The Sins Of Cardinal David Beaton Lead To Revolt In Scotland

The Strange Story of the Scottish Cardinal

by Beverly De Soto Stevens

At the beginning of the 16th century Scotland was a Catholic country. And David Beaton was a Catholic family man, of sorts. That is to say he had a mistress, and eight children. He was also Cardinal of the Scottish Catholic Church.

DAVID BEATON was Scotland’s last Cardinal – and a stranger story was never told.

A 16th Century ‘Brangelina’ Couple
The Cardinal’s mistress was a wealthy aristocrat; Marion Ogilvy was the youngest daughter of Lord James Ogilvy. By today’s standards, you might call them a sort of 16th century ‘Brangelina’ couple, right down to the huge castle, Melgund, which became Marion’s home.


In the new tower they built, a chamber still shows their heraldry ostentatiously displayed over its windows. David and Marion had their brood, it seems, before Beaton was ordained a priest – which happened at the same time he was made Bishop of Mirepoix, in France. Clearly, Beaton’s vocation was to power.

Historians disagree as to how widespread ‘marriages’ such as Beaton’s were, but one thing is certain: ordinary Scots deplored the double standard by which wealthy, powerful prelates punished those who advocated the marriage of the clergy – all the time living in open concubinage like Beaton.

Bound To a Stake And Publicly Burnt To Death
But the Cardinal’s mistress was just the tip of the iceberg. In fact, any Catholic who has wondered where the idea originated that the Protestant Reformation was in response to widespread Church ‘corruption’ needs to know the story of David Beaton.

Beaton’s story is the story of the Scottish Reformation, and the beginning of the thousands of Protestant sects it has spawned. For it was this wealthy, ambitious son of landed gentry, educated at St Andrews and Paris, who ignited a devastating fire that swept through Scotland.

This fire, in fact, was literally started at the feet of a young man whom Beaton ordered to be bound to a stake and burnt to death at Scotland’s St Andrews University.

Who was Patrick Hamilton?
Today, there is a spot on the pavement at St Andrews which students still take elaborate pains to avoid, as legend says a ‘curse’ still hovers over it. This is where the 24 year old nobleman Patrick Hamilton died – the first Protestant martyr whose horrific death at Beaton’s orders radicalized a nation.

Patrick hamilton
THE CURSE OF PATRICK HAMILTON hovers over this spot at St. Andrews University, where Cardinal Beaton’s victim’s agony spurred a religious revolution.

Patrick Hamilton had been greatly taken by Lutheran ideology while at the German universities of Wittenberg and Marburg.(1) He’d returned to Scotland, spreading his message with the use of ‘Patrick’s Places,’ a short pamphlet about justification by faith.(2)

Hamilton’s execution only served to increase Scots’ indignation at the clerical corruption, and interest in the new ideas, however. Indeed, Beaton was warned against any further such public executions as “the reek [smoke] of Maister Patrik Hammyltoun has infected as many as it blew upon“. The warning went unheeded, and further prosecutions and executions followed.

The Cardinal and the King
Politically, Cardinal Beaton was a busy man. His main concern was to support the Franco-Scottish alliance, and oppose the English who were agitating for Protestant reform in Scotland.

Beaton feared that Scotland’s James V might follow Henry VIII’s tragic Dissolution of the Monasteries. However, James V had no such intentions. In fact, relations became quite strained between the Scottish king and his uncle, Henry VIII. James knew Henry’s plan was to detach Scotland from its allegiance to the Holy See and bring it into subjection to himself. Henry sent agitators, spies and two successive embassies to Scotland to urge James to follow him in renouncing the authority of the Pope. King James declined to be drawn into Henry’s plans.

However, Henry’s damage was done. By 1541 the Scottish Parliament had to pass legislation protecting the honor of the Mass, prayer to the Virgin Mary, images of the saints, and the authority of the Pope. Private meetings of ‘heretics where there errors are spread’ were prohibited, informers rewarded, and Protestant sympathizers barred from royal office.

In this heated atmosphere, hostilities broke out between the two kingdoms in 1542. The Cardinal was blamed by many for the war with England that led to the Scottish defeat at Solway Moss in November.

John Knox’s Revenge

THE WINDOW THAT THE CARDINAL WAS HUNG OUT OF: Four years later, Beaton was murdered in cold blood at St Andrews Castle, his mutilated corpse hung outside his window by his bedclothes.


BUT KNOX DIDN’T STOP THERE: St Andrews Cathedral was once the glory of Scottish Catholicism. John Knox incited a mob to three days of pillage, looting and destruction in the great old church.

The mob which killed the Cardinal and desecrated St Andrews ancient Cathedral was led by a Catholic priest named John Knox. (2) Knox was no gentleman; he crowed that Marion barely escaped through a subterranean passage ‘by the privy postern’ before it was overwhelmed by Beaton’s enemies – led by Knox himself.

At this time, Scotland was ruled by a regent, the French Catholic Mary de Guise. She called on her countrymen for help and, in 1547 French troops re-captured the castle. Knox and his fellow Protestants were taken to France as galley slaves.

Two years later, the English – recognizing Knox’s value as an agitator — negotiated for his release. Knox could not go back to Scotland immediately so he went to Berwick, a small town on the Scottish border. Here he worked as a minister until 1553 when Queen Mary came to the English throne.

Mary declared England a Catholic country and Knox was forced to escape to Europe, eventually arriving in Geneva. It was there that he met John Calvin, the Frenchman who had turned that Swiss city into a stern Puritan theocratic state. Knox converted again, this time to Calvin’s religion, the’ Reformed Protestant’ Church or ‘Presbyterian’ Church.

Once a Catholic Church

ONCE A CATHOLIC CHURCH, like almost all of the buildings of the Church of Scotland (Presbyterians). Sadly, many are today disused or converted to non-sacred use in ‘post-Christian’ Scotland.

A Vain Attempt to Reform the Scottish Catholic Church
Meanwhile, back in Scotland, Archbishop John Hamilton, David Beaton’s successor, tried his best to squarely address the unrest. His series of Scottish councils (1549–59) — modelled on the Council of Trent — blamed the advance of the Protestant heresies on “the corruption of morals and the profane lewdness of life in churchmen of all ranks, together with crass ignorance of literature and of the liberal arts“.

He attempted to eliminate concubinage (3), clerical pluralism(4), and non-residence (5) and to prohibit unqualified persons from holding church offices. Further, he urged the clergy to scriptural reflection and instructed bishops and priests to preach at least four times a year. Monks were to be sent to university, and theologians appointed for each monastery, college and cathedral.

However, by 1552 it was clear that he’d accomplished little. Attendance at Mass was still sparse and Hamilton decried that “the inferior clergy of this realm and the prelates have not, for the most part, attained such proficiency in the knowledge of the Holy Scriptures as to be able by their own efforts rightly to instruct the people in the catholic faith and other things necessary to salvation or to convert the erring”.

His reform was pitifully too little, too late.

The End of Scottish Catholicism
In 1559, the English once more arranged to send their valuable agitator Knox to Scotland. Under Knox’s leadership, the monasteries were attacked and despoiled, with the loot given to cooperating noblemen.

Some monks and nuns were ‘bought off’ with pensions. Some Dominicans fled to the Catholic countries; others set themselves up as ministers for Knox’s new religion, married and lived long and comfortable lives. Only in the Highlands did the Scottish clans hold onto the old Faith in secret.

Presbyterianism was made Scotland’s state religion in 1560. John Knox wrote ‘The History of the Reformation in Scotland’ – an incredibly influential work which has since become the lens through which these events are seen by Protestant historians.

The Strange Story of Scotland's Last Cardinal
JOHN KNOX’S VERSION OF EVENTS is treated with professional respect at Princeton University, where this original copy is maintained.

Indeed, Knox ruled the Presbyterian Church as a kind of Scottish ‘Pope’ until his death in 1572.

The Cardinal’s Legacy
As for the Cardinal’s legacy, his mistress Marion married a nobleman within a year of his death. She made their castle, Melglund, a center for the Catholic supporters of Mary, Queen of Scots.

Their oldest surviving son, however, followed his father’s instinct for power. David the younger became a Protestant, and later Master of the Household to King James I of England – for whom the famous Anglican ‘King James Bible’ was named.

empty niches

EMPTY NICHES ONCE HELD STATUES OF SAINTS at the entrance to St Andrew’s University, founded by the Catholic Church in 1413.


(1) Martin Luther preached that people can attain heaven through faith alone; good works were not necessary.
(2) Knox had converted to one form of Protestantism in 1540, after Patrick Hamilton was burnt at the stake by order of the Cardinal.
(3) Arrangements by which priests or monks lived with concubines; ie, mistresses whose maintenance came from the Church.
(4) Dispensation enabling a cleric to hold several ecclesiastical benefices at the same time, thus increasing his income significantly.
(5) Clerics who held title to offices but who did not live or work there; effectively, these were financial arrangements only.


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