James Melville: Life Story

Chapter 1: Memoirs

The memoirs left by Sir James Melville, written after he had retired from public life in 1603, make fascinating reading. Melville clearly has a sense of humour, and a readable style, although the sixteenth century Scots [1] in which he wrote takes some getting used to.


Melville wrote his memoirs for his children, and there are quite a few discursions addressed to them about how princes should govern and how honest men should live. These are interesting as reflecting the morality of the time, particularly as Melville was a Protestant in an era when religious life changed dramatically. His early childhood in the 1530s was in a nation still Catholic, although his native Fife was one of the first parts of the country to embrace the reformed faith, and his father was an early adherent of George Wishart, the most notable reformer in Scotland prior to John Knox.

By the 1580s the Presbyterian Kirk ruled every aspect of people’s lives. Melville himself, although Protestant, seems to have been unusually tolerant in the matter of other people’s religion, and, although he comments occasionally that someone is a ‘Papist’ he does not seem to hold it against anyone. Like most of his contemporaries, most notably his King, James VI, he believed in witches and witchcraft.

Much of what we know of relations between Mary, Queen of Scots and her cousin, Elizabeth of England, has been derived from Melville’s anecdotes, and his proximity to both people and events give a rich store of information about the complex political manoeuvrings of the time.

On the surface, Melville’s memoirs appear to be frank and straightforward. He was a warm supporter of Mary, Queen of Scots, until, at her deposition, he accepted reality and transferred his allegiance to her baby son, always with the caveat that, should Mary be freed from her captivity in England, he would wish her to be returned to her throne. However, continued reading, and comparison of names and events with surviving correspondence from Melville and others suggest that he may not, in fact, have been quite such a devoted follower of the Queen’s as he claimed.

Whilst it is not possible to deduce anything with certainty (so far as our current research has gone) the possibility that he was working with Mary’s half-brother, the Earl of Moray, and Sir William Cecil in England to destabilise Mary’s government cannot be ignored.

The following life story therefore, whilst based on his memoirs, identifies some incidents where he may not have been entirely honest (although, it is possible, of course, that forty years after the events he was describing, he may have genuinely forgotten or misremembered facts).

Disappointingly, Melville gives absolutely no information about his personal life, other than references to his brothers.

[1] Scots is a Germanic dialect, similar to English but with different spelling, pronunciation and vocabulary. It was (and is) spoken in Lowland Scotland. Highland Scotland was still largely Gaelic speaking in the sixteenth century.