'The Stoneyfeild Saboth Day' occurred on Sunday the 23rd of July, 1637. It recounts ‘A breiff descriptioun of the tumult which fell upone the Lordis day [the 23rd], throw the occatioun of a blak popish superstitious service booke, which was then wickedlie introduced, and violentlie urged upone our Mother churches of Edinburghe.’
It is perhaps far better known as the riot that took place in St. Giles’ Cathedral, in Edinburgh, when James Hanna, the Dean of St. Giles’, attempted the first public reading from the ‘Revised Prayer Book’ and Jenny Geddes ‘threw her toys out of the pram’.
That ‘blak popish superstitious service booke’ was ‘The Booke of Common Prayer, Administration of the Sacraments and other parts of Divine Service for the use of the Church Of Scotland’ that had been devised by the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud, whom John Galt, in ‘Ringhan Gilhaize’ calls ‘that ravenous Arminian Antichrist’. It was to be foisted upon a reluctant and recalcitrant Scots Presbyterian public by the authoritarian demand of the absent King Charles I. It was hated for a number of reasons; one being that it was imposed on the congregation, without much consultation, by a hugely unpopular King who had only once, four years previously, visited the land of his birth. The significant reasons, however, were that it represented yet another attempt by Charles I to introduce Episcopacy into Scotland and it was regarded as ‘papist’ – verging on Roman Catholicism – by post-Reformation Presbyterians in Scotland. The imposition of the new form of service, which the ‘Prayer Book’ demanded, was taken as a grievous offence by worshipers who wanted to preserve their own style of worship.
It’s important to realise that religion figured large in the daily lives of everyone in the 17th Century. That meant every living soul, be (s)he commoner or clergy, noble or royal. It’s certain that being able to worship in one manner or another assumed far greater importance for even the ordinary citizen in those days than we can today give credit. The Scottish congregation undoubtedly felt that if the new form of service was implemented – that reform device of English Prelacy – then Scotch Presbyterianism was on a slippery slope. Sunday, the 23rd of July, was set as the day when the new liturgy would be first celebrated throughout the realm and with that background of simmering resentment and expectation, all it needed was a spark to ignite a riot.
The story tells of a market trader called Jenny Geddes, who kept a greengrocer's stall outside the Tron Kirk. Jenny was weel kent as ‘the Princess of the Tron Adventurers’ amongst the street sellers of the Old Toun of Edinburgh. Jenny was a woman of modest means, in keeping with her station; she was no merchant. In consequence, she would not have had a place in the pews and would have gone to Kirk with her stool in her hand, like many another. You could hardly blame her for needing a seat if she had to stand for hours on end by her bit market stall. Jenny was surely a bit of a character, perhaps couthy, maybe bonny, but not coy; unlikely to have been over modest. No doubt she elbowed her way through the crowd and perched in the aisle near the pulpit for the morning service. Maybe she was a bit deaf and needed to be at the front. She may have been unpredictable and have had a short fuse, but was unlikely to have preplanned her contribution to history. She was certainly orthodox Presbyterian, familiar with her Bible and well aware of the occasion, which threatened to destroy all she held dear in matters of faith and worship.
When the Dean began to read the Collects, a part of the prescribed service, Jenny must have had a rush of blood to the heid. For when she heard a young man behind her sounding a dutiful “amen” to the newly composed ‘church comedie’ that was then ‘impudentlie acted in publict sicht of the congregatioun’, she spun round and skelpit him about ‘baith his cheikis with the weght of hir handis’. She then harangued him with, “Fals theiff is thair no other pairt of the churche to sing Mess in but thow most sing it at my lug?” With her gander up, she instinctively picked up her stool and threw it straight at the puir Minister mannie. The remainder of the assembled throng, solidly behind the spirit if not the purpose of Jenny’s action, didn’t need further encouragement and a general tumult ensued. Much of the congregation followed Jenny’s example in shouting abuse, throwing Bibles and stools, and anything else they could lay their hands on. The disturbance escalated into a riot, which drove the Dean and Bishop from the pulpit and the Kirk, out into the street.
Jenny Geddes’ immortal words are reported elsewhere as being, "De’il colic the wame o’ ye, fause thief; daur ye say Mass at ma lug?" The episode of the stool is recorded thus: ‘On did cast a stoole at him intending to have given him a tickit of rememberance, but jowking [he ducked] became his saifgaird at that tyme…’. One man got the full force of Jenny’s tongue, whilst the Dean got the force of her assault.
Whatever the degree of ‘tallness’ behind Jenny Geddes’ part in the tale, it wasn’t until 1670 that her name was first associated with the singular ‘act of defiance’. Now, that wasn’t too far off being contemporary. If we allow for “My dad kent a mannie; he wis there an’ he telt my dad an’ he telt me…”, and a wee dose of exaggeration in the telling, it could be fairly close to the truth. There’s monie a History that was written hundreds of years after the event that folks take as read. The only embellishment we need worry about is whether or not the woman in question really was called Jenny Geddes. John Prebble, of ‘Culloden’ fame, vouched for her story and I for one have no desire to argue. The riot and subsequent disturbances most certainly occurred and the women of Edinburgh were prominent in the fray, even if it wasn’t Jenny Geddes, real or mythical herself, who chucked the stool and lit the tinder, so to speak.
Jenny Geddes’ stushie in St. Giles signalled the beginning of the end of civil and ecclesiastical tyranny in both Scotland and England. The rioting at St. Giles on the ‘Saboth’ and that which spread to other parts of the city, and to other cities, stemmed from a spontaneous outburst. The random throwing of a stool and the lemming-like rioting that followed had a profound affect that served to deepen religious convictions. The storm that had been gathering for nearly forty years broke. Protesters from all ranks of society rejected the new liturgy and within a year the National Covenant had been signed. Aberdeen was captured in defiance and retaliation escalated. The Wars of the Three Kingdoms, including the English Civil War, the execution of Charles I, Cromwell’s conquest of Scotland, and the death of Montrose, all ensued. Jenny Geddes wasn’t the prime mover, but her actions were a portent of momentous events.