James Melville was one of a large, Protestant, family from Fife, Scotland. He lost his father, Sir John, when he was about thirteen years old, when Sir John was executed for treason.
Despite this blot on the family, Melville was selected, aged about fourteen, by Marie of Guise, Queen Dowager of Scotland, to become a member of the household of her daugher, Mary, Queen of Scots. Melville travelled to France to join the young queen in 1549, but, in fact did not actually become a member of her entourage.
He remained in France for the next ten years, fighting for the French at the Battle of St Quentin in 1558, and then attending the peace negotiations at Cateau-Cambresis that finally ended the long-running Italian Wars. For the next five years, Melville travelled in Europe, largely in the service of the Lutheran Elector Palatine, Frederick III.
In around 1564, Melville formally entered the service of Mary, Queen of Scots, and seems to have received a high degree of favour from the Queen, although he claims to have given her unpalatable advice on sevaral occasions. Melville undertook a number of embassies to England, including one to announce the birth of Mary’s son James.
Melville’s part in the complex events around the death of Mary’s husband, Lord Darnley, and the Queen’s subsequent deposition, are hard to pin down accurately. Whilst appearing to be a supporter of the Queen, he quickly found a role in the Regency government under her half-brother, the Protestant Lord Moray, and then under the subsequent regents, Lennox and Mar, although he was not on good terms with the final Regent of James VI’s youth, the Earl of Morton.
Once James VI was old enough to take part in public affairs himself, Melville, who had retired to the country for a period, came back into political life, with a seat on James’ Privy Council. However, he did not have a good relationship with James’ favourite, the Earl of Arran.
Following James’ marriage to Anne of Denmark, Melville became one of her councillors, but does not appear to have been close to the Queen. In 1593 he was involved in the trial for witchcraft of Francis, Earl of Bothwell, presided over by James VI himself.
In 1603, when James VI inherited the crown of England, Melville declined to travel south, retiring instead to his estate at Halhill, which he had inherited from his adoptive father, Henry Balnaves, a leading light of the early Scottish Reformation.
Melville was married at least once, probably to a lady named Christian Boswell, although he may have had another wife, who was sister to the English Ambassador, Henry Killligrew. He had at least two sons and two daughters.
During his retirement, Melville (knighted at Anne of Denmark’s coronation) wrote his memoirs, which are the source of much of our knowledge about the relationship between Scotland and England in the second half of the sixteenth century, although there are indications that his recollections are not always accurate, or complete.
His tomb in the village of Collessie in Fife may still be seen.