The Scottish religious poet Elizabeth Melville, Lady Culross was born in or after 1575 at Halhill Tower near Collessie, Fife, Scotland. She was the daughter of Christian Boswell of Balmutto, Fife, and Sir James Melville of Halhill (1535/6-1617). Sir James was a younger son of the protestant courtier Sir John Melville of Raith, who was executed by the Catholic government in 1546; like several of his brothers, James would enjoy a long and distinguished career in the service of successive Scottish governments.1 He left Scotland in 1550, serving the young Mary, Queen of Scots for many years. After her fall, he went on to serve all four regents during the minority of James VI, and then James himself, as a privy councillor and in an ambassadorial capacity.2
James Melville's Memoirs of his Own Life, written for his son in the early seventeenth century, is an important document in sixteenth-century British state history, but it provides no insight into his domestic life or the raising of his daughter.3 In a prefatory epistle to his eldest son, he mentions having written two earlier 'treatises' for the benefit of his two sons and their sisters, but these are presumed lost.4 It seems likely that Elizabeth's education, presumably received at home, was influenced by her father's own extensive education in France, and the family's strong protestant allegiances. The strength of these allegiances is suggested by James Melville's adoption as the sole heir of Henri Balnaves, who had been a fellow-prisoner with John Knox in France in 1546-1547. Sir James Melville inherited the property at Halhill from Balnaves.5
Elizabeth married John, eldest son of Alexander Colville, Commendator (lay-administrator) of Culross Abbey, at some point before 5 February 1597.6 It is clear that she was by this time already an active devotional poet: she is celebrated as such in the dedication to her of Alexander Hume, minister of Logie's Hymnes, and Sacred Songs, wherein the right vse of Poësie may be espied (1599). Hume describes her as 'a Ladie chosen of God to bee one of his saincts', and he elaborates:
It is a rare thing to see a Ladie, a tender youth, sad, solitare, and sanctified, oft sighing & weeping through the conscience of sinne . . . I know ye delite in poesie your selfe; and as I vnfainedly confes, excelles any of your sexe in that art, that euer I hard within this nation. I haue seene your compositiones so copious, so pregnant, so spirituall, that I doubt not but it is the gift of God in you.7
Hume's evocation of Melville's copious (that is, rich in matter, and / or abundant) spiritual compositions must be based on religious verses circulating in manuscript. His dedication comes four years before the publication of Melville's 480-line dream-vision poem, Ane Godlie Dreame (1603).
Melville's Dreame was published in 1603 'at the requeist of her freindes', according to its title page, and it was very popular through the seventeenth century (see Textual History). Its references to the persecution of the saints at the hands of tyrants indicate Melville’s allegiances with the presbyterian faction of the Scottish kirk, as do a number of her extant manuscript lyrics, likely to date from the first decade of the seventeenth century. Presbyterian spiritual expression and worship were politically freighted in these years, as radical presbyterians resisted the episcopalian form of church governance that was being steadily reintroduced to Scotland by James VI.8 Tensions between James VI and the presbyterian faction of the Scottish kirk escalated from the mid-1590s, resulting in a presbyterian coup headed by the Edinburgh minister Robert Bruce in December 1596.9 The coup failed, and the king imposed a hierarchy of royally-appointed 'commissioners', whose role evolved until they became a fullblown bench of bishops.
The leading spokesmen of the presbyterian opposition included Andrew Melville (1545-1622), the theologian and principal of St Mary's College at St Andrews University, and his nephew, the pastor-poet James Melville (1552-1614), with the Melvilles engaging in a series of disputes and confrontations with the king.10 The conflict came to a head in the aftermath of the 'illegal' and abortive Aberdeen General Assembly in July 1605, when King James imprisoned ministers who had gathered and some of their leading supporters, one of whom was John Welsh, minister of Ayr.11 After Andrew Melville refused to accept royal supremacy over ecclesiastical matters at the Second Hampton Court Conference in 1606, he was imprisoned in the Tower of London. His nephew James Melville was banished to Newcastle, and later Berwick-upon-Tweed, where he died in 1614.
Elizabeth Melville's manuscript lyrics reveal her close contact with these leading presbyterian divines. The collection of poems in the Bruce manuscript follow transcriptions of sermons by Robert Bruce, who was one of the most famed and loved presbyterian preachers of his generation, and who was eventually banished from Edinburgh in 1600. Melville wrote a sonnet to John Welsh, minister of Ayr (and the son-in-law of John Knox), offering spiritual consolation on his imprisonment at Blackness Castle in 1605-1606, and she wrote two comparable sonnets to Andrew Melville that must date from his imprisonment in the Tower of London between 1607 and 1611. It seems certain that she knew the religious writings, including poetry, of Andrew's nephew James, and there is likely to have been some mutual influence on each other: each composed religious sonnet sequences in the late 1590s, at a time when the English religious sonnet sequence was in a state of infancy, and their religious dream-vision poems can fruitfully be read alongside each other.12 Like all Scottish poets after 1584, James Melville's poetic practice owed much to that of James VI himself, as he set out in the Essayes of a Prentise, in the diuine art of poesie, but poetic affinities were overshadowed by religio-political differences from the late 1590s onwards.13
Elizabeth Melville's reputation as 'a Ladie chosen of God to bee one of his saincts', in Hume's words, is not only attributable to her poetic compositions. She was a well-known and formidable figure in the presbyterian community until the end of her life, through decades in which anti-episcopalian preachers found themselves variously imprisoned, exiled, or dispersed, harboured in the houses of the sympathetic elite. She was a friend and correspondent of John Livingstone (1603-1672), a peripatetic preacher who was supported by aristocratic presbyterians in the communities of Cumbernauld, Larnark, Culross, the Shotts, and 'sundry other places' in the years 1626-1630.14 Nine extant letters from her to Livingstone, written between June 1629 and June 1631, provide insight into their close friendship and deep spiritual sympathy, as well revealing Melville's industry and willingness to travel extensively in the active profession of her faith. She makes arrangements in these letters to attend prayer meetings involving Livingstone in Airth and Kinnaird, and she repeatedly exhorts him to visit her at her home, the estate of Comrie Wester near Culross.15
John Livingstone, in turn, provides substantial insight into Melville's own status as a notable professor of the presbyterian faith. In his Life, written in Rotterdam in the 1660s, he cites Melville as an authority on other leading presbyterians: she is the source of anecdotes that describe the piety and practices of John McBirnie, minister at Aberdeen, and David Dickson, minister at Irvine. Livingstone lists her amongst 'the godly and able ministers and professors of Scotland' whose acquaintance he made in his years in and around Cumbernauld, and of the women he names, she receives the most detailed treatment. Of particular note was her 'great motion' at a famous communion in the Shotts in June 1630:
Of all that I ever saw, she was most unwearied in religious exercises; and the more she attained accesse to God therein, she hungered the more. At the communion in the Shotts, in June 1630, when the night after the Sabbath was spent in prayer by a good many Christians, in a large room where her bed was, and in the morning all going apart for their privat devotion, she went into the bed, and drew the curtains, that she might set herself to prayer. William Ridge of Adderny coming into the room, and hearing her have great motion upon her, although she spake not out, he desired her to speak out, saying, that there was none in the room but him and her woman, as at that time there was no other. She did soe, and the door being opened, the room filled full. She continued in prayer, with wonderfull assistance for large three hours' time.16
Throughout her later years in Culross, Elizabeth Melville retained a wide network of presbyterian friends and colleagues. One of her letters to Livingstone indicates that she was in contact with the now-elderly Robert Bruce, who had returned from exile after the death of James VI and I, and was living at his family estate at Kinnaird at the end of his life. Letters addressed to her in 1636 and 1637 by the leading presbyterian divine Samuel Rutherford, who had been banished in July 1636 from his parish of Anwoth in Galloway to the strongly episcopalian and conformist Aberdeen, state that he gained spiritual refreshment from her correspondence. He enjoins her to pray both for him and for 'This poor persecuted Kirk-this lily amongst the thorns'17
Melville had at least seven children, whose birthdates are not known with any certainty. Her eldest son, Dr Alexander Colville (c. 1595-1666), had a successful academic career teaching philosophy and theology at the universities in Sedan and St Andrews. Her youngest son, Samuel, was the author of The Scots Hudibras, or, The Whig's Supplication (first known print edition, 1681). We also know that she had sons James (fl. 1625-1641), to whom she wrote two letters that are extant, Robert and John, and at least two daughters, one named Christian. Her two letters to her son James are concerned above all with his spiritual wellbeing, reminding him to 'stryve against this idoll sins that your natour is most inclynit unto'.18
Elizabeth Melville is thought to have died in Culross in 1640.19 In 2014 she was honoured as Scotland's first published woman writer, with the unveiling of a flagstone in Makars' Court, Edinburgh.
I am very grateful to Jamie Reid Baxter for his generous assistance in compiling Elizabeth Melville's biography, elaborated further in the following:
Jamie Reid Baxter, Poems of Elizabeth Melville, Lady Culross (Edinburgh: Solsequium, 2010), pp. 98-118
Jamie Reid Baxter, 'Elizabeth Melville', in Elizabeth Ewan (ed.), The Biographical Dictionary of Scottish Women (Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2006)
Jamie Reid Baxter and Sarah C. E. Ross. 'Elizabeth Melville', in Garrett A. Sullivan, Jr. and Alan Stewart (eds), The Encyclopedia of English Renaissance Literature (Oxford: Blackwell, 2012)
Jamie Reid Baxter, Elizabeth Melville, Lady Culross: Two Letters to her Son James', in Elizabeth Ewan and Janay Nugent (eds), Children and Youth in Pre-Industrial Scotland (forthcoming with Boydell and Brewer).