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Writing about the Scottish Reformation the historian Wylie makes this fascinating observation; “England, in reforming itself, worked mainly from the political center. Scotland worked mainly from the religious one. The ruling idea of the former country (England) was the emancipation of the throne from the supremacy of the Pope; the ruling idea in the latter (Scotland) was the emancipation of the conscience from the Popish faith.”


In presenting the Reformation of Scotland as a largely grassroots movement focused on personal spiritual expansion Wylie succinctly encapsulates the spirit of the movement. Its forward momentum was based almost exclusively on the desire of the Reformers and the people to have a personal experience with God and the wind in its sails was supplied largely by the theological leanings of the bustling Protestant metropolis of Geneva.

Scotland though was not reformed overnight. Its reformation was the result of slow and excruciating progress made by its brightest luminaries, who paid for that progress with their lives.

The Reformation began with the introduction of the Bible in 1525. This resulted in the work of Patrick Hamilton, its first champion, and martyr. It was Hamilton’s blood that proved to the fertilizer needed to nurture the growth of God’s word in the hearts of his countrymen. After Hamilton’s death, Wishart came on the stage of action and carried the torch that Hamilton had lit further along the track.

However to say that there were absolutely no political overtones to the Reformation is not entirely true. While the Reformation was, by and large, spurred on by the people, its progress was also impacted by the political machinations of the Monarchy and nobility.


When Henry VIII of England decided to break away from the Roman church he tried to persuade James V of Scotland to join him. Scotland had long been a favorite potential ally of England’s and to have Scotland on the same page religiously would have greatly strengthened the alliance. James V however demurred, he was intent on acting his part as the defender of the faith in Scotland and chose to keep Scotland as Catholic as was possible. One reason for James’ strong desire for Scotland to remain Catholic could have been the influence of his wife and her political ties to France. James V had married the French Mary of Guise who belonged to the politically powerful and religiously militant Guise family. The Guise family was not only staunchly Catholic but aggressively so, being supporters of the Catholic counter Reformation that had been launched by Pope Paul III.

Whatever the causes or reasons may have been, under James V and Queen Mary of Guise Scotland remained decidedly Papal in its outlook which relegated the progress of the Reformation to a small almost underground movement, which would be squashed on the occasions that it seemed to pose a serious political threat.

James V died in 1542 and the heir presumptive to the throne, the Earl of Arran lent his support to certain pro-Protestant measures for a period of time. Some have suggested that this move was politically motivated. While Arran was the heir presumptive, the heir apparent to the throne was the infant daughter of James V and Mary of Guise, Marty Stuart, Queen of Scots. Mary’s mother being a Guise maintained strong political ties with France through her family. Arran, however, entertained the prospect of an alliance with England which at that time had decidedly anti-Papal leanings.

To potentially strengthen political ties between the two countries Arran sanctioned the dispersion of the Bible in the vernacular and also had a part in encouraging the attacks on several urban monasteries in 1543. But Arran’s efforts were essentially thwarted by Cardinal Beaton of St. Andrews, who spearheaded a serious offensive against Protestantism in 1546. As part of this offensive, Beaton hunted, captured, tried and burned George Wishart in March 1546. In May of the same year, a group of Wishart’s supporters made the ill advised move of storming the castle and murdering Beaton whom they literally hung out to dry from a Castle window.


The little group of militant Protestants then hunkered down in the castle and were ministered to by the sermons of John Knox, Wishart’s disciple, and bodyguard, in 1547. Shortly afterward the French navy descended on the Castle at St Andrew’s and took the group captive assigning Knox to work as a galley slave aboard one of their vessels.

Knox was released, somewhat miraculously, in March 1549 and fled to England which at this time was under the rule of the decidedly and fervently Protestant Edward VI. While in England he gave ample evidence of his virulent hatred of the Papacy and his intense Protestant leanings. However, when Mary Tudor ascended the throne in 1553, Knox found himself a fugitive once more and fled to Geneva.

Geneva and Calvin proved to be the tools God used to mold him into the spiritual powerhouse that he would later become. Knox then returned to England for a brief period in 1555 where he married Marjory Bowes and exhorted and encouraged influential Scottish Protestants. He returned to Geneva in July of 1556 but was condemned as a heretic in absentia by the Scottish Bishops and burned in effigy.


The Queen, however, chose to leave the Scottish Protestants largely alone. Though staunchly Catholic, Mary of Guise needed their support for the marriage she had arranged between her daughter Mary Stuart and the Catholic heir to the French throne Francis II. Mary Stuart was 16 and Francis was 14 when they were married and it was hoped that their marriage would preserve the political partnership between Scotland and France despite growing Scottish resentment against French influence.

Around this time Knox penned a fiery piece of polemic against monstrous female rulers, which justified and thereby indirectly encouraged political resistance against an ungodly ruler. The piece was for the benefit of Mary Tudor and also possibly Mary of Guise and Mary Stuart but when the religiopolitical winds suddenly shifted with the death of Mary Tudor and the ascension of Elizabeth I to the throne, Knox’s polemic only served to insult a decidedly Protestant Queen.

Knox had hoped to return to England and work there but his unintentional affront to the Queen meant that he had to take a detour to Scotland instead. Knox arrived in Scotland in 1559 which was also the year that Henry II died leaving the throne to his son Francis II who also died the following year leaving France in a state of political turmoil. With things in such a state, an English army appeared on Scottish soil and permitted the Scottish Reformation Parliament to establish Protestantism in Scotland in August 1560. The decision made by the parliament was technically illegal because it had not been approved by Mary Stuart who was the ruler of Scotland. At that time Mary was still in France mourning the death of her husband. She didn’t return to Scotland until August of 1561 but her delayed appearance proved to consolidate the moves made by the Protestants.

After Mary’s return to Scotland, she chose to remain Catholic and retain Catholicism at her court but she did not abolish the new Protestant order in Scotland which had been established in her absence. One of the most pivotal points of the Reformation was the face-off between John Knox and Mary Queen of Scots at Holyrood Palace where Mary passionately argued for the sovereignty of church and state in matters of conscience while Knox ferociously upheld freedom of conscience and the sovereignty of the word of God.


One of the fascinating things about the consolidation of the Scottish Reformation is the rapid succession of its final movements. While the work had languished from 1525-1558, crawling forward at a snail’s’ pace and facing apparent defeat at every turn, in the space of two years from 1558-1560, the religiopolitical atmosphere surrounding the country changed so dramatically that Scotland became an officially Protestant nation.

As Knox lay dying he requested that his wife read to him from John 17 and Psalms 9 and interestingly  Psalms 9:19-20 accurately offers an explanation to the rapid establishment of the Scottish Reformation; “Arise O Lord, let not man prevail…that the nations may know themselves to be but men”. Regardless of the political machinations of Kings and Popes, God was ultimately able to overrule them all and establish his banner of the truth in Scotland as a direct answer to John Knox’s prayers.

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