Women of the Scottish Reformation (1)

Published on Friday, 10 March 2017 07:35
Recently I spoke on Women of the Scottish Reformation. In this blog are my notes of what I said about women connected to the Lollards. Details about others will be given in subsequent blogs.

In 1560, Scotland became a Reformed country. The Reformation movement had been a long process, and 1560 would not be the close of opposition to it. We are familiar with several names of males who are connected to it, before and after 1560. What about women at that time? Not much information about female individuals has come down to us, and in this paper I have tried to include what we have received about them. We will look at women who contributed before 1560 to the Reformed cause and some who made their mark after 1560. It was not easy before 1560 and it was not always easy after that year either. 

Some want to trace roots of the Reformation in Scotland back to the Lollards connected to John Wycliffe in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. His preachers did come to Scotland and at least two were martyred, one in Perth and one in St Andrews. John Knox in his History of the Reformation in Scotland mentions a well-known trial that occurred in 1494 in which several Lollards were tried for heresy. They are known as the Lollards of Kyle. Among them were two women, sisters; one was Lady Polkellie and the other was Lady Stair. The husband of a third sister was also on trial. While the trial petered out and the accusers did not get their way, the trial does remind us that it was dangerous to question the doctrine of the Romish church. What is clear is that women were embracing the Bible and some of them were married into the gentry.

Another account that comes down from this period concerns a couple, John Campbell of Cesnock and his wife Janet Montgomery. John’s father, George, was one of the Lollards of Kyle. Their story is told in a volume called The Annals of the English Bible, and its author describes the history of Bible translation and distribution in the British Isles. In describing what took place in Scotland in the period between Wycliffe’s translation and the more accurate version of Tyndale, he details what happened to this couple. They were charged with using their home for the promotion of heresy, which of course means that they were using their home to spread the faith. They hosted a priest who read to the family from the New Testament and turned it into their language (probably turning some of Wycliffe’s renderings into Scots). The topic of conversations in the home at times focussed on biblical doctrines and the religious errors they saw around them. They and their priest were betrayed by some monks they had shown hospitality to, and were charged with heresy.

John was frightened by the prospect of a negative verdict from the ecclesiastical powers and appealed to the king, James IV, who possessed exclusive authority to try such cases. Even this did not make John brave in answering the accusations. It was a different matter when his wife. She spoke bravely, competently and accurately about the doctrines for which she was on trial. The king was impressed by her and rebuked the monks and gave more land to John as a reward. 

This incident does tell us that there was not always harmony between the monarch and the religious authorities over the pursuit of religious dissenters and if the accused could argue their case they could win. We can also see that women were instructed well in what the Bible taught, and some of them were prepared to state clearly what they believed, even when their lives were in danger for their faith

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