Mary, Queen of Scots: Life Story

Chapter 9 : Religion

Within a week, however, the first clouds appeared on the horizon. Mary, as had been agreed, proceeded to hear Mass in her private chapel, on the first Sunday of her return. Only 14 months previously, Catholicism had been the accepted religion of the country, and probably most Scots were still Catholic. Amongst the nobles, however, Protestantism had taken firm root, and Lord Lindsay immediately made his feelings known, by shouting that the priest was an idolater. Lord James maintained the agreement by standing guard whilst the ceremony was conducted.

Mary showed her true desire to conciliate religious dissension. On 23rd August, she issued a proclamation that she intended to agree a final determination on religion with Parliament, which she hoped would satisfy everyone. In the meantime, public worship was to continue in the Protestant form laid down by the Parliament of 1560. Any interference with it would attract the death penalty, as would any interference with her own religious practice, or that of her attendants.

Far from appreciating this statement of toleration, John Knox preached loudly against the Mass from his pulpit in St Giles’ Kirk. Mary responded by requesting him to attend her at Holyrood. This was the first meeting between the eighteen-year-old queen, accustomed, after the dangers of her early childhood, to being treated deferentially, and courteously. Knox positively prided himself on his plain speaking, and his absolute belief in his own right interpretation of God’s Word.

The two exchanged words – Mary complaining that Knox had stirred her people up against her mother, Marie, and herself, and particularly objecting to his polemic, ‘The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women’. Knox went so far as to say, that, although women had no business being sovereigns, if her people accepted her, and she did not bring the country to ruin, he would be content to live under her – as St Paul had lived under Nero! 

Before long, Mary set out on a short tour around some of the most accessible parts of her kingdom – Linlithgow where she had been born, Perth, where she fell ill, despite a warm welcome, and then Dundee and St Andrew’s before heading back to the capital. During the tour, there were disturbances over religion, amongst the public, and also amongst her courtiers. The Earl of Huntly, a Catholic, and second cousin to the queen (his mother being an illegitimate daughter of James IV) told Lord James that, were the queen to order it, he would soon have the Mass restored in three counties. Lord James and the Earl were not on good terms, and this argument exacerbated bad feeling.

Mary, in fact, was so far from wanting to reimpose her own religion on her country as to make financial provision for the ministers of the Reformed church. By a long series of custom and agreement with the Papacy, Scottish kings had control of the vast majority of church appointments, and, if an office were vacant, could keep the revenues. It was agreed that the current incumbents could remain in post, and keep their incomes (regardless of whether they were able or willing to carry on Protestant services) and that any remaining revenues would be divided between the Crown and the ministers of Protestant church.

The moderate Protestants, and the ever-interfering English envoys were impressed with Mary – her natural ally, the Pope, expressed hope that she would take the more robust attitude to defending her faith that Queen Mary I of England had.

It is highly unlikely that Mary had any idea of taking Scotland back to Rome, in the face of the determination of her strongest nobles to keep the country Protestant – even if she hoped that things would change over time, through her example, her main focus was not religious, but political. Mary’s main goal in the first years of her reign was to secure the agreement of Elizabeth I, that Mary was her legitimate heir. 

It is easy with hindsight to know that Mary was wasting her time – Elizabeth could not be induced to name her heir, even on her deathbed. She gave two reasons for this – her certainty that, with a named heir, her throne would be in jeopardy, and her reluctance to put someone else in the position she had been in during her sister’s reign – the focus of plots, whether she liked it or not. At the time, she was urged to name her heir, to prevent uncertainty, and Mary was eager to build bridges after the unfortunate matter of her father-in-law’s insistence that she call herself Queen of England.

This desire for recognition was to inform Mary’s government for the next five years.