The Scottish Reformation

In August 1560, Scotland became officially Protestant when its parliament passed a series of Acts ending the Pope’s authority over the Scottish Church and abolishing the Mass. Lutheran ideas had been circulating in the country since the late 1520s but King James V refused to break with Rome and upheld Scotland’s traditional alliance with France. When he died in 1542 the throne passed to his six day old daughter, Mary, Queen of Scots. His widow, the French Mary of Guise, exercised considerable influence and became Regent in 1554. There had long been criticism of abuses in the Catholic Church, but although she recognised the need for reform, the rising tide of Protestant opposition brought conflict when she sought the help of her French allies.

The growing number of Protestant Lords of the Congregation retaliated by enlisting English assistance. They also persuaded John Knox, a noted preacher, to return from exile to lead them. Knox proceeded to attack the Church and Mary of Guise in his sermons, uniting the Lords in their desire for change. Scotland had become a battleground between the Lords with their English military allies and the Queen Regent with her French soldiers. The struggle finally ended with the death of Mary of Guise on 12 June 1560. On 6 July the French and English signed the Treaty of Edinburgh, agreeing that all foreign troops should leave Scotland.

In August the Reformation Parliament passed its legislation. Knox had been elected minister of St Giles’ and, in keeping with his wishes, the Protestant Town Council of Edinburgh spent the next year removing all its altars and statues, selling the church plate, reliquaries and other valuables, whitewashing the interior and introducing seating so that people did not have to stand during Knox’s hour long sermons preached from his pulpit at the south east end of the church.

A significant number of former priests converted to Protestantism and stayed on as ministers of their parishes, but funding problems made it impossible to establish the hoped for school in every parish. However, an incomplete Calvinist system of church government replaced the previous Catholic hierarchy. Kirk sessions were set up, superintendents for a time took over many of the duties of the former bishops, and from 1562 onwards the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland met once a year.