Riots in St Giles Cathedral: Who was Jenny Geddes? And how did she start riots across Edinburgh against the King of England?

Jenny Geddes is a firm, immovable part of Edinburgh folklore, and although there are disputes that she didn’t even exist, the riots that she allegedly started absolutely did, and changed the course of Scottish history.

By Rachel Mackie
Tuesday, 10th May 2022, 4:55 am

It was a balmy summer morning on Sunday, July 23, 1637, a cool breeze flowing in from the Forth, when Edinburgh locals made their sombre way to church.

St Giles looms large and Gothic in the Capital, imposing and breathtaking.

James Hannay, Dean of Edinburgh, had just stood up to begin the service, when a street-seller leapt to her feet and flung her three legged stool at his head, shouting: "De'il gie you colic, the wame o' ye, fause thief; daur ye say Mass in my lug?"

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Others jumped to their feet, launching bibles and chairs, yelling and stamping, and even when they were kicked out, they hammered on the door and threw stones at the windows.

A mob formed, continuing their rioting in the streets, surrounding the Edinburgh City Chambers, warning of further action, and even civil war.

The woman who started it all, allegedly, was Jenny Geddes.

A few years before, in 1633, Charles I arrived in Scotland to have his Scottish Coronation, an Anglican service in a Scottish church.

Riots in St Giles Cathedral: Who was Jenny Geddes? And how did she start riots across Edinburgh against the King of England? (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

It was then he decided that this was to become standard and drafted a prayer book to be used in churches across the country, “the booke of Common Prayer.”

To put it mildly, this was not a popular idea. And it was on hearing the words of this book that led Jenny to make a weapon of her furniture, and start the fury in St Giles that spread across the city.

An account in 'The Stoneyfeild Saboth Day’ claims: “The Dean Mr James Hanna wes michtelie upbraided.

"Sum cryed he is one of a witches breeding and the devill's gette [offspring], no wholsume watter can cum furthe from suche a polluted funtane [fountain].

Jenny Geddes In St. Giles Cathedral, From 'Tales Of A Grandfather' Being Stories From The History Of Scotland, Edinburgh. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

"Utheris cryed 'ill hanged theiff.

"On did cast a stoole at him intending to have given him a tickit of rememberance, but jowking [ducking] became his saifgaird at that tyme.”

"A voluntarie [volunteer] who came officious-lie to say amen wes put in no small danger of his lyf.”

As the King refused to bow to the demands of the rioters, many rallied and signed the National Covenant in February 1638.

Long Exposure of the St. Giles Cathedral

Scots from across the social spectrum joined to defend the Scottish religion from the Charles which, in turn led to the Bishops’ Wars as the King attempted to impose his will by force.

It was the first conflict in the Wars of the Three Kingdoms.

These wars ended with Charles I losing his head, after the English Civil War, and Oliver Cromwell coming to power.

Due to lack of details about Jenny herself, she has faded into myth, a possible name to go with the firebrand who stood firm by her faith in St Giles. Who started a war that killed a King.

National poet Robert Burns named his horse for her, and in 1886, a plaque in her honour was placed in a corner of the grand cathedral.

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