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William Forbes (1585-1634), First Episcopal Bishop of Edinburgh


Thanks to a Forbes, the Church of Saint Giles in Edinburgh was elevated to the status of St. Giles Cathedral. King Charles I was so impressed with a sermon by the Right Reverend William Forbes that he created the Episcopal Diocese of Edinburgh, raised Saint Giles Kirk to a Cathedral, and appointed Forbes as the First Bishop of Edinburgh.


William was born in 1585 to William Forbes, a burgess in Aberdeen, in a cadet family of the Forbes of Corsindae. (Keith, Robert. 1824. An Historical Catalog of the Scottish Bishops Down to the Year 1688. Edinburgh: Bell & Bradfute.) At Aberdeen Grammar School,he was taught classics and philosophy and went on to Marischal College at the University of Aberdeen in 1601 at the age of 16. (Comerford, Patrick. 2012. “William Forbes (1585-1634), Scottish Caroline Divine and first Bishop of Edinburgh.” Dead Anglican Theologians Society. Datsociety.blogspot.com.) In 1606, he studied theology, philosophy, and Hebrew for five years at universities in Poland, Germany, and Holland. He was ordained a minister in the Church of Scotland, or “Kirk,” and was posted first at Alford and then at Monymusk, both in Aberdeenshire.


William Forbes, First Episcopal Bishop of Edinburgh (National Galleries Scotland)

At that time, King James VI and I was dedicated to reforming worship in the Kirk to ensure it more closely resembled that of the Church of England. He encouraged and supported the “Five Articles of Perth,” that forced the episcopacy form of church governance onto Scotland. These articles were: kneeling during communion; private baptism; private communion for the sick or infirm; confirmation by a bishop; and the observance of Holy Days, which “enjoined the ministers to celebrate the festivals of Christmas and Easter.” In November 1616, the Right Reverand Forbes was selected to defend the lawfulness of one the proposed article regarding kneeling at the Holy Communion.


While many Scots believed that the simple act of kneeling to receive Holy Communion was “idolatrous because it was taken to imply adoration,” Forbes argued that “adoration is not being offered to the bread and wine but to Christ present in the Sacrament.” (Martin, Joyce B. 2000. “An lrenic Theologian: William Forbes, First Bishop of Edinburgh.” The Society for Ecumenical Studies and the Ecumenical Society of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Oxford.) The articles were accepted by the General Assembly in 1618 and ratified by the Scottish Parliament 1621.


In 1620, Aberdeen’s city council appointed Forbes as the Principal of Marischal College. He was both Dean of the Faculty of Divinity at Aberdeen, and Rector of Marischal College. At the end of 1621, Forbes moved to Edinburgh where he faced opposition to his views on episcopacy and to “his argument that it was possible to reconcile that the doctrines of Catholics and Reformers” in many points. (Cooper, James. "Forbes, William (1585–1634)." Dictionary of National Biography, Volume 19, 1889) He also preached the unpopular view of superiority of bishops over presbyters. He finally returned to Aberdeen in 1626.


When King James VI and I died in 1625, his son became Charles I and his coronation was at Westminster Abbey on February 2, 1626, as King of England. However, due to the political and religious tensions in Scotland, his coronation as King of Scotland was delayed until June 18, 1633. While in Edinburgh, Charles heard Forbes preach at Holyrood on principles that were more aligned with the episcopalian doctrines of the Anglican Church. Charles I was so impressed that he carved out a new Diocese of Edinburgh from the Archdiocese of St Andrews and raised the Saint Giles Kirk to the status of cathedral. The King then nominated Forbes to fill the new see and he was consecrated as the first Bishop of Edinburgh in February 1634.


His post lasted only two months as he died on April 12, 1634, at the age of 49. He was buried in St. Giles Cathedral with a monument (now destroyed) that included an inscribed elegy that began with:

Cum, cum, good Christians, put on your murning Weedes;

Cum weepe with me, for good Caus fo we have,

For him, yea him, who sowed those spiritual Seeds

Most plenteouslie, poore Souls to feed and save.

But, oh alace! alace now he is gone ! Which may give us just Caus to sighe and mone ;

For our good Bishop, who was a worthy Man,

Whose Corps of his, is layed now in cold ' Clay.

(Maitland, William, editor. 1753. The History of Edinburgh from its Foundation to the Present Time. Edinburgh: Hamilton, Balfour and Neill.)


"Wm. Forbes First Bishop of Edinburgh 1633" Saint Mary's Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Bishop Forbes’s only surviving treatise deals with religious reconciliation. Written in Latin, the title is “Considerationes Modestae et Pacificae Controversiarum de Justificatione, Purgatorio, Invocatione Sanctorum, Christo Mediatore, et Eucharistia” (“Temperate and peace-making reflections on the controversies regarding justification, purgatory, the invocation of saints, Christ the Mediator, and the Eucharist.”) He had given the manuscript to his friend Thomas Syderf who published the work posthumously in London in 1658. Sydserf himself was consecrated Bishop of Brechin in 1634, and a year later in 1635, he became Bishop of Galloway.


One of Bishop Forbes's sons, Arthur Forbes, became Professor of Humanities at St Jean d’Angel, near La Rochelle. Another son, Thomas Forbes, entered the Scots College, a seminary in Rome, and eventually joined the staff of Cardinal Carlo Barberini.


The likeness of Bishop William Forbes was carved in stone by John Rhind and placed over the western façade of St. Giles Cathedral during the exterior renovations of the cathedral from 1829 to 1833.


The top tier of niches include statues of Scottish monarchs and their consorts: (from left to right) Alexander I, David I, Alexander III, Saint Margaret, Margaret Tudor, Robert the Bruce, James I and James IV. The lower tier includes noted ecclesiastics: (from left to right) Gawin Douglas, John Knox, William Forbes and Alexander Henderson. (Public Monuments and Sculpture Association, National Recording Project, "St. Giles Cathedral: Statues and Memorials.")


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