Tuesday, February 3, 2015

The Reformation in Scotland

Ninth in a Series on the Protestant Reformation

Fr. Charles Coppens, S.J.

John Knox (1514-1572)
In England, as we have seen, the Reformation began with the throne and was forced upon the people; in Scotland, it began with a small but active portion of the people and was forced upon the government; once seated on the throne, it worked downward on the entire nation. It resembled a vast conflagration which begins with a match applied at the bottom of a pile of wood, shoots upward and spreads over the surface, kindling first all the dry portions it meets, and gradually consuming everything from the top to the bottom.

The dry branches were the corrupt members of the Church; and they were many in that land, more than elsewhere, especially among the clergy. For the freedom of ecclesiastical elections had been much violated, the rights of the Sovereign Pontiffs over the appointment of bishops ignored, and the Kings had often thrust their favorites into vacant bishoprics and other important benefices. For instance, King James V had made his illegitimate sons abbots and priors of Holyrood House, Kelso, Melrose, Codingham and St. Andrew's. Under such circumstances, inferior benefices were often openly put up for sale, or bestowed on unworthy candidates, sometimes on illiterate minions of courtiers.

Among such clergymen, religious scandals were frequent, and all manners of abuses were multiplied. The land was among the most remote corners of the Church, so that supervision and interference of the Roman Pontiff were very difficult, and therefore rare and inefficient. Such demoralization of the clergy could not fail to react on the laity, extinguishing in their hearts all reverence and confidence. Certainly there were at the time still large numbers of holy priests and monks and nuns; multitudes among the laity remained pious, fervent and faithful Catholics; but the depraved members of society are apt to be the most noisy and most active, and are always the most unprincipled in their use of means.

Such is the ordinary source of religious corruption in history; the secular power usurps the appointment of the Church dignitaries, the unworthy bishops install unworthy men in lower benefices, scandals and abuses degrade the clergy in the eyes of the laity, who lose confidence in their spiritual guides and reverence for religion itself.

The disgust of the good Catholics in Scotland, and the gibes and insults of the ill-disposed attracted more attention year after year. It was the time when Luther had just succeeded in revolutionizing religion in Germany, Calvin was triumphant in Geneva, Henry VIII had made himself the head of the Church in England. The most restless malcontents in Scotland were looking for a religious revolution in their own country as a cure of the existing evils. But many of them had a further design. They noticed that in all regions where the Reformation gained ground, the lords were enriched by the appropriation of Church lands and the treasures of the altars and the monasteries; only there was no sovereign in Scotland willing to promote the confiscation. They plotted among themselves secretly and perseveringly and at last accomplished their wicked purpose.

Their first effort was to foster the popular discontent. Revilings and ridicule of the demoralized clergy went far towards discrediting the ancient doctrine. Poetry contributed its aid, and fostered heretical views there as it had done in Germany. Sir David Lindsay thrilled the heart of the nation by lines as vigorous as they were elegant. The same wordy warfare was there used to discredit the clergy and the Church which was afterwards so successfully emploed by Voltaire to destroy the nobles and Christianity in France, where he prepared the way for the Reign of Terror.

The soul of the Reformation in Scotland, the counterpart of Luther, Zwingli and Calvin on the continent, was John Knox, the founder of the Presbyterians. he was born in 1505, ordained a priest in 1530; he was a man of learning and uncommon ability, a powerful preacher, but exceedingly coarse in his language. From 1535, he was a Protestant at heart, though he wore the mask of orthodoxy till 1542. A few years later, in open violation of his solemn vow of celibacy, he married a Miss Bowes, at Berwick, on the Scottish borders.

In 1544, Henry VIII plotted with some Scottish traitors to get possession of Mary, the heir to the throne of Scotland, who was then an infant only one year old. He was thwarted in his criminal design by a true Scottish patriot, Cardinal Beatoun. But he had his revenge in the murder of that noble prelate, perpetrated by the foiled conspirators. Knox openly approved the crime, and defended it as a "godly deed," which was to promote the work of the Reformation. he joined the band of guilty wretches, furnished them with armed defenders, with whom he was taken prisoner and carried to France by the allies of Mary.

Thence, after two years' detention, he passed into England, where he fraternized with Cranmer and his friends, who were then engaged in drawing up the Book of Common Prayer. When Mary restored Catholicity there, he fled to Geneva, to imbibe, from Calvin's teachings, the predestinarianism and the fanaticism which he was to infuse into his own followers. In 1555, he entered Scotland secretly, and encouraged the lords, who, that same year, entered into their first "Solemn League and Covenant" to bring about the establishment of the new gospel. Two years later, they went further, and swore to uproot the "abominations and idolatry" of the ancient faith.

Mary of Guise, the Queen Dowager
The Queen dowager, who was governing the country during the minority of Mary, strove to conciliate the rebels. She offered them full liberty of worship in the practice of the reformed doctrines, but they would not accept the offer; they had covenanted together for the total destruction of the Catholic religion. This is admitted by Knox himself, for in a letter which he wrote in 1559, he said that his party obtained permission for eight days to practice "religious liberty" as they understood it, and he adds:
In the which (days), the abbey of Lindores, a place of black monks, twelve miles distant from St. Andrew's, we reformed: their altars we overthrew; their idols, vestments of idolatry and Mass books we burned in their presence, and commanded them to cast away their monkish habits.
Knox and his brother preachers marched through the land, with the assistance of the covenanted rebels, establishing along their route the glorious Reformation, in the light of burning churches and monasteries, with their burning libraries and works of art. The preaching aroused the mob, and the mob did the work of destruction; for it was a solemn injunction of the Calvinistic creed, still contained, we believe, in the Presbyterian confession of faith, forcibly to remove all "false worship" and all "monuments of idolatry."

The Protestant Hutchinson writes:
The Reformation, in its violence, was a greater disgrace to religion than all the errors it was intended to subvert. Reformation has hitherto always appeared in the form of a zealot full of fanatic fury, with violence subduing, but through madness creating almost as many mischiefs in its oversight as it overthrew errors in its pursuits. Religion has received a greater shock from the present struggle to suppress some formularies and save some scruples than it ever did by the growth of superstition.
The dowager Queen-regent offered, over again, the free exercise of their religion to the covenanted Protestant lords, but these would not accept the offer in good faith; they claimed besides the right to remove "false worship and the monuments of idolatry." By this term, they meant especially the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, which is the center of Catholic worship. Protestants generally in our day have no conception of the bitter fanaticism with which the early Reformers in various lands persecuted their fellow countrymen who persevered in their ancestral faith.

Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots
In Scotland particularly, they carried their ferocity to the most shocking excesses. They did not even allow their young Queen Mary, when she came home from France, to have Mass said by her chaplains in her own palace. Miss Agnes Strickland, herself a Protestant, writes in her valuable work Lives of the Queens of Scotland as follows:
On that morning, being Sunday (the first day of her return), Mary ordered Mass to be said in the Chapel Royal, resolutely claiming for herself and the Catholic members of her household the same liberty of conscience and freedom of worship which she frankly guaranteed to her subjects in general, without reservation or exceptions. The hearts of the congregation (the Protestants) were wonderfully moved when they learned that the Queen, though she refrained from persecuting interference with their mode of worship, meant to go to Heaven her own way. Patrick, Lord Lindsay, braced on his armour, and, rushing into the close at the head of a party of the Church militant, brandished his sword and shouted: "The idolater priest shall die the death!" They attacked the Queen's almoner, and would have slain him, if he had not fled for refuge into the presence of his royal mistress.
On the following Sunday, Knox preached on the evil of idolatry, and he expressed in his sermon such fanatical hatred of the ancient worship as to say one Mass was more fearful unto him than if ten thousand armed enemies were landed in one part of the realm on purpose to suppress the whole religion. These very words are attributed to him by his warm admirer, the historian of his life, the preacher McCrie. The acts of open violence by which the Reformation was spread from one city to another, by the desecration of churches, the plundering and sacking of monasteries, etc., had begun in 1559. In 1560, the rebels had formed a parliament without commission from their sovereign, and they had established in that meeting the new religion on the ruins of the old; they had abolished the papal power and enacted punishments against all who still had recourse to it; they had abolished the Holy Mass, and enacted, for the priests who should continue to offer it and the faithful who attended the service, forfeiture for the first offense, banishment for the second, and death for the third. The new confession of faith was modeled on that of Calvin. The dowager Queen marched with an army against the rebels, and had got the better of them so that their power was on the point of being crushed, when it was saved and made triumphant by the open support of Queen Elizabeth, who had so far aided them in secret ways. The same Protestant historian of Knox, McCrie, quoted above, and who substantially admits nearly everything we have narrated, says, on this matter:
The disaster, which caused the Protestant army to leave Edinburgh, turned out to the advantage of their cause. It obliged the English court to abandon the line of cautious policy, which they had hitherto pursued. On February 27, 1560, they concluded a formal treaty with the lords of the congregation; and in the beginning of April, the English army entered Scotland.
What secret plotting had begun was consummated by open violence, as far as the establishment of the Reformation in Scotland was concerned.

As to the subsequent life of the unfortunate but truly glorious Queen Mary, and her heroic death, we shrink from entering here upon the sickening story of the intrigues, slanders, treason, murder and forgeries by which all this was brought about. Of forgeries, the Anglican parson Whitaker says, and with his words we can appropriate close the narrative of the Reformation in Scotland:
Forgery - I blush for the honor of Protestantism while I write - seems to have been peculiar to the Reformed. I look in vain for one of the accursed outrages among the disciples of Popery.


  1. I read once, (I can't remember where) that in 1290, when the jews were expelled from England they went to Scotland where they thrived and that is one of the reasons why calvinism and presbyterianism gained such a strong foothold there. The jewish encyclopedia states that Scotland is ine of the few countries in the world that has never expelled the jews.
    Was the corruption in the Catholic Church in Scotland as bad and as prevalent as Father Coppens makes out, or has he absorbed the protestant histories?
    In his "History of the Reformation in England and Ireland" William Cobbet, a Protestant, paints a far more sympathetic picture of the monks and monasteries and the work of the Catholic Church than is described here.

  2. Dear hunt,

    It is certainly possible that Fr. Coppens accepts uncontested a Protestant bias here and there; he made a point to use almost exclusively Protestant sources in his research for this series, so as to make sure he's using material which, in their eyes, is more or less unassailable. At the same time, Fr. Coppens is not at all shy about pointing out the failings of Catholics whenever fairness requires it. That ecclesiastical elections were often tampered with, for example, is a matter of public record, and the blame sits squarely on otherwise Catholic shoulders.

    As for the role of the Jews in Scotland, there seems to be little direct evidence of their having much presence at all in the land prior to the late 17th century. But I'm certainly open-minded on the matter.


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