Centenary Lecture Series: ‘Everyday Life in Reformation Glasgow’

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On 28 February 2013, the Centre, as part of the ongoing series of lectures celebrating the Centenary of Scottish History and Literature at the University of Glasgow, welcomed Dr. Steven Reid who discussed, ‘Everyday Life in Reformation Glasgow’. Below is this listener’s brief summary of the lecture.

The Scottish Reformation has often been presented as a highly enthusiastic, overnight conversion, due in part to committed preachers like John Knox but also due to the failure of the Catholic Church to reform in response to encroaching Protestantism. However, Dr. Reid argued that this paints a misleading picture overall. There was little cohesion to the spread of the Reformation nationally and its reception varied from one locality to the next. For example, the mercantile hub of Edinburgh responded with some reluctance, with the city motivated more by trade than piety. The denizens of Aberdeen, under the influence of the Catholic Huntly family, were even more lukewarm to the new ideas. However, Dundee, Perth and Ayr embraced the egalitarian message of Protestantism and were more openly radical.

Glasgow’s response to the Reformation is somewhat harder to gauge as few physical remnants of the period still survive and burgh/church records are entirely absent from the decade after 1560. Nevertheless, it’s clear the Archbishop of Glasgow, Gavin Dunbar (1524-47), had ‘no stomach’ for the pursuit and persecution of Protestantism, in stark contrast to his contemporary, Cardinal Beaton. Dr. Reid argued Dunbar hoped followers of Protestantism would eventually see the error of their ways and recant. After Dunbar’s death in 1547, James Beaton became Archbishop of Glasgow, proceeding over the town’s affairs during the tumultuous period of the wars of the ‘Lords of Congregation’ , a group of Scottish nobles greatly in favour of the Reformation. In 1560, Beaton fled to France, leaving Glasgow at the behest of a self-governed and Protestant town council. Subsequent post-reformation archbishops were largely the puppets of powerful Scottish nobles and in 1611, Glasgow was made a royal burgh, in principle shifting control away from the Archbishops even more.

After this overview of the spread of the Reformation in Glasgow, Dr. Reid provided a ‘virtual walking tour’ of 16th century Glasgow. Contrary to our modern image of a bustling metropolis, 16th century Glasgow was a small provincial market town. On a league table of taxable income in 1556, Glasgow was 9th, with east-coast towns like Edinburgh, Dundee, Aberdeen and Perth making up the top four. Glasgow only grew in size and prosperity thanks to trade with the New World in the 17th century but until then the town was on ‘the wrong side’ for trade with the European continent. The population of the town underlines this point as it was a mere 4,500 in 1560 but by 1660 it had grown to 15,000. In the 16th century, the centre of the town was focused around the port near the Saltmarket and the University was far from the current West End site. Instead, it was on the High Street, near Glasgow Cathedral. Also near the University were the Blackfriar (Dominican) and Greyfriar (Franciscan) friaries, which were both the target of anti-clerical hatred during the Reformation.

To walk along the route that Dr. Reid followed, you can download a copy of Glasgow City Council’s Medieval City Map Trail: http://www.glasgow.gov.uk/index.aspx?articleid=3286

Summary by Ross Crawford (PhD Researcher)

The next lecture marking the centenary of Scottish History and Literature at the University of Glasgow will be on the 28 March, with Prof. Alan Riach, ‘Glasgow Poets and Modern Scotland’. This will again be held in the Mitchell Library at 6pm.

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