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19 September 2014
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Mary, Queen of Scots

Mary, Queen of ScotsIn 1561, Mary, Queen of Scots, upset the applecart of the Protestant Reformation. Her husband, Francois II, King of France had died unexpectedly, and the Scots were more than a little surprised by the sudden appearance of Mary's ship at Leith's port. Since 1542, Scotland had been ruled by a series of regents acting in Mary’s name. By 1560, The Lords of the Congregation had overthrown the power of Mary’s mother, Mary of Guise, and created a provisional government, but now she returned, bringing with her the glamour and authority of Scotland’s royal court, and drawing nobles, both Catholic and Protestant, to its intrigues.

The Protestant Kirk which had been established in defiance of royal authority, found itself in limbo and subject to a Catholic monarch. For ministers like John Knox, Mary represented a serious threat to the whole Protestant cause. To his even greater annoyance, Mary interfered but little in matters of religion: tolerating the Kirk and even granting it revenues. However, Mary did refuse to give her assent to the Scottish Parliament’s acts which abolished the mass.

Catholic and Protestant
In the 16th century there was a wide spectrum of opinion on Church reform, although most desired reform of some sort. In 1560, neither Catholicism or Protestantism had been systematically defined (it wasn't until the 1570s that the Council of Trent defined Catholicism), and pressing questions were begging to be answered within the new Protestant Church in Scotland. Which form of Protestantism did God want: Lutheranism or Calvinism? How was a church created in defiance of royal authority to be governed? Were there to be bishops or not? Was the church to be known as Episcopalian or Presbyterian. Was it to be under the control of a ‘godly’ prince or ‘godly’ ministers?


These tensions are well represented in the two key figures - James Stewart and John Knox. James Stewart, Earl of Moray, was the half-brother of Mary, Queen of Scots. An Augustinian Canon, he was well educated and as well cultured as any privileged landowner. A sincere Protestant, he had led the Lords of the Congregation in rebellion in 1559. However, with Mary’s return he was drawn to court and advised Mary on many matters of religion. It was Moray who carved out the compromise deal which allowed Mary to have her own private mass once the mass had been publicly banned, thus allowing her to remain Catholic and continue her claim to the throne of England, but without interfering with the Reformation settlement.

John Knox on the other hand was born into a relatively poor East Lothian background. For Knox ‘In religion there is nae middes (middle): one is either of God, or the Devil’. He was a man with a will to break up society: a militant Protestant who wanted no dealings with Catholicism at all. In practice this meant throwing your wife or family out onto the street for receiving the sacraments, or ceasing all trade and business with Catholics. Most Scots, however, found this more than a little impractical and formed a vast army of compromisers - holding society together through tolerance.

The Confrontation
John Knox
Moray and Knox came into confrontation over the issue of Mary’s private mass. To Knox it was more dangerous than ten thousand armed Frenchmen, and he fuelled the anti-Catholic fire by leading a Protestant mob to Holyrood Abbey to disrupt the Queen's mass. However, when he arrived there he found the door barred against him by Moray. Holyrood was his brother's monastic precinct and he was determined no mob should disrupt the political deal he had negotiated. Knox was forced to withdraw and was henceforth regarded as a political liability. The Reformation was ruled by the Lords of the Congregation, not by the rule of Knox and the mob.

Mary was attempting was to ride out the Reformation crisis, hoping to bring the Kirk under royal control in a moderate Protestant form and, for a while, it seemed she would succeed. Then matters became very complicated for Mary. Her second husband, and father to King James VI, Lord Darnley, was murdered. Mary then married one of the suspected assassins James Hepburn, the Earl of Bothwell - a man with more than a few enemies in the kingdom. It was then that Scottish nobility rose against her- claiming that their actions were motivated by a desire to protect Mary from Bothwell's malign influence.

The Deposition of Mary
In 1567 Mary was imprisoned in Lochleven Castle after a coup d’etat to separate her from Bothwell’s influence. This is all that most of the Scots nobility wanted, however, six weeks later Protestant radicals seized their chance and mounted a second coup d'etat which forced Mary’s abdication in favour of her infant son, James VI. Scotland spiralled into six years of civil war. Of the two rival factions, Mary commanded the most support (she was after all the legitimate queen), but after defeat at the Battle of Langside she fled into exile in England. Here she sought protection from her cousin, Elizabeth I of England, who, suspicious of any provocation to a Catholic uprising in her own realm, had Mary imprisoned. This was her fate, until 1587, when she was beheaded on a charge of treason.

After The Battle of Langside the Protestants had the upper hand in Scotland's civil war. The Protestant, William Kirkcaldy of Grange, held Edinburgh Castle in Mary's name, enduring two years of the ‘Lang Siege’ before the English cannon finally smashed the castle's defences to rubble in 1573. Scotland now had a Protestant regime, ruling over a far from convinced population.

To convince the population of the legality of their actions the Protestant radicals called upon the power of the printing press and one of Scotland’s greatest Renaissance scholars - George Buchanan.


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