John Knox: Ladies' Man

by Dr Marie Macpherson

The 19th century historian, Thomas Carlyle, hailed John Knox, the founding father of the Scottish Reformation, as ‘the one Scotsman to whom the whole world owes a debt.’ For him, God’s trumpeter was a fiery revolutionary who cut Scotland free from the shackles of Rome and lit the way to the Scottish Enlightenment. Since then Knox’s reputation has plummeted from hero to zero. In the popular imagination at least, Knox is a pulpit-thumping Calvinist tyrant who banned Christmas and most damningly of all, hated women. His polemical tract The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women has branded Knox forever as a rampant misogynist. But how true is this?

Knox was a complex character, a man with a split personality whose life was broken in two: Roman Catholic priest in the first half and iconoclastic reformer in the second. His relationship with women is no less ambivalent. While he railed against female Catholic rulers, his attitude to women on a personal level was utterly different. In contrast to the image of the bully and brute, his correspondence and friendships with his female followers reveal him to be patient, thoughtful and understanding.

Anne Vaughan Locke

In spring 1549, John Knox was released from the French galleys, possibly with the help of Henry Balnaves who brought him to London where he introduced him to a close-knit family of evangelicals, the Lockes, wealthy mercers in Cheapside. The Locke brothers – Henry and Thomas – were partners in a merchant company with their brothers-in-law, Anthony Hickman and Richard Hill. They and their respective wives, Rose and Elizabeth, were all good friends and Henry’s young wife became Knox’s confidante. Anne Vaughan Locke was the daughter of Stephen Vaughan, a London merchant, and Margery Guinet, a silkwoman to Anne Boleyn. Between 1529 and 1532, her father was examined several times by Thomas More for suspected heresy. Reformist sympathies were common among merchants given their trade contacts in the strongly Protestant Low countries. When Knox became one of Edward VI’s six chaplains, he boarded with the Lockes and during his exile in Geneva, he corresponded regularly with Anne, rather than her husband.

At the height of Mary Tudor’s persecution in 1556, Anne’s brothers-in-law were arrested for holding private religious services in their home. Fearing for her fate, Knox sobbed (tears came easily to him!) and implored her to leave England and join the expatriate community that had formed around John Calvin in Geneva. In emotional letters, he expressed his thirst and languor for her presence, ‘that is so dear to me’ and seemed even ready to brave the fires to rescue the damsel in distress.

In 1557, she left England with her two children and her sisters-in-law but without her husband. Highly intelligent and well educated, Anne wrote poetry, and in Geneva she translated Calvin’s sermons into English. In 1560, she published A Meditation of a Penitent Sinner, not only the first sonnet sequence in English, but the first written by a woman. Four days after their arrival in Geneva tragedy befell her with the death of her daughter: her son, Henry, became a well-known religious poet.

There is no doubt there was a meeting of minds between Mrs Locke and Knox. According to Robert Louis Stevenson, she was ‘the only woman that Knox ever loved’ though he gives no evidence for his contention. Interestingly, although they ceased to correspond after 1562, her two subsequent husbands, Edward Dering, a Puritan preacher and Richard Prowse, a mercer from Exeter, showed distinctly Knoxian characteristics.

Elizabeth Bowes

While there is no evidence of an improper relationship with Mrs Locke, Knox’s close friendship with the middle-aged matron, Mrs Elizabeth Bowes, certainly set tongues wagging. In 1549, Knox was persona non grata in Scotland, but welcomed by the English Reformed church who sent him to be pastor of an unruly flock in Berwick-upon-Tweed. There he met Mrs Bowes, the daughter and co-heir, with her sister, of Sir Roger Aske of Yorkshire, and wife of Richard Bowes, captain of Norham Castle near Berwick, the largest of the fortresses in the English bulwark against Scotland. They had been married for nearly 30 years and Mrs Bowes had borne him fifteen children, ten of whom were daughters. Brought up as a Roman Catholic, Mrs Bowes became a lost soul when Henry VIII pulled the religious rug from under her but hearing Knox’s rousing sermons was her salvation. This religious hypochondriac, endlessly fretting about whether or not she was one of the elect, clearly developed a ‘crush’ on the charismatic Scots Preacher who responded to her troubled conscience and religious doubts in a series of patient, often tender letters. In this platonic way they could be considered ‘correspondents’.

Knox became a substitute priest/confessor to whom she poured out heart. Once, when she confessed to the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah, Knox was horrified until he realised that she didn’t know what they were. After explaining that they consisted of pride, riotous excess, idleness that provoked filthy lusts resulting in all abomination and unnatural filthiness, he asked, ‘In which of these, Mother, are you guilty?’ Unfortunately, her response was not recorded.

On Knox’s part, this ‘woman of a certain age’ may have represented a mother-figure, a sublimated sexual fantasy or simply a feminine presence which the male-dominated world of the clergy lacked. Whatever the nature of their close relationship, it did not go unnoticed and rumours and innuendo, even accusations of adultery about Mrs Bowes and Knox, abounded. The infamous incident in the cupboard at Alnwick was wheeled out as evidence of their physical intimacy. In 1552 he wrote to her:

Call to your mind what I did standing at the cupboard in Alnwick; in very deed I thought that no creature had been tempted as I was. And when I heard proceed from your mouth the very same words that he troubles me with, I did wonder and from my heart lament your sair trouble, known in myself the dolour thereof…

This vision of Knox with his ‘belovit mother’ lurking behind the linen cupboard to snatch a furtive embrace has been dismissed as fantasy. Later in life Knox felt compelled to dispel the rumours. The reason for their familiarity, he wrote, was her over-active conscience and not flesh and blood. Knox often wrote about being tempted – not by women but by Satan who, he lamented, infected his heart with ‘foul lusts’.

Although Knox put up with her outpourings with the patience of a saint (not an analogy he would appreciate) he confessed that she drove him to distraction at times with her ‘fasherie’. She sounds like the mother-in-law from hell, for that is what she became when the 38-year-old preacher married her 16-year-old daughter, Marjory. This led to accusations of cradle-snatching, though in his defence, at that time it was quite common for girls to be married off in their early teens and, when so many women died in childbirth, for an older man to take a young wife.

Marjory Bowes

Whether or not Mrs Bowes pushed her daughter into Knox’s bed as her substitute, Captain Bowes was not impressed by the penniless preacher – and a Scot to boot, one of the auld enemy he was commanded to fight. Nevertheless, because Knox had risen in favour to be one of Edward VI’s chaplains, he reluctantly accepted their betrothal. On Edward’s death and Mary Tudor’s accession in 1553, Knox was forced to flee England for Calvin’s Geneva.

After a troubled spell in Frankfurt, he returned to Scotland in 1555 because the Scots lords had assured him that the regent, Marie de Guise, would be tolerant towards the reformed faith. He took the opportunity to pursue his suit of Marjory, but since the renegade Protestant preacher was no longer respectable her uncle, Sir Robert Bowes, forbade Marjory and her mother to see him. Love will find a way, however, and Knox managed to have them brought to Edinburgh where he formally married Marjory, before all three returned to Geneva. Mrs Bowes’ decision to leave her husband and family was most severely censured – it just wasn’t done. He used the black arts to steal men’s wives from under their noses.  In revenge, the dishonoured Captain Bowes left his errant wife and daughter nothing in his will.

Not much is known about Marjory, apart from a few tantalizing comments from Christopher Goodman and Calvin who praised her as being the ‘most delightful of wives’ and a rare find. She seems to have been the perfect help-mate, supportive colleague as well as a loyal wife and mother. She gave birth to two sons, Nathaniel in 1557, followed by Eleazer in 1558. Their ménage à trois was not without its difficulties, however, as Knox confessed to being burdened with double cares: A domestic charge wherewith before I have not been accustomed and therefore are the more fearful.

 The arrival of the religious refugees, Mrs Locke and her sisters-in-law, must have caused further upset. He complained that the domestic disputes that ensued in this household of women prevented him from enjoying a quiet scholarly life – as no doubt did letters from his ‘Edinburgh sisters’, consulting him about women’s apparel. Flummoxed, Knox the fashion guru found it difficult to respond, for fear of restraining Christian liberty, or else letting loose the bridle too far to the foolish fantasy of facile flesh. He took the opportunity, however, to point out that women’s garments declared their weakness and inability to execute the office of men. Not entirely unexpected from the author of The First Blast of the Trumpet, perhaps, but his response did not seem to have antagonized them for, like most women of their time – and even up to the 20th century – they knew their place.

The First Blast of the Trumpet

In spring 1558, the Lords of the Congregation again invited Knox, assuring him that the time was now ripe for him to return. After an arduous trek of more than 600 miles, he was dismayed to receive a letter telling him to wait. Mary, Queen of Scots’ marriage to the Dauphin had put everything on hold. Incensed with rage and frustration at the lords’ disloyalty, he took up his pen to write his notorious work, The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women. He never meant it to be a polemic against women in general but directed his aim at the unnatural reign of female Catholic rulers: Mary Tudor in England, Marie de Guise in Scotland and Mary, Queen of Scots. Knox was not a rogue male in voicing this opinion, however. At that time most men were male chauvinists who regarded women as inferior beings – foolish, frenetic and weak – a view enshrined in law that treated them as second-class citizens, subject to their fathers and husbands. Knox was particularly vehement in his attack on female rule that challenged the God-given authority of men over women and subverted the natural order. He not only wanted to depose the ‘three Marys’ but, if necessary, execute the tyrants. This was tantamount to treason and he was fortunate that his head did not roll.

Knox’s First Blast was not only misjudged, drawing howls of rage from all sides – even Calvin was horrified – it was grossly mistimed. In spite of his famous gift of prophecy, he failed to foresee the death of Mary Tudor in November 1558 and the accession of Elizabeth I. This female Protestant queen was not at all amused. The zealot preaching sedition was ‘the incarnation of everything in religion and politics her soul most loathed’ and in 1559 the Virgin Queen refused him safe passage to Scotland.

When Knox finally landed at Leith on 2nd May 1559, Scotland was in the midst of a civil war that finally ended with the premature death of the regent, Marie de Guise, on 11 June 1560. Knox was most ungracious and gloated over her death, writing, within a few days thereafter, began her belly and loathsome legs to swell, and so continued till God did execute his judgment upon her.

In December 1560, just when Knox was at the pinnacle of his success as spiritual leader of his country, fate struck him a cruel blow. His 25-year-old wife, Marjory, was taken from him. No reasons are given for her death which left Knox deeply depressed and ‘in no small heaviness’. Almost immediately after, King François, husband of Mary, Queen of Scots died suddenly. When Mary returned to claim her Scottish crown, the middle-aged Protestant widower and the teenage Catholic widow famously clashed in a series of meetings. Although the anointed queen and God’s messenger did not see eye to eye, they did appear to work together as an unlikely pair of marriage guidance counsellors to the Earl and Countess of Argyll, Mary’s half-sister.

Margaret Stewart

While Knox continually criticised her choice of prospective spouses, Mary was furious when he married again in 1564. His new bride, 16-year-old Margaret Stewart, was the daughter of one of Knox’s staunchest Ayrshire supporters, Andrew Stewart, Lord Ochiltree, and a descendant of the royal Stewarts. Her family could trace a line back to James II and her uncle Henry had married Margaret Tudor, James IV’s widow. The English ambassador, Thomas Randolph, reported that the Queen ‘stormeth wonderfully that she is of the blood and the name’. Meanwhile, Knox’s Catholic enemies had a field day spreading innuendo about the couple’s age difference and claimed that Knox had captured her by a pact with the devil.

Throughout his life, salacious gossip stalked Knox. In 1563, an Edinburgh widow, Euphemia Dundas, accused him of fornication with a common whore but she was punished with the branks, the scold’s bridle. After his death, Nicol Burne, a Catholic propagandist decried Knox as a lustful, decrepit old man in league with the devil who had committed incest with his mother-in-law and who had been forced to flee England for seducing three young girls under the promise of marriage. Whenever he made a journey he took around with him a certain number of women whom he used to satisfy his lusts.

Diabolically ensnared or not, his marriage to Margaret was happy enough to produce three daughters within six years. Whether or not it caused a rift with Mrs Bowes may be deduced by her decision to take her two grandsons back to England to be educated. Again, very little is known about Margaret who seemed to have fulfilled her wifely duties without complaint. She acted as her aging husband’s secretary and nursed him in his declining years. His ‘Meg’ seemed to have been a far more feisty character than Marjory, however. Within two years of Knox’s death she married Andrew Ker of Fawdonside – an unsavoury character who had held a pistol at the pregnant womb of Mary, Queen of Scots, during Riccio’s bloody murder.

Looking beyond the caricature of the puritanical kill-joy, Knox seems to have been a man of humour and passion, prone to weeping and with great charisma. Ill-at-ease operating within the increasingly treacherous power struggles of the lords, he was more comfortable among his flock of faithful female followers. However hard it is to imagine, Knox, the ‘babe magnet’, seems to have possessed charisma or perhaps more aptly, glamour in its original Gaelic sense of enchantment.  Love him or loathe him, Knox certainly had the power to stir hearts as well as minds and souls.

Additional Reading

John Knox, by Jane Dawson

John Knox: Democrat, by Roderick Graham

The Swordbearer: John Knox and the European Reformation, by Stewart Lamont

John Knox, by Rosalind K. Marshall

John Knox, by Edwin Muir