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Timeline of Scottish History

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John Knox & Queen Mary

John Knox and Queen Mary

When the reformation finally arrived in Scotland, the old Catholic faith did not collapse overnight - the process of change took place gradually over a period of years.

Part of the reason for this was that, while firebrands like John Knox were desperate to move Scotland towards the Protestant faith, the Scottish rulers were happy with Catholicism and wanted to see it stay.

The battle between John Knox and Mary Queen of Scots was one of the most fascinating tussles between two strong characters in Scotland's history?.and it was a religious war in which Knox would eventually end up as the winner.

When he was sent away to France to work as a galley slave after his part in the murder of Cardinal Beaton, it seemed that the Reformers had fired their best shot and missed. But Scotland was still a highly unstable place, and dissatisfaction with the Catholic church was rampant. It was virtually inevitable that change would come, and that when it did, it would alter the nature of Scotland forever.

Henry VIII, who had converted England to Protestantism in 1534 by establishing the Church of England, was keen that the infant Mary Queen of Scots - born just a week before James V died in 1542 - should marry his five-year-old son Edward, so uniting the two crowns and effectively bringing the Scots under English control.

However, Henry had not reckoned on the opposition he faced from Mary's formidable Catholic mother, Mary of Guise, who opposed the match and eventually forced its cancellation. The result was that a furious Henry invaded southern Scotland and razed towns and border abbeys in a so-called "rough wooing".

Knox and the Reformers recognised that their success depended to a large extent on forging alliances with the English. At the same time, however, the council which was ruling Scotland in the infant Mary's name - which included the French-born Mary of Guise - felt that Scotland's best hope lay in protection from another Catholic nation, France.

When the English attacked Scotland again in 1548, the Scots asked the French to intervene. They sent 7000 troops, but would only agree to use them if the Infant Mary Queen of Scots was betrothed to the future king of France, the Dauphin, Francois.

The aim was clear - to bring the two Catholic nations together under a united French crown - but the Scots were clever enough to allow Francois only her hand in marriage, and not the Scottish succession.

John Knox, meanwhile, had finished his sentence in France and gone to England to try and further influence its Protestant conversion. However, Henry VIII had died, and when his son Edward VI died also, Henry's daughter Mary took the throne. She was a Catholic and, as she attempted to move her country back towards the old faith, Knox fled in fear of his life to the Continent.

He went to Switzerland, where in Geneva he met and heard the preaching of fellow reformer John Calvin. Calvin was a hardline, no-compromise firebrand who believed that the Bible was the only true source of religious truth. It was a much harder type of Protestantism than the Lutheranism on which Knox had cut his theological teeth, and he warmed to it and vowed to take it to Scotland.

Just what type of a person, though, was Knox? It is clear that he thought of himself as the father of the Scottish Reformation, but in reality the change was happening in any case without his presence north of the border.

Father Mark Dilworth, the author and historian who is a former keeper of the Scottish Catholic Archives and an expert on the period, believes Knox may not have been an influential as is popularly thought.

"Most of what we actually know about Knox comes from what he tells us in his own writings", Dilworth says. "He was certainly a strong figure, but he may have magnified his own importance. There is a suspicion among historians that he was an extremely good self publicist, and he may not actually have been as important as people think."

Knox wanted to return to Scotland and tested the water with a couple of preaching visits. By 1559, he felt it was safe to come back for good. By then, the Reformation north of the border was in full swing and, despite Mary of Guise's influence, Scotland's nobles had swung behind Protestantism.

Five of them had titled themselves the Lords of the Congregation and made a covenant to overturn the Roman church and install the Protestant faith instead. Others flocked to their cause, and the tide turned in their favour in 1558 when Mary Tudor of England died and was succeeded by the Protestant Elizabeth I.

Because of this, Mary of Guise once again began to feel vulnerable, and demanded that all Protestant preachers appear before her and declare their allegiance to Rome. Unsurprisingly, none bothered to turn up, so she tried to ban them.

It was a losing battle. More and more Scots were signing up to the Reformed faith, and when Knox returned, he became ordained as Minister at St Giles in Edinburgh. His brilliant preaching abilities had the ability to stir people into action, and when he delivered a sermon in Perth, the mob rioted for two days and destroyed not only most of the fittings in the church, but also two monasteries and an abbey.

Mary of Guise reacted with horror and ordered her forces to march on the Reformers. But the Protestant nobles were also determined to strike while the iron was hot, and they occupied St Andrews and sacked the magnificent cathedral there. Scotland was virtually in a state of civil war, with Knox and Mary of Guise at the heart of it.

Again Mary of Guise - whose daughter had married the French Dauphin the previous year - waited for her French allies to arrive and bail her out. But Queen Elizabeth, who was worried about French claims that Mary Queen of Scots was the successor to her own throne, decided to back the Scottish Reformers.

As a result, the English fleet was sent to besiege the French, who were garrisoned at Leith. The French fought back, but then there was an incredible twist to the tale - Mary of Guise suddenly died. The French then surrendered and concluded peace terms with the English in the Treaty of Edinburgh - a move which effectively marked the end of the Auld Alliance between Scotland and France.

Under the terms of the deal, a council of 12 people was charged with the responsibility of governing Scotland during the absence of Mary Queen of Scots in France, though Mary herself was allowed to choose her own faith. Crucially, however, it gave the Scots parliament real power and the opportunity to call the shots in favour of Scotland's reformed faith.

Needless to say, they took it. The parliament quickly abolished the authority of the Pope in Scotland, and laid down a rule that anyone who claimed his supremacy would be exiled and lose their possessions. The public celebration of Mass was forbidden and John Knox was asked to mastermind a new declaration of the Reformed faith, which came to be known as the Scots Confession.

However, in France, yet another astonishing twist to the drama was unfolding. The husband of Mary Queen of Scots, by now the French king Francois II, had died of a septic ear. Mary was only 17, and grief stricken. Her advisers thought the best course of action was for her to return to Scotland - the country she had last seen at the age of five.

In August 1561, Mary sailed back to her native land. A devout Catholic, she was returning to a kingdom where the Protestants now had the whip hand. With Knox now at the height of his power, it seemed like a formula for division, bitterness and disaster. Which, of course, it was. Follow the story of Mary Queen of Scots


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