A new anthology of Scottish Latin poems centred on the reign of King James VI of Scotland, before he became James I of the abruptly United Kingdom in 1603, raises deep questions about that union, the centrality of the monarch and what “royalty” means. Alan Riach addresses them.

Corona Borealis: Scottish Neo-Latin Poets on King James VI and his Reign, 1566–1603, edited by Steven J Reid and David McOmish (Glasgow: Association for Scottish Literary Studies, 2020)

THE title was decided before the current circumstances – Corona Borealis (or “The Northern Crown”). Yet it seems strangely apt: monarchy imposes a heavy weight and immediate discomfort, in Shakespeare’s familiar phrase: “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.” (Henry IV, part II, Act III, scene 1).

We might call it a disease, a family curse, a disability triggering instant exclusion from the everyday life of “the common people” and best dealt with by isolation, small bubbles of close company, with the sufferers being rigorously guarded on a reservation, until the disease becomes extinct, while an antidote is found for the vulnerable.

Anyone who has watched the TV series The Crown must know this, or Helen Mirren in The Queen (2006), a film quite remarkable in that it presents not a single sympathetic character (not among the royal family, not among the government and not even among “the common people” who are a mob). And consider the Queen’s speech of Christmas Day 2020, remarkable for what was not said and who was not seen.

Approach this book with these things in mind and the urgency of its application is palpable. But the book has nothing to do with contemporary populism. It is a major work of magnificent scholarship, and presents a radically neglected area of Scottish literature with facing-page translations, allowing us to begin a revaluation of what Latin writing has meant in our story. The critical, scholarly apparatus is unobtrusive but rich: full introduction, translations and annotations. So what’s in it?

The body of the book is 10 poems. First, three by George Buchanan, Patrick Adamson and Thomas Craig of Riccarton, to welcome and celebrate the birth of King James VI, son of Mary Queen of Scots, in 1566. Then one by Thomas Maitland on James’s consecration in 1567.

Then the wonderfully named Hercules Rollock has a poem “On the wretched state of Scotland” from 1572-73, followed by Henry Anderson’s “panegyric” (public praise poem) to James “upon entering the city of Perth”, then Hercules Rollock again with “A paraeneticon [a ‘good advice’ poem] on the return of the Scottish nobles from exile” from 1585, and once more, with an epithalamium, a wedding poem celebrating James’s marriage to Anne of Denmark in 1589.

Finally, two poems by Andrew Melville, the first celebrating the coronation of Queen Anne in 1590, the second “On the birth of the prince of the Scoto-Britons” in 1594.

This was Henry, who died in 1612. There were six more children: Elizabeth (1596-1662), four more who died between the ages of 48 hours and two years, and Charles, born in 1600, beheaded in 1649.

Charles’s execution, and that of James’s mother, Mary Queen of Scots, in 1587, are terribly significant moments in any understanding of the world James came from, lived in, and what his legacy was. All these poems predate the Union of 1603 but you can tell that it’s a universe of trouble, and more trouble’s on the way.

A sense of order, propriety and balance seems essential to these neo-Latin poems. Their priorities of humanism were high throughout James’s reign (1567-1625). But this was also what’s described in the introduction as “the most doctrinaire reformed country in Europe”.

Neo-Latin poetry, the age of Protestant Reformation and a surge of popular vernacular poetry and song in the Scots language were all contemporaneous. Hold these all at once in your mind and you have a sense of the contradictions, strains and tensions at work in this universe.

Neo-Latin literature is a world of its own, classical allusion and intertextual reference is everywhere, with work in traditional and new genres, narratives, satires, epics, erotic and obscene epigrams and eulogies, but its vitality had dissipated by the beginning of the 18th century.

The great collection of this neo-Latin tradition is Delitiae Poetarum Scotorum (1637), edited by John Scot of Scotstarvit and Arthur Johnstone. This work has been central to the immense AHRC-funded research project undertaken principally by the editors of Corona Borealis, Steven J Reid and David McOmish.

The resulting electronic resource is the major outcome of this project and the present volume a published sampling of it. Bridging the Continental Divide: Neo-Latin and its cultural role in Jacobean Scotland, as seen in the Delitiae Poetarum Scotorum (1637), now available at: www.dps.gla.ac.uk/ Check it out.

The key figure is George Buchanan (1506-82), whose poetry and plays were appreciated and esteemed throughout Europe (Montaigne, a wiser man than James in every regard, acted in the plays when the young Buchanan tutored him in Bordeaux). Buchanan’s political essay De Iure Regni (On the Rule of Royalty, 1579) is a seminal work in political history.

Its argument was that since its founding king, Fergus I in 330 BC, Scotland had evolved an elective monarchy under the sovereignty of the people. This proposition (enhanced, some say, by the “Declaration” of Arbroath) is still of vital currency in the 21st century, distinguishing Scotland from England. As the introduction puts it, “According to Buchanan, hereditary kingship had been accepted by the nobility under Kenneth III (c.966-c.1005) only on the understanding – implicit in the coronation oath – that the monarchy was founded on a contract and that the people could revoke the king’s authority for due cause.” Without royal virtue, tyrannicide would be justified.

It wasn’t the decision of “the people” to behead Mary Queen of Scots but it was a court order in a parliamentary state that led to the execution of Charles I. Buchanan’s rule had bloody examples. His legitimation of James’s right to rule as Protestant paragon of virtue denied Mary’s authority as foreign, Catholic and female. Ironically, James would reject Buchanan and insist on his own divine right. From being his tutor, Buchanan became his denunciator.

The introduction tells us that “Protestant culture and the expectation of impending apocalypse deeply imbued” the literary world of 16th-century Scotland. James was bound for unlimited rule over the British Isles but was also “the first test-case of a new and revolutionary understanding of the limitations of monarchy in a covenanted nation”. The contradictions climaxed with the end of the reign of his son Charles.

Scottish Latin poetry is worth deep study in its historical, political context. It yields riches. I had never fully realised before the extent to which it surrounds Mary and then James VI and I, almost as if the meaning of this neo-Latin efflorescence was essentially related to that period of transition in Scotland, as the “United Kingdom” was being invented: the over-reaching and collapse of unjust rule, and the consequent horrors, are still with us.

Buchanan’s critique of divine right is a constant line, drawn from then till now. The story isn’t over yet.