Scottish society and the Church in the 1540s

The Catholic Church was very powerful in Scotland prior to the Reformation.

Religion was a focal point for the daily life of ordinary people in 16th century Scotland.

Being a good Catholic and receiving the blessings of the sacraments (religious ceremonies or acts, such as baptism) meant that individuals could achieve salvation (an eternity in Heaven).

For years people gave land and money to the Catholic Church to counter sins they had committed - Martin Luther thought this practice to be wrong.

The video below gives an insight into the Catholic Church, Pre-Reformation.

In the time of James V, the Church was wealthier than the King. It had an income of around £300,000, while the King had only around £20,000.

The Church owned a great deal of land which it rented out, and it also collected tax from the people.

As a result, monks were wealthy and lived well, while many ordinary people struggled to earn a basic living.

Issues faced by the Catholic Church

The Church was thought to be suffering from a number of problems:

  • Nobles had large incomes, so could therefore influence the Church through bribery.
  • Bishops demanded that funds from parishes were sent to them. Therefore local churches suffered, as spending on buildings was limited.
  • Priests within these parishes were often poorly educated and lacked knowledge of scripture and the Catholic faith, so were not always able to preach accurately.
  • Many nuns were poorly educated and nunneries were losing influence.
  • Some clergy had a wife and children despite the fact that they should have been celibate.
  • Illegitimate children of the nobility and royalty were appointed to office within the Church. For example, James V’s illegitimate sons became senior members of the clergy and the appointments were approved by Pope Clement VII.

Failed attempts of reform by the Catholic Church

Attempts at reform within the Catholic Church were limited.

The Archbishop John Hamilton of St Andrews passed reforms which increased the authority of bishops, set standards for clergy, and tried to address the state of church buildings.

Through publication of his Catechism (a summary of beliefs or teachings), an attempt was made to guide those who wanted to defend the Catholic faith. However, the most serious problem remained at parish level.

Poorer clergy struggled to preach the faith to largely uneducated people and many senior clergy continued to drain church money to serve their own interests, and to finance luxurious lifestyles.

Protestant ideas had been spreading into Scotland for some time and increased numbers of the nobility chose the new faith. In 1557 a group of Protestant Lords, known as the Lords of the Congregation, united against Mary of Guise and declared their intention of establishing the Reformation in Scotland.

Those who followed Protestantism faced persecution in Scotland – amongst them the young Protestant preacher George Wishart who was burned as a heretic (a non-believer) in 1546.