3: Drama, Politics and Religion

Sir David Lyndsay

Sir David Lyndsay

We can be absolutely sure about little regarding the lives of many of the earlier Scottish writers – much biographical detail has been lost. The early life of Sir David Lyndsay (c. 1486-1555) falls into this category. He was the son of a small landowner from the east of Scotland who made his way to the Scottish court. A ‘David Lyndsay’ is mentioned as being a groom at the court of James IV in 1508-9; if this is the same man who later became a poet and playwright, then we can imagine him listening to public performances of poetry by William Dunbar, and taking part in court entertainments. Certainly, Lyndsay’s own verse indicates his familiarity with Dunbar’s poetry. And around 1511, there is a record of a blue-and-yellow coat being ordered for the use of ‘Dauid Lindesay’ in the production of a play, which is possibly the first record we have of Lyndsay’s active involvement in the cultural life of the Scottish court. He would have been around 25 years of age.

Two years later, however, disaster struck: James IV was killed at the Battle of Flodden, fighting the army of his father-in-law, Henry VIII of England. The monarchy passed to his infant son, James V, and the kingdom was governed by regents for the following decade. David Lyndsay was appointed the two year-old king’s companion and guardian, and he remained in that role until the king was twelve and declared fit to rule (under the supervision of the Earl of Angus).

At this point Lyndsay seems to have lost his place as the king’s companion, and he only returned to a close relationship with James V when the king took control of the country himself, at the age of 16, in 1528. Shortly afterwards, he made Lyndsay a herald, that is, a public servant who was responsible for organising court events and who might have other administrative duties, such as participation in diplomatic missions. By this time, Lyndsay had started writing poetry, and once he had become a herald, his poems assumed a political complexion, sometimes tinged with comic satire: The Testament of the Papyngo (1530), for example, is a tragi-comic poem about the last words of the king’s parrot, that serves as a warning to the king about the consequences of not listening to good advice. This theme will re-emerge in Lyndsay’s great play.

Lyndsay seems to have enjoyed a close but frank relationship with James V, even engaging in a poetic flyting with him – a duel in verse in which Lyndsay takes the opportunity to advise the young king to put his days of sexual promiscuity behind him. The theme of a king having to make a choice between sensuality and good governance also reappears in A Satire of the Three Estates.

Lyndsay was closely involved in the diplomatic arrangements associated with James V’s two marriages, the first to a French noblewoman, who died young, and who was succeeded in 1537 by her countrywoman, Mary of Guise, daughter of a devoutly Catholic family.

James V of Scotland and Mary of Guise

James V of Scotland and Mary of Guise

For the Twelfth Night celebrations of 1540, at Linlithgow Palace before the king and queen, Lyndsay organised a dramatic entertainment – an ‘interlude’ as these court dramas were called – in which a poor man, supported by the secular authorities of the lords and merchants (that is, two of the governing ‘three estates’) complained against the corruption of the third estate, namely, the Catholic Church. Six years earlier, Henry VIII had assumed control of the new-born Church of England and so initiated the English Reformation. His chancellor, Cromwell, was keenly interested in the opinions of the Catholic monarchy to the north, and so he had a spy in the audience of Lyndsay’s performance – the spy’s surviving letter to Cromwell is our only direct evidence of what was apparently an early version of A Satire of the Three Estates, though in 2013 an ambitious project called ‘Staging the Scottish Court’ attempted to reconstruct and perform this ‘lost’ version, based on excerpts from the later, fuller play.

Two years after the interlude was performed, however, James V, like his father, had died in battle against the English army. It was Lyndsay’s duty to organise his funeral commemorations. After this ceremony, Lyndsay, now in his sixties, took a less central role in diplomatic affairs, though he had now risen to be the most important herald in the land, the Lord Lyon King of Arms. He continued to be involved in some public affairs but seems to have spent more time in his native town of Cupar, in Fife. He continued to write poetry, and in Cupar in 1552, twelve years after the reported performance of the lost interlude, the first full version of A Satire of the Three Estates was performed. It is the oldest surviving example of a complete play in Scots.

Wantonness (Ewan Donald), Sensualitie (Ruth Milne), King Humanitie (James Mackenzie) and Solace (Callum Robertson) in 'A Satire of the Three Estates' (Reproduced with permission of Enthuse TV: Picture Drew Farrell )

Wantonness (Ewan Donald), Sensualitie (Ruth Milne), King Humanitie (James Mackenzie) and Solace (Callum Robertson) in ‘A Satire of the Three Estates’ (Reproduced with permission of Enthuse TV: Picture Drew Farrell )

The 1552 performance of the Satire took place on the 7th June, in the open air, starting early (around 7 am) on a long summer’s day. In August, two years later, a second performance was given in Edinburgh, before the Queen Regent, James V’s widow, Mary of Guise. The cast of the interlude and the two full performances in the 16th century would probably have been a mixture of Lyndsay’s fellow courtiers, some talented performers drawn from the social classes they represent, and some paid ‘players’ or actors. The full performances would have lasted between five and nine hours.

The length of the play and the conditions of its performance to some degree influence its loose structure and account for the stock nature of the main characters. The play falls into two separate parts. The first is a standard mediaeval morality play, in which a representative of innocent humankind is tempted, succumbs to temptation, and then is saved by divine intervention. This kind of religious allegory had been popular throughout Europe, but in Lyndsay’s case it is not ‘everyman’ who falls prey to temptation, but young ‘King Humanitie’. His temptation by ‘Dame Sensualitie’ and her fellow maidservants, allows ‘Flatterie’ and other vices to enter Scotland and cause chaos in the kingdom.

The first part of the play combines an allegorical drama between Good and Evil, with a possible, fairly gentle satire on court life. ‘King Humanitie’ takes the allegorical role of representing all humankind but it has been suggested that the character is also based, albeit loosely, on the young James V. The minor vices who populate the court and who follow Dame Sensualitie, are also recognisable as stereotypical, foppish courtiers. As the vices lead the king astray, the virtues ‘Gude Counsel’, ‘Chastitie’, and ´Veritie’ are banished or imprisoned, until the arrival of God’s messenger, ‘Divine Correctioun’ who triggers a ‘reformatioun’.

John the Common-weill (Keith Fleming) in 'A Satire of the Three Estates' (Reproduced with permission of Enthuse TV: Picture Drew Farrell)

John the Common-weill (Keith Fleming) in ‘A Satire of the Three Estates’ (Reproduced with permission of Enthuse TV: Picture Drew Farrell)

In the second half of the play, the promised reformation is enacted: the three estates of the Scottish parliament (lords, merchants and churchmen) are summoned under the reformed King Humanity. ‘John the Common-weill’ gate-crashes the assembly to speak up for the ordinary people, condemning, in particular, church corruption. The parliament eventually agree a specific series of reforms, Dame Sensualitie is banished (to France), and the vices (or most of them) are caught and publicly hanged. Only the indestructible Flatterie escapes, perhaps returning in the guise of Folly to close proceedings with a mock sermon that reminds the audience that no institution is able to stay virtuous for long; at the end of the day, the world is governed by fools.

Within this structure of morality play plus parliamentary spectacle, the play is organised into fluid episodes that swing back and forth from ribald farce to grand performances of religious and legal ritual. In the latter style, the herald Diligence (who might have been performed by David Lyndsay himself) orders the Three Estates to assemble (lines 46-53):

And heir be oppin proclamatioun

I warne in name of his magnificence

The Thrie Estaitis of this natioun

That they compeir with detfull diligence

And till his Grace mak their obedience;

And first I wairne the Spiritualitie,

And sie the burgesses spair not for expence,

Bot speid thame heir with Temporalitie.

The italicised terms are all words from the Romance languages (Latin, often via French) and though they have a technical, learned quality, their density here gives the dramatic verse a slightly aureate tone. Lindsay’s ability to switch from high to a lower style is evident in the vice, Dissait’s response to a later proclamation, promising religious reforms (lines 1515-20). He warns his two fellow vices:

Brother, heir ye yon proclamatioun?

I dreid full sair of reformatioun;

Yon message maks me mangit.

Quhat is your counsel, to me tell?

Remaine wee heir, be God Him-sell,

Wee will be all three hangit;

Here the formal Romance terms are undercut by a vividly colloquial phrase (maks me mangit ‘drives me mad’) and by the expletive, (be God Him-sell). But it is the aural movement from Diligence’s stately iambic pentameter to the faster, tetrameter-plus-trimeter of Dissait’s tail-rhymed verse that marks a shift from a higher to a lower register.

For another illustration of Lyndsay’s ability to match dramatic verse to characterisation, consider the way Gude Counsel’s speech is followed by the dramatic first entrance of the principal vice, Flatterie (lines 554-650):


Immortall God, maist of magnificence,

Quhais Maiestie na Clark can comprehend,

Must saue jow all that giuis sic audience,

And grant jow grace him never till offend,

Quhilk on the Croce did willinglie ascend,

And sched his pretious blude on everie side ;

Quhais pitious passioun from danger jow defend,

And be jour gratious governour and gyde !

Now, my gude freinds, considder, I jow beseik,

The caus maist principall of my cumming :

Princis or Potestatis ar nocht worth ane leik,

Be thay not gydit be my gude gouerning.

Thair was never Empriour, Conquerour, nor King,

Without my wisdome that micht thair wil avance.

My name is Gude Counsall, without fenyeing ;

Lords, for lack of my lair, ar brocht to mischance.

Finallie, for conclusioun,

Quha halds me at delusioun

Sall be brocht to confusioun :

And this I vnderstand ;

For I haue maid my residence

With hie Princes of greit puissance,

In Ingland, Italie, and France,

And monie vther Land.

Bot out of Scotland — wa ! alace ! —

I haif bene fleimit lang tyme space :

That garris our gyders all want grace,

And die befoir thair day.

Becaus thay lychtlyit Gude Counsall,

Fortune turnit on thame hir saill,

Quhilk brocht this Realme to meikill baill.

Quha can the contrair say

My Lords, I came nocht heir to lie.

Wa is me ; for King Humanitie

Overset with Sensualitie,

In th’ entrie of his ring,

Throw vicious counsell insolent.

Sa thay may get riches or rent,

To his weilfair thay tak na tent,

Nor quhat sal be th’ ending.

Jit in this Realme I wald mak sum repair,

Gif I beleifit my name suld nocht forfair ;

For, wald this King be gydit jit with resioun,

And on misdoars mak punitioun,

Howbeit I haif lang tyme bene exyllit,

I traist in God my name suld jit be styilit:

Sa, till I se God send mair of his grace,

I purpois till repois me in this place.


Entrance of Flatterie (Billy Riddoch) in 'A Satire of the Three Estates' (Reproduced with permission of Enthuse TV: Picture Drew Farrell)

Entrance of Flatterie (Billy Riddoch) in ‘A Satire of the Three Estates’ (Reproduced with permission of Enthuse TV: Picture Drew Farrell)

Mak roume, sirs, hoaw ! that I may rin !

Lo, se quhair I am new cum [in],

Begaryit all with sindrie hewis !

Let be jour din, till I begin,

And I sall schaw jow of my newis.

Throuchout all Christindome I haue past,

And am cum heir now, at the last,

Tostit on sea ay sen Juill day,

That wee war faine to hew our Mast,

Nocht half ane myle bejond the May.

Bot now amang jow I will remaine :

I purpois never to sail againe,

To put my lyfe in chance of watter.

Was never sene sic wind and raine,

Nor of Schipmen sic clitter clatter.

Sum bade haill ! and sum bade standby !

On steirbuid ! hoaw ! aluiff ! fy ! fy !

Quhill all the raipis beguith to rattil

Was never Roy sa fleyd as I,

Quhen all the sails playd brittill brattill.

To se the waws, it was ane wonder,

And wind, that raif the sails in sunder.

Bot I lay braikand like ane Brok,

And shot sa fast, aboue and vnder,

The Deuill durst not cum neir my dok.

Now am I scapit fra that effray :

Quhat say je, sirs? am I nocht gay ?

Se je not Flatterie, jour awin fuill,

That jeid to mak this new array

Was I not heir with jow at 3uill?

3es, be my faith, I think on weill.

Quhair ar my fallows that wald nocht fail ?

We suld haue cum heir for ane cast.


The structure of this episode is as follows:

  • Gude Counsel begins with a blessing, invoking God’s mercy on the audience, whom he addresses as ‘gude friends’.
  • He informs his audience that his mission is to provide wise advice to kings and emperors.
  • He contrasts his hospitable welcome in England and France with his banishment in Scotland, where he has been replaced by ‘vicious counsell’.
  • He expresses hope that King Humanitie will change his ways and that his honour will be restored. He goes to take a rest.
  • Flatterie erupts onstage, crying out for people to ‘mak roume’. He shows off his multi-coloured costume and promises gossip if the audience keeps quiet.
  • He tells the audience that since his last appearance in Scotland, at Christmas, he has been on board a ship, now wrecked off the Isle of May.
  • He describes how fear made him break wind and empty his bowels, and the smell was so bad even the Devil would not approach him.
  • He has now escaped that peril, and he asks the audience to welcome him.
  • He also calls for his fellow vices, Falset (Falsehood) and Dissait (Deceit). Falset arrives first, telling Flatterie that Dissait has been out drinking but will arrive ‘incontinent’ (which is a pun on its double meaning of ‘immediately’ and ‘drunk’).

It is worth looking at this episode in a live or filmed performance (eg on the Staging the Scottish Court website). Pay attention to the following aspects of the staging:

  • How are the characters dressed? Flatterie makes reference to the ‘motley’ colours of his dress, the conventional costume of fools.
  • Listen to the rhythms of the verse: Gude Counsel recites his speech mainly in stately, five-beat iambic pentameter, rhyming abab, though there is some elegant variation in metre. Flatterie shifts to faster, four-beat iambic tetrameter lines, rhyming aabccb. The rhyme scheme allows for punchlines or asides on the b-rhymes. Are the laughs on the b-rhymes in the performance you are watching? (If not, what prompts the laughter?)
  • How does Flatterie enter? Does he come through the audience (thus signifying that he is ‘one of them’)?
  • How does Flatterie interact with the audience? Compare his interaction with that of Divine Counsel. Which character is able to ‘work’ the audience better – and how?

    'The Ship of Fools' by Albrecht Dürer

    ‘The Ship of Fools’ by Albrecht Dürer

  • How does the actor handle the cultural allusions in the play? The reference to his last visit at Christmas probably alludes to the fact that vice was associated with the popular celebrations that took place during religious celebrations, no matter how much the church disapproved of them. The reference to the shipwreck might allude to the narrative of ‘The Ship of Fools’ that was popular throughout Europe during the time the play was composed and performed.

Another key scene that repays study is John the Common Weill’s complaint in the second half of the play (lines 2520-2851): here, the advocate of the common man effectively stands trial, defending his class by himself attacking the corrupt privileges of the church.

A manuscript version and several printed versions of the full text of Lyndsay’s play survive from the later 16th and early 17th century, but the play itself was largely neglected after the Union of the Crowns. However, the performance of an updated and much-edited version at the Edinburgh Festival of 1948, adapted by Robert Kemp and directed by Tyrone Guthrie, heralded a strong after-life for the play – and (in various forms) it is often revived. In 2013, as noted above, there was a project to reconstruct the ‘lost’ interlude and perform the play in its full form – 16th century parliamentary spectacle and all – in the open air in Edinburgh. The website can be browsed at http://www.stagingthescottishcourt.org – there is a wealth of resources and interactive learning features on this site.

The play is important to the tradition of Scottish literature for a number of reasons. It stands at the head of the tradition of drama in Scots – a tradition that was dampened down by the very Reformation that the play foretells (Scotland’s Reformation took place in 1560, five years after Lyndsay’s death). Latterly, the tradition of public performance in Scots and English has been rich and lively – the successful 20th century revival of Lyndsay’s play indeed contributed much to that tradition. The nature of Lyndsay’s play is also important – it is a deeply political play that (while written by a courtier who was close to the king) speaks out strongly in favour of the common man, and bitterly criticises the corruption of the church. It is, perhaps understandably, less bitter about the corruption of the nobility, who in the play are quick to accept the need for social and political reform.

The play also is important because it draws on the mediaeval morality tradition but reshapes it and extends it to suit the social and political culture of the renaissance Scottish court. It is a play that advocates religious reform at the very time when the European-wide revolution known as the ‘Reformation’ was tearing Scotland apart. Lyndsay was probably not a Reformer with a capital ‘R’ – he was a career diplomat who served a devout king and an even more devoutly Catholic queen. He was politically conservative and no doubt believed that the Catholic Church in Scotland could be reformed if the two other estates, the merchants and the nobility, joined forces to encourage change. He was also of the opinion, however, that all worldly institutions were inherently corrupt, and that a never-ending cycle of reformations would be necessary.

The play, then, is the first dramatic masterpiece produced in Scotland and it marks the end of the mediaeval period and the start of a new set of sensibilities. The next chapter moves us forward towards the end of the century, to the court of James V’s grandson, James VI, the son of Mary, Queen of Scots. Now, Scotland has a king who was raised as a Protestant, a young man well versed in contemporary European literature, a patron who was himself a poet and author, ready to take an active role in leading a Scottish courtly revival of letters.

Further reading and links

Corbett, J (2009) Sir David Lyndsay’s A Satire of the Three Estates (Glasgow: Association for Scottish Literary Studies)

Walker, G. (2013). Reflections on Staging Sir David Lyndsay’s Satire of the Three Estates at Linlithgow Palace, June 2013. Scottish Literary Review, 5(2), 1-22.

Articles, resources and an film of the full version of the play are available at

‘Staging and Representing the Scottish Renaissance Court’ (2013) http://www.stagingthescottishcourt.org

We are grateful to Professor Greg Walker of Edinburgh University and to Enthuse TV for permission to reproduce images from the 2013 productions of ‘A Satire of the Three Estates’.

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