Thomas Craig and his intellectual background: Part 1

David McOmish

To date, there has only been one major work devoted to the life and work of Thomas Craig. 1 The erroneous attribution of a knighthood to Craig in the title of this work is the first indication that the account is less than satisfactory. 2 There have been several other articles devoted to Craig, all of which are almost exclusively devoted to examining his life and work as an advocate and jurist. 3 In 2004 Professor John W. Cairns produced a succinct and pointed account of Craig's life and career and this presents a slightly more rounded, and more detailed account of Craig. 4 It is now possible - thanks to work carried out on the 'Bridging the Continental Divide' project - to add some further information about the life and cultural universe of Thomas Craig to complement, and hopefully compliment, these recent studies. One thing that the evidence from research via the DPS highlights is the extent to which Craig represents a recognisable 'type' of Scot, whose background and interests were shared by a group of contemporaries. The next feature will examine internal evidence from Thomas' poetry and discuss the extent to which Craig the poet is a creature of the cultural and literary environment in mid- to late-sixteenth century Scotland and Europe. However, the current feature will focus specifically on the subject of Thomas Craig and his network of personal relationships, and examine what they can tell us about the man.

There is a great deal of epistolary evidence that offers some tantalising glimpses into the world of which Craig was part. In the latter part of the sixteenth century, Craig was in correspondence with Tycho Brahe, the famous Danish astronomer. This in itself is interesting, and highlights that Craig was an active member of the community of people within Europe sharing their ideas in the medium of classicising Latin literature. 5 However the correspondence also provides some welcome clarity on the issue of Thomas' immediate family. We learn from Brahe that Thomas' brother was John Craig, the respected mathematician and astronomer, who has many and varied claims to fame. 6 The relationship between Craig and his brother that the Brahe letters reveal provides invaluable insight into the world that Thomas inhabits. We see from a letter written to Peter Young in 1593 that Brahe believed that Thomas, like his brother, was interested in astronomy, and wished to use his own 'not unsophisticated poetry' (carminibus haud illepidis as Brahe calls it) to beautify his astronomy. 7 This letter provides the first indication that Craig's poetry was valued outside Scotland, and also that Craig had a genuine interest in astronomy. Two letters of correspondence directly between Brahe and Craig survive and they confirm the latter point. They are preserved in Brahe's Opera, and in them we find both men addressing the astronomical and mathematical origins of the dispute between Thomas' brother, John, and Brahe. 8 So from these three letters we learn that Thomas had a reputation as a good poet, and that his interests were not limited to the law - even if he admits in his letter to Brahe that he does not presume to know as much about astronomy as Brahe (although no doubt true, it represents a characteristic piece of self-effacement by Thomas, no doubt designed to render Thomas' defence of his brother's position in the same letter less incendiary to the irascible Brahe).

Brahe's letters highlight another interesting aspect of Thomas' familial links, which emphasise that the Craig brothers' European correspondence on astronomy, and with astronomers, played an important part in scientific discourses in the early modern period. In 1592 John Craig wrote a letter to Tycho Brahe informing him that a certain noble consanguineus of his (Craig's) would soon publish an important work: Canon mirificus a generoso quodam consanguineo nostro hic construitur, cui otii et ingenii ad tantum opus satis est: cum perfectus fuerit, tibi communicabitur. [An extraordinary canon is currently being brought together here by a certain noble relation of mine, who has enough time on his hands and enough talent for such a great task; after it has been completed, I'll share it with you]. 9 The person in question was the inventor of logarithms, John Napier. George Molland, in his otherwise excellent ODNB entry for Napier, translates a generoso quodam consanguineo as 'by a compatriot', but the import of the term is far more literal, and should be read as 'by a certain noble relation of mine'. 10 John Napier was related to John and Thomas Craig by blood: the Craigs' mother was first cousin to Napier's mother. 11 It is one of the great losses to the study of the history of science in early modern Scotland and Europe that John Napier's private papers and correspondences were all lost in a fire a century after his death. 12 However, in the activities of Thomas Craig and his brother, as revealed in Brahe's letters, we can see something of the cultural environment in Scotland in which John Napier worked and prospered, and witness the pressures to which he was responding.

Specifically vocational evidence for Thomas' life, both that which Professor Finlay painstakingly amassed in his 2004 article 13 and that contained in official documentation, offers some other interesting glimpses of Thomas' circle of colleagues and acquaintances. Craig's relationship with the King family is worth some comment. Thomas Craig and Alexander King were both advocates in Edinburgh at the same time. As Professor Finlay has shown, their early careers took a similar path. 14 They also seemed to do business and have close personal relations with the same individuals and families. Alexander and Thomas' relations with the Mossman family are a case in point. In 1569-70 Craig, acting as justice depute, freed John Mossman, a member of the family of goldsmiths who was under arrest for failing to pay his debts (as cautioner on behalf of James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell), much to the ire of Hepburn's creditors. 15 Craig himself had previously acted in 1568 as cautioner for the Mossman family (John's parents) the year before this event, so a 'client' relationship may indeed explain the rather unusual step of releasing Mossman. What is interesting about the cautioner role that Craig took for the Mossmans is the fact that Alexander King acted as witness in the case. 16 King's own relationship with the Mossmans is also quite unusual. In the year following Craig's release of John Mossman, James Mossman, a goldsmith to Mary, Queen of Scots (who was executed in 1573 for his support for Mary), married Alexander's daughter, Janet King, barely two months after the death of James' first wife Mariota Arres. 17 For Alexander to arrange for his daughter to marry James Mossman in such a short period of time (weeks after he became available) highlights how close the relationship between the families must have been. So both Thomas and Alexander were acting on behalf of, and, in Alexander's case, forming bonds of family with the Mossmans during this period. However, we must be cautious of imagining any strong political dimension to Thomas' (and Alexander's) activities with the Mossmans. It was after Hepburn's forfeiture of his hereditary right to the position of Lord High Admiral to his political enemies that Thomas Craig became the admiral depute. 18

Contact between Craig's family and the King family preceded this early and unusual example of their activities. It is clear from the letters of Adam Bothwell, bishop of Orkney, to John Napier's father, Archibald, Laird of Merchiston, that Alexander King provided counsel to the Napier family. Adam Bothwell was first cousin to Thomas Craig's mother, and also seems to have been something of a surrogate father to Thomas Craig's benefactor and uncle, John Bellenden. Alexander features in several of Bothwell's letters from the early 1560s, 19 and the connection continued for many years after, into the next generation. 20 Alexander's son, also called Alexander, followed his father into law, and was also drawn into contact with Thomas Craig. Alexander King Junior was admitted to the Faculty of Advocates on 20th December 1580. Then, almost twenty years after Craig became admiral depute, Alexander King junior was admitted to the Admiralty Court as Judge Admiral. 21 His rise through the ranks was impressive, and perhaps owed something to a combination of ambition and a lack of scruples that marked him out from his peers: Alexander Regius, Advocatus acer, et vehemens, illam labem et ignominiam ordinis callide observans, a clientibus suis pecuniam accepit, quam corruptis judicibus, pro suffragiis divideret. [Alexander King, a keen-witted and vigorous man, cunningly observing that wickedness and shame of his order, received money from his clients to dish out to corrupt judges for favourable decisions.] 22 Remarkably, in 1605, Alexander King and Thomas Craig were recommended as men most suited to join the Lords of Session, and both were described as men of erudition and 'good conversation'. 23 We see something of this 'good conversation' in Craig's own correspondence. Thomas mentions conversations that he had with Alexander, and Craig's description of King as a man most learned in Scots law strikes a discordant note with the strident denunciation of him found in the above quotation from Johnston's history. 24 Regardless, what we do see from all of the evidence is that Thomas Craig had strong personal, vocational, and familial ties with the King family.

Before leaving Craig and King, one final comment should be made on another person that Thomas mentions in his conversation with King, and through whom we move another degree closer to understanding Craig and his times: William Oliphant. We learn from the snippet of information contained in the above conversation, that Craig, King, and Oliphant had private conversations on the law. Yet we know from his donation to St Leonard's College, St Andrews in 1620 that William Oliphant had, like Craig, a humanist's love for classical literature. His autographed copy of Xenophon still survives in St Andrews University Special Collection Department. 25 What makes this more interesting is that the book was originally owned by Alexander's brother, Adam, whose signature is prominently written across the title page. Adam's use of Xenophon in his astronomical writings is something that the project team will highlight when all of Adam's poetry is published in 2015. We have been able to recognise Adam's use of Xenophon from his various references to the text in his large, unpublished (and inexplicably long-ignored) manuscript edition of George Buchanan's De Sphaera - digital scans of which will appear on this website to compliment Adam's astronomical poetry from the Delitiae. William must have acquired Adam's copy of Xenophon before Adam's death on the 10 August 1620, as Scotstarvit had the donation by 1 August 1620. This makes it likely that Adam King gave William his copy of Xenophon as a gift. What is clear from all of the evidence is that Craig and his colleagues present a cosmopolitan and urbane picture of cultural life in Scotland in the early modern period.

The life and times of Thomas Craig offer us a tantalising glimpse of the rich cultural landscape of early modern Scotland. The evidence emerging from the project team's work on Craig and his contemporaries will hopefully keep scholars busy for a long time to come, and will be followed up in next month's feature.


1: Patrick F. Tyler, An Account of the life and writings of Sir Thomas Craig of Riccarton, (Edinburgh, 1823).

2: Although a useful starting point for discussion of Craig's life, Tyler's account is hindered at times by a general lack of detail (citations of Craig's literary work, with little or no attempt at critical analysis of the texts - often offering little more than vague platitudes and general asides): especially pp.137-8; but also pp.279-285. One further issue, and perhaps a more serious one, is the inclusion of factually incorrect information - the most serious of which is Tyler's inability to distinguish Thomas Craig's son 'John Craig' from Thomas' brother also called John Craig (pp.322-3). Tyler's mistake was replicated by Mark Napier, Memoirs of John Napier, (Edinburgh, 1834) p.363, and T. Cooper, Dictionary of National Biography Vol. XII (London, 1887).

3: John Finlay, 'The early career of Thomas Craig, advocate' in Edinburgh Law Review 8 (3), (Edinburgh, 2004) pp.298-328. See ODNB entry, note 4 below, for the various other works devoted to examining Craig's work on feudal law and proposed act of union of 1604. Jamie Reid-Baxter provides a brief overview of the political background to Craig's two poems on the death of James Murray (1570): The Philological Museum

4: See John W. Cairns 'Craig, Thomas' ODNB

5: Brahe's correspondence with notable figures from across Europe and Scotland can be found in: Tychonis Brahe Dani opera omnia vol. VI-IX, (Amsterdam, 1972). His correspondence with Thomas Craig is found in Volume VII, pp.364-6. One further thing that the correspondence contained in Brahe's Opera (especially vol. VII) reveals is the extent to which so many individuals from Scotland are at the forefront of the heated astronomical debates in Europe in this period. For more on this aspect see: David McOmish, 'A community of scholars: the rise of scientific discourse in early-modern Scotland', in David McOmish and Steven Reid (eds), Neo-Latin Literature and the Republic of Letters in Early Modern Scotland (forthcoming).

6: See Brahe (1972) vol.VII p.355 for positive identification of John and Thomas as brothers. See J. Henry, 'Craig, John' ODNB for a brief overview of John Craig's life, and a selection of secondary work on John Craig. Also, see Adam Mosley, 'Tycho Brahe and John Craig: the Dynamic of a Dispute' in Tycho Brahe and Prague: Crossroads of European Science (Prague, 2002) p.71-83.

7: Brahe (1972), vol.VII pp.355-6; and in Thomas Craig's own words: p.364. For discussion on Brahe's desire to see his astronomy in verse, and his relationship with Buchanan in this regard, see: David McOmish, 'Scotland demands the Latin Muse: didactic poetry and its impact in early-modern Scotland' in L. Canevaro and D. O'Rourke (eds), Didactic Poetry: Knowledge, Power, Tradition, (Classical Press of Wales, forthcoming).

8: Brahe (1972), vol.VII, pp.364-6.

9: Ibid., vol. p.335.

10: George Molland, 'Napier, John, of Merchiston (1550-1617)' ODNB

11: Katherine Bellenden was John Napier's maternal grandmother: Mark Napier (1834), pp.48-50. Katherine's brother, Thomas Bellenden was Thomas and John's maternal grandfather: J. Finlay (2004), p.299, note 4.

12: Mark Napier (1834), pp. v-vi

13: See note 3 above.

14: J. Finlay (2004), p.304 especially, but passim.

15: Ibid., pp.310-311. Professor Finlay suggests that Craig's role in the Mossman affair may be explained by a patron/client relationship between Craig and the Mossman family.

16: Ibid., note 61.

17: P. Miller, 'John Knox and his Manse' in Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, vol. 25 (Edinburgh, 1891) pp.152-3.

18: Craig achieved this office, no doubt, as Professor Finlay has argued (op. cit. p.309 and p.311), because of his family links with the Bellendens, the political enemies of James Hepburn.

19: The letters are contained in Mark Napier (1834), p.63 and following. See pp.63-4 for evidence of the care of duty taken by Adam Bothwell for John Bellenden.

20: A cursory glance through the list of criminal trials in Scotland shows that Thomas Craig and Alexander King routinely served as co-counsel during trials: Robert Pitcairn, Criminal Trials in Scotland, from 1488 to 1626 (3 vols, Edinburgh, 1833).

21: On Alexander's career and his large (still extant) manuscript (in Latin) on the law of the sea: A.R.G. McMillan, 'Admiralty and Maritime Law' in The Sources and Literature of Scots Law, Stair Society vol.1 (Edinburgh, 1935) p.331; and G.J. Bell, Commentaries on the Laws of Scotland, vol. 7 (Edinburgh, 1870) p.546.

22: William Blackwood, 'Early Administration of Justice in Scotland' in The Edinburgh Law Journal (Edinburgh, 1832) vol. 1, pp.322-3. The Latin account of Alexander King is taken from Robert Johnston, Historia Rerum Britannicarum (Amsterdam, 1655) p.231.

23: I. Campbell, The Acts of Sederunt of the Lords of Council and Session (Edinburgh, 1811) pp.62-3. Alexander King senior, from the evidence of his retour (128 - Feb. 1603), would seem to have been a member before his death.

24: J.D Ford, Law and Opinion in Scotland during the Seventeenth Century (Bloomsbury, 2007), p.236.

25: Xenophontos omnia que extant opera Joanne Lewenklaio interprete Editio secunda. fol. Basileae, 1572: St Andrews Special Collections, bookmark: Scot.PA4494.A2B72.