Celtic Great Britain
The British Isles were, prior to the 1st century A.D., mostly Celtic. I say mostly, because another tribal group called
the Picts dominated what is now Scotland. The Celts, prior to the Roman Conquest of the island of Great Britain,
dominated what is now England and Wales, and the island of Ireland. The Celts of Ireland were later to invade and
dominate Scotland. In this unit we are looking at the Celtic religious culture of Scotland and Wales. There are
similarities and differences between these two places. The peoples spoke two different dialects of Celtic language,
but shared broad cultural similarities. They were cultures of wild lands — hunting, fishing and some agriculture.
Neither Wales nor Scotland — the far west and the far north respectively of the island — were well-suited to
agriculture. They were not, therefore, places suited to towns or cities until much later in history. This economic
reality produced similar styles of religion. The polytheistic (what is sometimes called pagan) faith of the pre-Christian
Roman Empire was urban in nature, with complex rituals and belief systems. So too was early Christianity —
centred around bishops located in major cities. Celtic paganism, and Celtic Christianity alike, were faiths of families,
tribes, and very small settlements — characterized by roaming shamans, and then priests, and then, after the
Here is an interesting interactive map showing the historical spread of Celtic culture in Europe, and Roman culture
as it enveloped the Celts in the period before this course begins. http://resourcesforhistory.com/map.htm
There were differences after Christianity also. Though Wales was conquered fully by the English in the Middle Ages,
it retained ever after cultural differences. Scotland remained an independent country, with a usually fractious
relationship with the English to the south. This was to affect the structure of religion in both places — but not
fundamental aspects as practiced by ordinary believers.
Scotland: God in the Northern Kingdom
Scotland, like all places in western Europe, was a Catholic nation in 1500. And like all places in western Europe it
was profoundly affected by the ideas of Martin Luther and then those of Jean Calvin. Scotland and England, sharing
an island off the northwest coast of Europe, could not ignore one another, but were different nonetheless. The
differences were tiny before the Protestant Reformation, but became larger after, as the Reform was received
differently in each place. Scotland in 1500 had a king and a parliament, and was a society much like that of England, with a powerful
aristocracy, a small middle class and large group of ordinary believers. Beyond this surface similarity, there were
differences contingent on the different histories and economies of the two kingdoms. In Scotland, the monarchy was
not as rich as in England, simply because Scotland was itself a poorer country. National wealth was based on
agriculture, and Scotland quite simply had little good agricultural land. For Scottish culture this meant the monarchy
was much less powerful in the political system than in England, and the aristocracy that much stronger relatively.
This affected religion. In England, the king had the power to enforce a national change in religion — whether that be
to reformed ideas and practices or, as in the case of Mary, back to Catholicism. In Scotland the king simply did not
have the ability to force the nation to do anything the aristocracy did not want. Thus the reform in Scotland was to be
characterized in its early years as also a struggle for power between the monarchy and the aristocracy.
The First Phase of the Scottish Reform 1542–1557 — Lords of the Congregation
Protestant Reform entered Scotland directly from the continent, with the import of Lutheran ideas utilizing the new
technology of printing — much as today ‘subversive’ ideas are spread by the internet. Scotland had always looked
to continental Europe, and especially France as a political counterweight to England. The Scottish monarch and
Catholic Church were particularly close to France. The royal family in Scotland was most closely identified with
Catholicism, while the Scottish parliament — which meant mostly the aristocracy, because parliament was still more
of a royal council than a representative body — wished to wrest more power from the crown and thus allied itself
with the Protestant cause. The aristocracy and monarchy had always wrestled each other for power, but now the
aristocrats had an influential new ideology in Protestantism to lend legitimacy to their goals.
This made Protestantism in Scotland different from that in England, for in England the reform was instituted by the
monarchy, rather than in opposition to it as in Scotland. There were early attempts to change the practices of the
Catholic Church in Scotland in order to forestall the Reformation, but they were a case of too little, too late. Scotland
was ruled by King James V, who died in 1542 and was thus roughly coterminous with the reign of Henry VIII. James
remained Catholic throughout his life. When Henry VIII began his reform in England, Catholic priests fled north to
Scotland, while Scottish reformers fled south to England. Some modern historians argue this was the beginning of a
sense of common feeling between Scotland and England — the birth, one might say, of Britain. Click here for a
In France the papacy had followed a successful policy of giving up much power to the monarchy in order to keep the
country Catholic; in Scotland the same policy was attempted, but without success. The king was allowed to control
the appointments of bishops, although this was a privilege jealously defended by the papacy. The fear was that the
Scots would follow the English precedent, but apparently the Pope did not understand the difference in power
structures between the two countries. He apparently also did not understand the different positions of the monarchy
in France and in Scotland. The French kings were even more powerful in their kingdom than Henry VIII was in his.
To make this misjudgment worse, the Scottish monarchy too often appointed bishops to reward friends rather than
for religious reasons. Bishops were great land-holding, and thus wealthy, lords, and the office of bishop was
therefore coveted. Secular aristocrats saw them as rivals, rather than as religious leaders. This was true too of the
heads of monasteries, called abbots. Monasteries owned large tracts of developed farm land — in the Middle Ages,
monks had opened these lands to agriculture in order to feed their own, but had by the 1500s become fat and lazy
in too many cases. Bishops and monasteries also drew revenues by taxing local parish churches. These local
churches often then did not have enough money left over in a poor country such as Scotland to keep good clergy in
local churches. Thus the Catholic Church in Scotland was fatally weakened at the grass roots level — whereas in
relatively wealthy England, monasteries, bishops and local churches all had enough. This made Catholicism
unpopular among both aristocrats and ordinary people, leaving the monarchy and its family and close friends the
Thus reform in Scotland had two opposite prongs: (1) the aristocracy who wanted to lessen royal power, though not
eliminate it, and the people at the other end who had little loyalty to a church which served them so poorly, because
of the appropriation of revenues for bishops and monasteries and (2) the monarchy. The Pope hoped that by giving
more autonomy to the king he could save the church in Scotland the same way he had saved it in France and in
Spain, but this prevented effective reform at the parish level within Catholicism.
Popular and aristocratic opposition to the monarchy increased when King James V died in 1542, leaving his French
wife as regent for his daughter Mary (known to history as Mary, Queen of Scots), who was too young yet to assume
the throne. England became involved because of a fear of French control being imposed on Scotland — the French
had been enemies of England for hundreds of years. This was a real fear, as French troops were to be sent to Scotland to support the regent, Mary of Guise, young Mary’s mother.
Nationalism, as a result, became attached to the Protestant party, much as in England, though for different reasons.
A kind of half-suppressed civil war followed, with executions and protests on each side. In 1546, for example, the
chief Catholic prelate in Scotland, Cardinal Beaton, was executed by Scottish nobles. At the same time (in 1546) a
former priest John Knox began to agitate for reform. He was banished, imprisoned for a time in France, then went to
England during the reign of Edward VI (1547–1553), fled to Geneva with the accession of Queen Mary of England,
where he learned at the feet of Calvin.
He then returned to Scotland in 1557, when Protestant nobles banded together into what was called the Lords of
the Congregation and who swore a solemn covenant to promote the cause of true religion in Scotland under
Knox’s influence. Under his guidance, they drew up a Confession of Faith and a Book of Discipline for the
Reformed church. (See http://www.abcgallery.com/W/wilkie/wilkie7.html )
Scotland was to be a country informed by Calvinism through and through, unlike England with its own hybrid
Protestantism, or the north German states and their Lutheranism. It is useful here to review those aspects of
Calvin’s teachings which affected Scotland — as well as the Puritans in England, and thus, later, the colonies in
• Calvin taught that God had decided before the creation who would be saved, and who would not — those to be
saved were called ‘the elect’. That is, they were pre-destined to salvation. This belief in pre-destination and the
moral life springing from it tended to result in a grass roots type of church structure and practice (called
‘ecclesiology’ from the Greek for Church ecclesia) — because one could not be saved by one’s actions, or by being
converted from the outside, the elect gathered together to form their own churches. In these churches prayer and
preaching were the norm — prayer, because God commanded this; preaching, because the elect must be prepared
for their future and must understand what it means to them; they were not preaching to the unconverted, but to
• The other side of this coin was the rejection of ecclesiologies such as that of Anglicanism, which was a state
church embracing all Christians within it — Anglicans retained a belief that one could not tell at all who was among
the elect or not, therefore the Church had to preach and pray with all.
• This meant also that Calvinist churches were to reject state control — that, as members of the elect of God, either
they should be separate from the state (from the government of the day) or they should in fact be the government, or at least have the final say in matters which affected religion and the souls of individuals; and that laws should
reflect this openly religious base. This occurs in militant, fundamentalist Islamic countries today, where laws must
directly reflect the Koran. Strict Calvinists believed civil and criminal laws must directly reflect biblical teachings. This
was the case in Zurich under Zwingli, and Geneva under Calvin, and John Knox believed it should be true of
The fly in the ointment for Knox and his followers was the obstinately Catholic monarchy. And despite its weakness,
there remained an aura around the person of the monarch that gave a kind of charismatic authority to the office and
the person. So, while Scotland was to move largely to the Calvinist camp, there were always to be groups who
dissented from this new religious order.
The Role of England in the Scottish Reformation
In 1558, the year Elizabeth ascended the throne of England, Mary Queen of Scots (the daughter of James V), now
an adult, married the heir to the French throne, Francois. This further worsened the situation by increasing fears that
Scotland would be taken over by France and that Scottish nobles would see their power lessened, and the English
feared the threat of French troops on their northern border. The Scottish Protestants thus turned to Elizabeth for aid.
Elizabeth was one step ahead already, showing her wisdom. She had concluded a peace treaty with France in 1560
— with a provision that France leave Scotland, and leave it alone. At the same time, Mary of Guise died, leaving the
rule of Scotland and the fate of the Catholic Church there in the hands of her daughter, Mary. Mary, who had been
in France since 1548, returned to Scotland in 1561 to take up her position as Queen of Scots. The aristocratic
Scottish parliament also had attempted to control the situation the year before by outlawing Catholicism, even
prescribing the death penalty for anyone attending Mass — and accepting the Confession of Faith as normative for
Scottish Christianity. John Knox and the Lords of the Congregation did not carry the day entirely, however, as
agreement could not be reached on how to organize the church, the Book of Discipline being rejected by parliament.
Scottish Lords might indeed be the champions of Reform, but they could not, nor would not, allow restrictions on
their own personal powers.
The situation was even odder, however. Although Catholicism was now outlawed, the bishops continued to exist
and to own the same lands as before. They became a de facto type of Anglican church, existing alongside the legally mandated Calvinist — or as the Scots called it — Presybterian church. As the old system still existed, it still
had the flow of money from lands attached to each ancient church, leaving the new Presbyterian church to be
supported only by local donors, which linked it more closely to ordinary Scots, and reinforced a congregational
nature for Scottish Protestantism.
At the same time, the young Queen was left free, and was still attempting to stem the tide of Protestantism. She had
little support, and finally was forced to flee to England in 1567. There she was held under house arrest by Elizabeth.
Elizabeth could not decide what to do with her — Mary had a son and therefore a legitimate heir, but even more
importantly, Elizabeth had none. So Mary, in a profound historical irony, was the heir to the English throne should
Elizabeth never have children. Elizabeth was loath to set an example of killing a fellow monarch, but plots to
assassinate Elizabeth swirled around the imprisoned Queen of Scots. Finally Elizabeth had her executed in 1587.
(See http://englishhistory.net/tudor/scot-letters.html ) Elizabeth was never to produce an heir, so Mary of Scotland
triumphed after death when her son James VI of Scotland succeeded Elizabeth as James I of England.
The Scottish Church under the Stuarts
The family name of the Scottish monarchs was Stuart. From the time when King James VI of Scotland also became
King of England as King James I, this royal family was heavily involved in the interplay of religion and society.
James became King of Scotland when his mother was executed in 1587. He was not publicly a Catholic — although
all the Stuarts were suspected from that time of being Catholic in secret — but aligned himself with the episcopal
church, or the Scottish Christians who followed the still-existing bishops. Under James VI, the monarchy continued
to control appointments to the older church structure, and to use these appointments to siphon off money to the
crown. James also attempted to introduce a full Anglican-style church into Scotland, but was to die before feeling
the reaction to his attempts.
His son succeeded to the throne of Scotland (and England) as Charles I in 1625. James had loved the comforts
which came of being king of two countries, and had been very careful therefore not to rock the royal boat too much.
His son was less wise. In 1636/7, he attempted, through Archbishop Laud, to impose the Anglican Book of Common
Prayer on the Scottish Calvinist church, without asking for the approval of the Scottish parliament. It is unlikely that
the Scots would have approved, but it was unwise even to try. The reaction was what is called the ‘National
Covenant’. (You will note that the term ‘covenant’ was popular in Scottish Protestant history and is in fact a key component of
reformed Christian thinking on the proper relationship between Church and State. While covenants take very
different forms in Scotland, and later in North America, they share a basic concept of a communal agreement, either
with God or between social groups — a kind of corrective to the essential individualism of Protestantism expressed
in individual reading of the Bible and in individual conversion experiences.)
This National Covenant was an agreement, drawn up by leading opponents to the royal religious policy, which
promised to defend the reformed church of Scotland, re-affirmed their opposition to Roman Catholicism, and at the
same time professed loyalty to the king. It was signed by all orders of society in the capital Edinburgh —nobles,
townspeople, clergy — and then copies were sent throughout the country to be signed in an interesting display of
early democracy in action. This convinced the king, unwillingly, to allow a General Assembly of the Scottish church
to be called, which met in Glasgow in November 1638.
The General Assembly very quickly re-affirmed Scottish reforms and rejected all of Charles’s attempts to change the
Scottish church in an Anglican direction. But more than this, it abolished episcopacy outright — the office of bishops
— declaring (1) that the Church consisted only of local congregations and their pastors; (2) that the Church was
entirely separate from the State; (3) that it had its own government and control over moral and religious matters; and
(4) that it could and would assemble yearly. The king attempted to stop this, but was ignored, rather than opposed
Now Scottish and English religious history come together for a short period — at the end of which the two countries
have very different settlements.
The English Civil War, Commonwealth & Protectorate 1642–1660
While this seems part of English history, in religious terms it falls more properly into a combined look at Scottish and
English history. In England, parliament is controlled by Puritans who favour a Presbyterian-style church — and a
covenant between people and the State to enforce godly rule — and has come to split with the monarchy over this
— the same Charles who is attempting to impose Anglicanism on Scotland. In England, Charles has been governing
without parliament. Kings in England have large sources of personal revenue from their estates, but this money had
not been enough to carry on the business of national government for quite some time. Hence, parliament, which could raise money through taxes, had gained power over the monarchy, especially when the particular monarch was
not so careful with expenses. In 1640, Charles was forced to recall parliament because of lack of money. Parliament
exacted a bloody price for giving Charles more money, however. His two chief ministers, Lord Wentworth and
Archbishop Laud, were impeached and executed by parliament. Parliament, sensing blood in the waters, then
produced the 1641 Grand Remonstrance, which demanded that royal ministers (the chief advisors of the King) be
responsible to parliament and that the Church be reformed along Puritan lines. This was rejected by Charles.
Belatedly, Charles then moved to accept the Church settlement in Scotland in an attempt to gain allies, but the
Scots did not trust him. In 1642, war between King and the English parliament broke out — the so-called English
The next year the Scots and the English Puritans came together in what is called the Solemn League and Covenant,
so that not only did Charles fail to get the support of Scotland, but actively lost it to his enemies. The English
parliament received instead the support of Scottish Presbyterians. The deal gave military aid against Charles, and in
return, the Scots got promises of Presbyterianism being imposed on England and Ireland, and English adherence to
the ‘covenant’ of 1638.
At Westminster at the same time, parliament had begun to revise the 39 articles of Anglicanism in a Presbyterian
and fully Calvinist direction — when the Solemn League and Covenant intervened. Then theologians and church
leaders from England and Scotland met for more than two years to propose changes in legislation which would
reform English life along puritan lines and harmonize English and Scots ecclesiology.
This produced the Westminster Confession (1643) which is still the basis of Presbyterian belief and practice. It
affirmed the Calvinist ideal of pre-destination and set reformed religious practices into the law of the land — and
eventually produced other basic documents of Presbyterian belief: the Shorter and Larger Catechisms, the
Directory for the Public Worship of God and the Form of Church Government. (See
In 1646, Charles, whose war was not going well, fled to Scotland, where he was held then turned over to the English
parliament after refusing to agree to the Covenant. The next year, he escaped from England and again negotiated
with the Scots. This time he agreed to accept Presbyterianism in Scotland and to establish it in England within three
years in return for their military support. This was not to be, as Charles was finally defeated and captured. In 1649,
he was executed, and an early form of republicanism was established in England called the Commonwealth. In
Edinburgh, Charles’s son, also called Charles, is proclaimed King by the Scots, in a fit of nationalism. Meanwhile, the Puritan general, Oliver Cromwell, is out of the country busily massacring Irish opponents. A Scots army headed
by Charles invades England, but is defeated by Cromwell on his return, and Charles flees to Europe. Cromwell then
invades and occupies Scotland.
Click here for a
Cromwell, however, and the English parliament were not terribly interested in governing Scotland directly, so the
Scots were left alone to squabble over the proper form their church should take, and just what relationship, if any, it
should have with government. The Scots have one more direct role to play in this drama.
• In 1660, moderate Scottish Presbyterians were in the forefront of restoring the monarchy, on the understanding
that Presbyterianism would be maintained in Scotland, whatever happened in England.
• Charles II, however, had other ideas — and he sent to trial and eventual execution the Scottish leaders who had
promulgated the National Covenant in 1638. He restored the episcopate, and reinstated the old practice of
aristocrats and himself having the right to appoint ministers and bishops — but allowed the other levels of
Presbyterian government to remain in an unusual experiment combining Presbyterianism and Anglicanism.
• This was to fail, however, as Charles increasingly insisted on restricting Presbyterianism in Scotland. Local
congregations literally took to the hills, where they held services and raised local armed rebellions against Charles
and the Scottish bishops, with a major unsuccessful uprising occurring in 1679, followed by a major persecution
which lasted until James II was deposed in 1688. This is remembered as ‘the Killing Time’ by the Scots.
• In 1689 the Scottish parliament declared William and Mary king and queen of Scotland. This parliament also called
for the abolition of bishops in Scotland. Meanwhile, the Scottish Anglican bishops, who still held onto their revenues
and positions, also declared against the new monarchs — another historical irony as they owed their continued
existence to the institution of the monarchy.
• This forced William and Mary to make the Presbyterian church in Scotland the established, legal church of the
country in the same way Anglicanism was in England. The Westminster Confession was made the basis of Scottish belief, while the remainder of the bishops and their few followers, who had now finally lost their source of revenue,
formed the basis for the modern Anglican church in Scotland (called the Episcopal Church of Scotland, which was to
play a role for Anglicans in the United Stat