Scottish Reformation

The Scottish Reformation was the process by which Scotland broke with the Papacy and developed a predominantly Calvinist national Kirk (church), which was strongly Presbyterian in its outlook. It was part of the wider European Protestant Reformation that took place from the sixteenth century.

Statue of John Knox, a leading figure of the Scottish Reformation.

From the late fifteenth century the ideas of Renaissance humanism, critical of aspects of the established Catholic Church, began to reach Scotland, particularly through contacts between Scottish and continental scholars. In the earlier part of the sixteenth century, the teachings of Martin Luther began to influence Scotland. Particularly important was the work of the Lutheran Scot Patrick Hamilton, who was executed in 1528. Unlike his uncle Henry VIII in England, James V avoided major structural and theological changes to the church and used it as a source of income and for appointments for his illegitimate children and favourites. His death in 1542 left the infant Mary, Queen of Scots as his heir, allowing a series of English invasions later known as the Rough Wooing. The English supplied books and distributed Bibles and Protestant literature in the Lowlands when they invaded in 1547. The execution of the Zwingli-influenced George Wishart in 1546, who was burnt at the stake on the orders of Cardinal David Beaton, stimulated the growth of these ideas in reaction. Wishart's supporters, who included a number of Fife lairds, assassinated Beaton soon after and seized St. Andrews Castle, which they held for a year before they were defeated with the help of French forces. The survivors, including chaplain John Knox, were condemned to serve as galley slaves. Their martyrdom stirred resentment of the French and inspired additional martyrs for the Protestant cause. In 1549, the defeat of the English with French support led to the marriage of Mary to Francis II of France, the French dauphin, and a regency over Scotland for the queen's mother, Mary of Guise.

Limited toleration and the influence of exiled Scots and Protestants in other countries, led to the expansion of Protestantism, with a group of lairds declaring themselves Lords of the Congregation in 1557 and representing Protestant interests politically. The collapse of the French alliance and the death of the regent, followed by English intervention in 1560, meant that a relatively small but highly influential group of Protestants had the power to impose reform on the Scottish church. The Scottish Reformation Parliament of 1560 approved a Protestant confession of faith, rejecting papal jurisdiction and the Mass. Knox, having escaped the galleys and having spent time in Geneva, where he became a follower of Calvin, emerged as the most significant figure. The Calvinism of the reformers led by Knox resulted in a settlement which adopted a Presbyterian system and rejected most of the elaborate trappings of the Medieval church. When Francis II died in 1560, the Catholic Mary returned to Scotland to take up the government. Her six-year personal reign was marred by a series of crises, largely caused by the intrigues and rivalries of the leading nobles. Opposition to her third husband James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell, led to the formation of a coalition of nobles, who captured Mary and forced her abdication in favour of her son, who came to the throne as James VI in 1567. James was brought up a Protestant, but resisted Presbyterianism and the independence of the Kirk.

The Reformation resulted in major changes in Scottish society. These included a desire to plant a school in every parish and major reforms of the university system. The Kirk discouraged many forms of plays, as well as poetry that was not devotional in nature; however, significant playwrights and poets did nevertheless emerge, such as George Buchanan and the Castalian Band of James VI's reign. Scotland's ecclesiastical art paid a heavy toll as a result of Reformation iconoclasm. Native craftsmen and artists turned to secular patrons, resulting in the flourishing of Scottish Renaissance painted ceilings and walls. The Reformation revolutionised church architecture, with new churches built and existing churches adapted for reformed services, particularly by placing the pulpit centrally in the church, as preaching was at the centre of worship. The Reformation also had a severe impact on church music, with song schools closed down, choirs disbanded, music books and manuscripts destroyed, and organs removed from churches. These were replaced by the congregational singing of psalms, despite attempts of James VI to refound the song schools and choral singing. Women gained new educational possibilities and religion played a major part in the lives of many women, but women were treated as criminals through prosecutions for scolding, prostitution, and witchcraft. Scottish Protestantism was focused on the Bible, and starting in the later seventeenth century there would be efforts to stamp out popular activities viewed as superstitious or frivolous. The Kirk became the subject of national pride and many Scots saw their country as a new Israel.