Dempster, Thomas (DNB00)

DEMPSTER, THOMAS (1579?–1625), biographical and miscellaneous writer, was born, according to his own statement, on 23 Aug. 1579. His autobiography, however, is clearly marked by the same habit of grotesquely extravagant falsehood which appears in some of his other writings; and there seems reason to suspect that he may have dated his birth a few years too late with the object of enhancing the marvel of his youthful precocity in learning. If the date assigned by him be correct, his career is certainly extraordinary, even for an age which abounded in juvenile prodigies. Dempster's desire to represent himself as an exceptional person is amusingly exhibited in the first sentence of the memoir. He says that he was one of three children brought into the world at one birth; that he was the twenty-fourth child out of twenty-nine, all the offspring of a single marriage; and that five of the most important events of his life took place on the anniversary of his birth. He adds that when three years old he learned his alphabet perfectly in the space of one hour. It is obvious from this specimen that Dempster's account of his own life is to be received with some suspicion; but what portions of it are fact and what are fiction it is impossible to determine.

According to the autobiography, Dempster was born at Cliftbog, an estate belonging to his father, Thomas, baron (or in modern language ‘laird’) of Muresk, Auchterless, and Killesmont, and ‘viceroy’ (proregem) of Banff and Buchan. His mother was Jane Leslie, sister of the baron of Balquhain, and niece of the Viscount Forbes. His grandmother on the father's side was Eleanor, daughter of the last Stuart, earl of Buchan. It is uncertain whether this aristocratic pedigree is in any point authentic. The last quoted statement, at all events, appears to be chronologically impossible; the other particulars may be in substance correct, as Dempster ventured to insert them in the dedication of his ‘Roman Antiquities’ to James I of England, whom in such a matter it would have been dangerous to attempt to deceive. The article on Dempster in R. Chambers's ‘Eminent Scotsmen’ says that he was born at or near Brechin, but no authority is quoted for this statement, which is perhaps due to a confusion between Thomas Dempster and an earlier namesake, George Dempster, professor of philosophy at Pavia in 1495. The local references in Dempster's account of his own parentage and early life all belong to northern Aberdeenshire. At a very early age he was sent to school at Turriff, and afterwards at Aberdeen, where he remained until his tenth year. During Dempster's childhood, his father, who had already been impoverished in consequence of feuds with the Currers and the Grants, suffered the loss of what remained of his ancestral estates. With respect to the occasion of this misfortune, Dempster relates a highly romantic and not altogether credible story. His eldest brother, James, had married his father's mistress, Isabella Gordon, of Achavachi, and on this account had been disinherited by his father. In revenge, he collected a band of his wife's kinsmen, the Gordons, and made an armed attack upon his father as he was making a journey on horseback ‘to administer the affairs of his province,’ accompanied by his servants and some members of his family. A regular battle took place; two men on each side were killed and many were wounded, including the father himself, who received seven bullets in the leg and a sword-cut on the head. After this outrage the elder Dempster, in order to preclude the possibility of his rebellious son ever succeeding to his estates, sold the lands of Muresk to the Earl of Errol, who managed to obtain and keep possession of the property without ever paying the price, ‘because,’ Dempster enigmatically states, ‘my father was unable either to satisfy his claims or to provide sufficient sureties.’ His son Thomas inherited from him ‘the empty title’ of baron and the legal right to the estate, which in after years he endeavoured to establish before the courts, but without success, owing to ‘the absence of the king, the great power of the earl, and the treachery of advocates.’ How it happened that Thomas, being the twenty-fourth child of his father, became heir to the barony, we are not informed. It is said that Dempster frequently represented that he had been deprived of his patrimonial estates on account of his fidelity to the catholic religion, but he does not hint at anything of the kind in his autobiography. The wicked eldest brother eventually reaped the due reward of his parricidal conduct. Being outlawed by royal proclamation, he fled to the Scottish islands, where he engaged in piracy, one of his exploits being burning the Bishop of Orkney out of house and home. He afterwards found military employment in the Low Countries, and for an assault on his superior officer was condemned to be dragged in pieces by four horses.

In his tenth year Dempster quitted Scotland, and became an inmate of Pembroke Hall, Cambridge, but shortly afterwards set out for Paris, accompanied by his tutor. On the way he fell into the hands of some French soldiers, who plundered him of his clothing and all his money, and, to add to the misery of his situation, his tutor soon afterwards died. Fortunately he found at Montreuil a Scottish officer in the French army, named Walter Brus, who treated him kindly, and provided him with the means of completing his journey.

Through the generosity of some of his fellow-countrymen, to whom he was recommended at Paris, he was enabled to commence his studies, but before long was attacked by the plague, and for a time his life was despaired of. On his recovery he was sent to Belgium, and entered the university of Louvain, where the famous Justus Lipsius was a professor. Almost immediately after his arrival, however, Dempster had again to set out on his travels. The president of the Scotch college, the jesuit William Crichton, was ordered by the pope to select some of his pupils to continue their education at Rome. Dempster was one of four who were chosen. On their journey he and his companions underwent great hardships and perils on account of the disturbed state of the countries through which they passed, regular communication in Germany and Italy being almost suspended owing to pestilence and civil war. At length, however, they arrived at Rome, and were admitted into the papal seminary, receiving a liberal pension. Almost immediately afterwards Dempster fell dangerously ill, and the physicians, considering that the air of Italy was unfavourable to his recovery, ordered that he should be sent back to Belgium. Arriving at Tournay, he found a patron in his countryman James Cheyne [q. v.], who had formerly been professor at Paris and at Douay. Cheyne sent him to the college at the latter place, and procured for him a pension from the King of Spain and the Archduke Albert. Here he applied himself to his studies with diligence and success. The rigid discipline of the college, however, was not to his taste, and he wished to leave Douay for Paris, but, as he records with gratitude, he was induced by his patron Cheyne to complete his three years' course. One of the incidents of his sojourn at Douay was his publication of an abusive attack on Queen Elizabeth, which excited great indignation among his English fellow-students, and led to a rebellion which had to be suppressed by ecclesiastical authority. On graduating, he took the first prize in poetry and the second in philosophy, and immediately began to teach the humanities at Tournay. Dissatisfied with his prospects there, he migrated to Paris, where he took his degree in canon law, and became professor in the Collège de Navarre, being, according to his own statement, not yet seventeen years of age. After occupying this position a short time, he went, for what reason is not known, to St. Maixent, in Poitou, where he published a tragedy entitled ‘Stilico.’ He next became professor of humanities at Toulouse, where he entered with such zeal into the quarrels between the university and the authorities of the city that he was soon compelled to resign his post. Declining an invitation to teach philosophy at Montpellier, he became a candidate for the professorship of oratory at Nîmes, the election to which was to be decided by the result of a public competition. Dempster was successful, receiving the suffrages of all but one out of the twenty-four judges. One of the defeated competitors, however, Johann Jacob Grasser, of Basle, with the help of an armed band of his partisans, made a murderous attack upon his rival, who, however, was successful in defending his life. This, of course, is Dempster's version of the story, but it may be suspected that he was not altogether the innocent victim that he represents himself to have been. The municipal council suspended Dempster from his professorship, and brought an action against him in the local court. At the same time Grasser was thrown into prison, but liberated through the influence of his partisans in the council. Subsequently, however, the friends of Dempster, as the latter himself records, caused Grasser to be again imprisoned at Montpellier and at Paris. The accusation against Dempster was unsuccessful, and the prosecutors appealed to the parliament of Toulouse, which, after two years' delay, pronounced Dempster innocent of the charges against him. The accusers were condemned to pay a heavy fine in addition to the costs of the defence; several of the witnesses were sentenced to banishment, and a libel which had been published against Dempster was ordered to be publicly burnt by the hangman.

After this triumphant vindication of his character, Dempster became tutor to Arthur l'Espinay, the son of the Marshal de Saint Luc. He was preparing to set out with his pupil on a tour in Spain, when, in consequence of a quarrel with a relative of the marshal, he was dismissed from his post. He then paid a visit to Scotland, in order to try to obtain help from his relatives, and, he also says, to institute proceedings for the recovery of his inheritance. At Perth, he says, he held a public discussion for three days on controverted questions of theology with the celebrated William Cowper, then a presbyterian minister, but afterwards bishop of Galloway. It is needless to say that Cowper was miserably defeated; indeed, Dempster adds the remarkable statement that only the influence of powerful friends saved him from legal punishment for having so ineffectually defended the protestant faith. Dempster further says that Cowper afterwards published the discussion, but being ashamed to confess that his opponent was only a jurist, not a professed theologian, he suppressed the mention of his name. It is certainly a fact that Cowper published in 1613 a ‘Seven days’ [not three days] ‘Conference between a Catholicke Christian and a Catholicke Romane,’ but the assertion that the ‘Catholicke Romane’ referred to was Dempster is a mere fiction. Cowper's book is not a report of a real debate, but an imaginary dialogue, ending with the conversion of the Roman catholic to protestantism. To the machinations of his vanquished opponent Dempster ascribes the failure of his petition to the Scottish parliament for the restoration of his ancestral estates.

Finding that his relatives in Scotland were too poor to afford him any assistance, or refused to do so on account of his religion, he betook himself to Paris, where he spent seven prosperous years as professor in the Collèges des Grassins, de Lisieux, and de Plessy. Here he published, among other learned works, his enlarged edition of Rosinus's ‘Antiquitatum Romanarum Corpus absolutissimum,’ dedicated to James I of England, who invited him to come to London, offering him the title of historian to the king. Dempster gladly availed himself of the invitation, as circumstances had occurred which rendered his immediate departure from Paris a matter of necessity. His own statement is merely that a certain Norman, named Jean Robillard, had broken into his lodging by night with a band of soldiers with intent to take his life. The assailants were disarmed and given into custody, but Dempster, fearing to be exposed to similar perils in future, resolved to lose no time in putting himself out of the reach of his enemies. A much fuller, and probably more accurate, version of the story is given by Giovanni Vittorio Rossi (better known under his Latin name of Janus Nicius Erythræus). According to this account, the president of the Collège de Beauvais, having occasion to be absent from Paris for a short time, appointed Dempster as his substitute. One of the pupils of the school having challenged another to a duel, Dempster birched the offender before the whole class. In order to be revenged for this punishment the youth brought into the college three of his relatives, officers of the king's guard, who undertook to subject the schoolmaster to severe chastisement. When Dempster perceived their errand, he called the other masters and the college servants to his assistance. The assailants were soon compelled to beg for mercy, but Dempster ordered them to be imprisoned in the belfry, where they remained for some time in fetters. Their horses, which they had left at the gates, were killed by Dempster's orders. When the three officers were set at liberty, they caused inquiries to be made respecting Dempster's moral character, with such damaging results that there was no resource open to him but flight, for which King James's invitation afforded an honourable pretext.

In London Dempster married an English lady, whose name and surname he disguises under the Latin form of Susanna Valeria. His stay in England was of short duration, for the English clergy, among whom Dempster mentions Montague, bishop of Bath, expostulated with the king for according his protection to a professed catholic. Dempster was therefore advised to seek a more congenial shelter in Italy. On arriving at Rome he was imprisoned for one night on suspicion of being a bearer of secret letters; but his credentials were found satisfactory, and he departed to Florence, carrying letters of recommendation from the pope and the cardinals to Cosmo II, grand duke of Tuscany. The duke appointed him professor of civil law in the university of Pisa, with a handsome stipend, and defrayed the expenses of his journey to England for the purpose of bringing home his wife. It appears that on his return he ventured, notwithstanding his recent troubles, to pass through Paris, for Rossi tells the story that his wife, walking through the streets of that city with her shoulders bare, attracted such a crowd of gazers that she and her husband had to take refuge in a house to avoid being crushed to death. In the same year (1616) Dempster made a second visit to London, partly to purchase books which the grand duke authorised him to obtain at his cost for use in the preparation of his great work on ‘Etruria,’ and on 9 Nov. he delivered his inaugural lecture.

Dempster continued to hold the Pisan professorship for three years, during which he completed the ‘Etruria,’ and presented the manuscript to the grand duke. His own account of the causes which led to his leaving Pisa is very obscure, but receives some elucidation from a comparison with the statements of Rossi. The true history of the affair appears to be that his wife had deserted him, and that he publicly accused a certain Englishman of having decoyed her away. The Englishman procured an order from the grand duke that Dempster should either withdraw the charge or depart from the Tuscan dominions. Dempster refused to do either, and was imprisoned, first at Florence and then at Pisa. He was liberated without having made the retractation demanded of him; but (according to his own story) the friends of the Englishman attempted his assassination, and after fruitless attempts to regain the favour of the duke he left Pisa with the intention of returning to his native country. Passing through Bologna, he called upon Cardinal Capponi, then papal governor of that city. Capponi, who had been at school with Dempster at Rome, implored him to change his purpose, and, hastily summoning a meeting of the ‘senate’ of Bologna, induced that body to offer Dempster the professorship of humanities in their university.

The university of Bologna was at this time the most distinguished university in Italy, and the chair to which Dempster was appointed had by more than one papal decree been declared entitled to precedence over all the other professorships. It seems, however, that the former occupants of the office had been negligent in enforcing their rights, and Dempster's assertion of his superiority in rank was met by fierce opposition on the part of all his colleagues, who excited their students to armed demonstrations in order to intimidate the audacious new-comer. After many months of disorder the dispute was settled in Dempster's favour by a papal decree.

A more serious danger, however, now threatened him from another quarter. His enemy the Englishman denounced him to the inquisition as being a bad catholic, and as having heretical books in his house. Dempster addressed to his accuser a letter, which he describes as ‘bitter and full of righteous sense of injury.’ The Englishman had the letter translated into Italian, and sent it to Rome as the best possible argument in support of his charges. This proceeding answered its purpose; several cardinals were in favour of a condemnation, and the pope himself, as Dempster admits, was angry with him. After eight months had passed Dempster went to Rome, and after several audiences with the pope succeeded in removing the unfavourable impression which the letter had created. The quarrel between Dempster and the Englishman was submitted to the arbitration of two cardinals, and was finally settled by ‘the signing of a document accepted as satisfactory on both sides’—which means, no doubt, that each party formally withdrew his imputations on the other's character. Dempster intimates, however, that he has written a pamphlet containing a full history of his grievances, which, if the Englishman should renew his accusations, he will not hesitate to publish, in order that posterity may have the means of judging which of the two men was guilty of slander. With this declaration, dated March 1621, the autobiography concludes. It is remarkable that in the same month Dempster's ‘Roman Antiquities’ was placed on the index of prohibited books, with the clause, ‘until it be corrected;’ and in December 1623 another work of his, ‘Scotia Illustrior,’ was also prohibited.

What we know of Dempster's subsequent history is principally derived from a supplement to the autobiography by a certain Matthæus Peregrinus. The last years of his life were passed in comparative peace and prosperity. The new pope, Urban VIII (elected 1623), was his firm friend and protector, and conferred on him the honour of knighthood, with a liberal pension. Although he was offered the professorship of civil law in the university of Pavia, with a greatly increased stipend, he preferred to remain at Bologna, where he continued to teach with great success and renown until his death. His life, however, was not wholly free from trouble. It appears that his wife had been reconciled to him after her first desertion, but proved a second time unfaithful, and fled with her lover from Italy, taking with her some of her husband's property. Dempster obtained from the Venetian senate a decree for the arrest of the fugitives, and himself pursued them as far as Vicenza, but learning that they had already crossed the Alps, he was obliged to desist. The fatigues of the journey, undertaken in the heat of the dog-days, had exhausted his strength, and on his way home he was stricken with his last illness. He was brought to Bologna, where he died on 6 Sept. 1625, and was buried in the church of St. Dominic.

The portrait which Dempster has, in part involuntarily, drawn of his own character is abundantly confirmed by the testimony of his contemporaries. Rossi describes him as ‘a man framed for war and contention, who hardly ever allowed a day to pass without fighting, either with his sword or with his fists.’ His devoted admirer, Matthæus Peregrinus, says that he was harsh and violent in his manners, utterly incapable of disguising his feelings, equally outspoken in his love and in his hatred; the kindest of friends, but the bitterest of enemies, never either forgiving or forgetting an injury. Of Dempster's personal appearance the same writer has given us a striking portrait. ‘He was tall, above the stature of common men; his hair nearly black, and his skin almost of the same colour; his head large, and his bodily aspect altogether kingly; his strength and courage equal to that of any soldier.’ It is said that he was accustomed to read fourteen hours every day, and that his memory was so retentive that it was impossible to quote to him a passage of any Greek or Latin author of which he was unable at once to give the context. He was also celebrated for his faculty of improvisation, being able to dictate Greek or Latin verses on any given subject, as fast as a rapid writer could take them down. Even his most admiring contemporaries, however, did not venture to ascribe to him the merit of a polished style. In a linguistic sense, indeed, his writings (all of them in Latin) are thoroughly barbarous, though they sometimes display a rugged energy which is not unpleasing.

It is unnecessary to transcribe here the long catalogue which Dempster gives of his own works. Many of them were never published, and of those which were printed only few are to be found in any English public library. The work by which he is now best known is the ‘Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Scotorum,’ which was first published at Bologna in 1627, two years after the author's death. An edition of it, by Mr. David Irving, was issued in 1829 by the Bannatyne Club. It consists of biographical notices of the writers and memorable historical personages of Scotland, from the earliest times to the author's own day. Although displaying great industry, the book is chiefly remarkable for its extraordinary dishonesty. Dempster's object was to exalt the renown of his native country, and with this view he claims a Scottish origin for every distinguished person mentioned in history who has ever been supposed to be a native of Britain, supporting himself often by quotations from imaginary authors, or garbled extracts from real ones. Many of the persons whose biographies he relates seem to be absolutely fictitious. A curious example of Dempster's misplaced ingenuity will be found in the article Bernard (Sapiens) in this dictionary. Among the famous men of other nations for whom he tries to prove a Scottish origin are the Englishmen Boniface and Alcuin, the Frisian St. Frederick, and the Irishman Joannes Scotus Erigena. In the last case, however, the error is a pardonable one. The most curious thing in the book is the inclusion of ‘Bundevica’ (better known as ‘Boadicea’) in the list of Scottish authors. Although she reigned in South Britain, she was, it seems, the daughter of a Scottish king, and six of her literary productions are enumerated, bearing such titles as ‘Conciones Militares,’ ‘Querela suorum Temporum,’ and so forth. Dempster's notices of his own contemporaries, however, when he speaks from personal knowledge, are often interesting and valuable. The manuscript of the ‘Historia Ecclesiastica’ is still preserved in the Bibliothèque Nationale at Paris, and shows several divergences from the printed edition; the most important being that the editors, fearful no doubt of ecclesiastical censure, have given a different turn to a passage which, as Dempster left it, expresses detestation of the massacre of St. Bartholomew. Dempster's other writings on subjects connected with Scottish history are of the same untrustworthy character. A great deal of spurious information, ultimately derived from these works, has found its way into many modern books of reference, and in one or two instances even the cautious editors of the ‘Acta Sanctorum’ have been imposed on, though they were aware that Dempster was a dangerous authority.

Perhaps it may have been only under the influence of patriotism or (as in his autobiography) of personal vanity that Dempster was dishonest. At all events, the charge of inventing spurious quotations does not seem ever to have been alleged with regard to his writings on purely antiquarian subjects, though they are by general consent admitted to display more learning than judgment. His principal works of this class are ‘Antiquitatum Romanarum Corpus absolutissimum’ (Paris, 1613; other editions 1645, 1663, 1701, 1743); and ‘De Etruria Regali,’ printed at Florence in 1723–4 in two volumes, at the expense of Thomas Coke, afterwards earl of Leicester. The value of this publication is no doubt largely due to the magnificent engravings which it contained; but able critics have admitted that Dempster's own work is, for the time in which it was written, an admirable performance, and displays extraordinary diligence and learning. A tract by him on the Roman Calendar is inserted in vol. viii. of the huge compilation of Grævius. He produced the editio princeps of the ‘De Laudibus Justini Minoris’ of Corippius (Paris, 1610), and his notes are included in the edition of that author in Niebuhr's ‘Historiæ Byzantinæ Scriptores.’ His edition of Claudian is said to contain some happy emendations of the text, which have been accepted by later scholars. The one of his works which has received the most unqualified praise from modern critics is his corrected and laboriously annotated edition of Benedetto Accolti's ‘De Bello a Christianis contra Barbaros gesto,’ published at Florence in 1623, a reprint of which appeared at Groningen in 1731. He also published an annotated edition of Aldrovandi's ‘Quadrupedum omnium bisulcorum Historia’ (Florence, 1623, reprinted 1647). Although he was regarded as profoundly versed in ancient law, his only important publication in that department (with the exception of what is contained in his ‘Roman Antiquities’) was a small work entitled ‘Keraunos kai Obelos in Glossam librorum IV. Institutionum Justiniani’ (Bologna, 1622). As a Latin poet his reputation among his contemporaries was high, and not altogether undeserved. His best poem, ‘Musca Recidiva,’ went through three editions in the author's lifetime. He also published a tragedy in five acts, ‘Decemviratus abrogatus’ (Paris, 1613), besides many panegyrical and occasional poems. A selection from his poetry is included in Johnston's ‘Delitiæ Poetarum Scotorum,’ vol. i.

[Dempster's Hist. Eccl. Scot. art. 1210 (the autobiography), also 350 and 352; Dedication to his Antiq. Roman. Corpus Absolutissimum (ed. 1613); Erythræus's Pinacothecæ, i. 24; Fabronius's Hist. Acad. Pisanæ, ii. 234; Niceron's Hommes Illustres, xxviii. 324; Bayle's Dict.; R. Chambers's Eminent Scotsmen; Irving's Preface to his edition of Dempster's Hist. Eccl. Scot.; Michel's Les Ecossais en France.]

H. B.