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John Lesley in United Kingdom


John Lesley (1527-1596), Scottish bishop and historian, was born in 1527. His father was Gavin Lesley, rector of Kingussie. He was educated at the university of Aberdeen, where he took the degree of M.A. In 1538 he obtained a dispensation permitting him to hold a benefice, notwithstanding his being a natural son, and in June 1546 he was made an acolyte in the cathedral church of Aberdeen, of which he was afterwards appointed a canon and prebendary. He also studied at Poitiers, at Toulouse and at Paris, where he was made doctor of laws in 1553.

In 1558 he took orders and was appointed Official of Aberdeen, and inducted into the parsonage and prebend of Oyne. At the Reformation Lesley became a champion of Catholicism. He was present at the disputation held in Edinburgh in 1561, when Knox and Willox were his antagonists. He was one of the commissioners sent the same year to bring over the young Queen Mary to take the government of Scotland. He returned in her train, and was appointed a privy councillor and professor of canon law in King’s College, Aberdeen, and in 1565 one of the senators of the college of justice.

Shortly afterwards he was made abbot of Lindores, and in 1565 bishop of Ross, the election to the see being confirmed in the following year. He was one of the sixteen commissioners appointed to revise the laws of Scotland, and the volume of the Actis and Constitutionis of the Realme of Scotland known as the Black Acts was, chiefly owing to his care, printed in 1566.

The bishop was one of the most steadfast friends of Queen Mary. After the failure of the royal cause, and whilst Mary was a captive in England, Lesley (who had gone to her at Bolton) continued to exert himself on her behalf. He was one of the commissioners at the conference at York in 1568. He appeared as her ambassador at the court of Elizabeth to complain of the injustice done to her, and when he found he was not listened to, he laid plans for her escape. He also projected a marriage for her with the duke of Norfolk, which ended in the execution of that nobleman.

For this he was put under the charge of the bishop of London, and then of the bishop of Ely (in Holborn), and afterwards imprisoned in the Tower of London. During his confinement he collected materials for his history of Scotland, by which his name is now chiefly known. In 1571 he presented the latter portion of this work, written in Scots, to Queen Mary to amuse her in her captivity. He also wrote for her use his Piae Consolationes, and the queen devoted some of the hours of her captivity to translating a portion of it into French verse.

In 1573 he was liberated from prison, but was banished from England. For two years he attempted unsuccessfully to obtain the assistance of Continental princes in favour of Queen Mary. While at Rome in 1578 he published his Latin history De Origine, Moribus, et Rebus Gestis Scotorum. In 1579 he went to France, and was made suffragan and vicar-general of the archbishopric 491 of Rouen. Whilst visiting his diocese, however, he was thrown into prison, and had to pay 3000 pistoles to prevent his being given up to Elizabeth.

During the remainder of the reign of Henry III. he lived unmolested, but on the accession of the Protestant Henry IV he again fell into trouble. In 1590 he was thrown into prison, and had to purchase his freedom at the same expense as before. In 1593 he was made bishop of Coutances in Normandy, and had licence to hold the bishopric of Ross till he should obtain peaceable possession of the former see. He retired to an Augustinian monastery near Brussels, where he died on the 31st of May 1596.


The chief works of Lesley are as follows: A Defence of the Honour of … Marie, Queene of Scotland, by Eusebius Dicaeophile (London, 1569), reprinted, with alterations, at Liége in 1571, under the title, A Treatise concerning the Defence of the Honour of Marie, Queene of Scotland, made by Morgan Philippes, Bachelar of Divinitie, Piae afflicti animi consolationes, ad Mariam Scot. Reg. (Paris, 1574); De origine, moribus et rebus gestis Scotorum libri decem (Rome, 1578; re-issued 1675); De illustrium feminarum in republica administranda authoritate libellus (Reims, 1580; a Latin version of a tract on “The Lawfulness of the Regiment of Women”: cf. Knox’s pamphlet); De titulo et jure Mariae Scot. Reg., quo regni Angliae successionem sibi juste vindicat (Reims, 1580; translated in 1584).

The history of Scotland from 1436 to 1561 owes much, in its earlier chapters, to the accounts of Hector Boece (q.v.) and John Major (q.v.), though no small portion of the topographical matter is first-hand. In the later sections he gives an independent account (from the Catholic point of view) which is a valuable supplement and a corrective in many details, to the works of Buchanan and Knox. A Scots version of the history was written in 1596 by James Dalrymple of the Scottish Cloister at Regensburg. It has been printed for the Scottish Text Society (2 vols., 1888-1895) under the editorship of the Rev. E. G. Cody, O.S.B. A slight sketch by Lesley of Scottish history from 1562 to 1571 has been translated by Forbes-Leith in his Narrative of Scottish Catholics (1885), from the original MS. now in the Vatican.

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  • Article Name: John Lesley
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  • Description: Life John Lesley (1527-1596), Scottish bishop and historian, was born in 1527. His father was Gavin Lesley, rector of [...]

This entry was last updated: October 22, 2016


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