TO understand the effect of the Reformation on Glasgow, it is necessary to know just how much of a religious ferment Scotland was in around the middle of the 16th century.

One astonishing example was an all-out fight between Cardinal David Beaton, Archbishop of St Andrews, and his great rival Gavin Dunbar, Archbishop of Glasgow. Dunbar is famed in Scottish and ecclesiastical history for issuing the longest curse, a 1000-word diatribe against the Borders reivers who he excommunicated saying this: “I curse their head and all the hairs of their head. I curse their face, their brain, their mouth, their nose, their tongue, their teeth, their forehead, their shoulders, their breast, their heart, their stomach, their back, their womb, their arms, their legs, their hands, their feet, and every part of their body, from the top of their head to the soles of their feet, before and behind, within and without.” And much more in the same vein...

The reivers laughed it off, but it showed the Archbishop’s intemperance which exploded in June 1545 when Cardinal Beaton and his retinue were attacked during a visit to Glasgow and both their croziers were broken in what was said to be a serious riot. The fact that Beaton had replaced Dunbar as Chancellor of Scotland two years previously had nothing to do with the riot, of course.

The very Catholic Mary of Guise and her pro-French party of nobles were still in charge when Beaton made a major mistake by hanging and burning George Wishart, the foremost reformer of the day, for heresy at St Andrews on March 1, 1546. His disciple John Knox recorded with some glee what happened next, Cardinal Beaton himself being assassinated in his tower in St Andrews Castle by reformers and friends of Wishart.

The fatal blows were struck by James Melville as Knox wrote in his History of the Reformation of Religion in Scotland: “He struck him twice or thrice through with a stog sword; and so the Cardinal fell, never word heard out of his mouth, but ‘I am a priest, I am a priest: fie, fie: all is gone.’”

Knox came to join the assassins who were besieged in the castle, and became their chief preacher. Mary of Guise sent for military assistance to France and after a brief siege, Knox and his colleagues surrendered and were all exiled to France for service in the galleys.

Dunbar outlived Beaton by a year, and with the two most powerful counter-reformers gone, it seemed as though the Protestant faction would win easily. The English interfered again, the moribund Henry VIII determined to enforce the contract of marriage between his son, the future Edward VI, and Queen Mary. The Battle of Pinkie Cleugh in 1547 was a disaster for the Scottish army, with many of Mary of Guise’s chief supporters either captured or killed, and they were nearly all adherents to the Catholic cause.

Into this power vacuum stepped various nobles committed to reform, but Mary of Guise was not finished – she got more forces from France who beat the English at Haddington in 1549, with her daughter already betrothed to the dauphin, the crown prince of France, who would become King Francis II.

The five-year-old Mary had travelled via Glasgow to Dumbarton from where she left for the French court. Meanwhile Knox had gained his freedom and was travelling in England and on the Continent, especially Geneva where he devoured the teachings of John Calvin.

In the 1550s, Mary of Guise, who had become Regent for her daughter, and her government did something that helped Glasgow by standardising some weights and measures across Scotland. That helped Glasgow to trade across the country, and records show that the various craft guilds in the city were expanding and becoming more organised which also boosted the revenue and population of Glasgow.

The city was still inferior in size and population to Edinburgh, but the roads between them were becoming more used each year, and the growth of trade by sea was also boosting Glasgow’s revenues. Nevertheless, in terms of taxes collected from burghs across Scotland, Glasgow still stood in 11th place in 1557, suggesting that 10 towns were bigger in terms of population. Yet it was the pace of reform which was driving matters in Glasgow and across Scotland.

In Glasgow in 1551, Cardinal Beaton’s nephew James was appointed Archbishop despite being just 27 and not in Holy Orders. He was rushed into the job because Mary of Guise needed help to stem the flow of reform. Instead, he had to act as adviser as Mary was outmanoeuvred by the Protestant nobles who formed an alliance in 1557 known as the Lords of the Congregation.

John Knox tells us what the Lords wrote to Regent Mary: “We, perceiving how Satan in his members, the Antichrists of our time, cruelly doth rage, seeking to down-thring and to destroy the Evangel of Christ and His Congregation, ought, according to our bounden duty, to strive in our Master’s cause, even unto the death, being certain of the victory in Him. The which our duty being well considered, we do promise before the Majesty of God, and His Congregation, that we, by His grace, shall with all diligence continually apply our whole power, substance, and our very lives to maintain, set forward, and establish the most blessed Word of God and His Congregation;

and shall labour at our possibility to have faithful ministers purely and truly to minister Christ’s Evangel and Sacraments to

His people.

“We shall maintain them, nourish them, and defend them, the whole Congregation of Christ, and every member thereof, at

our whole power and wearing

of our lives, against Satan, and

all wicked power that does

intend tyranny or trouble against the foresaid Congregation. Unto the which holy Word and Congregation we do join us, and we do forsake and renounce the congregation of Satan, with all the superstitious abomination and idolatry thereof.”

It was in effect a declaration of war against Regent Mary and the Catholic church. Among the signatories were two men with considerable interests in Glasgow, the Earl of Argyll and the Earl of Glencairn. As we shall see next week, they were among the men who made Glasgow a reformation battleground.