Cardinal David Beaton lived from 1494 to 29 May 1546. He was Archbishop of St Andrews and the last Scottish Cardinal before the Scottish Reformation. A hugely powerful man, prominent in the turbulent politics of the day, he made many enemies and was assassinated at St Andrews. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.
David Beaton was born at Balfour, east of what is now Glenrothes in Fife in 1494. He received his education at the Universities of St Andrews and Glasgow, and at the age of 16 was sent to Paris to study law. He first became involved in politics at the French court, but returned to Scotland on being given an ecclesiastical appointment by his uncle, James Beaton, the Archbishop of Glasgow.
In 1522 Beaton was appointed Abbot of Arbroath Abbey by his uncle: on the condition that half the very large income this brought with it should continue to go to his uncle. At around the same time, he met Marion Ogilvy, who would become his wife in all but name until his death. With his innate ability and his uncle's influence, Beaton rapidly rose to power. He was sent by James V as Ambassador to France on a number of occasions, and in 1528 he was appointed Keeper of the Privy Seal.
In 1537 Beaton had a key role in arranging the marriage between James V and Madeleine, daughter of King Francois I of France, in Paris. After Madeleine's subsequent death, Beaton helped arrange James V's second marriage, to Marie de Guise, Madeleine's adopted sister. In 1538, on the death of his uncle, Beaton became Archbishop of St Andrews. And on 20 December that year he was made a Cardinal by Pope Paul III.
By 1540, Cardinal Beaton was one of James V's most trusted advisers, and it was largely down to his influence that Scotland became more closely aligned with France and more distant from Henry VIII and England. James V died on 14 December 1542, leaving as his heir the six day old Mary Queen of Scots. Beaton immediately produced a document dated on the day of the King's death and supposedly signed by him, which appointed Beaton and others as Regents for the young Queen. On 10 January 1543 Beaton appointed himself Chancellor of Scotland.
By now Scotland was deeply torn between those, led by Cardinal Beaton and Marie de Guise, who wanted a closer alliance with France and the maintenance of the Catholic faith: and those who felt the young Queen offered an opportunity through marriage to forge a closer alliance with Henry VIII's Protestant England. Chief among the latter was the Earl of Angus, James V's hated stepfather and second husband of Margaret Tudor, who on his return to Scotland from England after James' death had Beaton arrested for the alleged forging of the King's will. The Scottish Parliament appointed Beaton's long term enemy, the Earl of Arran, to be Governor of the Kingdom and Regent for Mary Queen of Scots.
Negotiations started with Henry VIII about marriage between Mary and his young son, Prince Edward. But Henry VIII overplayed his hand, demanding far too many concessions from Scotland in return, and reminding too many Scots of the behaviour of Edward I, 250 years earlier. Although formal treaties were signed at Greenwich in July 1543, the result was an upsurge in the popularity of the French faction and the release of Beaton from prison. At the same time Mary's French mother, Marie de Guise, took possession of the infant and had her crowned Queen.
In December 1543 the Scottish Parliament took advantage of the failure of the English Parliament to ratify the Greenwich Treaties, and repudiated them. At the same time it reasserted the alliance with France and re-appointed Beaton as Chancellor of Scotland: and at his insistence renewed harsh penalties for heresy. Henry VIII's response came in May 1544, an invasion since known as the rough wooing. Although Henry's invasion increased public support for the French faction in Scotland, especially for Marie de Guise, Beaton himself came to be widely blamed for provoking it.
Cardinal Beaton was not a widely admired man anyway. He had achieved much of his power by the patronage of his uncle, and had no qualms about using the great wealth of the church as if it were his own. His private life was not what one might expect of a Cardinal either. By a steady stream of mistresses he had fathered some 20 illegitimate children, many of whom he had later appointed to well paid positions in the Church. For many, including the likes of John Knox, Beaton came to personify everything that was corrupt and in need of change in the Church.
Beaton's downfall was in pursuing protestant "heretics" just a little too hard, at a time when his popularity rating was already falling fast. First he arrested a Friar called John Rogers who had been preaching "heretical" doctrine in Angus. He was imprisoned in the infamous bottle dungeon at Beaton's seat of power, St Andrews Castle. Here Rogers sadly "died while trying to escape": possibly the first time that euphemism had ever been used. In December 1545, Beaton arrested George Wishart, a Protestant preacher and mentor of John Knox, who Beaton also believed to be an English spy. After a show trial prosecuted by Scotland's Public Accuser of Heretics (and Beaton's secretary) John Lauder, Beaton had Wishart burned at the stake in front of St Andrews Castle on 1 March 1546.
The Protestant response was equally savage. At dawn on 29 May 1546 a group of Protestant lairds from Fife entered St Andrews Castle pretending to be stonemasons. As they entered, they passed Marion Ogilvy, leaving the castle. The Cardinal was dragged out of his bedchamber, stabbed to death, mutilated, then hung from a castle window, in full view of the town of St Andrews. St Andrews Castle then became a gathering place for Protestants from all over the country, including John Knox, who held it in defiance of Marie de Guise's troops. They had hoped for support from Henry VIII, but none came. Instead French naval vessels arrived to bombard the castle, which surrendered on 31 July 1547. Meantime the remains of Cardinal Beaton, pickled in a barrel of brine, had resided in the dungeon into which he had thrown John Rogers.