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Henry VIII, Religion and Scotland

Updated: May 30

Religion continues to account for one of the key differences between England and Scotland. Since the Reformation, England has opted for the rule of bishops in an Episcopalian system (sometimes described as a gentle British Catholicism). Scotland has defended a more democratic form of religious organisation under Presbyterianism, which rejects the rule of bishops and the British monarch as the official head of the national church. This difference between two countries so close to each other geographically has boiled to both tense and bloody confrontations. It also offered a card to play during the formation of the United Kingdom, and has helped forge separate identities within Britain. But it was not always like this. During the reign of Henry VIII, it was Scotland that became more Catholic than England and the latter country that tried to effect religious change in the former towards Protestantism. By the end of the century, Scotland had brushed off the papacy and would soon walk towards the National Covenant of 1638, an agreement demanding the protection and independence of the new Presbyterian Kirk and the rejection of English attempts to conform it to English practice. But Henry did not see Scotland turn Protestant during his lifetime and it is with some irony that he tried to turn Scotland Protestant a century before the latter fought against the English to protect her version of Protestantism.

England’s break with Rome in 1534 saw England and Scotland exist under two different religious denominations, and after this event, that there were English attempts to effect religious change in Scotland was clear. With Henry as the principal actor of religious reform in the country, England was ever subject to a potentially hostile neighbour to its north that could overpower or help to overpower its neighbour with Irish, French, Imperial and Papal support. I argue that Henry sought religious reform in Scotland to sufficiently alienate it from the Papacy, weaken the Auld Alliance with France and in turn achieve greater Anglo-Scottish unity. This was at least at first to allow England’s own religious reform to settle, but Henry wanted to prevent Scotland from becoming a springboard for French or Irish mobilisation. The efforts to excite religious change in Scotland sought neither a full reformation in the nation nor were part of Henrician British policy bent on creating a united Britain. Rather, I agree with David Head and Hiram Morgan that efforts to effect religious change in Scotland were part of Henrician British policy bent on protecting the interests of England via peace with Scotland, which would have limited opportunities for foreign powers to exploit Scotland to weaken England, and would have helped to protect the opportunities for England in Europe without a preoccupation with affairs around the Scottish border. But Scotland concluded that Henry’s offers were less promising for Scotland than those offered by the status quo, so religious reform was never achieved to Henry’s desire in the middle of the 16th Century.

From the early English Reformation period, Henry’s religious policy in Scotland was one example of his general courting of European powers. At the end of 1533, Sir John Wallop, the English ambassador in France, received a letter from Henry.

Knowing the Pope's ungodly determination against us, in order to meet it, by the advice of our subjects, we think it necessary to make proof of our ancient friends, and have therefore resolved to send to the princes of Germany and others, to join ourselves in amity with them; and in consideration of our friendship to our good brother to advertise him of the premises

Scotland, by geographical, linguistic and cultural ties was of utmost foreign diplomatic importance to England, but Henry sought diplomatic ties across the continent, including via marriage between his daughters and the highest echelons of French society. From the start, England’s stance on religious change in Scotland was not to genuinely convert the population to the new doctrines or establish a close-knit Britain, but an attempt to achieve friendlier relations with powers in the European theatre against a hostile Pope. In May 1534, an Anglo-Scottish peace was agreed with unusual concessions from England, and throughout the decade historic claims to suzerainty over Scotland were virtually dropped; later, in 1535, the King of Scotland, James V would receive the Order of the Garter from England. In March 1539, Henry expressed love and gratefulness for James’ suppression of “slanderous rhymes” against him. Thus, during the 1530s, England sought relatively friendly diplomatic relations with Scotland to court her into religious change and, as we will see, attempt to curtail the influence of Rome.

In the 1530s, to secure England’s religious interests in its own land and across Britain, Henry and Thomas Cromwell set out on England’s attempt at effecting religious change in Scotland with the use of ambassadors. Cromwell was concerned about English fugitives in Scotland spreading the reinforced notions of the Catholic faith in contrast to the English Reformation. “As long as Scotland remained committed to the old faith, critics of Henry could make their presence felt within, or very close to, his lands”, argues Clare Kellar. The most important task set for English ambassadors to Scotland between 1535-36 was to secure the repatriation of religious fugitives, like the Observant friars, who escaped to Scotland. In reality, the ambassadors achieved almost nothing and a number of the fugitives whom they were seeking to recapture for England themselves helped to effect religious change in Scotland. An example is Richard Marshall, who disputed prayer to anyone but God alone, and opened a debate that led to a fresh critique of the “old faith” and introductions to humanist perceptions of religion.

Propaganda and religious literature were used by the English to tempt Scotland to religious change. Occasionally, they went with the representatives: in 1535, Henry sent his chaplain, Dr Barlow, to Scotland equipped with books “dealing with the new doctrines”. Lord Lisle wrote to Arran in February 1543 offering prints of the Bible in English, but Henry desired to see the English Bible in Scotland restricted to the nobility, strongly supporting the idea that Henry did not desire the outbreak of religious conflict in Scotland, but a gentle top-down reform in religious perceptions (save a full reformation).

Nevertheless, James endorsed Catholicism in Scotland. This was for fiscal and ecclesiastical reasons. Kirk taxes and papal grants were major contributions to the Scottish treasury and the Pope granted James five of Scotland’s wealthiest benefices to his illegitimate sons in 1534-41, and the royal right of nomination in 1535. James did not, then, generally bend to the English Reformation, even if he wanted to reform the Kirk. Henry was worried that such a powerfully backed monarch across the border could successfully gain resources to reinforce a cross-border attack or support an English insurgence. More than this, a Scotland tied to Rome represented a threat and an unprecedented claim from Scotland for the balance of power in Europe at least while England was at war with France or/and the Holy Roman Emperor. The Treaty of Toledo in 1539 prevented both Francis I and Charles V from alliances with Henry, which made Scotland strategically important. Although the quarrelling of Charles and Francis eventually enervated the danger for England, Cardinal Beaton of St Andrews came out of that year with worrying levels of power and was held in high favour by James, the Pope and other cardinals. With the demise of Cromwell in 1540, there lacked a figure in England to subdue Henry’s policies in Scotland, so he was set for repressive action there. He reignited his belief in his suzerainty of Scotland in 1542. With the Act of Supremacy, and if Henry was seen as the ultimate lord of Scotland, religious reform north of the border would have been an appropriate homage to the King of England with military action justified. Evidently, this marked a change from 1530s policy. Along with the fall of Cromwell, since the new decade had begun, Henry felt humiliated after James failed to meet him at York in 1541 and had not repatriated English Catholics. In that same year, Thomas Wriothesley sent a letter to an unknown Scottish official, which informed the latter of books circulating on the border that declared James was the new Defender of the Faith. Along with the status and power of Cardinal Beaton, this was a major worry for the English. Henry felt the need to coerce Scotland by any means to make it an unsuitable landing ground for Catholic powers and a hostile environment for any ardent espousing of the faith. Thus, after the Battle of Solway Moss in 1542, English garrisons were established on the Scottish border on a more permanent basis. Solway Moss was a relief for Henry and a devastating loss for James. It was believed to onset the early death of the latter.

The Earl of Arran governed Scotland after James’ death and for Henry represented a renewed hope for diplomatic success with Scotland. This is because Arran was a Protestant and sympathetic to the English cause. In April 1543, Henry, confident in the spirit that would produce the Treaty of Greenwich in the July, gave word to Sadler (Secretary of State) to advise Arran to dissolve the monasteries, something that occurred in England in the last decade. This would have given more money and power to Scottish nobles in the favour of Henry and his son (to be Edward VI of England, seeking the hand of Mary Stewart in marriage). This suggests that Henry wanted to see religious change in Scotland to unshackle the crown (partly for the Tudor heir) and free it from the auspices of Rome. However, Henry was never quite comfortable with Arran and his apparent commitment to the English cause. Here, Henry was not so much the paranoid King we have come to know. Arran reconverted to Catholicism in September (historians are not clear as to why, although he must have had diplomacy and the favour of the Stewarts on his mind), leaving Henry once more frustrated by Scotland. He would see out his reign outmanoeuvred by the Catholic regency of Marie de Guise, mother of the devoutly Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots.

The English first tried to seriously effect religious change in Scotland in the middle of the 16th Century. Although they used these decades to try different approaches, diplomatic and repressive, it is testament to the eventual Scottish Protestantism that Catholics from the ground like Marshall performed a more peaceful and convincing role in exciting reform in Scotland than Henry, who was never sincere.


Jack Margetson

A declaration, conteynyng the iust causes and consyderations, of this present warre with the Scottis wherein alsoo appereth the trewe [and] right title, that the kings most royall maiesty hath to the souerayntie of Scotlande, Henry VIII (Ann Arbor, Michigan: University of Michigan, Digital Library Production Service, 2012) accessible: https://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/eebo2/A22662.0001.001?view=toc

The Hamilton Papers: Letters illustrating the Political Relations of England and Scotland in the Sixteenth Century, ed. Joseph Bain, 2 vols (Edinburgh: General Register House, 1890) accessible: https://archive.org/details/cu31924091786032/page/n6

Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, of the Reign of Henry VIII, 1509-47, ed. J.S. Brewer et al., 21 vols.

Davidson, Donald, ‘The influence of the English Printers on the Scottish Reformation’, Scottish Church History Society 1 (1926), pp. 75-87

Ferguson, William, Scotland’s Relations with England: A Survey to 1707 (Edinburgh, 1994)

Head, David, ‘Henry VIII’’s Scottish Policy: A Reassessment’, The Scottish Historical Review 61 (1982), pp.1-21

Kellar, Clare, Scotland, England, and the Reformation 1534-1561 (New York, 2003)

Morgan, Hiram, ‘British Policies before the British State’ in Brendan Bradshaw and John Morrill (eds), The British Problem, 1534-1707 (London, 1996), pp. 66-88

Ryrie, Alec ‘Reform without Frontiers in the Last Years of Catholic Scotland’, The English Historical Review 119 (2004), pp.27-56




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