James Hannay, Dean of St. Giles

A person’s life consists of many moments. It is not uncommon that but one moment lives on after them, if even one. In the case of Dean Hannay, what has lived on for many is an act now reviled in Scottish lore, and the reaction to that act. In this article, we will explore a bit more about Dean Hannay, and set his most famous moment in context.

When I entered St. Giles Church in Edinburgh for the first time, I had heard of Dean Hannay, and thought perhaps there might be some mention of him in the pamphlets or guidebooks. When I walked it, prominently displayed in the center of the church, was a bright, brass plaque which reads:

To James Hannay DD
Dean of this Cathedral
He was the first and the last who read the service book in this church.
This memorial is erected in happier times by his descendant.

His presence at a pivotal event in Scottish history is both interesting and tragic.

Early Life

James Hannay was born before 1600, though the exact date of his birth is not known. John Hannay, his father was a second son of Patrick Hannay, who held the Sorbie estate from 1543 to 1560. John’s brother, Alexander, succeeded to title to Sorbie. In 16th century Scotland, the rule of primogeniture applied, meaning that only the first born succeeded to a father’s lands. It appears that for this reason, John began to seek his life in Edinburgh.

John married Margaret Johnson in the Canongate in 1567. The Canongate is today the lower half of the Royal Mile in Edinburgh, but was a separate burgh at the time. He built up a significant estate in Edinburgh. After the death of his first wife, he married Maus Smyth, the daughter of a merchant burgess in the Canongate. John himself became a burgess, and eventually the bailie burgess of the Canongate. A burgess is equivalent to the modern day city council, and the bailie was the head of the council, somewhat like a mayor. John also maintained connections with Galloway. He represented Wigtown in the Scottish Parliament in 1589, and represented the Wigtown Presbytery in the General Assembly in 1590. John died in 1604, leaving 4 legitimate sons, including James, and one natural son.

With this pedigree of both civic and religious activity, James Hannay pursued his education at the University of Edinburgh, graduating with an M.A. degree in 1615. His plaque at St. Giles indicates he had a D.D. (Doctorate of Divinity), so he may have pursued further education. He became a minister, first serving the church in Kilmaurs, a village in East Ayrshire, in 1620.

The King’s Minister

Stewart Frances speculates that the connection of James Hannay’s cousins, Baronet Robert Hannay of Mochrum and the poet Patrick Hannay, to King James may have helped him advance to his next position. James Hannay was appointed by King James I of England and VI of Scotland, head of the Scottish and English national churches, to serve the church in Canongate on December 5, 1623. This church served the royal family and court at Holyrood Palace, as well as being a parish church for Canongate. The church today is known as Holyrood Abbey, the ruin on the grounds of the Palace of Holyrood House.

A number of years later, the Holyrood church was remodeled for a special event, the Coronation of Charles I in 1633. “Mr. James Hannay of ye said churche (Holyrudhouse) had a shorte speache to his Majesty.“  This Scottish coronation occurred quite some time after Charles’s ascension to the throne of both England and Scotland in 1625. The position of the royal family in Scotland was difficult, which accounts for the delay in the Scottish coronation. Symbolic of this troubled relationship was that the Scottish Parliament had told Charles he could not wear the crown of Scotland unless he was crowned in Scotland. The roots of this difficulty lay in religion.

The Position of the Scottish King

The Reformation had swept across both England and Scotland, then separate kingdoms, in the 16th century. The English Reformation began in England with the active support and encouragement of King Henry VIII in 1531 when the Pope failed to grant him a divorce. After the Reformation, Anglican ritual and doctrine still maintained heavy influences from its Roman Catholic roots. Governance of the church was ultimately up to the sovereign, who appointed bishops to preside over church matters.

The Scottish reformation, by contrast, was strongly influenced by John Knox, a protege of John Calvin, and was supported and encouraged by Scottish nobles in the face of a weakened royalty. The Reformation in Scotland began while Queen Mary was under the regency of her mother, Mary Guise, and the young queen was growing up in France. Calvin strongly believed that church governance should be through a General Assembly, whose delegates were made up of members of local churches. Government was to have no role in church governance. Among the doctrinal points that differentiated Presbyterians were that salvation was only by grace, not by works; that the mass was not an actual sacrifice; that only an elect chose by God would be saved; and a belief that salvation could not be lost. Presbyterian ritual was austere in comparison to Anglican practice: there was no mass, and no pageantry.

Mary, Queen of Scots, had resisted the Scottish reformation but ultimately had no choice but to consent as a condition of her return as sovereign from France in 1560. She was permitted to be the only Catholic in Scotland, and in fact most Scots remained Catholic for quite some time. Mary was not to be Queen much longer-a tale too long to relate here. What is more important to understand is that Protestant forces, led by her brother, the Earl of Moray, held true power and obtained regency over her son James VI after her abdication and eventual execution in England by Elizabeth I. James VI was anointed king of Scotland in 1567 at the age of thirteen months.

James, while subject to regency, retained power against efforts by his mother’s supporters to regain the throne on her behalf. The Marian civil war was decided in favor of James’ supporters in 1573 with English intervention. James had been raised by protestant regents, and owed his throne as well to English, Anglican, help.

King James VI of Scotland was ultimately designated heir to the English throne by Elizabeth I, and became King of the separate kingdoms of Scotland  (James VI) and England (James I)  in 1603 on her death. Once becoming King of England, James was sympathetic to Anglican governance of the Scottish church. His quest for episcopacy, the governance of the church by bishops, fit well with his philosophy that kings should rule, and not defer to parliaments or popular will.  

By the end of the reign of King James, the English system of bishops had been transposed to Scotland, and General Assemblies met only with the approval of the king. In essence, church governance had assumed an Anglican cast in Scotland, but ritual and doctrine were still Calvinist in some respects. Calvinism had a long period to take root in Scotland, and by the time of the death of King James had done so in most areas other than the Highlands.

Charles I inherited his father’s project of increasing the power of the king and unifying church practice in Scotland. His political astuteness, however, did not match his father’s. Never having lived in Scotland, nor even having visited, he held a low opinion of the kingdom, and seemed to do everything he could to alienate it. He married the Catholic Henrietta Maria of France, sparking concern among the Calvinists that he wished to bring back the authority of the Pope. Charles revoked all gifts and privileges in Scotland. He hoped to then be paid for these lands and privileges. This policy effectively took back lands distributed upon the destruction of the Catholic church, about 1/3rd of Scotland, and uphended the livelihood of much of the laity and clergy. Resistance was strong, and Charles had to settle for much less than he wanted from the Scots.

Unifying Church and State: The Book of Common Prayer

Charles I wanted to make church practice uniform throughout his two kingdoms, and in 1633 he appointed the like-minded William Laud as Archbishop of Canterbury, the highest authority in the English church after the king. To the dismay of many of the Scots who attended the coronation at St. Giles, Anglican rites were used in the ceremony.

Charles I and Archbishop Laud were determined to have Scottish churches begin using the Common Book of Prayer. The Bishop William of Edinburgh was won over to Laud’s project, and a letter from March 5, 1634, indicates that James Hannay agreed with that direction. James Hannay was subsequently appointed Dean of St. Giles Church in Edinburgh in 1635. He traveled to London along with other Scottish clerics that year to participate in the drafting of the Scottish Book of Common Prayer. The new book to be used in Scottish church services would be similar to that being used by the Church of England, with some changes giving it a little Scottish flavor. Ministers and priests would be called Presbyters, and the Apocrypha would not be used for scripture readings, for example. It appears that King Charles I rewarded Dean Hannay well for his work, granting him land in Kelso, now in the Scottish Borders, in May of 1637.

Our Hannay relative appeared to be doing very well. Appearances can be deceiving.

The Fateful Reading

This version of events that follows is based on James King Hewiston’s The Convenanters. I have used that source as it notes contemporary or nearly contemporary documents to support its version of events.

In December 1637, an order was issued which required all churches to purchase 2 copies of the new prayer books by Easter of 1638, which fell on April 12. While most churches followed the requirement, many did not, and resistance to the new book was growing. Some claimed that Archbishop Laud had it approved by the Pope. An order was issued by Scottish bishops on the following Monday requiring purchase within 15 days. Still, by the end of summer, the new prayer book was not being used. To jumpstart use of the liturgy, Dr. David Lindsay, the Bishop of Edinburgh, printed advertisements that ministers would read the new prayer book to their congregations on July 23, and that ministers must read the advertisement to their congregations on July 16. This would give resisters time to respond.

Bishop Lindsay then planned an elaborate ceremony at St. Giles on July 23, 1637. The day of the introduction of the prayer book was a high occasion. The Archbishop of St. Andrews, John Spottiswoode was in the royal loft of the church. The Bishop of Dunblane also attended. Nobles, judges, and city officials were decked out in their formal gowns. The church was crowded. In those days, there were no seats in the church, and serving maids were sent with three legged stools to secure a place for their mistresses. The service started with prayers from the soon to be displaced Book of Common Order, psalms and prayers by Patrick Henderson. Mr. Henderson ended his part of the service saying, “Adieu, good people, for I think this is the last time I shall be reading my prayers in this place.”

At about 10 am, Dean Hannay came to the reader’s desk, with the new prayer book in hand. A murmur began before he could begin to read, and it soon turned into a roar which kept him from reading. As the rotund Bishop Lindsay began to approach the pulpit in an attempt to quiet the crowd, and the roar increased. Among the shouts from the crowd were “traitors,” “bellygods,” “deceivers” and “Pope.” A volley of Bibles and stools soon followed. A woman, identified variously as Mrs. Main or Jenny Geddes, pulled Bishop Lindsay from the pulpit. The protesters were then forces out of the church by magistrates. They continued their protests outside, throwing stones at the church windows and doors.

One woman in the church decided to go to a corner of the church and read her Bible rather than pay attention to the service. When a man next to her shouted “Amen” repeatedly during the service, she yelled at him, “Is there no other part of the Kirk to say mass in but thou must sayest it in my lugge (ear)?”

The story one hears of frequently in Scottish retellings, and that is commemorated in St. Giles, is that the first stool was thrown by Jenny Geddes. Other accounts have her making the comment about having someone say mass in her ear. To this day, there is significant controversy as to whether Jenny existed or not. The words of the woman Hewiston describes in the corner have been attributed to Jenny in some accounts. In some accounts, the stool was thrown at Dean Hannay, and he was driven from the church. Perhaps the exact details will never be known with certainty, but there is no doubt of a protest on that Sunday. The depth of the Scottish attachment to the tale of Jenny Geddes is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that Robert Burns named a loyal horse that once threw him Jenny Geddes, and Walter Scott details the incident in Tales of My Grandfather.  

According to Hewiston, Dean Hannay and Bishop Lindsay subsequently carried out the full service. As Bishop Lindsay left, he was attacked with stones as he walked away from the church, but made his way to safety. The afternoon service went better, with guards and a congenial audience present. Still, Lindsay’s coach was attacked with stones as he left. In many other churches where the new prayer book was read, there were angry protests. Some understandably chose to defer the reading.

Royalists would claim that the disruption and St. Giles was planned, with some versions claiming the outraged women were actually men dressed in women’s clothes. Archbishop Laud later criticized Bishop Lindsay’s roll out of the new prayer book as providing the opportunity to protest. Those aligned with the protesters claims the outburst was spontaneous and the result of righteous indignation. What is indisputable is that the tale of Jenny Geddes and the stool has inspired Scottish nationalists over the years, reflecting the troubled history of relations between England and Scotland.


Many accounts of the events at St. Giles mark it as the start of the Covenanter movement, though certainly it had deeper roots. Discontent with the move toward a greater episcopacy grew quickly. A National Covenant for Scotland was first signed on February 28, 1638 at Greyfriars Church in Edinburgh, swearing to defend true worship of God in a Presbyterian manner and claiming loyalty to the king. We shall not seek to recount the entire rest of the  story here, except to note that after almost 50 years of war and internal strife the Church of Scotland did indeed become Presbyterian and Calvinist without bishops, distinct from England while together in the United Kingdom.

What of Dean Hannay? It appears that life soon became quite difficult. As the Convenanters drew up their articles of demands upon king Charles in April of 1638, the Bishops of Edinburgh, Dunblane and Argyll met with only three ministers, one of whom was James Hannay. Most of the remaining loyal clergy had escaped to England. The report of the conclave indicated that many loyal ministers had been abused, deposed, and were broke. Those in attendance indicated they also would soon be in debtor’s prison. Dean Hannay expelled from his clerical positions in 1639. We do not know specifically what happened to Dean Hannay after this point. However, two things point to his continued resistance to the Covenanter cause. His son was a noted royalist in later actions. After the restoration of Charles II in 1660, Dean Hannay’s children were provided with a pension of by the parliament. The awarding of a pension to his children was for the hardships he suffered in the royalist cause.

Other Hannays would figure prominently in the Convenanter movement opposed to Dean Hannay. Presbyterianism had a strong based in southwest Scotland where the Hannays originated, as a number of local nobles were attracted by both the religion and the practical aspects of control over their lands. A Patrick Hannay represented Wigtown in both the Scottish Parliament and in the General Assembly of the church in Glasgow in 1640. Many Hannays and related Hannas became strong Presbyterians, both in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Dean Hannay is in many ways a sympathetic figure. Coming of age as a minister as the Scottish Church was being moved toward episcopacy, it is not hard to understand that he was loyal to both the king and his superiors in the church. From a historical standpoint, he is to many a symbol of English attempts at domination of Scotland. He may simply have been a good minister caught on the wrong side of history.


Andrew McCullough, Galloway, A Land Apart (2000).

Stewart Frances, Hannays of Sorbie.

James King Hewiston, The Convenanters: A History of the Church of Scotland from the Reformation to the Revolution (1915).

Sean Palmer, Lo and Behold! http://inamidst.com/lo/geddes (2007), last accessed June 19, 2017.

Christopher Wordsworth, Ed., The Manner of the Coronation of King Charles The First of England, Appendix V: The Coronation of King Charles I. in Scotland (London, 1892), p. 97. This description of the coronation is taken from contemporary notes, and is the source of the quotation regarding James Hannay’s participation.

Scottish Book of Common Prayer (1637).

The Scottish National Covenant (1638).