Sir David Lyndsay

The Scottish poet and courtier Sir David Lyndsay (ca. 1485-1555) was probably the best-known Scottish poet from his death until the mid-18th century. He was widely credited with effecting the reformation of the Scottish Church.

David Lyndsay was the eldest son of Sir David Lyndsay of the Mount, a Scottish nobleman. Nothing is known of his youth, although his poetry suggests that he had a sound formal education. He first appears in court records as a participant in a play performed in 1511. In 1512 he was appointed "usher," or personal attendant, to the infant prince, who would become King James V. He later reminded the King in one of his poems of how he cared for him, played the lute for him, told him stories, and entertained him. In 1522 Lyndsay married Janet Douglas, a royal seamstress.

In 1524 young James fell under the control of the Queen Mother and the Douglases, and Lyndsay lost his position at court. But in 1528 the Douglases fell from power, and Lyndsay was restored. He acted as chief herald to the King from 1529 until 1542, when he was knighted and made Lyon king, or chief herald, officially. His earliest attack on the evils of the times appears in "The Testament and Compleynt of Our Soverane Lordis Papyngo" (1530). The clergy here suffers heavily, for the dying parrot (papyngo) is ill-treated by a magpie (regular canon), a raven (Benedictine), and a kite (friar). After abusing the poor parrot, these "birds" devour him.

His official position at court took Lyndsay overseas at various times in the capacity of an ambassador. Thus he accompanied the envoys sent to arrange a marriage between King James V and Marie de Bourbon. But James, who followed his ambassadors, preferred Magdalen, eldest daughter of the King of France. She was of frail constitution, however, and died before her coronation. Lyndsay wrote an elegy for her in which he describes in detail the pageantry that was to have accompanied the ceremony. James married Mary of Lorraine in 1538. She was welcomed at St. Andrews with an elaborate and instructive pageant designed by Sir David.

Shortly after the marriage of the King, Lyndsay composed his most famous work, A Pleasant Satyre of the Thrie Estaits, an interlude or play faintly reminiscent in substance and technique of the "Vision" of Piers Plowman attributed to William Langland. But the reforming doctrines are now more extreme, and there are direct attacks on the Pope. The clergy is revealed to be sensual, ignorant, grasping, and generally corrupt, and there are unmistakable traces of the traditional attacks on the friars that also appear in Geoffrey Chaucer and William Dunbar. The play is vigorous and effective. It was performed again in 1552 and in an expanded version in 1554.

The English invaded Scotland in 1542, and King James died late in the year. As Lyon king, Sir David visited the courts of Charles V, Francis I, and Henry VIII to return the Order of the Golden Fleece, the Order of St. Michael, and the Order of the Garter held by his late master. Lyndsay's interest in chivalry is evident in his biography in the form of a romance, Squyer Meldrum, written about 1550. The young hero, who was an actual person, distinguishes himself in both war and love. The same interest appears in different form in the satirical poem "The Justing betwix James Watsoun and Jhone Barbour."

It is difficult to estimate Lyndsay's exact position with reference to the Church. He is said to have encouraged John Knox, but he can hardly be called a follower of Knox. His last work, The Monarchie, completed about 1553, is a poem of religious instruction. In it he recommends that the Bible be read in the language of the people and that ordinary prayers also be conducted in that language.


Further Reading on Sir David Lyndsay

A good account of Lyndsay's life and work is by William Murison, Sir David Lyndsay: Poet and Satirist of the Old Church in Scotland (1938). A biography of Lyndsay appears in Henry Morley, English Writers (11 vols., 1887-1895), and a brief scholarly study of his work in James Kinsley, ed., Scottish Poetry: A Critical Survey (1955), Kurt Wittig, The Scottish Tradition in Literature (1958), contains a chapter on Lyndsay.