Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Pius II and the "Secret Mission" to Scotland

The Secret Mission to Scotland

In the late autumn of 1435,Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini was sent by Cardinal Nicholas Albergati on an undercover mission to Scotland with orders to persuade James I to launch an attack on England and so help end the Hundred Years' war with France. A subsidiary aim of Piccolomini's covert mission was to restore the status of Scottish archdeacon William Croyser, who had been condemned for treason and deprived of his office in the papal courts at Florence.

Preparing to cross over to England, Piccolomini was arrested at Calais, France, but later released. He planned to go to London to see his close friend, Adam de Molin, protonotario [senior secretary to the papacy]. But, in spite of the efforts of his friend, Piccolomini was refused permission to travel overland to the Scottish border.

Frustrated once more, Piccolomini returned to the Continent, going first to Bruges, Belgium, and then Sluis, in the Netherlands. From Sluis, he and his servants set sail for Scotland but was driven towards Norway by two violent gales, one of which kept them in fear of death for most of a day.

Piccolomini and his sailing companions were disorientated and at the mercy of the elements. However, north winds drove the vessel back toward their destination and finally on the 12th day brought them in sight of Scotland. The ship, now taking on water, managed to limp into port, believed at Belhaven Sands, west of Dunbar, East Lothian.

Piccolomini, who had promised he would walk bare-foot to the nearest shrine of the Virgin Mary if he escaped with his life, trudged over the frozen earth to the holy well at Whitekirk – a journey of around five miles. After resting there for two hours, he found upon getting up that he could not walk a step, his feet so weak and numb with the cold. While being carried there by his servants, Piccolomini warmed his feet by continuously banging them on the ground. Against all expectation, he recovered and was able to walk again. However, as a result of this mortification, Piccolomini was to suffer from rheumatism the rest of his life.

James' response to Piccolomini's mission was to refuse to declare war on England, although he did promise not to provide any direct assistance to the English. Even though James did not reinstate archdeacon Croyser, the king observed the niceties of diplomacy by reimbursing his Italian visitor for travelling expenses and giving him money and two horses for his return journey through England.

Writing in April 1436 to his patron, Cardinal Albergati, Piccolomini excused himself for not having communicated with him during the seven long and painful months that he had endured the Scottish climate and culture. He indicated that Scotland was economically and culturally depressed, that he had no means of getting a private letter out of the country and added that in any case no developments took place during his stay which could remotely assist Albergati's political goals. Scotland, according to Piccolomini's official report, was of little importance.

By contrast, in his Commentaries, Piccolomini - the Renaissance humanist and diplomat - takes care to paint a bizarre, arresting picture of the idiosyncrasies of a cold and far-off nation which burned black stones as fuel and had geese growing from trees. He records that on his return to the Continent, he passed through Newcastle (in disguise) on his way south from Scotland - and rejoiced at having reached civilisation in Newcastle, 'founded by Caesar'. He records that the favourite topic of conversation in Scotland was 'abusing the English'.

Nine years later, in a letter to his father, Piccolomini reveals yet another motive for glossing over his true experiences north of the Border: He had fathered a son by a Scots woman, but the child died after a few years.

(1) Whitehaven

A post-reformation document in the Vatican Library states that a chapel and chantry was founded at Fairknowe in 1295 (see NT58SE 11) by Agnes, Countess of Dunbar, to commemorate her recovery at a nearby well.

The number of miracles performed at this well was so great that in 1309 John Aberndley procured a shrine to be erected and dedicated to the Holy Mother.

The original Church structure at Whitekirk was a 12th Century parish church, under the jurisdiction of Holyrood Abbey.

However, in 1413 around 16,000 pilgrims came to Whitekirk and King James I placed the Whitekirk under his personal protection and built hostels to shelter the growing numbers of pilgrims.

King James V gave the site to the Sinclair family who built a rare example in Scotland of a tithe barn with stone from the former pilgrims' hostel. This barn is now a private residence.

The present church, which certainly dates from pre-Reformation times, has a square tower; and in the churchyard is a large stone slab, removed from the chancel some years ago in the course of repairing, and bearing the life-size effigy of an ecclesiastic. The church was destroyed by fire in the early twentieth century. It was started by a suffragette as part of the campaign to obtain votes for women. It was subsequently restored.

In 1845, it was noted that "Our Lady's Well (closed). About 11 chains [i.e. about 200 metres] NE from the parish church. This well was formerly held in great repute for the cure of barreness has been dried up for upwards of twenty years. " The well can no longer be seen.

Recently pilgrimages have re-started as part of the Whitekirk and Haddington Pilgrimage. The Pilgrimage is held annually on the second Saturday in May. It has become an event of great ecumenical importance and now attracts pilgrims from all over the British Isles - and sometimes from further afield.

(2) James I and Scotland

James I (December 10, 1394 – February 21, 1437) reigned as King of Scots from April 4, 1406 until February 21, 1437.
However, from 1406 to 1424 he was king in name only.

Born on December 10, 1394, the son of Robert III and Annabella Drummond. He had an eventful childhood. In 1402 his elder brother, David, starved to death in prison at Falkland in Fife. Before the death of his father in 1406 the authorities sent James to France for safety.

On the journey to France, the English captured the young prince and handed him over to Henry IV of England, who imprisoned him and demanded a ransom. Robert III allegedly died from grief over the capture of James. James's uncle, Robert Stewart, 1st Duke of Albany, who became Regent on the death of Robert III, showed no haste in paying for his nephew's release. Albany secured the release of his own son Murdoch, captured at the Battle of Homildon Hill, but not so with James. So for the next 18 years James remained a prisoner/hostage in England. Henry IV had the young Scots King imprisoned and educated in Windsor Castle and in secure large country houses near London. After the death of James's uncle in 1420, the Scots finally paid the ransom of £40,000, and in 1424 James returned to Scotland to find a country in chaos. He took his bride with him – he had met and fallen in love with Joan Beaufort, a cousin of King Henry VI of England, while imprisoned. He married her in London in February 2, 1423. They would have eight children, including the future James II of Scotland, and Margaret of Scotland, wife of Louis XI of France. Scholars believe that during his captivity James wrote The Kingis Quair, an allegorical romance, one of the earliest major works of Scottish literature.

James was formally crowned King of Scotland at Scone Abbey, Perthshire, on May 2 or 21, 1424. He immediately took strong actions to regain authority and control. In one such action he had the Albany family, who had opposed his actions, executed. The execution of Murdoch, Duke of Albany, and two of Murdoch's sons took place on May 24, 1425 at Castle Hill, Stirling.

James proceeded to rule Scotland with a firm hand, and achieved numerous financial and legal reforms. For instance, for the purpose of trade with other nations, he made Scots coinage exchangeable for foreign currency only within Scottish borders. He also tried to remodel the Parliament of Scotland along English lines.

His actions throughout his reign, though effective, upset many people. During the later years of his reign, they helped to lead to his claim to the throne coming under question.

James I's grandfather, Robert II, had married twice and the awkward circumstances of the first marriage (the one with James's grandmother Elizabeth Mure) led some to dispute its validity. Conflict broke out between the descendants of the first marriage and the unquestionably legitimate descendants of the second marriage over who had the better right to the Scottish throne. Matters came to a head on February 21, 1437, when a group of Scots led by Sir Robert Graham assassinated James at the Friars Preachers Monastery in Perth. He attempted to escape his assailants through a sewer. However, three days previously, he had had the other end of the drain blocked up because of its connection to the tennis court outside, balls habitually got lost in it.
A wave of executions followed in March, 1437, of those who had participated in the plot. The authorities executed (among others) James's uncle, Walter Stewart, 1st Earl of Atholl, and Atholl's grandson, Robert Stewart, Master of Atholl — both of them descended from Robert II's second marriage).

James was the author of two poems, the Kingis Quair and Good Counsel (a short piece of three stanzas). The Song of Absence, Peblis to the Play and Christis Kirk on the Greene have been ascribed to him without evidence. The Kingis Quair (preserved in the Selden MS. B. 24 in the Bodleian) is an allegorical poem of the cours d'amour type, written in seven-lined Chaucerian stanzas and extending to 1379 lines. It was composed during James's captivity in England and celebrates his courtship of Lady Jane Beaufort.

(3) Abbeys and Cathedrals in 14 and 15th Century Scotland

To a sea born visitor in Scotland from the 13th century on it would have been evident that its Eastern seaboard was as well marked by great abbeys and cathedrals as its border with England.
The greatest of these, the cathedral priory at St. Andrews, Holyrood Abbey outside Edinburgh, Arbroath Abbey and Elgin Cathedral, would have impressed most Europeans, though they may have noticed that wooden roofs were generally preferred to stone vaults in Scotland except in the choir of St. Andrew's Cathedral and the sumptuous royal foundation at Holyrood. Otherwise all these were great churches of a kind to be found throughout Europe, in scale and in their proud 3-storey elevations towering over their surroundings. The Cathedral of St. Mungo in Glasgow was a match for them; perhaps the lost chancels of St. Ninian's at Whithorn and St. Machar's at Aberdeen may have been; these were the other great religious houses of Scotland.

Scotland's great churches are, for the most part, those of the monasteries founded in the 12th and brought to completion in the first years of the 13th century. Only its three major cathedrals can stand comparison: one is itself essentially among their number, the second deeply involved in the evolution of Jedburgh Abbey. Unlike the great cathedrals of England the Scottish abbeys shared a similar fate to England's own monastic houses, rarely saved by the neighbouring parish that saved substantial parts of the cathedrals in several cities, though fortunately they did so at Melrose, Coldingham and Jedburgh.
The excellent website on this subject is at:

(4) William Croyser

From: 'The Register: Kirkgunzeon (continued)', Register & Records of Holm Cultram (1929), pp. 88-90.

(Papal Letters, vii, 67).—William Croyser held the parish church of Kyrthgunen in commendam, 1418.

(Ibid. vii, 344).—1424, iv Kal. Oct. Mandate to the Official of Glasgow narrating the petition of William Croyser, canon of Dunkeld, which set forth that, owing to the Border wars, the union, if such ever existed, of the parish church of Kirkgonzan in the diocese of Glasgow with the Cistercian monastery of Holm Cultram was likely to be of small profit to Holm Cultram. The Pope granted the said church in commendam, until a lasting peace should be made, to the said William Croyser, who already held it in commendam under a grant of the late Peter de Luna, called Benedict XIII. It narrates also the petition of Patrick Leche, clerk and M.A. of the diocese of Glasgow, which stated that in hope of such a peace a seven years' truce had been made; that it was difficult for the proposed union to take place, if indeed it existed at all, because (1) the commendo had gone on for forty years, (2) the church had been so long void that there is no certain knowledge of the mode of voidance. Leche's petition also stated that William Croyser was already opulently beneficed to the extent of 160 marks a year, and that his other benefices with cure were incompatible with the exercise of the cure of Kirkgunzean. The mandate therefore ordered the Official to summon William Croyser to appear in the matter of the commendo and Holm Cultram to appear in the matter of the union; and if facts are found to be as stated, to suppress both the commendo and the union, and to collate Patrick to the church, worth 20 marks of old sterlings.]

From: 'The Register: Kirkgunzeon (continued)', Register & Records of Holm Cultram (1929), pp. 88-90.

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