Melville, James (1535-1617) (DNB00)


MELVILLE, Sir JAMES (1535–1617), of Hallhill, autobiographer, born in 1535, was the third son of Sir John Melville of Raith [q. v.], by his second wife, Helen Napier. When fourteen years of age he was appointed page to the youthful Mary Queen of Scots, then at the French court. On his way to France in the train of John de Montluc, bishop of Valence, a visit was paid to the coast of Ireland, and Melville was there eagerly sought in marriage by a young Irish lady, who had a priest in readiness. But Melville declined, telling her he was too young and had no means. For three years he remained in the retinue of the bishop, and then entered the service of the constable of France, whom he accompanied to the field against the emperor, and was wounded in 1557 at the battle of St. Quentin, where the constable was made prisoner. In 1559 Melville was introduced by his master to the French king, Henry II, and was sent to Scotland to discover the real designs of Lord James Stewart, the half-brother of Queen Mary, whom Mary of Guise, the queen-dowager of Scotland, charged with aiming at the crown. He carried out his mission successfully, but on his return to France was obliged to withdraw for a short time to the court of the elector palatine. While there he was entrusted with the delicate task of recommending a marriage between Duke John Casimir, the elector's second son, and Queen Elizabeth, and about the same time he proposed marriages between Archduke Charles of Austria and Mary Queen of Scots, and between Charles IX and the second daughter of the Emperor Maximilian. In none of these schemes was he successful.

At the earnest desire of Queen Mary he settled next at the Scottish court, and was appointed a privy councillor and gentleman of the bedchamber. She granted him two yearly pensions of 100l. and five hundred merks Scots for life, and these were afterwards confirmed to him by James VI. At first the queen employed his diplomatic talents to win over Queen Elizabeth to her projected marriage with Darnley, and Melville personally ingratiated himself with Elizabeth. On his return from England he vainly attempted to prevent the murder of Rizzio, which from the aspect of affairs at court he clearly foresaw. He was present in Holyrood at the time of the tragedy, but was apparently not a witness. He was made the bearer of the tidings of the birth of Queen Mary's son to Elizabeth, and was present at the baptism of the prince. After the murder of Darnley he tried to dissuade Mary from marrying Bothwell, but only incurred the resentment of that nobleman. He was present at their marriage, which was followed by the queen's deposition and imprisonment, and the coronation of her infant son.

The nobles sent Melville to offer the regency to James Stewart, earl of Moray [q. v.], at Berwick. Through the troublesome period of James's minority he was entrusted with the most delicate diplomatic missions. During the latter portion of Morton's regency he retired from court, but after James began to reign in person he returned, and his counsel and services were always sought by the king, to whom he had been recommended by Queen Mary. James kept him constantly about the court, but Melville declined missions to England, Denmark, and Spain. On the king's return from Denmark with his queen, Melville was knighted, and appointed a privy councillor and gentleman of the bedchamber to Queen Anne; but when in 1603 James succeeded to the English crown and earnestly desired Melville to go with him to London, Melville declined on account of his age. He retired to his estate of Hallhill, formerly Easter Collessie, in Fife, which he acquired from Henry Balnaves. Balnaves had no children of his own, and had adopted Melville as his heir. Here Melville occupied himself in writing the ‘Memoirs’ of his own life. He paid one visit to the king at London, and was graciously received. He died at Hallhill on 13 Nov. 1617. He married Christina Boswell, and had by her one son, James, who succeeded him, and two daughters—Elizabeth, wife of John Colville, commendator of Culross [see Colville, Elizabeth], and Margaret, who was the second wife of Sir John Scott of Scotstarvet.

The ‘Memoirs’ written by Melville form an important contribution to the historic literature of his period. The original manuscript was first discovered in Edinburgh Castle in 1660, and was first published by George Scott of Pitlochie, the author's grandson, in 1683, London, folio. Two impressions were issued (Notes and Queries, iv. xii. 86). A second edition appeared in 1735 in octavo, and a reprint of this in 1751 in duodecimo. The latest and best edition is that issued by the Bannatyne Club in 1827. A French translation was published at the Hague in 1694 (2 vols. 8vo), which was reprinted at Lyons in 1695, and at Amsterdam in 1704; while a new French edition was published at Edinburgh in 1745 (3 vols. 8vo), the third of which contained a collection of letters by Queen Mary.

[Memoirs of his own life, by Sir James Melville of Hallhill; Sir W. Fraser's Melvilles of Melville and Leslies of Leven, i. 133–62.]

H. P.