Saturday, December 20, 2014

Ane Godlie Dreame, an Apology to Elizabeth Melville from Linda Root

The colorful historical character James Melville of Halhill appears in each of my six historical novels set in Marie Stuart’s Scotland and during the reign of her son James VI and I, but he is not the only descendant of his father, the Calvinist martyr John Melville of Raith to make history.  The flagstone above was placed this year by Germane Greer, and it honors a Scottish woman who did more than just write poetry. She was the martyr's granddaughter.


Few events occurred in the life and times of the Queen of Scots in which Sir James Melville failed to play a role.  He was a contemporary and  friend of the ill-fated Queen of Scots from the time he was thirteen years old and both of them were living in France.  He met her when she was a child in the French royal nursery at Saint Germane-en-Laye where he was sent to be a page. 

On his way to France he was captured by pirates and escaped. Shortly after he arrived in France he gained the attention of the king’s friend the Constable of France and was given responsibilities at the Valois Court far beyond his original assignment. Later, during Marie Stuart’s  six years of personal rule in Scotland, he frequently performed diplomatic missions on her behalf and became her minister to the English court after William Maitland fell from favor. Although he was by the younger of the two, he was the uncle of the celebrated knight William Kirkcaldy, laird of Grange, and made advertising Kirkcaldy’s exploits an avocation. Kirkcaldy was Melville's much older sister Janet Kirkcaldy's oldest child and James Melville was her much younger baby brother. 

During Marie Stuart's rule and the Regency that followed her forced abdication, Melville matured into a masterful politician who survived in a Scotland ruled by regents who often held views in opposition to his own. He was well regarded by James VI but declined to relocate to London when James VI ascended the English throne as King James I in 1603, declaring  it was time to retire to Halhill to be with his long suffering wife and family. It was there that he wrote his famous Memoirs of His  Life, also known as The Memoirs of Sir James Melville of Halhil.

Wikimedia Commons -Public Domain
Because of the manner in which Melville interjected himself into so many of the great dramas of the 16th century, it is easy to poke fun at him. He is somewhat like a 16th century Forrest Gump, in the middle of everything. I tease him gently when I characterize him in my books as a consummate gossip and tattler of tales and I take him to task for his tendency to embellish the historical record especially when it comes to his own exploits and those of his uncle Kirkcaldy. But I always treat James Melville kindly.

Elizabeth Melville, the poet:

I am not as benevolent to his daughter, who appears briefly in the early pages of my novel 1603: The Queen’s Revenge  in which she  attempts to coerce  money from her fictional bastard cousin Daisy Kirkcaldy of whom she disapproves.  The fictional Daisy in my novels is Edinburgh’s most successful wadwife, a protégé of the infamous Janet Fockart who died the richest woman in lowland Scotland. The Elizabeth in my novel considers her cousin's profession disgraceful but necessary.

Exasperated Daisy listens to
Elizabeth's request for money.
Photo (c) Darja Vorontsova, Dreamstime
In my story, Elizabeth is seeking funds to hire a translator for a poem she has written entitled Ane Godlie Dreame. And indeed, history’s actual Elizabeth Melville did write and publish such a poem and paid printer Robert Chateris to have it translated.  She is considered to be  the first Scottish female poet expressing herself in print, unless one considers the earlier the limited edition publication of the poem XLIX from the Maitland Quarto, which was first published in 1583  although probably written much earlier, and which is allegedly authored by Marie (Mary) Maitland, daughter of Sir Richard Maitland, Scotland’s poet laureate. Perhaps its obscurity is explained because it is a lesbian love poem. The unattributed XLIX  mysteriously found its way into a quarto of Sir Richard Maitland’s collected poetry. It had been prepared for publication by his daughter Marie after Sir Richard lost his sight. The Quarto was limited to a handful of copies and was never widely distributed.  Most made their way to private libraries, most notably that of Samuel Pepys. Thus, there is some justification in regarding Ane Godlie Dreame the first of its kind. It had a captive readership waiting—the powerful Scottish Kirk--and was enthusiastically received.

It is not surprising that Elizabeth Melville's militantly religious dream poem made her the darling of the Kirk.  Knox’s protégé John Craig’s endorsement and that of others of the Presbyterian clergy guaranteed it a wide distribution.  Perhaps  it is out of deference  to Marie Maitland that I treated  Elizabeth Melville shabbily in my novel. This post is meant to make amends. Elizabeth Melville’s Ane Godlie Dreame is more than just reasonably good poetry. Like Knox’s First Blast of the Trumpet, it is a Calvinist’s call to action, a work of political as well as religious significance that should not be trivialized.

The Poem:

Wikimedia Commons- PublcDomain
In her recent dissertation,[1] historian Karen Kech refers to Elizabeth Melville's attempt to instill Calvinist doctrine through the use of poetry, and calls Ane Godlie Dreame an effort to protestantize medieval dream imagery. That, of course, is the literary significance of the work, but from a sociopolitical point of view, it strikes a much more vibrant cord.  Two salient points emerge from Ms. Kech’s thesis which are supportive of my research:  1) Scottish women of the upper strata  during late medieval and early modern times were less restricted than their counterparts to the south; and 2) there is great sociological significance in the Scottish practice of women during the 16th and early 17th centuries maintaining their family names.   The practice saw its modern revivial in the American feminist movement of the latter 20th century with the use of the hyphen and the term ‘Ms.’to acknowledge that women do not change identities  simply because of marriage vows. 

What in my lifetime was considered innovative and/or outrageous was a fact of life in early modern Scotland. The distinction is often overlooked in the genealogy sites currently infesting the web. Many such sites are not hosted by genealogists or historians and the products reflect the deficit. One I visited recently declares, for example, that after her marriage, Lady Lilias Drummond would have been known as Lilias Seton, and Janet Melville of Raith would have been known after  marriage to James Kirkcaldy as Lady Janet Kirkcaldy.  Never!  Scottish brides did not change their names when they married. Thus, if you find references to Ane Godlie Dreame having been written by Lady Culross without any mention of the surname Melville, the reference, like much of Scottish history, has been shamelessly Anglicized.

While the curriculum may have differed from that of their brothers, Scottish women of prominent families like the Melvilles were educated.  Some were employed outside of the home. A few were international traders.  Kech notes that noble women rarely went to school outside their homes, but stresses that does not mean they received an inferior education any more than homeschooling is necessarily an indication of poor education today.[2] Kech also notes that the university experience common among aristocratic Scottish males was not shared by their English contemporaries. In England generally only the very highest tier of the nobility were sent to Oxford or Cambridge. A much higher proportion of Scottish youths made it to Saint Andrews and the Sorbonne, and while their stay-at-home sisters may have been taught the domestic arts many also  studied Latin and several spoke French.

Elizabeth was not the first female Melville of distinction.

According to popular accounts of the last days of James V, following the disastrous defeat at the the Battle of Solway Moss and the birth of a daughter instead of the anticipated son, the depressed king traveled to his hunting lodge in Falkland ostensibly to die.  But he did not go there without stopping along the way to spend the night at Halyards at the home of his friend James Kirkcaldy, Laird of Grange. The laird had had advised him against sending Scottish lads to battle under the command of the King’s unpopular favorite Oliver Sinclair. 

James V of Scotland, Wikimedia (PD)
When the King arrived at Halyards, Grange was traveling through Fifeshire offering condolences to the parents of the dead and attempting to raise ransom money for the captured. When James learned the laird was away, he did not leave. He tarried with Janet Melville and her sons, and there he revealed the depth of his despair and foretold of his impending death. This is but one example of how formidable Lady Janet Melville was regarded. Elizabeth Melville is her niece. I offer this post as an apology for trivializing her role when I wrote 1603: The Queen’s Revenge.

Ane Godlie Dreame is more than just another religious poem.

Kech remarks in her dissertation : "The Kirk continued proclaiming its doctrine actively and evangelically, as it faced those who wished to restore the Roman Catholic faith and those who wished to impose Anglican practices on it."  

The Scottish Kirk honored all, male or female, who served it, and among the women whom it remembers is the poet, Elizabeth Melville, Kech states. Hence, my portrayal of Elizabeth Melville as the darling of the Kirk of Scotland in my book is not without foundation in fact. She took up the cause at a time when the Scottish Kirk had just freed itself from the yoke of Rome to find itself assailed by Anglicans, and it is this issue which Elizabeth Melville meets head on.  Her poetry is poemic.

All of James Melville’s children received fine educations and married well.  Elizabeth, who was probably the oldest, married John Colville, Commendator of Culross. By the ascension of James I, she had children of her own. Whether her marriage was a common political alliance of two families of landed Fifeshire gentry or a love match is an open question.  Her letters express but one passion, and that is for her protestant Faith. Like many children of devout and sometimes stiff-necked parents, Elizabeth Melville’s younger son Samuel Colville was a less disciplined Presbyterian and his views differed greatly from his mothers’ causing her to lament that she had been a neglectful parent. She admitted that she may have been so absorbed in what she considered her calling that she neglected her parenting. Just as the narrator of her poem, she feels she has been recruited by Christ to the life she lives, that of a Calvinist  activist who expresses her beliefs through poetry, not as a poet who occasionally expresses religious and political thoughts.  Her religious zeal is her raison d'etre. 

It is not surprising that Elizabeth became a notable Covenanter who publicly opposed James VI and I’s efforts to Anglicanize the Scottish Kirk.  She was a noted Presbyterian activist who stood up for her beliefs not just on the printed page but in public forums. History is silent as to Elizabeth Melville’s date of death but it is estimated at circa 1640 not based on any record, but because of the lack of one.  Not just was there a sudden absence of her signature on family land transfers but more importantly, there were no notations of her usual activities on behalf of the Covenanters.

Convenanters by Alexander Carse (PD-Art)
But the political Elizabeth Melville is not the one I write about in my novel 1603.  I had given her little thought as a political figure until I began to write this post.  My Elizabeth Melville was a young female religious zealot who managed to find an audience for her works in the poetry at the very dawn of early modern times. In some respects I was as ignorant of her art form as I was of her politics. 

Until I began this post I had never studied medieval dream vision poetry.  My knowledge of poetry had a gap extending from Ovid to the Bard. I can write a sonnet in iambic but I have no idea of the form for a dream vision other than apparently it had been seen in medieval works from Beowulf to the Divine Comedy.  True to the orthodox medieval format, Melville’s work begins with a protagonist struggling with an earthly dilemma, then tottering on the brink and finally finding redemption or at least the hope of it. However, Melville’s poem expresses an especially Calvinistic understanding of Christ’s existence in both the present and the afterlife. Her poem takes us from initial despair over the ungodly state of the world into an afterlife in which she eventually awakens from her dream convinced that Christ is near and salvation is indeed at hand. She does this in sixty stanzas in iambic pentameter of eight lines each, a noteworthy endeavor even if the poem had not become a rallying point in the Scottish battle against encroaching  Anglicanism.

Conclusion and Apology:

The relevance of Elizabeth Melville’s poem is threefold:  First of all, it was published, a result which was no small feat for a woman even in Reformation Scotland.  Second, it was translated and thus available in both Scots and English, and: Third, it was circulated to a sufficiently appreciative audience to give its author standing in the community of the Scottish Kirk, thus allowing her to evolve into that other Elizabeth Melville, the woman who became 
a highly visible Convenanter. Thus, it seems Elizabeth Melville’s contribution goes beyond authoring a rather long and at times tedious dream poem.  She used her talent to establish her credibility as a leading female voice in 17th century religious politics.  By any standard, her work deserves more accolades than I give her in my novel. Like my protagonist Daisy Kirkcaldy, Elizabeth’s fictional cousin, I lack the patience and the piety to read the poem in its entirety but I applaud the effort none the less.

In conclusion, Elizabeth Melville the 17th century activist is as relevant and at least as formidable as Elizabeth Melville, the turn of the century female Scottish poet.

…Look to the Lord: you are not left alone.
Since he is yours, oft pleasure can you take.
      He is at hand and hears your every groan
End out your fight and suffer for his sake….

----from Ane Godlie Dreame by E. Melville

For an in-depth review of both the poet and the poem I recommend Karen Kech’s 197 page dissertation, cited above, available at, and  J. Reid-Baxter (2004) ‘Elizabeth Melville, Lady Colors: 3500 New Lines of Verse’ in S. M. Dunnigan, C. M. Harker and E. S. Newman (eds), Women and the Feminine in Medieval and Early Modern Scottish Writing (Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan), 195-200.

[1] Elizabeth Melville's Ane Godlie Dreame: A Critical Edition, Karen Kech, B.A., M.A.A Dissertation in English May 2006
[2] Kech, ibid.
[3] Both the Scots and English versions dated 1603 were published by Robert Charteris, soon thereafter appointed Royal Printer to James I. 

Linda Root is the author of six historical novels set in the late 16th and early seventeenth century, The First Marie and the Queen of Scots, (2011) and The Last Knight and the Queen of Scots (2013), both large historicals, and the Legacy of the Queen of Scots Suite consisting of three books to date and the fourth coming early in 2015. She also writes historical fantasy under the name J.D. Root.  Root is a former major crimes prosecutor living in the high desert above PalmSprings with husband Chris and two Alaskan malamutes Maxx and Maya.   Visit her author page on Amazon at


  1. Endlessly fascinating as usual Linda! I didn't know James Melville had been captured by pirates on his way to Queen Mary's court! Although Scottish women kept their surnames, would it be fair to say that eg Janet Stewart would be referred to as Lady Fleming, or the Lady Fleming, but certainly not Lady Janet Fleming?

  2. Very interesting on the Melvilles, but do you mind if I make a couple of points? Elizabeth Melville was the first published Scottish women poet (1603), but she was not the first published British woman poet, having been preceded by the published English poets Isabella Whitney (1567) and Anne Dowriche (1589). Also I have to take issue with “In England only the very highest tier of the nobility were sent to Oxford or Cambridge”. Some well-known examples of men from humble backgrounds: Cardinal Wolsey (father a butcher, Oxford), Christopher Marlowe (father a shoemaker, Cambridge), Archbishop Cranmer (father of modest means, Cambridge), Ben Jonson (step-father a bricklayer, due to go to Cambridge, but prevented by his step-father). There were even cases of gifted boys from Christ’s Hospital going to Oxford or Cambridge, e.g. Anthony Dodd (Oxford 1573), Thomas Colfe (Oxford 1578). Christ’s Hospital was the London orphanage for abandoned or orphaned babies and destitute street children (boys and girls). My husband’s ancestors, the Swinfens of Staffordshire, sent their boys to Oxford or Cambridge, usually followed by the Inns of Court. They were land-owning armigerous gentry, but definitely not “the very highest tier of the nobility”!


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.