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

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