John Knox was born around 1514 in Haddington, East Lothian, an area of the country ravaged by the frequent wars between England and Scotland. He graduated from St Andrews University and was ordained priest, before taking up a career as a notary in his home town.
During the 1530s and 1540s, the preaching of Luther and other reformers began to infiltrate Scotland, and the Governor of Scotland, the Earl of Arran, permitted the reading of the newly-translated English Bible. It may have been this, together with hearing the reformist preachers, John Rough and Thomas Gillem, that led to Knox abandoning his church position and becoming a tutor to the sons of the local lairds who were interested in religious reform.
In December 1545, Knox heard the itinerant preacher, George Wishart, whose electrifying preaching was converting thousands to the reformed faith. Knox was instantly affected, and giving up his old life, joined Wishart.
Within weeks he had become part of a circle of minor gentry who were also turning away from the Catholic Church. Scotland was in the throes of a struggle for power between the Earl of Arran, the Governor, who had reformist tendencies, and generally followed a pro-English policy, and Cardinal James Beaton, Archbishop of Aberdeen, who had been one of the closest advisors of the late James V and sought to oust Arran. Beaton’s policy was pro-French, in which he was supported by the queen-mother, Marie of Guise, although she also hoped to take overall control.
Whilst Arran had initially encouraged reform, he had stepped back from taking the country out of the authority of Rome. Beaton, although not a zealous persecutor of heresy, felt an example had to be made of Wishart, who was arrested by the Earl of Bothwell and handed over to Beaton, on the understanding that he would not be executed. Wishart’s followers, including Knox, were allowed to disperse.
Beaton did not keep his word and Wishart was burnt for heresy. This aroused such anger that a group of Protestants, including Sir William Kirkcaldy of Grange, broke into the castle of St Andrews and murdered him. Arran, however little sympathy he had for Beaton personally, could not overlook such an egregious offence as the slaughter of the Primate of the Scottish Church. The castle was besieged, although not with any great rigour.
Knox and others decided to join the besieged men, known as the Castilians. He took his pupils with him, and entered the castle, where he continued his teaching duties, and gave support to John Rough, the Castilians’ minister, in his public debates with the local church hierarchy, over doctrine.
Knox’s colleagues were so impressed that they tried to persuade him to become a preacher for the new faith. Initially, he resisted, but the congregation of the town church echoed the call, and, after some days of thought and prayer, Knox accepted that he had been called to the ministry. It was a fundamental belief of Knox and the other reformers that ministers were called through the voice of the congregation, rather than having authority from the Church.
The siege dragged on, part of a wider conflict between England and France, for control of Scotland. With a new, Protestant regime in England under Edward VI, the Castilians hoped for rescue, but Henri II of France, who had completed the Treaty of Haddington, by which his son, François, was to marry the young Queen of Scots, sent ships to the mouth of the Firth of Forth and began firing on the castle. Knox and the others were captured. Rather than being executed, the lower ranks, including Knox, were sentenced to the French galleys.
Knox endured the punishing life of an oarsman for eighteen months, before a treaty between England and France gave him his freedom.
The English Protector, Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, appointed Knox to preach in Berwick, presumably with the aim of encouraging the fledgling Protestant Church in the Borders, against the Catholic government in Scotland, now largely in the hands of Marie of Guise.
Knox began a fruitful ministry, in Berwick and then Newcastle. Whilst there, he became betrothed to Margery Bowes, daughter of one of the English border gentry families, although most of her family objected. Her mother, Elizabeth, was a committed follower of Knox, and Margery, too, became an ardent Protestant.
Knox became known to John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, who had supplanted Somerset as the leading minister in the minority government of Edward VI. Knox was called to court, and, as one of a group of radical preachers, preached before the young king himself. Edward was a keen Protestant, but not all his ministers were so enamoured of Knox.
There were still Henrician Catholics in the Council, who were uncomfortable with the religious reforms, and even Archbishop Cranmer, although he did not necessarily disagree with Knox’s views on doctrine, clashed violently with him over his approach to reform. Cranmer wanted a gradual move, reflecting the conservative nature of most of the English population, whilst Knox wished to abolish any hint of ‘popery’.
Cranmer prevailed in the controversy over the 1552 Prayer Book, and Knox’s belligerent manner and refusal to accept the office of Bishop of Rochester irritated Northumberland. Knox returned to the North, but also began preaching around the country. In 1553, he was at Amersham when the news came that Edward VI had died, and, after a failed attempt to enthrone the Protestant Lady Jane Grey, had been replaced by Mary I. Queen Mary was known as a committed Catholic. Knox, and many other reformers went into exile in Europe.
He spent some time in Dieppe, then in various Swiss towns where he developed relationships with the foremost Reformers – Calvin and Bullinger. Frustrated by the number of English co-religionists who hid their faith and conformed to the reintroduction of Catholicism, he published several tracts, including A Faithfull Admonition made by John Knox unto the Professors of God’s Truth in England’.
After a sojourn in Geneva, Knox was persuaded by Calvin to accept the call to minister to the exiled English Church in Frankfurt. His period there was marked by a vicious controversy between those who wished to worship according to the English Book of Common Prayer of 1552, which Knox had previously been reluctantly forced to accept, or the more radical services of the French Huguenots, or the Calvinist congregations. The battle between the ‘Knoxians and the Coxians’ lasted for some months.
Knox was eventually ousted, and obliged to leave Frankfurt, as his published tracts criticised the Emperor (in whose dominions Frankfurt lay), as well as the Queen of England. He returned to Geneva, and settled there for a short while, before undertaking a preaching trip to Scotland, during which time he made the acquaintance of some of the lords who opposed the policies of the Regent, (now Marie of Guise), and who were interested in the Reformed faith.
His period in Scotland drew many to the Reformed faith. Marie of Guise, who had turned a blind eye to the Protestantism of many of the nobles, provided that there was no challenge to the government or the Catholic Church, became nervous about the level of support Knox was receiving. Aware of his rhetorical skill, and growing following, she requested the Archbishop of St Andrews to cancel the summons issued against Knox on charges of heresy to try to stem interest in his preaching.
Her plan failed, and Knox preached to ever larger crowds. He was persuaded to write to Marie, in hopes of influencing her from her position of mild toleration, to a positive conversion to the new faith, but, even if she had been psychologically inclined to a change in her religion, his offensive language, and imperious tone would have failed to make any headway.
Knox decided to return to Geneva, accompanied now by his new wife, Margery Bowes, and her mother, Elizabeth. The family settled there happily amongst the English congregation in exile, and had two children.
In 1557, the leaders of the Scottish Protestant lords invited Knox to return. After much persuasion, he travelled to Dieppe, only to discover that the lords had changed their views, and were no longer eager to welcome him home. Knox suspected that many of them had been bribed by position and titles, to continue to accommodate the Catholicism of Marie of Guise, and the increasing French influence in Scotland. He vented his frustration by writing his ‘First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment (rule) of women’, directed at Marie of Guise and Mary I of England.
Knox returned to Geneva, but towards the end of 1558 was again invited to go back to Scotland. The situation had changed with the death of Mary I of England, and the succession of Elizabeth, whom many hoped was a zealous Protestant. The young Queen of Scots had married the French dauphin, and there was increasing resentment of French influence in Scotland.
Knox sailed for home, having been refused a passport to travel through England. Elizabeth had been deeply offended by the ‘First Blast’ and would have nothing to do with him. She would, however, give tacit help to the Lords of the Congregation, who were increasing their opposition to Marie.
In May 1559, Knox arrived in Leith. He began a preaching tour that culminated in an inflammatory sermon in Perth, criticising the Catholic church, root and branch. Later that day, rioting broke out, and the interiors of the churches of Perth, and the nearby Scone Abbey, were destroyed.
Marie marched on Perth, with an army, and besieged the city. A compromise was reached, but it was only a matter of time before armed conflict became inevitable.
The War of the Congregation pitted many of the lords – who had varying degrees of interest in religious reform – against Marie, and the absent Queen Mary and her husband, now King François II of France. Knox remained with the Congregation army, as a chaplain.
In 1560, with help from England, and the death of Marie, the lords triumphed. The Scottish Estates legislated for Scotland to adopt the Reformed faith based on a Confession of Faith, drawn up by Knox and others. It became a crime to attend a Catholic Mass. Knox became the new Church’s minister for Edinburgh. Despite this great step in Knox’s life, he was personally grieved by the loss of his wife. He remarried a girl of seventeen in 1564.
In 1562, Queen Mary, now widowed, returned to Scotland to take up personal rule. Mary had agreed with her illegitimate half-brother, Lord James Stewart, the leader of the Lords of the Congregation that she would accept the religious settlement, provided she could worship as a Catholic personally, but Knox did not believe the agreement would last. He assumed the worst of the young queen before she had arrived, prophesying that the Catholic monarch would overturn the Reformation, and implement a reign of persecution against Protestants.
Knox and the queen met on several occasions, but they could not establish any common ground – other than in a joint effort to prevent a marital rupture between the Earl and Countess of Argyll. Knox became even more vehement against Mary when she unveiled plans to marry Lord Henry Darnley. Darnley was her cousin, and was the closest royal male relative of Elizabeth I, his claim to the English throne being second only to Mary’s, under common law. Although hardly a man of religion, Darnley was nominally Catholic, which incensed Knox.
Whilst Knox’s condemnation of the queen, and the new king, did not win him many friends, even amongst the committed Protestants, he was right that Darnley was a poor choice of husband. Darnley conspired with many of the nobles, including Lord James (now Earl of Moray) to murder the queen’s secretary, David Riccio. Whilst Knox was not directly involved, he was aware of the plot.
Shortly afterwards, he spent six months in England, without Queen Elizabeth’s knowledge. He tried to promote a reconciliation between the more radical English Protestants, who rejected the wearing of vestments, with the mainstream church. In his absence, the unpopular Darnley was assassinated. Knox immediately assumed that Mary was behind the murder, and preached against her as an adulterer and murderer. This point of view had some support from Mary’s decision (whether voluntary or under compulsion) to marry the Earl of Bothwell, whom many held responsible for Darnley’s death.
Knox returned to Scotland, and played an active part in the events surrounding the deposition of Mary, and the crowning of her infant son, James VI. He preached at the young king’s coronation, and worked closely with Moray, who became Regent.
Despite the victory of the Protestants over Mary, Knox remained concerned that she would regain her throne, and continued to preach against her, and her supporters, particularly the Hamilton clan. In 1570, Moray was assassinated by a Hamilton. Knox preached the funeral oration of the man with whom he had worked closely for fifteen years.
Knox’s own health deteriorated. Whilst he had frequently undertaken preaching tours throughout southern Scotland, the stroke he suffered in autumn 1570 limited his travels. He was not too ill, however, to be outraged when some of his former colleagues – particularly Sir William Kirkcaldy of Grange, who had been one of the Castilians in the 1540s – declared for the queen, and Scotland descended into a state little short of civil war.
In a desperate attempt by the Queen’s Party to break out of Edinburgh Castle, where they were besieged, they fired on Edinburgh. Inhabitants had been warned to leave the city, and Knox and his wife and daughters took up residence in St Andrews. He preached regularly, and was enormously influential over the students of the university – although not everyone appreciated his repeated polemics against Mary and the Hamiltons.
Sadly for Knox, he discovered that many of the Protestant lords cared as little for the common good as had the Catholic priests, and Scotland did not become a land of godly people, living in accordance with God’s Word.
In 1572, Knox returned to Edinburgh, and once again began preaching at St Giles Kirk, to enthralled audiences. But his days were numbered, and he died in November 1572, still fulminating against the Queen’s Party, but much comforted by the devoted attention of his wife, who solaced him by reading from the Scriptures.
Knox’s legacy lived on – he was probably the single most inspirational Scot of his age, and his influence shaped both his own country, and much of the Protestant world.