Abbot George Durie

Archdeacon of St Andrews, Commendator and last Abbot of Dunfermline

By Dr Bruce Durie

 Abbot George Durie (1496-1577, and definitely not 1560, 1565 etc. as printed in some places) was one of the leading churchmen and and statesmen of his day - Archdeacon of St Andrews, the last Benedictine Abbot and Commendator of Dunfermline, Chancellor of Scotland and Laird of Craigluscar.

He was the son of John Durie of Craigluscar (an estate outside Dunfermline) and nephew of the infamous Archbishop James Beaton (or Bethune), who was Abbot and Commendator of Dunfermline from 1522 until 1530.

1527-1530 George was judge and executor of the monastery of Arbroath and assumed the title of Abbot of Dunfermline under the supervision of his uncle James Beaton, the true titular.When Beaton became Archbishop of Glasgow, the duties of Abbot of Dunfermline were devolved by James V on George, then Archdeacon of St Andrews (a post his brother, Andrew, also held later). Nepotism was the in thing then. George made David Durie of that Ilk a Bailie in Dunfermline.

1527 Abbot George was among the judges of Patrick Hamilton, one of the earliest martyrs of the Protestant faith. He later brought to trial and condemned to death his cousin, John Durie, for heresy. John was rescued by the Earl of Arran (see below).

1539 On the death of Beaton, James V made George Abbot of Dunfermline. George, apart from being a senior churchman, was also an important politician. He was repeatedly chosen as a Lord of the Articles (whose job was to choose which legislation to lay before Parliament) and Extraordinary Lord in Parliament (1541). He sat in Parliament in 1540, 1542, 1543 and 1545. Due to him, Regent Arran did not accept the title of Earl of Hertford, and so he caused the battle of Pinkie (1547). (Incidentally, Sir Robert Douglas of Lochleven died in this battle. He was the husband of Margaret, daughter of Lord Erskine. She had been the mistress of James V (by whom she had Mary Queen of Scots' half-brother, James Stewart, later Regent Moray) and was the mother by Sir Robert of Catherine Douglas, who married David Durie of that Ilk in 1557, and of George Douglas, known as Douglas the Postulate, who murdered Mary Queen of Scots lover, Rizzio, with Darnley's planted dagger and who married a Margaret Durie and - perhaps, secretly - Mary Queen of Scots).

1542 George was appointed one of the council of the Earl of Arran, the guardian of Queen Mary during her nonage.

1543 (30 September) George's two eldest natural children, Henry and Peter, were legitimized by an act passed under the great seal (of which he was by then the Keeper). They acted as guardians to the two younger sons, George and John, who were sent to the Scots College in France and later to Louvain. John became a Jesuit (see below).

1545 (6 July) Cardinal David Beaton wrote to Pope Paul III that his prerogative as cardinal had been usurped by Archbishop Dunbar of Glasgow and named Robert, Bishop of Orkney and George Durie to examine witnesses and report to the Pope.

1546 Cardinal Beaton is murdered at St Andrews and George is active in trying to avenge the murder. After six months of the siege of St Andrews, George suggested those inside should be lured to submit by offering absolution from the Pope and their liberty.

1554 In this year, Mary of Guise took the title Queen Regent. George was one of her main counsellors.

1560 (29 January) George embarked for France with Mary of Guise after the Reformation along with James Beaton. He was to represent her case to King Francis II and Queen Mary. In August the Scottish Parliament voted for the abolition of the catholic church and hierarchy and Sir James Sandilands went to France to get ratification from the Queen. His bad reception was due to George Durie, then at the French court.

1561 Francis II had died in December 1560. George and the Earl of Eglinton went to convince Mary Queen of Scots to return to Scotland and re-establish Catholic rule. Thus, he instigated the war between France and Scotland on one hand and England on the other. He died (or was martyred?) on 27 January 1561, succeeded by Robert Pitcairn. There is a persistent rumour that George Durie was canonised ("Saint George") but this is unfounded, according to the Vatican. It is he case, however, that two years after George's death, Pope Pius beatified him (Dempster and others called him a saint and a martyr!) for "zeal against Reformers", meaning Protestants. For instance:

  • he had voted for the death of two early martyrs, Patrick Hamilton and Walter Mill
  • he brought his cousin, John Durie, a Dunfermline monk, to trial for heresy and had him walled up (although John was rescued by the intercession of the Earl of Arran)
  • subscribed the sentence of death on Sir John Borthwick in 1540 (but he escaped to England)
  • and he was responsible for the death of Sir John Melville, Laird of Raith.

As Abbot, George regularly parcelled out Abbey lands and estates to his relatives, founding the basis for the secular Durie fortunes in later centuries, none of which lasted very long for various reasons.

George is also said to have taken the reliquary of St Margaret, containing her head and some bones, for safe keeping before it made its way to Leyden and eventually Douai.

It is unclear when he died. Some say 1565, some 1572. and that he was interred in the Western Church of Dunfermline. His Testament is dated 1582.

The judgement of history must be that Abbot George Durie was vicious, self-aggrandizing and power-hungry, using his position and clerical offices to benefit himself and his family. It was largely as a reaction to George and his like that the Scottish reformation was so bloody, and his venality led directly to the near-destruction of Dunfermline Abbey by Protestant reformers.

George was succeed as Laird of Craigluscar by his (legitimised) eldest son, Henry Durie. Henry's wife, Margaret McBeth, was renowned for her skill with herbs and was a favourite of Anne of Denmark. She attended the births of the royal children at the Palace of Dunfermline and it is said she saved the life of the infant Charles I when physicians had failed.






AUTHOR: Dr Bruce Durie - Contact:

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