Most people do not know the name William Scheves, despite the fact that he was one of the most powerful men in Scotland in the late 1400s. Those who are familiar with the name may simply associate Scheves with his failed political career and his fateful friendship with the unpopular King James III. However, there is much more to Scheves than this maligned story would have it.
Scheves was a true Scottish renaissance man with a great passion for both science and academia as well as arts and culture. As a leading Scottish intellectual in the 15th century, it is unsurprising that Scheves held deep connections to the town of St. Andrews. Scheves studied at the university during the 1450s and served as archbishop of the town from 1479 to 1497. In the period between his studies at St. Andrews and his tenure as archbishop, Scheves ventured abroad to continue his education, most likely ending up in Leuven, in modern-day Belgium.
While abroad, Scheves’ education focused primarily on medicine and astronomy. When he returned to Scotland in the 1470s it was this medical training that enabled him to secure a position on the royal court, acting as a physician to King James III. The young king greatly favored Scheves and went so far as to instigate the removal of the then-archbishop of St. Andrews in order to appoint Scheves as his successor. Thus, Scheves reached the peak of his political career as both one of the king’s closest confidants and the new archbishop of the most important church in Scotland.
However, Scheves’ rise to power angered many. At the time King James was criticized widely across Scotland for his tendency to appoint his favorites to key positions of command, over better-born and perhaps more qualified noblemen. As it was rumored by many that Scheves was an illegitimate child of non-baronial blood, his rise to archbishop was nothing short of scandalous. In 1482, Scheves’ opponents attempted to remove him, citing his low birth status and lack of experience. While this operation failed, Scheves’ political career eventually came to a downfall six years later when King James III was killed in a battle against rebel Scottish forces, led by his own son. With the death of King James, Scheves subsequently found himself expelled from both the church and the state.
While Scheves’ legacy is often characterized by his political rise and downfall, this story fails to acknowledge his contribution to art and culture. The bronze medallion pictured below exemplifies Scheves’ active engagement with the arts.
Created by well-known Flemish artist, Quentin Metsys, the medallion was commissioned by Scheves when he visited Rome in 1491. While the artist Quentin Metsys is better known as a painter (and a famous one at that, with numerous paintings in leading museums like the National Gallery and the Metropolitan Museum of Art) he was also known to practice metalwork. Fellow patrons of Metsys’s medals included prominent intellectual figures like Desiderius Erasmus, a famous Dutch philosopher and one of the leading academics of the northern Renaissance. The design of the medal itself was inspired by traditional Roman medallions reserved for celebrating important leaders in the Roman empire. As Scheves was depicted by such an acclaimed artist in the same manner as distinguished leaders and scholars, the medallion symbolizes both his esteemed status as an intellectual as well as his awareness of greater artistic and cultural trends across Europe.
Scheves’ connection to artistic and intellectual circles in Europe is further illustrated by his extensive book collection. More than forty books bearing Scheves’ signature survive to this day, giving an impression of just how large and significant his collection was.
While Scheves is often looked down upon due to his association with King James III, this portrayal is ultimately unfair to his life’s greater work. As a physician, politician, clergyman, art patron, and intellectual, Scheves embodies the quintessential Renaissance man with his interest in both science and the liberal arts. Scheves’ embodiment of Renaissance ideals is particularly notable because at the time, Scotland was not widely associated with the Renaissance. Up until recently, the idea of the Renaissance as a cultural movement was often limited to Italy while Scotland and the rest of the northern region were afterthoughts within popular conception. However, Scheves epitomizes how Renaissance ideals spread beyond Italy into the Northern regions during the latter half of the 15th century. As a man that was ever learning and engaging with the contemporary issues and intellectual trends of his day, Scheves effectively marks himself as part of the often-overlooked Scottish renaissance. This embodiment of Renaissance ideals suggests that Scheves should ultimately be regarded as a figure of Scottish national pride rather than neglect and disdain.
Written by Cally Wuthrich, University of St Andrews student and volunteer with University Museums.