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David Lyndsay’s Ane Satyre of the Thrie Estatis

By Kate McGregor (@ks_mcgregor)

David Lyndsay is perhaps Scotland’s best, but least well known, poet and playwright.[1] Yet his work both reflects the vibrant culture of early modern Scotland and the deeply political ramifications drama could have during this period. One could imagine that the performance of a play written by Lyndsay was an eagerly anticipated event. The Great Hall of Linlithgow Palace was in January 1540 packed with the lairds and ladies of the Scottish court. With a fire crackling, the sights and smells of the Christmas season all around, a hush would surely have descended on the hall for the centre piece entertainment by Lyndsay.

The final great celebration of the Christmas and New Year period in early modern Scotland was Epiphany on 6th January. The feast commemorates the visit of the Three Kings to the baby Jesus and in 1540 the Scottish court was filled with Christmas merriment and spectacles. The royal poet of the court Sir David Lyndsay wrote and set a play for the entertainment of King James V and his wife, the French noblewoman Marie de Guise.[2] James V was at the peak of his power. Marie de Guise’s arrival in Scotland secured the continuance of the Franco-Scottish alliance, and by Epiphany 1540 Marie was pregnant.[3] James V was a monarch secure in his kingdom and with an heir on its way.

The play that was performed to entertain the Scottish King and Queen was a comedy; known at the time as the Interlude, its later full surviving version is titled Ane Satyre of the Thrie Estatis. David Lindsay’s play is a compelling satire that addresses the corruption of both courtiers and the Church.[4]  The first half of the play focuses on King Humanitie, a young ruler who is seduced from the path of virtue by three courtiers: Wantoness, Placebo and Solace. The courtiers introduce the King to Dame Sensualitie, who distracts the monarch, as three more dangerous vices infiltrate the court: Flatterie (flattery), Falset (falsehoods) and Dissait (deceit).[5] These vices now rule the government and prevent virtues from advising the King. Their spell is broken by Divine Correction who wakens the King and orders him to summon a parliament of the Three Estates: the nobility, the clergy and the burgesses. The second half of the play centres around this parliament. The Estates are challenged by John the Commonweal, the personification of the common and good people of the kingdom. John advocates for reform to reverse the oppression of the poor and he exposes the corruption of the Spiritual Estate of the clergy. The vices are hanged, parliament passes reforming laws and the play ends with a joyous sermon by Folly.[6]

The only written evidence we have of this 1540 play is from a report by Thomas Benneden passed to the English commander of Berwick, Sir Thomas Eure.[7] Benneden’s report of this play was at the time seen by the English court as evidence of the Scots’ King’s willingness to abandon the Catholic faith and Pope in Rome. However, Henry VIII was clutching at straws. Poking fun at the court and the Kirk, the Scots name for the Church, in the presence of said court, bishops, and archbishops, can hardly been seen as evidence of an imminent Reformation. The tradition of satire and mockery of the institutions of the court and the Kirk was in fact a much older medieval tradition, which acted as an amusing cathartic exercise.

The surviving text is of the play in its later form, revised and extended, in the 1550s. The play was performed again in 1552 in Cupar in Fife and 1554 in Edinburgh. The first printed version of the text appeared in 1602. However, the Treasurer’s Accounts for the Scottish court have evidence of payments for ‘playcoats’ specifically for Epiphany 1540.[8] The costumes, or ‘playcoats’, were multi-coloured matching taffeta and with a specially made ‘cape’. These 1540 accounts give us a sense of the multi-sensory aspects of the 1540 Interlude performance.

In 2013 these multi-sensory elements came to life with the first ever modern full-length production. The play was performed at Linlithgow Castle. The project was spearheaded by Professor Greg Walker and Dr Eleanor Rycroft of the University of Edinburgh, and Professor Thomas Betteridge of Brunel University with Historic Scotland and the Arts and Humanities Research Council.[9] It aimed to both entertain and educate its viewers and celebrate the richness of Scottish cultural history. David Lyndsay’s Ane Satyre of the Thrie Estatis is a testament to this sophisticated Scottish culture and the implications of drama on political life in early modern Britain.

Image: Sir David Lyndsay’s coat of arms. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.


[1] Carol Edington, Court and Culture in Renaissance Scotland: Sir David Lindsay of the Mount (1486-1555) (East Linton: Tuckwell Press, 1994).

[2] Jamie Cameron, James V: The Personal Rule 1528-1542 (East Linton: Tuckwell Press, 1998).

[3] Rosalind K. Marshall, Mary of Guise Queen of Scots (Edinburgh: NMS Enterprises Limited, 2001); Elizabeth Bonner, ‘Scotland’s ‘Auld Alliance’ with France, 1295-1560’, History, vol. 84, no. 273, 1999, 5-30.

[4] Andrea Thomas, ‘Princelie Majestie’: the court of James V of Scotland 1528-42 (Edinburgh: John Donald, 2005).

[5] Dictionaries of the Scots Language [https://dsl.ac.uk/].

[6] Sarah Carpenter, ‘Towards a Reformed Theatre: David Lyndsay and Ane Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis’, The Yearbook of English Studies, 43, 2013, pp. 203-222.

[7] Carol Edington, Court and Culture in Renaissance Scotland: Sir David Lindsay of the Mount (1486-1555) (East Linton: Tuckwell Press, 1994).

[8] Accounts of the Lord High Treasurer of Scotland, eds. Thomas Dickson and Sir James Balfour Paul, 12 vols (Edinburgh: H.M. General Register House, 1877-1916); Sarah Carpenter, ‘Plays and Playcoats: A Courtly Interlude Tradition in Scotland?’ Comparative Drama, 46: 4, 2013, 475-496.

[9] ‘A Satire of Three Estates – Filmed Performance’, Staging and Representing the Scottish Court [http://stagingthescottishcourt.brunel.ac.uk/filmed-performances/asatireofthreeestates/index.html]

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