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Beaton, James, d 1539, Archbishop of St Andrews

Biographical Information

Occupation, Sphere of Activity

James Beaton was the sixth son of James Bethune of Balfour in Fife, and was born around 1473. He was educated at St. Andrews, where he graduated, in 1493, with a Master of Arts degree. In 1497, he became Precentor of Dornoch Cathedral, in the diocese of Caithness.

He rose by rapid strides to the highest honours in the church and state, becoming Archbishop of Glasgow in 1509, which also brought him the two rich abbacies of Kilwinning and Arbroath. He resigned Arbroath to his nephew David on becoming Archbishop of St. Andrews in 1522, although he reserved half the revenue for his own use for life. He also held the offices of Lord Treasurer from 1505, and Chancellor from 1513; but he resigned the treasury on his advancement to the see of Glasgow, and was nominally deprived of the chancellorship in 1526, though his successor was not appointed until some years later.

During the minority of King James V, Beaton was one of the most prominent figures in Scottish history. The Duke of Albany, the Regent, withdrew to France whenever he could; and though the government was nominally in the hands of a Council of Regency, the country was distracted by the feuds of the factions of the Dukes of Angus and Arran. Beaton, who was a member of the Council, was more given to settle conflict by force than peaceful negotiation or compromise. When appealed to by Bishop Douglas of Dunkeld to help heal the rift within the Council, Beaton swore on his conscience that he was powerless to intervene. However as he said this, he struck his breast to emphasise his apparent frustration, and the ring of the coat of mail he wore beneath his vestments betrayed that he had come armed and ready for a fight. This provoked the Bishop to reply: "Methinks, my lord, your conscience clatters."

At this period the nation was hanging in the balance between France and England. Both countries were eager to secure Scotland, and each made offers of finding a bride for the young king. Margaret Tudor, the queen mother, and the Duke of Angus, favoured England. Beaton threw all his weight onto the French side, and it was chiefly due to him that the old league with France was maintained, and James wedded to Magdalen of France instead of to Mary of England. The "greatest man both of lands and experience within this realm, and noted to be very crafty and dissimulating," was the report of Beaton which the English ambassador sent home. Cardinal Wolsey, who well knew that all his schemes concerning Scotland were futile as long as Beaton was at large, laid many a crafty plot for getting hold of him. He suggested diets on the border and conferences in London, at which the chancellor must represent the kingdom of Scotland, having an understanding with Angus that he was to be kidnapped on the way; but Beaton was too wary for him. Secure in his castle of St. Andrews, he pursued a policy of his own, and would not pledge himself to either party. He kept up direct and independent communication with France through his nephew David, who was Scottish resident at the French court.

As Archbishop of St Andrews, Beaton was constantly striving to assert his superiority over the see of Glasgow. The strife between the two archbishops led to unseemly brawls at home, and pleas carried to the court of Rome. He also strove to smother the new religious doctrines by burning their most diligent follower, Patrick Hamilton, lay abbot of Fern in Ross-shire. Hamilton is called the proto-martyr, as being the first native-born Scot who suffered death for teaching the doctrines, which afterwards became those of the established kirk. He died at the stake in St. Andrews in 1528. His death proved even more persuasive than his living words, insomuch that a shrewd observer counselled the Archbishop to burn the next heretics in the cellar, for the "smoke of Mr. Patrick Hamilton had infected as many as it blew upon." Nevertheless, Beaton continued his onslaught, and Henry Forest was burned at St. Andrews, and Daniel Stratton and Norman Gourlay at Edinburgh, during his primacy.

Beaton founded St Mary's College at St Andrews, in 1538, for the study of divinity, civil and cannon law, and medicine. He intended it to preserve the teachings of the Roman Catholic church against the "heretical" teachings of the reformers. At that time it was known as the New College. It was completed in 1554. Shortly thereafter it become a teaching institute for Protestant reformed theology and a training ground for Scottish ministers. It is still the theological college of the University of St Andrews today.

James Beaton died in 1539 at St. Andrews.



Other Significant Information


Honours, Qualifications and Appointments

1493: M.A. from St Andrews University

1497: Precentor of Dornoch Cathedral, in the diocese of Caithness

1503: Provost of the collegiate church of Bothwell

1503: Prior of Whithorn

1504: Abbot of Dunfermline

1505-1509: Lord Treasurer

1508: Bishop of Galloway

1509-1522: Archbishop of Glasgow

1509: Abbot of Arbroath

1509-1522: Abbot of Arbroath

1513-1526: Chancellor

1522-1539: Archbishop of St. Andrews

: Member of the Council of Regency


List of sources for the biographical information:

Harrison, B. (ed.), Dictionary of National Biography, ( University Press, 1995)

Knight. K. (ed.), The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol.II, 1907, (, 1999)

Rules or Conventions

Authority record created according to the National Council on ArchivesRules for the Construction of Personal, Place and Corporate Names (NCA Rules)1997 and International Council on Archives: Ad Hoc Committee on Descriptive StandardsInternational Standard Archival Authority Record for Corporate Bodies, Persons and Families (ISAAR)CPF1995.

Author and Date of Biographical History

Personal name authority record compiled for the GASHE project by John O'Brien, Glasgow University Archive Services, 9 August 2002