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Gavin Douglas

Scottish prelate and poet, b. about 1474; d. 1522

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Douglas, GAVIN, Scottish prelate and poet, b. about 1474; d. 1522; he was the third son of Archibald, Fifth Earl of Angus, known as “Bell-the-Cat”. Educated for the Church at the universities of St. Andrews and Paris, he held for some years a benefice in East Lothian, and during this period composed most of the poetical works which have made his name famous. In 1501 he became provost of the collegiate church of St. Giles, Edinburgh, and subsequently, through the influence of Queen Margaret, who had married his nephew, the young Earl of Angus, he obtained the abbacy of Arbroath and later the Bishopric of Dunkeld. The queen’s efforts to have him promoted to the primacy were unsuccessful; and when the popular indignation at her marriage with Angus resulted in her being deprived of the regency, Douglas was brought to trial by the new regent, the Duke of Albany, for intriguing with the queen to obtain ecclesiastical promotion without the consent of Parliament. He was imprisoned for a year in Edinburgh Castle, and after his release continued for a time in the administration of his diocese. When, however, Margaret separated from her husband and sided with Albany against the Douglasses, Gavin was deprived of his see. He fled to England in 1521 and was kindly received by Henry VIII, but he died of plague in the following year. He was buried in the Savoy Church in London.

It was unfortunate for Douglas’s future reputation that his high birth and family connections plunged him into the political turmoil of his time, and thus prematurely closed his career as a poet and scholar of the first order. His participation in the internal divisions by which Scotland was torn during most of his life ended, as far as he was concerned, in failure, exile, and death; and it is as a literary genius, rather than a churchman or a statesman, that he lives in Scottish history. It was during his quiet life as a country parson that he wrote the gorgeous allegory called the “Palice of Honor”, whose wealth of illustration and poetical embellishments at once won renown for its author; and a little later he produced the translation of Virgil’s”. Eneid”, which gives him his chief claim to literary immortality. The translation is a rather free adaptation of the Roman poet, written in the “Scottis” language then current, while to each book is prefixed an original prologue in verse. It was printed (for the third time) by the Bannatyne Club in 1839. Douglas wrote two other poems, “King Hart” and “Conscience“, and translated also Ovid’s “De Remedio Amoris”. His complete works were first collected and published in Edinburgh (ed. Small), in 1874.


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