1. Robert Johnson was born, either at Edinburgh or somewhere in Annandale, ca. 1567, the son of an “honest burgess of Edinbro.” NOTE 1 He graduated M. A. from Edinburgh University in 1587. According to his biographers, he first came down to England in the train of his kinsman Sir Robert Johnston upon the accession of James VI to the English throne. This may not be true, for it is tempting to equate him with the “Robert Johnson” who incorporated from Edinburgh to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, in 1594 according to the Venns’ Alumni Cantabrigienses II.480, which might explain how he acquired the D. C. L. he subsequently claimed to possess ((this receives some substantiation from lawyerly remarks occasionally made in his history, such as his discussion of the legalities involved in prosecuting witches at 1590.9 and his especial interest in courtroom personalities, scandals, and reforms). If the “Robert Johnson” identification is true, then he spent some time serving as tutor to the Berties, the sons of Lord Willoughby. In late 1604 he was appointed Clerk of the Ordinance, a position he held at least as late as 1618, and perhaps for the remainder of his life. Living a bachelor’s life in London he amassed a considerable fortune, and upon his death, in 1639, having no heirs, he bequeathed his money to various Scottish charities, for which he was remembered with gratitude.
2. He also left behind the manuscript of a massive history, written in twenty-two Books, covering the affairs, not only of Scotland and England, but also of the major countries of northern Europe, from the years 1572 to 1628. The choice to organize his history on a year-by-year basis shows no signs of having inspired by William Camden's great Annals of the reign of Elizabeth, let alone by Tacitus. For some reason, the first two Books (only) were printed in 1642 at Amsterdam under the title Roberti Johnstoni, Scoti-Britanni, historiarum libri duo, continentes Rerum Britannicarum vicinarumque regionum historiae maxime memorabiles, and the whole thing appeared in the same city in 1655, under the title Historia Rerum Britannicarum ut et Multarum Gallicarum, Belgicarum, et Germanicarum, tam politicarum, quasm Ecclesiasticarum, ab anno 1572 ad Annum 1628. This is evidently the only writing we have by Johnston. A small pamphlet printed at London in 1642 is entitled A Letter from Mr. Robert Iohnston, one of the Elders at Edenborough, directed to Master William Agard in Cambridge, with a Petition of the English there inclosed, to the Kings most Excellent Majesty. The letter in question is dated 12 September, 1642, which excludes the possibility that it was written by our historian.
3. It would seem that at least some of Johnston’s history had existed for some time and circulated in manuscript prior to publication. An early admirer, the Welsh epigrammatist John Owen, wrote (Epigrammata VI.82)
Ingenii, Iohnstone, tui sum factus amator,
Historiae legerem dum monumenta tuae.
Nil magis ingenium, nil ingeniosius extat
Tergeminae Britonum gentis in historia.
Excipias unum Morum de rege Ricardo,
Nemo Britannorum dignior invidia.
Reading thy British History, I love
Thy self, I like thy Method, both approve:
No such Book's extant, that's more genuine,
More genial, than that same Book of thine;
Excepting Moore, Who wrote the Life, the fate,
Of Richard: Thee, next him, I emulate.
Book VI of Owen’s epigrams was first published in 1612, thirty years before the publication of the first, incomplete, edition.
4. If Johnston has had some admirers, he had his critics too. One can find such remarks as this one by Robert Baillie, the Principal of Glasgow University, which receives a good deal of prominence because it is quoted from his Letters and Journals II.9 in the O. D. N. B. biography:
Johnstoun is one of the poorest pedants and most unable for storie, of any I ever saw in print: yow would deall, and I shall also endeavour it, for the credite of the nation, and for the poor man's also, who has left in legacie to diverse places in our countrie large soumes of monie that the rest of his books may be suppressed.
The reader will readily understand, I am sure, that such appraisals, at least bordering on the malicious, are much more likely the result of sectarian bias than anything remotely resembling detached critical judgment. In fact, as long as one makes due allowances for Johnston’s political and religious prejudices (and of the consequent effect these have on his appraisal of James as a personality) the work is a decent performance and deserves to be read and considered. Certainly the allegation that he was most unable for storie is unjust, since Johnston is at times very effective story-teller indeed.
5. Although he himself makes no such claim (because he abhorred the work), Johnston’s history can be described as a continuation of George Buchanan’s 1582 Rerum Scotarum Historia, at least in the sense that he picks up where Buchanan left off, with the year 1572. NOTE 2 But there is no attempt to imitate Buchanan in any particular respect. Unlike his predecessor, Johnston adopts an annalistic scheme of organization. While he shares Buchanan’s Protestant outlook and therefore some of his political views, he does not inherit Buchanan’s personal animus against Mary Queen of Scots, and indeed heavily criticizes this attitude in his 1582 necrology of Buchanan. He was a thoroughgoing monarchist who in the same passage expresses his scandalization by Buchanan’s republican De Iure Regni apud Scotos. Not surprisingly, in view of his monarchist leanings, in the great controversy concerning the role of bishops in the Kirk, he is an outspoken supporter of episcopalianism, was opposed to ecclesiastical democracy, and takes no trouble to conceal his dislike of Geneva-imitating ultra-Protestants, whom he often calls Cathari (Puritans) and regards as mischievous extremists motivated more by an interest in acquiring personal power than any convictions of piety. But his greatest departure from his predecessor is that Buchanan wrote a history of Scotland, whereas Johnston had a wider scope: for a given year, he starts with Scotland, but then goes on to recount the events that transpired in England, France, the Netherlands, and also Ireland.
6. Many modern readers would find it deeply disturbing that, for the period in which we are interested, his yearly narratives for England, Ireland and the Continent are sometimes lifted bodily, and sometimes repeated in compressed or paraphrased form, from two sources in particular, William Camden’s Annales Rerum Gestarum Angliae et Hiberniae Regnante Elizabetha (published in two parts, in 1615 and 1625) and Jacques de Thou’s Historiae sui Temporis (published posthumously in 1620). It would be all too easy to write Johnston off as a wholesale plagiarist, but such a characterization would probably be wrong. In his day, the unacknowledged appropriation of what we would today call another person’s intellectual property was neither regarded as an offence in law nor a grave breach of literary ethics. NOTE 3 Such appropriation was scarcely uncommon: indeed, Johnston’s “victim” Camden can sometimes be observed doing the same thing himself (his account of the defeat of the Armada, for example, is a straightforward Latin translation of Hakluyt’s narrative in his Principal Navigations, source unacknowledged). Since Johnston provides no discussion of his purpose in writing, we can only guess at his intentions, but in all probability they were, by the lights of his time, honorable. No doubt the best clue he gives us is his self-description on his title page as Robertus Iohnsonus Scoto-Britannicus and his choice of title, for Rerum Britannicarum appears to be a deliberate challenge to Buchanan’s Rerum Scoticarum. Although a Scotsman by birth, as a result of the accession of James VI/I to the English throne he had an enlarged consciousness and regarded himself as a citizen of the new political entity of Great Britain. As such, he took an interest in history as it unfolded throughout the island, and also in international affairs, particularly insofar as they impinged on both Scotland and England , and probably considered the singleminded focus on Scotland of such previous historians as Hector Boece, and Buchanan as intolerably outdated and narrow-minded. His essential aim, therefore, may have been to monumentalize this new super-entity of Great Britain, considered both in its own right and as a player on the international stage.
7. Whatever one thinks of these issues, Johnston’s heavy reliance on Camden and de Thou confronts a modern editor with a serious question: would there be any point in consuming one’s time and energy with the repetition of huge swathes of material taken from these far better-known historians? Would the reader derive any appreciable benefit from the inclusion of this stuff? Others may disagree, but for my part I find it impossible to answer such questions in the affirmative. On the other hand, what Johnston writes about the history of his own nation possesses an originality and interest that his other narrative lacks, so that it appears possible to carve out of his Historia Rerum Britannicarum a serviceable history of the reign of James VI, one that indeed does invite reading as a continuation of Buchanan, and that covers an important and eventful period of Scottish history. This, one must acknowledge, is done in flagrant defiance of Johnston’s own intentions, but as a matter of practicality it appears to be the only means of rescuing that which is most worthwhile in his history without imposing unduly on the reader’s patience and good will.
8. In my defense, I can also point out that this solution is not original. It is the one already adopted by Thomas Middleton, who, signing himself “T. M.,” published at London in 1646, The Historie of Scotland During the Minority of King Iames, Written in Latine by Robert by Robert Johnston, Done into English by T. M. Using only the Scottish portions of Books I and II (all that was then available in print), he produced a satisfactory history of Scotland for the years covered by those Books, 1572 - 1581. In imitation of Middleton’s strategy, this edition presents the reader with a history embracing the years 1572 - 1603, from James’ infancy down to his assumption of the crown of England, at which time the history of Scotland as an independent sovereign nation comes to an end. I have ended it a few paragraphs into Johnston’s treatment of the year 1603, as the king spends a night at Berwick on his journey to London. This is appropriate: he goes to bed as James VI, and will wake up the next morning as James I.
9. The 1655 volume was edited, on the basis of Johnston’s own manuscript, by a certain “J. S.,” who was confronted by problems, described in a prefatory epistle Ad Lectores Benevolos:
Ego equidem studio ac labore incredibili, nec minore fide, operam dedi, ut hoc opus (ex quo tempore in meas manus incidit) nitide, accurate, et bene correctum prodiret in publicum, et quamvis leviora quaedam errata irrepserint, me absente, ea tamen facile attentus lector ipse corriget. Quae in manuscripta obscura, confusa, intricata, ac involuta videbantur, quippe nec maiuscularum, nec commatum, nec punctorum, nec periodorum, paragraphorum aut aliquarum distinctionum ratio erat habita, ea plana, perspicua, ac cuivis exposita feci...
[“From the time this work came into my hands, I have exerted myself with incredible zeal and effort, and no less fidelity, that this work neatly, accurately, and well-corrected. And, although some slight errors have crept in during my absence, the attentive reader may correct them for himself. The things which seemed obscure, confused, intricate, and convoluted in the manuscript, because no concern was shown for capital letters, commas, periods, paragraphs, or other suchlike distinctions, I have made plain, clear, and visible to all readers...”]
10. At least for the earlier years in this history, “J. S.” did little to improve on the manuscript’s lack of paragraphing, and I have supplied a somewhat greater number of paragraph breaks in my text. And at many points I have disagreed with the punctuation evidently imposed by “J. S.” and substituted my own. Another editorial problem is a remarkably frequent tendency to get proper names wrong. Moravius (“Moray,”), for example, is often written Moranius, Humius (“Hume”) as Hunnius, and Teviota (“Teviotdale”) as Teniota. Presumably such errors result from an inability to read handwritings: difficulties “J. S.” experienced in deciphering what Johnston had written, the printer’s difficulties in reading “J. S.’s” script, or both. Acting according to this assumption, I have emended such names to make them correspond to what I imagine Johnston actually wrote.
11. Above and beyond these issues, a perennial problem confronting translators of literature of this kind is that there were no contemporary rules or standard conventions governing how place-names and surnames should be Latinized, and writers were capable of producing very idiosyncratic inventions. Usually it is possible, with more or less ease, to divine the original form standing behind its Latin equivalent, but on a small handful of occasions I have failed (and on others, of course, I may have been mistaken in my identifications). In such cases the Latinized form has been retained in the translation, or I have suggested my best guess, with due diffidence, and such instances are given in italics.
NOTE 1 For Johnston’s life, see the Dictionary of National Biography article by Walter A. Shaw, and the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography revision of that article by Shona MacLean Vance, with references cited.
NOTE 2 Johnston was not the only historian to have the idea of writing a continuation of Buchanan. In 1827 James Aikman published (at Glasgow) The History of Scotland Translated from the Latin of George Buchanan; with Notes and a Continuation to the Union in the Reign of Queen Anne. A second edition was published at Edinburgh two years later., and John Watkins published a similar translation-cum-continuation at London, ca. 1840.
NOTE 3 Some readers may object, recalling the well-known case of William Alabaster’s tragedy Roxana. The play was first published anonymously by Andrew Crook, and then Alabaster issued his own version with the title Roxana tragaedia a plagiarii unguibus vindicata, aucta & agnita ab authore. But, as I have pointed out in my Introduction to that work, the idea that Alabaster was accusing Crook of plagiarism is untenable, since Crook was a printer who made no claim to have written the play himself. Hence, using modern terminology, an accurate translation of plagiarius in the title would be “pirate,” not “plagiarist.”