Sir Thomas Urquhart


Jack & Lyall

The Jewel, ed. R.D.S. Jack and R.J. Lyall (Edinburgh, 1983)


A Challenge from Sir Thomas Urquhart of Cromartie, [ed. C.H. Wilkinson], Luttrell Society Reprints No. 4 (Oxford, 1948)


Henrietta Tayler, History of the Family of Urquhart, (Aberdeen, 1946)


John Willcock, Sir Thomas Urquhart of Cromartie Knight (Edinburgh & London, 1899)


Urquhart's Papers

The proud and eccentric Scottish knight Sir Thomas Urquhart (or Urchard, as his name was sometimes spelled), a writer perhaps best remembered as translator of Rabelais and who dreamed of a universal language, certainly claims a place among Britain's more colourful literary characters, with all his immodest exuberance, flamboyancy, and Quixotic zest for enterprise. He saw several of his works in verse and prose through the press during his lifetime, but, according to his own testimony, these were but a fragment of his actual literary achievement. When he was captured by Cromwell's forces after the Battle of Worcester in 1650, so he claims in his Jewel, the contents of three large trunks containing nearly three thousand sheets of his manuscripts (in 642 ‘quinternions’) were ransacked, ‘scattered …over the floor’ and then borne away by the soldiers, some subsequently suffering the ‘inexorable rage of Vulcan’, the tobacco pipes of the musketeers, or even the ultimate indignity of ‘posterior uses’. This circumstance — exacerbated, perhaps, by the Commonwealth authorities' seizure of his papers in May 1652 — may, indeed, furnish at least one reason why so few of Urquhart's manuscripts, of any kind, can be recorded today.

One fortunate exception, however — and not the least striking autograph literary manuscript of the seventeenth century — is the huge, seemingly interminable folio volume of his sententious but coarse (and sometimes amusing) Epigrams (*UrT 1), a manuscript now safely preserved at Yale and which still remains unpublished in its entirety.

Letters and Documents

Sir Thomas's unmistakably bold, sprawling handwriting is found chiefly in seven extant letters by him, which are given entries below (*UrT 5-11). These are in addition to his letter to Sir Robert Farquhar, Laird of Comarty, on 1 July 1658, which is generally called A Challenge and which is known only from a manuscript copy (UrT 2).

A few other examples of Sir Thomas's hand have been recorded elsewhere, although not traceble at present. The editor of The Works of Sir Thomas Urquhart of Cromarty, Knight, printed for the Maitland Club (Edinburgh, 1834), records (p. x) the existence of a ‘charter chest’ of ‘old papers and title-deeds of the House of Cromarty…in the possession of Urquhart of Craigston’, among them ‘two unimportant private deeds which are subscribed by him’. He prints a facsimile of one of these signatures, a monogram of ‘Th Urchard’, which, given the variant spelling, conforms to the elaborate style of signature on the first of the letters noted above and can therefore be confirmed as being that of the author.

The same facsimile signature is reproduced elsewhere. First of all it appears in 1899 in Willcock (p. iv), who records further (p. 57) the existence of a book from Urquhart's sequestered library containing his ‘signature’ — a ‘very fragile’ exemplum of ‘Arthur Johnston's Latin poems, printed at Aberdeen by Raban, 1632…in the possession of the Rev. J.B. Craven, Kirkwall’ (see *UrT 13).

The legal signature next reappears in Hugh C. H. Candy, ‘Milton, N.LL, and Sir Tho. Urquhart’, The Library, 4th Ser. 14 (1933-4), 470-6 (p. 473), where, quite understandably, Candy has some difficulty in reconciling it to another, somewhat more conventional, signature of ‘Tho. Urquhart’ (which he reproduces on p. 472). There can, in fact, be no doubt about the authenticity of that discovered by Candy, which — from the clear evidence of his facsimile — conforms to those in Urquhart's letters (of which Candy was unaware). Urquhart's signature is here subscribed to an exemplum of an otherwise anonymous printed quarto pamphlet then in Candy's possession, Reasons why the Supreme Authority of the Three Nations (London, 1653) [Wing N6], a subscription which indicates fairly clearly that he was the author of this work (see *UrT 4).

The same monogram-signature, ‘Th Urchard’, is reproduced also in Tayler, p. 44, where the document to which it is affixed is, in fact, identified as a legal paper whereby Urquhart appointed Adam Smith to be his servitor and ‘special errands bearer’ to Sir James Fraser, 1 April 1642, a document among ‘family papers’. The muniments of the Urquhart family of Craigston, incorporating much relating to Cromarty, are now indeed preserved by the Urquhart family at Craigston Castle, Turriff, Aberdeenshire, and have been briefly calendared by the National Archives of Scotland (NRA (Scotland) 2570; NRA (London) 10739). It is quite likely that the document cited by Tayler is still among these muniments, possibly in one of the 17th-century bundles of legal documents such as Bundle 177. In addition to other items relating to him (such as a letter to Urquhart by the Magistrates of Taine, 5 May 1659), the NRA list mentions the presence in Bundle 190 of a letter of procuratory by Urquhart, narrating the history of a contract made by his father in 1635, and appointing his own brother, Alexander Urquhart of Dunglas, to act as his procurator for the redemption of lands as specified in that contract, the letter signed in London, 15 February 1643[/4]. The family muniments would presumably be worthy of further exploration by any future biographer of the author, as might, perhaps, be the ‘Inverness Local Records’ (records now in the custody of the Highland Council Archive, Inverness Library), where Tayler (p. 47) records the presence of an order by the committee of Royalist Lairds, concerning Sir James Fraser, signed by Urquhart and others, 24 February 1649[50].

A few other papers concerning Urquhart and his family (including UrT 2) among the Gordonstoun papers recorded in the HMC 6th Report (a collection dispersed at Sotheby's, 10 March 1920, lots 481-92, and privately in 1965) are now at Yale. For these and some other biographical materials, see Willcock (1899) and Luttrell (1948), as well as Tayler.

Peter Beal