Scottish cardinal and Archbishop of St Andrews
Born c.1494 Died 1546
David Beaton or Bethune was a younger son of John Beaton of Balfour in the county of Fife, and is said to have been born in the year 1494. He was educated at the universities of St Andrews and Glasgow, and in his sixteenth year was sent to Paris, where he studied civil and canon law. About this time he was presented to the rectory of Campsie by his uncle James Beaton, then Archbishop of Glasgow. When James Beaton was translated to St Andrews in 1522 he resigned the rich abbacy of Arbroath in his nephew's favour, under reservation of one half of the revenues to himself during his lifetime. The great ability of Beaton and the patronage of his uncle ensured his rapid promotion to high offices in the church and kingdom. He was sent by King James V on various missions to France, and in 1528 was appointed keeper of the privy seal. He took a leading part in the negotiations connected with the king's marriages, first with Madeleine of France, and afterwards with Mary of Guise. At the French court he was held in high estimation by King Francis I, and was consecrated bishop of Mirepoix in Languedoc in December 1537. On the 10th of December 1538 he was appointed a cardinal priest by Pope Paul III, under the title of St Stephen in the Coelian Hill. He was the only Scotsman who had been named to that high office by an undisputed right, Cardinal Wardlaw, Bishop of Glasgow, having received his appointment from the anti-pope Clement VII. On the death of Archbishop James Beaton in 1539, the cardinal was raised to the primatial see of Scotland.
Beaton was one of King James's most trusted advisers, and it was mainly due to his influence that the king drew closer the French alliance and refused Henry VIII's overtures to follow him in his religious policy. On the death of James in December 1542 he attempted to assume office as one of the regents for the infant sovereign Mary, founding his pretensions on an alleged will of the late king; but his claims were disregarded, and the Earl of Arran, head of the great house of Hamilton, and next heir to the throne, was declared regent by the estates. The cardinal was, by order of the regent, committed to the custody of Lord Seaton; but his imprisonment was merely nominal, and he was soon again at liberty and at the head of the party opposed to the English alliance. Arran too was soon won over to his views, dismissed the preachers by whom he had been surrounded, and joined the cardinal at Stirling, where in September 1543 Beaton crowned the young queen. In the same year he was raised to the office of Chancellor of Scotland, and was appointed protonotary apostolic and legate a latere by the pope.
Had Beaton confined himself to secular politics, his strenuous opposition to the plans of Henry VIII for the subjugation of Scotland would have earned him the lasting gratitude of his countrymen. Unfortunately politics were inextricably interwoven with the religious controversies of the time, and resistance to English influence involved resistance to the activities of the reformers in the church, whose ultimate victory has obscured the cardinal's genuine merits as a statesman. During the lifetime of his uncle, Beaton had shared in the efforts of the hierarchy to suppress the reformed doctrines, and pursued the same line of conduct still more systematically after his elevation to the primacy. The popular accounts of the persecution for which he was responsible are no doubt exaggerated, and it sometimes ceased for considerable periods so far as capital punishments were concerned.
When the sufferers were of humble rank not much notice was taken of them. It was otherwise when a more distinguished victim was selected in the person of George Wishart. Wishart had returned to Scotland, after an absence of several years, about the end of 1544. His sermons produced a great effect, and he was protected by several barons of the English faction. These barons, with the knowledge and approbation of King Henry, were engaged in a plot to assassinate the cardinal, and in this plot Wishart is now proved to have been a willing agent. The cardinal, though ignorant of the details of the plot, perhaps suspected Wishart's knowledge of it, and in any case was not sorry to have an excuse for seizing one of the most eloquent supporters of the new opinions. For some time he was unsuccessful; but at last, with the aid of the regent, he arrested the preacher, and carried him to his castle of St Andrews. On the 28th of February 1546 Wishart was brought to trial in the cathedral before the cardinal and other judges, the regent declining to take any active part, and, being found guilty of heresy, was condemned to death and burnt.
The death of Wishart produced a deep effect on the Scottish people, and the cardinal became an object of general dislike, which encouraged his enemies to proceed with the design they had formed against him. Naturally resolute and fearless, he seems to have under-estimated his danger, the more so since his power had never seemed more secure. He crossed over to Angus, and took part in the wedding of his illegitimate daughter with the heir of the Earl of Crawford. On his return to St Andrews he took up his residence in the castle. The conspirators, the chief of whom were Norman Leslie, master of Rothes, and William Kirkaldy of Grange, contrived to obtain admission at daybreak of the 29th of May 1546, and murdered the cardinal under circumstances of horrible mockery and atrocity.
The character of Beaton has already been indicated. As a statesman he was able, resolute, and in his general policy patriotic. As an ecclesiastic he maintained the privileges of the hierarchy and the dominant system of belief conscientiously, but always with harshness and sometimes with cruelty. His immoralities, like his acts of persecution, were exaggerated by his opponents; but his private life was undoubtedly a scandal to religion, and has only the excuse that it was not worse than that of most of his order at the time. The authorship of the writings ascribed to him in several biographical notices rests on no better authority than the apocryphal statements of Thomas Dempster.
See John Knox, History of the Reformation in Scotland, ed. D. Laing (1846-1864); John Spottiswoode, archbishop of St Andrews, History of the Church of Scotland (Spottiswoode Society, 1847-1851); Article in Dictionary of National Biography and works there quoted; and A. Lang, History of Scotland, vols. i. and ii. (1900-1902).
Being the entry for BEATON OR BETHUNE, DAVID in the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica, the text of which lies within the public domain.