FIRSTof all an apology to Alan Clayton of Strachur. I wrongly credited someone else with Alan’s letter about Notre-Dame in the Sunday National. Sorry about that, Alan, who I is know is a faithful reader...

There are very few moments in Scottish history where you can say that a single event was a true turning point in the life of the nation. Usually even the most dramatic happenings, such as a battle, were the culmination of a course of events that led inexorably to Scotland being an altered state.

The Reformation, for instance, was not over in a single day. It took many years for Scotland to transform into a Protestant nation. The decisions of the Scottish Parliament in the summer of 1560 to outlaw the Latin Mass and end papal authority are correctly seen as the triumphal moments of the Reformation, but they came after years of a reform process. The Scottish Reformation is nearly always depicted as an almost instantaneous event, but in truth it was a more gradual change.

There is, however, one event in the mid-1540s that can be seen as a turning point, for it led to Scotland being a less dangerous place for the Reformers who were then able to preach their message much more openly and bring about the conditions for the Reformation itself.

That event was the assassination of Cardinal David Beaton in St Andrews Castle on May 29, 1546.

This heinous murder –for all murders are heinous – ended the life of one of Scotland’s most remarkable churchmen, a Fifer who rose to become a Prince of the Church – only the second Scot to become a Cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church.

Born in 1494 – the exact date is unknown – Beaton came from the family also known as Bethune who were first mentioned in Scotland in 1192 in a charter of Lindores Abbey in Fife.

As the sixth and youngest son of John Beaton and his wife Mary nee Boswell, it was probably always intended that David Beaton would have a career in the church. He studied at Glasgow and St Andrews Universities before completing his studies in Paris. At the age of just 25, King James V appointed him as his ambassador to France and thus started a meteoric career both in the church and as a statesman.

It would take a whole column to describe the activities of Beaton, but suffice it to say that he moved quickly upwards in both church and state, helped by his uncle James, the Archbishop of Glasgow and later Archbishop of St Andrews. He succeeded his uncle in that latter position and was the chief negotiator for James V in both his marriages – the first to Madeleine Valois, princess of France, and after her death at a young age, to the widow Mary of Guise, whose family were among the most powerful in France.

In 1537 he was made a bishop on the recommendation of King Francois I of France, and two years later succeeded his uncle as Archbishop of St Andrews. having already been made a Cardinal by Pope Paul III.

At this time David Beaton was the most powerful figure in the church in Scotland, but that church was under threat from the spread of the Protestant Reformation. Henry VIII had already reformed England’s church to make himself its head, and Beaton was determined to stop the English version of the Reformation spreading to Scotland, not least because of Henry’s intention to subjugate this country. Using all his diplomatic and political skills, Beaton was able to fend off both the Reformation and English domination – at least for a while.

In 1542, with James V dead and the infant Mary as Queen of Scots, Beaton produced a will allegedly made by James which named himself and three friendly earls as joint regents for Mary.

Henry VIII promptly bribed his own coterie of Scottish earls to go after Beaton and his chums. The Cardinal responded by making himself Chancellor of Scotland.

Beaton was also blamed by the people for what happened next – the ‘Rough Wooing’ of Scotland by Henry VIII who was determined to unite the two kingdoms under his rule by marrying his son, the future Edward VI, to Mary.

Scotland’s leaders at that time were split into two factions – the pro-Roman, pro-France loyalists and the pro-English, pro-Reform, rebellious crew .

We’ll look at the Rough Wooing in a future column, because it is a most neglected piece of Scottish history.

As Chancellor and primate, Beaton was now the most powerful man in the kingdom and was determined to halt the Reformation in its tracks. Yet the pro-English lobby briefly seized power and Beaton was thrown in jail, only to emerge more powerful as the populace resisted the English takeover.

Beaton’s own recklessness was his downfall. He was typical of many senior church figures of his era – he accumulated vast wealth and plenty illegitimate children, eight of them by his ‘wife’ Marion Ogilvy.

Some historians say he was not a cruel and vindictive persecutor of the Reformers, but half a dozen were executed after show trials before Beaton took on the then greatest Reformer of the day, George Wishart.

In March, 1346, Beaton had Wishart, a brilliant preacher who was the mentor of John Knox, arrested and tried for heresy. He was strangled and burned on March 28, an event that led directly to Beaton’s own death at the hands of Protestant conspirators led by Norman Leslie, master of Rothes, and William Kirkcaldy of Grange, both of whose families had suffered losses at the hands of Beaton.

Regular readers will know I always prefer eye-witness or at least contemporaneous accounts of events in Scottish history, and in the case of Beaton’s assassination, we have a very accurate account of what happened on that day. It was written by John Knox himself. It’s very much anti-Beaton propaganda but the facts are accurate.

I’m very grateful to Rosemary Goring’s excellent Scotland: The Autobiography for this modified version of Knox’s story of the murder.

Early on the Saturday morning, the 29 May, they were with several groups of people in the Abbey kirk-yard not far from the Castle. First, the gates being open, and the drawbridge let down, for receiving lime and stone and other things necessary for building (for Babylon was almost finished) – first, we say, William Kirkcaldy of Grange, younger, and six people with him, tried, and gaining entrance asked the porter "if my Lord was awake" who answered "No".

While William and the porter talked, Norman Leslie approached with his men; and because there were not many of them, they easily got in. They went to the middle of the courtyard and immediately John Leslie arrived , rather roughly, and four men with him. The frightened porter would have drawn up the bridge but John, who was on his way in, leapt in. And while the porter prepared to defend himself he was knocked on the head, the keys were taken from him and he was thrown into the ditch and so the place was seized.

A shout went up – the workmen, more than 100 of them, ran off the walls and without being harmed were sent out of the gate. First, William Kirkcaldy stood guard at the back door feeling that the Fox had escaped. Then the rest went to the gentleman’s rooms and without hurting anyone, they put more than 50 people out of the gate. Their number was merely 16.

The Cardinal, woken by the shouting, asked from his window, what the noise was about. It was answered that Norman Leslie had taken his castle . Understanding this, he ran to the back door, but seeing the passage taken he returned quickly to his room, took his two-handled sword and made his chambermaid drag chests and other obstacles against the door.

Then John Leslie came to the door and asked him to open it. The Cardinal asking "Who calls?" He answered "my name is Leslie". He asks again: "Is that Norman?" The other said "no, my name is John".

"I want Norman," said the Cardinal, "for he is my friend."

"Content yourself with such as are here; for you won’t get anyone else."

Accompanying John there were James Melville, a man well acquainted with Master George Wishart, and Peter Carmichael, a stout gentleman. In the meantime, while they push at the door, the Cardinal hides a box of gold under the coals that were laid in a secret corner. At length he asked "will you save my life?" John answered: "It may be that we will."

"No," said the Cardinal, "swear to me by God's wounds and I will open to you."

Then John answered "that which was said is unsaid," and so cried "fire, fire," for the door was very study. So a scuttle with a couple of burning coals was brought. It is uncertain whether it was the Cardinal or his chamber-maid who opened the door, but he sat down in a chair and cried "I am a priest, I am a priest you will not kill me."

John Leslie (according to his former vows) struck him first, once or twice, and so did Peter. But James Melville (a gentle and modest man) seeing them both enraged, drew them aside and said "this work and judgment of God (although it a secret) ought to be done with greater gravity". Pointing the sword at Beaton, he said "repent of your former wicked life but especially the shedding of blood of that notable instrument of God Master George Wishart who although he was consumed by the flame of the fire before men, yet asks for vengeance upon you, and we are sent from God to revenge it: for here before my God I protest that neither the hatred of your person, the love of your riches, nor the fear of any trouble you could have done to me in particular, moved, or moves me to strike you, but only because you have been and remain an obstinate enemy of Christ Jesus and his holy evangel."

And so he struck him twice or thrice through with a stog (stabbing) sword; and so Beaton fell, never word out of his mouth but "I’m a priest, fie, fie all is gone."

The killers were assailed from outside by the Provost of St Andrews and a large crowd of people. The assassins hung the mutilated body of Beaton from the castle walls, and it seems to have had the strange effect of calming the citizenry. Beaton’s body was eventually put in a cask of brine and taken down to the same dungeon where he himself had imprisoned heretics.

The aristocracy – who were on the pro-Roman Catholic side – duly laid siege to the Castle, presumably to kill the plotters. John Knox was one of the many Reformers who rushed to defend the Castle, and he stayed there until a French naval bombardment ended the siege and Knox was made a slave on a French galley until 1549.

He would not return to Scotland as a preacher for ten years, by which time the cause of the Reformation was far advanced.

Without Beaton, only Regent Mary of Guise stood in their way and she died in 1560. With the murder of Beaton, there was no longer a dominant figure to counter the Reformation. Within 14 years, Scotland had officially become a Protestant country.

We’ll leave the last word to Knox: “The deith of this forsaid tirrant was dolourous to the preistis, dolourous to the Governour, and moist dolourous to the Quein Dowager: for in him perisched faythfulness to France, comfort to all gentilwemen and especiallie to wantoun wedowis.”