Periodical enquiries, facts, and problems regarding antiquarianism, the history of science, etymology, palæography, and other sublunary affairs.
When James I came to the English throne and united the Kingdoms of Scotland and England, he wanted to unite the churches too. But the Scots reformation had run much deeper than the English, which still retained many Catholic customs, so the Scots were wary of any religious practices imported from England. James I backed off as a result, but his son, Charles I, decided to plough ahead with the religious unification. In 1635 Charles issued a warrant declaring his power over the Church of Scotland, including that they would be issued with a new book of liturgy to be read at services.
This new work, The Booke of Common Prayer, was known as Laud’s Liturgy after Charles’s then Archbishop of Canterbury William Laud, but it was actually written by a group of Scottish Bishops. Nonetheless, sour rumours abounded about the new book, which after some delay was commanded by the king to be read for the first time in churches in Scotland on Sunday, 23rd July 1637.
The first reading of Laud’s Liturgy on that day was by the Dean of Edinburgh, John Hanna, at St. Giles’ Cathedral. As legend has it, a woman called Jenny Geddes was at the service sitting on a wooden stool. Jeers came from the crowd when Hanna started to read from the new book, and Jenny picked up her stool and threw it at Hanna’s head, shouting “Deil colic the wame o’ ye! Out thou false thief! Dost thou say the mass at my lug?” (“The devil give a colic to your stomach! Out you false thief! Dare you say the mass at my ear?”). Others joined in with the stool throwing, so that the whole event was later called “The Casting o’ the Stules”, and the Dean and other officials had to flee. Stones were thrown at the Cathedral’s windows, and the streets were chaos.
The significance of what Geddes did is that the rioting that started that day grew, and opposition to the Anglicisation of the Church of Scotland grew with it. The next year, the National Covenant was signed by many Scottish nobleman, known as the Covenanters, railing against Charles I’s power. The Bishops’ War was the next consequence, eventually devolving into the Wars of the Three Kingdoms and the English Civil War. Jenny Geddes’s stool was, therefore, the first act of the revolutionary tumult affecting much of the 17th century. She’s a highly celebrated symbol of Scots independence; there’s even a brass plaque in St. Giles’ commemorating her.
But was there really a Jenny Geddes (or Janet Geddes as she is sometimes called), or is it just legend? And if it’s just legend, how did the legend grow? Historians these days, at least, generally do so dismiss it. In 1949, F. H. Amphlett Micklewright wrote in Notes and Queries that “the famous story of Jenny Geddes and her stool” is now “generally regarded as a legend”. Leo Frank Solt too calls it a “picturesque legend” in his history of the Church and State in Early Modern England (1990). More recently, Donald Campbell wrote quite plainly in his 2003 book on Edinburgh’s cultural and literary history that “As far as can be established from the historical record, there was no one of the name of Janet Geddes in the church that day.”
The evidence from the 17th century, on the other hand, is a lot murkier than these pronouncements might suggest. The first unambiguous reference to Geddes is in 1661. The quote is cited variously as being from a newspaper called Mercurius Caledonius (which had only eleven issues), or a pamphlet called Edinburgh’s joy for His Majesties coronation in England. Though I’ve found the two works listed as separate entries in both an old catalogue and an online essay, it appears that they must be at least connected because quotes from them appear identical, and they’re both variously described as “amusingly told”, “foolish”, and “curious”. Perhaps they both derive from “Reliq. Scot. iv (1660)” that the Dictionary of the Scots Language attributes the quote to. In any case, the piece from the Caledonius, quoted in full by Robert Chambers, describes how “the immortal Jenet Geddis, Princesse of the Trone adventurers” gathered all her “Creels, Basquets, Creepies, Furmes” (baskets, stools, &c.) and set them to the bonfire, to celebrate the return of Charles II to the throne.
Now, why should the same “immortal Jenet Geddis” who threw a stool at the merest whiff of Anglicanism celebrate the return of Charles II? Charles Rogers wondered the same thing in Notes and Queries, 1869, but explained it away with some Victorian pomposity: “One would suppose that an individual who so opposed the royal will in 1637 would not join in wishing ‘the auld Stuarts back’ in 1661. Yet inconsistency largely pertains to poor human nature.” We must concede that the circumstances behind this mention or mentions are lost, but the significance of an early source like this shows that some kind of Geddes legend was established within twenty-five years of the St. Giles’ riot.
She was mentioned again nine years later, in the 5th edition of Sir Richard Baker’s Chronicles (1670). It was (according to Thomas Carlyle, in whose work on Oliver Cromwell the two earliest mentions of Geddes are diligently recorded) prepared by one of the Phillips brothers, who were the nephews of John Milton. It says that when the uproar was made at the Dean, a “Jane or Janet Gaddes (yet living at the writing of this relation), flung a little folding-stool, whereon she sat, at the Dean’s head, saying ‘Out thou false thief! dost thou say the mass at my lug?’”. This shows that Geddes was still thought to be living in 1670, so for a start if this is true she could not have been an “old woman” at the original event as later commentators have said.
One of the next concrete mentions is by Dr Johnson, in Notes upon the Phœnix edition of the Pastoral Letter (1694), where according to Chambers he describes Geddes as a herb-woman and records the event and her phrasing. I’ve been unable to find Johnson’s mention of her myself, but it would be interesting to see if the name by now had changed to “Jenny” from “Janet”.
This is the extent of the clear early references, but there are some unclear older references too. John Maidment published Scottish Pasquils in the 19th century, which were taken from manuscripts of Sir James Balfour (later Lord Lyon) written around 1640. Stanza 11 of one poem, said to be about the St. Giles’ riots, starts “From pupill, pastor, tutor, flocke, / from Gutter Jennie, pupit Jocke”, where Gutter Jennie is said by Maidment to refer to Jenny Geddes. Maybe. Balfour is also, interestingly, supposed to be the author of a pamphlet called Stoneyfield Day (or Stonyfield Day), printed in 1637 about the riot. It’s very rarely mentioned, but amongst those who do mention it is again Chambers in his History of the Rebellions in Scotland (1828). Chambers implies that Geddes only said “Deil colic the wame o’ ye!”, and that the part about the Mass is a conflation of a story in Balfour’s Stoneyfield pamphlet, where he says that a woman smacked a man in the face after the riots for saying “Amen” loudly in her ear. Chambers further states that the conflation “is proved by Mr. Brodie to have originated in an error on the part of Daniel Defoe.” Defoe did indeed write about the matter in a work in 1717, but as we’ve already seen, the “Mass” phrasing is already linked with Geddes by the time it appears in Baker’s Chronicles in 1670! Brodie must therefore be wrong, but if the information in the Stoneyfield pamphlet is a correct and contemporary source, then this pushes the dating of strands of the legend back to the year of the incident itself.
In summary, then, Balfour gives early versions of the legend and possibly even mentions Jenny (not Janet), but all in manuscript and a rare pamphlet that only a couple of people have ever mentioned. The first concrete evidence is of an already famous Janet Geddes celebrating the return of Charles II to the throne, but then the whole legend is in place by 1670, when Janet Geddes is said to still be alive. Utterly confusing.
As if to make matters worse, there are alternative candidates for the name of the stool-propellor. Chambers, again, says that Wodrow’s diary (presumably the diary of Robert Wodrow, 1679–1734) records that it’s the “constantly believed tradition that it was Mrs Mean, wife to John Mean, merchant in Edinburgh, who threw the first stool when the service-book was read in the New Kirk, Edinburgh, 1837”. There is a later legend about one of the Mean family becoming Postmaster General because of Mrs Mean’s patriotics. Furthermore, Henry Guthrie, in Bishop Guthry’s Memoirs (1687), said that the rioting had been instigated by members of the elite recommending to “Eupham Henderson, Bethia and Elspes Craigge”, and several other women, that they should “give the first Affront to the Book”. In other words, a big political conspiracy. This was, however, debunked severely by Thomas M’crie in 1841. It’s been noted that Burnet’s Memoirs of the Dukes of Hamilton were published not long after Guthrie’s, seemingly as a retort claiming that the authorities investigated the matter fully and found there to have been no coördinated instigation.
So we have competing stories, but none of this is earlier than Baker’s Chronicles where the first full version of the legend appears, so it may just be the first accumulations of a mythos. The mythos certainly took off: in the 19th century, the Society of Antiquaries’ Museum at Edinburgh had a folding stool engraved “1565” which they claimed to have been the stool of Jenny Geddes. This was debunked in, for example, Notes and Queries in 1869: “We confess to some misgivings as to the identity of the stool; and from the manner in which it is mentioned in the Catalogue, it is pretty clear that the genuineness of the article is not warranted by the Society.”
There was definitely a huge riot on 23rd July 1637; a 1648 quarto called The Information of the Beginning and Cause of all our Troubles even has an engraving of the event, with people flinging their stools at the Dean. And someone must have started that riot. The early emergence of so many strands of the legend and those curious early mentions and crystalisations of the legend shows that the rôle of Jenny Geddes, or Janet Gaddis, may deserve a much closer look. At the very least, it is easy to debunk such spurious skeptical nonsense as Colin Nicholson produced about the matter in 2002: “It seems that as a symbol of popular resistance to an anglicising king, Geddes was largely an invention of nineteenth-century religious ideologues in search of historic defenders of the Scottish Kirk’s continuing independence.” Whilst the appeal of the legend and its longevity may have something to with this, what greater forces can there be to give the inital shape to such a thing as the Civil War and such unrest of the 17th century? This was no invention of modernity.
Whatever the origins, the legend now forms a gladly indelible part of the fabric of Scottish culture. When the Scots national poet Robert Burns went on a tour of the Borders and Highlands in the late 18th century, for example, he needed a horse upon which to make the journey. He therefore purchased a mare in Edinburgh for the princely sum of “over £4 Sterling”. When once, later, this loving and faithful horse unseated him, Burns wrote that she “trode over me with such cautious reverence, that matters were not so bad as might well have been expected”. And the name that Burns gave his horse? Jenny Geddes.
by Sean B. Palmer, 2007-06-29
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