John Knox: Life Story

Chapter 11 : Return from Exile

Having attacked the Queen of England, Knox turned his attention to Marie of Guise in another letter to her, although this time a public document, called the ‘Letter to the Regent’. Whilst he could hardly accuse her of wholesale persecution, he lambasted her for ‘avarice and cruelty’, citing the heavy taxes he had heard of. If she did not soon mend her ways, God would punish her even beyond the loss she had already borne, of her two infant sons and husband.

He followed this missive up with a letter to the Parliament and nobility of Scotland, exhorting them to protect the ‘godly’ from the Catholic bishops and to put idolaters to death. In Knox’s mind, the execution of Protestants was a sin, whilst the execution of Catholics was to be promoted.  A third letter exhorted the ‘Commonalty’ of Scotland. They should free themselves of any concerns they had about rejecting the old faith, and throwing off the ‘tyranny’ of the Catholic clergy. Failure to do so would mean they were sinners and would be punished by God.

These various works, revolutionary and shocking, were published in Geneva in the summer of 1558.  Whilst Knox had anticipated that Mary I and Marie of Guise would be angered by his writings, he was surprised to discover that many avowed Protestants were deeply unhappy with his incitements to revolution. One of the more prominent exiles, Sir Anthony Cooke (father-in-law of Sir William Cecil), wrote to Calvin’s colleague, Theodore Beza, complaining both about Knox, and also Goodman, who had been even more blunt in calling for ‘tyrants’ to be overthrown.

On receipt of Cooke’s letter, Beza and Calvin read Knox’s book. It was immediately banned in Geneva, and Calvin rejected its sentiments – insofar as they related to encouraging rebellion.

‘The First Blast…’  was not just irritating to many, but was also poorly timed. In November 1558, Mary I died, to be succeeded by another woman, her half-sister, Elizabeth. Many of the English Protestant exiles believed Elizabeth to be as zealous a Protestant as themselves, and they were delighted at her accession.

Knox now found he had angered the only woman who had any interest in protecting Protestants. Elizabeth, whilst no doubt having the usual views about women’s general inferiority to men, had absolutely no doubts about her power and authority as a monarch. 

She particularly disliked Knox’s snappily entitled ‘Brief Exhortation to England for the Speedy Embracing of Christ’s Gospel, heretofore by the Tyranny of Mary suppressed and Banished’. Rather than leaving the religious direction of the kingdom to Elizabeth as sovereign, Knox urged the commons to rise up for Protestantism and execute the Catholics.

Whilst Knox was envisaging a new, godly, state in England, events were moving fast in Scotland. Mary, Queen of Scots had married the Dauphin, and there were murmurings among the people, concerned that the French were gaining too great a hold, and that religious persecution might ensue. There had been riots in Edinburgh when the annual procession of St Giles (the patron of the main Church) had been disrupted by Protestants, and the image smashed.

Lord James and the Earl of Glencairn again requested Knox to return. He was hesitant after the wasted trip of the previous year but when he heard that many of the Protestant lords in Fife and Angus, and a majority  of the men of Dundee had signed a bond to protect a Protestant preacher, he decided that the time had come to inspire a religious revolution in his own country.

In the new year of 1559, Knox set out for Scotland, leaving his wife, who had just had a second baby, behind with her mother and older son. Once he had arrived in Dieppe, he requested a safe-conduct to travel through England, a journey much safer than going by sea through the English Channel. He was obviously completely unaware that Elizabeth’s dislike of him and all his works, was deep-rooted and permanent.

His request for safe-conduct was bluntly refused. A follow up quest to Sir William Cecil, now appointed as Elizabeth’s Secretary, was also refused - Cecil may have resented being told that his accommodation with Queen Mary made him a candidate for hell-fire. Knox assured Cecil that although he knew he was ‘odious’ to Elizabeth, he had not intended to offend her and he should not count him an enemy as he desired friendship between the nations.

If the Queen were to humbly admit that God had made a special exception in her case, against His usual laws against women rulers, he, Knox, would be happy to support her authority. Obviously, if Elizabeth insisted that her regal title was lawfully hers, then she could not long escape punishment. Cecil was to share this insight with the Queen. Cecil suppressed the letter, knowing that Elizabeth would have been incandescent. The tone-deaf Knox sent a second copy, worried that his first had gone astray as he had had no reply.

During his wait at Dieppe, Knox wrote to Anne Lock about the new regime in England and its half-hearted approach to Reform. ‘We mean no tumult, no alteration of authority, but only the reformation of religion and suppressing of idolatry. ….the Acts of Parliament like we both alike; that is, nothing at all. I wrote not only against Papistical priests, but also against dissembled professors, who prefer darkness to light and vanity to the truth. If your reformation be no better than your Acts express, I repent not of my absence from England.’

Eventually, Knox realised there would be no safe-conduct, and he sailed for Leith, arriving in May 1559.