Tales of a Grandfather, by Walter Scott

Chapter 28

YOU remember, my dear child, that James V. was nephew to Henry VIII. of England, being a son of Margaret, sister of that monarch. This connexion, and perhaps the policy of Henry, who was aware that it was better for both countries that they should remain at peace together, prevented for several years the renewal of the destructive wars between the two divisions of the island. The good understanding would probably have been still more complete, had it not been for the great and general change in religious matters, called in history the Reformation. I must give you some idea of the nature of this alteration, otherwise you cannot understand the consequences to which it led. After the death of our blessed Saviour Jesus Christ, the doctrine which he preached was planted in Rome, the principal city of the great Roman empire, by the Apostle Peter, as it is said, whom the Catholics, therefore, term the first bishop of Rome. In process of time, the bishops of Rome, who succeeded, as they said, the apostle in his office, claimed an authority over all others in Christendom. Good and well-meaning persons, in their reverence for the religion which they had adopted, admitted these pretensions without much scrutiny. As the Christian religion was more widely received, the emperors and kings who embraced it, thought to distinguish their piety by heaping benefits on the church, and on the bishops of Rome in particular, who at length obtained great lands and demesnes as temporal princes; while, in their character of clergymen, they assumed the title of Popes, and the full and exclusive authority over all other clergymen in the Christian world. As the people of those times were extremely ignorant, any little knowledge which remained was to be found among the clergy, who had some leisure to study; while the laity, that is, all men who were not clergymen, learned little, excepting to tilt, fight, and feast. The Popes of Rome, having established themselves as heads of the church, went on, by degrees, introducing into the simple and beautiful system delivered to us in the gospel, other doctrines, many of them inconsistent with, or contradictory of, pure Christianity, and all of them tending to extend the power of the priests over the minds and consciences of other men. It was not difficult for the popes to make these alterations. For as they asserted that they were the visible successors of Saint Peter, they pretended that they were as infallible as the apostle himself, and that all that they published in their ordinances, which they called Bulls, must be believed by all Christian men, as much as if the same had been enjoined in the Holy Scripture itself. We shall notice two or three of these innovations. Some good men, in an early age of Christianity, had withdrawn from the world to worship God in desert and desolate places. They wrought for their bread, gave alms to the poor, spent their leisure in the exercise of devotion, and were justly respected. But by degrees, as well-meaning persons bestowed great sums to support associations of such holy men, bequeathed lands to the monasteries or convents in which they lived, and made them wealthy, the Monks, as they were called, departed from the simplicity of their order, and neglected the virtues which they undertook to practise. Besides, by the extravagant endowments of these convents, great sums of money and large estates were employed in maintaining a useless set of men, who, under pretence of performing devotional exercises, withdrew themselves from the business of the world, and from all domestic duties. Hence, though there continued to be amongst the monks many good, pious, and learned men, idleness and luxury invaded many of the institutions, and corrupted both their doctrines and their morals.

•@The worship also of saints, for which Scripture gives us no warrant whatever, was introduced in those ignorant times. It is natural we should respect the memory of any remarkably good man, and that we should value any thing which has belonged to him. The error lay in carrying this natural veneration to extremity — in worshipping the relics of a saintly character, such as locks of hair, bones, articles of clothing, and other trumpery, and in believing that such things are capable of curing sickness, or of working other miracles shocking to common sense. Yet the Roman Church opened the way to this absurdity, and imputed to these relics, which were often mere imposture, the power, which God alone possesses, of altering those laws of nature which his wisdom has appointed. The popes also encouraged and enjoined the worship of saints, that is, the souls of holy men deceased, as a sort of subordinate deities, whose intercession may avail us before the throne of God, although the Gospel has expressly declared that our Lord Jesus Christ is our only Mediator. And in virtue of this opinion, not only were the Virgin Mary, the apostles, and almost every other person mentioned in the Gospels, erected by the Roman Catholics into the office of intercessors with the Deity, but numerous others, some of them mere names, who never existed as men, were canonized, as it was called, that is, declared by the pope to be saints, and had altars and churches dedicated to them. Pictures also and statues, representing these alleged holy persons, were exhibited in churches, and received the worship, which ought not, according to the second commandment, to be rendered to any idol or graven image. •@Other doctrines there were, about fasting on particular days, and abstaining from particular kinds of food, all of which were gradually introduced into the Roman Catholic faith, though contrary to the gospel.

•@But the most important innovation, and that by which the priests made most money, was the belief, that the church, or, in other words, the priest, had the power of pardoning such sins as were confessed to him, upon the culprit’s discharging such penance as the priest imposed on him. Every person was, therefore, obliged to confess himself to a priest, if he hoped to have his sins pardoned; and the priest enjoined certain kinds of penance, more or less severe, according to the circumstances of the offence. But, in general, these penances might be excused, providing a corresponding sum of money were paid to the church, which possessed thus a perpetual and most lucrative source of income, which was yet more increased by the belief in Purgatory. •@We have no right, from Scripture, to believe in the existence of any intermediate state betwixt that of happiness, which we call Heaven, to which good men have access immediately after death, or that called Hell, being the place of eternal punishment, to which the wicked are consigned with the devil and his angels. But the Catholic priests imagined the intervention of an intermediate state, called Purgatory. They supposed that many, or indeed that most people, were not of such piety as to deserve immediate admission into a state of eternal happiness, until they should have sustained a certain portion of punishment; but yet were not so wicked as to deserve instant and eternal condemnation. For the benefit of these, they invented the intermediate situation of Purgatory, a place of punishment, to which almost every one, not doomed to Hell itself, was consigned for a greater or less period, in proportion to his sins, before admission into a state of happiness. But here lay the stress of the doctrine. The power was in the church to obtain pardon, by prayer, for the souls who were in Purgatory, and to have the gates of that place of torture opened for their departure sooner than would otherwise have taken place. Men, therefore, whose consciences told them that they deserved a long abode in this place of punishment, left liberal sums to the church to have prayers said for the behoof of their souls. Children, in like manner, procured masses (that is, a particular sort of devotional worship practised by Catholics) to be said for the souls of their deceased parents. Widows did the same for their departed husbands — husbands for their wives. All these masses and prayers could only be obtained by money, and all this money went to the priests.

But the pope and his clergy carried the matter still farther; and not only sold, as they pretended, the forgiveness of Heaven, to those who had committed sins, but also granted them (always for money) a liberty to break through the laws of God and the church. These licenses were called indulgences, because those who purchased them were indulged in the privilege of committing irregularities and vices, without being supposed answerable to the divine wrath.

To support this extraordinary fabric of superstition, the pope assumed the most extensive powers, even to the length of depriving kings of their thrones, by his sentence of excommunication, which declared their subjects free from their oath of allegiance, and at liberty to rise up against their sovereign and put him to death. At other times the pope took it upon him to give the kingdoms of the excommunicated prince to some ambitious neighbour. The rule of the church of Rome was as severe over inferior persons as over princes. If a layman read the Bible, he was accounted guilty of a great offence; for the priests well knew that a perusal of the sacred Scriptures would open men’s eyes to their extravagant pretensions. If an individual presumed to disbelieve any of the doctrines which the church of Rome taught, or to entertain any which were inconsistent with these doctrines, he was tried as a heretic, and subjected to the horrid punishment of being burnt alive; and this penalty was inflicted without mercy for the slightest expressions approaching to what the Papists called heresy.

This extraordinary and tyrannical power over men’s consciences was usurped during those ages of European history which were called dark, because men were at that period without the light of learning and information. But the discovery of the art of printing began, in the fifteenth century, to open men’s mind. The Bible, which had been locked up in the hands of the clergy, then became common, and was generally read; and wise and good men in Germany and Switzerland made it their study to expose the errors and corruptions of the see of Rome. The doctrine of saint-worship was shown to be idolatrous — that of pardons and indulgences, a foul encouragement to vice — that of Purgatory, a cunning means of extorting money — and the pretensions of the Pope to infallibilities, a blasphemous assumption of the attributes proper to God alone. These new opinions were termed the doctrines of the Reformers, and those who embraced them became gradually more and more numerous. The Roman Catholic priests attempted to defend the tenets of their church by argument; but as that was found difficult, they endeavoured, in most countries of Europe, to enforce them by violence. But the Reformers found protection in various parts of Germany. Their numbers seemed to increase rather than diminish, and to promise a great revolution in the Christian world. •@Henry VIII., the King of England, was possessed of some learning, and had a great disposition to show it in this controversy. Being, in the earlier part of his reign, sincerely attached to the church of Rome, he wrote a book in defence of its doctrines, against Martin Luther, one of the principal reformers. The Pope was so much gratified by this display of zeal, that he conferred on the King the appellation of Defender of the Faith; a title which Henry’s successors continue to retain, although in a very different sense from that in which it was granted.

•@Now Henry, you must know, was m arried to a very good princess, named Catherine, who was a daughter of the King of Spain, and sister to the Emperor of Germany. She had been, in her youth, contracted to Henry’s elder brother Arthur; but the prince dying, and Henry becoming heir of the throne, his union with Catherine had taken place. They had lived long together, and Catherine had borne a daughter, Mary, who was the natural heir apparent of the English crown. But at length Henry VIII. fell deeply in love with a beautiful young woman, named Ann Bullen, a maid of honour in the Queen’s retinue, and he became extremely desirous to get rid of Queen Catherine, and marry this young lady. For this purpose he applied to the Pope, in order to obtain a divorce from the good Queen, under pretence of her having been contracted to his elder brother before he was married to her. This, he alleged, seemed to him like marrying his brother’s wife, and therefore he desired that the Pope would dissolve a marriage, which, as he alleged, gave much pain to his conscience. The truth was, that his conscience would have given him very little disturbance, had he not wanted to marry another, a younger and more beautiful woman.

The Pope would have, probably, been willing enough to gratify Henry’s desire, at least his predecessors had granted greater favours to men of less consequence; but then Catherine was the sister of Charles V., who was at once Emperor of Germany and King of Spain, and one of the wisest as well as the most powerful, princes in Christendom. The Pope, who depended much on Charles’ assistance for checking the Reformation, dared not give him the great offence, which would have been occasioned by encouraging his sister’s divorce. His holiness, therefore, evaded giving a precise answer to the King of England from day to day, week to week, and year to year. But this led to a danger which the Pope had not foreseen. •@Henry VIII., a hot, fiery, and impatient prince as ever lived, finding that the Pope trifling with him, resolved to shake off his authority entirely. For this purpose he denied the authority of the Pope in England, and declared, that he himself was the only Head of the English Church, and that the Bishop of Rome had nothing to do with him, or his dominions. Many of the bishops and clergymen of the English church adopted the reformed doctrines, and all disowned the supreme rule, hitherto ascribed to the Pope. But the greatest blow to the papal authority was the dissolution of the monasteries, or religious houses, as they were called. The King seized on the convents, and the lands granted for their endowment, and, distributing the wealth of the convents among the great men of his court, broke up for ever those great establishments, and placed an insurmountable obstacle in the way of the Catholic religion being restored, after the interest of so many persons had been concerned in its being excluded.

The motive of Henry VIII.‘s conduct was by no means praiseworthy, but it produced the most important and salutary consequences; as England was for ever afterwards, except during the short reign of his eldest daughter, freed from all dependence upon the Pope, and from the superstitious doctrines of the Roman Catholic religion. Now here, returning to Scottish history, you must understand that one of Henry’s principal wishes was to prevail upon his nephew, the young King of Scotland, to make the same alteration of religion in his country, which had been introduced into England. Henry, if we can believe the Scottish historians, made James the most splendid offers, to induce him to follow this course. He proposed to give him the hand of his daughter Mary in marriage, and to create him Duke of York; and, with a view to the establishment of a lasting peace between the countries, he earnestly desired a personal meeting with his nephew in the North of England.

There is reason to believe that James was, at one period, somewhat inclined to the Reformed doctrines; at least, he encouraged a Scottish poet, called Sir David Lindsay of the Mount, and also the celebrated scholar, George Buchanan, in composing some severe satires against the corruptions of the Roman Catholic religion; but the King was, notwithstanding, by no means disposed altogether to fall off from the Church of Rome. He dreaded the power of England, and the rough, violent, and boisterous manners of Henry, who disgusted his nephew by the imprudent violence with which he pressed him to imitate his steps. But, in particular, James found the necessity of adhering to the Roman Catholic faith, from the skill, intelligence, and learning of the clergy, which rendered them far more fit to hold offices of state, and to assist him in administering the public business, than the Scottish nobility, who were at once profoundly ignorant, and fierce, arrogant, and ambitious in the highest degree.

The Archbishop Beaton, already mentioned, and his nephew David Beaton, who was afterwards made a cardinal, rose high in James’s favour; and, no doubt, the influence which they possessed over the King’s mind was exerted to prevent his following the example of his uncle Henry in religious affairs.

•@The same influence might also induce him to seek an alliance with France, rather than with England; for it was natural that the Catholic clergy, with whom James advised, should discountenance, by every means in their power, any approaches to an intimate alliance with Henry, the mortal enemy of the Papal See. James V. accordingly visited France, and obtained the hand of Magdalen, the daughter of Francis I., with a large portion. Much joy was expressed at the landing of this princess at Leith, and she was received with as great splendour and demonstration of welcome, as the poverty of the country would permit. But the young Queen was in a bad state of health, and died within forty days after her marriage.

After the death of this princess, the King, still inclining to the French alliance, married Mary of Guise, daughter of the Duke of Guise, thus connecting himself with a family, proud, ambitious, and attached, in the most bigoted degree, to the Catholic cause. This connexion served, no doubt, to increase James’s disinclination to any changes in the established Church.

But whatever were the sentiments of the Sovereign, those of the subjects were gradually tending more and more towards a reformation of religion. Scotland at this time possessed several men of learning who had studied abroad, and had there learned and embraced the doctrines of the great reformer Calvin. They brought with them, on their return, copies of the Holy Scripture, and could give a full account of the controversy between the protestants, as they are now called, and the Roman Catholic Church. Many among the Scots, both of higher and lower rank, became converts to the new faith.

The Popish ministers and counsellors of the King ventured to have recourse to violence, in order to counteract these results. Several persons were seized upon, tried before the Spiritual Courts of the Bishop of St Andrews, and condemned to the flames. The modesty and decency with which these men behaved on their trials, and the patience with which they underwent the tortures of a cruel death, protesting at the same time their belief in the doctrines for which they had been condemned to the stake, made the strongest impression on the beholders, and increased the confidence of those who had embraced the tenets of the Reformers. Stricter and more cruel laws were made against heresy. Even the disputing the power of the Pope was punished with death; yet the Reformation seemed to gain ground in proportion to every effort to check it.

•@The favours which the King extended to the Catholic clergy, led the Scottish nobility to look upon them with jealousy, and increased their inclination towards the Protestant doctrines. The wealth of the abbeys and convents, also, tempted many of the nobles and gentry, who hoped to have a share of the church-lands, in case of these institutions being dissolved, as in England. And although there were, doubtless, good men as well as bad among the monks, yet the indolent, and even debauched lives of many of the order, rendered them, generally, odious and contemptible to the common people.

The popular discontent was increased by an accident which took place in the year 1537. A matron of the highest rank, Jane Douglas, sister of the banished Earl of Angus, widow of John Lyon Lord of Glamis, and wife of Archibald Campbell of Kepneith, was accused of having practised against the life of James, by imaginary crime of witchcraft, and the more formidable means of poison. Her purpose was alleged to be the restoration of the Douglasses to Scotland, and to their estates and influence in that country. This lady was burnt alive on the Castle-hill of Edinburgh; and the spectators, filled with pity for her youth and beauty, and surprised at the courage with which she endured the sentence, did not fail to impute her execution less to any real crime, than to the King’s deep-rooted hatred against the house of Douglas. Another capital punishment, though inflicted on an object of general dislike, served to confirm the opinion entertained of James’s severity, not to say cruelty, of disposition. We have mentioned Sir James Hamilton of Draphane, called the Bastard of Arran, as distinguished on account of the ferocity of his disposition, and the murders which he committed on cold blood. This man had been made Sheriff of Ayr, and had received other favours from the King’s hand. Notwithstanding, he was suddenly accused of treason by a cousin and namesake of his own; and on that sole testimony, condemned and executed. Upon this occasion also, public opinion charged James with having proceeded without sufficient evidence of guilt.

In the mean time, Henry continued to press the King of Scotland, by letters and negotiations, to enter into common measures with him against the Catholic clergy. He remonstrated with his nephew upon his preferring to improve his royal revenue by means of herds and flocks, which he represented as an unprincely practice, saying, that if he wanted money, he, his kind uncle, would let him have what sums he pleased; or, that the wealth of the Catholic convents and monasteries was a fund which lay at his command whenever he liked to seize it. Lastly, the English ambassador, Sir Ralph Sadler, insisted, as directed by his instructions, upon the evil doctrines and vicious lives of the clergy, against whom he urged the King to take violent measures.

Much of this message was calculated to affront James, yet he answered temperately. He acknowledged that he preferred living on his own revenue, such as it was, to becoming dependent upon another king, even though that king was his uncle. He had no pretext or motive, he said, to seize the possessions of the clergy, because they were always ready to advance him money when he had need of it. Those among them who led vicious lives, he would not fail, he added, to correct severely; but he did not consider it as just to punish the whole body for the faults of a few. In conclusion, King James suffered a doubtful promise to be extracted from him that he would meet Henry at York, if the affairs of his kingdom would permit.

The King of Scotland was now brought to a puzzling alternative, being either obliged to comply with his uncle’s wishes, break off his alliance with France, and introduce the Reformed religion into his dominions, or, by adhering to France and to the Catholic faith, to run all the hazards of a war with England. The churchmen exercised their full authority over the mind of James at this crisis. The gold of France was not spared to determine his resolution; and it may be supposed that the young Queen, so nearly connected with the Catholic house of Guise, gave her influence to the same party. James at length determined to disappoint his uncle; and after the haughty Henry had remained six days at York, on the expectation of meeting him, he excused himself by some frivolous apology. Henry was, as might have been expected, mortally offended, and prepared for war.

A fierce and ruinous was immediately commenced. Henry sent numerous forces to ravage the Scottish Border. James obtained success in the first considerable action, to his unutterable satisfaction, and prepared for more decisive hostility. He assembled the array of his kingdom, and marched from Edinburgh as far as Fala, on his way to the Border, when tidings arrived, 1st November, 1542, that the English general had withdrawn his forces within the English frontier. On this news, the Scottish nobles, who, with their vassals, had joined the royal standard, intimated to their sovereign, that though they had taken up arms to save the country from invasion, yet they considered the war with England as an impolitic measure, and only undertaken to gratify the clergy; and that, therefore, the English having retired, they were determined not to advance one foot into the enemy’s country. One Border chieftain alone offered with his retinue to follow the King wherever he chose to lead. This was John Scott of Thirlstane, whom James rewarded with an addition to his paternal coat-of-arms, with a bunch of spears for the crest, and the motto, “Ready, aye Ready.”

•@James, finding himself thus generally thwarted and deserted by the nobility, returned to Edinburgh, dishonoured before his people, and in the deepest dejection of mind.

To retaliate the inroads of the English, and wipe out the memory of Fala moss, the King resolved that an army of ten thousand men should invade England on the Western Border; and he imprudently sent with them his peculiar favourite, Oliver Sinclair, who shared with the priests the unpopularity of the English war, and was highly obnoxious to the nobility, as one of those who engrossed the royal favour to their prejudice.

The army had just entered English ground, at a place called Solway moss, when this Oliver Sinclair was raised upon the soldiers’ shields to read to the army a commission, which, it was afterwards said, named Lord Maxwell commander of the expedition. But no one doubted at the time that Oliver Sinclair had himself been proclaimed commander-inchief; and as he was generally disliked and despised, the army instantly fell into a state of extreme confusion. Four or five hundred English Borderers, commanded by Thomas Dacre and John Musgrave, perceived this fluctuation, and charged the numerous squadrons of the invading army. The Scots fled without even attempting to fight. Numbers of noblemen and gentlemen suffered themselves to be made prisoners, rather than face the displeasure of their disappointed sovereign.

The unfortunate James had lately been assaulted by various calamities. The death of his two sons, and the disgrace of the defection at Fala, had made a deep impression on his mind, and haunted him even in the visions of the night. He dreamed he saw the fierce Sir James Hamilton, whom he had caused to be put to death upon slight evidence. The bloody shade approached him with a sword, and said, “Cruel tyrant, thou hast unjustly murdered me, who was indeed barbarous to other men, but always faithful and true to thee; wherefore now shalt thou have thy deserved punishment.” So saying, it seemed to him as if Sir James Hamilton cut off first one arm and then another, and then left him, threatening to come back soon and cut his head off. Such a dream was very likely to arise in the King’s mind, perturbed as it was by misfortunes, and even perhaps internally reproaching himself for Sir James Hamilton’s death. But to James the striking off his arms appeared to allude to the death of his two sons, and he became convinced that the ultimate threats of the vision presaged his own death.

The disgraceful news of the battle, or rather the rout of Solway, filled up the measure of the King’s despair and desolation. He shut himself up in the palace of Falkland, and refused to listen to any consolation. A burning fever, the consequence of his grief and shame, seized on the unfortunate monarch. They brought him tidings that his wife had given birth to a daughter; but he only replied, “Is it so?” reflecting on the alliance which had placed the Stewart family on the throne; “then God’s will be done. It came with a lass, and it will go with a lass.” With these words, presaging the extinction of his house, he made a signal of adieu to his courtiers, spoke little more, but turned his face to the wall, and died of the most melancholy of all diseases, a broken heart. He was scarcely thirty-one years old; in the very prime, therefore, of life. If he had not suffered the counsels of the Catholic priests to hurry him into a war with England, James V. might have been as fortunate a prince as his many good qualities and talents deserved.


Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:29