John Knox: Life Story

Chapter 20 : Last Months

When the General Assembly was called in March 1571, Knox was accused, by means of an anonymous paper, pinned to the door, of sedition against his lawful Queen, and treasonous support of England over his own country. He denied the charges vigorously, claiming that Mary was not his lawful Queen and confirming that, whilst he never denied the possibility of her eventual repentance, she was an idolater, a murderer, and an adulterer.

He also denied ever having requested English support against his own country – which was not strictly truthful, as he had urged English intervention in 1560. No doubt he squared the lie with his conscience by seeing the Lords of the Congregation at the time as the just government of the country, rather than the Regent, Marie of Guise.

The cycle of violence continued. Archbishop Hamilton, the still-Catholic Archbishop of St Andrew’s, was hanged, when Dumbarton Castle, holding out for the Queen, was captured. Knox, too, was the victim of an assassination attempt. Providentially, he was sitting in a different chair from usual when a bullet was fired through his window.

Kirkcaldy of Grange issued a proclamation from Edinburgh Castle, warning all the supporters of the King’s Party to leave the city, before the cannon were fired. Knox was persuaded to leave, to prevent the deaths of parishioners who might try to protect him. He and his wife and three daughters, crossed the Forth, and made for St Andrew’s.

His health was declining, but he still preached regularly in the place where he had first heard God’s call to the ministry. Once in the pulpit, all his old vigour returned, and he would loudly denounce the Queen and all her supporters, thumping the wood in front of him. On one occasion, a woman accused of witchcraft was brought in to be excoriated by Knox before being taken out for execution.

The civil war went on – Lennox was assassinated, and the next Regent, Mar, died suddenly. Power came into the hands of the Earl of Morton, who had been a Protestant and a colleague of Knox’s since the 1550s, but Knox was disgusted by the continuing interference of the nobility in ecclesiastical appointments, complaining that ‘they appear[ed] to take no more care of the instruction of the ignorant and of the feeding of the flock of Jesus Christ tan ever did the papists.’

Knox had an enormous influence on the next generation of students, now studying at St Andrew’s, with many flocking to hear that ‘extraordinary man of God’. But not everyone appreciated his continuing fulminations against the Hamiltons, and the university authorities asked him to desist, as students were objecting.

Despite his complaints about the power the Catholic Church had once wielded, Knox was now quite certain the General Assembly of the Kirk was not to be subject to any other authority, particularly of the universities, and he continued to preach as he saw fit.

He continued his written tracts, publishing ‘An Answer to the Letter of a Jesuit…’  and was well enough to return to Edinburgh in August 1572, when the King’s and Queen’s Parties were finally reconciled (with the exception of Maitland, and Kirkcaldy, still holding out in Edinburgh Castle).

He preached with some of his old vehemence in St Giles when he heard the news of the Massacre of St Bartholomew, which had taken place in Paris, but he was failing fast, and once he had identified a suitable successor as minister, resigned from his post as minister of St Giles. He retired to his bed in November, tended by his wife, who read to him from the Scriptures.

He did not lose his mental acuity – many of his old friends came to say goodbye, and he sent urgent messages to William Kirkcaldy, desperate for him to repent, lest he be ‘disgracefully dragged from his nest to punishment’.

He died on 24th November 1572, and was buried in the churchyard at St Giles. His legacy lived on – Knox was probably the single most influential figure in sixteenth century Scotland. Without his drive, his utter determination and his extraordinary oratorical and charismatic gifts, the history of that country might have been very different.

He was, without doubt, the force that ensured the Reformation took hold, and, despite being neither a popular movement as it was in Germany, nor a monarch-lead revolution as in England, shaped the country.

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