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James Crichton

James Crichton , commonly called 'The Admirable,' son of Robert Crichton, of Eliock, who was Lord Advocate to King James VI., was born in Scotland, in the year 1561. The precise place of his birth is not mentioned, but he received the best part of his education at St. Andrews, at that time the most celebrated seminary in Scotland, where the illustrious Buchanan was one of his masters. At the early age of fourteen, he took his degree of Master of Arts, and was considered a prodigy, not only in abilities, but in actual attainments.

It was the custom of the time for Scotchmen of birth to finish their education abroad, and serve in some foreign army, previously to entering that of their own country. When he was only sixteen or seventeen years old, Crichton's father sent him to the Continent. He had scarcely arrived in Paris, which was then a gay and splendid city, famous for jousting, fencing, and dancing, when he publicly challenged all scholars and philosophers to a disputation at the College of Navarre. He proposed that it should be carried on in any one of twelve specified languages, and have relation to any science or art, whether practical or theoretical. The challenge was accepted; and, as if to show in how little need he stood of preparation, or how lightly he held his adversaries, he spent the six weeks that elapsed between the challenge and the contest, in a continual round of tilting, hunting, and dancing.

On the appointed day, however, and in the contest, he is said to have encountered all the gravest philosophers and divines, and to have acquitted himself to the astonishment of all who heard him. He received the public praises of the president and four of the most eminent professors. The very next day he appeared at a tilting match in the Louvre, and carried off the ring from all his accomplished and experienced competitors.

Enthusiasm was now at its height, particularly among the ladies of the court, and from the versatility of his talents, his youth, the gracefulness of his manners, and the beauty of his person, he was named L'Admirable. After serving two years in the army of Henry III., who was engaged in a civil war with his Huguenot subjects, Crichton repaired to Italy, and repeated at Rome, in the presence of the Pope and cardinals, the literary challenge and triumph that had gained him so much honor at Paris.

From Rome he went to Venice, at which gay city he arrived in a depressed state of spirits. None of his Scottish biographers are very willing to acknowledge the fact, but it appears quite certain, that, spite of his noble birth and connexions, he was miserably poor, and became for some time dependent on the bounty of a Venetian printer—the celebrated Aldus Manutius. After a residence of four months at Venice, where his learning, engaging manners, and various accomplishments, excited universal wonder, as is made evident by several Italian writers who were living at the time, and whose lives were published, Crichton went to the neighboring city of Padua, in the learned university of which he reaped fresh honors by Latin poetry, scholastic disputation, an exposition of the errors of Aristotle and his commentators, and as a playful wind-up of the day's labors, a declamation upon the happiness of ignorance.

Another day was fixed for a public disputation in the palace of the bishop of Padua; but this being prevented from taking place, gave some incredulous or envious men the opportunity of asserting that Crichton was a literary impostor, whose acquirements were totally superficial. His reply was a public challenge. The contest, which included the Aristotelian and platonic philosophies, and the mathematics of the time, was prolonged during three days, before an innumerable concourse of people. His friend, Aldus Manutius, who was present at what he calls "this miraculous encounter," says he proved completely victorious, and that he was honored by such a rapture of applause as was never before heard.

Crichton's journeying from university to university to stick up challenges on church doors, and college pillars, though it is said to have been in accordance with customs not then obsolete, certainly attracted some ridicule among the Italians; for Boccalini, after copying one of his placards, in which he announces his arrival, and his readiness to dispute extemporaneously on all subjects, says that a wit wrote under it, "and whosoever wishes to see him, let him go to the Falcon Inn, where he will be shown,"—which is the formula used by showmen for the exhibition of a wild beast, or any other monster.

We next hear of Crichton at Mantua, and as the hero of a combat more tragical than those carried on by the tongue or the pen. A certain Italian gentleman, "of a mighty, able, nimble, and vigorous body, but by nature fierce, cruel, warlike, and audacious, and superlatively expert and dexterous in the use of his weapon," was in the habit of going from one city to another, to challenge men to fight with cold steel, just as Crichton did to challenge them to scholastic combats. This itinerant gladiator, who had marked his way through Italy with blood, had just arrived in Mantua, and killed three young men, the best swordsmen of that city. By universal consent, the Italians were the ablest masters of fence in Europe; a reputation to which they seem still entitled. To encounter a victor among such masters, was a stretch of courage; but Crichton, who had studied the sword from his youth, and who had probably improved himself in the use of the rapier in Italy, did not hesitate to challenge the redoubtable bravo.

Though the duke was unwilling to expose so accomplished a gentleman to so great a hazard, yet, relying upon the report he had heard of his warlike qualifications, he agreed to the proposal; and the time and place being appointed, the whole court attended to behold the performance. At the beginning of the combat, Crichton stood only upon his defence, while the Italian made his attack with such eagerness and fury, that, having exhausted himself, he began to grow weary. The young Scotsman now seized the opportunity of attacking his antagonist in return; which he did with so much dexterity and vigor, that he ran him through the body in three different places, of which wounds he immediately died.

The acclamations of the spectators were loud and long-continued upon this occasion; and it was acknowledged by all, that they had never seen nature second the precepts of art in so lively and graceful a manner as they had beheld it on that day. To crown the glory of the action, Crichton bestowed the rich prize awarded for his victory, upon the widows of the three persons who had lost their lives in fighting with the gladiator.

In consequence of this and his other wonderful performances, the duke of Mantua made choice of him for preceptor to his son, Vicentio de Gonzago, who is represented as being of a riotous temper, and dissolute life. The appointment was highly pleasing to the court. Crichton, to testify his gratitude to his friends and benefactors, and to contribute to their diversion, framed a comedy, wherein he exposed and ridiculed the weaknesses and failures of the several occupations and pursuits in which men are engaged. This composition was regarded as one of the most ingenious satires that ever was made upon mankind. But the most astonishing part of the story, is, that Crichton sustained fifteen characters in the representation of his own play. Among the rest, he acted the divine, the philosopher, the lawyer, the mathematician, the physician, and the soldier, with such inimitable skill, that every time he appeared upon the theatre, he seemed to be a different person.

From being the principal actor in a comedy, Crichton soon became the subject of a dreadful tragedy. One night, during the time of Carnival, as he was walking along the streets of Mantua, and playing upon his guitar, he was attacked by half a dozen people in masks. The assailants found that they had no ordinary person to deal with, for they were not able to maintain their ground against him. At last the leader of the company, being disarmed, pulled off his mask, and begged his life, telling Crichton that he was the prince, his pupil. Crichton immediately fell upon his knees, and expressed his concern for his mistake; alleging that what he had done was only in his own defence, and that if Gonzago had any design upon his life, he might always be master of it. Then, taking his own sword by the point, he presented it to the prince, who immediately received it, and was so irritated by the affront which he thought he had sustained, in being foiled with all his attendants, that he instantly ran Crichton through the heart.

His tragical end excited very great and general lamentation. The whole court of Mantua went three-quarters of a year into mourning for him; and numerous epitaphs and elegies were composed upon his death.

To account in some manner for the extent of Crichton's attainments, it must be recollected that the first scholars of the age were his instructors: for, besides having Rutherford as a tutor, it is stated by Aldus Manutius, that he was also taught by Buchanan, Hessburn, and Robertson; and hence his extraordinary proficiency in the languages, as well as in the sciences, as then taught in the schools of Europe. It must also be recollected that no expense would be spared in his education, as his father was Lord Advocate in Queen Mary's reign, from 1561 to 1573, and his mother, the daughter of Sir James Stuart, was allied to the royal family. It is evident, however, that these advantages were seconded by powers of body and mind rarely united in any human being.