CRICHTON, JAMES (1560-? 1582), commonly called the "Admirable Crichton," was the son of Robert Crichton, lord advocate of Scotland in the reign of Mary and James VI., and of Elizabeth, daughter of Sir James Stewart of Beath, through whom he claimed royal descent. He was born probably at Eliock in Dumfriesshire in 1560, and when ten years old was sent to St Salvator's College, St Andrews, where he took his B.A. in 1574 and his M.A. in 1575. In 1577 Crichton was undoubtedly in Paris, but his career on the continent is difficult to follow. That he displayed considerable classical knowledge, was a good linguist, a ready and versatile writer of verse, and above all that he possessed an astounding memory, seems certain, not only from the evidence of men of his own time, but from the fact that even Joseph Scaliger (Prima Scaligerana, p. 58, 1669) speaks of his attainments with the highest praise. But those works of his which have come down to us show few traces of unusual ability; and the laudation of him as a universal genius by Sir Thomas Urquhart and Aldus Manutius requires to be discounted. Urquhart (in his Discovery of a most exquisite jewel) states that while in Paris Crichton successfully held a dispute in the college of Navarre, on any subject and in twelve languages, and that the next day he won a tilting match at the Louvre. There is, however, no contemporary evidence for this, the only certain facts being that for two years Crichton served in the French army, and that in 1579 he arrived in Genoa. The latter event is proved by a Latin address (of no particular merit) to the Doge and Senate entitled Oratio J. Critonii Scoti pro Moderatorum Genuensis Reipubl. electione coram Senatu habita.... (Genoa, 1579). The next year Crichton was in Venice, and won the friendship of Aldus Manutius by his Latin ode In appulsu ad urbem Venetam de Proprio statu J. Critonii Scoti Carmen ad Aldum Manuccium.... (Venice, 1580). The best contemporary evidence for Crichton's stay in Venice is a handbill printed by the Guerra press in 1580 (and now in the British Museum), giving a short biography and an extravagant eulogy of his powers; he speaks ten languages, has a command of philosophy, theology, mathematics; he improvises Latin verses in all metres and on all subjects, has all Aristotle and his commentators at his fingers' ends; is of most beautiful appearance, a soldier from top to toe, etc. This work is undoubtedly by Manutius, as it was reprinted with his name in 1581 as Relatione della qualità di ... Crettone, and again in 1582 (reprinted Venice, 1831).
In Venice Crichton met and vanquished all disputants except Giacomo Mazzoni, was followed from place to place by crowds of admirers, and won the affection of the humanists Lorenzo Massa and Giovanni Donati. In March 1581 he went to Padua, where he held two great disputations. In the first he extemporized in succession a Latin poem, a daring onslaught on Aristotelian ignorance, and an oration in praise of ignorance. In the second, which took place in the Church of St John and St Paul, and lasted three days, he undertook to refute innumerable errors in Aristotelians, mathematicians and schoolmen, to conduct his dispute either logically or by the secret doctrine of numbers, etc. According to Aldus, who attended the debate and published an account of it in his dedication to Crichton prefixed to Cicero's "Paradoxa" (1581), the young Scotsman was completely successful. In June Crichton was once more in Venice, and while there wrote two Latin odes to his friends Lorenzo Massa and Giovanni Donati, but after this date the details of his life are obscure. Urquhart states that he went to Mantua, became the tutor of the young prince of Mantua, Vincenzo di Gonzaga, and was killed by the latter in a street quarrel in 1582. Aldus in his edition of Cicero's De universitate (1583), dedicated to Crichton, laments the 3rd of July as the fatal day; and this account is apparently confirmed by the Mantuan state papers recently unearthed by Mr Douglas Crichton (Proc. Soc. of Antiquaries of Scotland, 1909). Mr Sidney Lee (Dict. Nat. Biog.) argued against this date, on the ground that in 1584 and 1585 Crichton was alive and in Milan, as certain works of his published in that year testified, and regarded it as probable that he died in Mantua c. 1585/6. But these later works seem to have been by another man of the same name. The epithet "admirable" (admirabilis) for Crichton first occurs in John Johnston's Heroes Scoti (1603). It is probably impossible to recover the whole truth either as to Crichton's death or as to the extent of his attainments, which were so quickly elevated into legendary magnitude.
Bibliography. - Sir Thomas Urquhart's Discovery of a most excellent jewel (1652; reprinted in the Maitland Club's edition of Urquhart's Works in 1834) is written with the express purpose of glorifying Scotland. The panegyrics of Aldus Manutius require to be received with some caution, since he was given to exaggerating the merits of his friend, and uses almost the same language about a young Pole named Stanilaus Niegosevski; see John Black's Life of Torquato Tasso, ii. 413-451 (1810), for a criticism. The Life of Crichton, by P. Fraser Tytler (2nd ed., 1823), contains many extracts from earlier writers; see also "Notices of Sir Robert Crichton of Cluny and of his son James," by John Stuart, in Proceedings Soc. of Antiquaries of Scotland, vol. ii. pp. 103-118 (1855); and the article by Andrew Lang, "The death of the Admirable Crichton," in the Morning Post (London), Feb. 25, 1910. W. Harrison-Ainsworth in his novel Crichton (new ed., 1892) reprints and translates some documents relating to Crichton, as well as some of his poems.
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)