This series has eight easy 5 minute installments. This first installment: Queen Condemns Protestants.
John Knox may be second in importance to Martin Luther among Protestant leaders. 1559 was the year that the Queen Regent of Scotland began a crackdown on the Protestants in her kingdom and when Knox returned and the conflict began.
This selection is from John Knox: A Biography by P. Hume Brown published in 1895. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages.
Peter Hume Brown was Professor of Scottish History at Edinburgh University in Scotland. He emphasized the Reformation Period as the major influence in the formation of modern Scotland.
Time: 1559 to 1572
The year 1559 began ominously for the success of the Queen Regent’s policy of suppression. To this point national feeling and religious conviction had been the driving-forces of the coming revolution. But, as is the case in all national upheavals, there were likewise economic forces at work which were none the less potent because they were obscured behind the dramatic development of sensational events. A remarkable document, the author of which is unknown, gave striking expression to this aspect of the Scottish Reformation. It was entitled the Beggars’ Summons, and purported to come from “all cities, towns, and villages of Scotland.”
On January 1, 1559, this terrible manifesto, breathing the very spirit of revolution, was found placarded on the gates of every religious establishment in Scotland. The Summons begins as follows:
The blind, crooked, lame, widows, orphans, and all other poor visited by the hand of God as may not work, to the flocks of all friars within this realm, we wish restitution of wrongs past, and reformation in times coming, for salutation.”
It may be sufficient to quote the concluding passage of this extraordinary effusion, and it is a passage which should never be out of mind in any estimate of the forces that were about to effect the great cataclysm in the national life:
Wherefore, seeing our number is so great, so indigent, and so heavily oppressed by your false means that none taketh care of our misery, and that it is better to provide for these our impotent members which God hath given us, to oppose to you in plain controversy, than to see you hereafter, as ye have done before, steal from us our lodging, and ourselves in the mean time to perish and die for want of the same; we have thought good, therefore, ere we enter in conflict with you, to warn you in the name of the great God by this public writing, affixed on your gates where ye now dwell, that ye remove forth of our said hospitals betwixt this and the feast of Whitsunday next, so that we, the only lawful proprietors thereof, may enter thereto, and afterward enjoy the commodities of the Church which ye have heretofore wrongfully holden from us; certifying that if ye fail, we will at the said term, in whole number and with the help of God and assistance of his saints on earth, of whose ready support we doubt not, enter and take possession of our said patrimony, and eject you utterly forth of the same. Let him, therefore, that before hath stolen, steal no more; but rather let him work with his hands, that he may be helpful to the poor.”
The inflammatory statements of revolutionaries must be taken for what they are worth; but there is abundant evidence to prove that the above indictment of the national Church was not without foundation in fact. It has been computed that one-half of the wealth of the country was in possession of the clergy; and we have the testimony of unimpeachable witnesses to the unworthy uses to which it was put. Hector Boece, John Major, and Ninian Winzet were all three faithful sons of the Church, and all three cried aloud at the venality, avarice, and luxurious living of the higher clergy.
But now, for many years,” wrote Major, “we have been shepherds whose only care it is to find pasture for themselves, men neglectful of the duties of religion. By open flattery do the worthless sons of our nobility get the governance of convents in commendam, and they covet these ample revenues, not for the good help that they thence might render to their brethren, but solely for the high position that these places offer.”
To the same effect Ninian Winzet wrote after the judgment had come.
The special roots of all mischief,” he says, “be the two infernal monsters, pride and avarice, of the which unhappily has up-sprung the election of unqualified bishops and other pastors in Scotland.”
This spectacle of the national Church, with its disproportionate wealth and its selfish, incompetent, and often degraded officials, could not but be a growing offence to the developing intelligence of the nation; and to quicken this feeling there were minor grievances which were an ancient ground of complaint on the part of the laity against their spiritual advisers. On every important event of his life the poor man was harassed by exactions which Sir David Lyndsay has so keenly touched in his Satire of the Three Estates. Says the Pauper in the interlude:
Quhair will ye find that law, tell gif ye can,
To tak thine ky, fra ane pure husbandman?
Ane for my father, and for my wyfe ane uther,
And the third cow, he tuke fra Mald my mother.”
And Diligence replies:
It is thair law, all that they have in use,
Tocht it be cow, sow, ganer, gryse, or guse.”
If the poor had these grounds of discontent, the rich likewise had theirs; and they made bitter complaint against the protracted processes in the consistorial courts, and the frequent appeals to the Roman Curia, by which both their means and their patience were exhausted.
It was in the face of feelings such as these that, in the spring of 1559, the Queen Regent entered on her new line of policy toward her refractory subjects. Her first steps were taken with her usual prudence. A provincial council of the clergy was summoned to meet on March 1st for the express purpose of dealing with the religious difficulty. It was the last provincial council of the ancient Church that was to meet in Scotland; and, if the expression of its good intentions could have availed, the Church might yet have been saved. All that its worst enemies had said of its shortcomings was frankly admitted, and admirable decrees were passed with a view to a speedy and effective reform. But the hour had passed when the mere reform of life and doctrine would have sufficed to meet the desires of the new spiritual teachers. As was speedily to be seen, it was revolution and not reform on which these new teachers were now bent with an ever-growing confidence that their triumph was not far off. A double order issued by the Regent toward the end of March brought her face to face with the consequences of her changed policy. Unauthorized persons were forbidden to preach, and the lieges were commanded to observe the festival of Easter after the manner ordained by the Church. The preachers disregarded both edicts and were summoned to answer for their disobedience.