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Reference group
Lords of the congregation (act. 1557–1560) were a group of Scottish nobles who mounted a successful rebellion against Mary of Guise, regent of Scotland during the minority of her daughter, Mary, queen of Scots, and also, through her marriage to François II, queen of France. Following the regent's death on 11 June 1560 the lords took control of the government of the kingdom and pushed reformist measures through parliament, thereby becoming responsible for the legal establishment of protestantism within Scotland.

The formation of the lords of the congregation has been associated with the late medieval Scottish practice of banding or bonding, the signing of an agreement of mutual protection and association, in this case to press for reform of the church along protestant lines. The first band on 3 December 1557, with its use of the language of the ‘congregation’, was identified by the early seventeenth-century presbyterian historian David Calderwood as the beginning of their movement. The first open declaration of support for the protestant cause, it was signed by Archibald Campbell, fourth earl of Argyll, Alexander Cunningham, fourth earl of Glencairn, James Douglas, fourth earl of Morton, Archibald Campbell, Lord Lorne (fifth earl of Argyll from 1558), and Lord John Erskine, later seventeenth or first earl of Mar, but not—as mistakenly reported—by John Erskine of Dun, though he was a supporter of the band. With the exception of Lord John Erskine, who as custodian of Edinburgh Castle adopted a neutral stance, these men emerged two years later at the head of the congregation. A much larger group lay behind them, although their signatures have not survived or were not explicitly appended to the band. They were drawn from the ranks of the Scottish lairds, men like Robert Campbell of Kinzeancleuch and James Sandilands of Calder, and of burgh magistrates, for instance Adam Fullarton of Edinburgh and James Halyburton of Dundee, who together represented the core of the underground protestant movement of the late 1550s, the geographical strength of which lay above all in Ayrshire, Angus and the Mearns, Fife, and the Lothians.

This movement came into the open in 1559, with the outbreak of the ‘wars of the congregation’ following an iconoclastic riot in Perth on 11 May, itself incited by a sermon by John Knox, the leading spokesman for radical religious reform in Scotland. Efforts to negotiate a compromise having failed, an armed confrontation between the regent and those who now (in further bands of 31 May and 1 August 1559) called themselves the lords of the congregation escalated into full-scale rebellion. Declaring they were acting on behalf of the Scottish ‘commonweal’, the congregation suspended the regent on 21 October 1559. In the subsequent fighting the regent's professional French forces proved more than a match for the lords, who found it difficult to keep their levies in the field for extended periods, and who by the end of 1559 had been forced by increasing military pressure to retreat to their eastern and western bases. However, English intervention and French weakness, caused by domestic problems, meant that in 1560 substantial military aid came to the congregation, but not to the regent, and the balance of power shifted decisively in favour of the lords. Without gaining a clear-cut military victory, the lords still won the war.

The leadership and composition of the lords of the congregation altered and expanded at different stages during the wars. In 1559 in particular their numbers grew substantially, with the signatories to the first band being joined by Lord James Stewart (first earl of Moray from 1562), Andrew Leslie, fifth earl of Rothes, Patrick Lindsay, subsequently sixth Lord Lindsay of the Byres, and other committed protestants, among whom William Kirkcaldy of Grange stood out for his military expertise. The daring escape from France of James Hamilton, third earl of Arran, added a third young aristocrat, alongside Argyll and Lord James, to the leadership. Arran's arrival in Scotland brought his father, the heir-presumptive to the Scottish throne, James Hamilton, duke of Châtelherault, into the congregation, thus providing a fig-leaf of legitimacy to a rebellion against the crown.

Having started as a movement essentially inspired by religion, the congregation expanded to include those who supported an English alliance, those who responded to the appeal to the ‘commonwealth’, and those who belatedly joined the winning side. Among those who joined it around this time were Sir John Bellenden of Auchnoul and Robert Melville, who had both hitherto been in the service of Mary of Guise. Kin ties and regional politics played a decisive part in the composition of the ‘party of revolution’ in 1559–60. Andrew Stewart, second Lord Ochiltree, who followed the earl of Glencairn into the ranks of the congregation in June 1559, had long had protestant sympathies. James Ogilvy, fifth Lord Ogilvy, who joined the lords at the same time, retained distinctly traditional leanings to the end of his life, when he was buried with full Catholic rites, but was still followed into the ranks of the reformers by four Ogilvy lairds. By the time the ‘last band at Leith’ was signed on 27 April 1560 few Scots peers were opposed to the congregation, whose ranks now included George Gordon, fourth earl of Huntly, who was a prominent Catholic, the border chieftain Sir Walter Ker of Cessford, and Robert Stewart, first earl of Orkney, who had changed sides twice. James Hepburn, fourth earl of Bothwell, was exceptional in remaining loyal to the queen regent, despite his protestant beliefs.

In addition to the nobility and leading burgesses, the lords of the congregation also included the men who formed the clerical leadership of Scotland's new reformed kirk. Knox and John Willock acted as army chaplains to the lords based in the east and west of the country. On 29 April 1560 the ‘six Johns’ (Knox, Erskine of Dun, John Winram, John Rutherford, John Spottiswood, and John Row) were appointed by the lords to draw up the Confession of Faith and the First Book of Discipline, the documents which laid the foundations for the new kirk.

The initial demands made by the lords when they rebelled were religious but they soon broadened their programme to appeal to their fellow Scots to resist the French troops and policies of the regent. The lords also sought help from south of the border, using contacts with William Cecil, first Baron Burghley, to present a case to Elizabeth I of England. The necessary assistance was eventually forthcoming, agreed upon in the treaty of Berwick (22 February 1560), negotiated by Lord James Stewart, Patrick Ruthven, third Lord Ruthven, John Maxwell, fourth Lord Herries of Terregles, William Maitland of Lethington, John Wishart of Pittarro, and Henry Balnaves. The arrival of the English fleet led by Admiral William Winter in the winter of 1559–60 saved the congregation's forces from defeat by the regent's French troops; William Douglas, sixth earl of Morton, later recalled how England's intervention caused ‘a begynning of the reconciliatioun amang us’. In April an English army joined the lords as allies, and although they failed to storm Leith, held securely by its French garrison, the wars ended in June 1560 after the death of Mary of Guise, which opened the way for French and English diplomats to conclude the treaty of Edinburgh on 6 July. A range of concessions to their subjects was made by François and Mary in their capacity of king and queen of Scots, tacitly acknowledging that the lords were now running the kingdom. A parliament was called in August that adopted the protestant confession of faith and passed acts abolishing the jurisdiction of the papacy and making illegal the celebration of the mass according to Roman Catholic rites.

Once the ‘party of revolution’ had succeeded in taking effective control of the government, it began to disintegrate. The death of François II in December 1560 and the expected return to Scotland of Queen Mary (she arrived at Leith on 19 August 1561) confirmed the disappearance of the lords of the congregation as a cohesive political group. An attempt in 1565 to revive the broad coalition and unity of purpose of the lords in a rebellion against Mary's marriage to Henry Stewart, Lord Darnley, was a dismal failure. During the civil war of 1567–73, former lords of the congregation were to be found on both sides; Robert Boyd, fifth Lord Boyd, for instance, though a staunch protestant who had joined the lords in 1559, none the less remained loyal to Mary until the early 1570s.

Knox's History of the Reformation was begun in 1559–60 as a written justification of the lords' rebellion and contained a detailed account of the wars. In his final and much revised version of the History Knox presented the lords of the congregation in a rosy light, exaggerating their religious motivation and unity of purpose and contrasting their commitment with subsequent lack of support from the Scottish nobility for his vision of the protestant cause. This interpretation entered presbyterian historiography and in the following century the lords became firmly linked to the covenanting movement, with the bands they made being seen as the starting point for a genealogy of compacts that provided the covenanters with historical precedents. During the nineteenth century the fascination with Mary, queen of Scots, and with the Scottish reformation revived interest in the lords of the congregation and spawned romantic historical paintings, such as Sir David Wilkie's portrayal of Knox's sermon in St Andrews (exh. RA, 1832; Tate collection) and Alexander Chisholm's The Lords of the Congregation Taking the Oath of the Covenant (exh. 1843). Such pictures gave visible form to the myth that the lords of the congregation were early covenanting heroes, or even democratic revolutionaries.

Jane E. A. Dawson


CSP Scot., 1547–81 · John Knox's History of the Reformation in Scotland, ed. W. C. Dickinson, 2 vols. (1949) · D. Calderwood, The history of the Kirk of Scotland, ed. T. Thomson and D. Laing, 8 vols., Wodrow Society, 7 (1842–9), vol. 1 · The Scottish correspondence of Mary of Lorraine, ed. A. I. Cameron, Scottish History Society, 3rd ser., 10 (1927) · G. Dickinson, ed., Two missions of Jacques de la Brosse, Scottish History Society, 3rd ser., 36 (1946) · The records of the parliaments of Scotland to 1707, www.rps.ac.uk, accessed on 24 April 2009 · G. Donaldson, All the queen's men: power and politics in Mary Stewart's Scotland (1983) · M. H. B. Sanderson, Ayrshire and the Reformation, new edn (1997) · P. E. Ritchie, Mary of Guise in Scotland, 1548–1560: a political career (2002) · J. E. A. Dawson, The politics of religion in the age of Mary, queen of Scots: the earl of Argyll and the struggle for Britain and Ireland (2002) · A. Ryrie, The origins of the Scottish Reformation (2006) · J. Wormald, Lords and men in Scotland: bonds of manrent, 1442–1603 (1985)