above our comprehension, than in the 21st year of his age to be master of ten languages, and to be perfectly well seen in philosophy, mathematicks, theology, the belles-lettres, and all the other sciences; besides, was it ever heard of in the whole compass of this globe, that one with all this, should be found expert to admiration, in fencing, dancing, singing, riding, and the other exercises of the gymnastick art? Besides all this, he is said to have been one of the most beautiful, and one of the handsomest gentlemen the world ever saw, so that Nature had taken as much care about his body, as she had done about his mind; and in one word, he was the utmost that man could come to.

M. Bayle says,15 that he was one of the greatest prodigies of wit that ever lived; and Fælix Astolfus that he had such a prodigious memory16 that he retained more books upon his mind, than any of his age had read; Plures libros memoriter tenebat quam quisquam ea ætate legerat.

And Sir Thomas Urquhart of Cromarty , having insisted on all the particulars of our author's life in a fustian and bombastical strain, tells us, that in the comedy which he composed, and was an actor in before the court of Mantua , in the fifth and last act, he himself personated no less than 13 different characters of persons and employments in their different habits.

And in his character of him, he tells us, that he gained the esteem of all kings and princes, by his magnanimity and knowlege; of all noblemen and gentlemen, by his courtliness and breeding; of all knights, by his honorable deportment and pregnancy of wit; of all the rich, by his affability and good fellowship; of all the poor, by his munificence and liberality; of all the old, by his constancy and wisdom; of all the young, by his mirth and gallantry; of all the learned, by his universal knowlege; of all the soldiers, by his undaunted valor courage; of all the merchants and artificers, by his upright and dealing and honesty; and of all the fair sex, by his beauty and handsomeness; in which respect, he was a master-piece of Nature. "The reader," says he, "perhaps will think this wonderful, and so would I too, were it not that I know, as Sir Philip Sidney says, that a wonder is no wonder in a wonderful subject, and consequently not in him, who for his learning, judgment, valor, eloquence, beauty and good fellowship, was the perfectest result of the joint labors of Pallas, Apollo, Mars, Mercury, Venus and Bacchus , that hath been since the days of Alcibiades ; and he was reported to have been enriched with a memory so prodigious, that any sermon, speech, harangue, or other manner of discourses of an hour's continuance he was able to recite without hesitation, after the same manner of gesture and pronunciation in all points, wherewith it was delivered at first; and of so stupendious a judgement, that nothing escaped his knowlege;" And for the truth of all this, he appeals to above two thousand witnesses, that were still alive, and had known him. And speaking of his death, which he attributes to an amour, he tells us, that it was in the 32d year of his age; that the whole court went in mourning for him; that the epitaphs and elegies that were composed upon his death, if collected, would exceed the bulk of Homer's works, and that his picture was still to be seen in the most of the bed-chambers and galleries of the Italian nobility, representing him upon horseback, with a lance in the one hand, and a book in the other.17

Dempster , who was cotemporary with him, and a professor of the civil law at Bononia in Italy , agrees as to the most of what we have said of him; but he tells us,18 that he was for some time at Geneva as he was on his travels to Italy , and that they offered him a considerable salary, if he would remain with them; but that he refused it, and that no man offered to detract from his just praises, but Trajano Boccalini ; but that he being a person of no erudition, it was rather a glory than any disgrace upon him to be so treated by a person of his character. Yet the same Dempster blames our author very much, not for his boasting of the endowments of his mind, but for his affirming that he was descended from the royal family of Scotland . Many poems and epitaphs were composed upon him, but I shall only insert that of our countryman, Dr. John Johnston , in his inscriptions upon our heroes, who makes him die in the year 1581.


Musarum pariter ac Martis Alumnus, omnibus in studiis, ipsis etiam Italis admirabilis, Mantua a Ducis Mantuani nocturnis infidiis occisus est, Anno Christi 1581.

ET genus & censum dat Scotia, Gallia pectus
Excolit: admirans Itala terra virum
Ambit, & esse suum vellet; gens æmula vitam
Abstulit; an satis hoc dicat ut illa suum
Mantua habet cineres scelus execrata nesandum,
At tumuli tanto gaudet honore tamen.

I have nothing of this author that is extant, but two poems, one in praise of the city of Venice , and the other addressed to Aldus Manutius .19 Both which are in the first volume of the Delitiæ Poetarum Scoticorum .

Dempster gives us the following catalogue of his works, where it plainly appears, that he makes three books out of that placad which he affixed upon the gates of St. John and St. Paul's churches in Padua .

The Catalogue of his Works.

  1. ODÆ ad Laurentium Massam plures.
  2. Laudes Patavinæ, Carmen extempore essusum, cum in Jacobi Moysii Cornelii domo experimentum ingenii coram tota Academiæ frequentia non sine multorum stupore faceret.
  3. Ignorationis Laudatio, extemporale Thema ibidem redditum post sex horarum disputationes, ut præsentes somnia potius fovere quam rem se veram videre affirmarint, ait Manutius.
  4. De appulsu suo Venetias. Delitiæ Poet. Scot. Vol. I. p. 268.
  5. Odæ ad Aldum Manutium. Del. Poet. Scot. Vol. I. p. 269.
  6. Epistolæ ad Diversos.
  7. Præsationes solemnes in omnes scientias sacras & profanas.
  8. Judicium de Philosophis.
  9. Errores Aristotelis.
  10. Armis an Literæ præstant, Controversia oratoria.
  11. Refutatio Mathematicorum.
  12. A Comedy in the Italian Language.

1 The present house of Clunie stands in an island in a lake of the same name. But the old house or castle stood on one side of the water: and its place is distinguished by nothing but a mound and imperfect moat.

2 Vid. Ald. Manut. Epist. Ded. Paradox. Cicer; Dict Critiq. & Histor. par M. Bayle ; Dempster Hist. Eccles. p. 1876. Joan, imperialis Mus. Histor. p. 241. Sir Thomas Urquhart's Vindication of the Scots Nation, &c.

3 Aldus calls Crichton first cousin to the King, and says that he was educated along with his Majesty under Buchanan, Hepburn, Robertson , and Rutherford .

4 Steph. Pasch. Disquis. lib. 5. cap. 23.

5 Hist. des Enf. Celeb.

6 The pasquinade was to this effect, written beneath the challenge, And he that will see it let him go to the signe of the Faulcon and it shall be shewn . This, says Boccalini , made such an impression on Crichton , that he left the place where he was so grosly affronted as to be put on a level with jugglers and mountebanks.

7 Delitiæ Poet. Scot. ubi supra.

8 Joan. Imperial. ubi supra.

9 Aldus Man. Præf. in Cicer. Parad.

10 Ubi supra.

11 Ubi supra.

12 The unhappy effect that this humour had on two maids of honor is admirably told by Sir Thomas Urquhart , a second Rabelais , and the best translator of that extravagant author.

They heard in him alone the promiscuous speech of fifteen several actors, by the various ravishments of the excellencies whereof, in the frolickness of a jocound straine beyond expectation, the logo-fascinated spirits of the beholding hearers and auricularie spectators, were so on a sudden seazed upon in their risible faculties of the soul, and all their vital motions so universally affected in this extremitie of agitation, that, to avoid the inevitable charms of his intoxicating ejaculations, and the accumulative influences of so powerful a transportation, one of my Lady Dutchess chief maids of honor, by the vehemencie of the shock of those incomprehensible raptures, burst forth into a laughter, to the rupture of a veine in her body; and another young lady, by the irrefutable violence of the pleasure unawares infused, where the tender receptibilitie of her too too tickled fancie was left able to hold out, so unprovidedly was surprised, that, with no less impetuositie of ridibundal passion then (as hath been told) occasioned a fracture in the other young ladie, she, not able longer to support the well beloved burden of so excessive delight, and intransing joys of such Mercurial exhilirations through the ineffable extasie of an over mastered apprehension, fell back in a swoon, without the appearance of any other life into her, then what by the most refined wits of theological speculators is conceived to be exerced by the purest parts of the separated entelechies of blessed Saints in their sublimest conversations with the celestial hierarchies: this accident procured the incoming of an apothecarie with restoratives, as the other did that of a surgeon with consolidative medicaments.

Vindication of the honor of Scotland , &c. p. 111, 112.

13 Museum Histor. p. 241.

14 Musæum Histor. Imper. Joa. ibidem, Venetiis apud Juntas 1650, in 4to.

15 Bib. Crit.

16 Officina Hist. p. 102.

17 The print prefixed to this life was taken from a picture in possession of Lord Eliock , Lord of Sessions, copied from an original belonging to Mr. Graham of Airth . I am told that there is a very fine portrait of this celebrated person the property of Mr. Morrison of Bogny , which was sent from Italy by Crichton a short time before he was killed.

18 Hist. Eccles. Gen. Scott, ubi supra.

19 Crichton replies to one of the Naiads of the Po who appeared to him on his arrival at Venice :

———— ———— Fateor me, candide Naias ,
Promeritum quæcunque fero: nec turpis egestas
Insandumve scelus servi mea pectora vexat.
At me quis miserum magna cognoscit in urbe
Aut quis ad æquoreas flentem solatur arenas?

The Naid directs him to Aldus :

Hunc pete, namque regens silo vestigia cæca
Diriget ille tuos optato in tramite gressus.
Inde via pendet. Sequere hunc quæcunque jubentem,
Sic te Diva monet sævam quæ Gorgona gestat,
Quæ plerumque tuis prefens erit optima votis.


Thomas Pennant, A Tour in Scotland 1769 (London: Benjamin White, 1776)

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