The impact of the Reformation onScotland to 1603 The social, cultural, educational and economic impact of the Reformation on Scotland to 1603.
In 1603 James VI, the first Protestant King of Scots, became James I, King of England and Ireland. When he died in 1625, the union of the kingdoms had become acceptable to Scots, despite their initial fears and hostility. Scotland had both a state Kirk and a new kind of state that some would claim were more intrusive and authoritarian than their counterparts before the Reformation.
The Second Book of Discipline (1578) had set forth a vision of a Presbyterian Kirk but the ‘Black Acts’ (1584) had clearly stated the supremacy of the monarch in all matters. They had also tried to promote bishops in the Kirk. At the same time, James was reluctant to enforce anti-Catholic laws, although General Assemblies continually called for the crown to take action against Catholic nobles and Jesuit missionaries. The so-called ‘Golden Act’ (1592) had allowed for Presbyteries to be set up but the monarch had the power to say where and when General Assemblies would meet. James would have the General Assembly meeting in Perth or Aberdeen, where he could expect more ministers to support the monarch. James VI attended every General Assembly from 1597 to 1603 and by the late 1590s General Assemblies had become more agreeable to the monarch’s aims.
A riot in Edinburgh (1597) had erupted after a sermon preached against the monarch. James VI had the ministers of Edinburgh briefly imprisoned, and the king ordered that no minister was to be appointed without his consent. The town council was fined. In his ‘Basilikon Doron’ James VI advised his son to allow no meetings of the Kirk without his approval. It was clear that the monarch’s preferred form of Kirk government was by bishops and in 1600 James VI reintroduced three bishops into parliament.
The Kirk Sessions of Protestant Scotland were instruments of moral and religious control. Before the Reformation, the Catholic Church had possessed a rudimentary organisation at congregational level and this was extended to all Protestant parishes from 1560. Kirk Sessions consisted of elders and deacons who were elected annually until the Second Book of Discipline developed the idea of ‘once an elder, always an elder’. Kirk Sessions exercised the right to fine, imprison and excommunicate offenders against their authority in moral matters. There were ambitious plans to provide for the poor from the revenues of the old church but vested interests thwarted those ambitions and funds proved to be inadequate.
Great emphasis was laid on attendance at both daily and Sunday services, and every effort was made by Kirk sessions to ensure that no possible diversions existed which might detain a congregation from their duties. Kirk Sessions enforced acts relating to the possession of Psalm Books and Bibles printed under the strict supervision of the General Assembly. The Second Book of Discipline led indirectly to the development of the ‘exercise’, ie a regular meeting of ministers from 10 to 20 parishes for discussion of doctrine, which became the presbytery; Kirk Session elders were excluded from presbyteries 1586–1637. Presbyteries heard appeals from Kirk Sessions, delegated commissioners to General Assemblies, examined candidates for the ministry, visited parishes and approved schoolmasters.
In 1603 Scotland could be a bright and colourful place with many larger homes having coloured exterior walls, and elaborate painted ceilings, as well as stone carvings produced by skilled masons. The interiors of most parish kirks were plain and whitewashed, with few reminders of Catholic styles of decoration, but a few altars and other treasured objects from the pre-Reformation period remained in some places. The Kirk decided to remove all organs from places of worship in order to cleanse parish churches of all ‘monumentis of idolatrye’. However, there is evidence that instrumental music continued to play a part in some services. Kirk Sessions were constantly occupied in their attempts to keep wedding and other celebrations under control. The observance of Catholic festivals and saints’ days, and the performance of plays were actively discouraged, and this suggests that they remained relatively popular with many Scots, at least for a generation.
There were no playwrights in Scotland on a par with those in England, such as William Shakespeare and Ben Johnson. In fact only one Scots play survives from the period between the 1560s and 1603. Courtiers rather than priests and monks were responsible for producing poetry and verse, and many of these poets followed James VI to his new court in England. Prose writers tended to follow the lead of John Knox and wrote in English rather than Latin or Scots. A similar trend towards English forms of expression can be observed in sermons that survive from the period.
A range of issues, including Kirk attendance, behaviour at communion and other church services, the poverty of individual parishes, and poor standards of preaching, suggest that the Kirk shared many problems with the Catholic Church of the 1550s. However, Scotland’s parish school network had been placed on a more secure foundation than before the Reformation and more than half of the 800 schools recorded in Scotland were sited in or next to kirks. The pre-Reformation provincial council in 1549 had reminded Scots of the need for a school in every parish, at a time when there were only 100 schools in Scotland.
There had been a shortage of trained ministers and schoolmasters (in 1580 the General Assembly had considered reducing the number of parishes from more than 900 to 600 due to the shortage of ministers). The poverty of ministers in the immediate post-Reformation period is one of the most striking features of the Kirk. However, not all ministers were poverty-stricken and by 1603 most ministers were reasonably well off. Also, a minister’s means could not be measured in terms of money alone, and the produce of the glebe ensured that the minister and his family would not go hungry. Parish schoolmasters were paid from parish collections, teinds, or annual rents, and they were expected to take on extra duties as readers, session clerks or precentors (to lead psalm-singing). They were often only able to teach children up to the age of seven.
The only Protestant Bibles available to lowland Scots were in English, a similar but nonetheless foreign language, and cheap Bibles would not be available until the 1630s. However, the catechism could be used by ministers, schoolmasters and elders to teach the basic principles of Protestantism to young Scots.
The provision of poor relief had been largely neglected by the pre-Reformation Church. One element in the growth of reformed or Protestant opinions had been the apparent wealth of many of the clergy and religious in contrast to the relative neglect of the poor by the pre-Reformation Church. In 1559 the ‘Beggars’ Summons’ had threatened to dispossess the friars, who appeared to be prospering at the expense of the poor, and this proved to be a decisive event in the course of the Scottish Reformation. The Protestant reformers’ ambitious plans to provide for the poor, as set out in the First Book of Discipline, had been thwarted by vested interests and available sources of revenue had proved to be inadequate to meet the needs of the poor. Individual burghs were forced to make their own piecemeal arrangements to provide some poor relief.
The Kirk distinguished between the deserving and the undeserving poor.The able-bodied or undeserving poor were not to be helped and neither were vagrants and unlicensed beggars In fact, they were often punished by whipping and branding.Poor relief was to be provided in the parish where you were born or lived in for some time.The destitute were only allowed to beg in their own parish after being issued with a beggar’s badge and becoming a licensed beggar or ‘gaberlunzie’.Church collections and payments for use of parish mort cloth, as well as fines from those disciplined by the Church, were used for poor relief.An Act of 1587 allowed magistrates to assess the inhabitants of the parish to provide for poor relief.Unfortunately, income for poor relief was always short of what was needed.
In times of crisis, parish poor relief was probably a small proportion of total income of the poor, who were aided by multiple inputs from formal and informal charity, including friends, neighbours, landlords, relatives, begging and private charities. Few Scots stayed on poor relief for very long since it was regarded as a temporary measure rather than a permanent support, as it became increasingly in England.
The Reformation in Scotland did not lead to any significant transfer of wealth from the Church (or Kirk) to nobles and other individuals, as happened in England. Much of the wealth of the Catholic Church had either been looted by English invaders and their supporters or was in the hands of nobles and their extended families before the Reformation.
After 1560 the Kirk demonstrated considerable tolerance in their treatment of Catholic clergy. Isolated cases of ill-treatment can be found, but the evidence of cruelty is often more apparent than real. It proved impracticable to dispossess the Catholic clergy of their benefices so they were allowed to retain two-thirds of their revenues for life, while the Kirk was to be maintained from some portion of the remaining one-third. Monks and friars were equally well treated, being granted pensions and allowed to make use of their quarters for rest of their lives. Concessions made to Catholic clergy, on the grounds of old age or ill-health, were frequently recorded in contemporary records.
In 1603 Scotland’s foreign trade remained firmly rooted in tried and tested trade routes and markets. Scots merchants continued to trade with England and the trading ports across the North Sea as they had done before the Reformation. The chief exception was in the Low Countries, where the Catholic Spanish Netherlands (basically present-day Belgium) were divided from the Protestant United Provinces (the present-day Netherlands) and the Scots focused on trading with the Protestant Dutch. The Scots exported farm produce, fish, lead and coal, as well a limited range of manufactured goods. They imported raw materials such as iron and timber, as well as a wide range of manufactured and luxury goods.
It was the relative peace and political stability established during the minority of James VI that was the Protestant monarch’s greatest contribution to the Scottish economy. When James VI moved south to his English kingdom the Scottish burghs, especially Edinburgh, were able to enjoy a short-lived economic boom that lasted until the 1630s. From the 1640s, political instability and civil war led to a dramatic decline in the economic prosperity of the Scottish nation.