It was a nation of ancient roots and rooted ways: bound by the rough highlands of the north to a feudal regime of almost independent nobles organizing and exploiting a half-primitive culture of hunting, herding, and tenant tillage; favored in the south by lovely lowlands fertile with rain but darkened by long winters and crippling cold; a people struggling to create a moral and civilized order out of illiteracy, illegitimacy, corruption, lawlessness, and violence; riddled with superstition, and sending witches to the stake; seeking in a tense religious faith some hope of a less arduous life. To offset the divisive power of the barons, the kings had supported the Catholic clergy, and had dowered these with wealth leading to venality, lethargy, and concubines.4 The nobles itched for the riches of the Church; they debased the clergy by filling ecclesiastical offices with their worldly sons; they declared for the Reformation and made the Scottish Parliament, which they controlled, the master alike of Church and state.
External danger was the strongest incentive to internal unity. England felt unsafe in an island shared with her by untamed Scots; time and again she sought, by diplomacy, marriage, or war, to bring Scotland under English rule. Fearful of absorption, Scotland allied herself with a France traditionally hostile to England. Cecil advised Elizabeth to support the Protestant nobles against their Catholic Queen; so Scotland would be divided and would cease to be a peril to England or a support to France. Moreover, the Protestant leaders, if successful, might reject Mary, enthrone a Protestant noble, and make all Scotland Protestant; privately Cecil dreamed of uniting such a Scotland to England by persuading Elizabeth to marry such a king.5 When France sent a force into Scotland to suppress the Protestants, Elizabeth dispatched an army to protect them and drive out the French. Beaten in the field, the French representatives in Scotland signed at Edinburgh (July 6, 1560) a fateful treaty requiring not only that the French should leave Scotland but that Mary should cease to claim the throne of England. On the advice of her husband, Francis II, Mary refused to ratify the treaty. Elizabeth took note.
The religious situation was equally confused. The Scottish “Reformation Parliament” of 1560 officially abolished Catholicism, and established Calvinist Protestantism, as the religion of the state; but these acts did not receive from Mary the royal ratification then required to make parliamentary decrees the law of the land. Catholic priests still held most of the Scottish benefices; half the nobles were “papists,” and John Hamilton, of royal blood, still came to Parliament as the Catholic primate of Scotland. In Edinburgh, however, and in St. Andrews, Perth, Stirling, and Aberdeen, a large proportion of the middle classes had been won to Calvinism by devoted preachers under the lead of John Knox.
In the year before Mary’s coming Knox and his aides drew up a Book of Discipline defining their doctrine and purposes. Religion was to mean Protestantism; “the godly” were to mean Calvinists alone; “idolatry” was to include “the Mass, invocation of saints, adoration of images, and the keeping … of the same,” and “the obstinate maintainers and teachers of such abominations ought not to escape the punishment of the civil magistrate.” All doctrine “repugnant to” the Gospel was to “be utterly suppressed as damnable to man’s salvation.”6 Ministers were to be elected by the congregations, were to establish schools open to all godly children, and were to have control of the Scottish universities—St. Andrews, Glasgow, and Aberdeen. The wealth of the Catholic Church and the continued ecclesiastical tithes were to be devoted to the needs of the ministers, the education of the people, and the relief of the poor. The new Kirk, and not the secular state, was to legislate on morals and prescribe penalties for offenses—drunkenness, gluttony, profanity, extravagance of dress, oppression of the poor, obscenity, fornication, and adultery. All who resisted the new doctrine or persistently absented themselves from its services were to be turned over to the secular arm, with the Kirk’s recommendation that they be put to death.7
However, the lords who dominated Parliament refused to accept the Book of Discipline (January 1561). They had no relish for a powerful and independent Kirk, and they had their own plans for using the wealth of the superseded Church. The Book remained the goal and guide of the Kirk’s development.
Defeated in his attempt to establish a theocracy—a government by priests claiming to speak for God—Knox labored with massive tenacity to organize the new ministry, to find funds for its support, and to spread it throughout Scotland in the face of a still functioning Catholic clergy. The dogmatic force of his preaching and the enthusiasm of his congregation made him a power in Edinburgh and in the state. The Catholic Queen would have to reckon with him before she could consolidate her rule.