The Unicorn and the Keys: The Scots Monarchy and the Catholic Church

Charles Coulombe reflects on the auld relationship between the Scots monarchy and the Catholic Church

The visitor to Edinburgh Castle who wishes to see those supreme symbols of Scots nationhood, the Honours of Scotland, shall notice something rather interesting. On the scabbard and belt of the Sword of State are embroidered the Tiara and Keys of Pope Julius II. For those who see Scots identity as bound up with John Knox and the Kirk, this shall seem rather odd – but it makes perfect sense to those who know their history. The sword was a gift from Pope Julius II (Michelangelo’s Pontiff) to James IV in 1507. It was not an idle gift: from the 14th to the 19th centuries, every Christmas Eve, the Pope would consecrate a sword and hat to be sent to some great commander. The great 19th century liturgical scholar, Dom Prosper Gueranger describes the ceremony thusly:

“The Sovereign Pontiff, the Vicar of our Emmanuel, blesses, in his name, a Sword and Helmet, which are to be sent to some Catholic warrior who has deserved well of the Christian world. In a letter addressed to Queen Mary of England and to Philip, her husband, Cardinal Pole gives an explanation of this solemn rite. The sword is sent to some Prince, whom the Vicar of Christ wishes to honour in the name of Jesus, who is King: for the Angel said to Mary: The Lord will give unto him the Throne of David his father [St Luke i 32]. It is from him alone that the power of the sword comes [Rom. xiii 3, 4]; for God said to Cyrus: I have girded thee (with the sword) [Isa. xlv 1,5]; and the Psalmist thus speaks to the Christ of God: Gird thy Sword upon thy thigh, O thou most Mighty! [Ps. xliv 4]. And because the Sword should not be drawn save in the cause of justice, it is for that reason that a Sword is blessed on this Night, in the midst of which rises, born unto us, the divine Sun of Justice. On the Helmet, which is both the ornament and protection of the head, there is worked, in pearls, the Dove, which is the emblem of the Holy Ghost; and this to teach him who wears it that it is not from passion or ambition that he must use his sword, but solely under the guidance of the divine Spirit, and from a motive of spreading the Kingdom of Christ.

“How beautiful is this union of energy and meekness under the one symbol and ceremony! This power of blending and harmonizing the varied beauty of distinct classes of truth is not to be found save in that Christian Rome, which is our Mother and where God has established the centre of Light and Love. The ceremony we have been describing is still observed. What a grand list it would be, had we the names of all those glorious Christian Warriors, who were thus created Knights of the Church, at this solemn hour, when we celebrate the Birth of him who came to vanquish our enemy!”

But this high Papal regard for King James IV did not begin with Julius II. His predecessor, Alexander VI, had already in 1494 sent that Monarch what became the sceptre of Scotland. This is the reason for its decoration with the Virgin and Child, something no good Calvinist Monarch could have accepted. Alas, he would meet his doom at Flodden Field – a victim, ultimately, of Henry VIII, would be responsible for shattering the Church in all Three Kingdoms. Nevertheless, as we shall see, the Catholic Church was intimately bound up with the independent Scots Monarchy, from its beginning to its – subsidence.

Both Scottish Catholicism and Scottish Monarchy predate the misty origins of Scottish Nationhood. Although the myth of a Celtic and/or British Church independent of Rome has been a durable one (and well suited to Anglican and Presbyterian propaganda) it did not exist in reality. To be sure, there are disputes over such things as the date of Easter and tonsured hair-styles: but ever since Pope St. Victor I was convinced by St. Irenaeus to leave well enough alone back in 195 B.C., it was not the primary cause of schisms. St. Patrick counselled his fledgling flock to be Romans as they would be Christians; the fact that St. Columban (540-615) and his Irish followers – despite their somewhat different customs – were accepted as full brethren by the local Churches during their wanderings in France, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, and Italy shows that they had followed their founder’s precepts. (Of course, it must also be emphasised that the doughty Saint’s conflicts with various Frankish and Lombard chiefs had to do with his fiery temperament and views, not his Faith or practise!). In any case, he and similar Irish wanderers left behind them a network of “Scots” monasteries throughout Central Europe. One remains in Vienna to-day; its school’s most illustrious alumnus was Blessed Emperor Charles.

But the labelling of such abbeys and the equivalence of Scots and Irish is a reminder of the way in which the Scots Monarchy was born. Although one need not join the British Israel crowd in dating it back to the line of David, the roots of Scotland’s Kings lie in Ireland. In the aftermath of the fall of Rome and the Anglo-Saxon invasion of Britain, the Sub-Kingdom of Dalriada in Ulster expanded across the Straits of Moyle into Argyll. The Britons to the South called these invaders Scoti. Eventually other competing Irish sub-Kingdoms took over their Ulster lands; but St. Columban’s contemporary, Dalriadan King Áedán mac Gabráin, sent expeditions as far away as the Isle of Man and Orkney. St. Columban’s mentor, St. Columba, acted as religious guide for the realm from his abbey on the island of Iona, which became the most sacred spot in the realm.

From that high point, however, Dalriada fell swiftly, first becoming tributary to the Northumbrian Angles of Bernicia (modern Lothian), and then to their Pictish neighbours to the East. But history is a funny thing. The Picts themselves were defeated by the Vikings, and in the resulting confusion, the Dalriadan King, Kenneth MacAlpine united his land with that of the Picts in 843, forming the Kingdom of Alba. He is thereby considered the first “King of Scots” in the sense to which we are accustomed. As the Viking raids continued and made Iona uninhabitable, he moved his capital to the old Pict centre at Dunkeld and set up the Coronation Stone at Scone. His descendants would in time annex both Lothian and the old Briton Kingdom of Strathclyde, and reign until 1034. To this day, the Siol Alpin, a confederation of seven Scots clans (including the MacKinnons from whom this writer descends) claim descent from Kenneth MacAlpine. Whilst he and his successors would rule from Dunkeld and elsewhere, so long as the dynasty lasted, they would be buried at Iona – as would other local figures. The Royal Cemetery - Reilig Odhráin - according to a list of 1549, holds 48 Scottish kings, eight Norwegian Kings, and four Irish Kings buried there, none of whose monuments survive.

In 1034, the older line of Alpin was replaced by the junior branch of Dunkeld, whose first and second members – Duncan and Macbeth – were made famous by Shakespeare. Duncan’s son, Malcolm, married Margaret of Wessex – better known to us as St. Margaret of Scotland. Starting with this couple, Scotland began to be a typical European Kingdom of the era. Although the English Kingdom and Church hierarchy kept pushing for ecclesiastical control of the Scottish diocese, their complete independence from England was guaranteed by the Pope in 1192. The Scots coronation rite at Scone became ever more elaborate; although the line of the Kings failed in 1290, ushering in the first English conquest, the triumph of King Robert the Bruce was sealed in 1329 by Pope John XXII. He allowed the Kings of Scots to be anointed with Chrism at their coronations – as were the English, French, Neapolitan, and Jerusalem Kings. Thus Scotland’s Monarchs were symbolically placed among the foremost rulers in Christendom. As befitted their new role, since the tome of St. Margaret they founded a number of Royal Abbeys – and quite a few of these became Royal burial sites in succession to Iona. In 1371, the House of Stuart came to the throne.

The Stuarts were as zealous supporters of the Catholic Church as their predecessors had been. But, as we know, James IV and V were successively defeated by the English, culminating in the Protestant revolt, the tragedy of Mary Queen of Scots, the high-jacking of the Scottish Church by John Knox and his associates, and eventually the Protestant James VI succeeding England’s Elizabeth as James I. In those tempestuous times, most Scottish Abbeys were wrecked, and the Royal tombs destroyed. But at the same time, as with the Irish and English, a network of Catholic Scots monastic and educational foundations sprang up in Italian, French, Belgian, Spanish, and German exile.

In the reign of Charles I began the Wars of the Three Kingdoms; as in his other two realms, Scotland’s Catholics fought loyally for the King; they made up a large chunk of Montrose’s army. They suffered for it, as they would again, fighting for James VII and II. From that time on, the Stuarts assumed leadership of the network of exiles’ institutions earlier referred to (and began their own wanderings); but they did not neglect their loyal Protestant subjects in diaspora either. It was James VIII and III who received Papal permission to found the Protestant Cemetery in Rome for his courtiers of that religion who died attending him. James VII and II, incidentally, had his cause for beatification introduced at Rome: since it has never either been acted upon or officially closed, he may be called a “Servant of God” – as may Mary Queen of Scots, whose own cause was introduced in the late 19th century, and supported by Leo XIII and Benedict XV.

At any rate, Scotland’s Catholics rallied again to the old standard for the ’15, the’19, and the ’45, and were caught up in the general ruin. When James VIII and III died in 1766, Bonnie Prince Charlie – now de jure Charles III – came to Rome to take up his father’s inheritance. But Pope Clement XIII had recognised George III as King of Great Britain at James’ death, and forbade his being greeted by his subjects at Rome as King. The rectors of the Pontifical English, Scots, and Irish Colleges did so anyway, and were fired as a result. Despite Charles’ younger brother, Henry, Cardinal York’s protest at his sibling’s treatment, the Pope nevertheless gave him rather than Charles the power of ecclesiastical appointments in the English-speaking world that their father had exercised. When Charles himself died in 1788, the Cardinal-King asserted his rights to the three thrones in a letter of protest to the Courts of Europe. In time, however, Papal recognition of George III led to some easing of the Penal laws – allowing the Vicars Apostolic in Scotland to operate openly. As result, Robert Burns’ friend, John Geddes, Vicar Apostolic of western Scotland, was able to convince the Scots monasteries of Regensburg and Würzburg and the Scots colleges of Paris, Douai, and Valladolid (now Salamanca, Spain) to subscribe to the 1787 Edinburgh edition of Burns’ poetry. This latter would make Scotland’s national bard a Europe-wide star.

The French Revolution and resulting invasions of Italy impoverished Henry IX; but his Hanoverian cousins did come to his aid financially. George IV would pay for the impressive monument and tomb of the three Stuart Kings at St. Peter’s after his cousin’s death in 1807. Without a doubt, this pro-Stuart feeling on the part of George IV was supported heavily by that great rehabilitator of Jacobitism’s reputation, Sir Walter Scott. As is well-known, he stage managed the King’s Scottish visit in 1822, the first such visit by a Protestant Monarch since 1650. In the event, it was as great a success as had the King’s Irish visit the year before. Despite his many failings, George IV did have a great appreciation of his Celtic Kingdoms. In any case, as is well known, his niece Queen Victoria would continue the Royal fascination with things Scottish – not only beginning the annual Holyrood stay, but purchasing Balmoral.

In the meantime, however, the same questions that had divided Jacobites and Tories in the Three Kingdoms through the 17th and 18th centuries – the place of Church, King, Provinces, and Estates in governance – agitated Continental Europe in the early 19th century. France would split between Orleanists and Legitimists in 1830, Portugal between Liberals and Miguelistas, and Spain between Isabellinos and Carlists. The latter, as they fought for their cause in three conflicts over the course of the 19th century, attracted a number of English supporters – among the most renowned of these were Lord John Manners of Young England fame, and the Earl of Ashburnham. The latter, a convert to Catholicism, began to apply Carlist principles to his views of contemporary Britain. The result was his spearheading with a number of other individuals the Neo-Jacobite Revival, expressed in such organisations as the Order of the White Rose, the Jacobite Legitimist League, the Society of the Red Carnation, the Society of King Charles the Martyr, and the Royal Martyr Church Union.

As with the original Jacobite movement, the new crop were a very heterogenous collection of individuals. But – as also with their earlier predecessors – a fair number were Celtic Nationalists and Catholic converts of various stripes, such as the Cornish Nationalist, Henry Jenner. Of these, the Scots contingent included such stalwarts as Theodore Napier and Ruaraidh Erskine. The latter, in turn, would go on to co-found the Scots National League, which was a forerunner of the SNP.

While Erskine – with his belief in strong Monarchy and a Catholic Scotland – would doubtless have little use for the republican and secular views of to-day’s SNP, there are other groups in existence with which he might feel more at home. The closest Stuart heir in 1914 being the Crown Prince of Bavaria, the various neo-Jacobite groups disbanded during the First World War. But they regrouped afterwards, forming to-day’s Royal Stuart Society, which has numbered among its members such Scotsmen as Catholic convert Sir Compton Mackenzie and Sir Charles Petrie.

Although many Catholic Scots maintain an interest in Jacobitism, there remains one interesting connection in Scotland between Catholicism and the current shared Monarchy. Despite their pre-Reformation origin, the Chapels Royal in England and Scotland and the former’s deanery remain Anglican or Presbyterian. But thanks to the conspicuously non-Jacobite 19th century Catholic convert, the Marquess of Bute, the Chapel Royal at Falkland Palace is used by a Catholic congregation. Interestingly enough, the only other such is the Ordinariate community at Her Majesty’s Chapel Royal of the Mohawks in Tyendinaga, Ontario, Canada. Of course, there are in any case more Catholics of Scots descent in Canada than in Scotland. Nevertheless, as we have seen, the Catholic Church, Scotland’s Monarchy, and her very Nationhood remained all bound together, despite the best efforts made to separate them over the centuries.

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