There are times in history when a seemingly insignificant incident can result in momentous consequences. The heir presumptive to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire had a passion for trophy hunting – in his diaries he records over 300,000 kills – but when he himself was shot, in Sarajevo on June 28th 1914, it was the catalyst that sparked the First World War. A seemingly more trivial incident also resulted in a war that also caused countless deaths, including that of the King of England - a woman threw a stool at a bishop.
|A Woman throwing a Stool at a Bishop|
We need a little back-story. When King James I of England (and VI of Scotland) died in 1625, he bequeathed his throne, and an unshakeable belief in the Divine Right of Kings, to his son, Charles. Although he had been born in Scotland, Charles’s Scottish coronation did not take place until 1633. It did not go well. Many Scottish divines felt that the form of the ceremony, using the full Anglican liturgy, was tainted with a little too much Romanist Popery. Their fears were confirmed when Charles continued his father’s policy of Episcopalianism in Scotland (i.e. Church authority imposed by Bishops), rather than their favoured system of Presbyterianism (i.e. without Bishops). Charles had appointed William Laud as Archbishop of Canterbury, a man noted for his antipathy to Puritanism and his preference for High Church practices. Laud oversaw a revision of Edward V’s 1549 Book of Common Prayer, which was introduced to the Scottish Church as the prescribed liturgy in 1637, at St Giles Church, Edinburgh.
|Title Page - The Book of Common Prayer|
On Sunday July 23rd, the Dean of Edinburgh, James Hannay, stood before the congregation with the book open in front of him. The male members of this congregation had taken their places in the pews of the church, the women, as was the custom, were seated in the aisles on stools they had brought with them. There were murmurs and dissatisfaction in the air as Hannay began to read from the new prayer book. Suddenly, a street-market seller, Jenny Geddes, stood up and shouted, “De’il gie you colic the wame o’ ye, fause thief; daur ye say mass in my lug," (The Devil give you cramps in your belly, false thief; dare you say mass in my ear), and as she did she snatched up her fald (folding) (or maybe a ‘cuttie’ or three-legged) stool and hurled it at the head of Hannay.
|Riots in the Church|
The rest of the congregation erupted in tumult; bibles, sticks, stones and more stools were thrown at the ministers. The Bishop of Edinburgh took to the pulpit and called for calm, but the riot continued until the Provost’s officers managed to clear the mob from the church. Hannay returned to the pulpit and resumed the service, but the crowds outside continued to shout their disapproval, stoned the church and broke its windows, and threatened to break down the doors. As the clerics left the church, a jeering crowd followed them, shouting, “Pull them down! A pope—a pope! Anti-Christ—Anti-Christ.” Rioting spread throughout the city – the Earl of Roxborough, who had the Bishop in his carriage, was pelted with stones and narrowly escaped with his life. The Provost and the magistrates were besieged in the City Chambers, but managed to negotiate a truce with the crowds, and a committee, known as the Tables, was appointed to negotiate with the Privy Council.
King Charles I, in his typically imperious manner, rejected calls for the withdrawal of the Anglican Liturgy in Scotland, which sparked further riots throughout Scotland and caused a revitalization of the National Covenant there. The Covenanters were Presbyterians who rejected any attempts to alter their form of religion and worship, and a great gathering at Greyfriars Kirkyard in 1638 signed and distributed copies of the Covenant across Scotland. An army was raised to oppose the King’s wishes by force, and Charles, in turn, marched some 20,000 men north to counter it, in what were called the 'Bishops’ Wars'.
|The Reasons for the Church of Scotland's refusal 1744|
They met at Berwick in 1639, where there were minor skirmishes until a compromise was reached, and the matters referred back to a General Assembly and the Scottish Parliament. The following year, Charles reconvened the so-called Short Parliament in England, with a view to raising more money and men, but the Commons sought to redress previous grievances first, leading Charles to reject their calls and dissolve the Parliament once again. Further warfare with the Scots was unsuccessful, as the Crown lost Northumberland and County Durham to them, and Charles was again, cap in hand, forced to re-call Parliament. This Long Parliament also opposed the King, this opposition eventually leading to the Wars of the Three Kingdoms (which included the English Civil War).
|The 'Westminster' Directory - which replaced The Book of Common Prayer|
Oliver Cromwell would become Lord Protector of England during the Commonwealth, and both Charles I and Archbishop Laud would be beheaded on charges of treason. Jenny Geddes’s ‘Casting of the Stool’ can be said to be the opening shot of those Wars – a woman throwing a stool at a bishop led to the death of a King.