Scottish Reformation

Scottish Reformation

The Scottish Reformation was Scotland's formal break with the Roman Catholic Church in 1560, and the events surrounding this. It was part of the wider European Protestant Reformation; and in Scotland's case culminated ecclesiastically in the re-establishment of the church along Reformed lines, and politically in the triumph of English influence over that of France.

The Reformation Parliament of 1560, which repudiated the pope's authority, forbade the celebration of the Mass and approved a Protestant Confession of Faith, was made possible by a revolution against French hegemony. Prior to that, Scotland was under the regime of the regent Mary of Guise, who had governed in the name of her absent daughter Mary Queen of Scots (then also Queen of France).

The Scottish Reformation decisively shaped the Church of Scotland [Article 1, of the Articles Declaratory of the Constitution of the Church of Scotland 1921 states 'The Church of Scotland adheres to the Scottish Reformation'.] and, through it, all other Presbyterian churches worldwide.

Pre-reformation Church (1517-59)

Pressure to reform

From the fifteenth century, Renaissance humanism had already encouraged critical theological reflection and calls for ecclesiastical renewal in Scotland. From 1517, Martin Luther's doctrinal ideas were influencing Scots. As early as 1525 Parliament thought it necessary to forbid the importation of Lutheran books, and to suppress 'his heresies or opinions' throughout the realm. [ J. Kirk "Dictionary of Scottish Church History and Theology" Wright D.F. et al (eds) Edinburgh 1993 p694] However, this attempt was largely unsuccessful. [It had to be repeated in 1535] In 1528, the nobleman Patrick Hamilton, influenced by Lutheran theology whilst at the universities of Wittenberg and Marburg, became the first Protestant martyr when he was burned at the stake for heresy, outside St Salvator's College at Saint Andrews. [An account of the martyrdom can be found in chpt. XV of Foxe's Book of Martyrs] (Hamilton had been spreading his message with the use of "Patrick's Places", a short catechism founded on the doctrine of justification by faith [ full text can be found at [] ] ). However, the celebration, particularly in printed works, of Hamilton's stance, only served to increase interest in the new ideas. Indeed, the Archbishop of St Andrews was warned against any further such public executions as "the reek of Maister Patrik Hammyltoun has infected as many as it blew upon". [As quoted by Mackie, J. D., "History of Scotland" Penguin 1964 p.151] Further prosecutions and executions followed in the 1530s and 40s.

The Parliament of Scotland, in 1541, thought it necessary to pass further legislation protecting the honour of the Mass, prayer to the Virgin Mary, images of the saints, and the authority of the pope. Private meetings of 'heretics where there errors are spread' were prohibited, informers rewarded, and Protestant sympathisers barred from royal office. All this was testimony to the growing attraction of Protestant ideas.

The cause of reform also enjoyed influential support. At this time, the clergy produced a list for the king of over a hundred landowners disaffected to the church. Such was the strength of sympathisers of reformation that, on the death of James V in 1542, they were able to form a government (under the vacillating Earl of Arran, who at that point favoured an English alliance and reforming causes).

Reforming Councils

The pre-Reformation Church did respond to some of the criticism [Criticism can also be evidenced in Sir David Lyndsay's parodying of the clergy in Ane Pleasant Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis (1552)] being made against it. John Hamilton (the last pre-reformation Archbishop of St Andrews) instigated a series of provincial councils (1549-1559) modelled on the contemporaneous Council of Trent. These blamed the advance of the Protestant heresies on "the corruption of morals and the profane lewdness of life in churchmen of all ranks, together with crass ignorance of literature and of the liberal arts". [as quoted in J. Kirk "Dictionary of Scottish Church History and Theology" Wright D.F. et al (eds) Edinburgh 1993 p696] In 1548, attempts were made to eliminate concubinage, clerical pluralism, clerical trading, and non-residence, and to prohibit unqualified persons from holding church offices. Further, the clergy were enjoined to scriptural reflection and bishops and parsons instructed to preach at least four times a year. Monks were to be sent to university, and theologians appointed for each monastery, college and cathedral. However, in 1552, it was acknowledged that little had been accomplished. Attendance at Mass was still sparse and "the inferior clergy of this realm and the prelates have not, for the most part, attained such proficiency in the knowledge of the Holy Scriptures as to be able by their own efforts rightly to instruct the people in the catholic faith and other things necessary to salvation or to convert the erring". [ as quoted in J. Kirk "Dictionary of Scottish Church History and Theology" Wright D.F. et al (eds) Edinburgh 1993 p696] The internal reform seemed too little, too late.

Political Background (1543-59)

By 1535, the English king, Henry VIII, had broken with Rome and had been excommunicated. He had also permitted the reading of the Bible in the native tongue. These 'English heresies' were an additional influence on events in Scotland. Ecclesiastical ideas were linked to political manoeuvring. English policy from the 1530s aimed at enticing Scotland away from its traditional ties to France (the 'Auld alliance') and Rome. In the 1540s Henry sought a treaty for the marriage of his infant son Edward to the infant Mary (by then Queen of Scots): the regent, Arran, approved this match in August 1543 (by the Treaties of Greenwich). However, reaction against it in Scotland allowed a coup by Cardinal David Beaton that December. Beaton repudiated the reforming policies, and all consideration of an English marriage for the Queen. The result was Henry's 'Rough Wooing' of 1544-5, which devastated south-east Scotland, and was only halted by the defeat of the invaders at Ancrum Moor in February 1545.

In 1546, Beaton arrested and executed George Wishart,a preacher who came under the influence of John Calvin in Geneva - and had indeed translated the First Helvetic Confession into Scots. Retribution quickly followed. A group of rebels seized Beaton's castle at Saint Andrews, and murdered him. These 'Castelians' (who, after the murder, were joined by a renegade priest, and student of Wishart's, named John Knox [Lamont, Stewart "The Swordbearer" p.32-39] ) held out in the castle until 1547, when they were forced to surrender to a French squadron and were imprisoned or taken as galley slaves. English forces arrived too late to save them, but nevertheless, having defeated the Scots at Pinkie, occupied south-east Scotland as far north as Dundee. This occupation (1547-49) encouraged the reforming cause; English Bibles circulated freely, and several earls pledged themselves 'to cause the word of God to be taught and preached'.

To counter the English, the Scots secured French help, the price of which was the betrothal of the infant Queen to the French dauphin, the future Francis II; she departed to France in 1548. At this point, "the policy of Henry VIII had failed completely". [Mackie, J.D. "A History of Scotland" Penguin 1964 p. 144 ] French ascendancy was made absolute over the next decade. Arran, in 1554, was given the title Duke du Châtellerault and removed from the regency in favour of Mary of Guise (the Queen Mother). During her regency (1554-1559), Frenchmen were put in charge of the treasury, the Great Seal, and the French ambassador sometimes attended the Privy Council.

Lords of the Congregation

At first Mary of Guise cultivated the now growing number of Protestant preachers. She needed to win support for her pro-French policies, and they could expect no alternative support from England, which had recently come under the rule of the Roman Catholic Mary Tudor. However, the marriage of Mary Queen of Scots to the dauphin in 1558 heightened fears that Scotland would become a French province.

By 1557, a group of Scottish lords (known as 'the Lords of the Congregation') drew up a covenant to 'maintain, set forth, and establish the most blessed Word of God and his Congregation.' This was followed by outbreaks of iconoclasm in 1558-9. At the same time, plans were being drawn up for a Reformed programme of parish worship and preaching, as local communities sought out Protestant ministers. In 1558, the Regent summoned the Protestant preachers to answer for their teaching, but backed down when lairds from the west country threatened to revolt.

Reformation Crisis (1559-60)

The accession, in England, of the Protestant Queen Elizabeth in 1558 gave fresh hope to the reformers. January 1559 saw the publication of the anonymous Beggars' Summons, which threatened friars with eviction on the grounds that their property belonged to the genuine poor. This was calculated to appeal to the passions of the populace of towns who appeared to have particular complaints against friars. [ Burleigh, J. H. S. "A Church History of Scotland" Edinburgh 1960, p 143] Fearing disorder, the Regent summoned the reformed preachers to appear before her at Stirling on May 10th: insurrection followed. The men of Angus assembled in Dundee to accompany the preachers to Stirling, on May 4th they were joined by Knox recently arrived from France. Here, stirred by Knox's sermons in Perth and Dundee, the mob sacked religious houses (including the tomb of James I). In response, the Regent marched on Perth, but was forced to withdraw and negotiate when another reformed contingent arrived from the west. Among the Regent's ambassadors was the Earl of Argyll and Lord James Stewart (both professed Protestants), however when the Regent went back on her word, by stationing French mercenaries in Perth, both abandoned her and joined the Lords of the Congregation at St Andrews, where they were joined by Knox. Even Edinburgh soon fell to them, as Mary retreated to Dunbar. Chatelherault, at this point, accepted the leadership of the 'Lords of the Congregation' and established a provisional government. However, Mary of Guise was reinforced by professional French troops, and drove the rebels back to Stirling. All seemed lost for the Protestant side until an English fleet arrived in the Firth of Forth, in January 1560, causing the French to retreat to Leith.

Negotiations then began (from which Knox was excluded, his earlier tract The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women rendering him unacceptable to Elizabeth I). The resulting Treaty of Berwick (February) was an agreement between Chatelherault and the English to act jointly to expel the French. However, in June 1560, Mary of Guise died, allowing the Treaty of Edinburgh: a negotiation between France and England, which secured the withdrawal of both French and English troops from Scotland. Although the French commissioners were unwilling to treat with the insurgent Lords of the Congregation, they offered the Scots certain concessions from King Francis and Queen Mary, including the right to summon a parliament according to use and custom. The effect of the treaty was to leave power in the hands of the Protestants.

Reformation Parliament 1560

The Scots' Parliament met in Edinburgh on July 10 1560. Fourteen earls, six bishops, nineteen lords, twenty one abbots, twenty-two burgh commissioners, and over a hundred lairds claimed right to sit. Parliament then set up a 'committee of the articles' which, after three weeks, recommended a condemnation of transubstantiation, justification by works, indulgences, purgatory, and papal authority. Further it recommended restoring the discipline of the early Church, and redistributing the wealth of the Church to the ministry, schools and the poor. On 17 August, Parliament approved a Reformed Confession of Faith (the Scots Confession), and on 24 August it passed three Acts that destroyed the old faith in Scotland. Under these, all previous acts not in conformity with the confession were annulled; the sacraments were reduced to two (to be performed by reformed preachers alone), and the celebration of the Mass was made punishable by a series of penalties (ultimately death). Papal jurisdiction in Scotland was repudiated.

However, aside from approving the confession, parliament showed little interest in plans for the reformation of the church. Significantly, although the traditional functions of the old clergy had been terminated, the clerical estate remained legally intact and, more importantly, in possession of the revenues of the old church. What shape the new church was to take was left open, and indeed was not finally settled until 1689. [Burleigh, J.H.S. "A Church History of Scotland" p153] Moreover, and perhaps unsurprisingly, the Queen declined to endorse even the acts that Parliament had passed, which were not officially ratified until the first parliament of James VI in 1567. Nevertheless, from this point on, Scotland was, in effect, a Protestant state.

Post-Reformation Church


Unlike the earlier reformers, who were Lutheran, Knox and most of those surrounding him were firm in their practice of Calvinism. (Knox had travelled to Calvin's Geneva during his exile from Scotland, and described it as "the most perfect school of Christ that ever was on earth since the days of the Apostles." [Burleigh, J.H.S. "A Church History of Scotland" p154] ) The "Scots Confession" reflects that Calvinist influence, although without the systematic and scholastic nature of the more strident Westminster Confession that would replace it in 1644. The "Scots Confession" expounds the themes of the Catholic creeds, but also includes a rejection of any meritorious virtue: all good works are brought forth by the spirit. It also rejects all religious works that have no Scriptural warrant, including the rites of the Roman church. As for the church, it derived its authority from the word of God and was to be defined by "true preaching of the word of God ... secondly, the right administration of the sacraments of Christ Jesus ... last, ecclesiastical discipline uprightly ministered". [Scots Confession chapter 18]


Parliamentary hostility meant there was no question of any Act of Uniformity as in England. Thus, the shape the Church initially took was dependent on local Protestant patrons. However, even before 1560, reformed congregations had already been organising themselves under the influence of Knox. In a 'Letter of Wholesome Councell' dated 1556, Knox describes in detail what should be done at weekly worship. Protestant preachers fleeing Marian persecutions in England brought with them Edward VI's second Book of Common Prayer (of 1552), which was commended by the Lords of the Congregation. Knox too initially supported it (indeed reportedly, he had influenced aspects of it). However, before leaving Geneva and with the encouragement of Calvin, he has written his own 'Book of Common Order' and it was this that was printed and approved by the General Assembly of 1562. Enlarged, it was reprinted with the Confession and the Psalms in metre in 1564, and it remained the standard until replaced with the Westminster Directory in 1643. [On this section see Burleigh, J.H.S. "A Church History of Scotland" p160-163]

Church Polity

How the Church was ideally to be organised was spelled out in the First Book of Discipline (1560), a document which set about organising both the Church and national life in accordance with the Reformed understanding of Scripture. It envisaged the establishment of reformed ministers throughout Scotland, a national system of education, and poor-relief. Ministers were to be examined for their suitability and then elected by the local congregation. [First Book of Discipline chapt. 4] In the interim, whilst candidates were scarce, 'readers' were to be appointed. Also, there should be 'superintendents', better paid than ministers, with regional responsibilities corresponding to the old dioceses. (It has often been suggested from this that Knox favoured episcopacy - however, it is to be remembered that Apostolic succession was explicitly denied. [First Book of Discipline chapt. 5] ) Education was to be established at primary, secondary and university levels; it was to be examined and inspected.

In truth, the lofty aims often went unrealised, or at least only realised very slowly. [Knox claimed that the book was commissioned by Parliament itself, but that they declined to enact it. Knox, K. "History of the Reformation" (ed. W.C Dickinson 1949), i, 343] An Act of 1562 denied the new Church much of the wealth of the old, with the church receiving a sixth of the income that it had received pre-Reformation with most of the balance going to the nobility. [CathEncy|wstitle=Established Church of Scotland] As late as 1567, there were only 257 ministers and 600 readers for 1,067 churches. [Mackie, J.D. "A History of Scotland" Penguin, London 1964 p.160 ] The marks of what is now recognisable as Presbyterianism also start to emerge: Kirk Sessions existed from 1560, moderators emerged in 1563, but the presbytery not until 1580. The seeds were planted for the modern shape of the Church of Scotland.

ee also

* History of Scotland


References and further reading

* Burleigh, J. H. D "A Church History of Scotland" Hope Trust, Edinburgh, 1988.
* Cross, F.L. and Livingstone, E.A. (eds), "Scotland" in "The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church", pp.1471-1473. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1997. ISBN 0-19-211655-X
* Kirk, J,, "Patterns of Reform" T&T Clark, Edinburgh, 1989 ISBN 0-567-09505-3
* Kirk, J.,"Reformation, Scottish" in Cameron, Nigel M. de S. "et al", "Dictionary of Scottish Church History and Theology", pp.693-698. T & T Clark, Edinburgh 1993. ISBN 0-567-09650-5
* Lamont, Stewart "The Swordbearer: John Knox and the European Reformation" Hodder and Stoughton, London 1991
* Lynch, Michael, "Reformation" in "The Oxford Companion to Scottish History", pp.500-504 . Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2001. ISBN 0-19-211696-7
* Mackie, J. D., "A History of Scotland" Penguin, London 1964
* McGovern, Mary (ed), "Chambers Biographical Dictionary" Seventh Edition. Chambers, Edinburgh, 2002. ISBN 0-550-10051-2

External links

* [ BBC Scottish History]

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