John Knox: Life Story

Chapter 2 : Seeing the Light

On 13th December 1545, Knox heard George Wishart preach for the first time, at Leith. It was a revelation that would change his life. Wishart had joined the Reformist cause early, and travelled in England, and possibly Germany, before returning to Scotland in 1544 and beginning a preaching tour through the Lowlands. He promoted a Calvinist or Zwinglian interpretation of faith, a more radical position than Knox and his friends had previously taken.

Knox left his work and followed Wishart. This moved him from an evangelical, who studied the Bible in private, and sought reform in the Catholic Church, to a wholesale critic of the Church, and a follower of a new doctrine. For Knox, the Church now meant the company of true believers, rather than the institution of the Catholic Church.

To support Wishart was an extremely dangerous decision to take. Cardinal Beaton had issued orders to Wishart to desist from public preaching, but he had failed to do so, and the full weight of the Church in Scotland was now turned against him, as a heretic. Knox was branded with the same label.

As Wishart, Knox and their fellow-travellers were at Ormiston, in Lothian, soldiers of the local laird, the Earl of Bothwell, came to arrest the preacher. According to Knox, who wanted to stay with his mentor, Wishart told him to leave. ‘Nay, return to your bairns (his pupils), and God bless you. One is sufficient for a sacrifice.’

Bothwell’s men handed Wishart over to Beaton and the Church courts. He was tried, convicted of heresy, and hanged at St Andrew’s on 1st March 1546, with his body being burned after death. But although Beaton had taken steps to rid Scotland of its most prominent Protestant, mass persecution was not part of the Scottish government’s plan, and there were no reprisals against Wishart’s followers.

Whilst with Wishart, Knox had read his translation of ‘The First Helvetic Confession’. This was the statement of faith drawn up by Bullinger and others in Basel in 1536 and seems to have become the cornerstone of Knox’ own faith. Knox’ biographer, Jane Dawson, shows clearly how Knox was influenced for the rest of his life by Wishart’s example of preaching and prophesying.

One of the aspects of Reform that Knox embraced was the principle that not only should nothing be said or done in a religious service that could not be demonstrated in scripture, but that only things specifically ordered in scripture should be practised.  This would lead Knox into confrontation with the English Reformers, who generally took a less rigid view.

Reformers were not Cardinal Beaton’s only enemies – he was also a political enemy for all those who favoured the English alliance, and he was the target of assassination attempts that were encouraged, if not engendered, by the English government. On 19th May 1546, eighteen men, led by Norman Leslie, the Master of Rothes, and William Kirkcaldy of Grange, entered Beaton’s castle at St Andrew’s and stabbed him to death, before taking control of the castle.

The Governor, Arran, although he might have welcomed the dispatch of his rival, needed to act against such an outrageous attack on both Church and state. The castle was surrounded, and the ‘Castilians’, as the group inside were called, prepared to defend their position.  The Castilians were helped by the threat of another English invasion, which, for Arran, was more pressing, and their control of Arran’s son, who had been in Beaton’s household. The ringleaders were excommunicated but the siege continued without resolution into the new year of 1547.

Circumstances changed with the death of Henry VIII in England, and the appointment of the new king, Edward VI’s uncle, Edward Seymour, as Protector. Seymour, rejoicing in his new title of Duke of Somerset, turned his attention to Scotland. He had been the chief military leader in Henry’s campaigns against his northern neighbour, and was now eager to show his power and skill by subduing the country, and forcing the marriage of the Queen of Scots to King Edward.

With Beaton’s death, Arran’s half-brother, Hamilton, became Archbishop of St Andrew’s, and thus Primate of Scotland. Despite his earlier support of moderate reforms in the Church, he now began a wider campaign against evangelicals and those perceived as heretics. In reaction, Knox and his pupils, amongst others, decided to join the Castilians, inside the besieged castle of St Andrew’s.

Others amongst the Castilians, were the ex-Dominican, John Rough, whom Knox had first heard preaching reform, and Henry Balnaves. Balnaves, another early convert to reform, had been a member of James V’s Privy Council, and a commissioner after James’ death, for the marriage between England and Scotland. Beaton, however, hated him, and he was dismissed from the government in 1543, after which time he acted for the English.