Scottish Reformation Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Scottish Reformation solidified the hold of Protestantism on Britain and established the Presbyterian Kirk as the national church of Scotland.

Summary of Event

The Scottish Reformation transformed the nature and character of politics, society, and worship in Scotland. This transformation was not without its antecedents. Since the 1530’, the need for religious reformation had been apparent among leaders in the kirk (church). Initially the call for change came from within the kirk, but by 1540, Protestant preachers such as George Wishart were calling for separation from the Roman Catholic Church and a faith that was based on the Bible. John Knox, who would later be the chief catalyst of the Reformation in Scotland, converted to Protestantism in 1543. Still, the number of Scottish Protestants was small. To the majority of Scots, the kirk seemed distant, and they were apathetic toward religious matters. Reformation;Scotland Knox, John Mary of Guise Calvin, John Campbell, Archibald (1532-1573) Erskine of Dun, John Moray, Earl of Mary, Queen of Scots Elizabeth I Wishart, George Knox, John James V (king of Scotland) Mary Tudor (queen of Scots) Mary of Guise Campbell, Archibald (1532-1573) James VI (king of Scotland) Erskine of Dun, John Elizabeth I (queen of England) Calvin, John Francis I (king of France)

Church reform was also hindered by political instability. In 1542, James V was murdered, and his infant daughter, Mary, Queen of Scots, ascended to the throne. In 1554, Mary of Guise became regent of Scotland, replacing the earl of Arran. Mary of Guise realized that Scottish independence was threatened by Protestant England. To strengthen her authority, she renewed Scotland’s traditional alliance with France. Her overtures toward the French and her increasing intolerance toward Protestants frightened several leading Scottish nobles, including Archibald Campbell, James Stewart, and John Erskine of Dun. In 1557, these nobles founded the Lords of the Congregation, whose dual aim was to reform the kirk and to extricate Scotland from the influence of Catholic France.

Many other nobles and important clergy sided with the queen regent and the Catholic Church, however. In April, 1558, Mary of Guise succeeded in allying Scotland and France through the marriage of Mary, Queen of Scots to the French dauphin, Francis. In November, the Scottish parliament agreed that Francis would become king of Scotland through marriage. With French support secured, the regent began to move against the Lords of the Congregation in 1559. Simultaneously, the Lords of the Congregation tried to form an alliance with the English and their new Protestant queen, Elizabeth I. They also helped John Knox to return to Scotland from Geneva in May, 1559.

Knox had been in Geneva since 1554. While in the Swiss city, he had come under the influence of John Calvin. Calvin helped Knox to develop most of his theology. Knox modeled his style of worship, his emphasis on the Bible, and his Presbyterian style of church government on what he had seen in Calvin’s Geneva. What separated Knox from Calvin was his doctrine of “righteous rebellion.” Calvin believed that Protestants could disobey an unjust (usually Catholic) ruler, but Knox argued that it was the duty of righteous subjects actively and, if necessary, violently to depose an evil monarch. To allow an ungodly ruler to stay in power would invite God’s judgment on the nation.

The Lords of the Congregation were uneasy about Knox’s resistance theory, but they understood that the Scottish Protestants needed a leader. When Knox returned to Scotland in 1559, his preaching and that of other Protestants sparked armed rebellions. For instance, at Perth, in eastern Scotland, a Knox sermon incited a riot that destroyed Catholic images and altars. Armed conflict was limited and revolved around the capital in Edinburgh. Between May and October, Protestant ministers were appointed to positions in several leading towns, including St. Andrews, Ayr, Dundee, and Perth. Knox became the minister of Saint Giles’s Cathedral in Edinburgh. Despite these successes, however, Protestants remained a minority, and Mary of Guise still had French troops at her disposal. Also, in several locales the addition of a Protestant minister did not signal the deposition of his Catholic counterpart. Often, both priest and minister served the same congregation.

In October, the Lords of the Congregation suspended the queen regent, but this legal move lacked political force. The necessary force to neutralize Mary was provided by Elizabeth I and an English army in March, 1560, when they besieged Leith in southern Scotland. In June, Mary died, and French support for Catholics in Scotland began to wane. The French and English signed the Treaty of Leith Leith, Treaty of (1560) in July, in which both armies agreed to withdraw from Scottish territory. Viewed as God’s hand at work by the reformers, this treaty removed effective political resistance to Protestantism. On August 1, the Reformation Parliament convened in Edinburgh. This group of one hundred Scottish lairds (nobles) outlawed the Mass, abolished the pope’s jurisdiction in Scotland, and ratified the Scots Confession. What the Parliament did not do was depose Catholic office holders or provide for the upkeep of a Protestant clergy. The thorny issue of how to finance the reformed kirk was left up to the first General Assembly of the new kirk in December, 1560.

In the same month, Francis I died, ensuring that a French monarch would not sit on the Scottish throne. The period between the General Assembly of December, 1560, and the return of Mary, Queen of Scots to Scotland in August, 1561, was crucial to the foundation of a reformed kirk. The political obstacles for Protestantism were gone, but the kirk lacked cohesion. During this time, Knox and other reformers drew up the First Book of Discipline First Book of Discipline (Knox) (1560). This document defined the doctrine of the new kirk. Whereas the Reformation Parliament had negated the old faith, the First Book of Discipline defined the new kirk without condemning the Catholic Church. This document was only a preliminary step in formulating the doctrine of the new kirk, but it was to provide a starting point for future statements of faith.


From August, 1561, until Mary, Queen of Scots, was deposed in 1567, the reformed kirk was severely tested. Mary was a Catholic but did not have enough support in Scotland to reverse the Reformation. Knox disliked Mary strongly, and she had no love for him. Their “interviews” usually consisted of Knox’s condemnation of Mary’s Catholicism and Mary’s refusal to change. Eventually, Knox called for Mary’s assassination as an unrighteous ruler. Mary would have withstood Knox’s attacks if she had been able to gain the support of the Scottish nobility, but they rejected her authority because of her close ties with France and her attempt to marry the son of Philip II of Spain. Her foreign allies and her scandalous private life made Mary increasing unpopular. Her unpopularity combined with civil strife between Catholics and Protestants eventually led to Mary’s downfall and her exile in England.

By 1603, the reformed kirk had solidified its position in Scotland. During the forty-two years between 1561 and 1603, the crucial issues left hanging by the Reformation Parliament and the First Book of Discipline were largely resolved. The Protestant clergy was financed, the system of kirk government became Presbyterian, and the authority of the kirk in ecclesiastical matters was established. These positive consequences were not the only fruit of the Reformation. Knox’s idea of “righteous rebellion” was expanded by later thinkers such as Andrew Melville, George Buchanan, and Samuel Rutherford. The idea that the righteous should resist an unrighteous ruler created strife between the kirk and the king. Mary’s son, James VI, was able to dominate the kirk and keep order. This tension, however, boiled over in 1637, when James’s son, Charles I, attempted to impose a new liturgy in Scotland. The resulting wars between Charles and his Scottish subjects destabilized Charles’s government and pushed England into civil war.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cameron, Nigel M. de S., David F. Wright, Donald Lachman, and Donald Meek, eds. Dictionary of Scottish Church History and Theology. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1993. An extensive survey of Scottish church history from its beginnings to the late twentieth century. Contains a large section on the Reformation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cowan, Ian B. The Scottish Reformation: Church and Society in Sixteenth-Century Scotland. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1982. A study of the Scottish church and its relationship to society before, during, and after the Reformation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Donaldson, Gordon. The Scottish Reformation. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1960. An older but still insightful work written by the preeminent Scottish historian of the second half of the twentieth century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dunn, Jane. Elizabeth and Mary: Cousins, Rivals, Queens. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004. Study of the rivalry and political intrigue between Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots, attempting to portray the private emotions behind their public acts. Includes photographic plates, illustrations, bibliographic references, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Graham, Roderick. John Knox: Democrat. London: R. Hale, 2001. Comprehensive if laudatory biography that seeks to defend Knox from modern charges of misogyny. Includes illustrations, bibliographic references, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Guy, John. Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004. Exhaustive reexamination of Mary’s life and rule, attempting to rejuvenate her reputation somewhat by blaming her fall on the plots and intrigues of those around her. Reads correspondence usually used to condemn Mary in a different way to show how it may actually enhance history’s judgment of her. Includes photographic plates, illustrations, maps, bibliographic references, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kellar, Clare. Scotland, England, and the Reformation, 1534-61. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. Argues that, contrary to the general belief, the Scottish and English Reformations were thoroughly intertwined. Includes bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kirk, James. Continuity and Change in the Reformation Kirk. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1989. Representative of the changing interpretation of the Reformation, this study emphasizes the similarities that existed between the pre- and post-Reformation kirk.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kyle, Richard G. The Mind of John Knox. Lawrence, Kans.: Coronado Press, 1984. An intellectual historian examines Knox’s thought on the kirk, politics, and theology drawn from his writings.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Marshall, Rosalind K. John Knox. Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2000. A portrait both of Knox and of the Scotland in which he lived, this study seeks to separate myth from reality to capture the complexities of his life and career. Includes illustrations, map, bibliographic references, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Merriman, Marcus. The Rough Wooings: Mary Queen of Scots, 1542-1551. East Linton, East Lothian, Scotland: Tuckwell, 2000. Study of Mary’s childhood and her early efforts to preserve Scottish autonomy from England by marrying France’s Francis I.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wormald, Jenny. Court, Kirk, and Community: Scotland 1470-1625. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1981. A broad treatment of Scottish history that argues that the Reformation was neither inevitable nor complete.

Aug. 22, 1513-July 6, 1560: Anglo-Scottish Wars

Oct. 31, 1517: Luther Posts His Ninety-five Theses

Dec. 18, 1534: Act of Supremacy

July, 1535-Mar., 1540: Henry VIII Dissolves the Monasteries

Oct., 1536-June, 1537: Pilgrimage of Grace

May, 1539: Six Articles of Henry VIII

Feb. 27, 1545: Battle of Ancrum Moor

July, 1553: Coronation of Mary Tudor

1558-1603: Reign of Elizabeth I

Jan., 1563: Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England

July 29, 1567: James VI Becomes King of Scotland

Feb. 25, 1570: Pius V Excommunicates Elizabeth I

Categories: History