The Lavves and Actes of Parliament, maid be King Iames the First

Monday 17 October 2022

In this final post by former students of the Mary Queen of Scots module, Fergus reflects on a composite edition of the Acts of the Scottish Parliament.

Prior to the advent of the internet, keeping the public abreast of updated statute was a far greater labour. Though the website–and–laws might not have existed in those days, this task was still of vital importance. Resultantly, in 1597, James VI commissioned his secretary, the judge and legal historian, John Skene, to update and compile the Lavves and Actes of Parliament, as part of a multifaceted agenda to facilitate both the smooth running of the Scottish justice system and the bolstering of the king’s royal authority following years of religious dissent. That such a work was to be produced exclusively by the royal printer, Robert Waldegrave, illustrates that the codex was intended as a powerful propaganda tool.

However, that the updated acts were of equal importance to those that purchased them is revealed upon examination of a copy of the Lavves and Actes –– held within University Collections ––whose owner bound it to last. Bound using marbled calf, this book was designed to be used extensively in the day-to-day application of the law.

Front cover of The Lavves and Actes, still in very good condition

This was with good foresight as the owner would go on to bind their 1597 copy with James’s successive acts of parliament, passed between 1600 and 1621. This exposes a greater problem within Scotland’s public institutions. Indeed, historians have argued that contemporary legal scholars found accessing legal works of reference particularly difficult in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Thus, to compensate for such deficiencies, this owner bound these items together to create their own ‘D.I.Y’ textbook of Scots Law and updated it accordingly.

Although James may have envisioned this tome as a symbol both of his royal authority and the cultural autonomy of Scotland, as the decoration surrounding his Royal Arms reveals, this was not to be the case in practice.

The Royal Arms of James VI. With paper at such a high cost, the presence of blank space and Scottish royal motifs reminded the reader to whom they owed their gratitude for this useful law textbook. Although devoid of colour, this is rather more decorative than the current parliamentary website. However, James VI would undoubtedly have enjoyed the purple colour scheme. Leaf pi2 recto.

Indeed, selective damage to The Lavves and Actes shows that contemporaries were less concerned with the king’s propaganda than assessing the legal implications of their own misdemeanours. For example, in the ‘De Verborum’, which was a glossary of terms, a yellow stain – perhaps a thumb print – on the reverse page listing ‘BASTARDVS’ [bastards] may suggest that extra-marital affairs was one such topic frequently consulted.

The statutes outlined that the king was able to legitimise those born on the ‘wrong side of the bed’, leaf 2I2 verso.

This would also explain the extensive red wine stains which proliferate the page containing the description ‘FIDELITIE’. The reader would be disappointed to find, however, that the entry outlined only how to give homage rather than how to respect one’s spouse.

‘[Fidelity, maid to superiors, and over lords]’, leaf 2M2 verso.
The Lavves and Actes also reveal much more than the nefarious practices of this copy’s clientele. It shows that the law was subject to the corresponding religious and political changes playing out at the time of its enactment. Historians have revealed that contemporaries believed that the old and new laws should adjoin seamlessly. However, Skene’s work underlines the naivety of this idea. Previous statutory volumes, like that published under the reign of Mary, Queen of Scots, in 1566, had been forced to omit the Catholic acts of James V to appease the new religious climate. However, Mary also refused to ratify the 1560 Reformation Parliament which had facilitated this shift in state religion as the parliament had acted in Mary’s name rather than with her consent. That the 1597 statutes included the articles of the 1560 parliament shows that the agenda of the reigning monarch was the highest power.

‘2. Anent the abolishing of the Pope, and his usurped authoritie’ from the 1567 Parliament, leaf A2 recto.

Overall, The Lavves and Actes reveals that for the reigning monarch, the publication of the law represented a propagandistic tool. However, the well-thumbed sections of the ‘De Verborum’ convey that for most readers, the law was far more practical. It was for this reason that the codex was of great usefulness to its owners. This is revealed by the presence of scribbled sums on the reverse leaf of the title page. Rather than a direct challenge to James’s authority, this merely shows that the statutes were always kept close to hand.

The spare paper used as protective covering for the title page has been used to scribble mathematical notation impertinent to the statutes contained within, leaf pi2 verso.

Fergus Black


Primary Sources

The actis and constitutiounis of the realme of Scotland : maid in Parliamentis haldin be the rycht excellent, hie and mychtie princeis Kingis Iames the First, Secund, Thrid, Feird, Fyft, and in tyme of Marie now Quene of Scottis, viseit, correctit, and extractit furth of the registers be the Lordis depute be hir Maiesteis speciall commissioun thairto : Anno Do. 1566. (Edinburgh, 1566).

 The laves and actes of Parliament, maid be King Iames the First, and his successors kings of Scotland: visied, collected and extracted furth of the register: the contentes of this buik, are expremed in the leafe following. Imprint at Edinbvrgh: Imprented be Robert VValde-graue prenter to the Kinges Majestie, 15 Martii. anno Dom. 1597, Copy in St Andrews, University of St Andrews Library, University Collections, TypBE.B97WJ.

Secondary Sources:

Baker, J.H., ‘English law books and legal publishing’, in Barnard, John (ed.) The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain (Cambridge, 2008), pp.474-503.

Foot, Mirjam., ‘Bookbinding’, in Barnard, John (ed.) The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain (Cambridge, 2008), pp.620-631.

Goodare, Julian. The Government of Scotland 1560-1625 (Oxford, 2004).

Goodare, Julian., ‘The Scottish Parliamentary Records, 1560-1603’, Historical Research, 72, (1999), pp.244-267.

MacDonald, Alan R., ‘James VI and the general assembly, 1586-1618’, in Goodare, Julian and Lynch, Michael (eds.) The Reign of James VI (East Linton, 2000), pp.170-186.

McNeill, Peter., ‘ “Our Religion, established neither by Law nor Parliament”: was the Reformation legislation of 1560 valid?’, Scottish Church History Society, 35, (2005), pp.68-89.

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