Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Wedderburn, James (1495?-1553)

WEDDERBURN, JAMES (1495?–1553), Scottish poet, was eldest son of James Wedderburn, merchant in Dundee (described in documents as ‘at the West Kirk Style’ to distinguish him from others of the name), and of Janet Barry, sister of John Barry, vicar of Dundee. He was born in Dundee about 1495, and matriculated at St. Andrews University in 1514. He was enrolled as a burgess of Dundee in 1517, and was intended to take up his father's occupation as a merchant. While at St. Leonard's College, St. Andrews, he had come under the influence of Gavin Logie, one of the leading reformers, and he afterwards took an active part against Romanism. After leaving the university he was sent to Dieppe and Rouen, where it is probable that a branch of the Wedderburn family was settled in commerce. Returning to Dundee, he wrote two plays—a tragedy on the beheading of John the Baptist, and a comedy called ‘Dionysius the Tyrant’—in which he satirised the abuses in the Romish church. These plays were performed in the open air at the Playfield, near the west port of Dundee, in 1539–40; but they have not been preserved, though from references made to them by Calderwood and others they seem to have given much offence to ruling ecclesiastics. About this time, in conjunction with his brothers John and Robert, he wrote a number of sacred parodies on popular ballads, which were published apparently at first as broadsheet ballads, and were afterwards collected and issued in 1567, under the title ‘Ane Compendious Booke of Godly and Spirituall Songs collected out of sundrie partes of the Scripture, with sundrie of other Ballates changed out of prophaine sanges, for avoyding of sinne and harlotrie, with augmentation of sundrie gude and godlie Ballates not contenit in the first editioun.’ Only one copy of the edition of 1567 is known to exist, and there is no clue to the date of the first edition referred to on its title-page. As some of the songs plainly refer to incidents that took place in Scotland about 1540, the theory that these were circulated as broadsheets is not unreasonable. According to Calderwood, James Wedderburn ‘counter-footed the conjuring of a ghost’ in a drama, which seemed to reflect upon James V, whose confessor, Father Laing, had scandalised the king by some mummery of this kind. Possibly this was the cause that action was taken against Wedderburn as a heretic, for in 1539 he was ‘delated to the king, and letters of caption directed against him,’ but he managed to escape to France, returning to Dieppe or Rouen and resuming his commercial occupation. An unsuccessful attempt was made by the Scottish factors there to have him prosecuted by the bishop of Rouen, and he remained in France until his death in 1553, not 1565, as sometimes stated. The date is proved by the return of his son John as heir to his father in October 1553. Wedderburn married before 1528 Janet, daughter of David Forrester in Nevay, by whom he had three sons; of these John (d. November 1569) was grandfather of James Wedderburn [q. v.], bishop of Dunblane (Reg. Magni Sigilli Reg. Scot. 1513–46, Nos. 539, 1286, 1311).

His brother, John Wedderburn (1500?–1556), the second son of James Wedderburn and Janet Barry, was born in Dundee about 1500. He studied at the pædagogium (afterwards St. Mary's College), St. Andrews, graduated B.A. in 1526 and M.A. in 1528. While at college he came under the teaching of John Major (1469–1550) [q. v.] and Patrick Hamilton [q. v.] the martyr, and, like his elder brother, became an ardent reformer. Returning to Dundee, he was placed under the tuition of Friar Hewat of the Dominican monastery there, and he took orders as a priest. He was chaplain of St. Matthew's Chapel, Dundee, in 1532. Having the gift of poesy, he joined with his two brothers, James and Robert, in composing ballads directed against Romanism, and in 1538–9 he was accused of heresy. It is not known whether he stood his trial, but he was certainly convicted and his goods forfeited and given over to his youngest brother Henry, on payment of a small sum to the king's treasury. About 1540 Wedderburn made his way to the continent, and remained some time at Wittemberg, then the chief centre of the reformers. In 1542 he returned to Scotland, and, in conjunction with John Scott or Scot (fl. 1550) [q. v.], printer in Dundee, began publishing the ballads which he and his two brothers had composed against the Romish religion. That he had the largest share in writing these ballads seems probable from the fact that many of them are framed on German models with which he would be familiar. It was expected, after the death of James V, that the governor Arran would be favourable to the protestants, but this hope was not realised, and several acts of parliament were passed forbidding the publication of these ballads, which were known as ‘the Dundee Psalms.’ Wedderburn was in Dundee in the early part of 1546, but was forced to flee to England in that year to avoid prosecution, and he died there in exile in 1556.

Another brother, Robert Wedderburn (1510?–1557?), the third son of James Wedderburn and Janet Barry, was also born in Dundee about 1510. He entered St. Leonard's College, St. Andrews, in 1526, graduated B.A. in 1529 and M.A. in 1530 with special honours. In 1528 the reversion of St. Katherine's Chapel, Dundee, was given to him, though he was then under age. He took orders as a priest, and ultimately succeeded his uncle, John Barry, as vicar of Dundee; but before he secured that benefice he fell under suspicion of heresy, and, like his brothers, was forced to take refuge on the continent. He went to Paris, probably in 1534 or 1536, and attended the university there, and it is said that he also spent some time at Wittemberg, where his brother John joined him, and where there were many Scottish protestant refugees. He remained abroad till 1546, when the death of Cardinal Beaton seemed to promise safety in Scotland for the protestants. It is difficult to discover when he became vicar of Dundee. A document in Dundee charter-room refers to him as holding that office in 1532, but John Barry was vicar after that date, and it is likely that Wedderburn did not come into the benefice till after 1546. He was certainly vicar in 1552, and he died between 1555 and 1560. By a deed recorded in the register of the great seal, 13 Jan. 1552–3, his two illegitimate sons, David and Robert, were legitimised. Their mother was Isobel Lovell, who married David Cant in 1560 and died shortly before 1587.

It is not possible to identify the different psalms and songs contributed by the three Wedderburns to the ‘Compendious Book.’ A thorough examination of that collection and an exhaustive account of it will be found in the edition issued by the Scottish Text Society, annotated, with introduction by emeritus professor A. F. Mitchell, D.D. In the same volume there is an account of the evidence which led Dr. David Laing and others to ascribe ‘Vedderburn's Complaynt of Scotland,’ published in 1548, to Robert Wedderburn.

[Registrum Magni Sigilli Regum Scotorum, 1513–46 and 1546–80; Calderwood's Hist. of the Kirk, Wodrow edit. i. 141–3; Millar's Roll of Eminent Burgesses of Dundee, p. 21; Maxwell's Old Dundee prior to the Reformation, p. 145; Dr. A. F. Mitchell's edition of A Compendious Book of Godly and Spiritual Songs (Scottish Text Soc.); The Wedderburn Book (privately printed 1898), pp. 14, 16, 22; Julian's Dict. of Hymnology; Millar's Compt Buik of David Wedderburn (Scot. Hist. Soc.); McCrie's Life of Knox, App. H; Lamb's Dundee, its Quaint and Historic Buildings.]

A. H. M.