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2.5 The Reformation, 1559–1560

The Reformation had the appearance of coming upon Aberdeen suddenly and being imposed by forces external to the burgh. This may not be the case, however, and this murky phase of shifting alliances, at the time of an experimental, new and controversial alliance with the English requires more attention both on a national and a regional footing before it is more properly understood.

In the case of Aberdeen, White's work (2002) has shown that there were a number of traces of emerging Protestantism in the burgh from 1521. In that year John Marshall, master of the Grammar School, was called before the Council of the Royal Burgh to account for his views. The next appearance was in 1525 when James V wrote to the Sheriff of Aberdeen ordering him to prohibit the importation of heretical books into the burgh (Stuart 1844, 97 and 110). In 1532 the Franciscan Friar, Alexander Dick, abandoned his habit in favour of Lutheranism.

In 1543 two Blackfriars were appointed by the Earl of Arran to preach the true word of God in Aberdeen, as part of his pro-English policy at that time. The council, under Thomas Menzies, went along with this policy. Moreover Thomas Menzies, the later stalwart of Catholicism within the burgh, was at this point very closely associated with not only Arran but with a pro-English and pro-protestant policy. Menzies was briefly comptroller for Arran in central government. Later, once Arran had abandoned his policy stance and professed his religious orthodoxy Menzies was left high and dry. In 1544 Menzies was given a remission for contravening acts of parliament concerning disputes over the scripture (White in Smith 1985, 58-62 and White in Dennison et al. 2002, 226). The consequences of this for Menzies were that the Earl of Huntly became Provost at two elections in Aberdeen (for the only time in its recorded history a local magnate had effective control of the community of free men) and the Menzies family briefly lost their central role in the Burgh (which otherwise encompassed a century of continuous rule). This episode seems to have influenced Thomas Menzies: he would never again be associated with a reforming party or policy. His later actions, in the Reformation crisis in Aberdeen of 1560, seem to be guided by a general conservatism and attempt to find a middle way whilst quietly defending Catholicism mixed with stalling tactics.

There does not seem to have been any explicit anti-friar feeling expressed in Aberdeen prior to 1560; or, put another way, any anti-friar sentiment has not yet been discovered in the historical record. The different orders of friars in Aberdeen were involved in various court cases up to the eve of the Reformation but this was no different from previous decades or centuries. In many of these cases the issues were simply to do with land ownership or annual rents. However one case related to relations with the townspeople. On 12 March 1539 Margaret Porter had accused Jonat Chesame of being, amongst other things, 'a commond vlyd freris hvyr…'. Jonat brought an action against Margaret at the Burgh Court. Margaret claimed that she was acting on a specific allegation: she had led the court to the place on the high street (possibly the Green) where Jonat had lost her belt buckle during a liaison with an unnamed friar. Regardless the court found in favour of Jonat and against Margaret for 'myspersonyng' her (Stuart 1844, 159-160). Leaving the outcome of the case aside this is a brief bit of light on the nature of some relations between the friars and the town: the expression 'common old friars whore' may well have been a current one. Ultimately, though, this relates to something specific and is not a reflection of anti-friar or pro-Reformation feeling.

There was one further case: on 1 December 1544 Thomas Branche and Thomas Cussing were convicted of 'hinging of the image of Sant Franceis…' and were imprisoned in the Wardhouse of the Tolbooth (Stuart 1844, 211-212). In this case we cannot ever know why an image of St Francis was chosen: perhaps the two Thomases had a specific grievance against the Franciscans or perhaps they had a problem with religion in general and this was simply the image that was to hand at the time. Regardless these are the traces of religious feeling that can be detected in Aberdeen in the years prior to the Reformation.

When the Reformation arrived, in late 1559 and early 1560, with the Lords of Congregation being swept into power and a new pro-English and Protestant stance having emerged in Scotland nationally, there had been no other overt signs of Protestantism or anti-friar feeling in Aberdeen. However, there is some evidence that the Greyfriars had been moving their records and ornaments to protect them: perhaps the other friaries had done the same and the evidence has simply become lost. In fact it would be likely that they would all have taken steps to protect their possessions and valuables. The story of the destruction of the Carmelite friary begins on 29 December 1559. On that day the council was in session and it was engrossed in the record of the meeting that the whole town had been alerted by the hand bell that Thomas Menzies, Provost, had been warned '[that] certane nytbours of the merins me[n] and angouss men coneunt in [con]gregatioune ar to be in this toune this p[re]sent day to distroy and cast doune [th]e kirks and religiows places [there]of wnder colour and p[re]tence of godlie reforma[tio]une…' (ACA, CR XXIII, 251). Menzies clearly felt this was a cover for vandalism and looting, although that may simply have been a reflection of his Catholic attitude. He, and indeed many members of his family, remained Catholic.

It is unclear when the 'men' from Mearns and Angus actually arrived. However, they were certainly at work by 4 January 1560. On that day the council was again in session and was presided over by the Dean of Guild, David Mar, a Protestant, rather than Menzies. Mar had it engrossed that certain strangers, (presumably those from Angus and Mearns) and some townspeople, (indwellers and neighbours) had begun to spoil the White and Black friars places. They had entered and taken away all the 'gere and guids' that is to say, the moveable goods, and then began to attack the fabric of the buildings. Mar felt it was 'expedient to preserue the saidis tymmir sklattis stanis and [th]e samen to be intromittit and applyit to the [com]mound warkis of the toune for the [com]mound weill and utilitie thairof…and specialy for the furthsettin of Goddis glory and his trew word and prechours thairof that [th]e toune ma be moir habill to concur and assist for the defence of the libertie of the realm expelling of strangeris and suppressing of ydolatrye…' (ACA, CR XXIII, 254). Foggie incorrectly states that on 4 January the reformers attacked the Black and Grey friars' places (Foggie 2003, 229). The wording of the above entry in the Council Register is very Protestant and reflects the difference in leadership of the council session, but it also shows parts of the fabric of the building had been removed, but there was sufficient left to be worth saving. Mar went on to say the crofts and lands pertaining to the friars ought to be appropriated as well. Robbie reported, in the 19th century, that one Carmelite lost his life when attempting to escape the friary when it was being sacked by the reforming mobs (Robbie 1893, 133). However there is no additional evidence to back this up.

The 'spoilation' of the places of the friars in Aberdeen was in no sense limited to Aberdeen, neither was the nature of the council's response. In Edinburgh, in October 1560, the town council ruled that 'the hale stanis of the Black and Gray Freirs places…' were to become property of the town council, taken to the kirkyard and there employed in communal works, such as dyke building. Certain named persons, guilty of stealing away the friars' stones, were ordered to return them (Marwick 1882, 85). Linlithgow, however, provides an example of the Carmelite place remaining substantially intact and not passing into lay hands for some ten years, although it should be noted that in that case, by the sixteenth century, the friary was under the control of the town council (Stones 1989, 54).

What is unclear is why, in Aberdeen, it was just the Black and White friars who were being attacked? The Greyfriars buildings were preserved because they had already formally resigned all their possessions and buildings to the council (ACA, CR XXIII, 269 and 289) and therefore had political backing. Moreover Bryce has suggested that they did not attempt to dishonestly dispone and alienate their lands and annual rents to private persons, ahead of them falling into Protestant hands (Bryce 1909a, 319; 1909b). However, there are a number of points which are implicit here: did this mean that the council posted a guard around the Greyfriars to protect their place (which would have been necessary if they had no control over the refomers who had entered the town)? Or, did they instruct the iconoclasts not to despoil the Greyfriars (implying that there were direct links with the 'rabble', which may have been the case with Mar)? The fate of the Redfriars is more murky: it has been claimed that the 'rabble' set fire to their place and that one of the friars was murdered. A portrait of the alleged martyr with an inscription to this effect survives in a church in Palma on Majorca. This portrait bears the inscription 'Saint Francis of Aberdeen. Martyred, 4th December, 1559'. A version of this portrait is given in Fenton Wyness (Wyness 1971, plate 5). There is also another reference to Friar Patrick, minister of the Trinitarian friary having been put to death in Aberdeen (Anderson 1909, 96).

However, the Redfriars do not feature anywhere in the Council's written records of the events of 1559-60 and so it is hard to tell what happened. It may be telling that little of their written material survived whilst a considerable amount has survived from the three other friaries. Nevertheless, none of this helps answer why the rabble attacked two friaries which were at opposite ends of the town. This is unresolved, and is a significant conundrum within this murky phase: clearly politics was important, one group was emerging and another, whilst not retreating, was watching the events.

Bryce argues that the Dominicans and the Carmelites both dishonestly disponed of their lands to private individuals in the months before the approach of the mob. As evidence he notes that their lands and annuals in 1561 produced £78 11s 4d; however, by 1567 they only produced £48 11s 4d (Bryce 1909a, 320). However, in itself that evidence only points to the fact that the returns had diminished in the period after David Mar had procured the assent of the council and the community of Aberdeen to appropriate the annuals and lands. Nevertheless, if true, this may account for why the White and Black friars' places had been attacked. In a rental of 1598 of Whitefriars lands there is a mention of lands 'appertaining to David Menzes holding also in feu of the white friars…' (Anderson 1889, 94). This list also refers to the Langlands croft and another piece of land both held separately in feu (Anderson 1889, 94). Moreover a note written in 1606 states: 'Farder ther may be eikit in silver dueties verie meikle if wee hade the black friers wreats and evidents be the laik qrof the Colledge wants presentlie their haill anvells We hear onlie that thes wreats should be in my lord Atholls keeping hade to Dunkell by ane freir Abercrombie.' (Anderson 1889, 108). Indeed there seems to have been a general acceptance that the friars, in Scotland, and the Whitefriars in Aberdeen had acted thus. In a charter of 1583, issued by James VI it is written: 'taking into consideration how dishonestly the friars, prebendaries and chaplains…after the abolition of the popish religion and superstition, alienated, damaged and resigned into the hands of private persons, the lands, crofts, annual rents, tenements…' (Anderson 1890, 78). This charter was issued to the Burgh of Aberdeen and granted it all of the lands of properties of the White and Black friars for the founding of a hospital.

Lastly, in Aberdeen City Archives there is a document titled: 'Inventory of the writs and Evidents belonging to the Blackfriars of Aberdeen searched and found out by the industry and travels of Sir Thomas Menzies of Cults, knight, Provost of Aberdeen, and Walter Robertson Clerk Depute of the said burgh. Which writs wer taken away and carried south be Friar Abircromby the time of the reformation of religion within the kingdom, which was in the year of God 1559, and no knowledge could be gotten of the said writs till this time-to wit, July 1617.' (Cooper 1892, 297). Certainly these two later pieces of evidence only relate to the Blackfriars but it is possible that the same thing happened with the Whitefriars. This point is dealt with more fully below. The Carmelites retained a significant link with the Menzies family in the years after 1560, and were no doubt closely associated with them in 1560. It may have been the case that the rioting Protestants were attacking certain friaries in order to make a point to Menzies, or to a wider audience. Again this would imply a level of direction amongst those attacking and 'despoiling' the friaries.

If this particular issue of why the Black and Whitefriars, but not, say, the Greyfriars, were attacked, is not entirely settled for Aberdeen, it is also true at a wider level. The friars were singled out for attack in the first wave of the Reformation. A number of arguments have been put forward to account for this: first, economic ones, that they were harsh landlords. Second, that they lacked noble protection, having drawn their ranks mostly from the 'middling sort'. Third that their work was closest to what the reformers wanted to achieve and that therefore they were attacked as a threat or pre-emptive manoeuvre. Foggie suggests that as the friars were such a close and intimate part of the urban burghal community it was thus in the interests of the reformers to ensure that the link was broken. To this end there was an attempt to stereotype the friars as hypocrites and thieves (Foggie 2003, 237).

Foggie has examined anti-friar literature in Scotland in the century prior to the Reformation. This does reveal a steady undercurrent of anti-friar feeling which, although not directly informing the attacks at the time of the Reformation, certainly formed an important part of the background to those events (Foggie 2003, chapter 9). Indeed she writes: 'It is also possible that retaining the violence within the anti-mendicant tradition allowed the parish clergy to make the transition from priest to minister without being physically attacked in the process.' (Foggie 2003, 226). To this it could be added that as the friaries were in urban areas the destruction could be seen by everyone. Whilst casting down a parish kirk was probably counter productive for the community in the long term, certainly destroying a friary could be done without incurring much in the way of long-term problems for the congregation, whilst it also made a very definite statement.

At any rate, with the exception of Gilbert Collison, the 'whole town' agreed with what Mar wanted to do: preserve the remaining material from the friars' buildings for 'godly' uses, and so a proclamation was made by the hand bell at the mercat cross. Four days later, 8 January, it was found that the proclamation had been insufficient to prevent further depredations. Mar told the council that without guards they would suffer 'inlayk mekill [th]airof w[i]thout diligent attendance…' so in this regard the council chose four people and took order to appropriate the lands owned by the friars and put the profits from them to the town's use (ACA, CR XXIII, 257). This entry in the Register is immediately followed by a protestation made by Gilbert Menzies, younger, as procurator for his father the Provost, and on behalf of Gilbert Elder, Master Thomas Menzies, Gilbert Collison, Alexander Chalmer and Simon Burnet. The protestation was against the measures put in place in the previous two statutes, stating that the downtaking of the Black and White friars place was treason (ACA, CR XXIII, 256). This was then followed by a further counter protest by the Baillies against Menzies' protestation (ACA, CR XXIII, 256-257).

This story then takes another unusual twist. The next entry in the Register, for the same, and obviously highly controversial session of the council, states: 'The said day [th]e haill toune ordains [th]e four p[er]sons quhilkis var nominat be [th]e [con]sell obefor [th]at is to say gilbert collison maister george myddiltoune gilb[er]t menzies eldar and gilbert malysoune…' who had received the silver work and ornaments from the parish kirk had to bring them back to the town so that they could be put to common uses for the burgh (ACA, CR XXIII, 257). Thus, these people who had made their protest against the applying of the friars' goods and places to the common good were ordered to bring back the silver work to be put to that very use; this was something of a provocative manoeuvre. At least there is evidence that neither side trusted each other.

Figure 9
Figure 9: Extract from Parson Gordon's map of Aberdeen, 1661, showing site of Trinitarian friary, with its garden

What is also unclear is exactly how much of the Carmelite friary itself was destroyed in early 1560? Presumably the movable goods from within were gone and the slates from the roofs of the buildings were also removed. The stones from the walls were also presumably removed. However it is tempting to suggest that some traces remained visible above the ground. Thus there is a reference, dated 1640, which refers to lands in the Green 'lyand contigue to the old Carmelite church at the back of the trinitie gairden marching with the site mark…' (Anderson 1889 238-240). This seems to suggest that some remains were still visible nearly one hundred years after the spoliation of 1560. However, if this reference actually indicates that part of the friary buildings remained above ground then it seems to be wrong to take the reference at face value when it notes that it was the remains of the Carmelite church. The Trinity garden, as seen on Parson Gordon's map (Figure 9) in fact would have bordered the east side of the Carmelite's east range. Writing in 1661 Parson Gordon noted that of the Carmelites their 'church and quholl precinct of building wer levelled with the ground, that very day the rest of the churches and convents of New Aberdeen was destroyed (Innes 1842, 16). If part of the Carmelite buildings survived, as the tack of 1640 suggests, then Gordon might well have commented on this. He only notes that the friars' kiln survived. Of the buildings of the Blackfriars, Gordon commented that their buildings were totally razed and 'that some privat citizens have raised up goodlie houses out of its roberies.' (Innes 1842, 16). It is tempting to assume that a similar fate befell the stones from the Carmelite friary.

In all, the year of the Reformation was clearly traumatic for the friars. Their very fate was being debated over by the various factions on the Burgh Council. Their buildings were being torn down, so what it seems fair to ask: what were the friars themselves doing during all of this? Unfortunately there is simply no evidence. Some of them may have tried to defend their building but no doubt Menzies would have counselled them to keep quiet and wait and see what was going to happen in the end. By no means was it certain at the time that the Reformation was going to be permanent.


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