Its impossible to place too much overemphasis on the changes wrought during the mid-sixteenth century in Europe. The number of deaths directly resulting out of Luther’s challenge to the existing Catholic order is effectively incalculable. Wars raged across Europe as secular rulers took advantage of the schisms in the religious authorities. In England, Henry VIII used the church’s difficulties to his advantage to attain the divorce he wanted and his resulting power over the church gave him the legitimacy to destroy the great abbeys and religious houses of England. This then allowed him to grab their wealth for himself and his favoured nobles.
Scotland was still a quiet backwater and though largely undisturbed by the death and destruction being raged across Europe, some of the King James V subjects were travelling to the mainland for education or for trading. Ideas have a way of acting in ways that defy the hopes and fears of those wishing to control them and the ideas of the reformation were no exception.
Before long those same ideas – that the Roman church was corrupt and that it had become a wealth-seeking establishment dedicated not to promoting the glory of God, but to earthly possessions and ungodly secular power – were widespread even in quiet Scotland.
Scotland is fairly unique in Europe in that the change from Catholicism to Protestantism was relatively peaceful – at least in the body count – and can be dated almost to the year – 1560. This was the year that the a Reformation Parliament was called following the death of the Catholic Regent, Mary of Guise. Her daughter (Mary Queen of Scots) was in France having escaped the clutches of the reformers. The leader of the the Reformers was the Calvinist John Knox and it was his zeal against idolatry and against the imagined sins of the Catholic Church that set loose the mobs to sack the great medieval cathedrals and abbey churches of Scotland. This destruction led to an almost complete loss of thousands of artifacts and priceless works of art from hundreds of years of religious life in medieval Scotland.
The damage at Dunfermline was mainly to the church building itself and means that we have the spartan building that we see today. On the medieval North Entrance there are plinths and recesses clearly meant for statues. The reformers thought these were idolatrous and therefore in need of destruction. The West Door retains some carvings but the reformers did their best in their religious zeal to wipe these out as best they could.
Even though most of the stones have been weathered and defaced, you can still see some remnants of the carvings that would have graced this portal.
Though the destruction of the church was extensive: the shrine of St Margaret was destroyed, as was the high altar and the graves of the Kings that laid there; the nave was saved to act as parish church for the new Presbyterian congregation of Dunfermline. It was helped by the fact that the extensive Abbey buildings would soon be used by the wife of James VI as her Palace.
Queen Ann of Denmark rebuilt much of the abbey buildings to make a palatial building fit for her to live in away from her husband’s courts in Edinburgh and Stirling and it is this that forms the remainder of the ruins in the complex. The cloisters were demolished as was the transept and altar from the church. The Refectory and the Abbots House were linked by an arched building to allow the roadway to pass to the south. It was here that her son, the future Charles II would be born; the last monarch to be born in Scotland. It was his monarchy that would eventually lead to the period of Scottish history called The Killing Times.