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James Beaton

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(Or Bethune)

A Scottish Archbishop; b. c. 1473; d. at St. Andrews, 1539, was the sixth and youngest son of John Beaton of Balfour, in Fife. He graduated as Master of Arts at St. Andrews University in 1493, four years later was Precentor of Dornoch Cathedral (Diocese of Caithness), and in 1503 Provost of the Collegiate Church of Bothwell. Next year he became Prior of Whithorn and Abbot of Dunfermline, and in 1505 was made Treasurer of the Kingdom. In 1508 he as elected to the See of Galloway, in succession to George Vaus, but before his consecration he was chosen to succeed Robert Blackader (who had died, whilst on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, in July, 1508) as Archbishop of Glasgow, and was consecrated at Stirling, 15 April, 1509. With the archbishopric he held the commendatory Abbeys of Arbroath and Kilwinning, and in 1515 he became Chancellor of Scotland. King James V, whose father had fallen at Flodden in 1513, was at this time a child of three, and Beaton, as one of the Council of Regency, without whose consent the queen-mother could not act, was one of the most important personages in the realm during the minority of the young king. The country was at this time distracted by the feuds between two of the regents, Angus and Arran, and Beaton, who was connected with the latter (for Arran had married as his third wife a daughter of Sir James Beaton of Creich), naturally espoused his kinsman's side. A well-known story tells how Bishop Gavin Douglas of Dunkeld came to Glasgow to urge the archbishop to allay the strife within the council, and how Beaton, striking his breast as he declared upon his conscience that he was powerless in the matter, caused the coat of mail which he wore under his ecclesiastical habit to rattle. "Alas, my Lord", said his brother bishop at this strange sound, "I fear your conscience clatters!" In 1522 Beaton was translated to St. Andrews, vacant by the death of Archbishop Foreman. As primate he threw all his powerful influence into the scale against the intrigues of Henry VIII to obtain predominance in Scotland; and it was greatly owing to his statesmanship that the old league with France was maintained, and that the young king chose for his bride Magdalen of France instead of Mary of England. Albany's jealousy had deprived Beaton of the chancellorship some years previously, and he was never reappointed, though he enjoyed the full favour of the king. A few months after the second marriage of James (to Mary of Guise) the primate got his nephew, David Cardinal Beaton, appointed his coadjutor with right of succession and he died in the autumn of 1539 in his castle at St. Andrews.

The stormy period in which Beaton's public life was cast, with France and England both intriguing for the alliance of Scotland, and the independence of the kingdom trembling in the balance, has made him, perhaps inevitably, appear to posterity more prominent as a statesman (in which quality there is no room for doubt as to his ability or his patriotism) than as a churchman and a prelate. There is, however, evidence that during both his thirteen years' tenure of the See of Glasgow and the seventeen years during which he held the primacy, he concerned himself closely with both the material and spiritual interests of the two dioceses, and in particular with the advancement of learning. In Glasgow he added and endowed altars in his cathedral, made additions also to the episcopal palace, which he encircled with a wall, and he erected stone bridges in various parts of the diocese. He was, moreover, as sedulous as his predecessors had been in safeguarding the ancient privileges of the archiepiscopal see. On his translation to St. Andrews he proved himself a constant benefactor to the university of that city, and he founded there a new college (St. Mary's) for the study of divinity, civil and canon law, medicine, and other subjects. The new college was confirmed by Pope Paul III in February, 1538, and was extended and completed by Beaton's successor, Archbishop Hamilton, sixteen years later. It still exists as the divinity college of the university. Finally, Beaton showed himself ever zealous for the preservation of the unity of the Faith in Scotland. Under the direct orders of the pope (Clement VII) and unhesitatingly supported by the king, he caused many of those engaged in propagating the new doctrines to be arrested, prosecuted, and in some cases put to death. Modern humanity condemns the cruel manner of their execution; but such severities were the result of the spirit of the age, for which Archbishop Beaton cannot be held responsible. There is no reason to doubt that his motive in sanctioning the capital punishment of notorious heretics were simply to avert the miseries which religious schism could not but entail on a hitherto united people.


Regist. Episcop. Glasg., II, 547 sqq.; Theiner, Monumenta, 553, 594, 597; Acts Parl. Scotl., II; Keith, Hist. Cat. Of Scott. Bishops (1755); Walcott, Ancient Church of Scotland, 190, 191; Teulet, Papiers d'etat, III.

About this page

APA citation. Hunter-Blair, O. (1907). James Beaton. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Hunter-Blair, Oswald. "James Beaton." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 2. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Susan Birkenseer.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. 1907. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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