John Knox: The Making of a Reformer
Of all the major Reformers, John Knox is the one about whose early life we know the least – a fact that may come as a surprise since he wrote a History of the Reformation in Scotland.1 We cannot even be certain of the year in which he was born; it was either 1514 or 1515, but the day is completely unknown. Until the last century, it was generally believed that he was born in 1505, the date given by Thomas M’Crie, an error that serves to illustrate how little we know of Knox before he became a Reformer. The mistake was in part the result of mistaking another man of the same name, who was a student in Glasgow in 1522, for the Reformer.
The place of his birth we do know for certain; it was in a house, long since vanished, in Giffordgate, a street in the then thriving and prosperous town of Haddington, across the river Tyne from the great church of St. Mary, which was called ‘The Lamp of the Lothians.’ When he called himself ‘Tinoterius’, the man from the banks of the river Tyne, Knox was being quite literal. We know relatively little of his parents, but his mother was a Sinclair, and his father was a merchant, a member of the Scots middle classes. For several generations the Knoxes had been tenants of the Earls of Bothwell; they were a respectable family, fully integrated into the complex networks of medieval Scottish society.
How John Knox came to be a Roman Catholic priest we do not know; as a younger son, he would have had to find his own way in the world, and ‘going into the Church’ was always an option for a young man in that era. Such a move does not necessarily indicate any particularly pious tendencies either on his own part or that of his parents; those with really pious tendencies entered one of the monastic orders, while a secular priest might pursue a much more worldly career, as did Cardinal David Beaton, born some twenty years before Knox, who was more a politician than a churchman. Then, as in subsequent generations, a man might enter the priesthood so as to be able to pursue a career in some other field, while receiving the income of a number of benefices and paying others to carry out the actual work.
John Knox probably began his education at the song-school attached to St. Mary’s Church in Haddington, crossing the old Nungate bridge from his home every morning. At the school he would have been taught to read from the liturgical books in the church, and the daily round of Psalms, sung of course in Latin, would have become quite familiar to him. There, as he learned to sing, he learned also the skills that would enable him as a preacher to be heard by packed congregations. There, among the intricately-carved oak choir stalls, the windows glowing with stained glass, and the smell of incense, he learned to love the Psalms, and for the rest of his life they would lend their language to his devotions. When we realise that his formative years were spent in the midst of the glories of medieval Catholic worship, we come to realise that his later denunciations of that worship were not ignorant – he knew whereof he spoke. It is a striking fact that all of the principal Reformers came not from the fringes of the late medieval church, but from its centre.
From the song-school he would have graduated to the town’s grammar-school, and from thence to the ancient university of St. Andrews, where he studied under the celebrated John Mair (or Major), the greatest Scottish scholar of his era. Mair had an impressive European reputation, having taught at Paris, and was regarded as a sort of theological oracle in his native Scotland. Mair was, significantly, an advocate of what is called Conciliarism, the view that the Pope is subject to, and not over, a General Council of the Church. This meant that he was prepared to criticise the papacy, and in his later career as a Reformer, Knox would draw on the arguments of the conciliar movement to support his own criticisms of the Papacy. It is also significant that Mair’s major work was a History of Greater Britain, from which Knox may well have got the idea of his own magnum opus, The History of the Reformation in Scotland. Even more significantly, Mair’s History was not in Latin, as such works had been in the medieval period, but in Scots, the language that Knox world make his own in his later vigorous vernacular tracts and sermons. It taught Knox the importance, and the power, of the common tongue, a lesson he would never forget.
Mair was very much the medieval scholastic in his methods, notwithstanding his use of the vernacular in his History, yet he was also a lover of rhetoric, and from him Knox learned the importance of the right words rightly spoken. He also taught the importance of the careful study of texts, a skill that would be of great use to the Scots Reformer. At St. Andrews, also, Knox would have witnessed and experienced debates between undergraduates. If his later life is any indication, he took part in these debates himself, honing the skill of logical argument, using his words as a duellist uses his blade, thrusting and parrying, using his skill to throw his opponents off their balance and then press home his advantage, always seeking the weak points in their defence until at last he could strike the killer thrust. He learned to consider his audience, to speak to their capacity and understanding. His was a world of the spoken word, and one where he was completely at home. And this mastery of the realm of language was, though he did not know it at the time, preparing him for a life’s work that he could never have imagined.
In 1536, Knox knelt before Bishop William Chisholm of Dunblane at the altar in St. Giles’ Kirk, Edinburgh, to receive from the episcopal hands ordination, the power of the priesthood to call down Christ upon the sacrificial altar of the Mass, there to re-offer the sacrifice of Calvary, for the living and the dead. And yet, in later years it was not to this, but to events over a decade later, that Knox would look back when he thought of his calling to the sacred ministry. What thoughts filled his head as he knelt there in the church that would later echo to his denunciations of the very doctrines he was being ordained to uphold? We simply do not know. Was he elated to think that now he would be making sacrifice for the living and the dead? Or did he see it as merely a rung on a ladder that might lead to greater things? Did he imagine himself in the bishop’s robes one day, or at least think of himself as one of the other ecclesiastical dignitaries there? That he was not entering one of the orders of friars suggests that he was not among the more pious ordinands that year.
What we do know is that he was not ordained to the cure of a parish. Instead, at some point before 1540, he was invested as a ‘Notary Apostolic’, a church lawyer. Church law in the Middle Ages was a complex field, and most people who possessed property would have some dealings with ecclesiastical lawyers, in the drawing up of wills and suchlike. This meant that a Notary Apostolic like John Knox would have been the equivalent of the country lawyer of later generations, called upon to take testimony, draw up wills and deeds, and so on. It was a good, solid job, the basis for a career that might lead to a place in one of the higher courts, or could just be a life’s work. He was a settled medieval catholic priest, a man with a good job, and no reason to be discontented with his life. Yet within a few short years, everything would change.
The Catholic Church was not in good shape at the time; incessant wars and power-struggles between rival kings and princes, in which bishops and the papacy itself had been both participants and pawns, had weakened the Church. At the same time, the accumulation of wealth by the church had contributed to corruption. Scotland, at the north of Europe, a small state with a relatively weak monarchy and correspondingly powerful aristocracy, was in some ways particularly susceptible to ecclesiastical corruption. Clerical celibacy was a joke, at least among the secular (i.e. non-monastic) clergy, bishops included, and that meant that the very danger that it had been instituted to prevent, that of church property becoming hereditary, was not just a possibility, but a reality. Cardinal David Beaton, the highest ecclesiastic in Scotland before his death in 1546, fathered at least eight children by his mistress, Marion Ogilvy. There is no reason to think that the Cardinal was not faithful to her, but it raises the question; why were they not married? The answer is that marrying her would have brought his career to a shuddering halt, but living in an unmarried state with her created no such problems. And having four sons who survived to adulthood, he had to provide for them – and did so in part by having them ‘legitimated’, despite the undeniable fact that they were illegitimate. He also used his influence to get two of his sons positions within the Church, while appropriating Church property to provide dowries for his daughters. And this was not uncommon. At the same time, the nobility made full use of the practice of granting abbacies in commendam, by which the head of a religious house did not need to be a monk, but could be a layman or secular priest nominated by the crown or a lay patron. Such posts often had significant revenues, and the result was predictable; abbey revenues became income for a noble family. Office-holders might also postpone ordination, which is what David Beaton did for many years while he amassed benefices and influence – not to mention children. And of course a man like Beaton was not interested in reforming a system that he had played so successfully, meaning that the effort against the Protestant Reformation in Scotland looked to many like the beneficiaries of a corrupt system maintaining that corruption for their own selfish ends. It was not a situation that could be maintained.
King Henry VIII of England had, largely for personal reasons, broken with Rome in 1534, and tried to persuade King James V of Scotland to do the same. James, who was Henry’s nephew, refused for a variety of his own reasons, and in 1542 the tensions between the two nations at last erupted into an all-out war. Henry attacked Scotland, and in retaliation James raised his own army to invade England. It did not go well for James; arguments broke out among the leaders of the Scots army as to who was in overall command, and the Scots command structure disintegrated. The English took full advantage of this debacle, first of all defeating the invading Scots forces, and then pressing home the attack into Scotland. On 24th November, a hastily-assembled Scots army met the English at Solway Moss, on the border of the two nations, and was completely routed. Though casualties were light, some 1,200 Scots were taken prisoner. When the news reached King James, who was at Lochmaben, suffering from a fever, his spirit was broken, and he withdrew to Falkland Palace. Not long afterwards, he received the news that his wife had given birth, not to the son he had longed for, but to a daughter. James lost the will to live, and complaining that the House of Stewart ‘came with a lass and would go with a lass,’ he expired, leaving his week-old daughter as monarch of Scotland. For much of the next decade, the three kingdoms of England, Scotland and France would be locked in a conflict in which Scotland would be the pawn of France. Meanwhile, in Scotland, during the minority of the Queen, various factions would jockey for power, some calling for closer ties with England, others for maintaining the ‘Auld Alliance’ with France.
Yet for Knox, the great change would be internal and spiritual, not external and political; he would go from the contented country lawyer-priest to a Reformer who would not rest satisfied until Scotland was freed from Rome and France.
The newer religious orders of the friars were the main recipients of those young Scotsmen who truly felt a desire to serve God, and so it is no surprise to find that it was from among their ranks that many of the earliest Scots Reformers came. It was from a former Dominican prior, Thomas Gillem, that Knox first heard the gospel of salvation by grace. After the death of King James V, during the initial power struggles, Regent Arran gave considerable freedom for those who were calling for theological reform, even appointing Protestant preachers to a few places in what would later be termed his ‘godly fit.’ His main reasons were political, but the opportunity was seized to spread the word. The great princes of the church were notorious for their high living, and it was an open secret that not only was David Beaton, Cardinal and Archbishop of St. Andrews, the father of several illegitimate children by one Marion Ogilvy, but that he was carefully providing inheritances for them all, including important posts within the church. When the highest ecclesiastical dignitary in the land thus made a mockery of clerical celibacy, it was no wonder that people began to question the teachings of an institution where hypocrisy was so obvious and open. Beaton, as can be imagined, was not interested in reform of any kind; a politician rather than a churchman, he instead made every effort to silence opposition. In 1528, Patrick Hamilton had been burned for heresy, and in the years that followed, until Beaton’s death, a further nineteen people suffered the same fate, while many more were fined and banished for ‘heresy’. His French education and continental contacts made Beaton a natural ally of France, and supporter of the French alliance; suspected of having designs on the regency of Scotland, he was a supreme example of a worldly cleric.
It was while Beaton and his rivals bickered over the management of Scotland that John Knox heard the gospel from the former Dominican, and it hit home. If this was true, then Knox could not remain as he was, and so he abandoned his work as a clerical lawyer, renounced his clerical orders, and took up a post as tutor to the family of a local laird who was sympathetic to the cause of Reform. He found himself part of a growing underground Protestant network who read the Bible in English, and secretly imported the works of Martin Luther and other Continental Reformers. There he obtained a copy of the ‘Great Bible’, put forth by the authority of King Henry VIII in 1539. This would be Knox’s preferred translation for the rest of his life.
It was in the 17th chapter of John’s Gospel that Knox ‘cast my first anchor’, as he would later put it. In the prayer of Christ for his own people, Knox found his assurance of the love of Christ for him, and of Christ’s prayer for his salvation. The chapter would remain special to him for the rest of his life, and as he lay dying in 1572, he would ask his wife to read the chapter over to him again.
The next decisive event in his life was on the 13th December of 1545, when for the first time he heard George Wishart preach in Leith, near Edinburgh. A former school-teacher, Wishart was already a marked man, and he knew it. In 1538 he had been forced to flee Scotland on charges of heresy, and had shortly afterwards been forced to leave England as well, for the same reason. Later changes in the religious climate had allowed him to return to England, and in 1543 he returned to Scotland to preach. Inevitably this brought him to the attention of the Scottish authorities, and would eventually lead to his death. But when Knox heard him at Leith, this was still in the future. The young tutor was mesmerised; here was a man who preached Christ fearlessly. Knox joined himself to Wishart at once; borrowing a great two-handed sword or claymore from one of the lairds he knew, he became a sort of ceremonial bodyguard to the Reformer. It must have been basically ceremonial, for priests were forbidden to shed blood, so Knox could not have been skilled in the use of a weapon; the gesture declared both his attachment to Wishart and the doctrines that he preached, and his renunciation of his orders. It was from Wishart most of all that Knox learned, by example, that the Reformed pastor is a preacher above all else, and he became an enthusiastic disciple of the determined preacher.
But while the impressive young man with the great sword may have deterred the common rabble, he was no defence against the authorities. As Beaton’s star ascended and Arran’s waned, the fickle Arran abandoned all support for the Reformers, and gave his blessing to a crackdown, and Wishart was the most obvious target; articulate, learned and charismatic, the greatest danger he posed in the eyes of men like Beaton was that he sought to make his hearers think for themselves. Knox was sent back to his tutoring, the Reformer commenting, ‘One is sufficient for a sacrifice.’ Shortly afterwards, Wishart was arrested. His trial was in many ways his triumph, as he proclaimed his doctrine clearly, while his accusers appeared ill-tempered and vindictive. Yet there was never any possibility of acquittal, the accused’s guilt was already determined. On the 1st March 1546, on the orders of Cardinal Beaton, Wishart was burned to death in the city of St. Andrews. Knox and the rest of the Protestant circle waited anxiously, expecting a violent crackdown on ‘heresy.’
But it never came. Caiaphas-like, Beaton agreed with Wishart’s words, ‘One is sufficient for a sacrifice.’ He had no desire to initiate a bloodbath, and so long as the Protestants lay low, Beaton would not come looking for them; he had other fish to fry, and other things to worry about. As things turned out, he did not have long to live. He had not come to be the most powerful man in Scotland without making many enemies, and even before he orchestrated the execution of Wishart, there had been a plot to assassinate him, expressed in a letter sent to Henry VIII by a group including those who would later accomplish the Cardinal’s death. The execution of Wishart turned still more people against Beaton, and in the spring of 1546, several of these banded together in a conspiracy to murder the Cardinal. Among them were some personal friends of Wishart who wanted to make Beaton pay for the Reformer’s death, but there were also personal and political enemies; the man at the centre of the plot, Norman Leslie, Master of Rothes, believed that he had been robbed by Beaton in a property dispute. Some were relatives he had alienated in his climb to the top, others were supporters of an alliance with England who saw the worldly churchman as the one great obstacle in the way of such an alliance which would have meant and end to the French alliance Beaton favoured. Whatever their motives, they all agreed on one thing: Cardinal Beaton had to die.
The plot was well laid, and well executed. The plotters knew what they were doing, and almost certainly had help from inside the Cardinal’s own household. Early on the morning of 29th May 1546, when the castle was undergoing repairs and the sounds of chisels and hammers would mask the sound of their intrusion, and when John Beaton, captain of the castle and kinsman of the Cardinal, was absent on business, a small party of men made their way into Beaton’s castle of St. Andrews. There they surprised the Cardinal and slew him, taking possession of the castle. They had hoped that Regent Arran, Beaton’s great political rival, would welcome their action, but Arran instead took the view that however convenient the murder was, it just would not do to give any sort of countenance to political assassination – if today he approved the assassination of Beaton, tomorrow someone else might approve his assassination! Instead he laid siege to the castle, calling on the occupiers to surrender and submit themselves to Scots justice. Yet it was not a very close or determined siege; people could within reason come and go as they pleased, and every effort was made to reach a political settlement.
During the long siege, the political landscape of Europe changed radically; both Henry VIII and King Francis I of France died, signalling the end of an era, and the beginning of a new one. In England the new regime was unapologetically Protestant, in France far more intolerantly Catholic. In Scotland, John Hamilton was elevated to the vacant primacy, and began to crack down on Protestants, leading many to go to the castle of St. Andrews in search of safety; among them were John Knox and his pupils. This made the party within the Castle decidedly Protestant in character, and where there were Protestants, there had to be preachers. John Rough, a former Dominican friar, was the preacher at the Castle, but increasing numbers and the pressures of negotiations meant that he sought an assistant. It so happened that Knox, as a good Protestant tutor, was teaching his pupils the Bible, and that his lessons on John’s Gospel came to to attention of Rough and of Henry Balnaves, one of the leaders of the Protestants in the Castle. They saw in the priest turned school-teacher a man gifted to preach the gospel, and pressed Knox to ‘come up higher.’
John Knox flatly refused; he was not sure that he had a calling to preach, and was afraid to ‘run unsent.’ But Rough and Balnaves persisted. At last, in a sermon, Rough cornered Knox, explaining that a call from a congregation was a call from God, and to resist it was sin. The congregation called Knox, and he had no choice but to accept. Like Calvin in Geneva, he came to the ministry under constraint, but once he had entered onto the work, he pursued it willingly and eagerly as the work that God himself had entrusted to him. It would be his life’s work, and he swiftly found his feet, discovering that all his life up to that point had been preparing him for the task now set before him. In sermon and in debate, Knox would prove his calling as a shepherd of the flock of God.
But there was one more great trial before him. The fact that the Castle of St. Andrews was in a state of rebellion against the Scottish government was brought powerfully to his mind when in July 1547 a French fleet sailed into view off St. Andrews. Commanded by Leon Strozzi, a veteran of the Italian wars and a Knight of the Order of Malta, they meant business. Nevertheless, at their first assault, the French fleet learned the hard way the principle that, all other things being equal, in an engagement between warships and coastal artillery, the advantage lies with the coastal artillery. Having received a serious mauling from the Castle’s guns, Strozzi’s fleet withdrew to repair and consider their next move. Rejoicing at the Castle was however premature; encouraged by the arrival of the French fleet, Regent Arran moved his own forces up for a close siege of the Castle, and Strozzi landed fourteen of his largest guns, some of which were winched into position on the towers of the Cathedral and St. Salvator’s Chapel. Under the heavy bombardment, the defenders of St. Andrews Castle had no option but to surrender, choosing to surrender to Strozzi rather than Arran in hope of obtaining better terms. What they got was better than the death penalty, but not by much; Knox and many others were shipped to France to serve as slaves rowing the war-galleys of the French Navy, a fate regarded as just above the death penalty, but not by very much. It was forced labour of the worst sort, chained to an oar for hours on end, fed on the coarsest food, under the lash of cruel overseers. Deaths were remarkably rare, but it was still back-breaking work, and the ordeal left Knox with health problems that would plague him for the rest of his life. An illness in the summer of 1548 nearly claimed his life.
On the galleys the Scots found ways to express their disdain for the superstitious worship of their Roman Catholic masters. Knox himself records a story of a Scot, almost certainly Knox himself, who was on a galley when a gorgeously-painted wooden image of the Virgin Mary was taken round the vessel for the slaves to kiss. The Scot refused, whereupon the image was thrust into his hands. He promptly threw it over the side of the vessel, remarking, ‘Let our Lady now save herself: she is light enough, let her learn to swim.’
The defenders of the Castle of St. Andrews had been in negotiations with England, and it is to the credit of the English government that they did not forget their Scots allies when they were prisoners of the French, but sought their release. Eventually this was secured, and in the spring of 1549, Knox and others were released from the galleys. Arriving in England, he was sent to Berwick-upon-Tweed, right on the border with Scotland, there to take the post of an army chaplain. He quickly adapted to his new role, and the garrison just as swiftly accepted their new ‘padre’ as one of the men. It was a perfect role for him, familiar as he had become with the world of a French warship. He understood the men, and they respected him. Yet at the same time, he was an outsider in the English Church, especially in the North, where the bishop of Durham, Cuthbert Tunstal, was a decided conservative, hostile to any doctrinal reform, even if he had accepted Henry’s break with Rome. Knox found himself at odds with the immovable bishop, who was forty years his senior, debating with him the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper. Tunstal would be deposed in 1551, but reinstated by Mary in 1554, eventually dying in the Tower of London in 1559, after being deposed a second time on the accession of Queen Elizabeth.
The end of war with Scotland meant that in 1551 Knox moved with the army south to Newcastle, where he became the centre of a ‘family’ of expat Scots Protestants. He still saw his great work to lie over the border, in his own nation, and these contacts became the nucleus of a network that would facilitate the Reformation in Scotland when the time came.
Another change came into Knox’s life at that time; he became betrothed to Marjorie Bowes, daughter of Robert Bowes, the Captain of Northam Castle, an important border fortress. It was an important step towards marriage, but the road would be a difficult one; Knox was a foreigner, a commoner, and a clergyman, all three marks against him in the eyes of the conservative northern English officer. If it had merely been a political statement, the betrothal would not have lasted, but it was a love-match, and the couple would persevere through many trials until at last they married in 1556. Her father’s initial concerns may have been somewhat mollified by the events of 1552; by the end of the year Knox would be a royal chaplain, and a candidate for a bishopric.
Yet for all his involvement with the Church of England, Knox did not belong in it; with the pace of reform governed by civil magistrates, and a decided streak of conservatism even among leaders in the party of reform, he felt stifled in it. His closest friends were on the radical wing of the church, men like John Bradford and Hugh Latimer, not the more cautious Cranmer. Tellingly, his closest friend in London was the Polish superintendent of the Strangers’ Church, John a Lasco.
In the north, Knox had played an important role as the voice of reform against Tunstal’s downright reactionary position. In London, he was more of a liability. He tried, without success, to have the Book of Common Prayer revised to make sitting, not kneeling, the required posture at the reception of Communion. Cranmer would have none of it, but instead, in a move to placate the Scot and the party that he represented, he had inserted what came to be known as the ‘Black Rubric’, a note explaining that kneeling did not imply veneration of the consecrated elements. Later misunderstanding of the part Knox played in the insertion of the Black Rubric led to the mistaken notion that Knox wrote it; in fact he remained opposed to kneeling at Communion, though he went to far as to counsel others to do so for the sake of peace. This experience convinced him that he could not work within the structure of the Church of England, and led to his refusing first the offer of the living of All Hallows, Bread Street, in the City of London, and later the Bishopric of Rochester.
Edward VI, always of indifferent health, died on 7th July 1553, and despite an attempt to place Lady Jane Grey upon the throne, he was succeeded by his devout and bigoted Roman Catholic sister, Mary. Knox and other Protestants saw the writing on the wall, and retired from London. As a foreign subject, and a preacher without a pastorate, Knox was more free than others. At first he moved to the north-east of England, but it was impossible for him to find retirement there, and he knew from Wishart’s experience the danger that a Protestant preacher might find himself in when the mood of the government shifted. He travelled then to Chester, and there met a man who would become his closest friend, Christopher Goodman. Goodman, a native of the ancient city on the Dee, had recently been deposed by Mary from the Lady Margaret Chair of Divinity in the University of Oxford, and had returned to his home city to consider his next move. As they walked together on the rose-red walls of ancient Deva, Goodman persuaded Knox that, since he was not bound to a congregation in England, it was lawful for him to flee to the Continent. Perhaps he gestured to ships waiting on the river, beyond the walls. Goodman too had made up his mind that to remain in England would mean almost certain death, while there would be work for him among the company of exiles who were already beginning to issue from English ports, seeking sanctuary on the Continent.
So it was that in January of 1554, Knox left England, sailing to Dieppe, with Zurich his intended destination. In Dieppe he found refuge among the Scottish merchants, and there he wrote a number of letters to England. Meanwhile, though it would have been advantageous politically and socially to do so, Marjorie Bowes refused to break her betrothal to the now twice-exiled Scottish preacher, remaining faithful to him and to the gospel.
Knox headed for Zurich because it was the centre of the Swiss Reformation, and also the home of Heinrich Bullinger, successor of Ulrich Zwingli, and one of the most influential of the Continental Reformers on the English Reformation. En route to Zurich, Knox visited Geneva, where he met Calvin, who he knew from his writings. Typical of Knox, he came to the Reformer of Geneva with a series of political questions about obedience to magistrates and the effect of apostasy on a government’s authority. Calvin, just as typically, answered them only cautiously and in general terms. From Geneva, Knox went on to Lausanne, where he met Beza and Viret, and then made his way to Zurich, where he met with Bullinger and asked him many of the same questions that he had asked Calvin. These were both constitutional and religious, and touched on what would be the subject of Knox’s most infamous publication, the legitimacy of female rule. But the main question that agitated Knox was whether it was legitimate to overthrow a ruler who promoted idolatry and false religion. Was rebellion justified in such circumstances? While Knox, now twice exiled, could ask the question without fear of reaction, neither Bullinger nor Calvin were willing to be seen as promoting armed rebellion – both were also quite aware that such arguments could be used just as well against a Protestant ruler as against a Roman Catholic one. There was another, vital issue to be considered; if the Reformers were seen as promoting armed rebellion against government, it would make it all but impossible to send preachers into Roman Catholic countries, as they would be seen as even more of a threat to civil order than they already were; every Protestant would be a traitor and, to use anachronistic terminology, a terrorist. It was by the preaching of the Word, not by violence, that the Reformers sought to transform Europe.
After a further trip to Dieppe to collect the latest news from England and Scotland, Knox returned to Geneva. He had admired Calvin before their meeting, and he determined to make the best use of the time that he now had to study under the great Reformer. Meeting the Continental Reformers had shown him some holes in his learning, particularly in the biblical languages, and he aimed to deal with those deficiencies. For all that, he was still just one of many exiles who came from England in the aftermath of Queen Mary’s succession. He enjoyed his time in the city of Calvin, calling it, ‘The most perfect school of Christ that was since the time of the Apostles.’
Knox did not stay long in Geneva; he was soon called to be one of the pastors of an English exile church in Frankfort. There he went almost straight into a controversy about the form of worship; some wanted to use the 1552 Book of Common Prayer, while others, including Knox, wished for a more radical reform of the liturgy. As might be expected, the debate grew increasingly more furious, with epithets and insults flung from both sides. For a variety of reasons, Knox’s side lost, and he was expelled from the city after preaching a sermon in which he, unwisely, compared the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V to Nero. As Charles was not only the overlord of Frankfort, but was in the area at the time, the city council saw this as a good opportunity to be rid of Knox. He, for his part, was not overly unhappy to be forced to leave. He returned to Geneva once again, to pastor an English Church that included many who had left Frankfort with him.
There was another business that occupied Knox at this time, the business of the heart – he was at last in a position to marry his beloved Marjorie, who faithfully waited for him in England. In the autumn of 1555, he set sail from Dieppe, headed to Scotland, where things had calmed down sufficiently for what he intended to be just a short visit; a rescue-mission to extract Marjorie and her mother from hostile England before returning to Geneva before the end of the year. As it turned out, things were even more favourable in Scotland than he had thought, and the underground Protestant network to which he had belonged before his exile welcomed him and practically besieged him with preaching requests.
On the English side of the border, he was delighted to find that there were still those in Northumberland who had not compromised the faith, and he commented that there was ‘more than one Lot in Sodom.’ But it was not safe to remain long in a land where Bloody Mary was queen, and he swiftly returned to Scotland, taking with him Marjorie and her mother Elizabeth. Robert Bowes was, as can be well imagined, furious. Not only had his daughter eloped with an exiled Scots preacher, but his wife had left him as well! Confronted with a choice between her religious convictions and her husband, Elizabeth had chosen her religious convictions.
Rather than returning to Geneva via Dieppe, as he had intended, Knox instead made full use of invitations to preach in Scotland. As he travelled around the country, he made connections with a number of leading Protestants, most importantly John Erskine of Dun, an old friend of Wishart and a laird of some influence. Knox was slowly moving from being one of many Scots preachers to the place he would occupy of international Reformer and leader of Scots Reform. Nor did he only preach, he also administered the Lord’s Supper to the ‘Privy Kirks’ that made up this underground network.
By early 1556, he had come to the attention of the authorities, and was summoned to appear at the Dominican Friary in Edinburgh on 15th May. Everyone knew what this meant; it was the first stage in a formal heresy trial. But unlike Wishart, Knox was in no danger of appearing alone. Erskine of Dun was just one of many lairds and gentlemen willing to appear as friends of the accused – and as armed bodyguards. The bishops, alarmed by the possibility of an armed confrontation on the streets of the capital, took fright and swiftly discovered a technical error in the summons, allowing it to be withdrawn. Knox and his supporters were delighted; they had their victory without having to go to court. They celebrated with ten days of preaching in a hired house on the High Street of Edinburgh, where crowds attended. But it had been fear of man, not fear of God, that had led the authorities to withdraw proceedings against Knox, and a letter to Mary of Guise, Queen Dowager and now the Regent of Scotland, calling on her to support Reformation came up against a brick wall. Given her background and record, it should have come as no surprise.
Knox considered remaining in Scotland, but he was still a minister in the English Church in Geneva, and they were now agitating for his return. After some deliberation, he determined that he should leave Scotland once more, but his heart remained there, and he promised that he would come back again, should his life be prolonged. After his departure the authorities took courage from his absence, condemned him as a heretic in absentia, and burned him in effigy. This meant that he could, if he ever returned, be arrested and executed without trial. This did not discourage Knox from planning his return to Scotland.
Back in Geneva, Knox again took up the busy life of a pastor, preaching, writing, studying and visiting. And to that life he added that of head of a family; a husband, and in due course a father. The congregation of exiles continued to grow, until it swelled to over two hundred. There were calls upon his time from outside the Church, as he was called upon to answer a pamphlet written by an Anabaptist, against the doctrine of election. And an English congregation was always looking beyond the Channel, to a land that Mary seemed to be drenching in blood as she sought in vain to stamp out Protestantism with fire and the sword, with torture and imprisonment.
By the summer of 1557, Knox was once again contemplating a return to Scotland. A son, whom he named Nathaniel, ‘the gift of God’, had been born to him and Marjorie in May, and while she remained in Geneva with her mother and the child, he set off for Dieppe, taking a round-about route to try to minimise the risk of arrest. As he travelled, he heard more and more worrying news about the sufferings of the French Reformed Churches. He tried to do what he could to help their cause, arranging for the translation of an apology, or defence, written by Huguenots who had been arrested in Paris, and supplying his own preface and explanatory notes for English readers.
He had expected to find in Dieppe letters from Scotland encouraging him to return, but in fact the letters that he found there were less than encouraging, suggesting that he should remain on the Continent until the political situation in Scotland had sorted itself out a bit. Understandably, Knox was incensed; he had risked his life to get to Dieppe, and now the Nobles in Scotland were getting cold feet? He fired off an impassioned letter appealing to them to act, to take courage to to do their duty. It had some effect; on 3rd December what was known as the ‘First Band’ was signed by a group of Scottish nobles, committing them to further action towards reformation of the Church in Scotland. But the possibly of Knox himself returning to Scotland remained unlikely, and it was with mingled regret and relief that he once more headed back to Geneva. When, at Easter of 1558, Mary, Queen of Scots, was married to the French Dauphin in the Cathedral of Notre Dame, Paris, it seemed even less likely that Knox would return to Scotland. The execution for heresy of Walter Myln, an elderly Protestant minister, formerly the parish priest of Lunan, near Forfar, at St. Andrews, a few weeks after the French marriage seemed to emphasise this.
It was in this context that Knox wrote what is without doubt his most notorious book, The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women. On the basis of the title alone, Knox has been pronounced a misogynist, but this is to completely mistake the meaning of the title, and the point of the book. Monstrous means ‘unnatural’ and Regiment means ‘rule’, so that the title refers to ‘the unnatural rule of women’, rather than calling women ‘a monstrous regiment.’ The basic argument of the book was that it was contrary to nature as constituted by God for women to be rulers. Knox had allowed the situation in England and Scotland to affect his judgement, and rather than going into details about why the two Marys were being bad rulers, he tried to find a shortcut in proclaiming that the very fact that they were women meant that they should not be monarchs in the first place. It is the almost universal judgement of history that the book should never have been written. It is in many ways regrettable that the First Blast is the best-known of Knox’s writings, and doubly regrettable that most people know nothing about it beyond the title, and assume it to be an anti-woman screed rather than the political tract it is. What worried people the most about the First Blast at the time was that in it Knox was quite clearly calling for a revolution in England! He had mistaken the mood, and found few to support such a reckless and dangerous proposal.
As things turned out, there was no need for Mary Tudor to be overthrown, for on November 17th 1558, the last Catholic queen of England, who had been ill for some time, finally died, and was succeeded by her half-sister, Elizabeth, who was a very different person. Mary was a convinced and bigoted Roman Catholic; Elizabeth was a Protestant, determined to return peace to her country. The Protestant exiles rejoiced, and began to make plans to return to England. Knox, however, could not count on Elizabeth’s support, for his First Blast now came back to bite him with a vengeance. Oddly enough, a projected Second Blast was never written, as Knox ruefully remarked that the First Blast had ‘blown away all my friends in England!’
Meanwhile in Scotland, events moved fast. Far from setting the capstone on the triumph of the Queen Regent and her party, the burning of Walter Myln had proved to be quite counter-productive. The old man had been so infirm as to be hardly able to stand, and the sight of him tottering to the stake could not but arouse pity in the hearts of those who saw, and outrage that such a man should not be allowed to die in peace in his bed. The Scots Church had meanwhile attempted some moral reforms, but it was all too little, too late. The tide of opinion in the lowlands was turning against them, and the time became propitious for Reformation. On January 7th 1559, John Knox left Geneva for good, to return to Scotland. Elizabeth refused to give him passage through England, but a vessel bound for Leith carried him across the sea and to the land where he was to be God’s chief instrument in reformation.
Henry Cowan: John Knox (New York, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1905)
Jane Dawson: John Knox (New Haven, Yale University Press, 2015)
Thomas M’Crie: The Life of John Knox (Edinburgh, William Blackwood, 1855)
James S. McEwen: The Faith of John Knox (London, Lutterworth Press, 1961)
A.M. Renwick: The Story of the Scottish Reformation (London, Inter-Varsity Fellowship, 1960)
Margaret Sanderson: Cardinal of Scotland (Edinburgh, John Donald, 2001)
James Stewart: John Knox: His Ideas and Ideals (London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1904)
Elizabeth Whitley: Plain Mr. Knox (Edinburgh, Scottish Reformation Society, 1972)
- The Trust publishes an edited version of The History of the Reformation in Scotland in paperback.2 The full text of Knox’s History takes up volumes 1 & 2 of the 6-volume set of The Works of John Knox, published by the Trust in 2014.3
6 Volume Set
Of all the major Reformers, John Knox is the one about whose early life we know the least – a fact that may come as a surprise since he wrote a History of the Reformation in Scotland.1 We cannot even be certain of the year in which he was born; it was either 1514 or […]
Taken with permission from Peace and Truth, 2015:4, the magazine of the Sovereign Grace Union, and written by the editor, Gervase N. Charmley.
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