Cardinal Richelieu’s Scottish Poet

Amongst the many remarkable things preserved in the Scottish Catholic Archives is a small, richly-bound manuscript book:


SCA MS CB57/12 (c) Scottish Catholic Archives.

This is the album amicorum or friendship book of George Strachan, a young Scot from the Mearns, who travelled to the continent for his education at the end of the sixteenth century.  Strachan’s story is a remarkable one – he had a gift for languages, journeyed across Europe and Asia, was possibly the first Scottish convert to Islam, and was last seen in Isfahan in 1624 – and I hope it return to it eventually.  Today, however, I’ve been looking at forty-two leaves of manuscript which were added to the album decades after it was used by Strachan.

These leaves are in the hand of another Scottish Catholic living on the continent: Thomas Chambers.  Born near Aberdeen, Chambers had been educated at the Scots College in Rome and spent his life, in the sarcastic words of his cousin George, “still in hope to become greit”.  He didn’t do too badly.  First he become almoner in the household of none other than Cardinal Richelieu, subsequently serving “son eminence” as a diplomatic agent and intermediary between the French government and the Scottish Covenanters.  After Richelieu’s death he seamlessly took up the same post in the household of Cardinal Mazarin and died wealthy, perhaps even content, in 1651.  His fellow Aberdonian Gilbert Blakhal remembered him as “a very good friend wher he professed frindshippe, and [one who] scorned to flatter any body great or smal”.

What Chambers’s public life doesn’t reveal is that he was also a poet.  His addition to Strachan’s manuscript consists of thirty-four poems to the memory of a variety of colleagues, friends, and kinsfolk who died between 1625 and 1648.  His work has been described as a “necrology”, but it’s better to think of it as a collection of paper epitaphs, a sort of virtual graveyard in which Chambers commemorated the people who mattered most to him.  Richelieu is there, but so is Chambers’s mother Christian Con, “most loving of parents” and a small party of soldiers, scholars, and clergymen who had done their best – rarely successfully – to survive the turmoil of the Thirty Years’ War.


The opening of Chambers’s epitaph to his mother, Christian Con (1639), SCA CB57/12, fol. 173v (c) Scottish Catholic Archives.

This is what I’m studying at present and I’m hoping to write an article exploring the manuscript and its contexts fairly soon.  Like any good research topic, though, it’s been taking me down byways and alleys I never expected, into the lives of Richelieu’s horse guards and the poetic output of Chambers’s cousin, a Paduan classics professor, whose 1627 Emblemata amatoria contains an epitaph on his father which may have inspired Thomas’s own productions, placed alongside an oddly moving engraving of old Patrick Chalmer’s funeral.


George Chalmer weeping at his father’s bier, from George Chalmer, Emblemata amatoria (Venice, 1627), p. 195.

This sort of project reminds me – if I were in any danger of forgetting – just how much there is still to learn about the early modern world.  Who knew that Cardinal Richelieu’s household included a poetically-inclined young Scot who turned a previous generation’s album amicorum into a repository for his own elegiac verse?

Copyright © 2016 Kelsey Jackson Williams

Perthshire Libraries: Leighton and Innerpeffray

Perthshire is unique in Scotland – perhaps unique in Britain – for containing two seventeenth-century public libraries, both still housed in purpose-built early modern buildings: the Leighton Library in Dunblane and the Innerpeffray Library in Innerpeffray.


Innerpeffray Library, photograph by John Hughes (2007), CC BY-SA 2.0.

The Leighton Library was established in 1684 under the terms of the will of Robert Leighton, Archbishop of Glasgow and sometime Bishop of Dunblane (1612-1684).  Leighton, an eirenicist theologian in the tradition of the Aberdeen Doctors, bequeathed about 1,400 volumes of his own library, many of which had been extensively annotated by him, and a small sum for the erection of a building to house them (completed in 1687).  The nearby Innerpeffray Library was established only a few years later under the terms of the will of David Drummond, 3rd Lord Madertie, who died in 1692.  Both were quasi-public from the beginning.


Leighton Library, photograph by Bill Cresswell (2006), CC BY-SA 2.0

But that only scratches the surface of what makes the two collections so interesting.  Two doctoral students at Stirling, Jill Dye and Maxine Branagh, have been doing outstanding work on the surviving borrowers’ registers at Innerpeffray, revealing a large and vibrant community of donors and readers active across the library’s history, while the riches of the archbishop’s annotated volumes in the Leighton await full exploration.  Perhaps most interesting, I think, are the larger questions which remain unanswered.  Why were these two foundations erected so near each other?  What can they tell us about the intellectual culture of late seventeenth-century Scotland in general and southern Perthshire in particular?


A page from the original catalogue of Archbishop Leighton’s books, now NLS MS 21193, fols. 89-104, (c) National Library of Scotland.

To answer those questions requires much more research on both collections than currently exists, but already we can get a sense of the dynamic Early Enlightenment culture in which the libraries’ founders existed, the international and polymathic nature of their interests, and the care which the predominantly Episcopal, predominantly Jacobite Perthshire gentry took in sustaining and maintaining both collections over subsequent generations.  Both libraries receive brief mentions in my current book project, but now that I’m based at Stirling and within easy distance of the two, I very much look forward to exploring them at greater length.  Who can say what treasures await!


Copyright © 2016 Kelsey Jackson Williams