The Scots and the Reformation: An Exploration

Posted on November 17, 2011 by


Sixteenth century Europe was a tumultuous era, to say the least. The 1500s saw the decline of an old religion and the birth of a new one, as well as revolutionary changes in society and government. This was the time known as the Reformation—a split within Western Christianity that influenced world faiths as we know them today. The main source of tension was disagreement over religion, specifically over the dominant Catholic Church and its practices, and Protestant reformers’ accusations that the Church was increasingly becoming corrupt and impure.

As I delved deeper into research on the Reformation, I was interested in the subtopic of the Scottish Reformation for two main reasons: because its impact on the Scottish Church is still visible today, and because it is not very well known. The outcome of the Scottish Reformation was that the national church, often called the Kirk, was re-established along Protestant Reformed lines, but many complicated events led up to this conclusion. In the early 1500s, the Catholic Church in Scotland enjoyed stout loyalty from most of the populace, and it wasn’t until the 1550s that the Protestant cause really took root. In 1557, Protestant Reformers in Scotland renewed their efforts and began rampaging through the country, destroying Catholic churches, spreading their message to the people, and adding to their cause. Scotland’s political relationships with England and France, both of whom wanted control over Scotland, influenced greatly the Scottish Reformation, and in the mid-16thcentury Scotland’s alliance with Catholic France dissolved after France tried to take the Scots over and Scotland’s former enemies, the English, helped Scotland oust the French and establish the Reformed Kirk in 1560.

John Knox, a leader of the Scottish Reformation

Researching the Scottish Reformation, I stumbled across a reference to The Beggars Warning, a document from 1558 of unknown authorship. I was intrigued by this document because it appeared overnight on the doors of friaries all over Scotland, despite the fact that its author was not known. The context in which the Beggars Warning emerged was the late 1550s—the heyday of the Scottish Reformation, when the Catholic Church had an unstable position, the larger portion of the populace backed the Protestant call for reform, and a general feeling of unrest and a need for change was prevalent. The Beggars Warning essentially threatened friars with eviction on the grounds that their land rightly belonged to the genuine poor, and it reflected the overall decrease in support for the Catholic Church.

            The original Beggars Warning is written in old, commoner’s Scottish, so my first step to interpreting this document was translating it, and although the Warning’s author is not known, it is evidently written by one of the poor populace. Any quotations that follow are taken from my translation of the original document, so they will be in more familiar English. Within the first paragraph the author asserts that the “blind, crooked, lame, widows, orphans” are the pure as chosen by God, a claim that was probably fairly radical. The document says that the poor are the pure because they are the ones who have true faith in God and who work to serve God, even though they are weak. The Warning says that the poor people, who by virtue have achieved God’s goodwill, suffered because of the clergy’s corruption and false messages. The author also accuses the clergy, friars in particular, of pretending to be poor and thus pretending to do God’s will. The document mentions various ways in which the clergy has wronged the people, including preaching false messages, living luxuriously against God’s word, pretending to be poor and therefore not working, and using the poor’s hospitals for themselves. Janet P. Foggie, in her book Renaissance Religion In Urban Scotland: The Dominican Order, 1450-1560, suggests that the specific intention of the Warning was to reclaim only the poor hospitals from the friars who had taken them over. The author accuses the friars as such:

Even so, you have persuaded them to give to you great hospitals, and maintain you therein by their purse, which only pertains now to us be all low, as beget and see to the pure, of who’s number you are not, nor can be repute, neither by the law of God, nor yet by no other law proceeding of nature, reason, or civil policy.

In this document, the poor express their indignation at being mistreated, uncared for, and ignored; seek reparation from the friars; and also claim that they have God’s will to support their threat of eviction. The author says that the clergy has been worshipping “express against God’s word”—in that they have falsely interpreted God’s will and have become lazy and less devoted.

With all the complicated political relationships and government happenings in mind, the Beggars Warning helps illuminate a completely different, but invaluable, view of the Scottish Reformation: that of the people. This document shows that the common people were indignant and wanted change, not just in religious practices in the Kirk, but also in their society, and that they were willing to take action to make this change happen. It also gives a common persons’ opinion of the Scottish Reformation and shows the growing concern with responsibility for the poor, as well as voicing a shocking and dismaying amount of complaints against the Catholic Church. The last sentence of the document says it is “from the whole cities, towns, and villages of Scotland”, and conveys the huge amount of support for the Protestant cause, mostly from the general Scottish populace.

An outpost of the Scottish Kirk

Although the Scottish Reformation had major effects in Scotland, in reality it was kind of isolated from the main Reformation movement. This may be, in part, due to the fact that Scotland is geographically disconnected from most of Europe, especially from the hotbed of Reformation action: Eastern European countries such as Germany. However, the Beggars Warning, and the Scottish Reformation as a whole, reflects the overall people’s movement during the Reformation and the common demand for the populace to be more involved in politics, religion, and society. The Scottish Reformation also conformed to the trend of more radical reformations in the north, purely Protestant reformations in east and mid-Europe, and Catholic loyalty in southern Europe. Ultimately, the Warning raises one of the larger debates contemporary to the Reformation: How do we, as humans, serve God and do God’s will? The Beggars Warning answers this question at the end, saying that working to carry out God’s message rather than living luxuriously and teaching about that message is truly doing God’s will. This same sentence at the end of the Beggars Warning is also, I think, one of the most succinct and powerful summaries of the main goal of the Reformation in general: Let him therefore that before has stolen, steal no more; but rather let him work with his hands, that he may be helpful to the pure.

Works Cited:

Boettcher, Susan R. “Scottish Reformation.” In Ackermann, Marsha E., Michael Schroeder, Janice J. Terry, Jiu-Hwa Lo Upshur, and Mark F. Whitters, eds. Encyclopedia of World History: The First Global Age, 1450 to 1750, vol. 3. New York: Facts On File, Inc., 2008. Modern World History Online. Facts On File, Inc. Web. 8 Nov 2011

Foggie, Janet. Renaissance Religion In Urban Scotland: The Dominican Order, 1450-1560. Leiden, The Netherlands: Koninklijke Brill NV, 2003. Web.

Kirsch, Johann Peter. “The Reformation.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 12. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. 8 Nov. 2011

Koch, Jerry. “Reformation.” Encyclopedia of Religion and Society . Hartford Seminary, Web. 8 Nov 2011.

Mackie, Robert. A Short History of Scotland. London: Oxford University Press, 1930. Print.

Melhuish, Scott. “John Knox and the Scottish Reformation.” Reformation Scotland. 2011. Web. 8 Nov 2011.

“Reformation.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online School Edition. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 2011. Web. 24 Oct. 2011.

Unknown. The Beggars Warning. 1558. The Works of John Knox. David Laing. 1895. Vol 1. 320-321. Retrieved from


John Knox. Graphic. The Project Gutenberg eBook. Web. 18 Nov 2011.

Glen Fincastle Kirk. Photograph. Geograph. Web. 18 Nov 2011.

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