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Tumult at the Tolbooth: The Attempted Coup of 1596

Updated: Apr 13, 2021

Old Tolbooth, Edinburgh. (Demolished in 1817.)

Two years after he succeeded as 8th Lord Forbes, John Forbes continued his political and religious activism in what was called a “tumult” at the Edinburgh Tolbooth with King James VI on December 17, 1596.

While slowly growing more secure in his monarchy, young James VI pitted his Protestant lords against the Catholic lords. For example, in order to check the growing power of Catholic George Gordon, 6th Earl of Huntly (son of the former Lord Chancellor of Scotland), James appointed James Forbes, when still master of Forbes in 1571, as the King's Lieutenant in the North. As he became more secure in his reign, James became more alarmed at the growing movement of Presbyterianism with the Protestant faith.

Statue of John Knox at St. Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh

The issue was whether the Scottish church or Kirk should continue to be led by the King or by representative assemblies of church elders called “presbyters.” The primary issues were the authority to appoint bishops (often awarded to favorites), approving the topics of the sermons, and managing the offerings (or tithes) for paying ministers. This was further complicated by the fact that bishops were members of the Parliament. Catholic clergy were excluded after 1567 but Protestant bishops continued in this role until 1638. The King held to the strong conviction of the divine right of kings to rule – over matters both secular and religious. Starting in 1584, he instructed the Parliament to pass what were called the “Black Acts” that limited the authority of the congregation, abolished Presbyteries and established royal supremacy over the Kirk. For confirmed Presbyterians, the final straw was his establishment on January 9, 1595, of the “Octavians,” a financial commission of eight officials.

On December 17, 1596, John, 8th Lord Forbes, and James Lindsay, 7th Lord Lindsay, rallied two to three thousand men at the “Little Church” of St. Giles in Edinburgh. The “Little Church” (later St. Giles Cathedral) was where John Knox preached the Presbyterian principles established by John Calvin. From there, Forbes and Lindsay headed a delegation that included Sir William Kirkcaldy of Grange, Sir James Edmonstone of Duntreath, Thomas Kennedy of Bargany, Andrew Kerr of Faldonside, Edinburgh burgess William Little, and Edinburgh minister Robert Bruce.

James VI,

They confronted King James VI at the old Edinburgh Tolbooth, which was the early meeting site for the Parliament of Scotland, the Court of Session, and, on that day, the King’s Privy Council. They demanded that the King revoke the “Black Acts.” The King sent John Erskine, Earl of Mar, to negotiate but Forbes and Lindsay were unmoved. The King fled to the palace at Holyrood, where a second delegation met him in the late afternoon. The Presbyterians argued that they were not defying the King but that the sermons be under the jurisdiction of the General Assembly – which itself was under royal authority. However, the King thought otherwise and considered the “attempted coup” of that day to be treasonous.

Due to his position and past loyalty, Lord Forbes apparently received little rebuke. However, James, 7th Lord Lindsay was heavily fined and his property was forfeited. The other conspirators that were brought to trial on February 11, 1597, for “Convocation of an Unlawful Assembly” included "sum of thame inhabitantis of the sherefdome of Fyfe, sum of Angus and Mairnis, utheris of Tueddell, Cliddisdaill and Leninox." (Ancient Criminal Trials in Scotland from 1488 to 1624), edited by Robert Pitcairn, 1833.)


For an excellent examination of the causes, events, and impacts of the 1596 “tumult” at the Tolbooth, see “The Scottish Presbyterian Movement in 1596” by Julian Goodare published on March 22, 2010, in the Canadian Journal of History. As noted by the author:

This article has taken a snapshot at a point in time where specific evidence presents itself, but the movement that it depicts had existed before 1596 and continued to be important well into the seventeenth century. Like all movements it adapted itself to changing circumstances, but whenever political opportunities presented themselves, as they later dramatically did in 1637-38 with the National Covenant, organized presbyterian radicalism was a powerful force helping to shape the history of early modern Scotland.

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