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Law and change: Scottish legal heroes
Law and change: Scottish legal heroes

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1.2 Canon law

For many centuries the Church of Rome, through its canon law, had great influence on the law and administration of justice in Scotland. This influence extended throughout geographical Europe and the great European powers of the time, for example, France, England, Spain and the Holy Roman Empire. The Church had significant power and wealth playing a central role in society and daily life. It also played a key role in the administration and development of the law, with ecclesiastical courts being responsible for the administration of canon law. The route of appeal from the ecclesiastical courts went directly to Rome; no other courts had the power to hear appeals.

Canon law covered many areas of civil jurisdiction from domestic relations to wills and succession and influenced other areas such as contract law. Canon law was influenced by Roman law. Roman law had developed a system of rules which recognised certain rights and obligations. Individuals gained certain rights but in return had certain duties to fulfil.

This influence of the Church of Rome ended quite abruptly with the Reformation. The Reformation was a religious conflict between Catholics and Protestants which began with a protest in 1517 by Martin Luther. In subsequent decades Europe was torn apart by religious wars. Scotland was no exception.

In the early sixteenth century, the Catholic Church dominated everyday life in most European countries including Scotland. Education, welfare, health and discipline were bound up with the church. By the end of that century, Scotland was led by a Protestant monarch. Life revolved around the Kirk where manners and discipline were seen as leading to an orderly and godly life. From the 1550s onwards religion continued to influence developments in the law and administration of justice but it did so in quite different ways.