How much one claims to know about the life of William Dunbar depends on how much one is willing to trust the claims to be found in his poems, for very little external evidence remains. From Dunbar’s poetry, for example, John W. Baxter in his book William Dunbar: A Biographical Study (1952) surmises that the poet was descended from the noble house of Dunbar, the earls of which were both powerful and controversial figures in the history of Scotland. Descendants of a Northumbrian earl, Cospatrick, they more than once sided with the English in quarrels between the two countries. In 1402, for example, Henry Dunbar, earl of March, piqued over losses in a personal controversy with the earl of Douglas, aided King Henry IV of England at the Battle of Homildon Hill, thus earning his family the enmity of James I of Scotland, who stripped the clan of most of its lands. If Dunbar had noble blood, then he belonged to a family whose fortunes had fallen considerably.
However that may be, in many of his poems, Dunbar does speak distastefully of the lower classes and of social climbers. In “To the King” (“Schir, yit remember as befoir”), the poet calls himself a “gentill goishalk.” This may be significant since the birds of prey were often associated with the nobility in medieval poetry, as, for example, in Chaucer’s Parlement of Foules (1380). Furthermore, in the same poem, Dunbar complains that while still a youth he was thought headed for a bishopric, but upon achieving maturity he stated, “A sempill vicar I can not be.” In short, the tone of many of his poems seems to be that of a frustrated aristocrat.
Dunbar appears to have had a good education, and here again there is much speculation as to exactly where he received it. It was customary for Scottish students of the time to study on the Continent, especially at the University of Paris, but there is absolutely no evidence that Dunbar ever studied there. Again, though Dunbar wrote a poem on Oxford, it is doubtful that he ever attended that university. Rather, it is likely that he wrote his poem while visiting Oxford in 1501, when he helped to arrange James IV’s marriage to Margaret Tudor, the daughter of Henry VII of England. Records of St. Andrew’s University in Scotland show that a William Dunbar, probably the poet, received a bachelor of arts degree there in 1477 and his licentiate in 1479.
Evidently not independently wealthy, Dunbar chose a vocation in the church and was ordained a priest later in life. The accounts of the Lord High Treasurer of Scotland show that he was given a sum of four pounds eighteen shillings in 1504 as a gift for his first Mass. Moreover, Dunbar spent most of his life waiting for a benefice—a grant of land and a parish from which he could make his living. One of Dunbar’s poems, “How Dunbar Was Desired to be a Friar,” has led some to speculate that the poet spent part of his early life as a traveling Franciscan novice. In the poem, a devil in the guise of Saint Francis appears to Dunbar in a dream, exhorting him to take up the Franciscan habit. Dunbar, however, will have none of it, and he retorts that, if he must take a religious habit, he will take that of a bishop, for he has read in “holy legends” that more bishops than friars have become saints. Moreover—and this is the tantalizing part—he claims to have already worn the Franciscan habit all over England and France, to have preached openly, and also to have picked up “many a trick and wile” of the friars, who are “always ready to beguile men.” Now, however, those days are long past, says the poet, and he is content to live a more honest life. Whether this poem is a reliable autobiographical document or merely an antifraternal jape cannot be determined.
That Dunbar moved in the aristocratic circles of the court of James IV can be determined. Beginning in 1500, Dunbar was awarded an annual pension of ten pounds per year from the king until he should receive a benefice...
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