Introduction to the Scottish Reformation - ca 1525- 1690.

From the time of James I (reign 1406-1437) the succession of the House of Stuart had gone to the very young—James II was six years old, James III was eight, James IV was fifteen, James V was two, Mary Queen of Scots, but one week old, and James VI one year old—when they came to the throne. This meant that Scotland had some two hundred years of disjointed rule, a major part of which was by regents who had to fend off the rapacious feudal nobles who often came to Court surrounded by their retainers to influence decisions in their favour. Later, the Queen Regent, Mary of Guise, mother of Mary Queen of Scots, brought French troops to Scotland to assist her attempts to enforce Catholicism on the country. James VI became the first Stuart king to live through a full reign. 

The growth of Protestantism and the endorsement of Presbyterianism by the people of Scotland takes us through the Regency of the infant Mary, Queen of Scots, to her abdication in favour of her infant son, James VI, on 24 July 1567.  The early reign of James VI of Scotland saw the machinations of the regents until his majority, and eventually the exercise of ‘kingcraft’ that was variously insidious, blatantly biased, clever, cunning, and deceitful.  Although his reign was reasonably bloodless, the chicanery left a complicated legacy to unravel.  The accession of James to the crown of England in 1603 introduced new factors into the Reformation. The subsequent story through the rest of the reign of James VI/I, the reigns of Charles I, Oliver Cromwell, Charles II, James VII/II, and the struggles against Episcopacy and Erastianism, is told elsewhere on this site.

If censure was ever appropriate for the misconduct that occurred during the Scottish Reformation (1525-1690), it surely lies upon the puppet politicians of the day and the power seeking individuals, from the King down, who went to extremes to get their way. There were many underlying reasons that might be attributed for the need to have stringent and oppressive laws—excuses if you like—not least of which were fears of war with France, Spain, and Holland. There was also the interminable struggle for religious dominance with the Papists that had roots in the influence that Catholic France had exerted in Scotland for centuries. In later years  it was a matter of mutual intolerance and contention with supporters of Protestant Episcopacy. Amongst the nobility, which was still feudal in its outlook, there were struggles for land, position, and power with some, such as the Marquis of Argyll having his own agenda as he sought to consolidate his claim to be the Lord of the Isles.

The Rev.Thomas McCrie in Sketches of Church History   makes the important point that the Scottish and English Reformations were strikingly different.  In Scotland the people were converted to a Protestant faith before the civil authorities had even started in that direction. When the time was ripe, all the legislature had to do was ratify the faith that the majority of the nation had adopted. In fact, there was an approved religion in Scotland before there was an official church. The consequence of the rule of the Kirk by the people - according to the Scriptures, is that in Scotland there have been various reforms, improvements of standards and changes of testimony that have discarded everything, even by implication, that hinted at the church of Rome.  In England the people followed the royal actions and never sought to advance their position beyond the limits that Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth I had set by law. The nonconformists in England (loosely called Puritans) sought to remove the ceremony and quasi Catholic practices such as images, from the church. But, unlike the Presbyterians, they accepted the King as Supreme Governor of the Protestant Episcopal Church of England. From these differences, perhaps, has grown the distorted view of Presbyterianism as a stern and austere religion and its adherents as of a grave demeanour. But that is what it was all about: - freedom to worship as the people felt was right with the focus on the Scriptures; Christ as the sole Head of the church, and recognition of God’s rights in the civil rule.

It is essential to take a balanced view of what occurred between three and four hundred and fifty years ago, and endeavour to consider issues in the context of those turbulent times. It was not a time of democratic sweetness and light, and we should not judge by the standards and moralities of a twenty-first century strangled with political correctness. It was the age of belief in witchcraft  with over a thousand people, mostly women, burnt at the stake during the seventeenth century. Yet only some twenty-five or so protestant heretics met that fate in Scotland during the whole Reformation, and three Roman Catholic priests or monks were martyred.

The apparent lack of concern for human life is sometimes shocking, but class structures were well defined in a near feudal kingdom in which the common man was not much more than a slave. Indeed, white slavery actually existed in Scotland with prisoners sentenced to be house and farm slaves,  as well as  thousands transported as slaves to America and the sugar plantations in the West Indies. Power locally lay with the nobility, the landed gentry, and increasingly with the Town Councils, while successive governments were racked with malfeasance and the self aggrandisement of its officers.

 It should also be remembered that English, Irish and Welsh non conformists were subject to persecution, although perhaps not so consistently or as bloodily as in Scotland. Thus there was religious discontent throughout Great Britain, and indeed much of Europe, during most of the  seventeenth century. From it arose a unity of purpose that culminated in the replacement of  James II by the constitutional monarchy of William and Mary  at the `Glorious Revolution` in 1688. 

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