James, John and Robert Wedderburn

James, John and Robert Wedderburn

James (c. 1495 – 1533), John (c. 1505 – 1556) and Robert Wedderburn (c. 1510 – c. 1555) were Scottish religious reformers and poets.


The Wedderburn brothers were all born in Dundee, the sons of James Wedderburn, a prosperous merchant, and Janet Barrie. All three brothers studied at St Andrews University.


James Wedderburn, who had gone to St Andrews in 1514, was for a time in France preparing for a mercantile career. On his return to Dundee in 1514 he received instruction in the reformed faith from Friar Hewat, a Dominican monk. He composed a play called The Beheading of Johne the Baptist, and another called The Historie of Dyonisius the Tyrant, a morality satirizing church abuses, both of which were performed in 1540 in the play-field of Dundee. Neither of these nor a third ascribed to him by Calderwood, the historian, are extant. A charge of heresy was brought against him for counterfeiting the conjuring of a ghost, but he escaped to France, and established himself as a merchant at Rouen or Dieppe, where he lived quietly until his death in 1553, although attempts were made by the Scottish community in France to bring further charges against him.


John Wedderburn graduated M.A. at St Andrews in 1528. He took holy orders and appears to have held the chaplaincy of St Matthews, Dundee. In March 1539 he was accused of heresy, apparently for having, in conjunction with his brothers, written some anti-Church ballads. He escaped to Wittenberg, where with his compatriots he received the teaching of the German reformers. There he gained an acquaintance with Lutheran hymns, which he turned to account on his return to Scotland. The death of James V. and the known reform-minded leanings of the regent, the Earl of Arran, encouraged many exiles, Wedderburn among them, to revisit Scotland. It is probable that he was the author of the greater portion of the Compendious Book of Psalms and Spiritual Songs which contains a large number of hymns translated from the German. The enormous influence of the collection, with its added Gude and Godlie Ballatis, on the Scottish reform movement, is attested by the penalties enacted against the authors and printers of these books. John Wedderburn was in Dundee as late as 1546, when he was obliged to flee to England. John Johnston in his Coronis martyrum says he died in exile in 1556.


Robert Wedderburn, who graduated M.A. in 1530 from St Leonard's College at the University of St Andrews, was ordained to the Priesthood, and succeeded his uncle John Barry as vicar of Dundee; but before he came into actual possession he also was suspected of heresy, and was compelled to flee to France and later Germany, returning to Scotland in 1546. He appears to have been actual vicar of Dundee in 1552. His sons were legitimized in January 1553.


The earliest known edition of The Gude and Godlie Ballatis (of which a unique copy entitled Ane Compendious Buik of Godlie and Spirituall Songs is extant) dates back to 1567, though the contents were probably published in broad sheets during John Wedderburn's lifetime. It consists of a calendar and almanac, a catechism, hymns, many of them translations from the German, metrical versions of the Psalms, and a collection of ballads and satirical poems against the Catholic church and clergy. The separate shares of the brothers in this compilation cannot be settled, but Robert is said to have edited the whole and added the section of The Gude and Godlie Ballatis. Many of these ballads are adapted from secular songs. Editions of the book appeared in 1578 (printed by John Ros), in 1600 (by Robert Smith), in 1621 (by Andro Hart); selections were published by Lord Hailes (1765) and by Sibbald (1802); a reprint of the 1621 volume was edited by Sir J. G. Dalyell in Scottish Poems of the Sixteenth Century (1801); and of the 1578 volume by David Laing in 1868. In 1897 Professor A. F. Mitchell reprinted the 1567 volume (expurgated) for the Scottish Text Society.

The Complaynt of Scotland, a similar work to the Compendious Buik, is described early on as Vedderburn's Complaynt and was often ascribed to Robert Wedderburn although the expressed religious views make this unlikely.


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