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Appendix: Sir Francis Kynaston's Anecdote about the Death of Robert Henryson


1 See David Stevenson, “Erskine, Thomas, first earl of Kellie (1566–1639),” ODNB for a biography of this courtier of James VI and I.

2 On the associations between Henryson and this royal burgh on the north shore of the Firth of Forth, see Fox, ed., p. xvi; also the Introduction to this edition

3 William Thynne’s The Workes of Geffray Chaucer appeared in 1532; in the present edition, it is cited as T. See the Introduction. To judge from the evidence of Dunbar’s Timor mortis conturbat me (cited in the Introduction), Henryson was dead by 1505.

4 Scottish poets: after this, the phrase “in English” has been cancelled.

5 Douglas dated the completion of his translation of the Aeneid 22 July 1513 (Priscilla Bawcutt, “Douglas, Gavin (c. 1476–1522),” ODNB); his works having been printed in London (STC 7073, 24797), Douglas was the Middle Scots poet most familiar to English readers.

6 The quicken tree is the mountain ash, a tree traditionally reputed to avert evil spirits (OED quicken, quickbeam).

7 garre: “make,” “cause” (OED, gar, v.)

8 Among the many witticisms ascribed to Buchanan on his deathbed, the most apocryphal have to do with his rejection of his physicians’ advice to cease drinking wine (“I had rather live three weeks, and get drunk every day, than five or six years without drinking wine”) and of the godly invitation to recite the Lord’s Prayer (at which he recited verses from Propertius; Pierre Bayle, Dictionnaire historique et critique [Rotterdam: Leers, 1697; repr. Gallica <>] 1.686nD). For a more sober account of Buchanan’s deathbed pronouncements, see David Calderwood, History of the Kirk of Scotland, ed. T. Thomson, 8 vols. [Edinburgh: Wodrow Society, 1842–49] 1:131–32.
In an introductory note to his Latin translation of Henryson’s Testament of Cresseid, Sir Francis Kynaston (or Kinaston) preserved an anecdote about Henryson’s death. Memorable for its coarse, circumstantial detail, this anecdote adds a piquant note to Kynaston’s scholarship: this English writer of the reign of Charles I undertook his Latin translation of Chaucer’s Troilus and Henryson’s Testament at about the same time as he instituted an academy of learning in London, the Musaeum Minervae, for the sons of noblemen and gentlemen (R. Malcolm Smuts, “Kynaston, Sir Francis (1586/7–1642),” ODNB). In 1635, the year the Musaeum was founded, Kynaston’s translation of the first two books of Troilus appeared in print: Amorum Troili et Creseidae libri duo priores Anglico-Latini (Oxford: Lichfield); Kynaston’s Latin rhyme royal stanzas appear in italic on the verso pages with Chaucer’s in gothic on the rectos, in a text derived from Thomas Speght’s edition of Chaucer (1598). Dated 1639 on its title page, a manuscript survives of Kynaston’s complete Latin Troilus, including the s20Testament (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Additional C.287; see the Introduction to this edition); this manuscript is rife with errors, corrections, and alterations (Smith, ed., 1.xcix; Dana F. Sutton, ed., Sir Francis Kynaston, Amorum Troili et Creseidae Libri Quinque [1639], The Philological Museum, University of Birmingham. 5 Oct. 1999 <>). Having translated Troilus and Criseyde into Latin, Kynaston embarked on the Testament, as he indicates, to show how the Scottish poet had completed Chaucer’s poem; indeed, Kynaston entitles the Testament “The Sixt and last booke of Troilus and Creseid written by Mr Robert Henderson and called by him The Testament of Creseide” (Bodleian Library, MS. Add. C.287, p. 477). Clearly, Kynaston recognized Henryson’s authorship and was interested in learning what he could about the life and work of this poet whom he esteemed as witty and learned; fortunately, he had access at court to such Scottish notables as Thomas Erskine, first earl of Kellie, who had been educated with the young King James by none other than the celebrated, irascible Reformer and humanist George Buchanan. The scribe makes a mistake with Erskine’s given name, calling him “James”; the interlined correction “Thomas” appears to be in another hand.

Denton Fox considers that the anecdote that follows may attest to “a tradition of flippant last words” (ed., p. xv). In its coarseness, the tale recalls the scatological deathbed jests of Til Eulenspiegel, an archetypal prankster known to sixteenth-century readers in England and Scotland as Howleglas (A Hundred Merry Tales and Other English Jestbooks of the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries, ed. P. M. Zall [Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1963], pp. 233–34). In its emphasis on witchcraft, however, this tale recalls the dying earl of Angus’ celebratedly godly rebuff of a seemingly helpful wizard (John Spottiswood, The History of the Church of Scotland [London: Flesher, 1655], p. 372; David Hume of Godscroft’s History of the House of Angus, ed. David Reid, STS fifth series 4–5, vol. 2, pp. 397–98). Merry tales also accumulate around the last words of George Buchanan; a late, extreme instance of the blending of admonition and jest in such last words can be found in The Witty and Entertaining Exploits of George Buchanan, Who Was Commonly Called, The King’s Fool (Glasgow: J. and J. Robertson, 1777), p. 37. None of these parallels are especially close, and none of them prove that Kynaston’s anecdote is completely arbitrary in its association with Henryson.

Thus Kynaston makes memorable his salvaging of Henryson’s Testament for classically educated British gentlemen. His contribution to a British canon of Latin works accords with his vision, shortly before the outbreak of civil war made it obsolete, of a durable, retrospectively Stuart, British culture.

For the Author of this supplement called the Testament of Creseid, which may passe for the sixt and last booke of this story I have very sufficiently bin informed by Sir Thomas Eriskin late earle of Kelly1 and divers aged schollers of the Scottish nation, that it was made and written by one Mr Robert Henderson sometimes cheife schoolemaster in Dumfermling2 much about the time that Chaucer was first printed and dedicated to King Henry the Eighth by Mr Thinne3 which was neere the end of his raigne. This Mr Henderson, wittily observing that Chaucer in his fifth booke had related the death of Troilus but made no mention what became of Creseid, he learnedly takes uppon him in a fine poeticall way to expres the punishment and end due to a false unconstant whore, which commonly terminates in extreme misery. About or a litle after his time the most famous of the Scottish poets4 Gawen Douglas5 made his learned and excellent translation of Virgil’s Aeneids, who was bishop of Dunkeld, and made excellent prefaces to every one of the twelve bookes. For this Mr Robert Henderson, he was questionles a learned and a witty man, and it is pitty we have no more of his works.

Being very old he dyed of a diarrhea or fluxe, of whom there goes this merry though somewhat unsavory tale, that all the phisitians having given him over and he lying drawing his last breath, there came an old woman unto him, who was held a witch, and asked him whether he would be cured, to whom he sayed, “Very willingly.” Then quod she, “There is a whikey tree6 in the lower end of your orchard, and if you will goe and walke but thrice about it, and thrice repeate theis wordes, ‘Whikey tree, whikey tree, take away this fluxe from me,’ you shall be presently cured.” He told her that beside he was extreme faint and weake, it was extreme frost and snow, and that it was impossible for him to go. She told him that unles he did so, it was impossible he should recover. Mr Henderson then lifting upp himselfe and pointing to an oken table that was in the roome, asked her and seied, “Gude dame, I pray ye tell me if it would not do as well if I repeated thrice theis words, ‘Oken burd, oken burd, garre7 me shit a hard turd’?” The woman, seing herselfe derided and scorned, ran out of the house in a great passion; and Mr Henderson within halfe a quarter of an houre departed this life. There is a like tale told of Mr George Buchanan,8 who, lying at the point of death [was] proposed such a question and made such an answer to some ladies and women that came unto him perswading him to dy a Romane Catholicke; but it is so uncivell and unmannerly that it is better to suppres it in silence then relate it.

[The text of this note is derived from G. Smith, Specimens, 1:ciii–civ; see also Fox, ed., p. xiv, and Wood, Poems and Fables, pp. xii–xiii; the original text is Bodleian Library, MS. Add. C.287, p. 475 (476). The original abbreviations and contractions have been expanded without comment; i and j, u and v are redistributed according to modern convention; words are distributed according to modern orthography; the punctuation is lightly modernized; and paragraphing is added.]

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