Gavin Douglas and The XIII Bukes o Eneados

GAVIN DOUGLAS c. 1474-1522

His Prolougs tae the XIII Bukes o Eneados

Gavin Douglas was probably born between 1474-6. He is variously referred to as Gawin, Gawane and Gawain but never Gavan as he is named in the commemorative window immediately above the entrance to the main chapel of the Savoy Chapel where he was buried. [See upper right in the image below.] Gavan is a literal Anglicization of the Latin. While one degree short of ‘Gavla’ it still sounds preposterously ‘Smithy-ish’.


Gavin Douglas, third son of the 5th Earl of Angus, is best known today as the author of what many consider the best translation of Virgil's Aeneid, published posthumously as ‘The xiii Bukes of Eneados of the famose Poete Virgill’. Not only was this the first translation of Virgil's Aeneid into ‘English’, i.e. Scots, but it was also the first translation of any major classical work into ‘English’ of any description. Douglas' translation is of added interest because he prefaced each of Virgil's 12 books with his own Prologue as well as that of a 13th book, added in 1428 by the Italian renaissance writer Maffeo Vegio. Gavin Douglas undertook the translation at the request of Henry, 3rd Lord Sinclair, to whom he was related, and completed it six weeks before the disastrous Battle of Flodden where Lord Sinclair, along with many other notables including King James IV, was killed in 1513.

Flodden was as disruptive to Gavin Douglas and his family as to Scotland generally. He lost not only his principal patron Henry, Lord Sinclair and his king, but also two brothers and, less than six months later, his father who retired to his estate at Whithorn where he died “so great was his grief”. Flodden also marks a milestone in Gavin Douglas' literary life; thereafter he appears to have ceased writing entirely and devoted himself to his ecclesiastical career, becoming deeply involved in the complicated machinations of various factions vying for supremacy in Scotland during the minority of the future James V, who was about seventeen months old when he succeeded to the crown of Scotland following the death of his father James IV at Flodden.

With the death of Gavin's father, the Angus earldom passed to Gavin's nephew Archibald Douglas who became 6th Earl. Gavin himself did not inherit the title presumably because his mother was the second wife of the 5th earl - but I'm guessing. This nephew, Archibald, married the late king of Scotland's widow who, as mother of the next king of Scotland, James V, was for a short time queen regent. She also happened to be Margaret Tudor, daughter of Henry VII and thus sister of King Henry VIII, the recent victor of Flodden.

Scottish church appointments at the time were very political and indeed of national significance in that there were essentially two foreign powers vying for influence in Scotland; England through the manoeuvreings of the Tudors, including Margaret until she defected to the French camp, and France with the Duke of Albany as champion. The Scottish church being as yet unreformed, the Pope naturally exerted considerable power over Scottish ecclesiastical affairs in general as well as Bishop Gavin Douglas' career in particular.

Gavin Douglas was among those who advocated that Margaret and the young James V should move to the court of Henry VIII ostensibly for the safety of the prince's person but it seems Douglas was motivated as much by pursuit of his own ecclesiastical preferment as by court politics. He seems to have coveted the archbishopric of St Andrews but had to settle in the end for the older but less influential and less wealthy see of Dunkeld in 1516, but not before a bitter struggle, including an armed stand-off with Andrew Stewart, brother of the 2nd Earl of Atholl, who was the bishoprick claimant preferred by the French party. Indeed, Gavin Douglas was imprisoned for about a year by the then regent Albany and his allies. However, the pope intervened on Douglas' behalf and he was released in about 1516 only to fall foul of Margaret, by then odds with her husband, Gavin Douglas' nephew the 6th Earl of Angus. Margaret sided with the French, reputedly deserting her husband's bed in preference for the regent's. The slighted earl sent his uncle Gavin Douglas to London in a bid to solicit help from Henry VIII who, rather than take up the cudgels on behalf of Angus, took the opportunity to round on Scotland in a preemptive strike to undermine the auld alliance between Scotland and France. Henry VIII's real ambition was to rule not only Scotland, but France as well. He failed in both.

The above is a somewhat simplified version of events! These political maneuverings were the immediate reason for Gavin Douglas' presence in London at a time when plague was rife and to which Douglas fell victim, dying in September 1522 while staying in the house of an old friend, Thomas, Lord Dacre, in St Clements' parish. His death was noted by another friend of his of recent acquaintance, the historian Polydore Vergil who had sought Douglas' advice on Scottish history. Douglas' will, itself of interest as nearly the oldest Scottish document of its kind, was dated 10th September and probate granted on the 19th September. In accordance with his own wishes he was buried on the left side of Thomas Halsey, Bishop of Leighlin who died about the same time and was buried in the Hospital Church of the Savoy. The following inscription was placed on their tomb.

Hic jacet Thomas Halsey Leglinensis Episcopus in basilica
Sancti Petri Romae Nationis Anglicorum penitenciarius, summae
probitatis vir, q’hoc soli post se reliquit, vixit dum vixit
bene. Cui laevus conditur Gavanus Dowglas, natione
Scotus, Dunkeldensis Praesul, patria sua exul, Anno Christi 1522.


In 1864 there was a serious fire in the Savoy Chapel after which the brass plaque marking the spot of the interment of the two bishops was removed for some reason. About ten years later a rubbing of it was taken and published in John Small's edition of Douglas' ‘Poetical Works’ in 1874. The plaque is now [February 2016] set into a slab on the floor of the chancel, immediately in front of the altar.

The arms in the window shown above differ from the arms shown in Small's edition of Douglas' ‘Poetical Works’ and reproduced below, but they share an important component; three mullet stars and a sanguinary heart. The latter in particular are are the quintessential Douglas arms.


The menu at left links tae each o Gavin Douglas' XIII Prolougs which are transsumpt unalteratit frae John Small's ‘The Poetical Works of Gavin Douglas’ [Edinburgh, 1874] which uisit the Elphynstoun MS fir ‘The XIII Bukes of Eneados of the Famose Poete Virgill...’. Also includit here are links tae twa cutty pieces - Translatour an Warkis - at Small publishet atween Bukes xii an xiii, and a PDF o Small's Glossary ti prent as an A6 bukelet. HAME is here.

© 2018 Duncan Linklater