Gavin Douglas lived from about 1475 to September 1522. A younger son of Scottish nobility, he carved out an influential role in the church and is remembered for his early contribution to Scottish literature. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.
Gavin Douglas was born as the third son of Archibald, 5th Earl of Angus, at the family stronghold of Tantallon Castle in East Lothian. He studied at the University of St Andrews from 1489 to 1494, and then, many believe, in Paris.
From 1496 he accumulated a number of minor ecclesiastical posts before, in about 1501, being granted the provostship of the collegiate church of St Giles in Edinburgh. He seems to have spent the following 12 years occupied by his ecclesiastical duties and his writing.
Douglas came to prominence following the disaster at the Battle of Flodden in 1513, in which King James IV and a generation of Scottish nobility were killed. Gavin Douglas himself became a burgess of Edinburgh. His father, the 5th Earl of Angus, died in 1514, and as Gavin's eldest brother had been killed at Flodden, the Earldom passed to his nephew, Archibald Douglas, 6th Earl of Angus. Later in 1514 the 6th Earl married Margaret Tudor, the widow of James IV, and the Douglas family entered centre stage of Scottish politics as different factions struggled to gain control of the young King James V.
As many of Scotland's senior clergymen had also been among the casualties at the Battle of Flodden, the prospects for an ambitious clergyman resulting from his new royal connections were very promising. With Margaret Tudor's strong support he moved rapidly into the Abbacy of Aberbrothwick (Arbroath). A subsequent attempt to gain the Archbishopric of St Andrews was overturned when another candidate was supported by the Pope. On 18 February 1515 he was successful, however, in being appointed as Bishop of Dunkeld. Gavin Douglas lost that post after the 6th Earl of Angus fell out favour with Margaret Tudor, still Queen of Scotland, in 1521. He died in London the following year of plague.
Although he was a significant player in an interesting episode of Scotland's turbulent history, Gavin Douglas is now primarily remembered for a series of literary works he produced during the period 1501-1513. These include "The Palice of Honour", a 2000 line dream-allegory; the 900 line "King Hart"; and perhaps his most important work, a Scots translation of "Aeneid", an epic Latin poem written by Virgil in around 20BC. In doing so he produced the first version of any of the great classical works to be written in a language native to the British Isles.