George Buchanan had an impoverished upbringing after his father, a farmer in Killearn, Stirlingshire, had died young. His mother brought him to Edinburgh, from where his uncle James Heriot sent him, in 1520, to the University of Paris. He quickly gained a reputation as an academic student, but fell ill. Having recovered, he returned to Scotland as a French auxiliary on behalf of the Duke of Albany, and was present at the unsuccessful siege of Wark in 1523. In 1525, he graduated as MA from St Andrews University, but returned to Paris a year later, to teach at various academic institutions including the University of Paris. In 1532, while still in Paris, he was appointed tutor to Gilbert Kennedy, 3rd Earl of Cassillis, returning with him to Scotland in 1537. By this time he had become a Lutheran, and returned to Paris to avoid persecution by Cardinal David Bethune. He taught at various Continental academic institutions travelling to Bordeaux and Lisbon. In about 1553 he became a Calvinist but, in 1561, he again returned to Scotland. By April 1562, he had been appointed as a tutor to Mary Queen of Scots.
Buchanan was charmed by life at court and was captivated by Mary, saying: ‘She was graced with surpassing loveliness of form, the vigour of maturing youth, and fine qualities of mind.’ She set aside time to read in Latin with him and even took instruction from him in Calvinist doctrine. They studied Livy’s History of Rome for an hour or so each afternoon. She had never been an avid Latin scholar in France, and it is more likely that they enjoyed their mutual interest in French vernacular poetry, as he had some reputation as a poet himself. He also prepared theatrical entertainments, some performed by puppets, and wrote a series of masques normally with a classical theme. The scripts were often in French verse and full of classical metaphor. Such events were often followed by music and dancing. The first was staged at the banquet held in honour of Mary’s departing Guise uncles, when she herself, the Maries and senior nobles played the main parts, although thereafter they were acted by her staff or professional actors. Buchanan wrote verses in honour of Mary Fleming, who was chosen as ‘Queen of the Bean’ on Twelfth Night in 1564 after finding a hidden bean in her slice of a specially baked ‘Twelfth Cake’. This nominated her as Queen for a day wearing a Crown and seated in state on the throne. As Queen Flaminia, she was draped in cloth of silver covered with jewellery. Randolph reported that ‘the fair Fleming’ was chosen by Fortune to be a Queen. On Valentine’s Day, Mary Bethune was singled out for Buchanan’s praise in Valentiniana, a masque in her honour.
Buchanan’s comments on members of the nobility were generally biased by his views on their adherence to Calvinism, and were often acerbic. He described William Maitland as a chameleon-like character and recorded that Mary’s mother, Mary of Guise
possessed an uncommon genius, and a mind strongly inclined to justice [but] was much under the influence of the Guise clan who marked out Scotland as the private property of their family.
When the twenty-six-year-old Sir John Gordon, Huntly’s third son, was cynically encouraged by Lord James Stewart and Maitland that he would make a suitable husband for Mary, he started to cut a dash at Court. Buchanan described him as a man ‘in the very flower of youth’. When David Riccio, with his love of extravagant clothing, started to overplay his position as Mary’s Secretary, Sir James Melville described him as a ‘merry fellow’, but ‘hideously ugly’ being deformed (probably a hunchback). Buchanan claimed that ‘his appearance disfigured his elegance’.
When Mary was trying to arrange a meeting with Elizabeth to discuss her claim to be accepted as Elizabeth’s heir, she called in Buchanan. She sent Elizabeth a heart-shaped ring, accompanied by verses, which she composed, with Buchanan’s help, in Latin. When Elizabeth replied with lines in Italian, Mary reciprocated in verse with her hopes for an early meeting.
When Lord Darnley arrived in Scotland, he had an ally in Buchanan, and it is believed that Buchanan’s education had benefitted from Lennox munificence. On his marriage to Mary, Buchanan wrote a masque in Latin, which was performed as part of the wedding celebration. The festivities continued for three days and Buchanan provided three more masques on different aspects of love. He always portrayed Darnley with the utmost reverence, despite his openly wayward character. Much later, Buchanan wrote a masque to be performed at the baptism of Prince James. This extolled Mary’s virtues and hardly accords with what his later criticism in his Detectio.
In 1566, Buchanan retired from court after being appointed by Moray as Principal of St Leonard’s College of St Andrews. In the next year, he became Moderator or the General Assembly of the Kirk, using this platform to support Moray in regaining authority. When the marriage between Mary and Darnley started to break down, and the events leading to Darnley’s murder unfolded, Moray fed him with propaganda implying that Mary had been involved in a crime of passion with the Earl of Bothwell to kill her husband. In May 1568, Buchanan was encouraged to provide a version of events, which became his Detectio, implying a long running romance between Mary and Bothwell designed to make the crime of passion scenario seem plausible. To give credence to it, he recounted numerous liaisons between Mary and Bothwell before the King’s murder, although he could not personally verify any of them. There can be little doubt that he was convinced of Mary’s guilt, but his story does not stand up to critical examination. Before publishing it, he prepared a formal ‘Indictment’ setting out ‘an information of probable and infallible conjecture and presumptions’. Even he knew that it was not the truth, but he believed the ends justified the means. He painted the King as a saintly paragon to match the image progagated by the Lennox family. He cunningly blended fact with scurrilous gossip to provide a tissue of lies. It was never more than a journal of hypothetical events, and would certainly not have stood up in a court of law as evidence to find Mary guilty of conspiracy to murder.
The principal evidence against Mary, tabled at the Conference at Westminster when she was being held in England, was embodied in the Casket letters. Buchanan attended the Conference as Secretary for the Scottish Commissioners being led by Moray. The letters were almost certainly manipulated by William Maitland of Lethington, who had access to Mary’s correspondence. Among them there was a long love poem in French said to have been written by Mary to Bothwell from Stirling. This has twelve verses, each of which is a sonnet, so that it is sometimes described as twelve separate documents. Buchanan claimed that it was written ‘while her husband lived, but certainly before [Bothwell’s] divorce from his wife’. He also claimed that its style has ‘tolerable elegance’ despite its faulty scansion. Brantôme and Ronsard deemed that it was in such unpolished French that it could not possibly have been written by Mary, who used courtly phrasing and analogy in keeping with her upbringing. It seems more probable that Buchanan wrote it!
Following Moray’s assassination in 1570, the Earl of Lennox replace him as Regent. He was under pressure from Elizabeth to send James to England for his education. With the Earl of Mar and his wife Annabella providing assiduous care of the young King, Lennox left him at Stirling. To ensure that he was brought up as a Calvinist in accordance with the dictates of the Scottish Privy Council, Lennox appointed Buchanan as his tutor. He arranged a tough regime. Annabella, Countess of Mar criticised him for being overly ‘vengeful’, and complained when he regularly beat ‘the Lord’s anointed’. Buchanan was unrepentant, telling her: ‘Madam, I have whipped his arse; you may kiss it if you please.’ Buchanan’s reputation attracted to the Royal school room a galaxy of talented young students, whose success is testament to the quality of his teaching. By the age of ten, James had a good command of general knowledge and, as an able student, became one of the outstanding theologians of his day. Buchanan brought him up to believe that his mother had been a party to his father’s murder. She was depicted as an adulteress, who had deserted his father for the murderer; she was a heretic and a ‘poisonous witch’. When James took up the reins of Government for himself, Buchanan tried to curb his pupil’s excesses. There is a story that Buchanan, who had become Lord Privy Seal, presented James with a deed, which he signed without reading, appointing Buchanan as monarch for a fortnight. Much later, James wistfully recalled that he lived in fear of Buchanan, but recognised his debt to Annabella by placing his own son, Prince Henry, in her charge.
Despite his close proximity to the Crown, Buchanan had strongly republican sentiments. He wrote The Constitutional King, which advocated that actions by the Crown should be answerable to the people. He was a proponent of the view that Calvinist doctrine should remove all traces of episcopacy, as it lacked biblical sanction. James called in several of his more controversial constitutional books, including De Juri Regni apud Scotos written in 1579, which argued that an ancient Scottish constitution permitted the people to depose unsatisfactory Kings, and Rerum Scoticarum Historia written shortly before his death in 1582, in which he blackened the reputation of monarchs, particularly of Mary. Although James visited him in his final illness, where he found him teaching his room servant to spell, he was determined to expunge his criticism of the status and authority of the Crown. He also arranged for his Detectio to be condemned in the Scottish Parliament. He later wrote ‘The Trew Law of Free Monarchies’ to refute Buchanan’s arguments.
When James reached England as King, he commissioned William Camden to write an official history of his mother, and provided him with access to official papers. Camden was convinced of her innocence and contradicted Buchanan’s vilification of her.