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The Testament of Cresseid - Image courtesy of Abbot House
Section 1 :: Stanzas 01 - 10
Section 2 :: Stanzas 11 - 20
Section 3 :: Stanzas 21 - 38
Section 4 :: Stanzas 39 - 49
Section 5 :: Stanzas 50 - 58
Section 6 :: Stanzas 59 - 66
Section 7 :: Stanzas 66 - 76
Section 8 :: Stanzas 77 - 86
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Study Tools > Robert Henryson - Historical Context : The State and the Church 1480s to 1700
by Anna Groundwater, Scottish History, University of Edinburgh
The State
Henryson's lifetime
- James III
- James IV
- James V
- The Rough Wooing
- Mary Queen of Scots
- James VI
The Church
- Medieval Church
- Road to Reformation
- Reformation Church
- James VI & Church
- historical
- cultural
- ecclesiastical

The State

During Henryson's lifetime, flourished 1450-c.1505

It is not possible accurately to date Robert Henryson's The Testament of Cresseid but it is thought to have been written before the early 1490s. Henryson's working lifetime spanned the years 1450 to 1505 and the reigns of James II (1437-60), James III (1460-1488) and James IV (1488-1513). Politically, these were turbulent times. All three kings inherited the crown in their minorities: James II after the murder of his father; James III after the untimely explosion of a cannon killed his father; and James IV, after the unexplained slaying of his father following the battle of Sauchieburn, against rebels nominally headed by the fifteen year old heir.

During this period the machinery of the state was symbolised by, and centred on, the person of the monarch and his government. He governed through a council, made up principally of selected nobility and clergy, which issued edicts in the Crown's name. A Parliament made up of the 'Three Estates' - the clergy, nobility and burgesses - was called with differing degrees of regularity; but at this time it had little more power than to rubberstamp Crown ordinances as Parliamentary Acts, and very occasionally to limit the more unpopular of the King's demands. The overriding characteristic of kingship during Henryson's lifetime was the Stewart dynasty's preoccupation with establishing and developing its authority throughout the kingdom, generally with the aid of the nobility and clergy, but with intermittent confrontation with specific groups.


James III

Henryson's early working life will have been influenced, in particular, by the political unrest occasioned by the unpopularity of James Ixia's reign. This stemmed in part from James's own personal lack of charisma; but also from increasing tension between a nobility, increasingly alienated by taxation demands and lack of involvement in government, and a king determined to promote royal power through more centralised, bureaucratic government. The simmering discontent surfaced in 1482, after an English-aided invasion by James's brother, the duke of Albany, and a coup by three of his half-uncles, resulted in the temporary imprisonment of the king in Edinburgh castle and the hanging at Lauder Bridge of his closest advisors. Although James III was to recover power until his overthrow and death in 1488, these were the uncertain times forming the backdrop to Henryson's writing.


James IV

James IV's reign, has been deemed far more successful by historians. He further promoted the image of a glorious Stewart dynasty, synonymous with kingship in Scotland. His increasingly centralised government was able to exert its authority throughout the kingdom, and to fund the enlarged crown expenditure on the navy, palaces and a glittering court life. Much of this was not that different from the policies of James III, but, unlike his father, James IV succeeded in doing this without alienating the nobility, retaining their support by involving them in government and the spectacle of the court. Royal finances were improved, again through much the same means as before, the systematic exploitation of Crown lands and a persistent manipulation of church revenues, through direct clerical taxation and the use of the revenues resulting from ecclesiastical vacancies.

It is within James's reinvigorated Renaissance court, that the arts were encouraged - and poets such as Henryson, and those that followed like William Dunbar and Gavin Douglas thrived. James IV's status as a player within the continental monarchical elite was confirmed by his marriage in 1503 to Margaret, daughter of Henry VII of England and sister of Henry VIII-to-be. Though the Treaty of Perpetual Peace agreed at this time by James and Henry did not result in unalloyed tranquility, this marital union of the houses of Stewart and Tudor was eventually to provide an heir to the united crowns of Scotland and England, in the person of James VI in 1603. However this must have seemed very unlikely in the dark days that followed the deaths of James IV, many of his nobility and as many as 5000 men at Flodden in 1513, following the resumption of Anglo-Scottish hostilities.


James V: 1513-1542

The early years of James V's reign were dominated by conflict between various nobles and his mother, the dowager Queen Margaret, over the regency during James's minority. The heir-presumptive, James's cousin the Duke of Albany, made occasional visits from France where he was chiefly resident, but the royal government and the person of James himself was eventually grasped by the Earl of Angus until 1528, when James escaped and began his personal rule.

He continued much of his father's work, in particular, the pursuit of the finance necessary to fund the lavish building projects at Stirling, Falkland and Linlithgow. Through a ruthless exploitation of church revenues and the lucky windfall of two substantial French dowries, James V was able to finance his ambitions without alienating the nobility. His court continued as a vibrant centre of culture. Sir David Lindsay, royal herald, occasional ambassador, and author of Ane Satire of the Three Estates was the chief poet. He was also able to continue the pattern of the centralisation of justice and administration that had marked the reign of his father; in 1532 he founded the College of Justice (or Court of Session).

One of the constant features of James V's reign however was the state of Anglo-Scottish relations. Latent hostility over Henry VIII's claims to overlordship over the Scottish crown and his nephew James, often blossomed into overt hostility. In 1524, the earl of Surrey's invasion reached Edinburgh temporarily. A number of truces were signed, but in 1542 hostilities broke out again on the Borders, leading to the English defeat of a Scottish force at Solway Moss, on the south-western border. James's daughter and heir Mary was born a few days later and just days before his own early death.


The Rough Wooing: 1543-1549

Following the English victory at Solway Moss and James V's death, Henry VIII was keen to secure this triumph with an agreement to the marriage of his son Edward (Edward VI, 1547-1553) to the new Scottish Queen, Mary, when she was ten. In July 1543, the two treaties of Greenwich were agreed between England and Scotland for the marriage and future peace. However, a complicated political picture back home in Scotland, as various factions manoeuvered for control of the infant Queen and government, resulted in the Scottish Parliament rejecting the treaties with England in the autumn of 1543.

Henry VIII was enraged. Cross border raiding escalated and in 1544, Henry resurrected the overlordship claims of Edward I. English armies under the command of the Earl of Hertford (later Duke of Somerset) assaulted Edinburgh and ravaged the Scottish borders, forcing thousands of Scotsmen in Berwickshire, Roxburghshire and Selkirkshire to 'take assurance' with the English, swearing allegiance to the English crown in return for the protection of their lands from English attack and Scottish reprisals.

This English 'pale' of influence was further consolidated during the second stage of the Rough Wooing, as a full scale invasion of Scotland up the east coast took place and Somerset established a chain of fortresses within Scotland under English command as far north as Broughty Ferry, near Dundee. In September 1547, the Scottish suffered a disastrous defeat at the Battle of Pinkie, and the English established a military command at Haddington. The English, however, were unable to take Edinburgh castle or to progress further north or west. Following the Anglo-French agreement to the marriage of Mary to the Dauphin, son of Henri II, and the removal of Mary to France in 1548, the English campaign faltered. Faced with regional revolts in both East Anglia and in Devon and Cornwall in 1549, English garrisons were abandoned later in that year and peace treaties signed between France and England in 1550 and Scotland and England in 1551.


Mary Queen of Scots: 1542- 1567

Mary's youth was spent at the court of Henri II of France following the agreement of her marriage to the Dauphin in 1548. In Scotland, the regency was initially held by Mary's cousin the earl of Arran, but in 1554, her mother Mary of Guise took over power. These were the years leading up to the Reformation. Increasing support for reform eventually found voice in the riots incited by John Knox in Perth in May 1559, and in the overthrow of the regency by the Lords of Congregation that October. Mary de Guise died in June 1560, and the Reformation Parliament agreeing the basis of Protestant reform took place two months later.

Mary, briefly Queen of France from 1559, was widowed in December 1560 and in August 1561 returned to Scotland. Scotland in 1561, in the early stages of the consolidation of the Reformation, was a changed place politically. The 'auld alliance' with France was finally over and increasingly the nobility looked to the Protestant England of Elizabeth I for support. Mary's difficulties as a Catholic monarch and female ruler in an increasingly Protestant country slowly multiplied. Her marriage in 1565 to a cousin, Henry Stewart, Lord Darnley, of Scots parentage but brought up in England, ensured the independence of the Scottish throne from any outside influence and produced an heir, James, in June 1566. It ended, however, in the confusion which surrounded his murder early in 1567.

This disaster was compounded by Mary's marriage, three months later to one of those implicated in the murder, the earl of Bothwell. The Scottish nobility could not accept this and confronted Mary and Bothwell at Carberry, near Musselburgh, in June 1567. Mary was imprisoned at Loch Leven castle and forced to abdicate a month later in favour of James. She escaped in 1568, rallying considerable military support, but was defeated by the earl of Moray's forces at Langside near Glasgow. Forced to flee into England, she remained in captivity there until her execution in 1587. The years following her abdication saw Scotland riven by civil war until 1573.

But against this background of political turbulence, Mary's sophisticated court was for several years a glittering centre of Renaissance culture, in the style of her grandfather, James IV. A new sense of patriotism flourished and there was an explosion of verse in Scots and Latin. The Bannatyne Manuscript, a large collection of vernacular verse was compiled by an Edinburgh scribe, George Bannatyne, probably in 1565-6 - at a time appropriate to the large amount of love poetry which it contained - rather than, as the compiler claimed in 1568, 'in time of pest' [plague], by which time he had to contend with the censorship of a new Protestant regime brought to power after Mary's fall. The collection included all of Henryson's Fables except for the The Fox, the Wolf and the Cadger, and it also had unique copies of other works in Middle Scots, by various late medieval poets. Bannatyne was part of a wider literary circle, based in the capital and including lawyers, crown officials and wealthy merchants. Its aim was twofold: to preserve as much as possible of the literary heritage of Middle Scots in an age which targeted much of that inheritance as 'idolatry'; and to seek the moral reformation of society - the 'commonweal' defined and defended by Lindsay in his Satire of the Three Estates - based on the aims of Christian or Erasmian humanism.


James VI: 1567-1625 (James I of England, 1603-25)

James VI was only a year old when he was crowned at Stirling in 1567. Scottish politics in his early years were dominated by a succession of powerful regents. Though these regents indulged in factional rivalry, they consistently pursued the policy of extension and consolidation of royal authority and administration of justice of previous Stewart kings. When James finally began his personal rule in 1585, he was to continue this policy relentlessly. His status and power was further established following the formal alliance with England in 1586 (and despite the execution of his mother in 1587) and the tacit understanding of his succession to the English throne on Elizabeth's death. He determinedly pursued his legislation through Parliament, reining in the powers of the Kirk, legislating against feuding and enforcing judicial authority against disorder in the Highlands and Isles and the Borders.

He was a 'thinking' King, much given to theological discussion, and a poet of some note. His views on kingship found expression in 1598, with the writing of his advice on kingship to his son in the Basilicon Doron. Despite the autocratic views, and justification of his kingship through divine right, that the Basilicon voiced, his court was a honeypot for debate and culture, attracting a large circle of poets. In the 1580s, the self-styled 'Castilian Band' of poets, led by Alexander Montgomerie, claimed centre stage in this flourishing Renaissance court, although almost none of their work was actually published at this time. And it was in this period, too, that the printing press began to facilitate an explosion in the publication of a huge breadth of literature, philosophical and theological l debate, tracts on kingship and union and patriotic histories. James VI appointed a Royal Printer in 1590, an Englishman Robert Waldegrave, who was responsible for the publication of Basilicon Doron in 1599.

It is against this background that The Fables appeared in a printed edition in 1570, produced by the major Scottish printer-publisher of the sixteenth century, Henry Charteris. Charteris was responsible for the publication of a huge body of Scottish work, including that of Sir David Lindsay (Ane Satire of the Three Estates) and James VI's stern tutor, George Buchanan (De Jure Regni). In 1571, The Fables appeared in print again thanks to the Edinburgh bookseller, Thomas Bassandyne. The first surviving printed edition of The Wallace and of John Barbour's epic romance, The Brus, also belongs to this same period 1570-71.The earliest surviving Scottish print of The Testament of Cresseid was by Charteris in 1593. When Charteris died in 1599, 554 copies of the Testament were listed in his inventory, alongside such Scottish patriotic poetry as Blind Harry's fifteenth century epic, The Wallace. It is worth noting that works like these - the classics of late medieval Middle Scots - figure far more, and in far greater numbers, in surviving bookseller's inventories of the alter sixteenth century than the works of contemporary poets, including those of the Castalian Band.

In 1603, Elizabeth I died and James VI was proclaimed James I of England. He progressed slowly south to London and was to return only once to Scotland, in 1617. His hopes for the full political Union of Scotland and England were rejected by the English Parliament in 1607. In Scotland, the cultural scene continued to be characterized by its patriotic fervour, with a new consciousness of, and pride in, Scotland as a nation. It was a pattern set for the rest of the seventeenth century.


The Church

The Medieval church in the reigns of James II-James V

The Medieval church in mid to late fifteen-century Scotland played a central role in government and political, social and cultural life. The church and the Crown were intertwined and generally acted cohesively. The church was represented in Parliament as one of the three Estates, most of the emerging bureaucracy was drawn from the ranks of the clergy and bishops and other highly placed clerics were prominent in the king's council. Dispute did arise over the supra-national loyalty of the Church to Rome, whose authority the Crown challenged periodically and successive Stewart kings from James I (1406-37) onwards tried to harness Church funds and patronage for their own use. Essentially, however, the characteristic of the period is of Crown and Church, hand in hand.

The influence of the Church permeated throughout Scottish life. The Church was the wealthiest institution in Scotland and still the biggest landowner. Much of Scots law was based on canon - or ecclesiastical - law. Most of the notaries still had a clerical background, though this was fast changing, and Church courts administered justice within their jurisdictions. By the time of the foundation of the Court of Session in 1532, perhaps 50 per cent of all notaries were laymen, and this was reflected in the fact that the new central Court was staffed by judges drawn equally from the clergy and the laity.

Almost all education was provided by the Church from school to university level. The three universities founded in the fifteenth century were all had bishops as their patrons and Chancellors: St Andrews in 1413, Glasgow in 1451 and Aberdeen in 1495. The clergy were the great historians, scholars and writers of the time. Andrew Wyntoun and Walter Bower, authors of two of the most notable Chronicles of Scottish history, were in religious orders.

The diocese of St Andrews was the foremost within the Scottish church. It was the wealthiest diocese and one of the greatest centres of learning; its bishops were always closely involved in national government. In 1472 this primacy was confirmed by the erection of the archbishopric of St Andrews, over twenty years before that of Glasgow.

At the time of Henryson's writing therefore, the Church was a buoyant, powerful institution, a dominant influence in both the national and daily life of Scotland. Henryson himself was of course educated by the clergy and is thought to have taught at a grammar school attached to the Benedictine abbey at Dunfermline.


The Road to Reformation

The Reformation in Scotland got off to a slow start, with the initial small rumblings in the 1520s and 1530s not achieving their objective until 1560. James V resisted the example of Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries in the 1530s. The spread of Lutheranism and later, by Calvinism, on the Continent did not greatly impact in Scotland for some time. It was not until the 1540s, that the volume of calls for reform began to increase.

In 1546, George Wishart, who has spent time as a radical Protestant preacher in England, was burned at the stake in St Andrews, after a show trial which brought him into direct conflict with David Beaton, Archbishop of St Andrews. Beaton was himself murdered shortly afterwards, which resulted in the Reformers, including John Knox holding out against the Crown in St Andrews castle until it was stormed by the French in 1547. Knox was carted off to the galleys in the French navy. But throughout the regency of the overtly Catholic Mary of Guise in the 1550s, reforming sympathies began to take hold, for example amongst the lairds of Angus and the Mearns and also amongst the nobility, partly because reform well-suited their anti-French political ambitions.

By the time of the return of John Knox in 1559, a political alliance, calling themselves the 'Lords of the Congregation', had come into being, although the two had an uneasy relationship. Knox incited a riot at Perth in May 1559, and in October the Lords entered Edinburgh and overthrew the regency of Mary de Guise. By then, however, the main campaign of the Lords was against the 'thralldom of strangers' (the French) and not overtly a religious crusade. In early 1560 the Lords received English support, forcing Mary to withdraw into Edinburgh castle, where she died in June 1560. The Treaty of Edinburgh in July 1560 agreed for the speedy removal of both English and French troops. The so-called Reformation Parliament met a month later, although it was illegal because it met without the permission of the monarch.


The Reformation Church

The Reformation Parliament of 1560 drew up the legislation that was to be the foundation of the Reformed Church in Scotland. The Catholic Mass was proscribed, the jurisdiction of the papacy abolished and a Protestant Confession of Faith, drawn up by John Knox, adopted. The first draft of the First Book of Discipline to codify the practices of the Reformed Church was drawn up under Knox, but was rejected by the Lords. A second draft was presented to a convention of nobility which met late in the same year but was not approved by this body, only by some of the individuals present. All this legislation, however, was not ratified until 1567, after the fall of Mary. Thus the Reformation took some years to consolidate and for the reality of it to be felt in the organization of the Kirk throughout Scotland.

The organization and practices of the Reformed Kirk differed dramatically to that of the medieval Catholic Church. The abbeys and monastic orders disappeared and the organization of the Catholic church was replaced by a new system, based on a series of church courts. At a local level, based in parishes, were the kirk sessions which included the local minister (who had replaced the priest), elders and deacons, the prominent members of local society.

The Presbyteries were the next level up, consisting of the ministers of ten to twenty local parishes meeting regularly. Some lay elders also attended, but only in their very early years. These were established almost a generation later, from 1581 onwards. By 1637, there were 60 of them meeting regularly. The Presbyteries were overseen by the twice yearly meetings of the Synods, which covered a larger administrative area. At a national level was the General Assembly, which came into being in 1560 as an assembly of the kirk of 'this haill realme'. This assembly represented the voice of the whole kirk in its negotiations in particular with James VI. It initially met twice a year, but after 1596 where and when it met came increasingly to be controlled by the crown. It met only six more times between 1603 and the beginning of the Covenanting Revolution in 1637.

Religious practice was completely changed and codified in a series of new prayer books and catechisms: in 1562, the Genevan Book of Common Order was adopted by the General Assembly and Calvin's Catechism became the main manual of religious teaching. The sermon and singing of psalms in church became the important aspects of the service, whilst the walls of the kirks were stripped of anything tainted with 'idolatry'. The plantation of the ministry throughout Scotland was an uneven and slow process. On average, there was one parish to every four parishes throughout the 1560s and 1570s. As late as the 1590s there were still some parishes in the Lowlands without ministers. But slowly and steadily change did take place and over the next three or four generations, the establishment of the Reformation was consolidated.


James VI and the church

Whilst James VI was a committed Protestant, he was also a King with a firm idea of his absolute authority within his kingdom. It was over the challenge presented to this authority by the kirk, that the two came into dispute. His own tutor, George Buchanan, and Andrew Melville, leading figure in the church in the generation after Knox, both proclaimed the superiority of the church's jurisdiction in everything, even over the king himself - a view sharply at odds with James's own.

In 1584, Parliament, on James's behalf, legislated that all estates, including the kirk, were subject to the authority of the Crown; these were the so-called 'Black Acts'. This forced a number into exile in England, with the remaining ministers forced to subscribe the Black Acts. Despite the slight tempering nature of the 'Golden Act' of 1592, which recognised the existence of the various church courts, in fact this legislation only tightened the grip of the crown over the Kirk, by permitting the king to fix when and where the general assembly met.

The most contentious issue between James and the Kirk was over the re-establishment of episcopacy. Although, 'parliamentary bishops' had been appointed in 1600, James and his right hand man in the Scottish church, John Spottiswoode, Archbishop of Glasgow from 1603, were determined to re-establish the full judicial power of the episcopacy. In the face of heavy opposition from the General Assemblies of 1606 and 1608, the Scottish Parliament of 1606 passed the Act for 'the restitution of bishops' and that of 1609 restored bishops to certain jurisdictions. The General Assembly of 1610 approved these Acts. In 1610, a Court of High Commission was established in each archbishopric, and in 1615 these were united into one.

Encouraged by this success, James pursued his ambition of conformity of practice of worship and the liturgy. These 'Five Articles' prescribing private baptism, private communion, confirmation by bishops, kneeling at communion and holy days, were rejected initially by the General Assembly in 1617, but forced through the Assembly in 1618. A reluctant Parliament was pressured to give them legal status in 1621.

Despite this conflict, James VI was responsible in a major way for the successful consolidation of the establishment of the Reformation Church - and in a very visible and lasting way, by his commissioning of the first authorized English translation of the Bible, published in 1611 and still in use today.




The Oxford Companion to Scottish History edited by M Lynch (2001)
Scotland: A New History by M Lynch (1991)
Court, Kirk and Community: Scotland, 1470-1625 by J Wormald (1981)

James II by C McGladdery (1990)
James III by N MacDougall (1982)
James IV by N Macdougall (1989)
James V: The Personal Rule, 1528-1542 by J Cameron (1998)
Princelie Majestie: The Court of James V of Scotland, 1528-1542 by A Thomas (2001)
Scotland: James V to James VII by G Donaldson (1965)
The Reign of James VI edited by J Goodare and M Lynch (2000)



'The Bannatyne Manuscript: a Marian anthology' by AA MacDonald in Innes Review xxxvii (1986)
The Circle of John Mair: Logic and Logicians in Pre-Reformation Scotland by A. Broadie (1985)
Court and Culture in Renaissance Scotland by C. Edington (1995)
King James VI and I, Political Writings, edited by JP Sommerville (1994)
Longer Scottish Poems, 1375-1650, vol.1, edited by P Bawcutt and F Riddy (1987)
Scottish Royal Palaces: The Architecture of the Royal Residences during the Late Medieval and Early Renaissance Periods by JG Dunbar (1999)
Song, Dance and Poetry at the Court of King James VI by H.M. Shire (1969)



Church, Politics and Society: Scotland 1408-1929 edited by N Macdougall (1983)
The Medieval Church in Scotland by IB Cowan (1995)

Patterns of Reform by J. Kirk (1989)
The Scottish Reformation by IB Cowan (1982)

The Church before the Covenants, 1596-1638 by WR Foster (1975)
The Church of the Covenant, 1637-1651 by W Makey (1979)
The Scottish Covenanters, 1660-1688 by IB Cowan (1976)



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Robert Henryson - Historical Context : The State and the Church 1480s to 1700