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Timeline of Scottish History

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James V. & the Reformation

The reign of James V was notable for the changes and controversies in religion that saw the European reformation finally wash up on the shores of Scotland. At the same time, James was required to guard constantly against the ambitions of England's Henry VIII.

The new times were at the door.  In 1425 the Scottish Parliament had forbidden Lutheran books to be imported.  But they were, of course, smuggled in; and the seed of religious revolution fell on minds disgusted by the greed and anarchy of the clerical fighters and jobbers of benefices.

James V., after he had shaken off the Douglases and become “a free king,” had to deal with a political and religious situation, out of which we may say in the Scots phrase, “there was no outgait.”  His was the dilemma of his father before Flodden.  How, against the perfidious ambition, the force in war, and the purchasing powers of Henry VIII., was James to preserve the national independence of Scotland?  His problem was even harder than that of his father, because when Henry broke with Rome and robbed the religious houses a large minority, at least, of the Scottish nobles, gentry, and middle classes were, so far, heartily on the anti-Roman side.  They were tired of Rome, tired of the profligacy, ignorance, and insatiable greed of the ecclesiastical dignitaries who, too often, were reckless cadets of the noble families.  Many Scots had read the Lutheran books and disbelieved in transubstantiation; thought that money paid for prayers to the dead was money wasted; preferred a married and preaching to a celibate and licentious clergy who celebrated Mass; were convinced that saintly images were idols, that saintly miracles were impostures.  Above all, the nobles coveted the lands of the Church, the spoils of the religious houses.

Causes of Religious Reform

In Scotland, as elsewhere, the causes of the religious revolution were many.  The wealth and luxury of the higher clergy, and of the dwellers in the abbeys, had long been the butt of satire and of the fiercer indignation of the people.  Benefices, great and small, were jobbed on every side between the popes, the kings, and the great nobles.  Ignorant and profligate cadets of the great houses were appointed to high ecclesiastical offices, while the minor clergy were inconceivably ignorant just at the moment when the new critical learning, with knowledge of Hebrew and Greek, was revolutionising the study of the sacred books.  The celibacy of the clergy had become a mere farce; and they got dispensations enabling them to obtain ecclesiastical livings for their bastards.  The kings set the worst example: both James IV. and James V. secured the richest abbeys, and, in the case of James IV., the Primacy, for their bastard sons.  All these abuses were of old standing.  “Early in the thirteenth century certain of the abbots of Jedburgh, supported by their chapters, had granted certain of their appropriate churches to priests with a right of succession to their sons”.  Oppressive customs by which “the upmost claith,” or a pecuniary equivalent, was extorted as a kind of death-duty by the clergy, were sanctioned by excommunication: no grievance was more bitterly felt by the poor.  The once-dreaded curses on evil-doers became a popular jest: purgatory was a mere excuse for getting money for masses.

In short, the whole mediæval system was morally rotten; the statements drawn up by councils which made vain attempts to check the stereotyped abuses are as candid and copious concerning all these things as the satires of Sir David Lyndsay.

Then came disbelief in mediæval dogmas: the Lutheran and other heretical books were secretly purchased and their contents assimilated.  Intercession of saints, images, pilgrimages, the doctrine of the Eucharist, all fell into contempt.

Burning of Patrick Hamilton

As early as February 1428, as we have seen, the first Scottish martyr for evangelical religion, Patrick Hamilton, was burned at St Andrews.  This sufferer was the son of a bastard of that Lord Hamilton who married the sister of James III.  As was usual, he obtained, when a little boy, an abbey, that of Ferne in Ross-shire.  He drew the revenues, but did not wear the costume of his place; in fact, he was an example of the ordinary abuses.  Educated at Paris and Louvain, he came in contact with the criticism of Erasmus and the Lutheran controversy.  He next read at St Andrews, and he married.  Suspected of heresy in 1427, he retired to Germany; he wrote theses called ‘Patrick’s Places,’ which were reckoned heretical; he was arrested, was offered by Archbishop Beaton a chance to escape, disdained it, and was burned with unusual cruelty,—as a rule, heretics in Scotland were strangled before burning.  There were other similar cases, nor could James interfere—he was bound by his Coronation Oath; again, he found in the bishops his best diplomatists, and they, of course, were all for the French alliance, in the cause of the independence of their country and Church as against Henry VIII.

Thus James, in justifiable dread of the unscrupulous ambition of Henry VIII., could not run the English course, could not accept the varying creeds which Henry, who was his own Pope, put forward as his spirit moved him.  James was thus inevitably committed to the losing cause—the cause of Catholicism and of France—while the intelligence no less than the avarice of his nobles and gentry ran the English course.

James had practically no choice.  In 1536 Henry proposed a meeting with James “as far within England as possible.”  Knowing, as we do, that Henry was making repeated attempts to have James kidnapped and Archbishop Beaton also, we are surprised that James was apparently delighted at the hope of an interview with his uncle—in England.  Henry declined to explain why he desired a meeting when James put the question to his envoy.  James said, in effect, that he must act by advice of his Council, which, so far as it was clerical, opposed the scheme.  Henry justified the views of the Council, later, when James, returning from a visit to France, asked permission to pass through England.  “It is the king’s honour not to receive the King of Scots in his realm except as a vassal, for there never came King of Scots into England in peaceful manner otherwise.”  Certain it is that, however James might enter England, he would leave it only as a vassal.  Nevertheless his Council, especially his clergy, are blamed for embroiling James with Henry by dissuading him from meeting his uncle in England.  Manifestly they had no choice.  Henry had shown his hand too often.

At this time James, by Margaret Erskine, became the father of James, later the Regent Moray.  Strange tragedies would never have occurred had the king first married Margaret Erskine, who, by 1536, was the wife of Douglas of Loch Leven.  He is said to have wished for her a divorce that he might marry her; this could not be: he visited France, and on New Year’s Day, 1537, wedded Madeline, daughter of Francis I.  Six months later she died in Scotland.

Marriage for the king was necessary, and David Beaton, later Cardinal Beaton and Archbishop of St Andrews, obtained for his lord a lady coveted by Henry VIII., Mary, of the great Catholic house of Lorraine, widow of the Duc de Longueville, and sister of the popular and ambitious Guises.  The pair were wedded on June 10, 1538; there was fresh offence to Henry and a closer tie to the Catholic cause.  The appointment of Cardinal Beaton (1539) to the see of St Andrews, in succession to his uncle, gave James a servant of high ecclesiastical rank, great subtlety, and indomitable resolution, but remote from chastity of life and from clemency to heretics.  Martyrdoms became more frequent, and George Buchanan, who had been tutor of James’s son by Margaret Erskine, thought well to open a window in a house where he was confined, walk out, and depart to the Continent.  Meanwhile Henry, no less than Beaton, was busily burning his own martyrs.  In 1539 Henry renewed his intercourse with James, attempting to shake his faith in David Beaton, and to make him rob his Church.  James replied that he preferred to try to reform it; and he enjoyed, in 1540, Sir David Lyndsay’s satirical play on the vices of the clergy, and, indeed, of all orders of men.  In 1540 James ratified the College of Justice, the fifteen Lords of Session, sitting as judges in Edinburgh.

Solway Moss

In 1541 the idea of a meeting between James and Henry was again mooted, and Henry actually went to York, where James did not appear.  Henry, who had expected him, was furious.  In August 1542, on a futile pretext, he sent Norfolk with a great force to harry the Border.  The English had the worse at the battle of Hadden Rig; negotiations followed; Henry proclaimed that Scottish kings had always been vassals of England, and horrified his Council by openly proposing to kidnap James.  Henry’s forces were now wrecking an abbey and killing women on the Border.  James tried to retaliate, but his levies (October 31) at Fala Moor declined to follow him across the Border: they remembered Flodden, moreover they could not risk the person of a childless king.  James prepared, however, for a raid on a great scale on the western Border, but the fact had been divulged by Sir George Douglas, Angus’s brother, and had also been sold to Dacre, cheap, by another Scot.  The English despatches prove that Wharton had full time for preparation, and led a competent force of horse, which, near Arthuret (Battle of Solway Moss), charged on the right flank of the Scots, who slowly retreated, till they were entangled between the Esk and a morass, and lost their formation and their artillery, with 1200 men: a few were slain, most were drowned or were taken prisoners.  The raid was no secret of the king and the priests, as Knox absurdly states; nobles of the Reforming no less than of the Catholic party were engaged; the English had full warning and a force of 3000 men, not of 400 farmers; the Scots were beaten through their own ignorance of the ground in which they had been burning and plundering.  As to confusion caused by the claim of Oliver Sinclair to be commander, it is not corroborated by contemporary despatches, though Sir George Douglas reports James’s lament for the conduct of his favourite, “Fled Oliver! fled Oliver!”  The misfortune broke the heart of James.  He went to Edinburgh, did some business, retired for a week to Linlithgow,  where his queen was awaiting her delivery, and thence went to Falkland, and died of nothing more specific than shame, grief, and despair.  He lived to hear of the birth of his daughter, Mary (December 8, 1542).  “It came with a lass and it will go with a lass,” he is said to have muttered.

On December 14th James passed away, broken by his impossible task, lost in the bewildering paths from which there was no outgait.

James was personally popular for his gaiety and his adventures while he wandered in disguise.  Humorous poems are attributed to him.  A man of greater genius than his might have failed when confronted by a tyrant so wealthy, ambitious, cruel, and destitute of honour as Henry VIII.; constantly engaged with James’s traitors in efforts to seize or slay him and his advisers.  It is an easy thing to attack James because he would not trust Henry, a man who ruined all that did trust to his seeming favour.

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