NQ Scottish History

The Reformation in Europe

Until about 1500, Christians in Western Europe all belonged to one church, which was led by the Pope. Over the years, the church had become very wealthy, which made it a target for some people who were more interested in the church’s money than in religion. Complaints about the corruption of the church led to protests (by Protestants) across Europe and an attempt to reform it.

Protestants and the Reformation


Painting depicting Martin Luther
In 1517, a German priest called Martin Luther protested about some of the practices of the church that he wanted reformed. The supporters of his protest became known as ‘Protestants’ and the religious movement they started became known as the ‘Reformation’. The religious argument spread from Germany and across much of Europe, as people from every class became interested in it. Some of these people were genuinely interested in religion. Others saw it as a way of getting their hands on the wealth of the church.

The Catholic Church tried to reform itself and made some reforms, but at the same time Protestants were condemned to death and executed in many countries where Catholics felt threatened by the spread of what they considered to be dangerous, heretical ideas. Protestant ideas continued to spread across Europe and they reached Scotland, where they were popular with those critics of the Catholic Church who did not believe that the Church in Scotland could reform itself.

As a result of the Reformation, Christians in Europe were either Catholics or Protestants. Some countries remained Catholic and others became Protestant. Different forms of Protestantism developed in various countries. There was no central authority that tried to control the spread and development of Protestant ideas throughout Europe, unlike the Papacy based in Rome, which was supposed to control the Catholic Church. Most Catholic countries were in the south, and Protestant countries tended to be in the north. Scotland, in the north, was one of the last countries in Europe to ‘reform’ its Church and become a Protestant country.

The Church in Scotland

The Catholic Church aimed to help the sick and the poor, to educate people and to encourage them to live good lives, so they would achieve salvation and go to Heaven when they died. Over the years, people had given land and money to the Church to obtain indulgences that would offset sins committed on earth and enable the deceased to go to Heaven.

The Church had become very wealthy. In addition to rents from its land, the Church collected a special tax. As a result of this, the Church in Scotland was far wealthier than the king. During the reign of James V, the Church had an income of approximately £300,000 a year, while the king had less than £20,000 to pay for governing the country.

Scottish monarchs looked for ways of getting money out of the Church, as did other Scots.

They did this by:

  • Promoting the Royal Family
    Monarchs gave jobs to relatives and other nobles who wanted the income but not the religious duties. These duties were often neglected or some clergy were paid small salaries to do the work.

  • Plurality
    Some clergy were given several jobs. These ‘pluralists’ collected several salaries but could not do all of the work properly. Again, some clergymen were paid a small salary to do some of the work, while other duties were neglected or even ignored.

  • Taxing the Church
    The Church in Scotland had to pay taxes to the king, as monarchs were keen to extract money from the wealthiest institution in Scotland. To raise the money, the Church rented out its land to local nobles. Ironically, these nobles were often descendants of the people who had originally given the land to the Church.

As a result of these developments, the Church began to face serious problems. Senior positions in the Church, which commanded huge incomes, were being taken by nobles whose main interest was not religion. Some ambitious clergymen were reluctant to become parish priests because the work was so poorly paid. The quality of parish priests therefore declined. Some were accused of not knowing enough to take the religious services.

While some parish priests worked hard for the people in their parish, others earned a bad reputation for their attitude to their congregation. Increasingly, Scots began to criticise the Church in Scotland because of the behaviour of some of the clergy.

  • Biblia pauperum, Netherlands, ca 1470 (est.)