'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.
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.
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.
The Reformation (II)
Were Scottish Protestants Persecuted?
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, he moved on to Frankfurt and Calvin's Geneva in order 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.
The Triumph of Mary of Guise
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.
The Scottish Reformation 1559-1560.
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.
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.