Drama and Reforming Ideals in the 1530s

Whether David Lindsay can accurately be described as a Reformer or not seems to be a matter of some contention for critics and historians.  For Joanne Kantrowitz, Lindsay is a Reformer, while Carol Edington errs on the side of caution when assessing his position, noting Lindsay’s connection to Reformers at the court but falling short of numbering him among them.  For Edington, Lindsay is a reformer with a small ‘r’, outraged by clerical abuses and yet steering clear of doctrinal matters in his literary works.

What has struck me as interesting in my reading today is how Lindsay manages to criticise the Catholic clergy in 1540 in a way which enabled James V to exhort the Bishop of Glasgow to “reform their factions and manners of living”, when other playwrights of the 1530s were punished for the same thing.  In his section on ‘Performances and Plays’ in The Edinburgh History of Scottish Literature, Volume One (2007), Bill Findlay relays  that:

In 1535, John Kyllour, a Dominican friar, wrote a Historye of Christis Passioun, performed in the Castlehill playfield, Stirling, before James V, his court, and the townspeople.  Kyllour employed the format of the passion play to criticise bishops and priests; for this, after a period as a hunted man, he was burned at the stake in 1539.  James Wedderburn of Dundee wrote, and had performed there about 1540, plays which satirised the Roman Catholic clergy: a ‘tragedie’, Beheading of Johne the Baptist, and a ‘comedie’, Historie of Dyonisius the Tyranne.  For these, he had to flee into exile in France. (p255-6)

How is it that Lindsay is not only able to attack the clergy, but has his play used as springboard for James to do the same, while contemporary dramatists suffer exile and execution for doing so?  Sadly, because neither Kyllour or Wedderburn’s texts survive, we will never be able to assess the qualitative differences between the forms and extent of reformation they advocate and how these differ from those that might have been suggested by Lindsay, if, indeed, Lindsay’s critique in the non-extent Interlude of 1540 bore any relation to that found in the Satyre of the 1550s.  It does seem astonishing that Lindsay’s attack on prelates and the “naughtiness in Religion” should have been sustained and vehement enough to justify James V’s response, while Kyllour and Wedderburn suffered such a fearful fate for their reforming ideals.

Category: Contexts, Court, David Lyndsay, Monarchy, Politics, Theatre History | 7 comments

  • I’m wondering if Kyllour and Wedderburn may have been activists of some sort as well as writing plays. Any further evidence of who they were?

  • Ellie says:

    There’s not much on Kyllour. The account comes from Knox’s Reformation in Scotland:

    A Black Friar, called Friar Kyllour, set forth the history of Christ’s Passion in form of a Play, which he both preached and practised openly in Stirling, the King himself being present upon a Good Friday in the morning. In this, all things were so lively expressed that the very simple people understood and confessed…This plain speaking so enflamed the hearts of all that bare the Beast’s Mark, that they ceased not, till Friar Kyllour, and with him Friar Beveridge, Sir Duncan Symson, Robert Forrester, a Gentleman, and Dean Thomas Forrest, Canon Regular and Vicar of Dollar, a man of upright life, all together were cruelly murdered in one fire, the last day of February, in the year of God 1538… upon the Castle Hill of Edinburgh.

    Wedderburn, however, we do know a something about and he was activist associated with Gavin Logie:

  • Thank you for your precise answer. (Good to know.) Since conditions were different after 1548, I would imagine the text we have may be stronger than it would/could have been in a shorter 1540 play. I also think Carol Edington was being careful. The formal split between what became Protestants and Catholics did not occur until after Lyndsay’s death, so everyone was still officially Roman Catholic before that.

    • Ellie says:

      Thanks, Joanne. Your input is incredibly helpful for the project so do let us know what you think about the various blog posts and interviews to be published on this site over the next few months.

  • Does this help at all? (Don’t post if I’m interfering. I’m just trying to re-think this myself and my knowledge is rusty, indeed.)
    Buchanan’s History:
    The year 1539 was one of vigorous
    action against heretics. ” In the beginning of that
    year,” he tells us in his History, ” many suspected of
    Lutheranism were seized ; towards the end of Feb-
    ruary five were burned ; nine recanted ; many were
    exiled. Among the last was George Buchanan,
    who, while his guards were asleep, escaped from the
    window of his sleeping apartment.” 1 As it had
    come to his ears that Cardinal Beaton had offered
    a bribe to the King to put him in his hands, it
    was evident that Scotland had become too hot
    for him. 2

  • I imagine you’ve had a read at Foxe, too. I just spent some time with the marvelous edition on the web which allows you to search all the versions. Fox says his info is 1564 out of Scotland. No mention of Kyllour, but really full on Patrick Hamilton and his Patrick’s Places plus tale of Jas.V interfering in a later examination that included a relative of Hamilton’s…suggesting the ambiguity of Jas. V’s thinking re. the protesting Scots.

  • Ellie says:

    Not interfering at all! I know Tom is very interested in this area so I’ll direct him to your ueful suggestions. It’s really interesting that 1539 might have been a flashpoint for religious conflict given James’ acceptance of the 1540 interlude – although, as you say, we cannot be wholly sure of the content.