Skip to main page content (AccessKey S)
The Reformation was a turning point in Scottish history. At the religious level it signified the end of five hundred years of dominance by the Roman Church, leaving in its place a unique brand of radical Presbyterian Protestantism. At the political level it broke centuries of close cultural and military links with France and replaced them with even closer, though often very uncomfortable, links with England: links that would lead inexorably to the unification of the crowns of England and Scotland 43 years later, and the Act of Union between England and Scotland 104 years after that. And at the cultural level the Reformation swept away much of the previous five hundred years of human endeavour as radical Protestant iconoclasm turned into an effort to destroy every piece of art, sculpture or architecture in any way associated with the hated "Popery".
By the start of the 1500s, the Roman Church was looking increasingly dissolute, corrupt and ill-suited to its purpose, and calls for its reform by "Protestants" were starting to emerge in various parts of Europe. In 1525 the Scottish Parliament responded by banning the import of books written by the founder of Protestantism, Martin Luther, and trying to suppress "his heresies or opinions" throughout Scotland. Protestant views continued to find a ready audience, however, and a turning point came when the Protestant reformer Patrick Hamilton was burned at the stake in St Andrews on the orders of Cardinal Beaton on 29 February 1528. His execution only served to increase disaffection with the Roman Church and more Protestant martyrs followed him to the stake in the 1530s and 1540s.
The international picture changed dramatically when Henry VIII broke with the Roman Church and was excommunicated in the early 1530s. Henry had earlier been appointed "Defender of the Faith" by the Pope for his opposition to Protestantism, and his decision to appoint himself "supreme head in earth of the Church of England" had nothing to do with theological arguments or the conduct of the Church of Rome: it was simply down to the unwillingness of the Pope to permit his divorce from Catherine of Aragon. Founding a completely new church with himself at the head allowed Henry to obtain the divorce he wanted and marry Anne Boleyn. And dissolving the monasteries and taking into crown ownership all church lands and property did wonders for his treasury.
But whatever Henry's motives, and however unsympathetic he initially was to the Protestant cause, he showed the world that the hitherto unquestioned power of the Roman Church could be overturned: and suddenly people across Northern Europe began to think the unthinkable, that if the Roman Church could not be reformed, it could instead be replaced. By 1541 Protestantism was seen as such a threat to the establishment in Scotland that the Parliament prohibited private meetings of "heretics" and instituted rewards for informers.
In 1543 the issue of religion in Scotland became deeply intertwined with the question of international politics. Scotland and France had been close allies - usually against England - under the terms of the "Auld Alliance" since the end of the 1200s. This had more than once led Scotland into confrontation with England, never more disastrously than in 1513, when the Scottish King James IV and a generation of nobility were wiped out at the Battle of Flodden by an English "B" Team, while Henry VIII himself was off campaigning in France with the main English army.
When the infant daughter of James V, Mary, became Queen of Scots at the age of six days old in December 1542, Henry VIII was not slow to see the opportunity, and the threat, that she represented. If he could persuade the Scots to accept the betrothal of Mary to his infant son Edward, he could bind together the thrones of England and Scotland forever, which would offer the real prospect of annexing his troublesome northern neighbour. But there was competition for Mary's hand, in the form of the French Dauphin, the future Francois II of France. If Mary were to marry him, it raised the spectre of the merging of the Scottish and French crowns, leaving Henry not with an ally of France on his northern border, but instead with something far worse, a province of his oldest and most dangerous enemy ideally placed to attack his rear.
Henry therefore launched a major charm offensive to try to persuade the Scots to betroth Mary to Edward, leaving Scotland deeply divided between "The English Party" who saw this as the way ahead and "The French Party" who saw Henry as a threat to the Roman Church as well as to the security of Scotland. Eventually an agreement was reached between Henry and "The English Party" in Scotland, but popular Scottish sentiment was so outraged that it allowed Cardinal Beaton to take control of the country and repudiate the treaty with Henry. Henry's response was to invade Scotland in March 1544 in what became known as "The Rough Wooing".
The English were only finally beaten off nearly a year later at the Battle of Ancrum Moor in February 1545. The focus in Scotland then returned to the core question of religion, and on 1 March 1546 Cardinal Beaton took what many regarded as a step too far when he had the Protestant, George Wishart, burned at the stake in St Andrews. The Protestant response was not long in coming. At dawn on 29 May 1546 a group of Protestant lairds from Fife entered Cardinal Beaton's home, St Andrews Castle pretending to be stonemasons. The Cardinal was dragged out of his bedchamber, stabbed to death, mutilated, then hung from a castle window, in full view of the town of St Andrews.
St Andrew's Castle then became a gathering place for Protestants from all over the country, including a supporter of Wishart's, John Knox. They held the castle in the face of a siege by troops supporting Mary Queen of Scots' mother, Marie de Guise, who headed "The French Party". The Protestants had hoped for military support from Henry VIII, but it was too slow in coming. Instead French naval vessels arrived to bombard the castle, forcing it to surrender on 31 July 1547.
Although the English were too late to assist the Protestants holding St Andrew's Castle they nonetheless ended up occupying the whole of south east Scotland as far north as Dundee. This greatly set back the cause of Marie de Guise and "The French Party" and encouraged Scottish Protestants. Paradoxically, however, this action lost Henry VIII the real prize he sought when Mary Queen of Scots escaped to France and betrothal with French Dauphin in 1548. As part of the deal France supplied Marie de Guise with enough troops to fight off the occupying English, and for the next decade "The French Party" governed in Scotland under Marie de Guise as Regent for the absent Mary, and Protestants were systematically suppressed.
In 1548 the supporters of the Roman Church took belated steps to tackle the obvious problems within it. The advances of Protestantism were blamed by Catholics 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". Efforts to bring about reformation within the Roman Church proved largely ineffective and Protestant dissatisfaction, though suppressed, continued to grow in Scotland.
Matters came to a head with the marriage of Mary Queen of Scots to the future Francois II of France in December 1557, and the growing fear among Protestants that Scotland would become a province of Catholic France. The growing dissatisfaction found its outlet in the Lords of the Congregation, a group of Protestant Scottish nobles prepared to openly oppose Marie de Guise and the French in support of the Protestant teachings of John Knox.
A cat-and-mouse game of territorial control, sporadic fighting and widespread iconoclasm then started across central Scotland between the Lords of the Congregation on the one hand and Marie de Guise and her French troops on the other. The Protestants were on the verge of complete defeat when an English fleet arrived in the Firth of Forth in January 1560, tipping the balance back in their favour.
Full scale civil war within Scotland, with the active participation of large numbers of English and French troops on the opposing sides, was only averted when Marie de Guise died in June 1560. The English and French, who had both found 15 years' intermittent military involvement in Scotland to be very costly, agreed the Treaty of Edinburgh, under which they both withdrew their forces from Scotland and let the Scots get on with governing themselves. The result was the Scottish Parliament which convened in Edinburgh on 10 July 1560, attended by 14 earls, 6 bishops, 19 lords, 21 abbots, 22 burgh commissioners, and over 100 lairds.
On 17 August 1560, the Parliament agreed to a Reformed Confession of Faith, a fundamental step away from the Roman Church, and on 24 August it passed a series of Acts that entirely destroyed the Roman Church in Scotland. The celebration of mass was made punishable by a series of penalties up to and including death, and all Papal jurisdiction in Scotland was repudiated.
Though the Reformation in Scotland can be said to have happened over a very short period of time, between June and August 1560. The question of what was to replace the Roman Church took considerably longer to settle, however, and what eventually emerged was a staunchly Presbyterian church that took a fairly fundamentalist approach to life, worship and to church governance.
The different paths taken by the Reformations in England and Scotland, and their different outcomes in terms of the structure and outlook of superficially similar Protestant churches either side of the border, directly led to the decades of civil war that devastated Scotland, England and Ireland though the central part of the 1600s: but that, as they say, is another story...