Throughout history there are incidents that at the time may seem small or even insignificant, the action of a few individuals who would normally be considered mere spectators in the pageant of history. Some obvious incidents come to mind; The Boston Tea Party or the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand both give rise to a ‘butterfly effect’ theory of world events. Edinburgh’s very own ‘madam butterfly’ has become a legend in Scotland’s history… the infamous Jenny Geddes.
Jenny Geddes (c. 1600 – c. 1660) was a fruit and veg seller who kept a stall outside the Tron Kirk. Not a person that you would imagine as a significant historical character, but on 23rd July 1637 Jenny Geddes was a catalyst that started one of the most infamous riots in Edinburgh’s history.
Firstly some background:
The origins of the incident date back to the accession to the throne of King Charles I in 1625. Charles was not a popular monarch north of the border; in particular the rites used in his coronation angered the more puritan post reformation church in Scotland. The Anglican form of worship was very close to Roman Catholicism and it was seen by many as an attempt by King Charles to bring back Catholicism through the back door. His new archbishop of Canterbury William Laud was also very unpopular in Scotland, but undaunted by the rise of feeling against his reforms Charles and his archbishop assembled a commission whose remit was to produce a prayer book suitable for Scotland that would bring it much more into line with the Church of England. In 1637 a new Book of Common Prayer was printed in Edinburgh, and it was to be first used in St Giles’ Cathedral on Sunday 23 July 1637. The stage was set – enter Jenny Geddes.
There had been some unrest up to the date of the service so it is arguable that many came into St Giles' that day ready for a fight. Ms Geddes took her place, not on one of the pews but among the womenfolk who were required to bring their own stools into the cathedral and use one of the aisles. A very nervous James Hannay, Dean of Edinburgh began to read from the new prescribed service to the sound of unruly murmurings from the congregation.
Jenny geddes sat fuming on her “fald stool” or a “creepie-stool” meaning a folding stool. Finally she had heard enough and stood up and cried; “Deil colic the wame o’ ye, fause thief; daur ye say Mass in my lug?” meaning “Devil cause you severe pain and flatulent distension of your abdomen, false thief: dare you say the Mass in my ear?” And at that she hurled her stool straight at the Dean’s head. This sparked a full scale riot in the church. one congregation member who had been heard uttering a response to the liturgy was thumped with bibles. The Dean took cover and the Provost summoned his men to put down the disturbance. The rioters were soon ejected from St Giles' and the Bishop of Edinburgh appealed for calm. However this was not going to end quietly, The Presbyterians of 17th Century Scotland would have made the al-Qaida look moderate! Abuse reigned in from the street outside, windows were smashed and the doors looked to be broken down.
The riots continued on that day throughout Edinburgh, The City chambers were laid siege to with the provost now sheltering inside. Eventually they negotiated a ‘truce’ of sorts. At the suggestion of the Lord Advocate a committee was appointed known as the Tables to negotiate with the Privy Council. Their suggestion of a withdrawal of the offending liturgy was not surprisingly thrown out by King Charles. This led to even more unrest including the signing of the National Covenant in February 1638. Later that year the bishops and archbishops were formally expelled from the Church of Scotland, which was then established on a full Presbyterian basis. Charles responded in his trademark arrogant manner by instigating the Bishops’ Wars which ultimately led to the English Civil War and the execution of Charles and his Archbishop.
In St Giles' Cathedral a monument stands to this unlikely heroine. A bronze 3 legged stool (not the folding stool as described in many accounts) stands to commemorate that day a market trader pawn took the head of a king. As an aside to the story, around 1787, Robert Burns named his mare after Jenny Geddes in tribute.