John Knox: Life Story

Chapter 13 : Wars of the Congregation

The Archbishop called for help from Marie, who sent troops. The Protestants of St Andrew’s, including Knox, marched out to meet them. They were soon reinforced by volunteers from other areas where Reform was taking hold. Outnumbered, the Regent’s troops decided to parley, rather than engage in battle.

The army of the Congregation, including Knox, advanced on Edinburgh. His extraordinary preaching abilities put heart into the soldiers, who believed they were fighting God’s battle and entered the city. Knox was immediately installed as the minister for the Edinburgh Protestants, who met at the Tolbooth, near the Castle. He believed that if he could preach for forty days, he would convert the whole city,

Despite the commitment of the troops, the Congregation army could not easily defeat Marie, who had the benefit of professional French soldiers, paid by Henri II. It was obliged to leave the city following the signing of the Articles of Leith on 25 July 1559. Knox left too, another preacher, John Willock taking his place.

The two sides later disputed the contents of the Articles – the Lords believing that they precluded garrisoning Edinburgh, and Marie disagreeing. The armed struggle continued.

Had Mary I of England lived longer, it is unlikely that the Lords of the Congregation could have withstood the lawful government. But, with the accession of Elizabeth, the Lords now asked help from their fellow-Protestants. Feelers were put out to the English for support as early as June 1559 – before the Articles.

Elizabeth was in a quandary. She had no desire to support armed rebels against their lawful monarch and her Regent, but, if France dominated Scotland, the likelihood of an armed invasion with the object of placing Mary, Queen of Scots on the English throne became a strong possibility. In the eyes of Catholic Europe, and many of her own subjects, Elizabeth’s claim to the throne was flawed, and Mary of Scotland was the rightful heir.

There was also the Treaty of Cateau-Cambrèsis to consider, which had ended hostilities between England and France. Elizabeth had no desire to involve the country in a further conflict with the French.

Knox travelled secretly to England to ask his friends and allies in the borders to communicate with Cecil, in the hopes of persuading Elizabeth to offer support. He sailed to Holy Island, and on 1st August met Sir Henry Percy and James Crofts.

Crofts relayed to Cecil that he ‘Understands by Mr. Knox that the Protestants mean to leave France clearly, and to enter into amity with England in as great and strait manner as the Queen will devise. For that they look to be aided with men and money, and that their whole proceedings go forth by her consent, and that she have some men appointed to be with them, by whose orders and counsel they may direct their doings’.

Knox stayed only a few days in England, returning as quickly as he could to his flock, leaving negotiations for English help to Henry Balnaves. He continued to write, not just to the English government but to former Genevan exiles, exhorting them for financial aid.

A further agreement was concluded by Marie and the Lords, but neither side was truly ready to keep its side of the bargain – she sought French aid, and the Lords sought English. Knox sent further requests for wages for 1,500 arquebusiers (an arquebus was a fire-arm) and 300 horses. The request was remitted by Sir James Crofts and Sir Ralph Sadleir to Cecil.

In late October, there was a further exchange of letters between Marie and the Lords. She objected to their ‘insolent’ attempts to defy her authority, and on 21st October, a proclamation was issued by ‘the nobility and commons of the Protestants of the Church of Scotland’, depriving Marie of the Regency. The Bishop of Galloway, Knox and Goodman were appointed to lead religion in the country.

Marie responded to this by putting a price on Knox’s head. He wrote again to England, pleading for money and men to help the Congregation hold Leith. If Elizabeth were worried about breaking the treaty with France, she could always dissociate herself from the troops, and declare them to be rebels. Crofts thought this latter idea was foolish – no-one would believe that English troops had unilaterally decided to take themselves to Leith to support Scottish Protestants.

Elizabeth, strongly influenced by Cecil, secretly sent £3,000 to the Lords. Cecil advised that the name of Knox should not be breathed in any correspondence with her, as he was so ‘odious’ to her. Elizabeth was not the only one to dislike Knox and all his works. In November, Matthew Parker, recently elected as Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote to Cecil, praying that ‘God keep us from such a visitation as Knox has attempted in Scotland’.

Knox was too abrasive, even for some of his colleagues. The Lords of the Congregation had now been joined by the Duke of Châtelherault, formerly Regent, and heir to Queen Mary, and his son, the Earl of Arran, who had escaped with English help, from a position as hostage in France. Knox did not trust the vacillating duke, and was critical of Arran’s military conduct.

By January 1560, he had been asked to withdraw from the inner circle of the Lords of the Congregation. He wrote to a friend that he had been judged ‘too extreme’. Even though his advice was no longer sought so eagerly, he wrote a critical letter to Châtelherault about military strategy.