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The Magdalen Chapel – Cowgate

Michael MacQueen’s purpose in this foundation is interesting in light of the subject history of the Chapel. The Foundation Charter of 1547 says ‘that when the said Michael was greatly troubled with an heavy Disease, and oppressed with Age, yet mindful of Eternal Life, he esteemed it ane good Way to obtain Eternal Life, to erect some Christian Work, for ever to remain and endure.’ One of the reasons for the existence of the Scottish Reformation Society is to warn people against the false Roman Catholic teaching of Salvation by Works.

The Chapel and almshouse were prosperous for a while, but after the Reformation of 1560 the patrons, who were the Hammermen, ran into trouble. Their chaplain adhered to the Church of Rome and in his place they appointed a Protestant minister. The chaplain, however, brought a successful action against them for the salary, and he continued to draw this until his death in 1567. Meanwhile the Foundation Charter stated that, in the event of the Hammermen failing to observe its terms, the trust and the property were to revert to the descendants or relations of Janet Rynd. The Charter specified in great detail the form of Roman Catholic worship that was to take place in the Chapel and prohibited the Hammermen from doing anything against the interests of ‘the Holy See’ (i.e. the Church of Rome). These terms were now illegal to fulfil, and the relations of Janet Rynd were well aware of this and made as much trouble as they could. The tenants, likewise, saw no particular need to pay their rent, knowing that the Hammermen would be unable to enforce their right in law. It was only because of the considerable wealth of the Hammermen that they were able to weather this storm.

Immediately prior to the Reformation the Chapel was being used for academic lectures arranged by the Queen Regent, Mary of Guise. John Knox’s colleague John Craig preached in the Chapel several times in 1560-1 (in Latin, because he had been abroad so long that his English was rusty) and the Chapel was possibly used for the first General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in December 1560. It was certainly used for the Assembly of April 1578 at which Andrew Melville was Moderator and at which the Second Book of Discipline was discussed. About 1615 the lay-out of the Chapel was altered, and the present semi-circular wooden platform at the east end was installed. The tower and spire were added about 1620 and the bell, made by the Dutch bell-founder Michael Burgerhuys from Middleburg, dates from 1632.

Stained Glass WindowsIn Covenanting times the Chapel was used for conventicles on a number of occasions (1674, 1676, 1679), and the bodies of several of the martyrs (Marquis of Argyle 1661, Hew Mackail 1666, John Dick 1684) were taken there after execution to be dressed in their grave-clothes. The table on which the bodies were placed is still to be seen in the Chapel, as is a sword said to have belonged to the Covenanter Captain John Paton. At the Glorious Revolution of 1689 the heads and hands of martyred Covenanters, which had been exhibited on the ports of Edinburgh by their executioners, were gathered together at the Chapel prior to interment in Greyfriars.

In 1992/93 a major restoration programme was undertaken and the Chapel became the headquarters of the Scottish Reformation Society. The Honorary Curator of the Chapel is Rev A Sinclair Horne (former Secretary and Lecturer of the Scottish Reformation Society).After the Revolution, the Chapel was used as a place of worship by Episcopalians, and in the eighteenth century a Baptist congregation met there for a number of years. Part of the Chapel, or a building adjoining, was used as a printing press in the mid-eighteenth century. The Chapel continued in the possession of the Hammermen until 1857 when it was sold to the newly-formed Protestant Institute for Scotland. The plan was to use it as a base for outreach among Roman Catholics in the Cowgate.

The Chapel is open to visitors, usually on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays from 10.30-2.30 (but prospective visitors are advised to check first).