Devices of the Sixteenth Century Debtors.
By James C. Macdonald, f.s.a., Scot.
IN the year 1531, a certain John Scott, residenter in the good town of Edinburgh, was financially in a condition of chronic decrepitude. His household goods were rapidly going to the hammer, and one creditor, bolder than his fellows, decided to attack the impecunious personality of the common debtor. Writs from court and messengers of the law were severally set in motion; and on the earliest possible day one of those myrmidons served upon the debtor personally, a writ bearing the terrible title of “Letters of IV Forms.” The “coinless” John was therein warned that if he failed forthwith to pay or satisfy the lawful debt, for which decreet has gone out, he would (unless he went to prison in a peaceful way) be declared a rebel against the King’s Majesty.
Now John reasoned with himself that payment he could not make; outlawry he rather feared; and squalor carceris he could not endure. What was to be done? He had heard of the horns of the Hebrew altars: how that personal safety resulted from any manual attachment thereto. Was there some such boon in bonny Scotland? There was Holyrood, with its sanctified abbey. It was near; any port in such a storm. Down the Canongate, and straight to the sanctuary he ran—all to the manifest loss, injury, and damage of his creditors who followed, having got wind of this unique hegira from the red-nosed city guard. In vain the creditors pleaded; equally in vain were their threats. The canny Scot was warranted safe and skaithless against “all mortal.”
Annoyed at his debtor’s immunity from arrest, chagrined that any money John possessed had now been further dissipated in the Abbey admission dues to its protection giving portals—each creditor turned sadly to his “buiks of Compts” and superscribed over against John Scott’s name the expressive legend “bad debt.” And this John Scott became the forerunner, de facto, of a long line of “distressed” persons. Nay more, he secured an immortality as lasting as that of the sovereign whose solemnly sounding “Letters of IV Forms,” he spurned and left unanswered.
A generation later, and another new way of paying old debts is placed on record. To balance international honours it is of Anglican origin. Scoggan, the jester of the Elizabethan court, falls into financial distress. He borrows £500 from the Queen—mirabile dictu. Only a fool would have tried such a thing. It was put down as a “short loan,” but it soon became clear to the royal lender that its longevity would outlast her reign. To all demands the clownish borrower smilingly cried “long live the queen,” until at last his existence as court fool was in danger of being ended. But he would rather die than be evicted; and die he did. He became, theatrically speaking, defunct.
The late Scoggan was accordingly borne, to solemn music, past the royal garden; and the queen, seeing the mournful show—and knowing nought of its hollowness—asked whose it was. “Scoggan, Your Majesty,” was the reply. “Poor fellow,” she exclaimed, “the £500 he owed me I now freely forgive.” Whereupon the “defunct” sat up and declared that the royal generosity had given him a new lease of life.
“Thou rogue,” said the queen, “thou art more rogue than fool. Thou hast improved upon the plan of that John Scott, who, in the reign of my late cousin of Scotland, as Sir James Melvil tells me, got rid of the oldest debt and the longest loan.”