Tales of a Grandfather, by Walter Scott

Chapter 36

While the quarrels of the English and Scottish nobility disturbed the comfort of James the First’s reign, it must be admitted that the monarch applied himself with some diligence to cement as much as possible the union of the two kingdoms, and to impart to each such advantages as they might be found capable of borrowing from the other. The love of power, natural to him as a sovereign, combined with a sincere wish for what would be most advantageous to both countries — for James, when not carried off by his love of idle pleasures, and the influence of unworthy favourites, possessed the power of seeing, and the disposition to advance, the interests of his subjects — alike induced him to accelerate, by every means, the uniting the two separate portions of Britain into one solid and inseparable state, for which nature designed the inhabitants of the same island. He was not negligent in adopting measures to attain so desirable an object, though circumstances deferred the accomplishment of his wishes till the lapse of a century. To explain the nature of his attempt, and the causes of its failure, we must consider the respective condition of England and Scotland as regarded their political institutions.

The long and bloody wars between the houses of York and Lancaster, who, for more than thirty years, contended for the throne of England, had, by slaughter in numerous battles, by repeated proscriptions, public executions, and forfeitures, reduced to a comparatively inconsiderable number, and to a much greater state of disability and weakness, the nobility and great gentry of the kingdom, by whom the crown had been alternately bestowed on one of other of the contending parties. Henry the Seventh, a wise and subtle prince, had, by his success in the decisive battle of Bosworth, attained a secure seat upon the English throne. He availed himself of the weak state of the peers and barons, and the rising power of the cities and boroughs, to undermine and destroy the influence which the feudal system had formerly given to the aristocracy over their vassals; and they submitted to this diminution of their authority, as men who felt that the stormy independence possessed by their ancestors had cost them very dear, and that it was better to live at ease under the king, as a common head of the state, than to possess, each on his own domains, the ruinous power of petty sovereigns, making war upon, and ruining others, and incurring destruction themselves. They therefore relinquished, without much open discontent, most of their oppressive rights of sovereignty over their vassals, and were satisfied to be honoured and respected masters of their own lands, without retaining the power of princes over those who cultivated them. They exacted rents from their tenants instead of service in battle, and attendance in peace, and became peaceful and wealthy, instead of being great and turbulent.

As the nobles sunk in political consideration, the citizens of the towns and seaports, and the smaller gentry and cultivators of the soil, increased in importance as well as in prosperity and happiness. These commoners felt, indeed, and sometimes murmured against, the ascendance acquired by the King, but were conscious, at the same time, that it was the power of the crown which had relieved them from the far more vexatious and frequent exactions of their late feudal lords; and as the burden fell equally on all, they were better contented to live under the sway of one king, who imposed the national burdens on the people at large, than under that of a number of proud lords. Henry VII availed himself of these favourable dispositions, to raise large taxes, which he partly hoarded up for occasions of emergency, and partly expended on levying bands of soldiers, both foreign and domestic, by whom he carried on such wars as he engaged in, without finding any necessity to call out the feudal array of the kingdom. In this manner he avoided rendering himself dependent on his nobles.

Henry VIII was a prince of a very different temper, and yet his reign contributed greatly to extend and confirm the power of the English crown. He expended, indeed, lavishly, the treasures of his father; but he replenished them, in a great measure, by the spoils of the Roman Catholic Church, and he confirmed the usurpation of arbitrary authority, by the vigour with which he wielded it. The tyranny which he exercised in his family and court, was unfelt by the citizens and common people, with whom he continued to be rather popular from his splendour, than dreaded for his violence. His power wrested from them, in the shape of compulsory loans and benevolences, large sums of money which he was not entitled to by the grant of Parliament; but though he could not directly compel them to pay such exactions, yet he could exert, as in the case of Alderman Read, the power of sending the refusing party to undergo the dangers and hardships of foreign service, which most wealthy citizens though still harder than the alternative of paying a sum of money.

The reign of the English Queen Mary was short and inglorious, but she pursued the arbitrary steps of her father, and in no degree relaxed the power which the crown had acquired since the accession of Henry VII. That of Elizabeth tended considerably to increase it. The success of the wise measures which she adopted for maintaining the Protestant religion, and making the power of England respected by foreign states, flattered the vanity, and conciliated the affection, of her subjects. The wisdom and economy with which she distributed the treasures of the state, added to the general disposition of her subjects to place them at her command; and the arbitrary authority which her grandfather acquired by subtlety, which he father maintained by violence, and which her sister, preserved by bigotry, was readily conceded to Elizabeth by the love and esteem of her people. It was moreover, to be considered, that, like the rest of the Tudor family, the Queen nourished high ideas of royal prerogative; and, when thwarted in her wishes by any opposition, not unfrequently called to lively recollection, both by expression and action, whose daughter she was.

In a word, the almost absolute authority of the House of Tudor may be understood from the single circumstance, that although religion is the point on which men do, and ought to think their individual feelings and sentiments particularly at liberty, yet, at the arbitrary will of the sovereign, the Church of England was disjoined from that of Rome by Henry the Eighth, was restored to the Roman Catholic faith by Queen Mary, and again declared Protestant by Elizabeth; and on each occasion the change was effected without any commotion or resistance, beyond such temporary tumults as were soon put down by the power of the Crown.

Thus, on succeeding to the English throne, James found himself at the head of a nobility who had lost both the habit and power of contesting the pleasure of the sovereign, and of a wealthy body of commons, who, satisfied with being liberated from the power of the aristocracy, were little disposed to resist the exaction of the Crown.

His ancient kingdom of Scotland was in a directly different situation. The feudal nobility had retained their territorial jurisdictions, and their signorial privileges, in as full extent as their ancestors had possessed them, and therefore had at once the power and the inclination to resist the arbitrary will of the sovereign, as James himself had felt on more occasions than one. Thus, though the body of the Scottish people had not the same protection from just and equal laws, as was the happy lot of the inhabitants of England, and were much less wealthy and independent, yet the spirit of the constitution possessed all the freedom which was inherent in the ancient feudal institutions, and it was impossible for the monarch of Scotland so to influence the parliament of the country, as to accomplish any considerable encroachment on the privileges of the nation.

It was therefore obvious, that besides the numerous reasons of a public nature for uniting South and North Britain under a similar system of government, James saw a strong personal interest for reducing the turbulent nobles and people of Scotland to the same submissive and quiet state in which he found England, but in which it was not his good fortune to leave it. With this view he proposed, that the Legislature of each nation should appoint Commissioners, to consider of the terms on which it might be possible to unite both under the same constitution. With some difficulty on both sides, the Parliament of England was prevailed on to name forty-four Commissioners, while the Scottish Parliament appointed thirty-six, to consider this important subject.

The very first conferences showed how impossible it was to accomplish the desired object, until time should have removed or softened those prejudices, which had existed during the long state of separation and hostility betwixt the two nations. The English Commissioners demanded, as a preliminary stipulation, that the whole system of English law should be at once extended to Scotland. The Scots rejected the proposal with disdain, justly alleging, that nothing less than absolute conquest by force of arms could authorize the subjection of an independent nation to the customs hand laws of a foreign country. The treaty, therefore, was in a great degree shipwrecked at the very commencement — the proposal for the union was suffered to fall asleep, and the King only reaped from his attempt the disadvantage of having excited the suspicions and fears of the Scottish lawyers, who had been threatened with the total destruction of their national system of Jurisprudence. This impression was the deeper, as the profession of the law, which must be influential in every government, was particularly so in Scotland, it being chiefly practised in that kingdom by the sons of the higher class of gentry.

Though in a great measure disappointed in his efforts for effecting a general union and correspondence of laws between the two nation, James remained extremely desirous to obtain at least an ecclesiastical conformity of opinion, by bringing the form and constitution of the Scottish Church as near as possible to that England. What he attempted and accomplished in this respect, constitutes an important part of the history of his reign, and gave occasion to some of the most remarkable and calamitous events in that of his successor.

I must remind you, my dear child, that the Reformation was effected by very different agency in England, from the causes which produced a similar change in Scotland. The new plans of church government adopted in the two nations did not in the least resemble each other, although the doctrines which they teach are so nearly alike, that little distinction can be traced, save what is of a very subtle and metaphysical character. But the outward forms of the two churches are totally different.

You must remember that the Reformation of the Church of England was originally brought about by Henry VIII, whose principal object was to destroy the dependence of the clergy upon the Pope, and transfer to himself, whom he declared head of the Church in his own regal right, all the authority and influence which had formerly been enjoyed by the Papal See. When, therefore, Henry had destroyed the monastic establishments, and confiscated their possessions, and had reformed such doctrines of the church as he judged to require amendment, it became his object to preserve the general constitution and hierarchy, that is the gradation of superior and inferior clergy, by whom her functions were administered. The chief difference therefore was, that the patronage exercised by the Pope was, in a great measure, transferred to the Crown, and distributed by the hands of the King himself, to whom, therefore, the inferior clergy must naturally be attached by hope of preferment, and the superior orders by gratitude for past favours, and the expectation of farther advancement. The order of bishops, in particular, raised to that rank by the crown, and enjoying seats in the House of Lords, must be supposed, on most occasions, willing to espouse the cause, and forward the views of the King, in such debates as might occur in the assembly.

The Reformation in Scotland had taken place by a sudden popular impulse, and the form of church government adopted by Knox, and the other preachers under whose influence it had been accomplished, was studiously rendered as different as possible from the Roman hierarchy. The Presbyterian system, as I said in a former chapter, was upon the model of the purest republican simplicity; the brethren who served the altar claimed and allowed of no superiority of ranks, and of no influence but what individuals might attach to themselves by superior worth or superior talent. The representatives who formed their church courts, were selected by plurality of votes, and no other Head of the church, visible or invisible, was acknowledged, save the blessed Founder of the Christian Religion, in whose name the church courts of Scotland were and still are convoked and dismissed.

Over a body so constituted, the King could have little influence or power; nor did James acquire any by his personal conduct. It was, indeed, partly by the influence of the clergy that he had been in infancy placed upon the throne; but, as their conduct in this was regarded by James, in his secret soul, as an act of rebellion against his mother’s authority, he gave the Kirk of Scotland little thanks for what they had done. It must be owned the preachers made no attempt to conciliate his favour; for, although they had no legal call to speak their sentiments upon public and political affairs, they yet entered into them without ceremony, whenever they could show that the interest of the church gave a specious apology for interference. The Scottish pulpits rang with invectives against the King’s ministers, and sometimes against the King himself; and the more hot-headed among the clergy were disposed not only to thwart James’s inclinations, and put the worst construction upon his intentions, but even publicly to insult him in their sermons, and favour the insurrections attempted by Stewart Earl of Bothwell, and others, against his authority. They often entertained him with violent invectives against his mother’s memory; and it is said, that on one occasion, when the King, losing patience, commanded one of these zealots either to speak sense or come down from the pulpit, the preacher replied to this request, which one would have thought a very reasonable one, “I tell thee, man, I will neither speak sense nor come down.”

James did not see that these acts of petulance and contumacy arose, in a great measure, from the suspicions which the Scottish clergy justly entertained of his desiring to innovate upon the Presbyterian model; and hastily concluded, that their refractory conduct, which was the result of mutual jealousies, was essential to the character of the peculiar form of church government, and that the spirit of Presbytery was in itself inimical to a monarchial establishment.

As soon, therefore, as the King obtained the high increase of power which arose from his accession to the English throne, he set himself gradually to new-model the Scottish Church, so as to bring it nearer to that England, and to obtain for the crown some preponderating influence in its councils. But the suspicions of the Presbyterian clergy were constantly alive to their sovereign’s intentions. It was in vain he endeavoured to avail himself of the institution of an order of man called Superintendents, to whom the Book of Discipline, drawn up by Knox himself, had assigned a sort of presidency in certain cases, with power of inspecting the merits of the clergy. By reestablishing superior offices among the clergy, James endeavoured to introduce a sort of permanent presidents into the several presbyteries. But the ministers clearly saw his ultimate object. “Busk (dress), busk him as bonnily as you can,” cried Mr John Davidson, “bring him in as fairly as you will, we see the horns of his mitre weel enough;” and the horns of the mitre were, to their apprehension, as odious as the horns of the Pope’s tiara, or those of Satan himself. At last the King ventured on a decisive stroke. He named thirteen bishops, and obtained the consent of Parliament for restoring them to the small remains of their dilapidated bishoprics. The other bishoprics, seventeen in number, were converted into temporal lordships.

It cannot be denied that leaders of the Presbyterian clergy showed the utmost skill and courage in the defence of the immunities of their church. They were endeared to the people by the purity of their lives, by the depth of learning possessed by some, and the powerful talents exhibited by others; above all, perhaps, by the willingness with which they submitted to deprivation of office, accompanied by poverty, penalties, and banishment, rather than betray the cause which they considered as sacred. The King had in 1605 openly asserted his right to call and to dissolve the General Assemblies of the Church. Several of the clergy, however, in contempt of the monarch, summoned and attended a General Assembly at Aberdeen independent of his authority. This opportunity was taken to chastise the refractory clergymen. Five of their number were punished with banishment. In 1606, the two celebrated preachers named Melville were summoned before the Council, and upbraided by the King with their resistance to his will. They defended themselves with courage, and claimed the right of being tried by the laws of Scotland, a free kingdom, having laws and privileges of its own. But the elder Melville furnished a handle against them by his own imprudence.

In a debate before the Privy Council, concerning a Latin copy of verses, which Andrew Melville had written in derision of the ceremonies of the Church of England, the old man gave way to indecent violence, seized the Archbishop of Canterbury by the lawn sleeves, which he shook, calling them Romish rags, and charged the prelate as breaker of the Sabbath, the maintainer of an anti-christian hierarchy, the persecutor of true preachers, the enemy of reformed churches, and proclaimed himself his mortal enemy to the last drop of his blood. This indiscretion and violence afforded a pretext for committing the hot old Presbyterian divine to the Tower; and he was afterwards exiled, and died at Sedan. The younger Melville was confined to Berwick, several other clergymen were banished from their parishes to remote parts, and the Kirk of Scotland was for the time reduced to reluctant submission to the King’s will. Thus the order of bishops was once more introduced into the Scottish Church.

James’s projects of innovation were not entirely accomplished by the introduction of prelacy. The Church of England, at the Reformation, had retained some particular rites in observance, which had decency at least to recommend them, but which the headlong opposition of the Presbyterians to every thing approaching to the Popish ritual induced them to reject with horror. Five of these were introduced in Scotland, by an enactment passed by a parliament held at Perth [1618], and thence distinguished as the Five Articles of Perth. In modern times, when the mere ceremonial part of divine worship is supposed to be of little consequence, compared with the temper and spirit in which we approach the Deity, the Five Articles of Perth seem to involve matters which might be dispensed or complied with, without being considered as essential to salvation. They were as follows:— I. It was ordained that the communion should be received in a kneeling posture, and not sitting, as hitherto practised in the Scottish churches. II. That, in extreme cases, the communion might be administered in private. III. That baptism also might, when necessary, be administered in private. IV. That youth, as they grew up, should be confirmed, as it is termed, by the bishop; being a kind of personal avowal of the engagements entered into by godfathers and godmothers at the time of baptism. V. That four days, distinguished by events of the utmost importance to the Christian religion, should be observed as holidays. These were — Christmas, on which day our Saviour was born; Good Friday, when he suffered death; Easter, when he arose from the dead; and Pentecost, when the Holy spirit descended on the apostles.

But, notwithstanding the moderate character of these innovations, the utmost difficulty was found in persuading even those of the Scottish clergy who were most favourable to the King to receive them into the church, and they only did no on the assurance that they should not be required to adopt any additional changes. The main body of the churchmen, though terrified into sullen acquiescence, were unanimous in opinion that the new regulations indicated a manifest return towards Popery. The common people held the same opinion; and a thunder-storm, of unusual violence, which took place at the time the Parliament was sitting in debate upon the adoption of these obnoxious articles, was considered as a declaration of the wrath of Heaven against those, who were again introducing the rites and festivals of the Roman Church into the pure and reformed Kirk of Scotland. In short, this attempt to infuse into the Presbyterian model something of the principles of a moderate prelacy, and to bring it, in a few particulars, into conformity with that of the sister kingdom, was generally unacceptable to the church and to the nation; and it will be hereafter shown, that an endeavour to extend and heighten the edifice which his father had commenced, led the way to those acts of violence which cost Charles I his throne and life.


Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00