William Skene ca.1525-1582

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William SKENE ca.1525-1582

Biographical Note

The second son of James Skene of Bandodle and Janet Lumsden, the daughter of Robert Lumsden of Cushnie. He was the elder brother of Sir John Skene of Curriehill ca.(1540–1617). He married Margaret Martin, the widow of William Arthur of Cairnis. He was admitted as a notary by the bishop of Aberdeen in 1540, and in 1549 entered King’s College, Aberdeen to study theology. According to John Durkan, Skene likely studied for a law degree at the University of Bourges, which was at this time the leading humanist law school in France.

From 1556 he was at the University of St Andrews, recorded as licensed in both canon and civil law, and Canonista of St Mary’s College, St Andrews, from 1558. Skene adhered to the Protestant faith after the reformation, in 1560 was named by the General Assembly of the Kirk as qualified for ministry in St Andrews. He was appointed commissary of St Andrews in 1564, and elected Dean of the Faculty of Arts in 1565, and again between 1578 and 1581. He died on 2nd September 1582


An inventory of Willam Skene’s possessions lists around 200 books. His library was especially strong in civil law and classics, especially Cicero and Justinian. John W. Cairn describes Skene’s library as “relatively extensive and sophisticated” containing typical works of a good sixteenth-century law library (Cairns,p.181).

One notable manuscript in his possession was the Scottish legal text Regiam Maiestatem, known as the Bute Manuscript (NLS MS.21246), which belonged to Skene from 1565, and was later owned by his brother Sir John, who used it extensively for his edition of the Regiam Maiestatem (Edinburgh, 1609).

It is not clear what happened to Skene’s books after his death, but they are now dispersed. Surviving volumes with his inscription include Paradoxa, Parerga juris, Dispunctiones (NLS A.61.a.8(1)), by Italian jurist Andrea Alciati, who taught law at the University of Bourges. The work illustrates points of civil law, and interprets it with humanist classical texts.

Skene also owned a work on heresy by President of the Parlement of Paris, Pierre Lizet (1482-1554), who considered all humanists and evangelicals to be heretics (EUL *C.22.42). The book was previously owned by John Grierson, the Dominican Provincial and Professor of Theology at the University of St Andrews until the reformation.

Additionally Skene is known to have owned Bishop Durand’s commentary on Peter Lombard’s Sentences (GUL Bn6.b4), which previously belonged to James Annand, the 16th-century Chancellor of Orkney priest, and John Greenlaw of Haddington (d.1566). It also contains the later provenance of Charles Lumsden ca.(1561-1630), minister of Duddingston.

Characteristic Markings

Books identified as Skene's have variations of the inscription "Ex bibliothecam Guilielimi Skene commissarij Sancti-:andrea" (NLS A.76.f.11)

"Ex Bibliotheca M. gulielmi Skene commissarii Sancti-andree" on the title page (E.U.L *C.22.42)

Inscription of William Skene (NLS A.76.f.11)


  • Cairns, John W. ‘The Law, the Advocates and the Universities in Late Sixteenth-Century Scotland’ The Scottish Historical Review, Vol. 73, No. 196, Part 2 (Oct., 1994) 171-190
  • Campbell, Gordon. "Alciato, Andrea." in The Oxford Dictionary of the Renaissance. Oxford University Press, 2003.
  • Durkan, John. ‘Addenda to 'Further Additions to Durkan and Ross' The Bibliotheck Vol. 11, Iss. 3, (Jan 1, 1982)
  • Durkan, John. ‘The French Connection in the Sixteenth and Early Seventeenth Centuries’, in Scotland and Europe 1200-1850, ed. T.C Smout. Edinburgh, 1986.
  • UYSS110/AP/2 ‘Inventory of the possessions of William Skene, Commissary of St Andrews, 12 December 1583’ University of St Andrews Library