The Great Debate at Maybole
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This article was researched and written by Alan Clayton of Argyll, Scotland.

The Great Debate at Maybole

28th, 29th and 30th September 1562

Heir followeth the coppie of the ressoning which was betuix the Abbote of Crosraguell and John Knox, in Mayboill concerning the masse : in the yeare of God, a thousand fiue hundreth thre scoir and two yeares.'

Statue of John Knox in Edinburgh. Click on the image to view full size.The best way of understanding history is to get  inside the minds of the main players at any given time, and the best way of doing this is to look at some of the things they said and did particularly in  unguarded moments. Scotland in the early years of the 1560’s was in  considerable turmoil. In August of 1560 parliament in Edinburgh had passed an Act establishing a new protestant church and forbidding the saying of Mass anywhere in the country, but it quickly became apparent that this law, since it did not have the Royal Assent, was being widely ignored.

In December of that year the General Assembly, only the second General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, voted to;

Ask the Estates and Lords of secreit Council that sharp punishment may be made upon the persons underwritten which sayes and causes to be said and are present thereat within the places following,

The parochciners of Mayboill, Girvin, Kirkoswald and Dalry within the kirk wherefof the Messe is openly said and maitained.

Crossraguel. residence of the Abbot. Click on the image to view full size.In due course action was taken and in the  May 1561  the Abbeys at Failford, Paisley and Kilwinning were  burned’ although not Crossraguel. However many of the reformers felt that burning churches was not the way to win hearts and minds and several of its leading personalities were asked to go to various parts of the country to preach. John Knox was allocated Carrick and Kyle and it was thus fact that brought the debate with the Abbot of Crossraguell, Quentin Kennedy.

Kennedy had a formidable intellect. In 1558 he published a theological work called the  ‘Compendius Tractive‘ which was felt by many to have the potential to stop the reformation in its tracks as had happened in other parts of Europe such as Poland.

The reformer John Davidson  wrote of the Compendius Tractive;

‘Thare hes been mony movit to continew thare auld superstitione and idolatry,throw the reasonis comenit in the same, quha had imbracit the sincere and trew religion of Christ’

The  Compendius Tractiv reiterated the historic Catholic position on the Eucharist reminding the readers that it had been the belief of  Christians in Scotland and throughout Europe for centuries. In fact the nature of the bread and wine after the celebrant has ‘blest and broken ‘ it remains a huge area of theological difference between the Church of Scotland and the Roman Catholic Church to this day.

John Knox Street in Maybole. Click on the image to view full size.Maybole was chosen for the debate probably as a compromise, as many from both sides wanted it to take place in the much larger venue of St Michael’s Kirk  in Ayr. However this did not happen, either because one or other party thought it would give his opponent a psychological advantage, or more likely  because one or other party felt he might be in some danger in Ayr from organised opponents.

Very early in the debate the two men crossed swords, metaphorically that is, on the nature and motivation of the clergy. Kennedy, who seems to have been as ebullient and charismatic as Knox, impugned the motives of the Catholic clergy who had come over to the reformation when he said;

‘I’t is thocht that the priest, monk or fleshmelye forlopin freir follow treuli the verray doctryne of St Paule,quhilk is rynnegat fra his religioun,and makis ane monstreous mariage with ane non and zit he wyl swer and say that all that he dois is for the glore of God and the libertie of the evangel.’

In other words the main motivation was much more physical than spiritual!

Knox however would have none of it and boomed back that the many of the  pre-reformation  clergy did not deprive themselves of worldly pursuits anyway. He accused Kennedy of ;

‘Joyning with him the whole babble of the horned Bischoppes. Adulterers,fornicators,dronkards,bloodschedders, oppresors of the poore,fatherless and strangers’

Plaque at the site of the house of the debate. The month on the plague is not correct. The debate was held in September 1562. Click on the image to view full size.No punches were pulled on either side! The debate went on for three days  and it has been suggested that Maybole became short of food supplies  so it was likely that there were more people in the town than it could cope with. Certainly the Inns, hostelries and people providing what we would now  call bed and breakfast were stretched to the limit.

The path of the reformation took many turns over the following years. Quentin Kennedy died of a broken heart two  years later, and  John Knox lived for another ten, marrying a young girl of sixteen and having a family by her. The Catholic  Earls of Cassillus  in Carrick and of Huntley in Aberdeenshire met secretly in Paisley shortly after the Great Debate in an attempt to organise  simultaneous risings in the north and the south, however they were aware that this could plunge the country into civil war and render  it liable to  English invasion  and occupation, and the proposed rising  never went ahead.

Mass continued to be said discreetly and often secretly throughout Scotland for as long as the old clergy lived., and the last recorded incident of it still being said was in Elgin Cathedral as late as 1595. The eight or nine monks of Crossraguel were allowed to live quietly and in peace. Whether they said Mass or not for themselves and a discreet few we will never know because if they did they risked the gallows. In the 21st century the churches try to understand each other rather than oppose each other and are well aware that the enemy is a Scotland secular in a way that it could never have been at the time of the Great Debate. However the Great debate is a precious part of our nation’s history and Maybole has a duty to keep its memory alive.

Alan Clayton



Sources for this article and for further reading.

Quentin Kennedy
Two Eucharistic Tracts
National Library of Scotland  Edinburgh, Shelfmark 6.1025

Quentin Kennedy
Compendius Tractive
National Library of Scotland Edinburgh, Shelfmark BCL S87 (2)

Quentin Kennedy
Hier followeth
National Library of Scotland  Edinburgh, Shelfmark  KH/EH 3 (1)

Essays on the Scottish Reformation, David McRoberts, Burns, Glasgow  1962

Thirds of Benefices, Gordon Donaldson, T and A. Constable, Edinburgh 1949

Source Book on Scottish History Vol. 2 Thomas Nelson and Sons, Edinburgh 1958

Maybole - Carrick's Capital - by James T. Gray. Abbot of Crossraguel and John Knox