Facing the Rascal Multitude: John Knox, May 11th, and Perth’s little-known revolution

St John’s Kirk, Perth, site of John Knox’s sermon against idolatry on May 11, 1559 (photo by author)

Today is May 11, a date that has considerable historical significance for the city of Perth in Scotland. Indeed, it is also a very important day for Scotland too.

On this day in 1559, a large crowd went on a two-day rampage through the city, in particular emptying and then pulling down four ancient monasteries and religious houses. They were fired up by the words of the reformist preacher, John Knox, himself very recently returned to Scotland from exile in John Calvin’s Geneva. It is widely held that the sermon Knox preached in the church of St John in the centre of Perth on the morning of 11 May was the prime motivation for the ensuing events.

This riotous rampage was not random.

It was directed against the sites of the international social elite of the time. These were the wealthy religious orders of the dominant (Catholic) Church: the Dominicans (Blackfriars), Franciscans (Greyfriars), Carmelites (Whitefriars), and Carthusians.

These religious organisations, that were spread through many different countries, were large-scale landowners and politically well connected. They oiled the machinery of many European governments, contributed in large part to the elitist universities, and connected the ruling powers of the rival (and often warring) states of Catholic Christendom.

But these religious orders were also very out of touch with the societies in which they worked and preached, and were almost universally despised by the masses in Scotland. In many respects they were the 1 percent, bankers, and tax avoiders of the sixteenth century.

And so, after several years of political and religious tension in Scotland, the return of John Knox to his home country proved to be the spark that ignited wild fires of resentment against the Church, and in particular the representatives of the Church in these religious houses.


John Knox’s account

According to Knox’s own later account of the events of 11 May 1559, the riots began in St John’s Kirk, when resentment against one of the priests led to the crowd turning and destroying the church’s altars, ‘the tabernacle and all the other monuments of idolatory’. Thus, according to Knox, when what was happening in St John’s became known about through the town:

‘… the whole multitude came together, not the gentlemen or those that were earnest professors [of the faith], but the rascal multitude.
‘Finding nothing to do in that church, these ran without deliberation to the Grey and Black Friars, and, notwithstanding that these monasteries had within them very strong guards for their defence, their gates were forthwith burst open. Idolatry was the occasion of the first outburst, but thereafter the common people began to look for spoil.’
(Knox, History of the Reformation in Scotland, p.149–50)

Such spoil or plunder was indeed what this riotous crowd found in the places they went on to attack. Knox singled out the Franciscans, in particular, as living in luxurious wealth:

‘In very deed, the Grey Friars [house] was so well provided that unless honest men had seen it, we would have feared to report what provision they had. Their sheets, blankets, beds, and coverlets were such that no Earl in Scotland had better…’ (p.150)

This contrasted a little with other religious houses, such as the Dominicans, which Knox noted did not have ‘a like abundance’, although he also said ‘and yet there was more than became men professing poverty’.

Within a short time, the contents of these wealthy religious houses were taken away by the crowd. One could call it a looting spree, alongside wholesale destruction of the main part of each of the buildings:

‘The poor were permitted to take the spoil; but no honest man was enriched by the value of a groat. For the preachers had before threatened all men, that for covetousness sake none should put their hand to such a Reformation. …
‘So had men’s consciences before been beaten with the Word, that they had no respect to their own particular profit, but only to abolish idolatry, and the places and monuments thereof.
‘In this they were so busy and so laborious that, within two days, these three great places, monuments of idolatry, to wit, the monasteries of the Grey and Black thieves and that of the Charterhouse monks (a building of a wondrous cost and greatness) were so destroyed that only the walls remained.’

The Scottish revolution/reformation

This Reformation (and destruction) of the kirks of Perth was the start of a revolution in Scotland. The reformers went on to empty and dismantle religious houses across many towns and cities of Scotland, including Cupar, St Andrews, Aberdeen, Stirling, and Edinburgh.

In many respects this was one of many conflicts in Scotland between the nobility and the current ruler (in this case, the Queen Regent, Marie of Guise, widow of King James V). But it was very different, inasmuch as it took on a much greater ideological and political significance for what was achieved by those who led the conflict.

Within just over a year, Marie was gone, and the Catholic order was replaced by the Protestantism of the reformers.

It was a transformation of Scottish society that created widespread social reform on the basis of religion — including new ways of providing for the poor and needy (such as the creation of new hospitals and poor houses), and a programme of education to encourage universal literacy (for the sake of enabling all people to read the English language Bible).

The revolution of the Scottish Protestant Reformation was to have later echoes in the struggles of the Civil War (the War of the Three Kingdoms) in the seventeenth century, that saw King Charles I deposed by religiously inspired reformers. Indeed, it is also one of the historical precedents of the American Revolutionary War against the British in the 1770s.

It was seen as the righteous struggle of the downtrodden against an unjust and greedy political class.

In fact, the Scottish Protestant Reformation was many things as well as this. It was inspired by preachers such as John Knox and others (such as Paul Methuen), but it was carried forward — and became politically successful — because many in the Scottish nobility took advantage of the upsurge of anti-Church sentiment. These ‘Lords of the Congregation’, such as James Stewart and James Douglas, Earl of Morton, astutely read their personal political advantage if they sided with the reformers rather than the traditionalist Catholics, even if that did put them in direct conflict with the monarchy (the Queen Regent).

And the other significant dimension of this revolution was that it played out wider international conflicts in the context of Scotland. The power of the monarchy was largely supported by the French Catholic powers, the under-age Queen (Mary Stewart, famously known as ‘Mary, Queen of Scots’) was at this point in France, married to the French Dauphin and expecting to become Queen of France one day. Her French mother, Marie of Guise, was the Queen Regent in Scotland, ruling in her place — at least until Queen Mary came of age. French money and troops helped to maintain order and stability, and it was against French troops that the reformers found themselves fighting.

On the other hand, the English monarchy had recently swung back to Protestantism — with the accession of Queen Elizabeth in late 1558 — and it was a series of English interventions that enabled the reformers to carry through and win the revolution that they started. This came in the form of covert help and also through direct and open interventions. Elizabeth (and her advisors) clearly wished to have a Protestant Scottish political system, that was as free as possible from French Catholic influence. In many respects, this set the stage for the later chaos that ensued with the return to Scotland (and eventual abdication) of Queen Mary a few years later.

And so within this wider context, we can return again to this large group of angry people who rampaged through the streets of Perth on 11 May 1559. This crowd, this mob, pulled down large religious houses (chapels, cloisters, and chapter houses), they destroyed the tombs of former monarchs (such as James I and Margaret Tudor), and they took what they could from the wealth and luxury of monks and friars.

Knox used the phrase ‘rascal multitude’ to describe this mob. He initially talked of them as the ‘whole multitude’ coming together, but distinguished them from the ‘gentlemen’ (the wealthy, educated, land owners) and also the ‘earnest professors’ (i.e., those who were at the forefront of preaching and professing the new Protestant religion).

And we should be careful to note that this large crowd were not necessarily the people of Perth (or not only them). There are contemporary accounts that a large group numbering several thousand followed Knox and the other reformists to Perth, coming from Dundee and the east coast of Scotland. This was not an army, it was not disciplined. It was a group of supporters, perhaps loyal to their leaders and to the idea of reformation. They were a large group angry with the privilege and wealth of the church and its elitist organisations.


The Rascal Multitude

In sum, this ‘rascal multitude’ were a disgruntled body on the rampage.

They were the ‘poorly educated’ (to revisit one of Donald Trump’s very targeted phrases), the angry mob, the ‘people’ or the ‘workers’, or the ‘common folk’.

There have been many ways, of course, in which such an uncontrolled group have been described and labelled through history.

Sometimes, such a rascal multitude becomes the object of scorn — particularly by the ruling powers and the wealthy. They could easily be described by terms such as ‘hooligans’, ‘rioters’, and even ‘looters’. They bring to mind the riots of recent and longer history, such as in Toxteth, Brixton, and Broadwater Farm in the 1980s, or the London riots in 2011.

But similar crowds in other contexts have been seen as initiators of positive change, when the shared power they have literally taken into their own hands has succeeded. These are the instigators of revolutions by the masses, such as the French Revolution, the Boston Tea Party, the mass actions that brought about de-colonisation in India, the power of the Civil Rights movement at the Selma marches, the conflict harnessed by Mandela and the ANC that led to the dismantling of apartheid and peaceful change in South Africa. Others might point to Tahrir Square in Cairo and the Arab Spring, or even the Iranian Revolution of 1979.

In short, the rascal multitude is no more and no less than the simple, terrifying manifestation of ‘people power’ that can be a force for both good and bad (sometimes both together). It can lead to forms of social justice or otherwise to the tyranny of an angry (and uneducated) majority.

We are probably now more used to seeing it work through the ballot box rather than on the streets. It is what has been so frightening about the rise and success so far of Donald Trump in the 2016 US Presidential campaign.

Noam Chomsky has shown a fondness for the phrase ‘rascal multitude’. He has used it evoke ironically the historical usage of the term, as a reference by those in power for those they rule. In this sense, the ‘rascal multitude’ is for Chomsky a way of talking about the population beyond the ruling powers — the people who are preached at and manipulated by the modern state. These are the people who those in power need to govern, and who are themselves alienated and ignored.

In Scotland in 1559, we can recognise the ambiguous role that this body of revolutionaries had — this rascal multitude were actively resisting those in power, fighting for themselves, but were also very much caught up in others’ struggles.

Indeed, there were multiple levels of struggle, including between the (insurgent) Lords of Congregation and the Queen Regent, between the English and the French, and between Protestant reformers and the embedded power of Catholic Church. The rascal multitude in Perth played their part in each of these struggles, which in many respects were not their own.

However, in a very recent essay, Chomsky has suggested that world public opinion (the expressed views of the rascal multitude) is in itself a global superpower, holding in check the actions of the dominant US power. He highlights in particular the tensions between the need to mobilise the power of public opinion and the problems it can create for those in power:

‘The rising opposition to the neoliberal assault highlights another crucial aspect of the standard convention: it sets aside the public, which often fails to accept the approved role of “spectators” (rather than “participants”) assigned to it in liberal democratic theory.
‘Such disobedience has always been of concern to the dominant classes. Just keeping to American history, George Washington regarded the common people who formed the militias that he was to command as “an exceedingly dirty and nasty people [evincing] an unaccountable kind of stupidity in the lower class of these people”.’

Underneath this, though, there is a darker side to the rascal multitude. It is now fashionable to decry the supporters of Donald Trump, perhaps in the same way as Washington put down the common people of his militias. Whether Trump supporters deserve our scorn is beside the point — in expressing their opinions they are their own form of rascal multitude, exercising their limited power in ways that conflict with the interests of others (and in many respects their own interests).

But darker further is the sheer existence of a rascal multitude that lies just beneath the surface of the world in which we live today. The rascal multitude also make themselves known in internet trolling, MRA (men’s rights activism), institutional, populist, and nativist racism, and the prevalence of rape culture.

The rascal multitude can often be a very dangerous beast.


May 11, 1559

In Perth in May 1559, the ‘rascal multitude’ certainly rampaged and caused significant destruction. Four building complexes were destroyed, their communities were driven out, and their possessions largely taken (although in all cases the monks and friars were allowed to take what they could carry).

As Knox said, no ‘honest men’ were ‘enriched by a single groat’.

However, Knox did not comment on those dishonest members of the crowd who almost certainly benefited from the looting. Indeed, Knox’s account was written as propaganda, it was meant as a representation of the good things (for him) of what happened during the reformation in Scotland.

Despite this destruction, this was not (at this point) a bloody revolution. There are no accounts of deaths or even injuries during the two days of rioting. The rascal multitude were largely peaceful in their treatment of the friars and monks.

Some of the crowd most likely had reasons to wish for revenge, to settle old scores — after all, tensions in Perth between the Franciscans (in particular) and some of the (particularly artisan) townspeople had resulted in the execution in 1544 of the six ‘Perth martyrs’ for various religious offences (interrupting sermons, mocking priests, failing to call on the name of the Virgin Mary during childbirth). The Greyfriars were the first religious house to be attacked, but the crowd, the rascal multitude, destroyed only property not the people themselves.

In most social contexts, particularly during times of change and stress, such scores are often settled if the opportunity is given. A rioting (rascal) multitude is the perfect such opportunity. But this does not appear to have been an issue at this time, at least.

Although again we must caution that we rely on the account given by Knox, an outsider to the situation in most respects, and the one person with the greatest interest in presenting us with a ‘velvet’, peaceful revolution.

And in this context, we can ask in particular what did he mean by labelling the agents of this uprising as the ‘rascal multitude’. The term conveys both populist (and positive) fervour, alongside the negative, destructive, and uncontrolled power that is a fearful thing for political and religious leaders.

In all likelihood, Knox and the Lords of the Congregation did not intend their velvet Protestant reformation to start in this way. In the end, they were successful, and so their version of history tells us it came about because of the ‘rascal multitude’ rather than a mindless mob. But for anyone in power, such a ‘rascal multitude’ is a dangerous beast to try to tame.


In one final footnote to this reflection on the Perth riots of May 1559, one of the lesser known casualties of these events was David Cameron.

According to the records of the Blackfriars (Dominican) monastery in Perth at the time of the Protestant Reformation, this was the name of the prior. That is, David Cameron OP. In the days following 11 May, Cameron saw his religious house plundered and destroyed, leaving him without a home and occupation in a new Scotland, where his religion and way of life were no longer respected or sustained.

Some of the friars from the religious houses moved with the times (and politics) and embraced the new religion of Knox, becoming preachers and ministers in the new kirk. Others retained their old ways, and moved to less wealthy religious communities in Scotland — or left the country to remain in their order in more supportive (Catholic) countries.

However, David Cameron appears to have disappeared without a trace in the wake of the revolution of 11 May.

With some irony, we can say perhaps that the rascal multitude does give us some hope.


Malory Nye is an academic and writer who teaches at the University of Glasgow in Scotland. He can be found on Twitter (@malorynye) and on his website, malorynye.com.

He produces two podcasts: Religion Bites and History’s Ink.

Malory Nye is also the author of the books Religion the Basics (2008) and There Shall be an Independent Scotland (2015).


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