Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Ayton, Robert
AYTON, or AYTOUN, Sir ROBERT (1570–1638), poet, was a descendant of the Norman house of De Vescy, lords of Sprouston in Northumberland. Gilbert de Vescy, a younger son of the family, settled in Scotland in the reign of King Robert Bruce, having received from him the lands of Aytoun in Berwickshire. Thereupon he changed his name to that of his estate.
In Berwickshire the Aytouns continued as landowners until James III (1460–1488), when a brother of the family of Home married the heiress, and carried the lands into that house. The uncle of the heiress, her father's younger brother, Andrew Aytoun, was captain of Stirling Castle and sheriff of Elgin and Forres during the reign of James IV (1488–1513). For ‘faithful services’ the king gave him several charters, confirming him in the lands of Nether Dunmure, Kilgour, and Glenduckie in western Fifeshire. By a new charter from the crown somewhat later these lands were constituted into a barony called Aytoun, the proprietor being designated ‘of that ilk.’
This Captain Aytoun of Stirling had three sons and seven daughters. John, eldest son, succeeded his father in the estate of Aytoun; Robert, second son, obtained the estate of Inchdairnie; and Andrew, third son, succeeded in 1567 Robert Aytoun, his first cousin, in the estate of Kinaldie, which had come into the family about 1539. Andrew Aytoun, who was a student of the university of St. Andrews in 1539, married Mary Lundie, and she bore him three sons and two daughters. John, the eldest, succeeded to the estate of Kinaldie in 1590; Andrew, second son, proceeded to Ireland; and the third son was Robert, who devoted himself to literature.
Sir Robert Aytoun was born at the castle of Kinaldie, in the parish of Cameron, near St. Andrews, in 1570. He proceeded to the university of St. Andrews (St. Leonard's College) in 1584, and took his degree of M.A. in 1588. He obtained his patrimony in 1590, and thereupon went on the usual round of continental travel. He also studied civil law at the university of Paris. According to Thomas Dempster (Historia Eccles. Gentis Scotorum), ‘he long cherished useful learning in France, and left there distinguished proof and reputation of his worth’ in certain verses in Latin, Greek, and French. An overlooked book by David Echlin [Echlinus], ‘Periurium Officiosum ad Vere Nobilem et Generosum optimeque de me meritum virum Robertum Aytonvm Equitem … 1626,’ more than bears out the laudation of Dempster. He is thus addressed:—
Rarum Aytone decus Britanniarum
Musarum soboles Apollinisque …
Aytoun returned from the continent in 1603, bringing over with him a Latin poem in hexameters, addressed to James I: ‘De Fœlici, et semper Augusto, Jacobi VI, Scotiæ Insularumque adiacentium Regis, Imperio nunc recens florentissimis Angliæ et Hiberniæ Sceptris amplificato Roberti Aytoni Scoti Panegyris. Paris, 1603.’ He was cordially received at the English court. He rose at once into royal favour, and shared in the king's lavish if rather indiscriminate bounty to his fellow-countrymen. He was appointed gentleman of the bedchamber and private secretary to the queen. He received knighthood at Rycot on 30 Aug. 1612. He was sent as ambassador to Germany to deliver the king's ‘Apology,’ before published anonymously, but now avowed and ‘delivered’ to all the sovereigns of Europe by its complacent author. On 11 Dec. 1619 he obtained a grant of 500l. per annum on certain ‘royal profits’ (Docquet Book of Exchequer) for ‘thirty-one years;’ but in 1620 this was commuted for a life-pension of the same amount. Dr. Charles Rogers has printed a number of his letters on these and other ‘affairs.’ In 1623 he was a candidate in competition with Bacon for the provostship of Eton. It fell to Sir Henry Wotton, notwithstanding an application addressed to James by Aytoun in verse. This correspondence and casual notices in state and domestic papers show him to have been on intimate terms with the literary men of the period. ‘Rare Ben’ told Drummond of Hawthornden proudly that ‘Sir Robert Aytoun loved him [Jonson] dearly.’ Aubrey says of him that ‘he was acquainted with all the wits of his time in England,’ and that ‘he was a great acquaintance of Mr. Thomas Hobbes, of Malmesbury, who told me he made use of him (together with Ben Jonson) for an Aristarchus, when he drew up his epistle dedicatory for his translation of Thucydides.’
On the death of James I in 1625, all his offices and honours were continued to him by Charles I and Queen Henrietta Maria.
In 1633–4 he is found mixed up with a ‘patent’ quarrel. In 1636 he was appointed master of the royal hospital of St. Katherine, with 200l. a year. He was also made master of requests and of ceremonies and privy councillor. In his various offices, and on receiving his successive advances, it was acknowledged in his lifetime that ‘he conducted himself with such moderation and prudence that when he obtained high honours in the palace, all held he deserved greater.’ He died at Whitehall, February 1637–8, in his sixty-ninth year, having a few days before prepared his will. He was buried in Westminster Abbey, and his great monument, which includes his lifelike bust, ‘remains with us unto this day.’ He is thus entered in the Register of Westminster: ‘1637–8, Feb. 28, Sir Robert Aeton, secretary to his majesty, near the steps ascending to King Henry VII's chapel’ (Chester, p. 133).
The literary repute of Sir Robert Aytoun is as much of a paradox as Sir Edward Dyer's. His Latin productions are stilted and unmellifluous, mere echoes of the iron age of classic Latinity, and simply grotesque beside Buchanan's and Johnston's. Sir John Scot of Scotstarvet indeed gives him a relatively large space in his ‘Delitiæ Poet. Scot.,’ but simply from his contemporary repute. Among his Latin poems appear several epitaphs and epigrams celebrating eminent contemporaries. The latest event to which any of them refers is the death of Buckingham in 1628, commemorated in elegiacs. Aytoun's ‘Diophantus and Charidora’ has a certain interest as having been among the earlier writing in English by a Scot, but it is poor in substance. His ‘Inconstancy Upbraided’ has a ring of truthfulness and touches of music. Such praise as is due to the elegant trifles of an accomplished man of the world is all that can be allowed his poems. If it could be proved that he wrote ‘I do confess thou'rt smooth and fair,’ of which Burns gave a Scottish version, it would not be necessary to modify this estimate; and it is all but certain that Sir Robert Aytoun did not write it. For (a) in the manuscript of his poems (Add. MS. 10308), so reverentially collected and prepared by Sir John Aytoun, his nephew and successor in the estate, it does not appear; (b) neither does it appear in Dr. Rogers's manuscript, also carefully and critically compiled; (c) while in Watson's ‘Scots Poems,’ which contains other of his poems with his name, this particular poem is placed apart and under no author's name. It seems clear that it came to be ascribed to him from confusion of its title, ‘To an Inconstant Mistress,’ with his ‘Inconstancy Upbraided.’ Sir Robert himself made no claim to be a poet. As Sir John Aytoun in his epistle (Add. MS. ut supra) put it, ‘The author of these ensueing poems did not affect the name of a poet, having neither publisht in print nor kept coppyes of anything he writt, either in Latin or English.’ A copy of his ‘Basia’ is in the Drummond collection of the university of Edinburgh. Dr. Charles Rogers, first in 1844, very uncritically, and more recently in a revised ‘privately printed edition,’ showing some advance on the former, yet needing improvement, published the poems of Aytoun, with a full if rather discursive life.