EDINBURGH EXPERT WALKING TOURS - BLOG
History as we know it is made up of seemingly small moments of drama and action which have unintentionally massive consequences.
One such example occurred in Edinburgh on 23 July 1637, when an Edinburgh woman accidentally started a war between Scotland, England and Ireland, and set in motion a chain of events which wouldn't be fully settled until nearly thirty years later...
'Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned,' as the somewhat sexist proverb has it, and Jenny Geddes was one such woman. We can't know what was going on her head as she took her seat in St Giles' Cathedral that Sunday morning in July 1637 - doubtless she couldn't possibly have known that she was on the brink of almost single-handedly bringing the British Isles to civil war, in a conflict which would shape the political and military landscape of the nation for generations to come.
In one surging moment of outrage during the service, as the historical record has it, Geddes got to her feet and picked up the small three-legged stool upon which she had been sitting. "Daur ye say Mass in ma lug?" she shouted, as she hurled the stool at the head of the minister.
It was an explosive moment of rebellion which would have wide-ranging consequences for the whole of the British Isles.
In modern English, Geddes's accusation - 'dare you say Mass in my ear?' - had its roots in events from a number of years earlier, at the Scottish coronation of King Charles I at St Giles' Cathedral in 1633. Suffering from his adherence to the belief that as monarch he was directly appointed by God, known as the 'divine right of kings', Charles had insisted on an Anglican service for his coronation.
But since the Reformation in Scotland over sixty years previously, the Church of Scotland had taken a different path from the Anglican church, and saw its role in the joining of its congregants to God in a different way. Services had been overhauled and changed from the traditional Catholic-style Mass, and a new structure had been set up within the Scottish church that removed many of the power hierarchies that that the Church of England retained.
Regardless of these major differences which had evolved, Charles I sought to impose the Anglican book of Common Prayer on the Scottish church, against the wishes of many in the Scottish church who saw this as an attempt by an English king to impose his will on a church he didn't belong to.
The first time his authorised book of Common Prayer was to be read publicly at a service in Scotland was in St Giles', on 23 July 1637, and Jenny Geddes was one of many among the congregants that morning who resented the interference of the king in their experience of religious worship. Her outcry (accompanied by a deftly aimed wooden stool) was a passionate rejection of a liturgical form that she didn't recognise or adhere to.
Certainly the scene in St Giles' that morning would have been one of startling violence as a riot broke out amongst the congregation, and Jenny and a number of other protesters were thrown out of the church, taking their cause onto the streets of Edinburgh.
News of the uprising in Edinburgh led to similar riots breaking out in towns and cities across Scotland, and when the king refused to allow the Scottish church to maintain its own form of worship (distinct from the Anglican service) the people of Scotland sought to protect their interests by drawing up the National Covenant, a document that sought to enshrine the rights of Scotland to its own church, and one that operated distinct from the control of the king.
The National Convenant was signed at Greyfriars Kirkyard in Edinburgh in 1638, and copies of the document were circulated across Scotland, as a powerful and passionate declaration of the Scottish church's independence from the English monarch.
Charles I resorted to military force to impose his will on the Scottish church, leading to the so-called Bishops' Wars of 1639 and 1640, establishing a conflict between the authorities of Scotland, England and (by association) Ireland, known as the War of the Three Kingdoms. The following years led to the turbulence and trauma of the English Civil War, which would have a major impact on the nation - in 1649 Charles I executed for treason and the Puritan leader Oliver Cromwell installed himself as Lord Protector (king in all but name) of Great Britain.
So it may be a stretch to suggest Jenny Geddes bore responsibility for all of the historical events which followed her outburst in St Giles', but certainly by speaking out against what she saw as an injustice she helped to foment Scotland's reputation for standing up for itself. And she became a minor celebrity in her own time - and the poet Robert Burns was so enamoured with her that he named his horse Jenny Geddes in her honour!
On such small moments great history turns, and often we forget (perhaps) that it can still be individuals whose actions or presence can lead to major historical changes. And whilst the story of the English Civil War is often told through the kings and military leaders who were involved, it's worthwhile remembering the disaffected Scotswoman whose outrage started it all.
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