John Knox: Life Story

Chapter 8 : Knoxians & Coxians

Having seen the Strasbourgians off, Knox now astounded the Frankfurt congregation by announcing that he was so far from approving the 1552 Book that he could not administer Communion at Christmas.  Nor would he follow Calvin’s order of service until it was approved by all the English communities in exile. The congregation was unhappy with his suggestion that another preacher could administer the service, and equally reluctant to let him resign.

He wrote to Jean St André, with whom he had lived in Geneva, and who was a strong supporter of his anti-Prayer Book position. He hoped that St André could persuade Calvin to make a pronouncement favouring the radical position.

Calvin took time out of his extremely busy life to try to calm the storm. He wrote to the Frankfurt congregation, in a way that indicated that he too, thought that some of the Prayer Book ought to be amended, but his support for Knox and Whittington was not full-throated. He hoped that the various English congregations would come to a consensus.

There was no possibility of agreement in Frankfurt. Knox, always exaggerated in his preaching, accused the pro-Prayer Book faction of being idolators, and practically Catholics. The Book itself was riddled with superstition that merited death, or at least exile. 

He was not, however, to have it all his own way. John Bale now took up the fight. His polemical abilities equalled those of Knox, and he refuted Knox’s arguments point by point. He accused Knox of ‘seditious, barbarous and schismatic prattling’.

Another character entered the fray at this point – Thomas Lever, who had previously been requested by the Frankfurt congregation to minister to them. Lever, who had come from Zurich, was antipathetical to Knox, both theologically and personally. The disputes between the two sides continued well into 1555, until eventually a compromise was reached that all sides could agree on, to be implemented from 30th April 1555.

Before this milestone could be reached, a body of exiles from Strasbourg arrived to join the Frankfurt group, under the leadership of Richard Cox. Cox, once a member of Cardinal Wolsey’s household, had been one of Henry VIII’s chaplains. During Edward’s reign, he moved to a more Reformed vision of faith, but was a supporter of Cranmer and the Prayer Book.

At the first service they attended, these new members of the congregation gave the verbal responses required by the Prayer Book, that had been dropped as part of the compromise. Knox requested that they desist, but they insisted that their worship should ‘have the face of an English church’. Knox hoped drily that it might have ‘the face of Christ’s Church’. Lever immediately took the opportunity to reassert his former position, ignoring the accord that had been reached.

The congregation was in an uproar. On 17th March, Knox preached, loudly denouncing the Prayer Book, root and branch, and accusing the English Church under Edward VI of being luke-warm, and only partially reformed. Personal criticism of Cox could be inferred by Knox’s denunciation of the pluralism (holding more than one living in the Church) of which Cox had been guilty.

With the addition of the newcomers, there was now a preponderance of pro-Prayer Book supporters. Cox, although he had no authority beyond his personal charisma, dismissed Knox from a preaching role in the congregation. Whittingham tried to retrieve the situation by requesting one of the City Councillors to intervene. A debate was staged between Knox and Whittingham on one side, and Cox and Lever on the other, with the leader of the exiled French congregation to adjudicate.

The debate ended in a fierce confrontation between Knox and Cox, agreement once again foundering on the question of whether anything not in the Bible, could be added. Matters reached an impasse. The irritated city authorities demanded that the English congregation put aside its arguments and accept the French congregation’s orders of service. Cox accepted this immediately.

Knox himself was now facing grave charges. His tract ‘Faithfull Admonition’, circulated the previous summer had contained virulent abuse of Queen Mary. The Queen was the cousin and daughter-in-law of the Emperor Charles, in whose dominions Frankfurt lay and whom Knox had compared to the Emperor Nero.

The ‘horrible calumnies’ against the Queen and the Emperor led many of the Frankfurt congregation to fear that they would all be tarred with the brush of sedition and treason, and that the ‘Faithfull Admonition’ was making persecution in England more vigorous. When Knox failed to compromise over the Prayer Book, a group of them, including members who were now citizens of the city, laid a formal complaint against Knox.

Knox admitted authorship of the offending statements, and was suspended from preaching by the city. The following day, when he attended Church, the ‘Coxians’ staged a walk-out, lest they be tainted by his treasonable presence. With pressure on them to arrest Knox increasing, the city councillors recommended to Whittingham that his friend should leave immediately.

Knox departed for Geneva, feeling deeply aggrieved, depressed and in poor health. He sought consolation from Calvin, who thought he had been shabbily treated. Back in Frankfurt, Cox gained a complete victory by persuading the city council to once again allow the English congregation to use the 1552 Prayer Book.