Scotland from 1564 to 1622

Reform to 1546 + Reform to 1564 + Andrew Melville

This period from the death of Calvin in 1564 to the death of Andrew Melville in 1622 who had succeeded John Knox in 1574 as the leading personality of the Reformation in Scotland, saw further struggles over the governance of the church. These were complicated by the transfer of the Scottish crown to London as James VI became James I of England after the death of Elisabeth. There were several phases of power struggle between the General Assembly and the King, including the rejection of Bishops by the church despite the efforts of the James and his Regents. Presbyteries developed from 1881 out of earlier practices and the examples of Geneva and France, but they were also seen an alternative to the increasingly distrusted episcopacy. Conflict increased under Charles the I following the death of James in 1625.

Times in Scotland remained troubled and the dramas and intrigue have often been recreated in historical novels. When Mary abdicated in 1567 she named the Earl of Moray as Regent during the infancy of her son James who had been born in June 1566. Moray was murdered in 1570, and his successor, Lennox (grandfather of James) in 1571. Then the Earl of Mar was regent until he died in 1572. He was followed by the Earl of Morton who provided some stability until 1580 when he was deposed prior to his execution the following year, supposedly for complicity in the murder of James' father. His successor's rule was broken by some Protestant Lords who captured James. He escaped and power lay with the Earl of Arran in turn deposed in 1585. A treaty with England was soon tested by the trial and execution of Mary, but James's protest was limited.

Some of the Regents were more sympathetic to the Reformers than others and James was wary of the Church as an alternative centre of power potentially outside his control. in 1567 Moray called a parliament which re-enacted the Acts of 1560, ensuring the legality of the Reformation. The Confession of 1560 was reaffirmed and subscription required for office. The First Book of Discipline was still not followed. The financing of the church remained difficult and the government was reluctant to pass funds to the new church beyond a tax of a third on benefices - income from land that had gone previously to pay priests, abbeys and bishops; except that much of it was now in lay hands.

As bishoprics fell vacant, trouble developed. Bishops had traditionally been appointed by the pope, but the pope's jurisdiction was now illegal. When the government acted to replace Archbishop Hamilton of St Andrews the church protested that this was not a function of government. A special General Assembly met in Leith in 1572. Negotiations with government led to the Concordat of Leith as an attempt to deal with benefices and bishops, provide for General Assemblies, and assert the authority of the King. Appointments were made and Knox, with only a few months to go before his death on 24 November 1572, appeared to accept them. However these "Tulchan" bishops were unpopular and never never stood a chance. The Regents were seeking to increase royal power and many in the Kirk were just as keen to prevent it.

In the 1575 Assembly it was asked whether the system of bishops "have their function in the Word of God"? Andrew Melville was on the committee which reported that a bishop is a pastor of one congregation, yet may be called to have wider oversight as appointed by the church which meant that all bishops needed a congregation. Some were willing, but further conflict was not far away.

In 1578 the Second Book of Discipline was written into the records of the Assembly, but could not get government approval. Until the Westminster Confession and documents from 1645 it provided the basis of Presbyterianism, a doctrine of two kingdoms, a definition of the roles of church and state, the four ordinary offices of the church (pastor, minister or bishop; doctor or teacher; presbyter or elder; and deacons), assemblies congregational, provincial, national, and ecumenical functioning as a hierarchy of church courts with the higher having authority over the lower courts. The Kirk Session, like the eldership, could be over more than one congregation, similar to what the word Presbytery came to imply. By 1580 bishops were declared unlawful and in 1581 parishes were rationalised and presbyteries set up.

In the turmoil of allegiances around the young king James, the church got on the wrong side including by supporting some who had him kidnapped. The revenge of the king's party was the passing by parliament of the Black Acts of 1584 asserting royal authority and forbidding councils, conventions or assemblies without his express command and licence. It was forbidden to criticise the king or meddle in his affairs. Yet within a year another change in the balance of power of those around James brought attempted reconciliation, apologies from those who had spoken against the king, and further presbytery organisation, this time with bishops as moderators. Assembly made it clear they wanted a different sort of bishop than before, and the King made it clear this would not be acceptable.

Compromise in an Act of 1592 involved the continuation of Assembly, but it was the King who would decide when and where they met. James moved Assemblies out of Edinburgh into parts of the country where he could influence the ministers and elders who attended, but underlying opinion was hardening.

Interests were complicated by the difficulty of sorting out the patrimony of the church - the king needed money and wanted to do a Henry the VIII and simply appropriate what had gone to the monasteries and there were other tempting financial resources surrounding bishoprics, the new church needed money for ministers and churches, and the lairds had somehow picked up quite a bit of the land anyway in return for rents not always paid. It was left to Charles to get the situation sorted out, but James had managed both to want bishops and their funding, the support of lairds and lands they now controlled.

The General Assembly acted vindictively towards those who cooperated with the King by accepting appointments as bishops, and the king responded in kind. Especially after James went to London in 1603 he progressed his vision of making the Church in Scotland look more like the Church of England except the crown-appointed bishops also had general assemblies (when the King allowed them to meet) and an emerging structure of presbyteries and synods to work with.

In a situation charged by decades of mutual betrayal and deceit, hostility grew and even relatively simple provisions brought a vitriolic response from Scotland if they might be construed as taking the church in a more Anglican, or possibly Catholic, direction. Against the judgement of his bishops themselves, in a General Assembly in Perth in 1618 James introduced what became known as the Five articles of Perth for approval. They seem innocent enough, but the way they were introduced without consultation, denying any such consultation was needed, helped ensure they would be a focus for future discontent.


Based on J H S Burleigh, A Church History of Scotland, OUP, 1960, 188-209. 


John Roxborogh