Scotland's History Articles The Scottish Reformation

The Scottish Reformation

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"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".

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.

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.

After 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.

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.

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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.

In comparison to other countries, there was very little persecution of Protestants in Scotland. Cardinal Beaton instigated an inquisition-style regime against Protestant "heresy" at St Andrews- the centre of the Scottish Church. In 1528, Patrick Hamilton became Scotland's first Protestant martyr, but few followed him to the stake. Many Protestant intellectuals just fled abroad, never to return.

One exception in 1546 is George Wishart, a popular preacher, who, on his return to Scotland, was captured and executed on the command of Cardinal Beaton. His death sparked a rather confused rebellion by some local, Protestant Lairds. They assassinated Cardinal Beaton and seized St Andrews Castle, hoping that English intervention would save them from any retribution. For a year they held the castle until a French force arrived and took the castle. Among the prisoners sent into slavery in the French King's galleys was one John Knox.

Before his capture, Knox had been trained as a Catholic priest and had worked as a tutor in East Lothian. He spent 19 months at the oars of a French galley, even finding time to edit a Protestant Confession of Faith before he was released. Knox then began his life as an exile: first as a minister in England, and then, after England reverted to a Catholic monarchy, in Frankfurt and Geneva to preach to exiled English congregations. For most of the 1550s Knox stayed in exile, however, what made John Knox unusual was that he returned home once the Reformation crisis broke in 1559.

In 1558 Mary of Guise, the widow of James V of Scotland, achieved an unparalleled diplomatic triumph for the Stewart dynasty when her daughter Mary, Queen of Scots, married Francois, heir to the French crown.

Henry VIII's policy of the Rough Wooing had backfired. Mary was sent to safety in France and the Scots were driven into the arms of their auld allies, the French. Also, a badly kept secret clause in the marriage contract effectively gave France control of Scotland.

The Scots were faced with a difficult dilemma. If they accepted the conditions of Mary's marriage, they lost their independence to France. If they didn't, it meant embracing their most bitter enemy, England. For Protestants, already regarded as a fifth column by Mary of Guise, the marriage brought the fear of a French-led inquisition to root out "heretics".

1558 was the very nadir of despair for Protestant fortunes. Mary of Guise was in tight control and Mary Tudor had returned England to Catholicism. Scottish Protestantism seemed defeated. Knox, fulminating in exile, denounced the iniquity of the female influence, issuing his infamous tract: "The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women": aimed directly at Mary Tudor and Mary of Guise.

Within a year, events changed everything. The accession of the Protestant Elizabeth I to the throne of England gave the reformers renewed confidence. Only about 10% of the population, mostly lairds and townsfolk, were Protestant, but their numbers included some very important nobles: the Duke of Châtelherault (head of the Hamiltons), and the Earls of Argyll, Glencairn and Morton, to name a few.

Known collectively as the "Lords of the Congregation", they were led by James Stewart, the illegitimate half brother of Mary, Queen of Scots. The Lords were the real power behind Protestantism and in May 1559 they unleashed it that power.

Knox was roused from exile and returned to Scotland, preaching a sermon against idolatry in Perth which unleashed a seething Protestant mob. Iconoclasm (the destruction of religious images) swept the nation. In St Andrews the army of the Lords of the Congregation stripped the altars, smashed the icons, destroyed the relics and whitewashed the walls of its churches over night.

People would no longer be distracted from God's glory by the glitter and rich hangings of the Catholic Church. For the men who "cleansed the altars" this was direct action against the iconography of Catholicism. Its abbeys and great cathedrals, irrelevant to the new godly society they envisioned, were left to decay. A great deal of Scotland's Renaissance artistic legacy was lost forever.

The message, however, didn't inspire widespread support across Scotland. Mary of Guise successfully portrayed the group as rebels. The Lords of Congregation answered with the printing press, justifying their rebellion as an attempt to free Scotland from French domination rather than a religious revolution. Luck didn't desert them either.

Their greatest foe, Mary of Guise, died in June 1560 and the English sent support to counter her French troops. By 1560 the majority of the nobility supported the rebellion; a provisional government was established, the Scottish Parliament renounced the Pope's authority, and the mass was declared illegal. Scotland had officially become a Protestant country.

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In 1561 the unexpected return of Mary, Queen of Scots re-ignited the whole issue. It seemed that power wouldn't change hands so easily and that Scotland would have to sail the troubled waters of the Reformation for a while yet.

Mary's hopes to practise her Catholic faith in private while allowing Scotland to remain at least nominally Protestant were ultimately dashed largely due to her poor taste in men. Marriage to her English cousin, Henry Stewart (Lord Darnley), provoked anger and resentment. His subsequent murder and, more astonishingly, Mary's marriage soon after to the man widely assumed to be responsible for the death of Darnley tipped the country into open warfare. Mary's turbulent Scottish adventure ended at defeat at the Battle of Langside and a hasty escape to England where lengthy captivity and untimely death awaited her.

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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.

George Buchanan, a Gael from Kilearn, was one of Europe's most brilliant Renaissance scholars. He worked and travelled across the continent and was the Latin poet and philosopher of his age. On the return of Mary, Queen of Scots, he acted as her court poet, but he was also a convinced Calvinist and a moderator of the Church of Scotland.

Through his books Buchanan came up with a very radical justification for the overthrow of Mary, Queen of Scots. He asserted that the ancient Gaelic Kings of Scotland had been elected and not divinely appointed. Hence they were subject to the law of Scotland and not above it. So, if a monarch broke his or her contract with the people and became a tyrant, then in law, the people, by which he meant the Scots nobility, were entitled to depose that monarch.

In Buchanan's view, Mary had broken her contract and had been legally deposed, but, just in case this argument failed to convince the people, he also started the myth of Mary's promiscuous love-life and accused her of being a whore.

Buchanan's ideas would go on to form the basis of the covenanting revolution of the 17th century, but for decades these ideas were eclipsed by those of his illustrious protégé, King James VI of Scotland. Buchanan was appointed tutor to the young James VI in the hope that he would create a godly prince who would obey the congregation and serve the Protestant church. James went on to share his tutor's enthusiasm for Latin and Protestantism, but he rejected any idea of his kingship being subject to the law.

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James developed his own ideas on kingship, at a time when the rule book was being rewritten in any case. He saw himself as the "godly prince": the rightful head of the Protestant Church, but he also believed that no one except God had the right to depose him as king. He styled himself in the image of the great Biblical kings, David and Solomon, or as the Roman Emperor Constantine - the Church's great benefactor who had released Christianity from persecution. In doing so, James slowly asserted his control over the Protestant Kirk which was rapidly sinking into crisis.

After 1573 the Protestant Kirk faced a manpower crisis as the initial wave of reformers like John Knox died off. Attitudes were hardening on all sides across Europe as Catholicism and Protestantism became more rigidly defined. Plots abounded to restore Catholicism: in France the Protestants were massacred; in England Catholics were martyred. Scottish Protestantism had captured the state, but feared it had only secured conformity rather than genuine conversion.

It was King James VI who secured Protestantism's future in Scotland and he wanted the Kirk firmly under his control. Many agreed that the Kirk should be under the king's direction and James was able to introduce Episcopacy - governance of the church by bishops appointed by the king.

It was under the control of James VI that the idea that everyone should have a Bible was popularised (cheap Bibles were finally produced at the end of his reign in the 1620s). He oversaw the payment of ministers and founded Edinburgh University to compensate for the shortfall in professionally trained ministers.

The Kirk, funded by James and guided by his bishops, set about ingraining genuine Protestant belief into the minds of the population through the catechism - set questions and responses in order to inculcate orthodox belief - and the adaptation of popular ballads into Protestant songs. This was a propaganda machine which any monarch would have been proud of.

The reformers aimed at an improvement of manners to create a godly society. Similar concerns had been aired before 1560, but the Reformation brought a new intensity and vigour to the debate. Protestantism had localised the focus of religious activity to the Parish Kirk. They aimed to make people come to church and behave properly. Discipline was seen as essential to the godly society and the instrument they used for delivery was the Kirk Session. A local church 'court', composed of respectable Kirk elders and ministers, was established to act as an instrument of social control.

In Scotland, 60 per cent of all cases before the session were about sex (compared to only 5 per cent in France). Errant fathers had to recognise their illegitimate children, adultery was punished and promiscuity revealed. Discipline was tight, but the Kirk's surveillance of everyday life seems to have been accepted. It took three generations to achieve, but by the 1630s a new society began to emerge, led by "godly" ministers and lairds who wanted a share in running Scotland.

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In 1603, James VI's Protestantism and diplomacy paid off when he succeeded Elizabeth I to the throne of England and Ireland. To many Scots nobles a Scots king ruling over the wealth of England seemed to be a triumph, but elation soon turned to disillusionment. The expected bonanza of titles and offices never materialised and the Scottish kingship and court - the centre of Scottish society and patronage - vanished south. With the monarchy out of the way, it was left to the Protestant Church and nobles to form the core of a new Scottish identity.

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