Fighting faith – St. Giles Cathedral Edinburgh

If you are looking to find a bit of the Scottish fervor, visit the memorial to the fiery Jenny Geddes at St. Giles Cathedral. Originally called St. Giles Kirk, this is the sight of many of the Scots’ religious and political movements. During the union of England and Scotland under Charles I, the king tried […]

If you are looking to find a bit of the Scottish fervor, visit the memorial to the fiery Jenny Geddes at St. Giles Cathedral. Originally called St. Giles Kirk, this is the sight of many of the Scots’ religious and political movements. During the union of England and Scotland under Charles I, the king tried to merge the two countries by introducing his Anglican Church of England into an increasingly puritanical Scotland. In 1637, he had a Book of Common Prayer published that reflected these Anglican beliefs. The new book was introduced in St. Giles in July 1637, and it was in this service that the legendary Jenny Geddes sparked the resistance that would burn throughout Scotland for nearly 25 years.

As the Dean of Edinburgh, James Hanna, read from the book, an enraged Jenny Geddes stood in the middle of the service and with as much force as she could muster, hurled her stool at him, shouting, “Deil colic the wame o’ ye, fause thief; daur ye say Mass in me lug?” The translation speaks to the fervent opposition to the Catholic-like practices of the Church of England: “Devil cause you the colic, false thief; dare you say the Mass in my ear?” Her fervor started a riot, and even when the mob was thrown out onto the street, the service was disrupted by their noise, as they hammered on the doors and hurled rocks at the windows.

This resistance gave way to a string of riots across the city and eventually, throughout Scotland. Though the Scots petitioned to have the Anglican liturgy removed from Scotland, Charles I refused, and in 1638, thousands of men and women signed the National Covenant, a document that promised to preserve Scottish culture and tradition. Infuriated at what he considered their treason, Charles I launched the First Bishops’ War, or Wars of the Covenant, in 1639, targeting the Covenanters, arresting and imprisoning them in Greyfriars Kirk yard. They were marched through the cemetery into a cramped open-air prison, where they were shot on the spot if they moved.

These years were a dark time in Scottish history, yet they mark the spirit and determination of the Scots. Though not much is known about Jenny Geddes, her story is legendary, and beloved. She is believed to have been a street merchant, and to have lived from 1600 to 1660. Some think that her tale is fictional, another fable created to bolster Scottish spirits. Whether or not she was real, her story gave rise to a resistance that lasted for many years, and the replica of the stool pays testament not only to her bravery, but to that of the many Scots who fought for religious and cultural freedom.
Team Edinburgh September 2009

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