Friday, 10 March 2017

Women of the Scottish Reformation (8) - Elisabeth Welsh

Elisabeth Knox was born about 1568, and was about four years of age when her father died. While she could have recalled some details of her father, it is more likely that her commitment to and understanding of the Reformed Faith was helped more by her mother Margaret Stewart (Knox’s second wife) and stepfather (Andrew Ker). 

When Elisabeth died in 1625, her cousin recorded, ‘This month of January, 1625, died at Ayr, my cousin, Mrs. Welsh, daughter of that great servant of God, the late John Knox, and wife of that holy man of God, Mr. Welsh, above mentioned; a spouse and daughter worthy of such a husband and such a father.’ What did she do that resulted in such a testimony?

She probably met John Welsh when he became minister of Selkirk in 1589 because his church would have been the one attended by the Ker family. At some stage they married, and in 1600 he moved to Ayr to minister there. 

In 1603, the union of the crowns of England and Scotland took place and James VI of Scotland became James I. One of his first actions was to try and arrange for the churches in England and Scotland to have the same type of church government, Episcopacy, because then he would be in charge. This intention included dissolving the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Scotland. 

Welsh was one of the ministers who objected to this royal plan and in July 1605 was brought before the privy council in Edinburgh. He was put in Blackness Castle until January 1606 when he along with five other ministers were put on trial for high treason. The wives of the ministers made their way to Linlithgow for the trial. When they verdict of guilty was passed, the women ‘rejoiced, and thanked the Lord Jesus that their husbands had received strength and courage to stand to their Master’s cause.’ 

They had to wait until 23rd October 1606 before the sentence was passed. It was banishment from Scotland for life, and the ministers left Scotland on the 7th of November for France. They had to leave their wives and children behind.

Elisabeth joined her husband in France in the following year. But life there was not good. He had his problems and her health suffered, although her husband observed that she bore ‘her cross with comfort contentation’. By 1621, the husband’s health had broken and he had serious lung problems. Doctors recommended that they should return to Scotland, but the king only gave permission to them to come to London.

While there they decided that she should approach the king because she could get access through her family’s rank. The king was unwilling to let Welsh return to Scotland, and when he heard that the wife was the daughter of John Knox his unwillingness was strengthened. Eventually he said that Welsh could return to Scotland if he would submit to the bishops who had been appointed.  She replied that she would rather that her husband die as a martyr than betray his beliefs. Welsh died later that year (1622). His wife returned to Ayr and died thirty months or so later, in 1625. She left two sons and a daughter.

Mrs Welsh was a woman who could have chosen the easy path of comfort in an aristocratic home. Instead she chose to identify with the Reformation when the country and the church were attempting to move away from its goals. She was prepared to live in exile, where she encouraged her husband to be faithful. Despite the intensity of his sufferings in Scotland and in France she did not ask him to make life easier for them by reducing his commitment. She was willing to bear the cross.

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