Saturday, 10 December 2016

Forgotten Sons of Angus: The Strange Avenues of Hector Boece

The intellectual reputation of Hector Boece (1465–1536) has been in low esteem for a long, long time.  Within a century of his death his major work, Historia Gentis Scotorum (History of the Scottish People), was heavily criticised for its inaccuracy and invention.  More on that later.

A Family of Many Names

   The historian’s kin had longstanding links with the parish and barony of Panbride (anciently Balabride).  An ancestor, Hugh de Boath, is supposed to have been granted these lands (though marriage with the heiress)  by the crown following his bravery at the Battle of Dupplin in 1332. King David II appointed a council at Perth to reward those loyal men who had served him at Dupplin and the Battle of Hallidonhill. This barony grant, prompted by military courage, may in fact be a Boece family myth as the barony was in the hands of the Meaden family for much of the 15th century.  The first record of a member of the family here is in a charter from the Earl of Huntly in 1492, which mentions Alexander Boyes as a part proprietor of Panbride.  The family of Boece were still landowners of some part of the parony in the middle of the 16th century, though the records are confusing.  Local historian Alexander Warden states that someone called Ramsay married the Boece heiress in 1495, though this is likely only to relate to a portion of the family’s lands (Angus or Forfarshire, vol. 5, 71).

   Hugh de Boath’s grandson was the historian and the family history is complicated by the variety of spellings which the surname had, including Boath, Boiss, Boyis, Boece, Boyce.  He may have Latinised his name as Boethius as a nod to Roman writer similarly called who was executed in 524 AD.  Yet another variation was Boys, which someone in the family may have conjured up because of a similarity to the French work bois, wood.  There is record of a certain Alexander Boys of Panbride, whose seal is appended to a charter of the noble Panmure family in 1505. Like the pretensions of other native families, the supposed French origin may be a conceit.

Education in Dundee, Aberdeen and Paris, Work in Aberdeen

   Hector was, by his own admission, born in the burgh of Dundee:  ‘the toun quhair we wer born’, reputedly in a place in the Overgate beside the Long Wynd (known in the 15th century as Seres Wynd).  He also received his earliest education in the burgh where his father Alexander Boyis was a burgess of the town.  Afterwards Boece styled himself Deidonanus as a reference to his origins.  His education continued at Aberdeen, then he went abroad to study philosophy at Paris, becoming Bachelor of Divinity.  Also there, in 1497, he became a professor of philosophy at the College of Montacute (Montaigu).  A measure of his esteem among his contemporaries is that he gained the friendship of Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536), the most brilliant continental scholar of his time.  In 1509, or earlier, Boece accepted the invitation of Bishop Alexander Elphinstone to return to Scotland and become the Principal of King’s College, Aberdeen.   As a new foundation, the financial rewards of the office were limited (forty merks a year), but his income was bolstered by income from a canonry at Aberdeen and of the vicarage of Tullynessle.  In 1527 he was granted a pension of £50 by the Sheriff of Aberdeen, which was later increased.  The following year he became a Doctor of Divinity and was voted a most likely welcome gift by the magistrates of Aberdeen:  a tun of wine when the new wines should come into port, or, should he choose, the sum of £20 to purchase bonnets.  One of Boece’s closest associates at Aberdeen was his fellow Angus native and former schoolfriend, William Hay, who had also studied with Boece at Paris. Hector’s own brother Arthur was also employed at the fledgling university.  (Arthur Boece had been Chancellor of the Cathedral of Brechin and became Chair of Canon Law at King’s College, and in 1535 he became a judge of the Court of Session.)
   At Aberdeen Boece gave lectures on medicine and on divinity.  Towards the latter part of 1534 he was appointed Rector of Tyrie, and he died in Aberdeen two years after that. He was buried before the high altar at King's College, beside the tomb of his patron Bishop Elphinstone.


Major Literary Works and Reputation

   Following Elphinston’s death in 1514, Boece started his first major work, published in Paris in 1822.  It was a history of the bishops of Murthlac and Aberdeen, written in honour of his patron, and entitled Vitae Episcoporum Murthlacensium et Aberdonensium. Although the accounts of the earlier bishops are deemed unhistorical, the work is valued as a source for the life and works of Elphinstone.   His second work, also written in Latin and published in Paris, was the Scotorum Historiae a prima gentis origine cum aliarum et rerum et gentium illustratione non vulgari (Scotorum Historiae), a seventeen book work which first appeared in 1526, giving the story of Scotland until the year 1438.  (The second edition, published in Paris in 1574, contained a continuance of the work - to the end of the reign of King James III - by the Italian scholar Giovanni Ferrerius.  The Scots translation by John Bellenden appeared in 1536.).  Precursors and influences of Boece in writing the history of his country include John Mair or Major, a tutor of the Sorbonne, and principal of the college of St Salvadore at St Andrews, whose history of Greater Britain, in six books, was published at Paris in the year 1521. The Chronica Gentis Scotorum of John of Fordun and Walter Bower’s version called  the Scotichronicon were further examples, as was the Chronykil of Scotland by Andrew Wyntoun prior of Lochleven,  in the early 15th century.

   In the immediate decades after the publication of his history, Boece had a considerable influence over other historians.  Polydore Vergil utilised Boece for his 1534 Historia Anglica. David Chalmers of Ormond in his Histoire abbregée (1572), and Ralph Holinshed heavily relied on him, as did the Scot George Buchanan  in his Rerum Scoticarum Historia (1582).  But early critics of Boece soon came to the fore, including the historians Humphrey Lhuyd and John Twyne, while the Scotsman Thomas Innes virtually demolished his historical credibility in the 18th century.  Lord Hailes reckoned that the Scots were reformed from popery, but not from Boece, and John Pinkerton also despised the blatant inventions of incidents and speeches which abound in Boece’s book.  But to dismiss the History out of hand is to misunderstand his intention, which was to follow the path of the Latin master Livy and construct a great patriotic national epic.  Such a reminder of the glorious story of Scotland was much needed in the wake of the shattering event of Flodden.  Some- but by no means all – of the criticism levelled at Boece came from Englishmen who scoffed at the supposed glories of the Scottish past.
   A more telling castigation comes from the great modern Scottish historian A A M Duncan, who divines Boece's motives for composing both his major literary works: the Lives of the Bishops of Aberdeen he calls 'the first insurance policy taken out for his own advancement'; the History is called a book  written 'to bring himself to the notice of the king and the archbishop of St Andrews and to benefit from their patronage'. ('Hector Boece and the Medieval Tradition,' in Scots Antiquaries and Historians, 1-11, Abertay Society, Dundee, 1972.)

Angus in the History.  Iona and Restenneth

   A major historian might be expected to have some insight, or at least access to local traditions about his native area.  But unfortunately Boece’s mentions of Angus are hardly more credible than any other part of his early history.  Boece relates, for instance, that the town of Forfar had a castle at the time of the arrival of the Roman general Agricola in the first century AD.  Similarly, his account of the (fictitious) Pictish king Caranach fighting the invaders and barricading himself in his castle at Dundee seems more than dubious.  Further shadowy Scottish and Pictish luminaries such as Galdus, Alpin and also assorted Danes, romp across the hills and plains in Boece’s imagination and pages.  By the time of the Wars of independence his work settles down into semi-believability, but by then the damage is done.

   Hector Boece might be forgiven for his well-intentioned inventions, but there is a more serious question about whether he deliberately misled his readers and claimed sources which did not exist. The historian claimed to have secured certain lost histories from the island of Iona, passed to him by the Earl of Argyll and his brother, John Campbell of Lundy.  Among these fabled texts was a Latin history of Scotland composed by the Spaniard Veremund(us), archdeacon of St Andrews in the 11th century.  No trace of this history exists and its author is not mentioned by John of Fordun, who might be expected to have used such a source for his own history if it had been available.   Should Boece have invented this history of Veremundus it would put him in the company of Geoffrey of Monmouth who claimed as a source for his historical work a certain old book written in the ancient British tongue, which almost certainly did not exist.  Weighed against the accusation is the statement of the esteemed Erasmus who stated that his friend Boece ‘knew not what it was to tell a lie’.

     Linked with the claims of a false source are Boece’s strange tales about the lost library of the monks of Iona.  On the prompting of Bishop Elphinstone the books from Iona, together with the history of Veremund, were brought via the Campbell sources to Aberdeen in 1525.  Some of the ancient written treasures unfortunately crumbled away to nothing.  Another intriguing tradition links these documents, or some other books rescued from the holy island, with the ancient priory of Restenneth in Angus.  It is plausible that Restenneth was originally founded in the 8th century, though actual records of the place do not mention it until centuries later.  Boece uses the locality in his work as the scene of a great battle between Picts and Scots, in which the Pictish overlord Ferideth was slain.  In his preface to the history of the bishops of Aberdeen, Boece weaves the story that the Scottish king Fergus II was present as an ally or mercenary in the army of Alaric the Goth at the sack of Rome in 409 AD.  While other barbarians busied themselves looting as much gold and portable artefacts that they could carry, Fergus carted away a library of ancient books which he took back with him and deposited in Iona.  Centuries later, for the sake of convenience and access, King Alexander I transported this whole library to Restenneth.  King Edward I of England is rumoured to have maliciously torched this priceless collection at the end of the 13th century.

   Belief in the lost or hidden literary treasures was allegedly famous far and wide, so that when the papal legate Aeneus Sylvius (who later became Pope Pius II) visited Scotland in the 15th century he aimed to journey to Iona to find the lost books of Livy which he heard were deposited in the library there.  The search for these lost literary treasures was resumed by Boece and he was at least partially successful, according to himself; and though it seems unlikely, the tale may contain some element of truth.  The lure of the lost books was still so tantalising that there was a faint hope during the 1950s, during excavation of the Treshnish Islands, that a horde of manuscripts, hidden by monks in the Viking age, might be rediscovered.  But alas, no such treasure was found.  Would a similar archaeological dig be justified at Restenneth, I wonder?

Heckenbois Path

  We are on firmer ground (pardon the pun) when we consider a more tangible, though still mysterious trace of the historian  which still exists faintly in the Angus landscape, as reported by the Old Statistical Account for the parish of Arbirlot in the late 18th century:
It is confidentially reported, that a road was made through part of this parish, by Hector Boethius, the Scotch historian, which still bears his name, though somewhat corrupted. It is called Heckenbois-path.

    Hector Boece is said to have constructed the road soon after his return from Europe to Scotland, when he inherited the barony of Panbride.  His intention was to link the coastal parish with the maim arterial road running between Dundee and Aberdeen.  Traces of the ancient route were evident in the 19th century to the north of Panbride, on the Moor of Arbirlot (some state it was most obvious on the moor between the farms of Fallaws and Kellyfield) , and it was known as Heckenbois or Heckenboys Path, apparently a corruption of its maker’s name.  On the north side of the same moor is the farm called Hunter’s Path, which was formerly Hector’s Path.  As pointed out to surveyors of the Ordnance Survey in the Victorian age, the sourthern end of the path in Arbirlot parish was distinct and measured twelve links wide, though in some parts arable farming had obliterated it.  Locals pronounced it Eck-en-bow.

   According to David G. Adams in The Ha'ens o' Panbride (1990), the route of the path likely continued past Guynd (and Hunter's Path farm), north of Panbride, northwards via Redford and Cononsyth, meeting the King's Great Road near Milldens.

   One tradition states that Boece worked in conjunction with – or at least gained the consent of – the barons of Carmyllie and Panmure to create his highway.  Such construction had an obvious economic benefit and the tradition may reflect a laudable, prosaic truth.  But the motif of scholars leaving superhuman, sometimes supernatural marks on the landscape is an older one still and reflects a time when scholars were thought of as bona fide magicians.  The path may have existed in some rudimentary form at an earlier period as there are records of routes in this area in the charters of Arbroath Abbey.

Woodcut from Boece's History

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