John Knox & The Reformation

In the 16th Century Western Europe was convulsed by Reformation, fuelled by the development of printing, and several northern European countries established new Protestant churches. Scotland's route to protestantism, like many others, was a violent and complex one, closely entwined with politics.

During the Middle Ages the Church had steadily increased its land holdings, through donation and bequest. As a great landowner, it could not separate itself from politics and spiritual responsibilities often took second place. Also, the wealth of the Church attracted lay attention and its resources were in various ways used for secular ends, plus appointments within the Church were influenced by secular considerations, or even granted to lay commendators. 

During James V's reign, as the Reformation in England proceeded, the papacy could not take a firm line to check this increasing secularisation of the Church in Scotland, because of the need to placate the lay authorities. More and more of the Church's wealth passed into lay hands, and spiritual functions were often neglected. 

Many good men within the Church recognised these problems and tried for reform, but vested interests and political pressures meant that this did not work. Instead a new movement gathered strength, with criticism of Church ideas adding to the volatile mix. Ultimately accepting the theology of John Calvin of Geneva, the movement gathered support, resulting in the Scottish Reformation of 1560 and the establishment of a new Protestant Church. 

In 1544 George Wishart included Ayrshire in a preaching tour, backed by the 3rd Earl of Cassillis and the 4th Earl of Glencairn. He preached at Galston, Mauchline and Ayr. His activities came to an end two years later when he was taken and executed at St Andrews. The subsequent seizure of St Andrews Castle by protestants proved unsuccessful, but the movement continued. 

In 1555 the radical preacher John Knox returned to Scotland. He toured Scotland preaching, with visits in south-west Scotland including Dumfries, Mauchline and Ayr. He returned to Scotland a second time in 1559 and despite attempts by the Mary of Guise, Regent for the absent Queen Mary, to check the rising flood, an Army of the Congregation gathered at Perth, which the following year won victory for protestantism. This included the Ayrshire protestant lords, under the leadership of the 5th Earl of Glencairn, with 2400 horse and foot. Mary of Guise then died, leaving the Protestants in ascendance in Scotland. 

Motives of the Reformers were mixed and complex - ranging from material gain at expense of the Church, to opposition to the pro-French government, to genuine protestant ideals. And it was not lords alone who supported the cause - humble laymen, many members of the clergy, secular and regular, high and low, joined in the movement to reform their Church. 

On 4th September 1562 a Covenant to defend protestantism was signed in Ayr by 78 Ayrshire nobles, barons and lairds. There were some dissenters, however, including the 4th Earl of Cassillis, whose earldom Carrick was to be the last bastion of Catholicism on Ayrshire. His kinsman the abbot of Crosraguel, Quintin Kennedy, was a noted scholar and 'ane good man and ane that fearit God', who challenged the new doctrines in print and in person, including face to face with John Knox in1562. After Quintin Kennedy's death in 1564 the last flickers of the old faith were dowsed in Carrick. 

From about 1555 protestant worship was already being conducted in 'privy kirks' and by 1559 a budding reformed church organisation had been formed. The victory of the Army of Congregation in 1560 was followed by a meeting of parliament, which made Scotland protestant - the jurisdiction of the pope was abolished, the celebration of the mass was forbidden, and a protestant Confession of Faith was approved. 

In 1564 the 50-year-old John Knox married his second wife, 17-year-old Margaret Stewart, younger daughter of the third lord Ochiltree, symbolising the close union between the Ayrshire lords and the ministers of the new church. 

In 1561 the Privy Council decreed that 'all places and monuments of idolatry' should be cast down. This marked the end to the religious houses, which were despoiled and desecrated and fell into ruinous condition; friaries and chapels no doubt went the same way. Parish church buildings were taken over and adapted for protestant worship, although there was a great shortage of ministers and difficulties with finance. Also, parliament while recognising the new church failed to abolish the old one. In many cases both clerical and lay holders of church lands continued to hold the lands and revenues, although the old faith could not be preached. Though efforts were made to secure a proportion of the revenue of the old church property for the maintenance of the new kirk, the secularisation of church lands continued and former abbey lands were feued away. By the end of the century the long and gradual process of feuing had accomplished in Scotland the dissolution of church lands that in England was carried out more quickly by the drastic actions of Henry VIII. 

The Scots parliament not only failed to deal effectively with the problem of financing the new kirk; it postponed a decision regarding the organisation of that church. Bishops and others of the old church who accepted the new doctrine were recognised as continuing in office, and Knox approved of the appointment of 'superintendents' who might exercise a kind of episcopal office under a 'godly prince'. 

Following a turbulent reign, Mary, Queen of Scots was forced to abdicate by the Lords of the Congregation on July 24th 1567. Five days later, John Knox preached the sermon at the first Protestant coronation in Scotland, of the thirteen month old James VI. 

By the 1570s a new and extreme presbyterian movement rose up, whose aims were defined in Andrew Melville's Second Book of Discipline. Within a decade opinions had polarised and in 1581 the Negative Confession denounced all aspects of papistry. Three years later the so-called 'Black Acts' attempted the re-establishment of royal authority over the church and the re-assertion of the status of bishops. 

In 1592, after another turn, parliament recognised presbyterianism as the policy of the church. Thereafter, and for the next century, the ecclesiastical conflict between presbytery and episcopacy dominated the politics of Scotland, with Ayrshire as a main centre of the presbyterian principle. 

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