A Question of Religion

When the Confession of Faith was ratified by the Scottish Parliament on 17 July 1560, William Keith the 56-year old 4th Earl Marischal made a remarkable speech condemning the Bishops of the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland for their failure to speak up for the ‘auld religion’. Through their silence, the Marischal proclaimed, the bishops were endorsing the new religion to be, in his words, “the very truth of God”.
Seven days previously, the Scottish parliament had passed The Papal Jurisdiction Act 1560. This Act declared the Pope to have no jurisdiction in Scotland. By the end of August 1560, the “Reformation Parliament” as it became known had approved a Treaty with the English, and given James Stewart, Earl of Moray (the Marischal’s future son-in-law) amnesty for the Lords of the Congregation.The seeds of opposition to the Roman Church in Britain can be traced back to the 1370s. John Wycliffe, an Oxford theologian advocated non-conformist religious views. He denied the doctrine of transubstantiation and stressed the importance of preaching and the primacy of original Scripture as the source of Christian doctrine. Claiming that the office of the papacy lacked scriptural justification, he equated the pope with Antichrist. Wycliffe was charged with heresy, but he was never brought to trial, and he continued to write and preach until his death in 1384. His followers acquired the nickname “Lollards” meaning “mumbler”. The sect continued to multiply. The accession of Henry IV in 1399 signalled a wave of repression. In 1401 the first English statute was passed for the burning of heretics. In the repression that followed many Lollards fled to the Continent and to Scotland, especially in Ayrshire and Aberdeenshire.It is perhaps via a fugitive Lollard that William Keith, 2nd Lord Keith, first learned about such religious views. William, it must be said, can have been none-too fond of the Roman Catholic Church having personally been the victim of extortion by the Bishop of St Andrews and the Pope. William’s principal residence was at Kintore until in 1392 when he exchanged with his son-in-law Lord Lindsay of the Byres lands in Fife and Stirling for Dunnottar where he built the celebrated tower. Before the works began, he had to remove the Dunnottar parish church to another site. For invading consecrated ground, William was excommunicated by the Bishop. He appealed to Rome, and on 18 July 1394 Pope Benedict XIII granted his appeal but on condition of an annual payment to the Bishop. What made it even more galling was the reason William built the tower was as a strategic defence against invasion of southern Scotland by the MacDonald Lords of the Isles. While William Keith was doing his patriotic duty in national defence, the opportunistic Bishop was lining his own pocket with the Pope’s complicity.By the 16th century, we can see evidence that the Keith Marischal family had embraced the Protestant religion, even though such beliefs were dangerous to hold, especially in the reign of “the Ill Beloved” King James V. Four of the 4th Earl’s five siblings were Protestants. The exception was Lady Elizabeth Keith married to the Catholic Earl of Huntly. We must assume that their parents, Robert the Master of Marischal and Lady Elizabeth Douglas, daughter of John Douglas, 2nd Earl of Morton, were similarly persuaded. Possibly too was the previous generation, the 3rd Earl Marischal. Lord Robert had his grandchildren educated including in reading Greek and Hebrew, necessary for reading Scripture as required by the new religion.If the flag carried at Flodden in 1513 by the 3rd Earl’s standard bearer “Black” John Skirving, of Plewlandhill, East Lothian can be interpreted, Protestant beliefs were then in force in the Keith Marischal household. The flag which survives has a “two and one” arrangement of three roe-buck heads that have been “erased’ (violently torn from the body) and the Keith motto Veritas Vincit.The shape and size of the antlers tell us the trinity of heads are that of roe bucks, which are mentioned extensively in Scripture. In the early Christian Church, the roe was a common symbol of Christ the redeemer – as the lamb represents Christ the sacrificial offering. In Christian art deer represent piety and religious aspiration and longing and the male deer solitude, prayer and purity.During his earlier life, the 4th Earl had taken a great deal of interest in the Protestant religion, somehow juggling that with service to his most Catholic Majesty, King James V. He was a friend of the Protestant Martyr George Wishart. Wishart at studied classics at Aberdeen and worked as a schoolmaster at the Grammar School in Montrose, where he taught the New Testament in Greek. In 1538, he was charged with heresy and fled to Switzerland and Germany where he joined the followers of Calvin. He returned to Scotland in 1544 as part of a mission sent by the English King Henry VIII to arrange the marriage of his son Edward to the young Mary, Queen of Scots. The Marischal was in favour of this union, a fact reported to King Henry VIII by the English Ambassador.

This is important because of what happened after. While preaching Protestant Reform in 1546, Wishart was betrayed to Cardinal David Beaton and subsequently tried for heresy, condemned to death and burnt at the stake. Some weeks later Wishart’s friends killed the Cardinal and hung his body from the battlements of the Castle in St. Andrews.
The Earl Marischal is implicated in the plot to take revenge on the Cardinal.
In December the following year, a group of Scottish lords who opposed the marriage of the young Queen Mary to the French Dauphin vowed to make Scotland Protestant. Following religious riots in Perth, the Lords of the Congregation, as they were styled, gained support and provided military help to John Knox in opposing the troops of the Dowager Queen Regnant, Mary of Guise.
Among the Lords named by Knox are William Keith and two of his future sons-in-law, Colin Campbell, heir presumptive to the earldom of Argyll and James Stewart, the future Earl of Moray and regent, half-sister of Queen Mary. The Lords fielded enough military strength to face off a French and Scottish army and by July 1559 they had taken Edinburgh. In late 1559, French reinforcements pushed the Protestant army back to Stirling and Fife. Then in March 1560, a revolt by French Protestant Huguenots caused the French to withdraw their troops removing the prop that was holding up the regime of Mary of Guise. The Lords of the Congregation and their English supporters now had the upper hand. By the Treaty of Berwick in February 1560 the Lords had brought in an English army to resist the French troops. With the French gone, and after the death of the Queen Regent in June, hostilities ceased. The reformation Parliament promptly commenced its work.

On the return of Queen Mary from France in August 1561, William Keith was appointed to her Privy Council. In December 1563, he was one of the committee appointed to revise the Book of Discipline. But he was now a widower and preferring the familiarity of his castle at Dunnottar to the political circuits of Edinburgh. There he seemed to occupy himself with the study of scripture in their original Greek and Hebrew texts. Indulging in the intellectualism and interest in the mystical that was a hallmark of his grandson (and heir) and later successors.