Today St Andrews is a peaceful seaside town. Yet in the sixteenth-century it was at the heart of the upheavals of the Scottish Reformation. As the seat of Scotland’s senior archbishopric and home to the nation’s oldest university, late medieval St Andrews had a vibrant Catholic religious culture. However, during the 1520s St Andrews became one of the first places in Scotland to come into contact with Lutheran ideas.
The city was a key entry point for reformist literature imported from Antwerp and other continental centres. In 1528 St Andrews’ Lutheran associations were brought into sharp focus when a young academic, Patrick Hamilton, was convicted of heresy and burnt in the town centre. (Hamilton has the dubious privilege of being the first person to be executed in Scotland for espousing Protestant beliefs.) Following Hamilton’s death there was increasing pressure within St Andrews for religious change.
In 1546 a group of Protestant lairds murdered the archbishop, Cardinal David Beaton, and then took control of St Andrews Castle for over a year, only being removed as a result of bombardment by a naval force sent from France. During the protracted siege of St Andrews Castle there was substantial communication between the Protestants in the castle and the local citizens, and at one stage Catholics and Protestants took turns preaching in the city’s main parish church of Holy Trinity, each putting forward the merits of their interpretation of Christianity.
One of the advocates on the Protestant side was John Knox, who made his first ever public sermon at Holy Trinity. The 1550s saw Catholicism reasserting its authority in St Andrews. However, many Catholic clergy worked for changes within the church, and during this time the archbishop of St Andrews, John Hamilton, authorized the publication of a vernacular catechism which incorporated reformist ideas into a broadly Catholic framework. Hamilton’s attempts at compromise were not to last, though, as in the summer of 1559 Scotland was plunged into religious warfare.
In June 1559 John Knox and the Protestant Lords of the Congregation took control of St Andrews and established Calvinist worship within the city. St Andrews rapidly became the headquarters of the Protestant cause within Scotland, and acquired a firmly Reformed identity – so much so, that in 1564 the elders of the local consistory boasted that St Andrews possessed “ane perfyt reformed kyrk”.
— Dr Elizabeth Rhodes