What Happened to the Monks?

by Sue Mowat

David Aitken, the Dean of Guild, was worried. It was November 1559 and life around Dunfermline was becoming dangerous for both political and religious reasons. Extreme Protestants, known as the Congregation, who were determined to abolish the Catholic Church, were becoming stronger by the day. In May, inflamed by a sermon preached by John Knox, a band of Protestant zealots had sacked a church, some friaries and a monastery at Perth and since then there had been several ‘reformations’ in the East Neuk of Fife, including one at St Andrews.

Noblemen and senior clergy who supported Protestantism had combined to form a body called the Lords of the Congregation which recruited its own troops to oppose those of the Catholic Queen Regent, Mary of Guise, and in July they had occupied Edinburgh and forced Mary to leave the city. In October the Lords had set up their own ‘Great Council of the Realm’. By this time Mary had brought troops to Scotland from her native France and had sent them into Fife to deal with further unrest at St Andrews.

The Dean of Guild was particularly concerned about the possible fate of the Holy Blood altar in the parish church, of which the Guild was patron. He was fearful that the altar’s valuable silverware might be plundered either by the French troops or by the Congregation, and himself retrieved the altar’s silver monstrance (used to display the consecrated bread at mass) and the wine chalice, and had them cut up into seven pieces. Then he summoned six of his most trusted Guild members to a meeting on 30 November and gave each of them a piece of the silver to hide away.

A formal declaration was recorded in the Guild minute book:
We Walter Baxter, William Cooper, James Burn, James Shorthouse, David Aitken, John Boswell and Laurence Dalgleish, guild brethren and burgesses of Dunfermline, the seven men before named grant us every one of us respectively to have received from David Aitken dean of guild 8 ounces of silver sharp weight of the eucharist (monstrance) and chalice of the Holy Blood altar and because of the troublous world both of the Congregation and the French men, because we thought it not expedient to put it all in one hand, and for the relief of the Dean of Guild, we being us and each one of us by this present writ to hold it forthcoming to the guild brethren. Subscribed with our hands and our merchant marks set to. At Dunfermline the last day of November 1559.

Walter Baxter, James Burn and John Boswell signed for themselves but the other four, including David Aitken, signed by touching the pen as John Boswell wrote their names.

David Aitken also retrieved the other accoutrements of the altar and hid them away in a kist:

Two altar cloths and 1½ ells of linen, 5 towels, an altar frontal of yellow velvet, a cross of gilt brass and two brass candlesticks. The priest’s vestments were also hidden – two albs, three chasubles (one of them of blue velvet) and a stole.

There can be little doubt that the patrons of other altars in the parish kirk and the chaplains of altars in the monks’ choir were taking similar precautions, but the Guild’s action is the only contemporary record that has survived.

In the event it was a further four months before the Abbey church was sacked. Robert Lindsay’s History of Scotland laconically records that ‘Upon the 28 March [1560] the whole lords and barons that were on this side of the Forth passed to Stirling and by the way cast down the abbey of Dunfermline’. The phrase ‘cast down’ has led a number of later writers to assume that the church was razed to the ground, but this is just an example of ‘historians’ jumping to conclusions without bothering to check the facts. A large church was not going to be demolished in a day and in fact the northern wall of the monastic choir was still standing in 1818. The choir did slowly collapse over the years and in the seventeenth century an official was accused of removing 200 cartloads of stone from the site, but the process was one of gradual decay, not of deliberate demolition. The western section of the church had long been the parish Kirk and far from being demolished it still stands in its entirety.

The Lords of the Congregation were not interested in demolishing buildings, only in getting rid of their Popish contents. Later in 1560, when they were fully established in power, they issued warrants for the clearing of churches that had not yet been dealt with, and these warrants contained precise instructions about exactly what the wreckers were and were not to do.

Take down all the images thereof and bring forth to the Kirk-yard and burn them openly. And suchlike cast down the altars and purge the Kirk of all kind of monuments of idolatry….Fail not but see ye take heed that neither the dasks (seats), windows nor doors be any way hurt or broken either glasswork or ironwork.’

There is no knowing just how many statues of saints and other images were in the building in 1560 but there were at least nine altars in the parish church and at least thirteen in the monastic choir. The Abbey’s most precious relics, however, those of St Margaret, had been hidden away by some of the monks and were eventually taken to France.

When the 15th century local poet Robert Henderson wrote of texts painted on the walls of an Abbey church he was probably thinking of Dunfermline and in the roof at the eastern end of the north aisle of the old parish church there are still faint paintings of four saints which are presumably the last remnants of pictures that once covered much of the walls and ceiling. The instructions in the Lords’ warrant do not mention paintings so it seems they were left to be obliterated by the new Presbyterian congregations.

Engraving from Alexander Stewart’s Reminiscences of Dunfermline

Engraving from Alexander Stewart’s Reminiscences of Dunfermline

This engraving is probably an accurate picture of how the building looked for many years after 1560. The woodwork of the choir roof would have been the first element to decay and fall; part of its eastern end is known to have fallen in 1672 and the great central lantern tower survived until 1716. Part of the north transept crumbled in 1753 and a local baker successfully bid for the contract to take away and sell the tumbled stones.

 The Commendators

One of the reasons for the decline of Scottish monasteries was that, in the time of James III, the Crown had started interfering in the appointment of Abbots. A genuine Abbot must have taken full monastic vows and preferably be a member of his community who has been chosen by his brethren. Anyone installed as ‘Abbot’ who did not meet these criteria was said to hold the office in trust or ‘commendum’ until a genuine Abbot was elected. These men were known as Commendators, and Dunfermline had had a series of them ever since the late fifteenth century. Some were ordained clerics, although not monks. Others were not even ordained, including at one time the teenaged illegitimate son of James IV. The Commendator in 1560 was George Durie, who had held the post for at least 30 years. He had been ordained priest but ignored his vow of celibacy. When he was not absent on the King’s business he divided his time between an apartment in the Palace, where he installed his coat of arms, and his mistress and family at Craigluscar. Like all the Commendators he adopted the title of ‘Abbot’ but had no valid claim to it.

A genuine Abbot was responsible for the spiritual welfare of his community as well as administering the Abbey’s properties, with the help of an estate factor called the Chamberlain. The Commendators were only interested in the properties, so under their sway the spiritual life of the community was bound to suffer, although the Prior, second in command to the Abbot, probably stepped into the breach in this respect. On the surface, at any rate, the life of the community went on as it had always done. Many of the monks were also ordained priests and some of them officiated as chaplains of the various altars, saying daily masses for the souls of the founders and others. All the monks would have continued the singing of the eight daily services or ‘offices’, under the direction of their precentor, John Angus. The Abbey sacristan continued to take care of the altar furnishings and the priestly vestments and the almoner carried on dispensing charity to the poor. Some of the monks were no doubt truly devout men who took their commitment seriously, but it was also possible to just go through the motions.

The Vow of Poverty at Dunfermline

The Benedictine monastic vows are based on the traditional ones of poverty, chastity and obedience. There is no way of knowing how strictly or otherwise the Dunfermline monks observed the last two, but the vow of poverty had definitely gone by the board by the sixteenth century. The Benedictine rule states very clearly that no monk or nun may hold personal property of any kind. Any gifts an individual may receive are to be given to the community and held in common, but there is plenty of evidence that by the sixteenth century this was no longer the case in Dunfermline.[1]

Several monks owned property in the town. As some of them were local men, it may have come to them by inheritance, but they should have either given it to the Abbey or sold it and handed over the proceeds. The Dunfermline monks were not confined to the Abbey precinct (enclosed), but they should only have left the grounds for charitable and humanitarian purposes. However, many of them were closely involved in the secular life of the town. A number of them joined the Merchant Guild, some as successors to their late fathers and others as new members. Several times a monk was the Town Clerk, although in fairness it must be admitted that there were not many other literate men in the town. Some of the brothers may even have ceased to wear their monks’ habit; the Guild at one point specified that the chaplain of their altar was to wear the habit when celebrating the daily mass. In the past many people had left money out of the rents of their houses to have masses sung for them at individual altars. The rent money was collected by the chaplains of the altars but by the sixteenth century many of the houses had become derelict so no rents were forthcoming. Chaplains were frequently to be found in the Burgh court, going through a repossession process in order to sell the property to a new owner who would rebuild. In at least one instance the new owner was the brother of the chaplain involved.

The monks were also given their own private incomes out of Abbey revenues which were supposed to pay for their habits, although these should have been supplied by the Abbey. A ‘rental’ or set of accounts of the Abbey finances made by the Chamberlain in 1561 includes an item of £394 a year ‘for the sustentation of the convent, being 26, of which they have long time assigned to them’. The rental also mentions a large amount of oatmeal that was used to pay the personal servants of the brothers. Altogether there can be no doubt that by the sixteenth century the Dunfermline Abbey community was falling far short of the Benedictine ideal in the matter of private property.

What Happened Next

After the English Reformation of 1534, the monks and nuns of the former religious communities were turned out to fend for themselves as best they might. In Scotland the system was kinder. As long as former ‘religious’ at least paid lip service to Presbyterianism, they were allowed to remain in their communities for the rest of their lives, and this is what happened in Dunfermline.

Each of the 26 brothers left in the Abbey was allowed to keep his own cell in the dormitory building, was allocated a piece of land or garden within the precinct (hence the ‘Abbey Gardens’) and was paid a pension of £51 a year. The Register of charters granted under the King’s Privy Seal contains a number of grants made in 1584, by which time seventeen of the monks had died, under which James VI made a wholesale allocation of their vacant cells, gardens and pensions to various of his servants.

By the end of 1584 only nine of the original 26 brothers were still alive and, as many of them were now old and in need, the King allocated them an extra £10 a year pension. One of the monks who had recently died was John Henderson, who had married Agnes Powtie and had four sons by her, John, James, William and Robert; the baptisms of the last two were recorded in the Kirk Register – William in 1578 and Robert in 1581. John Henderson had left Agnes quite well-off and in 1609 she lent 400 merks (£266) to John Fleming of Blacklaw in the name of her sons Mr John (who had gained a university Masters degree), James and Robert.

The nine brothers still alive in 1584 were John Durie, John Angus, Alexander Steven, Alexander Aitken, Alexander Honeyman, Thomas Jamison, William Lumsden, Andrew Gray, and William Smith. Nothing is known about the futures of the last six, but the first three are well documented.

John Durie

Even before the Reformation, many Catholics had welcomed Protestant beliefs and one of those was John Durie. In 1558, he had been tried for heresy and narrowly avoided being walled up alive as a punishment. By 1563 he had become a prominent Presbyterian preacher and was successively minister of Leith, Edinburgh and Montrose. He also married and fathered a family. In 1577 the current Commendator of Dunfermline, Robert Pitcairn, granted John and his son Joshua a pension of £66 13/4d (100 merks) for life in lieu of John’s ‘habit silver’ and other dues. His daughter Elizabeth married Mr James Melville, who had this to say about his father-in-law:[2]

John Durie was of small literature but had seen and marked the great works of God in the first Reformation and been a doer both with tongue and hand. He had been a diligent hearer of Mr Knox and observer of all his ways. He conceived the best grounds of matters well and could utter them fairly, fully and fearfully with a mighty spirit, voice and action. The special gift I marked in him was holiness and a daily and nightly careful, continual walk with God in meditation and prayer. He was a very good fellow and took delight, as his special comfort, to have his table and house filled with the best men….There lodged in his house at all these Assemblies in Edinburgh, for common, Mr Andrew Melville, Mr Thomas Smeaton, Mr Alexander Arbuthnot, three of the learnedest in Europe. Mr James Melville my uncle, Mr James Balfour, David Ferguson (first Protestant minister at Dunfermline), David Home, ministers, with some zealous godly barons and gentlemen.

Melville gives us a picture of a man who had little formal training in theology but was able to put over his beliefs with passion and conviction. He also seems to have been a hospitable man, although the picture Melville goes on to paint is somewhat different from what we might prefer today. Apparently formal meals were preceded by lengthy prayers, accompanied by intense ‘holy conversation’ and followed by yet more prayers and praise. Guests also joined in another long worship session before bedtime. This was, of course, the Presbyterian ideal (which is one reason why so many people failed to live up to it) but John Durie would have also been used to the monastic routine of almost constant prayer and singing of psalms. He died at the end of February 1600. His pension continued to be paid to his son Joshua as agreed in 1577 but the attempts of Joshua’s own son and heir to get it continued were unavailing.

John Angus

John Angus (c1515 – 1596) was a talented composer and musician who had been the Abbey precentor, responsible for maintaining a high standard of singing and probably also training the boys of the Song School. He had written some of the polyphonic settings of the mass and psalms that were used in its services. After 1560 he continued writing music for the metrical (rhyming) versions of the psalms and other sacred texts that were sung in the new Presbyterian church. Although Presbyterians did not allow harmonies in their music John Angus managed to produce some beautiful plain tunes, fourteen of which still survive.

Angus had also been the Abbey’s almoner, responsible for the care of the poor. He administered three almshouses, one in East Port, the almshouse of St Catherine near the Abbey itself and the larger establishment of St Leonard’s which lay to the south of the town and accommodated eight poor widows. (The notion that St Leonard’s was a leper hospital is entirely without foundation.) After 1560 he continued to oversee the St Leonard’s widows with the help of William Angus, a former priest who was almost certainly his brother.

As well as his £51 a year pension, John Angus acquired other sources of income. For many years Dunfermline Abbey had appropriated the revenues of the ‘vicarage’ of Inverkeithing, and these were allocated to Angus in 1562. This does not mean that he became the minister at Inverkeithing, merely that he collected the revenues. In the same way in 1565 he acquired the revenues of the post of Sacristan of the Chapel Royal at Stirling. However, Angus was not just sitting back and doing nothing in his new-found prosperity. Thomas Wode, a former monk of Lindores Abbey, was compiling a collection of music suitable for singing by Presbyterian congregations and John Angus contributed at least fourteen songs to Wode’s new work. These are now available on a CD contained in a sumptuous book entitled Jhone Angus and available from Dunfermline Heritage Community Projects.[3]

Alexander Steven

John Durie left Dunfermline after 1560 and John Angus probably did as well, but Alexander Steven, the former chaplain of St Laurence’s altar, definitely stayed. In 1567 he married Janet Sibbald and in 1582 they had a son, William, who seems not to have survived childhood. Alexander supplemented his monks’ pension by acting as a procurator, representing clients in the burgh court. In 1588 he also brought his own case in the court in conjunction with another former monk, William Smith, to recover 80 merks (£54) which they had been paid for witnessing Abbey legal documents between November 1559 and November 1561 (another sidelight on the slipping standards of the Abbey). In 1584 Alexander paid £20 to join the Merchant Guild and this may have been the time when he and Janet set up a tavern on the west side of the Kirkgate. In 1595 the couple were fined £4 by the Guild for selling wine at 10s a pint and were ordered to reduce the price by a shilling.

Alexander Steven died in October 1598 and in his will left £20 to his wife’s sister Marjory Sibbald and all the rest of his goods to his wife in recognition of his affectionate care of him ‘in his age and long infirmity’. The list of goods in his inventory is respectable. He owned 3 pieces of silverware weighing 36 ounces. In his tavern there was half a tun of wine and his household goods and clothes were worth £40. Like most Dunfermline burgesses he had run a small farm and owned 2 cows with their calves worth £20. In his barn and barnyard were 8 bolls of barley and 8 bolls of oats, together worth £80. He was owed £280 by the Commendator of Inchcolm and £80 by a Mr John Murray.

Alexander Steven’s confidence in the affection of his wife seems to have been somewhat misplaced. Within six weeks of his death she was betrothed to David Stewart, brother of Patrick Stewart of Beath and, on 10 December 1598, they were married. David Stewart moved into the Kirkgate tavern and he and Janet continued the business there.

And After That

After the Reformation, echoes of the Catholic past continued to sound faintly in Dunfermline. The Guild’s Holy Blood Altar had owned a piece of land which continued to be called the Holy Blood Acre and to generate funds in the form of tenants’ rents. After 1560 these funds were used for many years to help support a Reader and Precentor in the Kirk. The name stuck until the 19th century when the Town Council, who knew nothing of its history, assumed that it commemorated someone who had been put to death for their faith, and named a nearby street Martyr’s Place. (The Holy Blood Acre is where the Police Station now stands.)

Former significant festival days of the Catholic Church continued to be used as ‘term days’ for the leasing of houses and land, the hiring of servants and for other annual events – Martinmas (11 November), Whitsunday (end of May) Lammas (4 August), Michaelmas (30 October), Candlemas (2 February). The Grammar and Song Schools that had been founded by the Abbey were funded by the Town Council for many centuries. The monks may have finally disappeared but their legacy lived on.

[1] Evidence from The Burgh Records of Dunfermline 1488 – 1584, transcript by Erskine Beveridge. Download from www.archive.org

[2] Diary of Mr James Melville p 60.  Download from www.archive.org

[3] Website dunfermlineheritage.org