Princis, Prelatis, and Potestatis

Princis, Prelatis, and Potestatis

William Dunbar wrote this lament for the makaris—the Scottish poets of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. It is a long poem and in rather archaic language but it is an interesting reflection on mortality.

Unto the Death gois all Estatis,
Princis, Prelatis, and Potestatis,
baith rich and poor of all degree

William Dunbar (1465—1520?)

Poem 186. Lament for the Makaris

I THAT in heill was and gladness
Am trublit now with great sickness
And feblit with infirmitie:—
    Timor Mortis conturbat me.
Our plesance here is all vain glory,
This fals world is but transitory,
The flesh is bruckle, the Feynd is slee:—
    Timor Mortis conturbat me.
The state of man does change and vary,
Now sound, now sick, now blyth, now sary,
Now dansand mirry, now like to die:—
    Timor Mortis conturbat me.
No state in Erd here standis sicker;
As with the wynd wavis the wicker
So wannis this world's vanitie:—
    Timor Mortis conturbat me.
Unto the Death gois all Estatis,
Princis, Prelatis, and Potestatis,
Baith rich and poor of all degree:—
    Timor Mortis conturbat me.
He takis the knichtis in to the field
Enarmit under helm and scheild;
Victor he is at all mellie:—
    Timor Mortis conturbat me.
That strong unmerciful tyrand
Takis, on the motheris breast sowkand,
The babe full of benignitie:—
    Timor Mortis conturbat me.
He takis the campion in the stour,
The captain closit in the tour,
The lady in bour full of bewtie:—
    Timor Mortis conturbat me.
He spairis no lord for his piscence,
Na clerk for his intelligence;
His awful straik may no man flee:—
    Timor Mortis conturbat me.
Art-magicianis and astrologgis,
Rethoris, logicianis, and theologgis,
Them helpis no conclusionis slee:—
    Timor Mortis conturbat me.
In medecine the most practicianis,
Leechis, surrigianis, and physicianis,
Themself from Death may not supplee:—
    Timor Mortis conturbat me.
I see that makaris amang the lave
Playis here their padyanis, syne gois to grave;
Sparit is nocht their facultie:—
    Timor Mortis conturbat me.
He has done petuously devour
The noble Chaucer, of makaris flour,
The Monk of Bury, and Gower, all three:—
    Timor Mortis conturbat me.
The good Sir Hew of Eglintoun,
Ettrick, Heriot, and Wintoun,
He has tane out of this cuntrie:—
    Timor Mortis conturbat me.
That scorpion fell has done infeck
Maister John Clerk, and James Afflek,
Fra ballat-making and tragedie:—
    Timor Mortis conturbat me.
Holland and Barbour he has berevit;
Alas! that he not with us levit
Sir Mungo Lockart of the Lee:—
    Timor Mortis conturbat me.
Clerk of Tranent eke he has tane,
That made the anteris of Gawaine;
Sir Gilbert Hay endit has he:—
    Timor Mortis conturbat me.
He has Blind Harry and Sandy Traill
Slain with his schour of mortal hail,
Quhilk Patrick Johnstoun might nought flee:—
    Timor Mortis conturbat me.
He has reft Merseir his endite,
That did in luve so lively write,
So short, so quick, of sentence hie:—
    Timor Mortis conturbat me.
He has tane Rowll of Aberdene,
And gentill Rowll of Corstorphine;
Two better fallowis did no man see:—
    Timor Mortis conturbat me.
In Dunfermline he has tane Broun
With Maister Robert Henrysoun;
Sir John the Ross enbrast has he:—
    Timor Mortis conturbat me.
And he has now tane, last of a,
Good gentil Stobo and Quintin Shaw,
Of quhom all wichtis hes pitie:—
    Timor Mortis conturbat me.
Good Maister Walter Kennedy
In point of Death lies verily;
Great ruth it were that so suld be:—
    Timor Mortis conturbat me.
Sen he has all my brether tane,
He will naught let me live alane;
Of force I man his next prey be:—
    Timor Mortis conturbat me.
Since for the Death remeid is none,
Best is that we for Death dispone,
After our death that live may we:—
    Timor Mortis conturbat me.

This poem’s repeated line, “Timor Mortis conturbat me” means, “The fear of death disturbs me”, and comes from the Catholic Office of the Dead. This refrain reinforces the message of every stanza as the narrator despondently lists the poets that have passed before him.

The first stanza begins by saying that though he was formerly happy and hale (“heill was and gladnèss”), he is now troubled by sickness and enfeebled by infirmity. The second considers the transitory nature of the world, the brittleness of flesh and the wiliness of the Devil; the third comments on how our physical state varies from day to day: sound to sick, blithe to sorry, dancing and merry to dying. The fourth stanza strengthens this idea: no state in Earth is sure: just as the wind blows the willows, the world’s glories wane.

He goes on in the next several stanzas to reflect on the mortality of everyone regardless of their station in life — all estates, princes, prelates and powers, the rich and the poor. Death takes on the armed and armoured knights in the field and is victorious in every melée; he takes the strong tyrant and the suckling babe, the champion of the fight, the captain in the tower and the lady in the bower.

Death spares no-one: the puissant lord, the intelligent clerk, the magicians and astrologers, orators (rethoris), logicians and theologians; even those in the field of medicine: leeches, surgeons and doctors, avail nothing against his terrible stroke. He turns to the profession nearest to his heart: the makars—the great poets. Like all the others, they are not spared, playing their pageants (padyanis) before going to their graves.

He begins a litany of great names:

Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1340s—1400), “the noble flower of poetry” whose General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales I covered in March 2021.

John Lydgate (c. 1370—1451), the Monk of Bury who produced around 145,000 lines of verse.

John Gower (c. 1330—1408), the Pearl Poet and a personal friend of Chaucer.

“good Sir Hew of Eglintoun, Ettrick” who is thought to be Hugh of Eglington (?—1376), brother-in-law to Robert II of Scotland.

Heriot, an unidentified Scottish poet.

Wintoun—Andrew of Wyntoun (c. 1350—c. 1425), the author of the Orygynale Cronykil of Scotland which contains an early mention of Robin Hood and also the earliest mention of the word Catholic in English.

Maister John Clerk, also an unidentified poet but the word ‘maister’ signifies a university education.

James Afflek, possibly James or Jamie Auchinleck but none of his works are known to have survived.

Richard Holland (—c. 1483), the author of the Buke of the Howlat.

John Barbour (c. 1320—1395), the first named literary figure to write in Scots, his principal surviving work being The Brus (The Bruce).

Sir Mungo Lockart of the Lee, possibly related to the Lockharts of Lee, but otherwise unidentified.

“Clerk of Tranent”, unidentified author of “Anteris of Gawane” (Adventures of Gawain).

Sir Gilbert Hay (c. 1403—1456?), poet and translator, author of the Buik of Kind Alexander the Conquerour.

Blind Harry (c. 1440—1492), author of The Wallace (“The Actes and Deidis of the Illustre and Vallyeant Campioun Schir William Wallace”)

Sandy Traill, unidentified.

Patrick Johnstoun, courtier, whose works have not survived but is still “quhilk” (quick, that’s to say living) at the time Dunbar wrote this poem.

Merseir, unidentified.

Rowll of Aberdeen, unidentified.

Rowll of Corstorphine, possible author of one surviving poem.

Brown (Dunfermline), unidentified.

Maister Robert Henrysoun, a teacher and writer of the “Testament of Cresseid” and “Morall Fabillis”.

Sir John the Ros, no known works.

Stobo, no known works but thought to be John Reid, a priest in Kirkcudbright and a notary in the royal courts of James II, III, and IV.

Quintin Shaw, author of one surviving satire.

Walter Kennedy (c. 1455—c. 1508), author of “The Passioun of Christ” and Dunbar’s opponent in “The Flyting of Dumbar and Kennedie”, a sort of medieval rap battle between poets, conducted before James IV of Scotland and assisted by Quintin Shaw and Sir John the Ros (both mentioned before).

He ends by suggesting that since Death has taken all his brother makars, he expects to be the next in line and since there is no remedy, he must prepare for death and make the best disposition (dispone) of our worldly goods so that we may live after death.

This is another poem that I was introduced to by the tape recording of Richard Burton’s performance of three or four of the stanzas. It has always impressed me and now I have read the whole poem, I find it very impressive that Dunbar has such a command of 14th—15th Century Scottish literary history and it is sad that so many of these people are now so anonymous and that their works are in many cases obscure or lost—after all, in their day they were famous names and would have been well respected as poets and bards, many of them members of the Scottish royal court of the time.

The Scottish Parliament reintroduced the post of Makar as the National Poet for Scotland in 2004. The present Makar is Kathleen Jamie, who succeeded Jackie Kay in 2021.

I chose this poem a few days ago, but it has added force today because I discovered that a colleague with whom I have worked closely in the past year and who was a similar age to me has suddenly and unexpectedly died. Like William Dunbar, I find myself confronted by the spectre of my own mortality. Rest in peace, Rob.

Next week’s poem is for Hallowe’en.


  • Read about the poem on Wikipedia.
  • Read about the Latin phrase on Wikipedia.
  • Listen to Richard Burton’s reading of a few lines from the poem on YouTube.