Archbishop John Douglas




John Douglas (c. 1494 - 1574) was the first Protestant Archbishop of St. Andrews from 1572 to 1574. As was tradition from the fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries, the Archbishop would take on the role of Chancellor of the University of St Andrews, as the University had strong links with the Pre-Reformation church.  He was one of the "Six Johns" who wrote the Scots Confession of 1560.


 He was born in Longnewton, Roxburghshire, the son of Robert Douglas (1). His cousin Hugh Douglas was the son of William Douglas of Bon-Jedburgh (2), but nothing else is known of John Douglas before he matriculated in St Leonard's College, St Andrews, in 1515, with other future reformers, John Winram and Alexander Alesius (Allane or Alan). Douglas graduated MA in 1517, when he would have been in his mid- to late teens.

Tracing his subsequent university career depends partly on identifying one and the same John Douglas in dispersed records, and, since false identifications vitiated earlier accounts, caution is suggested. Douglas probably moved to Glasgow in 1518, his incorporation coinciding with that of John Mair (Major) on his return from Paris. He would then have followed Mair to St Andrews in 1523, where Douglas matriculated in the pedagogy on 25 June. He may even have followed Mair back to Paris in 1525, where for more than ten years, from 1526 until at least 1537, a John Douglas of the diocese of Dunkeld, already bachelor and master of arts, is recorded in several roles in the university. He was preceptor in the colleges of Presles (1528, 1531) and Montaigu (1533), elected procurator of the German nation in 1531 and dean in 1532, and paid fees to become bachelor of medicine from 1532 to 1536. Douglas later owned medical books published in Paris between 1528 and 1531. George Buchanan was in Paris during this period, and Douglas's interests were advanced by Robert Wauchope, later archbishop of Armagh. In 1537 Archbishop James Beaton of St Andrews granted Douglas financial support. Another of Douglas's presumed Paris associates was Archibald Hay, proponent of a trilingual college in St Andrews. In Hay's Oratio pro collegii erectione, published in Paris in 1538, the author commended Douglas to Beaton as eminently qualified to implement this plan. The outcome was the new college (St Mary's) established by Beaton in 1539. Hay was provost in 1546–7 and succeeded by Douglas, who was presented by the crown on 27 September 1547 and collated on 1 October; Douglas retained the office until his death. From 28 February 1551 he was also rector of the university, re-elected twenty-three times by the end of his life.

Coat of arms of Archbishop Hamilton
and John Douglas of St Mary's College,
St Andrews

Douglas's humanist formation matched the vision of John Hamilton, archbishop of St Andrews from 1547 to 1571, and he carried through Hamilton's ‘new foundation’ of St Mary's in 1555. During the 1550s Douglas's provostship espoused a humanist's reforming Catholicism. Particular stress was placed on the study of the Bible, and to advance the college's work scholars were recruited from far and wide, including at least one exiled professor from England. Among Douglas's deputies in St Mary's was Richard Marshall, the main author of ‘Hamilton's catechism’. According to Lindsay of Pitscottie (but no other source), Douglas was among those, including Winram, who condemned Walter Milne to death for heresy in 1558—the last protestant martyr in Scotland. In mid-1559, however, Douglas probably supported the formation of a reformed congregation in St Andrews parish church, and by 1560 he was sufficiently identified with the Reformation to be appointed to the six-man (and six-John) commission that compiled the Scots confession and the First Book of Discipline in that year. Along with Winram, Douglas is generally credited with the book's precise recommendations on the universities. He seems to have proceeded to the degree of doctor under St Andrews' post-Reformation statutes, and with others from St Mary's he was approved by the general assembly in December 1560 as qualified for the ministry. (Winram and twenty others from St Andrews had been approved at the March assembly.) That same year Douglas and Winram received recantations from former priests. On 1 October 1561 Douglas was elected an elder on St Andrews kirk session, and he was re-elected every year thereafter, even after becoming archbishop.

Douglas presided over St Mary's and the university during a quarter-century of upheaval and reconstruction. He taught many of the new leaders of the Scottish kirk—for instance, James Lawson, Knox's successor in St Giles's, Edinburgh; and the young orphan Andrew Melville, who was treated with almost paternal solicitude by Provost Douglas. Yet no writing by him has survived or is attested apart from a Latin letter which, as first signatory among forty Reformation luminaries, he sent on 4 September 1566 to Beza in Geneva in response to a request for Scottish subscription to the second Helvetic confession. The letter reported thorough scrutiny by the superintendents and others in St Andrews and their enthusiastic approval, except for the chapter on the festivals of the church calendar. The general assembly ratified this position on 27 December 1566.

Douglas was frequently at the assembly after 1560. In 1564 he concurred with Winram that, if the queen opposed the new religion, she could justly be resisted. He regarded her private mass as idolatry, but was unsure whether it should be forcibly suppressed. His reformism, like Winram's, retained a conservative streak. When, after Archbishop John Hamilton's execution on 6 April 1571, Douglas was nominated the first protestant archbishop of St Andrews, on 6 August following, by his kinsman and namesake Regent Morton, the assembly protested and Winram as superintendent of Fife inhibited him from assuming office. Only the concordat reached at the convention of Leith on 16 January 1572 enabled the appointment to proceed, with both election by ministers (on 6 February) and royal presentation (on 9 February). Douglas's inauguration on the 10th by Winram, using the service for superintendents, may have been condoned by Knox at a distance; but his retention of his university offices and his physical incapacity provoked complaints of dereliction from the assemblies of 1573–4.

Douglas died in St Andrews on 31 July 1574, according to an early tradition while in the pulpit for once, and left goods and chattels valued at nearly £4000 Scots. He was buried in the public cemetery, without a monument. He was not immediately replaced in the discredited role of ‘tulchan’ (titular) bishop. It had earned him in his last years aspersions of ambition and accommodation which his earlier career, intelligent and purposeful if not distinguished, did not warrant.

He was a kinsman and protégé of James Douglas, fourth Earl of Morton, and was tutor to the 5th Earl of Morton


1. On the 2nd of January 1563-64, letters of legitimation were granted in favour of Mr John Douglas, Rector of the University of St Andrews, bastard son natural of quondam Robert Douglas in Langnewtoune (Register of Privy Seal, xxxii. 23).
2. Bon-Jedburgh - Bonjedward.  

This page was last updated on 25 June 2022

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