Andrew Melville

Andrew Melville

Andrew Melville (1545-1622)

Reformer, Scholar, Theologian

Andrew Melville was born in Baldovie, Forfarshire, and educated at the local grammar school at Montrose before entering St Mary's College, St Andrews in 1559. He left the university with the reputation of being ‘the best poet, philosopher and Grecian of any young master in the land.’ He went to Paris in 1564, studying Oriental languages and Greek, and taught for some time both at Poitiers and Geneva while at the same time studying civil law. At Geneva he was appointed to the Humanity Chair in 1568. His knowledge of subjects was extremely broad; he was an extremely accomplished scholar.

He returned to Scotland in July 1574. Upon his return, the learned Beza, in a letter to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, said, ‘The greatest token of affection the kirk of Geneva could show to Scotland was that they had suffered themselves to be spoiled of Mr Andrew Melville.’

Soon after his return, the General Assembly appointed him to be the Principal of the College of Glasgow which was in a dreadful condition. He was there for about six years, transforming the University until students flocked to it from all places.In the year 1576, the Earl of Morton, who was then Regent, wanted to bring Andrew Melville into his party, which was trying to introduce Episcopacy. He therefore offered Melville the parsonage of Govan, a valuable benefice yearly, in addition to what he enjoyed as Principal, providing he would not insist against the establishment of bishops; but Melville rejected his offer with scorn.

In 1580 he was appointed Principal to St Andrews to try to do for that university what he had done for Glasgow.He was also a minister of that city. Here he taught the divinity class and, as a minister, continued to witness against the encroachments then being made on the rights of the Church of Christ.

When the General Assembly met at Edinburgh in 1582, Andrew Melville spoke out strongly against the absolute authority which was making its way into the Church: whereby, he said, they intended to pull the crown from Christ’s head and wrest the sceptre out of His hand. Several articles of the same tone, together with his speech, were presented by the commission of the Assembly to James VI. The Privy Council, craving redress, the Earl of Arran cried out, ‘Is there any here that dare subscribe these articles.’ Melville went forward and said, ‘We dare, and will render our lives in the cause;’ and then took up the pen and subscribed.

At the beginning of February 1584, he was summoned to appear before the Secret Council to answer for some things said by him in a sermon from Daniel 4. At his first appearance he made a verbal defence; but being called again, he gave a declaration, stating that he had said nothing, either in that or any other sermon, tending to dishonour the king, but in fact he had regularly prayed for the preservation and prosperity of his Majesty. By acts of Parliament and laws of the Church, he should have been tried for his doctrine by the Church; he therefore demanded a trial by them. He asked particularly for the trial to be in the place where the offence was alleged to have been committed; and that as there were special laws in favour of St Andrews, he particularly claimed the privilege of them. He further stated that what he had said was warranted by the word of God, that he appealed to the congregation who heard the sermon and he wanted to know his accusers. If the calumny was found to be false, he said the informers should be punished. He then gave an account of the sermon in question; alleging that his meaning had been misunderstood and his words perverted.

When he had closed his defence, James and the Earl of Arran, who was then Chancellor, raged against him. Melville remained calm and replied, ‘You are too bold, in a constituted Christian kirk, to pass by the pastors and take upon you to judge the doctrine and control the messengers of a Greater than any present. That you may see your rashness, in taking upon you that which you neither ought nor can do’ (taking out a small Hebrew Bible and laying it down before them), ‘there are my instructions and warrant - see if any of you can control me, that I have passed my injunctions.’

During this debate he was frequently told to leave and then instantly recalled, so that he would not have time to consult with his friends. They proceeded against him, and invited his enemies to prove the accusation. Although the whole train of evidence proved little or nothing against him, they still resolved to cause him trouble because he had declined their authority as the competent judges of doctrine. They therefore sent him to imprisonment in Edinburgh Castle, during the king’s pleasure. He was told that if he entered the prison he would not be released, unless it was to take him to the scaffold. The decree of the Council was then altered so that he now had to go to Blackness Prison, which was controlled by some dependants of the Earl of Arran, so he decided to get out of the country. An official gave him an order to enter Blackness within twenty-four hours. Some of Arran’s horsemen were waiting at the West Port to escort him there, but by the time Melville should have been in Blackness he had crossed the border to Berwick.

After the storm had passed he returned to St Andrews in 1586, as the Synod of Fife had excommunicated Patrick Adamson, archbishop of St Andrews, for immorality. Adamson, having drawn up the form of excommunication against Andrew Melville and his brother James, sent out a boy with some of his own men to the kirk to read it; but the people ignored it. The archbishop, despite being both suspended and excommunicated, planned to go into the pulpit to preach; but several people went instead to the new college to hear Andrew Melville. The archbishop, being told that people had assembled on purpose to remove him from the pulpit and hang him, called his friends together for protection and went to the steeple, but he returned home after the entreaty of the magistrates and others.

The differences with the archbishop brought the Melvilles again before the king and Council. Pretending that there was no other way to end the quarrel, the Council commanded Andrew to be confined to the area of Angus and the Mearns, under the pretext that he would be useful in that area in converting Papists. Because of his sickly condition, James was sent back to the new college. The University sent the Dean of Faculty and the masters with a petition to the king on Andrew’s behalf; as a result he was allowed to return, but was not restored to his office until August.

The next winter, he worked successfully to give the students in divinity under his care a thorough knowledge of the discipline and government of the Church. The specious arguments of Episcopacy vanished and people both of the town and University went to the college to hear him and Robert Bruce, who began preaching about this time. After this he was chosen moderator in some subsequent Assemblies of the Church.

When the King brought home his Queen from Denmark in 1590 Andrew Melville made an excellent speech on the occasion in Latin, which so pleased James that he publicly declared that Melville had both honoured him and his country and that he should never be forgotten. Yet such was the instability of this prince that, a short time after this he set out to harm him because Melville opposed his arbitrary measures in grasping after an absolute authority over the Church.

Andrew Melville went with some other ministers to the Convention of Estates at Falkland in 1596 where they intended to bring home the excommunicated lords who were then in exile. Although he had a commission from the last Assembly to watch for every imminent danger that might threaten the Church, whenever he appeared at the head of the ministers the king asked him, who sent for him? To which he resolutely answered, ‘Sire, I have a call to come from Christ and His Church, who have a special concern in what you are doing here, and in direct opposition to whom ye are all here assembled; but, be ye assured, that no counsel taken against Him shall prosper; and I charge you, Sire, in His name, that you and your Estates here convened favour not God’s enemies, whom He hateth.’

After he had said this, turning to the rest of the members, he told them that they were assembled with a traitorous purpose against Christ, His Church and their native country. In the middle of this speech he was commanded by the king to leave.

The Commission of the General Assembly was now sitting, and understanding how matters were going on at the Convention, they sent some of their members, among whom Andrew Melville was one, to express their strong disagreement with the king. When they came, he received them in his closet. James Melville, being head of the commission, told James his error; upon which the king appeared angry and charged them with sedition. James Melville, being a man of cool passion and genteel behaviour, began to answer him with great reverence and respect; but Andrew, interrupting him, said, ‘This is not a time to flatter, but to speak plainly, for our commission is from the living God, to whom the King is subject;’ and then, approaching the king; said, ‘Sire, we will always humbly reverence your Majesty in public, but having opportunity of being with your Majesty in private, we must discharge our duty, or else be enemies to Christ. And now, Sire, I must tell you that there are two kings and two kingdoms in Scotland: there is King James, the head of the Commonwealth, and there is Christ Jesus, the Head of the Church, whose subject King James VI is, and of whose kingdom he is not a head, nor a lord, but a member; and they whom Christ hath called, and commanded to watch over His Church and govern His spiritual kingdom have sufficient authority and power from Him so to do, which no Christian king nor prince should control or discharge, but assist and support, otherwise they are not faithful subjects to Christ. And, Sire, when you were in your swaddling clothes, Christ reigned freely in this land in spite of all His enemies; His officers and ministers were convened for ruling His Church, which was ever for your welfare. Will you now challenge Christ’s servants, your best and most faithful subjects, for convening together and for the care they have of their duty to Christ and you? The wisdom of your counsel is that you may be served with all sorts of men, that you may come to your purpose, and because the ministers and Protestants of Scotland are strong, they must be weakened and brought low by stirring up a party against them. But, Sire, this is not the wisdom of God, and His curse must light upon it; whereas, in cleaving to God, His servants shall be your true friends and He shall compel the rest to serve you.’

There is little difficulty in guessing how the king relished this discussion. However, he kept his temper and promised fair things to them for the present; but it was the word of someone whose standard maxim was, ‘He who knows not how to dissemble knows not how to reign.’ He gloried in this sentiment which was unworthy of the meanest of men, and repeatedly lived up to it. In the Assembly at Dundee in 1598, he discharged Andrew from the Assembly, and would not allow business to go on until he was removed.

There are other instances of the magnanimity of this faithful witness of Christ which are worth noting. In 1606, he and seven of his friends who were the main opponents to Prelacy in Scotland were called to England under the pretence of having a hearing granted to them by the king (who had also now succeeded to the throne there) about religion. However the meeting was a ruse to keep them out of the way until Episcopacy should be better established in Scotland. Soon after their arrival they were examined by the king and Council at Hampton Court, on the 20th of September, concerning the lawfulness of the recent Assembly at Aberdeen. The king, in particular, asked Andrew Melville whether a few clergy meeting without a moderator or clerk could make an Assembly. He replied that there was no number limited by law; that lack of numbers could be no argument against the legality of the court; especially when the promise was in God’s word given to two or three gathered in the name of Christ; and that the meeting was ordinarily established by his Majesty’s laws.

The rest of the ministers argued in the same way; after which Andrew Melville, with his usual freedom of speech, supported the conduct of his brethren at Aberdeen, enumerating the wrongs done to them at Linlithgow, where he himself was a witness. He blamed James’ Advocate, Sir Thomas Hamilton, who was present, for favouring Popery and mistreating the ministers so that the Accuser of the brethren could not have done more against the saints of God than had been done. He added that prelatists were encouraged, some of them promoting the interests of Popery with all their might, while the faithful servants of Christ were shut up in prison. And, addressing the Advocate personally, he added, ‘Still you think all this is not enough, but you continue to persecute the brethren with the same spirit you did in Scotland.’ After some conversation between the king and the archbishop of Canterbury, they were dismissed with the applause of many who were there for their bold and steady defence of the cause of God; for they had been badly misrepresented to the English.

They had scarcely left the king before they received a charge not to return to Scotland, nor come near the king’s, queen’s, or prince’s Court, without special license or being called for. A few days later, they were again called to Court and examined before a select number of the Scots nobility. Andrew was called after his brother’s examination, and he told them plainly, ‘That they knew not what they were doing; they had degenerated from the ancient nobility of Scotland, who were wont to hazard their lives and lands for the freedom of their country, and the Gospel which they were betraying and overturning.’ With night drawing on, they were dismissed.

Another example of Andrew’s resolution is this: He was called before the Council for having made a Latin epigram after seeing the king and queen making an offering at the altar, on which were two books, two basins, and two candlesticks, with two unlighted candles. The epigram is as follows:

Why stand there on the Royal Altar high,

Two closed books, blind lights, two basins dry?

Doth England hold God’s mind and worship closse,

Blind of her sight, and buried in her dross?

Doth she, with Chapel put in Romish dress,

The purple whore religiously express!

This epigram was not published, but had been stolen by a spy. When he appeared before the Council he confessed openly about the verses. He said he was very indignant at such vanity and superstition in a Christian church under a Christian king, born and brought up under the pure light of the Gospel. The archbishop of Canterbury began to speak, but Andrew Melville charged him with a breach of the Lord’s Day, with imprisoning, silencing and attacking faithful ministers, and with upholding Antichristian hierarchy and Popish ceremonies. Shaking the white sleeve of his vestment, he called them Romish rags, told him that he was an acknowledged enemy to all the Reformed Churches in Europe and therefore he would be an enemy to him in all such proceedings, to the last drop of his blood. He also said he was grieved to the heart to see such a man have the King’s ear and sit so high in the Council. He also charged bishop Barlow with having stated, after the conference at Hampton Court, that the king had said he was in the Church of Scotland, but not of it; and wondered that he went unpunished for making the king of no religion. He further refuted the sermons which Barlow had preached before the king. Then he was finally removed. An order was given to Dr Overwall, Dean of St Paul’s, to imprison him in the Dean’s house, with a command that no one should see him without the king’s permission. The following year he was ordered from the Dean’s house to the Bishop of Winchester’s, where, being not so strictly guarded, he sometimes kept company with his friends. At last he was committed to the Tower of London, where he remained for four years.

For about ten months Melville was imprisoned under very harsh conditions. He was not allowed to see anyone; he was allowed no servant; and worst of all, he was denied paper, pen and ink. After that he was allowed to live in a more comfortable cell where he had paper, pen and ink and his friends were allowed to visit. In 1607 the French Protestants at Rochelle wanted him as professor of theology, but he was not permitted to go. In 1610 James achieved his ambition when the General Assembly voted in Episcopacy. The archbishop of St Andrew’s said that it would not have been possible if Melville had been in the country. He might have added the names of Robert Bruce and John Welch, those indomitable enemies of Episcopacy, who were also in exile.

In 1611, after four years’ confinement, Andrew Melville was released with the help of the Duke de Bouillon on condition that he would go with him to the University of Sedan. There he enjoyed the calm life that was denied him in his own country. He maintained the usual constancy and faithfulness in the service of Christ, which he had done throughout his life. He died at Sedan in France in 1622, at the advanced age of 77 years.

Andrew Melville exhibited a high degree of fortitude and boldness in everything he did. Where the honour of his Lord and Master was concerned, the fear of man was not part of his character. He was also open, candid, generous, affectionate and faithful. The whole tenor of his life shows that his mind was deeply impressed with a sense of religion and he was passionate about civil liberty. His intellectual endowments were superior. Possessing a vigorous genius and a cultivated taste, he excelled all his countrymen at that time in his knowledge of many and varied subjects. Spottiswoode (the historian) considered him the Apostle of the Presbyterians in Scotland. He did indeed assert the rights of Presbytery against diocesan Episcopacy as much as he could.His passion probably went too far sometimes, and perhaps he could have avoided permanent banishment if he had been forceful rather than rude. More of a balance in his character might have been more productive, but being once blamed as having too fiery a temper, he replied, ‘If you see my fire go downward, set your foot upon it; but if it goes upward, let it go to its own place.’Nevertheless, he probably did more for the Church of Scotland than any man save Knox. He was a watchman on the walls, he warned his colleagues of coming dangers and he constantly stood up to the enemies of the Church.

This essay on Andrew Melville is from John Howie’s ‘Scots Worthies’, first published in 1775, revised and enlarged 1781. Revised from the author’s original edition, by Rev W H Carslaw, (Edinburgh: Johnstone, Hunter and Company, 1870), pp 91-100. I have made some changes, particularly the first couple of paragraphs and I have changed a number of words to make the reading more up to date.

The full original essay can be found at Another short biography can be found at