James Melville, who lived from 26 July 1556 to 20 January 1614, was a Scottish poet, clergyman and university teacher. He was a leading defender of the liberties of the Kirk, as a self-governing presbyterian structure, without any clerical hierarchy, with supreme authority vested in the General Assembly. Melville wrote two large autobiographical works, the first of them containing much poetry. The two works were finally jointly published in 1842, and run to 800 pages. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.
Originally from Maryton, near Montrose, Melville studied at St Andrews and also under the personal tuition of his uncle Andrew Melville (1545-1622). In 1575, Andrew was appointed principal of Glasgow University. James accompanied him and lectured there. Andrew was appointed principal of St Andrews in 1579, and James again followed him. Both men went into English exile in 1584, along with several other presbyterian clerics and nobles, all fleeing persecution by the Scottish Crown, which was pursuing the (shortlived) reintroduction of bishops.
James returned to Fife in late 1585, not to be an academic but a parish minister. He became responsible for not one but four country parishes in the East Neuk, but managed to reduce this workload to the parish of Kilrenny. The manse he built is still standing in next-door Anstruther. He retained close links with the university, and became nationally known through his actions in the General Assembly of the Kirk.
Melville worked tirelessly to prevent the Crown from taking control of the Kirk. Placed under house-arrest in London in 1606, he rejected the offer of a bishopric in 1607, and was forbidden ever to return to Scotland. He died at Berwick in January 1614. His historical significance, and the importance of his extensive poetic remains, are only now in the process of being recognised.
Our thanks to Dr Jamie Reid Baxter for providing us with this feature.