John Knox: From Rome to Geneva

Knox travelled widely in southern Scotland, as well as in England and Europe. He was a charismatic preacher, and people flocked to hear him.

The numbers against the places correspond to those on the map here and at the end of this article.

The town of Haddington (1) where Knox was born, is located on the north coast of East Lothian. It had been a royal burgh since the time of King David I in the late eleventh century, a status which gave it autonomous rights of administration, rather it being subject to the local laird, nevertheless, the influence of the Hepburn family, located a few miles away, was strong. Haddington’s position on the main road from Edinburgh to Berwick and England meant that it was frequently in the path of armies and the church where Knox worshipped as a young man, and whose school he attended, was badly damaged during the Wars of the Rough Wooing in 1548 – 1549. Part of the church was repaired immediately, but the full restoration had to wait until the 1970s.

Knox returned to his home town after attending university in St Andrews, but then moved to Longniddry (2) in the early 1540s. The Laird of Longniddry, Hew Douglas, was pro-English, and an early Protestant. He employed Knox as tutor to his sons. It was during this period that Knox travelled to Leith (3) the port of Edinburgh, to hear George Wishart preach on 13 December 1545. Leith, now part of the urban expanse of Edinburgh, has always played a pivotal role in Scottish politics, as the port nearest Edinburgh Castle and the palace and abbey of Holyrood. Later in Knox’s life, it was at the centre of the Wars of the Congregation, when Marie of Guise held it, in hopes of support by sea from France.

Knox was still with Wishart when the preacher was arrested at the home of a Mr Cockburn at Ormiston (4).  The arrest was made by the Earl of Bothwell, on the orders of Cardinal Beaton, Primate of Scotland, on the understanding that Wishart would not be executed for heresy. There is no trace today of Cockburn’s house, but he was in favour with the English government, being granted lands of the dissolved abbey of Kepyer, Durham, in 1552.

Wishart was hanged and burnt as a heretic, and in revenge for his death, a group of Protestant gentry, broke into the Cardinal’s castle of St Andrews (5) and assassinated him. The group were besieged in the castle, where Knox and his pupils joined them.  St Andrews Castle, on the shores of the Firth of Forth, dates from the late twelfth century, built by Bishop Roger. It was badly damaged during the Wars of Independence (1296 – 1356), but was renovated by Bishop Walter Trail. By Knox’s time, it was a strong, well-defended fortress, with modern canon. During the siege, the castle was badly damaged, but renovated by Beaton’s successor, James Hamilton, half-brother of Governor Arran. 

On the abolition of the episcopate in 1592, the castle was abandoned, and much of it crumbled away, until the sea wall was built in 1886. Today, the ruins are in the care of Historic Scotland, and are open to the public.

Once the castle fell, Knox was sent to the French galleys, but was released in 1549, and took up residence south of the Anglos-Scottish border in the walled town of Berwick as chaplain to the English garrison (6). Berwick had been disputed by England and Scotland for hundreds of years, but by 1549, was firmly under English control, with a complement of around 370 men, under the Captain of the Town, and the Captain of the Castle.

Knox moved from Berwick to Newcastle-upon-Tyne (7), where he established a committed congregation, despite being questioned by the conservative Bishop Tunstall. Knox had come to the attention of the Duke of Northumberland, and was summoned to London to take part in a series of Lent sermons, to be delivered to King Edward VI, at his palace of Westminster (8). Almost all of Westminster has disappeared now, along with the adjoining palace of Whitehall. The only remnant is Westminster Hall, dating from the eleventh century, with its splendid fourteenth century hammer-beam roof. It is likely that Knox entered the Hall at some time, it was a busy location for both the courts and the government.  Knox rejected two offers to remain in the south of England – refusing the bishopric of Rochester, and another post in London itself.  He returned to Newcastle, but also travelled on preaching tours.

It was whilst Knox was in the small Buckinghamshire town of Amersham (9) that he heard the news that England’s new monarch was Mary, half-sister of Edward VI, and a Catholic. Amersham, still a delightful market town in Buckinghamshire to the north-west of London, had a long history of non-conformity. Three Lollards were burnt there in 1414, and a fourth pardoned. In 1506, William Tilsworth was burnt for heresy, and his daughter, Joan Clerk, was forced to set light to the pyre, whilst her husband carried a faggot as a symbol of recantation. Two others were burnt as relapsed heretics in 1522. It was thus fertile ground for Knox’s preaching.

We can infer from the information that the incumbent minister, Mr Foster, was brought before the Privy Council at the end of August 1553, as a ‘seditious preacher’, that he probably invited Knox to preach in his church of St Mary’s.

Knox, like many other radicals, decided that he should leave England.  He and a fellow radical, Christopher Goodman, travelled together, going first to Chester, Goodman’s home town. Chester (10), an ancient Roman settlement on the Anglo-Welsh border is still a walled town of immense charm, characterised by the (heavily-restored) black-and-white Elizabethan architecture. It was granted city status in 1541, at the same time as Henry VIII created the new bishopric of Chester and refounded the Abbey of St Werburgh as the Cathedral of Christ and St Mary.  Knox and Goodman probably took ship at Liverpool for Dieppe.

During his exile, Knox travelled between Dieppe, Geneva, Frankfurt and other towns in the Swiss Confederation. He made a prolonged return to Scotland in 1555 - 1556, where he was based for a time at the House of Dun (11), the guest of Sir John Erskine of Dun. Erskine was an early adherent of the Reformed faith, who later became Moderator of the General Assembly of the Kirk.  The House of Dun that Knox knew was a fourteenth century tower house, just inland from Montrose, close to the east coast of Scotland, in Angus.  The house was replaced in the early 1700s by the current House of Dun, an early Georgian gem, owned by the National Trust for Scotland.

When Knox left the House of Dun, he travelled to Calder House (12), in Mid Calder. This, too, was the home of a laird, Sir James Sandilands, who was Preceptor of Torphichen, making him Prior of the Knights of St John of Jerusalem in Scotland. The order itself had been suppressed in Scotland the year prior to Knox’s visit.  The current Calder House dates from the mid-sixteenth century, and probably incorporates an older structure. It is still in the hands of the Sandilands family. Whilst Knox was at Calder House, many of the Scots lords who were leaning towards the Reformed faith visited, including Lord James Stewart, later Earl of Moray, half-brother of Queen Mary. Knox and Moray, although they did not always see eye-to-eye, were probably the most important figures in implementing the Reformation in Scotland.

Knox returned to Europe for another three years, but then came back to Scotland in 1559. By that time, the number of Protestant lords was growing, and there was increasing resentment of the pro-French policy of the Regent, Marie of Guise. Knox undertook a preaching tour against a background of tension, as Protestant preachers were called to Stirling by the government, which intended to exile them. Knox and his colleagues, including Erskine of Dun, congregated in Perth, around thirty-five miles north-east of Stirling, and one of the most important towns in Scotland, with the idea of protecting the preachers. The lords were accompanied by their armed retainers, and Queen Marie feared rebellion. She marched with her own army on the town, but was prevented from gaining access. Knox preached an inflammatory sermon in the Kirk of St John (13), Perth. Whilst there had probably been a church in that location, the building Knox knew as that founded by King David I in 1126 and dedicated to St John the Baptist, giving Perth it alternate name of St Johnstoun.  James IV also patronised the church, giving funds for the construction of the nave.

Knox’s sermon, like many of his others, was on the iniquity of idolatry. After he had left the church, a riot broke out and the interior of the building was ransacked. This was followed by the destruction of the interior of Perth Abbey, including the desecration of the tombs of James I, Queen Joan Beaufort, and the widow of James IV, Queen Margaret (Tudor), who had been laid to rest there in 1541.  Later, the church was divided into three parts, for separate congregations, and only restored to a semblance of its mediaeval layout during the early twentieth century.

Shortly after the events at Perth, matters came to a head in the Wars of the Congregation. Knox travelled with the army as a chaplain, but in mid-1560, he travelled secretly to England, where he stayed on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne (14), a tidal island off the Northumbrian coast, south of Berwick. Holy Island, the location of the founding of a monastery by the Irish St Aidan in 635AD, at the behest of King Oswald of Northumbria, is one of the most sacred site in Britain.  The most famous monk was St Cuthbert d. 698, to whom Durham Cathedral was dedicated, and whose cult was the primary religious focus of northern England until the Reformation. Lindisfarne itself was suppressed in 1537. By the time Knox was there, many of the buildings of the later Benedictine abbey had fallen into ruin. Today, Holy Island remains a place of pilgrimage.

Knox’s presence in England was supposed to be secret, but the English Governor of Berwick, Sir James Croft, informed Cecil that Knox was so well-known in the neighbourhood, that it was difficult to hide him.  Cecil eventually persuaded Queen Elizabeth to grant aid to the Lords of the Congregation, and Knox returned to Edinburgh.

With the implementation of the Reformed faith as that of Scotland by the Parliament of 1560, Knox was appointed as minister in the High Kirk of St Giles (15), the foremost church in Edinburgh. St Giles still dominates the Royal Mile (the road between Edinburgh Castle and the Palace of Holyroodhouse). Knox ministered there regularly until the end of his life, and he was buried there in February 1573.  St Giles was founded in 1124, by either King Alexander I or his brother, David I, and dedicate to St Giles, patron of lepers, the lame, and nursing mothers.  The current building probably dates to the mid-1300s, the original foundation having been burnt during the Wars of Independence. In 1466, Pope Paul II granted James III’s request to uprate St Giles to a collegiate church, and it continued to grow during the fifteenth century.

With the installation of Knox as minister, the whole of the interior of St Giles was cleansed of any traces of Catholicism, and whitewashed. Seating was introduced, as the focus of worship changed from the Mass to hearing the Word of God, via the preacher. One of Knox’s duties was to preach the funeral oration for his old friend, the Earl of Moray, who was buried in St Giles, after being assassinated. The church was frequently attended by King James VI, before he moved his court to London in 1603.

The map below shows the location of the places associated with John Knox discussed in this article.

John Knox Map P1