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Issue 10 - Opportunity Knox

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 10
September 2003


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Opportunity Knox


In Scotland, the Reformation came late and, when it came, Roman Catholicism was replaced by the Protestant faith in a velvet revolution. Throughout much of northern Europe it had been a brutal, bloody affair.

In the decades after Martin Luther hammered his 95 theses against the abuse of indulgences to the door of the Castle Church at Wittenberg in 1517, religion, nationalism and power politics led to persecution, wars and the death of thousands.

In England, Henry VIII declared himself head of the church so that he could take a new wife and grab the wealth of the monasteries. His daughter Queen Mary was a Catholic and turned things upside down by burning the Protestant heretics at the stake. Her sister Queen Elizabeth reversed this policy once again.

But in Scotland, religion seemed hardly to be an issue. Most people seemed content with the rickety buildings, rackety priests and their concubines, the monasteries with their lay abbots, usually sons of the king or the nobility, who creamed off the profits and rents of the vast church lands. But politics and one charismatic figure changed the nation.

Of course, there was a growing number of enthusiastic Protestants, but their leader George Wishart was arrested in 1546 by Cardinal David Beaton of St Andrews, and was burnt at stake for heresy.

Beaton was assassinated and his supporters rounded up, including a priest, John Knox, who was sentenced to a term as a galley slave. From our perspective, Knox can make uncomfortable viewing.

For generations he was seen as the greatest man in Scottish history, but his lack of tolerance, authoritarianism, utter conviction of his own righteousness and belief in the inferiority of women raises uneasy echoes.

Knox was released and became a minister in Berwick in Protestant England but when Queen Mary took the throne, he fled her inquisition and became a disciple of Calvin in Geneva.

He became famous for his radical views expressed through a stream of pamphlets, the most notorious being his First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, which hit out against rulers such as Elizabeth who had succeeded her sister as Queen of England and re-established the reformed faith.

Scotland’s queen was Mary Stuart. Her mother, Mary of Guise, was regent and French and had sent her daughter to France in 1548 where she had married the dauphin, the heir to the throne.

In 1558 he became king, which meant Mary was queen of two countries as well as heir to the English throne, and there seemed a real danger that Scotland could become a mere province of France.

Some of the Scots nobles, ruthless in their pursuit of power, had declared for Protestantism as the Lords of the Congregation. Anti-Catholicism now became synonymous with patriotism and anti-French feeling.

John Knox returned to Scotland after 12 years’ exile in 1559. He preached a fiery sermon in Perth which spurred the congregation to destroy the symbols of Catholicism and join the reformed church.

The regent died in 1560, and the Lords of the Congregation commissioned Knox to produce a Book of Reformation to place before parliament. They told him to revise it, but ensured that mass had been abolished, papal authority repudiated and the Kirk was in place as the national church with a general assembly and broadly democratic control by the time that the beautiful, newly widowed, deeply devout, 19-year-old Queen Mary landed in Scotland in 1561.

Nowhere in Europe was the contrast between radical Protestantism and a Catholic monarchy more stark.

The queen found Knox less than congenial, particularly when he hectored her about the wickedness of her religion and the looseness of her own behaviour.

The country was split between the queen’s supporters and the supporters of the new faith dominated by members of the nobility, some of whom thought they should be king in Mary’s place.

The queen’s own behaviour sealed matters. She married, produced an heir, and became estranged from her husband, who was murdered. In 1567, after a brief civil war triggered by her elopement with the Earl of Bothwell – the most likely candidate as her husband’s murderer – she was deposed and fled to England where she was imprisoned.

With the queen out of the way, parliament declared the infant James as Protestant king of Scotland and excited General Assembly declared the Reformation secure.

This suited England, which had supported the revolution in order to split Scotland from France. It suited the nobility who now held the levers of power and saw no need to surrender the old church lands they had expropriated to fund the new religion.

It suited the zealots who could control public behaviour and attitudes.

What happened to the old church and its officials? The graven images were certainly destroyed, but this was often carried out against the wishes of the new establishment.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about the Scottish reformation was the lack of disruption it created at the grass roots.

Three of the Roman Catholic bishops ditched their faith and became commentators or superintendents to ensure that the new creed was followed.

Even in 1590, thanks to the nobility’s refusal to release church monies, three out of four parishes were without qualified ministers who could preach or hold communion.

So congregations sang psalms, heard a sermon once a month if they were lucky and developed a taste for theological disputation that became a national characteristic.