The Semples of Beltrees, 2 Sir James Semple, 2nd Laird of Beltrees

James Semple was the eldest son of John Semple, the Dancer, and Mary Livingston, who was one of Mary Queen of Scots’ four Marys. He was born in 1566, the same year as King James, I and VI. James was brought up at court and received his early education with the young king, under the tutelage of the Scottish historian and scholar, George Buchanan. The two boys remained life-long friends.
James Semple of Beltrees married Geillis Elphinstone, and had at least two sons and four daughters. Geillis appears to have been a fashionable lady. Her personal possessions included velvet gowns and other pieces of luxury clothing, gold chains and rings, silverware and luxurious feather beds. However, she was still a caring mistress and in her will left 500 merks to her faithful servant, Mareoun Paden.
James Semple of Beltrees, unlike his father, the dancer, was of a serious disposition. He was a Scottish diplomat, a poet and a zealous Presbyterian. King James appointed him as Ambassador to England. In 1599, at his friend the King’s request, Queen Elizabeth of England sent a court order to her Majesties Officers to provide good horses and to ensure the safe return of James Semple to Scotland. Soon after his return he was knighted and thereafter was known as Sir James Semple of Beltrees. In 1601 he was appointed as Ambassador to France and in 1602 as Sheriff Substitute of Renfrewshire. However, Sir James, was best known for his literary works. Some of his works, mainly controversial treatises in defence of Presbyterianism, still survive.
Sir James transcribed King James I’s Basilikon Doran, which was first printed in Edinburgh in 1599. This was a treatise written to instruct his heir on how to be an efficient monarch and giving in detail a monarch’s Christian duty. The work was intended to be secret and, initially, only 7 copies were printed. Sir James showed one of these copies to Andrew Melville, a leading Scottish Presbyterian, who leaked details of the King’s controversial views on religion to Scottish Presbyteries. This caused endless trouble and displeased the King, whose animosity towards the Presbyterian Melville intensified. In 1606 the King imprisoned Melville in the Tower until, with the help of Sir James, he was eventually released in 1611. After his release, Melville was appointed Professor of Divinity in the University of Sedan in France. At Melville’s request, Sir James became involved in a controversy with Daniel Tilenus, a Silesian theologian. He published his Answer to the Defence of the Bishops and the Five Articles in 1622. This document was a vigorous reply in defence of Presbyterianism. Three other theological works by Sir James still survive today.
Sir James was also a poet, but only one of his poetical works survives. This is a long satirical poem which he entitled ‘A Pick-tooth for the Pope or The Packman’s Paternoster’. The theme was, again, the defence of Presbyterianism. It took the form of a dialogue between a packman and a priest. Sir James is said to have written the poem from his own translation of a Dutch manuscript. His poet son Robert, the 3rd Laird of Beltrees, later added to the text.
Sir James may not have spent much of his busy life at Beltrees in Lochwinnoch Parish, but his stone house with a tower still stood there in 1612. James outlived his wife and died in his house at the Cross in Paisley in 1626.
© 2018, Helen Calcluth, Renfrewshire Local History Forum