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19 September 2014
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The Reformation
'If you think properly of the Gospel, please don’t imagine that its cause can be advanced without tumult, offence and sedition... The word of God is a sword, it’s war, ruin, offence, perdition and poison. If I am immoderate, at least I am simple and open’
Martin Luther on Protestantism (1520)

The 16th century was the age of the European Reformation: a religious conflict between Protestants and Catholics which divided Western Europe for over 150 years, and continues to do so until this day in certain areas.

It started with a protest in 1517, when Martin Luther, a German Augustinian monk, nailed his 95 Theses to a church door in Wittenberg. What started as the spiritual doubts of one monk, spiralled into a religious movement known as Protestantism - named after Luther’s 'protest'.

What was Protestantism?

Luther, a gifted Renaissance scholar, returned to the primacy of the scriptures: to the actual text of the Bible, and then rejected all the Church's practices that were not written therein. He interpreted the Bible as the literal word of God. Specifically, Luther rejected the authority of the Pope, an action that usually led to a charge of heresy and being burnt at the stake. However, he was given time to reconsider his heretical views, which Luther did, before deciding that he had to stay faithful to his conscience. Fortunately for Luther, various German princes ensured his survival and funded the propagation of his theories through the printing press. Soon Lutheran texts were spread across Europe, fanning the flames of religious conflict and inciting rebellion throughout Christendom.

Scotland Reformed?

Religion was important to Scots in the 16th century. Socially, the Church was crucial to everyday life. It was responsible for education, health, welfare and discipline. It was also very important on an individual level. The Church was the vehicle for expressing inner spirituality and changes to its forms of worship could endanger your chances of salvation. In other words, your future in either Heaven or Hell was at stake.

The Reformation split the Church into Catholic and Protestant factions, creating two roads to salvation - both of which claimed to be true. So it was very important to people that the Scottish state chose to travel down the right road. When Lutheran books in Latin started to appear in Scotland, the radical message which they carried quickly made a strong impression on many Scots, and, although King James V tried to ban their distribution, print always had the knack of avoiding the censor when necessary.

In the early 16th century, Scotland was a piously Catholic nation. Devotion flourished, and an increasingly educated populace sought more personal forms of spiritual experience. Rome and its doctrines, it seemed, were not always up-to-date with the needs of a nation heading at high speed for the modern world. Reform was in the air, but only a tiny minority at this stage favoured Protestantism and a complete break with Rome.

MaryAfter Henry VIII converted to Protestantism, taking most of the English nation with him, James V, in need of money to support his royal court's extravagant lifestyle, cunningly flirted with Protestant ideas in order to scare the Pope in granting him tax concessions. However, in 1542 James V died; his only heir was the infant Mary, Queen of Scots. Scotland was plunged into a crisis, the like of which it had not seen since the death of Alexander III and the Wars of Independence.

The ‘Rough Wooing’

Both France and England pursued the opportunity to commandeer the Scottish throne by marrying the young queen. England was Protestant, France was Catholic. In their bitter power struggle over Scotland the issue of Scotland’s faith became not merely a question of religious denomination but one of international power politics.

The ‘Rough Wooing’, as it came to be called, saw England attempt to force Mary's hand through repeated invasions and the defeat of the Scots Army at the Battle of Pinkie. In return, the French supplied the Scots with troops and the firepower to resist Henry's advances. Both sides spent a fortune on this rough wooing of the Scots. It is thought that Henry VIII spent the fortune he had gained from the dissolution of England’s monasteries on the campaigns, all to no avail. In the end the French triumphed.

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