James V: Religion and Reform

Chapter 3 : Lutheran Books and Heresy Trials

In 1517, when Luther took up his pen to complain of the conduct of the Church hierarchy, his arguments fell on fertile ground all over Europe, and Scotland was no exception.

The first mention of Luther is in the Parliament of 1525, which James presided over, although he was still under the control of Angus. Parliament passed ‘An Act Anent (against) Heresy’ which prohibited importing and/or reading his works, on pain of forfeiture. The majority of the works – Luther’s writings, and perhaps early translations of the Bible – were likely to have come into Scotland through its eastern ports, where trade with Germany and the Low Countries was frequent. This prohibition was repeated and amplified in the Parliament of 1535. Merchants bringing such books in were to have their ships confiscated.

Cardinal David Beaton (c. 1495 - 1546), Privy Seal and Councillor to James V - 18th C copy of a 16th C original

James’ own education had been in the hands of Gavin Dunbar, who became Archbishop of Glasgow in 1524, and, exceptionally, was permitted by the Pope to operate outside obedience to the Primate, the Archbishop of St Andrew’s (by this time James Beaton, Forman having died in 1521). James obviously trusted Dunbar, who was granted the office of Chancellor as soon as James could act for himself. Relations between Dunbar and Beaton were poor and even worse with James Beaton’s successor as Archbishop, Cardinal David Beaton, who was translated there in 1539.

Dunbar was a cleric of the old school – pluralist, militant and a politician rather than a man of religion. However, he was happy to use his spiritual power to political effect. In 1525, in pursuit of the truce with England, he issued a curse on the Border Reivers, which is wonderful to hear. This ‘monition’ which was to be read by every parish priest to his congregation is pages long, but a couple of choice sentences illustrate:

I curse thair heid and all the haris of thair heid; I curse thair face, thair ene [eyes], thair mouth, thair neise, thair toung, thair teith, thair crag [neck], thair schulderis, thair breist, thair hert, thair stomok, thair bak, thair wame [womb], thair armes, thair leggis, thair handis, thair feit, and everilk part of thair body, frae the top of thair heid to the soill of thair feit, befoir and behind, within and without….. I curse them within the house, I curse thaim without the house, I curse thair wiffis, thair barnis [children], and thair servandis participand with thaim in thair deides. .. thair cornys, thair catales, thair woll, thair scheip, thair horse, thair swyne, thair geise [geese], thair hennys, and all thair quyk gude [livestock].

There was the issue of money, as well. One of the defining grievances against the Catholic Church all over Europe was the wealth of its upper ranks and, often, the monasteries, whilst parish priests were frequently poor and ill-educated. The doctrine of purgatory and payment for Masses for the dead, weighed heavily, and the payment of the best cloth and a cow for funeral masses impoverished many.

With traditional Churchmen such as Beaton and Dunbar in charge, there was little chance of any interest in Church reform, particularly where it questioned Church authority, and in 1528, the first Protestant martyr in Scotland, Patrick Hamilton, Abbot of Ferne was burnt. Hamilton had had plenty of warning that he was to be arrested, and Beaton had intimated that his escape was desirable but he had not left Scotland by the time men arrived to arrest him. Hamilton was well connected – nephew to Arran, Albany and Lennox, and second cousin to the King, but this did not save him from a mismanaged burning that lasted six hours because wet fuel was used. His example of fortitude did, however, sway many to listen to the message of reform.

In 1539, a further five men were burned in James’ presence. Burning was the punishment prescribed by law for heresy in Scotland and across Europe – if a heretic refused to recant, the secular authorities had no choice but to carry out the sentence. In other instances, such as that of David Stratilon in 1534, it appears that James exhorted the accused to recant.