Biographical highlights for Elizabeth Melville, Lady Culross (c.1578–c.1640)

Culross Abbey Kirk

These biographical highlights are from Wikipedia:
  • In 1603 Elizabeth became the earliest known Scottish woman writer to see her work in print, when the Edinburgh publisher Robert Charteris issued the first edition of Ane Godlie Dreame, a Calvinist dream-vision poem.
  • She was a personal friend of leading figures in the presbyterian opposition, whose frustration eventually erupted in 1637 in the Edinburgh Prayerbook Riots, leading to the National Covenant of February 1638, the Glasgow General Assembly which abolished the episcopate, and the outbreak of the Wars of the Three Kingdoms.[2]
  • Melville's father was the courtier and diplomat Sir James Melville of Halhill (1535–1617), one of the many children of the Fife landowner Sir John Melville of Raith, an early convert to protestantism who was executed for treasonable communication with the English invaders in 1548.
  • Elizabeth's marriage contract has not survived, but it is clear from the signatures to a legal document of February 1597 that by that date, she was already married to John Colville.
  • Elizabeth's surviving letters, held in Edinburgh University Library, prove that she and John Colville had at least seven children: Alexander, James, Robert, John, Samuel, and at least two daughters: one unnamed, who died before 1625, and Christian.
  • In 1599, the poet-pastor Alexander Hume dedicated his Hymnes, or Sacred Songs to ‘Lady Cumrie’, and in his prefatory address to her, he described her as ‘a Ladie, a tender youth, sad, solitare and sanctified’, adding ‘I knaw ye delyte in poesie yourselfe; and as I unconfeinedly confes, excelles any of your sex in that art, that ever I hard within this nation. I have seene your compositiones so copious, so pregnant, so spirituall, that I doubt not bot it is the gift of God in you’.
Flagstone commemorating Elizabeth Melville, Lady Culross

 The inscription is taken from the 1606 edition of Melville's poem, Ane Godlie Dreame, which was first published in Edinburgh in 1603:

 "Though tyrants threat, though Lyons rage and rore
Defy them all, and feare not to win out"
[Elizabeth] Melville's Legacy:

 John Livingstone’s notes on the "Memorable Characteristics" of his contemporaries contain several references to Elizabeth Melville, which testify to the extent of her influence on her co-religionists. These individuals included the versifying Presbyterian minister of Irvine on the Ayrshire coast, David Dickson, whom she singled out to lead the prayers of a despondent company of dissident ministers and other Presbyterians on 4 August 1621 after the Scottish Parliament had ratified the Episcopalian Five Articles of Perth.[41]

Dickson’s much-reprinted long poem, True Christian Love, to be sung with the common tunes of the psalms, first published in 1634, is reminiscent of Melville’s work. Dickson also wrote an acrostic poem (on his own name, in three ababacc stanzas), reminiscent of Melville’s acrostic spiritual sonnets.[42] She is known to have been in correspondence with Dickson.[43]

It has been suggested that Melville’s poetry also influenced another apparently Presbyterian poet from Ayrshire, Francis Hamilton of Silvertonhill.[44] It is probable that Ane Godlie Dreame was known to the militantly Presbyterian Sir William Mure of Rowallan, also from Ayrshire. In particular, his sonnet-sequence The Joy of Teares (published in 1635) contains many lines and images strongly reminiscent of Melville’s poetry deploring the persecution of the faithful.[45] But Melville’s legacy is much more extensive, insofar as the very long shelf-life of Ane Godlie Dreame must have influenced the spirituality of several generations of pious Scottish Presbyterians.[46]

With the unveiling of the commemorative flagstone in Makars' Court, and the considerable publicity which surrounded that event, she has become a flagship for the revaluation of the writings of Scottish women of earlier centuries: the other six women commemorated there all published after 1900.


Minor editing by Angela Wittman


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