One of the biggest land grabs in history

Well, today’s the day.

Exactly 450 years ago the Scots nobility sat down in Parliament in Edinburgh and passed a series of acts which neutered the power of the Catholic church and ushered in the Reformation. Two years ago I visited Wittenberg in Germany and spent some time in the Luther museum there. My visit convinced me that Luther was one of the great European revolutionaries. More recently, on a cycle trip round Normandy, I read Harry Reid’s Reformation. The dangerous birth of the modern world. It is a gripping and well written account of the events surrounding the momentous events in 16th century Europe that transformed power relations and society across the continent.

The one very big problem I have with Harry Reid’s analysis is his view that the central factor that made the Scottish reformation possible was the intervention of Queen Elizabeth I in sending a naval force which defeated the French forces. I agree that in practical terms that was vital and that, without it, there would certainly have been no reformation (at least not in 1560) since Scotland was in effect a colony of France. But what Reid fails to highlight in the book is the real reason why there was pressure and a military force backing the reformation in the first place (and in support of which Elizabeth’s intervention proved so critical). The reformation would never have taken place had it been left to John Knox and his followers. It was a religious revolution of course, but they simply did not have the power to push such reforms through Parliament.

The key to understanding the speed and success of the reformation is the role played by the Scots nobility in the 40 years leading up to 1560 (and up to and beyond the Union of Crowns in 1603). The reformation was made possible and indeed driven forward by Scottish nobles in order to secure for themselves the ownership of the extensive and valuable lands of the church. The reformation was the culmination of a massive land grab and it was to protect that plunder and secure their ill gotten gains that the nobility forced through the reformation. In the process they destroyed John Knox’s plans for the reformed church and ushered in the laws that form the underpinning of Scotland’s concentrated pattern of private landownership.

This topic forms a chapter in my forthcoming book, The Poor had no Lawyers. Who owns Scotland (and how they got it) to be published by Birlinn in October.