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How Jenny Geddes Sparked a Rebellion in 17th-Century Scotland

The street seller caused a commotion in church.

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  • Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Jenny Geddes strikes a pretty innocuous profile, but many revolutionaries do, at first blush.

She was a Scottish trader of fruit and vegetables in Edinburgh in the 1630s, and an attendee of Church of Scotland services at St. Giles Cathedral, an imposing and beautiful Gothic church on the Royal Mile.

Until 1625, Scotland and England both had been ruled by King James I (of England), a.k.a. King James VI of Scotland. Even though James moved south of the border, the moment he came to power in England (when Queen Elizabeth I died in 1603) and only came back once (in 1617), that was a pretty peaceable time.

And then Charles I came to the throne. Though he ascended in 1625, he did not get around to having his coronation in Scotland until 1633. Even then, the ritual took place in St. Giles Cathedral, a church where post-reformation puritan, Protestant Scots worshipped, but he used full Anglican rites. The rite was performed by Charles’ new Archbishiop of Canterbury, William Laud. This clergyman embodied the notion of “corrupt bishops” who “misinformed the king of the liturgy and ecclesiology of the Scottish Kirk.”

For those who are interested, the main distinction between these two sects was between Calvinism (Church of Scotland) and Arminianism (Church of England). Generalized, Arminianism was actually a liberal reaction to the Calvinist doctrine that centered on predestination.

After the 1560 Reformation, the Church of Scotland emerged much more puritanical than the Church of England, which seemed to the Scots far too similar to Roman Catholicism. King Charles I didn’t seem to care, or at least was convinced that he should try to liberalize his new kingdom. He remitted a new prayer book for Scotland to bring their practices in line with the Church of England. 

The new “Booke of Common Prayer” was printed in Edinburgh and first used on the infamous Sunday, 23 July 1637, in the very same cathedral where King Charles had been crowned.

Dean John Hannay of St. Giles Cathedral gave into a bribe, and he slipped the new prayer book into service…maybe he thought it would go over because they were in church. When he started to read from the 19-chapter liturgy, which detailed the government of the church, how the King ruled by divine right, and how ministers, kirk sessions, and presbyteries would all be renamed, people knew they were being tricked.

Enter Jenny Geddes. Street-sellers like Jenny sat in the back of the church, sometimes on portable, three-legged stools that they had to bring into the church themselves. She might have been a “waiting woman,” paid to arrive early to save seats for their patrons. Whatever the reason why she sat on that stool, she didn’t stay seated for long. As soon as she realized what was happening, Jenny Geddes stood up and threw her stool at the dean’s head.

She yelled, “Deil colic the wame o’ ye, fause thief; daur ye say Mass in my lug?”

Loosely translated, she called him out like this: “Devil cause you colic, false thief. Do you say Mass in my ear?”

The rest of the congregation followed suit. They threw everything they could get their hands on (including Bibles) at the podium. Even after they were expelled, they continued pounding on the door through the rest of the service. Scotland had not just gone through a Reformation two generations before to see it “succumb to the heresies of a foreign archbishop and a King usurping the ‘Crown Rights of King Jesus.’” The riot spread through Edinburgh, and then across Scotland.

The King refused to cave to the rioters' demands, even as Scots across the country and among social classes defended the Church of Scotland. An estimated 300,000 Scots signed the National Covenant in Greyfriars Kirkyard to oppose these reforms. (This petition is very relevant to Scottish history, and comes back into play in the following years.) In 1638, the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland actually voted to expel all bishops from the country because they were generally “instruments of Royal control.”

Rather than listen to his Scottish subjects’ needs, Charles I attempted to impose his will by force in the Bishops’ War.

In the first of two battles, Covenanters fought Scottish Royalists in the northeast of Scotland while Scottish and English armies were assembled on the border. Both armies ended up withdrawing after they agreed on a truce in June of 1639.

But when two months later, Scottish Parliament passed acts that undermined the crown, Charles mobilized another army…although this time, the Scots invaded northern England and defeated them, seizing all of Northumberland and Durham.

The Bishops’ War technically consisted of both these conflicts, one in 1639 and one in 1640. After English defeat, Charles I summoned the “Long Parliament,” which precipitated the English Civil War. Thus, the Bishops’ War is considered the first conflict in the Wars of the Three Kingdoms. 

The War of the Three Kingdoms actually covered a lot of ground (both literally and figuratively) over 14 years: the Bishops’ Wars, the First and Second English Civil Wars, the Irish Confederate Wars, Cromwell’s conquest of Ireland, and the Anglo-Scottish War of 1650-52.

Those wars ended with a Parliamentarian victory and the beheading of King Charles I. Then, Oliver Cromwell came to power…which was pretty bad all around. 

The wars carried on for years, but the Kirk was free until the coronation of King Charles II, when the persecution continued for another 27 years. You might have heard of later long-persecuted Covenanters and their three, cruelly suppressed rebellions.

Some argue that this was all set in motion by Jenny Geddes. She was once surely the person who lit this fire, at least (though far from culpable for multiple wars, of course), but she has faded into somewhat of a folk hero status. Not everyone is convinced that she actually existed. 

Still, in the 1990s, St. Giles Cathedral erected a commemorative statue celebrating Jenny Geddes. It’s a replica of a stool, mounted on a pedestal, with a plaque describing her story. Her influence was so well-known at one time that the famous Scottish poet Robert Burns named his horse after Jenny.