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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume III. Renascence and Reformation.

VII. Reformation and Renascence in Scotland

§ 11. Political ballads

The cultivation of prose was the most important literary result of the reformation, but it did not check the tendency to versifying which had been assiduously practised throughout the reigns of the Jameses. In verse, however, there was produced no work comparable to Knox’s History in prose. However we may explain the fact, from the reformation dates a period of barrenness in imaginative literature, similar to that which in England followed the death of Chaucer, and it lasted to the poetic revival in the beginning of the eighteenth century. With few exceptions, the verse written during the reformation struggle was prompted by the occasion of the hour—its principal themes being the sensational events on which the destinies of the nation appeared to hang. Printed in black letter on one side of a leaf of paper, ballads of this character issued in a constant stream from the press of Robert Lekprevik, the Edinburgh printer. Almost all of them were written by supporters of the reformation, and are mainly coarse and virulent attacks on Mary and such conspicuous persons as were known to be her friends.

The principal authors to whom the ballads have been ascribed are Robert Sempill, Sir John Maitland of Thirlstane, the Rev. John Davidson and Sir William Kirkcaldy of Grange. Of Sempill, the most prolific writer of his class, little is known beyond the fact that he was an ardent supporter of the reformation and an uncompromising enemy of queen Mary, and that he lived in the thick of the sensational events of his time. His two best pieces are the Sege of the Castel of Edinburgh and The Legend of a Lymaris Lyfe, the coarse vigour of which sufficiently explains his temporary popularity; but in none of his work does Sempill rise to the dignity of poetic satire which ensures permanent literary interest. Sir John Maitland—better known in political than in literary history as the framer of the act of 1592 which has been called the Magna Charta of the Church of Scotland—strikes a higher note than Semphill. In the three poems that have been attributed to him, Ane Admonition to my Lord Regentis Grace, Ane Schort Invectyve aganis the Delyverance of the Erle of Northumberland, and Aganis Sklanderous Tungis, there is a restraint, a good sense and dignity, which became one who filled successively the offices of a senator of the College of Justice, of secretary of state and of lord high chancellor of Scotland. To Sir William Kirkcaldy of Grange only one piece is assigned—Ane Ballat of the Captane of the Castell—that is, of Edinburgh, the last stronghold held for queen Mary, of which Kirkcaldy himself was the captain. Of little poetic merit, this ballad has at least the distinction of being one of the few in which loyalty to Mary is expressed with chivalrous and heartfelt devotion—a devotion which he expiated with his life on the capture of the castle in 1573. The reformation in Scotland had no more strenuous adherent than the Rev. John Davidson, and, as he lived till 1603, his uncompromising opinions brought him into frequent trouble with James VI in his policy of suppressing presbyterianism and introducing episcopacy. A personal friend and admiring disciple of Knox, Davidson has extolled his virtues and, at the same time, sketched the main events of his career in Ane Brief Commendation of Uprichtness—a valuable document for Knox’s biographers. To the eulogy of Knox is also devoted a second of the three poems known to be the work of Davidson—Ane Schort Discurs of the Estaitis quha hes caus to deploir the Deith of this excellent Servand of God, the closing lines of which may be quoted as a specimen of the general level of his style:

  • Lyke as himself is unto gloir,
  • So sall all ages ay recyte
  • Johne Knoxis Name with greit decoir.