John Knox: Life Story

Chapter 4 : The Church of England

The government of Edward VI had introduced a new service, based on the Book of Common Prayer, which became law in 1549. The service of the Eucharist as required by it, was not radically different from the Latin mass as practised in the reign of Henry VIII, and by no means accorded with Knox’ view. Knox felt quite at liberty to ignore the law of England, and ministered to his congregation in line with his own views.

He was given considerable latitude, possibly because his congregation was largely composed of Scots, and perhaps because the Archbishop of Canterbury, and many leading government figures, were becoming more radical in their beliefs.

But the local Bishop – Tunstall of Durham – was a traditionalist. Although he had reluctantly accepted Henry VIII’s Supremacy over the English Church, his doctrine remained Catholic. He had little power in the new Edwardian regime, but summoned Knox to the Council of the North, at Newcastle, to explain himself. Knox expounded his theological arguments, and received no punishment. Tunstall himself was soon sent to the Tower, as a conservative opponent to the Duke of Northumberland.

Knox now moved from Berwick to Newcastle, preaching regularly in the cathedral there. Having come to the attention of the government in London, particularly the all-powerful Duke of Northumberland, he was appointed as a royal chaplain-preacher.

He travelled to London, and preached in front of the fourteen-year-old king, Edward VI, who was becoming one of the most radical of reformers. Knox, never passing up an opportunity for controversy, preached on the iniquity of kneeling to receive the Eucharist.  The King and Privy Council were so impressed, that the current printing of a new more radical, Book of Common Prayer, that of 1552, was suspended, so that it could be amended.

Archbishop Cranmer was furious. First, he pointed out that the Privy Council had no authority to make changes – religious changes could only be made by the King in Parliament. Second, he rounded on Knox’ (and others’) argument that kneeling was an abomination because it was not specifically commanded in the Bible: this line of argument, said Cranmer, would give support to the Anabaptists, who advocated adult baptism. Whatever their other differences, to a man, the Reformers hated the Anabaptists.

Cranmer described Knox and other radicals, such as John Laski and Jan Utenhove, as ‘unquiet spirits which can like nothing but that [which] is after their own fancy and cease not to make trouble and disquietness’.

Knox and the five other chaplain-preachers were requested to put forward their arguments in writing.  Although Cranmer and Knox were as one on the principle that Christ was not present in any corporeal sense in the Eucharist, Cranmer’s view prevailed, and kneeling was retained in what became known as the ‘black rubric’, because it was in black, rather than red, ink owing to the dash to include it.  The rubric made it clear that kneeling was a sign of gratitude, not an attitude of adoration.

A few days after this controversy, Knox, amongst others, signed the new Articles of religion, that included a declaration that the Book of Common Prayer was correct in both its doctrine, and its ceremonies. Despite his apparent acceptance. Knox continued to criticise the Book for not going far enough in reforming the church.

Northumberland, who wanted Cranmer to move further and faster, wrote to the Secretary to the Privy Council, Sir William Cecil, on 28th October 1552, suggesting that Knox be appointed to the bishopric of Rochester. Since that was adjacent to Cranmer’s own seat at Canterbury, the Scot could be a safeguard against Anabaptists and ‘a whetstone’ to Cranmer.

There were other reasons in favour of Knox’s appointment to the See of Rochester, thought Northumberland. It would prevent him ignoring the mandated service as he was currently doing in Newcastle, and, without him present, the Scots community in Newcastle would dissipate. Northumberland was nervous about the number of Scots constantly travelling to and fro to hear Knox.

According to his own report, Knox refused the bishopric, although it is not clear that Northumberland’s offer was concrete. After a meeting between Knox and Northumberland, the latter was so irritated that he wrote to Cecil complaining that Knox had wondered whether he was ‘a dissembler’ and insincere in his Protestantism. In fact, said Northumberland, Knox was neither ‘grateful nor pleasurable’.

Whilst in London during the autumn of 1552, Knox was introduced for the first time to Lord James Stewart, the half-brother of Mary, Queen of Scots as the lord travelled from France home. This was the beginning of a long and fruitful partnership, although Lord James was not, in 1552, a definite adherent of the Reformed religion.