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Conflict and Sacred Space in Reformation-Era Scotland

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  11 July 2014

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On Whitsunday in June 1593 William Sinclair of Galwaldmuir and two of his sons attended a kirk near Stirling to hear the Sabbath day's sermon. Perhaps they and some of their fellow parishioners were inspired by hearing the word of God, but not everyone in the neighborhood was in a forgiving mood. Just after they left the kirk, “immediatlie aftir sermond,” the Sinclairs were attacked by Sir Archibald Stirling of Keir and several of his followers. When the melee was over, the three Sinclairs lay dead. This was no random act of violence. Rather, it was part of an ongoing feud; Sinclair of Galwaldmuir had earlier been involved in the killing of Stirling of Keir's brother James. The discord originated with a disputed title to the lands of Auchinbie in the parish of Dunblane. The Sinclairs claimed that they held it in feu from the king, while the Stirlings countered that they held it on similar terms from their kinsman William Chisholm, bishop of Dunblane, and they had backed this with a royal confirmation of the feu charter the previous December. The attack was also a significant incursion of profane activity into sacred space—an act situated in such a way as to maximize its dramatic impact.

By following the course of the Sinclair-Stirling feud to its conclusion and also drawing on other examples in which officials of Scotland's Reformed Kirk became involved in conflicts, either as peacemakers or antagonists, this article will examine two related issues.

Research Article
Copyright © North American Conference on British Studies 2001

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1 Stirling Council Archives (hereafter cited as SCA) ms CH2/722/2, 24 July 1593; Register of the Great Seal of Scotland, 5:757Google Scholar; Fraser, William, The Stirlings of Keir and Their Family Papers (Edinburgh, 1858), pp. 432–34Google Scholar. Feuing was the granting of land to someone in exchange for a lump sum followed by fixed annual payments, which would become less significant over time due to inflation. It was quite common in the sixteenth century, particularly on lands which had once belonged to the Church. See Sanderson, Margaret, Scottish Rural Society in the Sixteenth Century (Edinburgh, 1982)Google Scholar.

2 For a discussion of the distinction between sacred space and “unstructured” or “amorphous” space in the context of religious belief, see Eliade, Mircea, The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion, trans, by Trask, Willard R., (New York, 1959), pp. 2065Google Scholar.

3 I am not seeking to extend the debate between Lawrence Stone and J. A. Sharpe over the extent of violence in early modern England north of the Anglo-Scottish border. While scholars may disagree on the scope and meaning of violence, it seems clear that early modern England and Scotland were, by modern western standards, violence-prone societies. For the Stone-Sharpe debate, see, inter alia, J. A. Sharpe, “The History of Violence in England: Some Observations,” and Stone, Lawrence, “A Rejoinder,” in Past and Present 108 (08 1985): 206–24CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

4 The major study of the topic in Scotland is Brown, Keith, Bloodfeud in Scotland 1573–1625: Violence, Justice and Politics in an Early Modern Society (Edinburgh, 1986)Google Scholar, but see also the pioneering article by Wormald, Jenny, “Bloodfeud, Kindred and Government in Early Modern Scotland,” Past and Present 87 (05 1980): 5497CrossRefGoogle Scholar, which is particularly strong on the medieval and legal background to the feud. While Brown certainly considers the role of the Kirk in bringing bloodfeud under control, his focus in this regard is on the prescriptive literature found in sermons and pronouncements by the General Assembly, rather than on the actual practices of the Kirk and its officials. For feuding elsewhere, and the gradual channelling of bloodfeuds into duels in the Friuli, see Muir, Edward, Mad Blood Stirring: Vendetta and Factions in Friuli During the Renaissance (Baltimore, 1992)Google Scholar. For a discussion of what appears to be a similar system of managing conflict among the Nuer people of the southern Sudan in the first half of the twentieth century, see Gluckman, Max, Custom and Conflict in Africa (Oxford, 1965), ch.1Google Scholar.

5 Amussen, Susan Dwyer, “Punishment, Discipline and Power: the Social Meaning of Violence in Early Modern England,” Journal of British Studies 34 (1995): 2CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

6 National Archives of Scotland, Edinburgh (hereafter cited as NAS) MS CH2/121/1, 18 and 25 February 1589, 15 March 1589, 13 May 1589, 30 September 1589, 6 January 1590.

7 St. Andrews University Muniments (hereafter cited as StAUM) MS B65/8/1, 88v–89r.

8 Register of the Privy Council of Scotland (hereafter cited as RPC), 4:574–75. John Hoppringle and his followers did not show up when summoned to appear before the Privy Council on 3 February, but the case thereafter disappears from the records.

9 SCA MS CH2/722/2, 13 February 1594.

10 Extracts From the Records of the Burgh of Edinburgh, 1557–1589 (Edinburgh, 18751882), 4:539Google Scholar

11 Acts of the Parliaments of Scotland, 1124–1707 (London and Edinburgh, 18141875), 3:544Google Scholar.

12 Graham, Michael F., “The Civil Sword and the Scottish Kirk, 1560–1610,” in Graham, W. Fred, ed., Later Calvinism: International Perspectives (Kirksville, Mo., 1994), pp. 237–48Google Scholar; Williamson, Arthur, Scottish National Consciousness in the Age of James VI (Edinburgh, 1979), p. 7Google Scholar.

13 Barrow, G. W. S., Robert Bruce and the Community of the Realm of Scotland, 3rd. ed., (Edinburgh, 1988), pp. 145–48Google Scholar.

14 Less well-known but more egregious was the burning alive of 120 members of the Murray family by the Drummonds in the kirk of Monzievaird in 1490. See Wormald, , “Bloodfeud, Kindred and Government,” p. 83, n.101Google Scholar.

15 See, among others, Kingdon, Robert, “The Control of Morals in Calvin's Geneva,” in Buck, Lawrence P. and Zophy, Jonathan W., eds., The Social History of the Reformation (Columbus, 1972), pp. 316Google Scholar; Mentzer, Raymond, “Disciplina nervus ecclesiae: The Calvinist Reform of Morals at Nimes,” Sixteenth Century Journal 18 (1987): 89115CrossRefGoogle Scholar; idem, “Le consistoire et la pacification du monde rural,” Bulletin de la société de l'histoire de protestantisme français 135, (1989): 373–90; idem, ed., Sin and the Calvinists: Morals Control and the Consistory in the Reformed Tradition (Kirksville, Mo., 1994); Graham, Michael F., The Uses of Reform: “Godly Discipline” and Popular Behavior in Scotland and Beyond, 1560–1610 (Leiden, 1996)Google Scholar.

16 Cameron, James, ed., The First Book of Discipline (Edinburgh, 1972), p. 168Google Scholar. Fornication, drunkenness, and swearing were other examples of public sins listed in the book. In the Second Book of Discipline (1578), the list of sins requiring public discipline had grown considerably longer, but fighting was still on it. See Kirk, James, ed., The Second Book of Discipline (Edinburgh, 1980), p. 202Google Scholar.

17 See, for example, William Cunningham, ed., Sermons of Robert Bruce (Edinburgh, 1843), p. 355. This sermon was preached at the public repentance of Francis Stewart, earl of Bothwell, in St. Giles, Edinburgh on 9 Nov. 1589. The Kirk regarded Bothwell as guilty of numerous sins, including murder and blasphemy. Later, he would be associated with an alleged plot to kill the king by witchcraft.

18 Gluckman, , Custom and Conflict, pp. 1415Google Scholar.

l9 StAUM MS Deposit 23, 23 Oct. 1595. For the difficulties of the St. Andrews Kirk Session and Presbytery in mediating the Smith-Arthur feud, largely because both bodies were seen as partial to James Smith, a former kirk session elder, see Graham, , Uses of Reform, pp. 296–98Google Scholar.

20 Paton, Henry, ed., Dundonald Parish Records: The Session Book of Dundonald 1602–1731 (Edinburgh, 1936), pp. 16–17, 20–24, 35Google Scholar.

21 Fleming, David Hay, ed., Register of the Minister, Elders and Deacons of the Christian Congregation of St. Andrews (hereafter cited as StAKS) (Edinburgh, 18891890), 2:806Google Scholar.

22 SCA MS CH2/722/2, 24 and 31 July 1593; RPC 5:90, 135–36; Pitcairn, Robert, ed., Ancient Criminal Trials in Scotland (Edinburgh, 1833), 1(pt. 3):299Google Scholar. Ironically, Stirling of Keir was one of a group of proprietors whose tenants included “broken men” and who had therefore been forced by the Privy Council to find sufficient surety that they would make “themselves and their men answerable to justice” in December 1590. See RPC, 4:802–03. On horning as a feud strategy, see NAS Mss JC/2/1, JC/6/1, 30 March 1577 (for the successful plea by William Porterfield of that Ilk that his slaughter of John Brisbane of Middle Wilkenshaw in May 1573 was “na cryme…in respect that the said Johne Brisbane wes slane at ye home…”); and also Brown, , Bloodfeud in Scotland, pp. 4748Google ScholarPubMed.

23 SCA MS CH2/722/2, 14, 21 and 28 August 1593.

24 SCA MS CH2/722/2, 11 September 1593. Stirling of Keir was told to keep his contacts with the servants “privie [so] that na sclandir aryss thruch yair publict behavior.”

25 SCA MS CH2/722/2, 15 January 1594, 27 February 1594, 13 March 1594.

26 SCA MS CH2/722/2, 10 and 17 April 1594, 29 May 1594, 12 and 26 June 1594.

27 SCA MS CH2/722/2, 25 September 1594, 20 November 1594, 18 December 1594, 8 January 1595.

28 SCA MS CH2/722/2, 26 March 1595.

29 StAUM MS Deposit 23, 23 October 1595.

30 For a discussion of the uses of enmity outside the Scottish context, see Sabean, David, Power in the Blood: Popular Culture and Village Discourse in Early Modern Germany (Cambridge, 1984), pp. 38–41, 4754Google Scholar.

31 SCA MS CH2/722/2, 4 June 1595.

32 New Register House, Edinburgh (hereafter cited as NRH) MS OPR 403/1, 121r, 122r.

33 For similar examples of reluctance to reconcile, but in a southwestern German (and Lutheran) context, see Sabean, Power in the Blood, ch. 1.

34 Paton, , ed., Dundonald Parish Records, p. 70Google Scholar.

35 StAUM MS Deposit 23, 5 and 21 May, 16 June, 24 August and 5 October 1603.

36 Paton, , ed., Dundonald Parish Records, p. 187Google Scholar.

37 Thomson, Thomas, ed., Acts and Proceedings of the General Assemblies of the Kirk of Scotland (Edinburgh, 18391845), 3:951Google Scholar.

38 Calderwood, Alma B., ed., The Buik of the Kirk of the Canagait, 1564–1567 (Edinburgh, 1961) (hereafter cited as BKC), p. 31Google Scholar.

39 BKC, p. 31.

40 See, for example, Extracts From the Records of the Burgh of the Canongate Near Edinburgh,” Maitland Club Miscellany 2, (Edinburgh, 1840): 290301Google Scholar.

41 E.g. BKC, p. 50.

42 BKC, p. 36. A letter of remission was intended to allow a guilty party a delay in criminal proceedings while he or she negotiated an assythement with the victim's kin. The assythement would then negate the need for a criminal trial or punishment. See Brown, , Bloodfeud in Scotland, pp. 52–54, 56Google Scholar.

43 StAKS, 2:785–86.

44 NRH MS OPR 403/1, 108r, 109r.

45 NRH MS OPR 403/1, 93v.

46 SCA MS CH2/722/2, 27 October, 24 November 1590.

47 NRH MS OPR 310/1, 83v.

48 Paton, , ed., Dundonald Parish Records, p. 115Google Scholar. For a another, similar band, see ibid, p. 195.

49 E.g. SCA MS B66/15/4, 2 Jan. 1561; B66/16/1, 143r; Wood, Marguerite, ed., Court Book of the Regality of Broughton and the Burgh of the Canongate, 1569–73 (Edinburgh, 1937), pp. 54, 80Google Scholar. Before the Reformation, civic officials might order that fines levied or threatened as punishment for “evil words” or injuries go to the support of guild altars. See Torrie, Elizabeth, ed., The Gild Court Book of Dunfermline, 1433–1597 (Edinburgh, 1986), pp. 88, 93Google Scholar.

50 The database includes a total of 4594 cases from kirk sessions, and 1191 from presbyteries. The kirk sessions, years tabulated and sources are as follows: l)Aberdeen, 1562–63, 1568, 1573–78, (460 cases) NAS MS CH2/448/1; 2)Anstruther Wester (Fife) 1583–85, 1588–98 (546 cases) NRH MS OPR 403/1; 3) Canongate 1564–67 (287 cases) BKC; 4)Dundonald (Ayrshire) 1602–10 (644 cases) Paton, ed., Dundonald Parish Records, p. 5Google Scholar)Edinburgh General Session 1574–75 (321 cases) NAS MS CH2/450/1; 6)Monifieth (Angus) 1579–81, 1593–94, 1600–01, 1603–06 (105 cases) NRH MS OPR 310/1; 7)Rothiemay (Banff) 1605–06 (75 cases) NRH MS OPR 165/3; 8)St. Andrews (Fife) 1559–1600 (2156 cases) StAKS. The presbyteries, years tabulated and sources are: 1) Edinburgh, 1586–90, (138 cases) NAS MS CH2/121/1; 2)St. Andrews, 1586–1605, (329 cases) Smith, Mark, ed., “The Presbytery of St. Andrews, 1586–1605: A Study and Annotated Edition of the Register of the Minutes of the Presbytery of St. Andrews” (Ph.D thesis, St. Andrews University, 1986), p. 3Google Scholar)Stirling, 1581–94, (724 cases) Kirk, James, ed., Stirling Presbytery Records, 1581–1587 (Edinburgh, 1981)Google Scholar, and then SCA Mss CH2/722/1–2.

51 Bossy, John, Christianity in the West, 1400–1700 (Oxford, 1984), p. 130Google Scholar; Graham, , Uses of Reform, pp. 267, 340 and chapters 3, 5, 6, passimGoogle Scholar.

52 Graham, , Uses of Reform, p. 290Google Scholar.

53 Lenman, Bruce and Parker, Geoffrey, “The State, the Community and the Criminal Law in Early Modern Europe,” in Gatrell, V. A. C., Lenman, Bruce, and Parker, Geoffrey, eds., Crime and the Law: The Social History of Crime in Western Europe Since 1500 (London, 1980), pp. 4647Google Scholar.

54 Paton, , ed., Dundonald Parish Records, p. 195Google Scholar; StAUM MS Deposit 23, 21 June 1593, 9 August 1593, 9 October 1595, 23 October 1595.

55 SCA MS CH2/722/2, 28 Aug., 11 Sept. 1593.

56 StAUM MS Deposit 23, 7 April, 1598, 13 April 1598, 15 June 1598, 22 June 1598, 6 July 1598.

57 As regent of Scotland, the Earl of Morton saw to the removal of priests' stalls, altar backs, and the destruction of the organ in Aberdeen's burgh kirk of St. Nicholas in 1574. See NAS MS CH2/448/1, 61; RPC, 2:390–91; White, Allan, “The Regent Morton's Visitation: The Reformation of Aberdeen, 1574,” in MacDonald, A. A., Lynch, Michael and Cowan, Ian, eds., The Renaissance in Scotland: Studies in Literature, Religion, History and Culture Offered to John Durkan (Leiden, 1994), pp. 246–63CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

58 StAUM MS B65/8/1, 88v–89r.

59 E.g. StAUM MS B10/8/5, 20 Dec. 1569, B10/8/8, 23 Feb. 1591, B65/8/1, 39v–40r, 50r, 104r–v; SCA MS B66/16/1, 150r. For an interesting exception, where an assault which took place in a burgh court led to the assailant being forced to make amends in a kirk, see Wood, , ed., Court Book of Broughton and the Canongate, p. 350Google Scholar.

60 Lynch, Michael, “Continuity and Change in Urban Society, 1500–1700,” in Houston, R. A. and Whyte, I. D., eds., Scottish Society, 1500–1800 (Cambridge, 1989), p. 89Google Scholar.

61 See, for example, Chareyre, Philippe, “‘“The Great Difficulties One Must Bear to Follow Jesus Christ’: Morality at Sixteenth-Century Nimes,” in Mentzer, , Sin and the Calvinists, p. 83Google Scholar.

62 For an eloquent discussion of this ideology, see Brown, , Bloodfeud in Scotland, pp. 184207Google Scholar. For a classic example of a feud in which courts were of limited use since one principal combatant (the Fifth Earl of Cassillis) had great jurisdictional powers in the area where much of the feud was played out (Carrick), see idem, “A House Divided: Family and Feud in Carrick under John Kennedy, Fifth Earl of Cassillis,” Scottish Historical Review 75 (1996): pp. 184–85, 188–89, 195.

63 Slains were traditional legal instruments of forgiveness employed in the settlement of bloodfeuds. The term comes from the Gaelic sláinte, meaning “health” or “wholeness.” See Wormald, , “Bloodfeud, Kindred and Government,” p. 62Google Scholar.

64 Fraser, , Stirlings of Keir, p. 433Google Scholar.

65 For royal efforts in this regard, see Brown, , Bloodfeud in Scotland, pp. 270–72Google Scholar.