The Reformation City of Saint Andrews
Rich tradition in the north-western corner of Europe
The city of St Andrews on the eastern coast of Scotland is most renowned for being home to the country’s oldest university. These picturesque colleges beside the North Sea enjoy a global reputation as an elite institution. The university’s 9,000 students make up half of the city’s population.
During the Western Schism, Scotland’s unstinting support for the antipope Benedict XIII based in Avignon meant that Scots were prevented from studying on the Continent. In 1410, the Bishop of St Andrews founded the Scottish university in response. The subjects originally taught there were theology, canon law and the liberal arts – the “seven liberal arts” or artes liberales – which in the medieval education system qualified students for entry to the faculties of theology, jurisprudence or medicine. Subsequent bishops added further colleges. St Leonard’s College, which was founded in 1511, became the centre of Reformation theology.
Reformist thought gained a foothold in Scotland in the early 1520s. It was mainly merchants and dealers that passed on Reformation works and attitudes. From 1525 on, the Scottish parliament passed special laws in an attempt to prevent this ideas from spreading. Luther’s student Patrick Hamilton (c. 1504-1528) had been a student at St Andrews. In 1527, Hamilton visited Wittenberg, then moved on to Marburg, where he wrote his work “Loci Communes”, in which he outlined key theories based on Luther’s theology. Upon his return to Scotland that same year, the Archbishop of St Andrews accused him of false doctrine. He was condemned to death and burned at the stake in St Andrews in 1528. Hamilton is deemed the first martyr of the Scottish Reformation. His execution is said to have inspired further conversions to Lutheranism in St Leonard’s College. However, it also prompted most supporters of the Reformation to keep their faith under wraps or move abroad.
Another Reformer to suffer the same fate as Hamilton and be burned at the stake in St Andrews as a heretic was George Wishart (1513-1546). After being influenced by the movement in Strasbourg, Basle and Zurich, he returned to Scotland around 1543/44, where he had a far-reaching effect as an itinerant preacher. He was a major influence for John Knox (c. 1514-1572), who would later become Scotland’s most prominent Reformer. Wishart convinced Knox, who had studied in St Andrews, to commit to the Reformation cause in 1543. When Wishart was condemned to death as a heretic by Archbishop David Beaton of St Andrews three years later, Knox joined a group of rebels who then murdered Beaton and barricaded themselves in the Bishop’s castle. When St Andrews was stormed by French troops, Knox and other supporters of the Reformation were interned as galley slaves.
Towards the end of the 1560s, eminent Scottish noblemen’s opposition to the policies of the Queen Mother, Mary of Guise, who served as Regent of Scotland in her young daughter’s name, fostered the development of the Reformation. This alliance of dissident noblemen convinced John Knox, who until then had spent most of his time (apart from some travels) in Geneva, to return to Scotland in 1569. During the political and religious turmoil that persisted throughout the following years, he played a major role in constructing the Church of Scotland along Reformation-led lines.
The confessio scotica – or Scots’ Confession – was written at the direction of the Scottish parliament in 1560. This was quickly followed by the “Book of Discipline” approved by the noblemen, in which Knox outlined a church system according to the Geneva model based entirely on the offices of pastors and elders. Its highest body convened for the first time in 1561 – a general synod, which would later become known as the “General Assembly” of the Church of Scotland. However, structuring the Church of Scotland along Reformation lines would turn out to be a protracted process within Scottish church history, marked by various battles and conflicts.
Having suffered a knock to its status as the national church due to increasing secularisation, the tradition-laden Presbyterian Church is currently working hard to reinvigorate its profile in Scottish society, mainly through social and welfare projects. The University of St Andrews, the Church of Scotland and the town’s local churches have worked together as an ecumenical team to compile an impressive programme to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation in 2017, including a series of events to rejuvenate various aspects of the pan-European effect of the Reformation and the role St Andrews played during the Reformation era.