Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Urquhart, Thomas (1611-1660)
URQUHART or URCHARD, Sir THOMAS (1611–1660), of Cromarty, author and translator, eldest son of Thomas Urquhart (1582–1642), of a family content to trace back their descent to Galleroch de Urchart, who flourished in the time of Alexander II (though they might, as Sir Thomas subsequently showed, have gone back very much further), was born in 1611, five years after the marriage of his parents (Aberdeen Sasine, Reg. House, Edinb.; note from Rev. J. Willcock; previous memoirs have erroneously assigned Urquhart's birth to 1605 or 1606).
The father (Sir) Thomas, the elder, succeeded his father, Henry Urquhart, on 13 April 1603, and his grandfather Walter on 11 May 1607; and it is recorded that he received the patrimonial estate from the latter unburdened in any way. During the autumn of 1606 (the prenuptial contract is dated 15 July 1606) he married Christian (born 19 Dec. 1590), fourth daughter of Alexander Elphinstone, fourth lord Elphinstone [q. v.], by his wife Jean, daughter of William, sixth lord Livingstone. He appears to have been a favourite with James I, whose learning and views on genealogical and ecclesiastical matters he shared, and the king is said to have knighted him when he was at Edinburgh in 1617. He had abandoned Roman catholicism, but remained a devout episcopalian, and firmly refused to sign the covenant of 1638. In the meantime, owing to reckless expenditure, his affairs became hopelessly involved. He seems to have resided occasionally, during the winter, at Banff, of which place he is described as a ‘parochiner’ in 1630 (Annals of Banff, New Spalding Club, i. 62, ii. 28, 418). In June 1636, in order to meet some of the more pressing demands, he alienated a portion of the family estates to one William Rig and others (cf. Registr. Magni Sigilli Scot. 1634–51, pp. 534, 543, 546, 566, 739, 1374); and in the following year a ‘letter of protection’ from his creditors was granted him by Charles I under the great seal, dated from St. James's, 20 March 1637. Four months later (19 July) two of the old man's sons, Thomas and a younger brother, were indicted for laying violent hands on their father and detaining him in an upper chamber, called the ‘Inner Dortour,’ at Cromarty. The lords of the council appointed certain noblemen to investigate the affair, which was thereupon adjusted without further reference to the law. Sir Thomas, the elder, survived these events a little over five years, and, harassed to the last by creditors, died at Cromarty in August 1642. Although a devoted royalist and episcopalian, he was unmolested on that account, as he was known to be harmless and ‘environed with covenanters as neighbours’ (Gordon, Hist. of Scots Affairs, Spalding Club, i. 61).
As ‘Thomas Urquhardus de Cromartie,’ the future author of the ‘Jewel’ was admitted at King's College, Aberdeen, in 1622, during the regentship of Alexander Lunan (Fasti Aberdonenses, p. 457). Aberdeen was not only then pre-eminent in literature and learning, but a stronghold of loyalty and episcopacy (ib. p. 41; cf. Logopandecteision, p. 42). Among the members of his college Urquhart extols William Lesly and his successor as principal, William Guild, his private tutor William Setoun (Fasti Aberd. p. 452), and many others. It is probable that he owed much of the recondite and eccentric learning for which he was more specially noted to his great-uncle, John Urquhart, called the ‘tutor of Cromarty’ (see below), who was ‘known all over Britain,’ his ward asseverates, ‘for his deep reach of natural art.’ Urquhart was an apt scholar. While others were in quest of game, the diversions of Urquhart were the study of ‘optical secrets, mysteries of natural philosophie, reasons for the varietie of colours, the finding out of the longitude, the squaring of a circle and wayes to accomplish all trigonometrical calculations by signes without tangents with the same comprehensiveness of computation’ (Logopan. p. 35). But before his ‘braines were ripened for eminent undertakings,’ he set off on ‘the grand tour,’ travelling through France, Spain, and Italy. According to his own account he soon spoke the languages of those countries with such a ‘liveliness of the country accent’ that he passed ‘for a native,’ and he seized every opportunity of demonstrating the superiority of Scotland in point of ‘valour, learning, and honesty’ to any of the nations that he visited (Jewel, p. 224). He states (Logopan. p. 10), that he thrice entered the lists, like his favourite hero, the Admirable Crichton, against men of three several nations to vindicate his native country, and, having disarmed his opponents, magnanimously spared their lives, though not until they had ‘in some sort acknowledged their error.’
Shortly after his return from the continent Urquhart appeared in arms among the northern confederates who opposed the ‘vulgar covenant.’ The first skirmish of the Scottish war was occasioned by Urquhart's attempt to recover by force a store of arms deposited by him in Balquholly House (now Halton Castle), Turriff, which had been seized by the Barclays of Towie. Close upon this followed the Trott of Turriff (14 May 1639), in which Urquhart shared, and the short-lived royalist occupation of Aberdeen. Ten days later, upon the anti-covenanter force dispersing, he sailed from Aberdeen for England, and entered the service of Charles I, by whom he was knighted in the gallery at Whitehall on 7 April 1641. While in London he seems to have resided in Clare Street. Before returning to Scotland in the autumn of the ensuing year to take upon him the burden of the ‘crazed estate’ which he inherited upon the death of his father, Sir Thomas saw through the press and dedicated to his then political leader, James Hamilton, third marquis of Hamilton [q. v.], his three books of ‘Epigrams.’ Each book contains forty-four epigrams or rather aphorisms; in metrical form they are sextains, and are sententious and sedate, not witty (cf. Collier, Bibl. Cat. ii. 461). At the close of 1642, after setting apart the bulk of the rents due from his estate for the payment of creditors, he went abroad again for three years. But affairs seem to have been mismanaged in his absence, and he returned to find the creditors changed, not for the better, and the debt little, if at all, reduced. From the close of 1645 he took up his abode in the ancestral tower of Cromarty, a fortalice erected under a royal grant of James III to William Urquhart, dated 6 April 1470. In 1648 he was appointed officer of horse and foot in the royal interest for putting the kingdom into a state of defence.
It speaks well for his power of detachment and his cheerfulness amid ‘solicitudinary and luctiferous discouragements, fit to appall the most undaunted spirits,’ that he was able to prepare for press in the very year of his return his abstruse work on trigonometry, entitled ‘Trissotetras.’ This singular book was dedicated by Sir Thomas to his mother, who is addressed with every embellishment of adulatory extravagance as ‘Cynthia.’ He found, moreover, a source of keen pleasure in his books at Cromarty—‘not three among them,’ he says, ‘were not of mine owne purchase, and all of them together in the order wherein I had ranked them, compiled (like to a compleat nosegay) of flowers which in my travels I had gathered out of the gardens of above sixteen several kingdoms’ (Logopan.) Most of these treasures were soon unhappily sequestrated and sold by the creditors, ‘iron-handed,’ he complains, ‘in the use of hornings and apprizings.’ The worst of this gang, in the debtor's eyes, were ‘the caitiff’ Robert Lesley, descendant, as he avers, though wrongly, from Norman Lesley, the murderer of Cardinal Beaton, and Sir James Fraser of Darkhouse, ‘of whom no good can truly be spoken but that he is dead.’ Among his enemies he naturally includes the usurers, who ‘blasted all his schemes for the benefit of mankind;’ but with none of his foes did he quarrel more forcibly than with the neighbouring ministers of Kirkmichael, Cullicuden, and Cromarty, and to the ‘acconital bitterness’ of this last, one Gilbert Anderson, he frequently refers.
His struggle with his creditors and his attempts at squaring the circle were interrupted by the news of the execution of the king. Early in 1649 he joined Thomas Mackenzie of Pluscardine, Colonel Hugh Fraser, John Munro of Lumlair, and others, who rose in arms and planted the standard of Charles II at Inverness. The rising proved abortive, and on 2 March 1649 the estates of parliament at Edinburgh declared Urquhart a rebel and a traitor. No active steps seem to have been taken against him until 22 June 1650, when he was as a ‘malignant’ examined by a commission of the general assembly, and charged with having taken part in the northern insurrection, and with having vented dangerous opinions. His political attitude was probably regarded by the commission as innocuous, for his case was merely referred to the discretion of John Annand, minister of Inverness (cf. General Assembly Records, Scot. Hist. Soc. 1896).
On the coronation of Charles II at Scone Urquhart finally quitted the old castle of Cromarty and joined the Scottish army. The expeditionary force was very heterogeneously composed, and, according to Urquhart, who had abated none of his antipathies, it was spoiled by presbyterians, whom he accuses of deserting on the eve of the battle, ‘lest they should seem to trust to the arm of flesh.’ Prior to the battle of Worcester Sir Thomas lodged in the town in the house of one Spilsbury, ‘a very honest sort of man,’ in whose attic was stored his very extensive baggage. In addition to ‘four large portmantles’ full of scarlet cloaks, buff suits, and other ‘precious commodity,’ his effects comprised three large trunks filled with ‘an hundred manuscripts’ of his own composition, to the amount of 642 ‘quinternions,’ of five sheets each. The royalist army having been routed and Urquhart captured, the Cromwellian soldiers ransacked Spilsbury's house. At first the precious manuscripts had wellnigh escaped, for ‘the soldiers merely scattered them over the floor; but reflecting after they had left the chamber on the many uses to which they might be applied, they returned and bore them out into the street.’ One quinternion only, containing part of the preface to the ‘Universal Language,’ was rescued from the kennel and restored to Sir Thomas, while the portion of another containing the writer's marvellous genealogy was eventually spared ‘the inexorable rage of Vulcan’ and the tobacco-pipes of the musketeers. Urquhart himself was committed to the Tower of London with other Scottish gentlemen taken at Worcester, on 3 Sept. 1651. His imprisonment was almost immediately relaxed, and on 16 Sept. following Urquhart, who seems to have won the good graces of all his gaolers while in the Tower, was removed to Windsor Castle (Cal. State Papers, Dom.). Early next month Cromwell ordered his release on parole de die in diem (ib.) The prisoner speaks highly of the Protector's indulgence, by means of which he was enabled to address himself to repair in some measure the loss of his hundred manuscripts. Hitherto his projects had been devised for the good of mankind and the glory of his country; henceforth his ingenuity was to be exerted in the interests of himself. First, therefore, in 1652, he issued the recovered fragment of his genealogy to convince Cromwell and the parliament that a ‘family which Saturn's scythe had not been able to mow in the course of all former ages, ought not to be prematurely cut off.’ In this he succinctly traces his pedigree back to the ‘red earth from which God framed Adam, surnamed the protoplast.’ The local origin of the name he ignores in order to derive it from Ourqhartos, i.e. ‘the fortunate and well-beloved.’ This Ourqhartos was fifth in descent from Noah, and married the queen of the Amazons. The genealogy showed clearly how Sir Thomas was the hundred and forty-third in direct line (hundred and fifty-third in succession) from Adam, and hundred and thirty-third from Japhet, ‘anno mundi 5598;’ but it did not succeed in its avowed object of convincing Cromwell of its compiler's value to his country (cf. Lower, On Family Names, 1860, p. 362; the pedigree, which is correct as far as verifiable—that is, as far back as about 1300—was continued down to the close of the seventeenth century by David Herd, ap. Urquhart Tracts', Edinb. 1774).
Urquhart next published his Ἐκσκυβάλαυρον, better known as ‘The Jewel’ (ἐκσκυβάλαυρον = jewel out of the mire?). Author and printer shut themselves up to see whether head or hand could compose the quicker; and their joint concern issued from the press in the short space of fourteen working days. Urquhart's aim was to convince the government of the signal and unprecedented services which he might be capable of rendering, and he puffed his work with unblushing effrontery. The ‘Jewel’ proper, as rescued from the ‘kennel of Worcester,’ comprised but two and a quarter sheets of small pica, ‘as it lieth in an octavo size,’ forming the introduction to a work of twelve hundred folio pages, irreparably lost, on a ‘Universal Language’ (a kind of ancestor of Volapük). This ‘introduction,’ however, was, in the author's opinion, the cream of the book. Among the numerous merits of his language he remarks that ‘three and sixtiethly, in matters of enthymens, syllogisms, and all manner of illative ratiocination it is the most compendious in the world.’ The main and by far the most interesting portion of the work (hastily composed as a supplement to the ‘Jewel’ proper) is a rhapsodical vindication of the Scots nation (before the presbyterians had ‘loaded it with so much disreputation for covetousness and hypocrisie’), interspersed with notices and characters of the most eminent Scots scholars and warriors who had flourished during the previous half-century. Despite its obvious extravagance, Urquhart's ‘Jewel’ has not only many graphic and humorous touches, but much truth of observation; while its inimitable quaintness justifies its title in the eyes of lovers of recondite literature.
During the May of 1652 Urquhart's papers were ordered to be seized, and their examination by the government very probably contributed to his enlargement. On 14 July following he was allowed to return to Scotland for five months, on condition that he did nothing to the prejudice of the Commonwealth. His three attendants—William, Francis, and John Urquhart—had received passes in the previous March. His leave was subsequently extended, but he does not seem to have utilised the time to advantage as far as his creditors were concerned, and he surrendered to his parole in 1653, when he published in London his ‘Logopandecteision,’ being a continuation and expansion of his ideas on the subject of a universal language, interspersed with chapters of an autobiographical and declamatory nature, while the volume concludes with a fanciful summary of the author's demands or ‘proquiritations’ from the state.
The same year (1653) saw the appearance of Urquhart's admirable translation of the first book of Rabelais—‘one of the most perfect transfusions of an author from one language into another that ever man accomplished.’ In point of style Urquhart was Rabelais incarnate, and in his employment of the verbal resources, whether of science and pseudo-science or slang, he almost surpassed Rabelais himself. As for his mistakes, they are truly ‘condoned by their magnificence.’ He often met the difficulty of finding the exact equivalent of a French word by emptying all the synonyms given by Cotgrave into his version; thus on one occasion a list of thirteen synonyms in Rabelais is expanded by the inventive Urquhart into thirty-six. Some of the chapters are in this way almost doubled in length.
After 1653 practically nothing is known of Urquhart, but it seems probable that he remained for some years longer in London, going on with his translation of Rabelais (a third book of which appeared after his death), a prisoner in name more than in reality. When he crossed the sea is not known, but tradition states that he died abroad on the eve of the Restoration. The mode of his death, as handed down apparently by family tradition, was that he died in an uncontrollable fit of laughter upon hearing of the Restoration. It is highly probable that he died in the early part of 1660, as on 9 Aug. in that year his brother (Sir) Alexander of Cromarty petitioned the council for a commission to execute the office of sheriff of Cromarty, held for ages by his predecessors, and belonging to him as eldest surviving son of Sir Thomas Urquhart who died in 1642. In 1663 Sir Alexander claimed compensation to the amount of 20,203l. (Scots) for the losses incurred by his brother during 1650, and 39,203l. (Scots) for the losses of 1651–2 (one pound Scots = one shilling and eightpence sterling). Sir Alexander's ‘pretty’ daughter, Christian, married before 1665 (Pepys, Diary, 3 Oct.) Thomas Rutherford, Lord Rutherford, elder brother of the third lord, who has been identified with Scott's ‘Master of Ravenswood.’ On Alexander's death the honours of the family and what estates were left passed to Sir John Urquhart, son of John Urquhart of Craigfintray, Laithers, and Craigston, who was the son of John Urquhart, the ‘Tutor of Cromarty,’ by his first marriage. Sir John's son Jonathan sold Cromarty in 1685 to Viscount Tarbat, first earl of Cromarty, and on the death of Jonathan's son James, in 1741, the ‘Tutor's’ descendant, William Urquhart of Meldrum, became the representative of the ancient house of Cromarty (see Davidson, Inverurie, 1878, pp. 468–9; Fraser Mackintosh, Antiquarian Notes, 1865, pp. 202–3).
Urquhart was a Scottish euphuist, with a brain at least as fertile and inventive as that of the Marquis of Worcester (many of whose hundred projects he anticipated). His sketch of a universal language exhibits rare ingenuity, learning, and critical acumen. Hugh Miller pointed out that the modern chemical vocabulary, with all its philosophical ingenuity, is constructed on principles exactly similar to those which Urquhart divulged more than a hundred years prior to its invention in the preface to his ‘Universal Language.’ His fantastic and eccentric diction, which accurately reflects his personality, obscures in much of his writing his learning and his alertness of intellect. Urquhart's singularities of mind and style found, however, their affinity in Rabelais, and conspired to make his translation of the great French classic a universally acknowledged ‘monument of literary genius.’
Two portraits of Urquhart by Glover, both representing a man with flowing locks, attired in the height of cavalier foppery, were finely engraved by Lizars for the Maitland Club's edition of Urquhart's ‘Works’ in 1834.
Urquhart's works are: 1. ‘Epigrams, Divine and Moral. By Sir Thomas Urchard, Knight, London. Printed by Barnard Alsop and Thomas Fawcet in the yeare 1641, 4to, 34 leaves,’ with an engraved portrait by G. Glover as frontispiece (Brit. Mus.). Another edition for William Leake, 1646, 4to (Brit. Mus., Bodl., Huth). 2. ‘The Trissotetras: or a most Exquisite Table for Resolving all manner of Triangles … with Greater Facility than ever hitherto hath been Practised. … By Sir Thomas Urquhart of Cromartie, knight. Published for the benefit of those that are mathematically affected.’ London, printed by James Young, 1645, 4to, with full-length portrait by Glover (Hazlitt; Brit. Mus. copy has no portrait). It was reissued in 1650 as ‘The Most Easy and Exact Manner of Resolving all sorts of Triangles, whether Plain or Sphericall … by T. U. Student in the Mathematick, for William Hope,’ London, 4to (Brit. Mus.) 3. ‘Παντοχρονοχανον: or a peculiar Promptuary of Time; wherein (not one instant being omitted since the beginning of motion) is displayed A most exact Directory for all particular Chronologies in what family soever: and that by deducing the true Pedigree and Lineal descent of the most ancient and honorable name of the VRQVHARTS in the house of Cromartie since the Creation of the world until this present year of God,’ 1652. London, printed for Richard Baddeley, Middle Temple Gate, 1652, sm. 8vo (Brit. Mus.; Douce). 4. ‘Ἐκσκυβάλαυρον: Or The Discovery of A most exquisite Jewel, more precious than Diamonds enchased in Gold, the like whereof was never seen in any age; found in the kennel of Worcester-street, the day after the fight and six before the Autumnal Equinox, anno 1651. Serving in this place to frontal a Vindication of the honour of SCOTLAND from that Infamy, whereinto the rigid Presbyterian party of that Nation out of their Covetousness and ambition most dissembledly hath involved it. …’ London, printed by James Cottrel … for Richard Baddeley, 1652, 12mo (Brit. Mus.; Bodl.). 5. ‘Logopandecteision; Or an Introdvction to the Vniversal Langvage … digested into these Six several Books. Neaudethaumata, Chrestasebeia, Cleronomaporia, Chryseomystes, Neleodicastes & Philoponauxesis.’ London, 1653, 4to, with an ‘Epistle Dedicatorie to No-Body’ (Grenville Libr., Brit. Mus.).
Though an English version of ‘Gargantua his Prophecie’ was licensed in 1592, and was probably then issued, no translation of Rabelais is extant prior to Urquhart's ‘The First [and ‘The Second Book’] Book of the Works of Mr. Francis Rabelais, Doctor in Physick … now faithfully translated into English by S. T. U. C.,’ London, for Richard Baddeley, 1653 (2 vols. 8vo). Prefixed is a poem addressed ‘to the honoured noble Translatour of Rabelais,’ signed J. de la Salle (i.e. John Hall, 1627–1656, [q. v.]). The first two books, ‘written originally in French and translated into English by Sr Thomas Urchard, knight,’ reappeared in 1664, London, 8vo, and ‘The Third Book … now faithfully translated by the unimitable pen of Sir Thomas Urwhart, Kt. and Bar. The Translator of the Two First Books. Never before printed,’ in 1693, London, 12mo. A ‘second’ edition of the first two books appeared in 1694, with introductory matter by Peter Anthony Motteux [q. v.], who published a complete version in 1708 as ‘by Sir Thomas Urchard, kt., Mr. Motteux, and others,’ 2 vols. 8vo. Motteux's sequel bears the same relation to Urquhart's works as Cotton's completion of Walton's ‘Angler’ does to the original. Subsequent editions, embodying the somewhat blundering ‘amendments’ of Ozell (see Notes and Queries, 5th ser. v. 32–3), appeared in 1737, [Dublin] 1738, 1750, 1784, and 1807. The Urquhart portion alone was edited by (Sir) Theodore Martin in 1838, and by Henry Morley in 1883. The Urquhart and Motteux version has been reissued in 1846 (Bohn), 1871 (illustrated by Gustave Doré), 1882, 1892 (illustrated by Chalon), 1896, and 1897. Another edition with introduction by Charles Whibley appeared in 1900 in ‘Tudor Translations’ (3 vols.). Urquhart's ‘Tracts,’ including his genealogy and the ‘Jewel,’ were published at Edinburgh in two parts 12mo, in 1774, under the careful editorship of David Herd (some remainder copies dated 1782); and his miscellaneous ‘Works,’ exclusive of his translation of Rabelais, were edited by G. Maitland for the Maitland Club in 1834, Edinburgh, 4to.[Of the very scanty materials for Urquhart's Life good use is made in John Willcock's Sir Thomas Urquhart of Cromartie, 1899. See also the Introduction to the Works in the Maitland Club volume of 1834, and in the memoir in David Irving's Lives of Scottish Writers. Those notices may be supplemented in minor points by reference to the Fasti Aberdonenses, to the Calendar of State Papers, Domestic, 1651–60, the Registr. Magni Sigilli Scot. 1634–51, and Scotland and the Commonwealth and General Assembly Records, both in the Scottish Hist. Society. See also Hugh Miller's Scenes and Legends of North of Scotland, 1850, pp. 86–104; Spalding's Memorials of the Trubles, 1851; Fraser's Earls of Cromartie; Tytler's Life of Crichton, 1819, pp. 238 sq.; Burton's Scot Abroad, pp. 255 sq.; Bruce's Eminent Men of Aberdeen, p. 254; Davidson's Inverurie, 1878, passim; Fraser Mackintosh's Antiquarian Notes, Inverness, 1865, and Invernessiana, 1875; Charles Whibley's introduction in Tudor Translations, 1900, and his Literary Portraits, 1904; Hazlitt's Handbook and Collections and Notes; Lowndes's Bibl. Man. (Bohn); Urquhart and Motteux's Rabelais, ed. Wallis, 1897; Rabelais, translated by W. F. Smith, 1893, i. pp. ix, xv, xvii; Quarterly Review, lxxxvi. 415; Edinburgh Review, xcii. 334; Retrospective Review, vi. 177–206; Blackwood's Mag., vols. v. xxxii. and lxii.]