History of the Church: Early Modern Times - Notre Dame

Presbyterianism in Scotland

The fifteenth century was a lamentable period for Catholic Scotland. The Church had become enormously wealthy, her benefices were all in royal or lay gift, and they were systematically filled by individuals, often without Orders, whose only claim was royal or noble blood. Morality was at a low ebb, and the people were in a state of gross ignorance that left them a prey to any innovators. The strong feudality, which plays such a marked part in Scottish life, bound the whole clan to the chieftain in such a way that he could dictate whatever line of conduct seemed good to him with regard to religious as well as feudal matters.

Early in the sixteenth century, James V. came to the throne, but began to rule only after a long minority. He married French princesses, first, Madeleine, daughter of Francis I., and on her death Mary of Guise, of the powerful Lorraine family, the great opponents of the Huguenots. James was a practical Catholic, and withstood the efforts of the reformers, who quickly found their way to Scotland. The two Beatons, uncle and nephew, successively Archbishops of St. Andrews, assisted the king in putting down heresy. Patrick Hamilton, lay-abbot of Kirne, was one of the earliest to embrace the new doctrines. He was summoned for trial, but fled to Germany, where he was further encouraged in his errors by Luther and Melanchthon. Returning to Scotland, he was condemned as a heretic and burned (1527).

Henry VIII. was most anxious that his nephew James should imitate his example and break with the Pope, and he invited the Scottish king to meet him at York, to confer on the point. James, distrusting Henry, did not appear, though he had said he would, and Henry, exasperated, sent an army to invade Scotland, renewing the old claim of supremacy. James advanced with his army to the Border, but beyond that point the Scottish nobles would not go. The English attacked and routed them at Solway Moss (1542).

I. Civil Troubles accelerate Progress of Heresy

James's little heiress, Mary, was born a few days later, and he foretold that the Scottish crown would pass from the hands of the Stuarts through her. He died within a week, and Scotland was left for nineteen years to the government of regents, the first being James Hamilton, Earl of Arran. During the following years, when Henry sent one army after another into Scotland, many of the finest of the Scottish abbeys, all those near the Border, were destroyed, notably Melrose, Kelso, Roxburgh and Dryburgh. Cardinal Beaton was at the head of ecclesiastical affairs, and in 1546, he caused Wishart, a noted reformer, to be burnt. This man was in the pay of Henry VIII., and besides abetting heresy, he had been detected in a plot to overthrow the government by killing Beaton. Very shortly afterwards the cardinal was assassinated, in revenge for the death of Wishart, and his place was taken by the rebels and held for fourteen months against the regent. The French came to the assistance of the royal party, and among others Knox was taken prisoner and conveyed to .France. He escaped, went to England, thence to Geneva, where he wrote his inflammatory treatise "Against the Monstrous Regimen of Women," attacking Mary of Guise and Mary of England.

In 1554 the queen-mother became regent. She had in 1548 sent her little daughter to France, to get her out of the way of the English, who wanted to marry her to Edward VI. In 1559 the princess married the Dauphin of France. All this time Calvinism was gaining ground in Scotland, and when Knox returned in 1559, matters went forward rapidly. Already the country was deluged in blood, for the nobles had profited by this opportunity of plundering the rich bishoprics and abbeys. The Protestant lords, forming themselves into what they called the "Congregation of the Lord," were engaged in a work of wholesale destruction: nothing escaped their blind fanaticism.

II. Distracted State of Scotland

Knox fanned the flame, and in 1560 all bishops and clergy were driven from their livings, and a Confession of Faith was drawn up, which was accepted by the Scottish Parliament. Papal Supremacy was abolished, the Mass was done away with, and all laws favourable to Catholics were repealed. The Act embodying these measures was never ratified by the regent; still, it was regarded as law. The new Scottish Church was organized by Knox on a Presbyterian and democratic basis. Every parish had its court, composed of ministers and lay-elders. This was called the Parochial Assembly; each group of parishes formed a Presbytery; a group of Presbyteries composed a Synod, or Provincial Assembly. The General Assembly was the Supreme Court for the whole country. The lords opposed this state of affairs. They had not got rid of bishops and priests to submit to Genevan ministers.

Things were in this condition when Mary Queen of Scots returned to the distracted country. Her mother and her husband had died within a few months of each other, so the young sovereign was left alone to confront the difficulties of her position. Mary wisely did not attempt any violent measures. She merely asked for liberty to hear Mass in her own chapel. Knox furiously called on his followers to prevent this. The lords gathered round Mary and withstood the reformers, and civil strife followed for some years. Mary acted with great energy, but her nobles began to turn against her when she married Darnley, and after his murder and her marriage with Bothwell, they broke out into open revolt. Mary was taken prisoner (1567), and shut up in Lochleven Castle. Here she was forced to abdicate, and she fled to England to find another prison and, in the person of Elizabeth, another gaoler. After nineteen years of imprisonment she was put to death. Her son, James VI., was brought up a Protestant. When he came of age he did not approve of the doings of the Presbyterian party, and strove to restore ecclesiastical government by bishops. The Scots would have none of them, and episcopacy was abolished (1580). Charles I., with fatal results to himself, attempted the same thing. But the restoration of Catholicism was not within the programme of either sovereign. Scarcely any country has been so rapidly and so thoroughly Protestantized as Scotland. It is said that one important factor in producing this result was Scottish clanship. When any lord went over to Calvinism, his whole clan followed. When a chieftain continued faithful, so did his clan. In the Northern Highlands and in the Western Isles several clans continued for many years almost exclusively Catholic. There are still some Scottish glens in which no other worship has ever been offered to God but that of Holy Mass.

[Illustration] from Church - Early Modern Times by Notre Dame