10.8 The Reformation and after

The issue of the Reformation and post-Reformation history of the site and community of Carmelites in Aberdeen has two threads. Firstly there is the question of what exactly happened to the friars' buildings, and secondly, what was the fate of the community of friars?

In terms of the first, it is clear that the reforming mobs attacked the friaries: they would have attacked the altars and religious images and done as much as possible to render the place unusable i.e. smash the windows and possibly attack the fabric of the roof. Given the nature of the council edict the day immediately thereafter, it is clear that some of the stone work of the buildings was being robbed: the edict of 4 January sought to preserve the stone work and slates. This implies they were under threat. Indeed the townspeople themselves would have begun to spirit away (possibly under cover of night) the best parts for re-use. Short of putting guards on the site day and night for several years, it would have been impossible to police the edict forbidding the townspeople from taking away any more of the stone work (and even then it would have been dependent on the guards being honest). This would have continued for some months until all that could be removed had been. Perhaps within a year the friary would have been down to one or two courses of larger stones, probably the bulk of what was later found in the excavations of the later 20th century (not counting any further disturbance caused by the laying out of Carmelite Street, Lane and Rennie's Wynd). In 1565 the site of the Carmelites and Dominicans was described as 'the ground quhair the pleis stude…' (Stuart 1844, 359).

The issue of the history of the ownership of the site and that of the continued existence of the community (or more accurately small elements of it) is difficult to be clear about. However, the evidence seems to bear out the theory that elements of the Carmelite community were harboured by Provost Thomas Menzies and other members of his family. The role of Gilbert Menzies in the post-Reformation period doling out Redfriars' land may indicate a base interest, whilst the role of Provost Thomas in having ex-Prior Fulford live with him may point to a loftier interest. The Menzies family were at that time (and remained) Catholic, sometimes overtly and sometimes covertly, and as we have seen in the two years prior to the Reformation a close, complicated and financial relationship built up between the Menzies family (and in particular Provost Thomas) and the Carmelites. No doubt some of the friars would simply have 'resigned' their habit and taken the government pension. Some would have remained Catholic and would have continued in increasing secrecy to minister to the needs of those who remained faithful. It may not be entirely without ground to imagine secret masses being said perhaps in the house of Provost Menzies. If so it would have been something of an open secret given the relatively close-knit nature of the Burgh at the time. Indeed this is an interpretation suggested by White who describes a Catholic 'party' or 'community' very much in evidence in Aberdeen in the Burgh Council and also in households until the 1570s, when they were confronted by Regent Morton (White in Dennison et al. 2002, 233). Menzies was a powerful man, a rich man and to challenge this position, money and power would have taken a brave soul.

All of this remains speculative, but it does have some evidence. The fact that it was the Black and Whitefriars places which were attacked is important. It could have been the case that the mob was 'directed' to them because they had 'illegally' attempted to dispone of their lands and monies. Although the next point is without evidence, it is easy to conceive of a situation in which Provost Thomas was helping the friars in the early days of January 1560 when the mob was in the Burgh. He may have made men and horses available to the friars' men or factors to take writs away to other parts of the country (from which they were later recovered). The connection between the Menzies family and some of the Carmelites and the Trinitarians seems to have been profitable for both, for many reasons.

This research has pointed out some directions for future historical work. The documents of the Carmelites have been well worked through, but those of the Blackfriars and the Trinitarians in Aberdeen have received less attention. The site of the Franciscan friary has been excavated, to a limited extent, and the subsequent historical research will go some way to a fuller understanding of the Greyfriars in Aberdeen (Cameron in prep). They are, however, of a later date. The Black and Redfriars operated within Aberdeen within approximately the same time frame as the Whitefriars did. Hence a closer examination of their surviving historical remains is one direction which future research should take. Moreover there were other religious orders operating in Aberdeen historically, for example the Knights Templar. Future work should look to take in a more holistic approach to the understanding of the history of all religious orders which existed historically in Aberdeen.


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