George Buchanan (1506-1582), Scottish humanist, was born in February 1506. His father, a younger son of an old family, was the possessor of the farm of Moss, in the parish of Killearn, Stirlingshire, but he died at an early age, leaving his widow and children in poverty. His mother, Agnes Heriot, was of the family of the Heriots of Trabroun, Haddingtonshire, of which George Heriot, founder of Heriot's hospital, was also a member. Buchanan is said to have attended Killearn school, but not much is known of his early education. In 1520 he was sent by his uncle, James Heriot, to the university of Paris, where, as he tells us in an autobiographical sketch, he devoted himself to the writing of verses "partly by liking, partly by compulsion (that being then the one task prescribed to youth)." In 1522 his uncle died, and Buchanan being thus unable to continue longer in Paris, returned to Scotland. After recovering from a severe illness, he joined the French auxiliaries who had been brought over by John Stewart, duke of Albany, and took part in an unsuccessful inroad into England (see the account in his Hist. of Scotland). In the following year he entered the university of St Andrews, where he graduated B.A. in 1525. He had gone there chiefly for the purpose of attending the celebrated John Major's lectures on logic; and when that teacher removed to Paris, Buchanan followed him in 1526. In 1527 he graduated B.A., and in 1528 M.A. at Paris. Next year he was appointed regent, or professor, in the college of Sainte-Barbe, and taught there for upwards of three years.
In 1529 he was elected Procurator of the "German Nation" in the university of Paris, and was re-elected four times in four successive months. He resigned his regentship in 1531, and in 1532 became tutor to Gilbert Kennedy, 3rd earl of Cassilis, with whom he returned to Scotland about the beginning of 1537.
At this period Buchanan was content to assume the same attitude towards the Church of Rome that Erasmus maintained. He did not repudiate its doctrines, but considered himself free to criticize its practice. Though he listened with interest to the arguments of the Reformers, he did not join their ranks before 1553. His first production in Scotland, when he was in Lord Cassilis's household in the west country, was the poem Somnium, a satirical attack upon the Franciscan friars and monastic life generally. This assault on the monks was not displeasing to James V., who engaged Buchanan as tutor to one of his natural sons, Lord James Stewart (not the son who was afterwards the regent Murray), and encouraged him to a still more daring effort. In these circumstances the poems Palinodia and Franciscanus & Fratres were written, and, although they remained unpublished for many years, it is not surprising that the author became an object of bitterest hatred to the order and their friends. Nor was it yet a safe matter to assail the church. In 1539 there was a bitter persecution of the Lutherans, and Buchanan among others was arrested.
He managed to effect his escape and with considerable difficulty made his way to London and thence to Paris. In Paris, however, he found his enemy, Cardinal David Beaton, who was there as an ambassador, and on the invitation of André de Gouvéa, proceeded to Bordeaux. Gouvéa was then principal of the newly founded college of Guienne at Bordeaux, and by his exertions Buchanan was appointed professor of Latin. During his residence here several of his best works, the translations of Medea and Alcestis, and the two dramas, Jephthes (sive Votum) and Baptistes (sive Calumnia), were completed. Montaigne was Buchanan's pupil at Bordeaux and acted in his tragedies. In the essay Of Presumption he classes Buchanan with Aurat, Béza, de L'Hopital, Montdore and Turnebus, as one of the foremost Latin poets of his time. Here also Buchanan formed a lasting friendship with Julius Caesar Scaliger; in later life he won the admiration of Joseph Scaliger, who wrote an epigram on Buchanan which contains the couplet, famous in its day: -
"Imperii fuerat Romani Scotia limes;
Romani eloquii Scotia limes erit?"
In 1542 or 1543 he returned to Paris, and in 1544 was appointed regent in the college of Cardinal le Moine. Among his colleagues were the renowned Muretus and Turnebus.
In 1547 Buchanan joined the band of French and Portuguese humanists who had been invited by André de Gouvéa to lecture in the Portuguese university of Coimbra. The French mathematician élie Vinet, and the Portuguese historian, Jeronimo de Osorio, were among his colleagues; Gouvéa, called by Montaigne le plus grand principal de France, was rector of the university, which had reached the summit of its prosperity under the patronage of King John III. But the rectorship had been coveted by Diogo de Gouvéa, uncle of André and formerly head of Sainte-Barbe. It is probable that before André's death at the end of 1547 Diogo had urged the Inquisition to attack him and his staff; up to 1906, when the records of the trial were first published in full, Buchanan's biographers generally attributed the attack to the influence of Cardinal Beaton, the Franciscans, or the Jesuits, and the whole history of Buchanan's residence in Portugal was extremely obscure.
A commission of inquiry was appointed in October 1549 and reported in June 1550. Buchanan and two Portuguese, Diogo de Teive and Joāo da Costa (who had succeeded to the rectorship), were committed for trial. Teive and Costa were found guilty of various offences against public order, and the evidence shows that there was ample reason for a judicial inquiry. Buchanan was accused of Lutheran and Judaistic practices. He defended himself with conspicuous ability, courage and frankness, admitting that some of the charges were true. About June 1551 he was sentenced to abjure his errors, and to be imprisoned in the monastery of Sāo Bento in Lisbon. Here he was compelled to listen to edifying discourses from the monks, whom he found "not unkind but ignorant." In his leisure he began to translate the Psalms into Latin verse. After seven months he was released, on condition that he remained in Lisbon; and on the 28th of February 1552 this restriction was annulled. Buchanan at once sailed for England, but soon made his way to Paris, where in 1553 he was appointed regent in the college of Boncourt. He remained in that post for two years, and then accepted the office of tutor to the son of the Maréchal de Brissac. It was almost certainly during this last stay in France, where Protestantism was being repressed with great severity by Francis I., that Buchanan ranged himself on the side of the Calvinists.