John Knox

John Knox / Religious Figures

  • Name : Knox
  • Born : c.1530
  • Died : 1572
  • Category : Religious Figures
  • Finest Moment : Writing the 'Scots Confession'

Possibly born in Haddington, East Lothian (little is known of his early life), John Knox became one of the leading figures in the Protestant Reformation in Scotland. Educated, perhaps at St Andrews, he was ordained as a priest in the Roman church, which by this time in Scotland, as elsewhere in Europe, had become corrupt, fat and greedy. Knox was a teacher to the sons of local lairds by 1544, and when these same lairds provided asylum to George Wishart, a Lutheran-influenced reformer, Knox and a two-handled sword began to accompany Knox on his local preaching tours.

That this was a potentially hazardous job should not be in doubt; one Patrick Hamilton had been burnt at the stake in 1528, at the order of Cardinal David Beaton, Archbishop of St Andrews and therefore a very powerful man indeed. The toasting of Hamilton was spread over an agonising six hours, and Beaton repeated this beastly punishment to Wishart in 1546. Wishart had sent Knox away just before his arrest, perhaps to protect him, and there is little doubt that this execution had a profound effect on Knox. There was soon to be a cleansing in any case, as three months later some of Wishart's supporters murdered Beaton in his bedchamber.

Knox, meanwhile, was moving from place to place with a growing band of supporters. Preaching to the Reformers in the castle of St Andrews, he was captured by French troops, sent by Regent Mary of Guise. For his heresy he spent the next 19 months rowing a galley as a prisoner. This did little for his general health, as may be imagined.

Knox appealed to the English Reformers as well as the Scots, teaching and preaching (the two were often the same in Scotland in the 16th Century) in the court of Edward VI. When he died and the Catholic Mary Tudor swept in he fled, first to Newcastle, then to France and later Geneva. He loved Geneva. There, the Swiss had created a cosy little Protestant niche, with lots of law and order. John Calvin was the chief Reformer there, and the two met, furthering Knox's progress through the religious spectrum.

By now, Scotland had an infant queen, Mary, living in France until old enough to rule. Her mother, Mary of Guise meanwhile ruled. By all accounts, Mary of Guise was fairly relaxed, but some of her prelates continued the harsh dictates of the late and rarely lamented Beaton, thus continuing to fan the winds of religious change in Scotland.

Though Knox lived in exile for 12 years, he had been able to visit Scotland twice, in 1555 and 1556, preaching in Ayrshire, Edinburgh, and Castle Campbell. In 1558, developing his writing in Geneva, he had a bad stroke of luck with the timing of a tract named The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment (i.e. rule) of Women. This pamphlet was aimed at the three women who were governing in England, France and Scotland and were also oppressing Protestantism. Unfortunately for Knox, the Protestant Elizabeth I of England became queen, and she immediately barred him from visiting the country (even although he had married an Englishwoman in 1553).

Open rebellion broke out in 1559, when Knox preached at Perth on May 11. After a passionate sermon, 'vehement against idolatry', the mob sacked churches and monasteries. Life was still dangerous however, and Knox had to leave Edinburgh briefly, where he was preaching at St Giles as an ordained minister.

That same year, 1559, Parliament abolished Papal authority. The Mass was forbidden, and Protestantism was established with the approval of a Confession of Faith. Knox continued steadfastly in his thinking and writing, all the more important now that a grave political crisis threatened the throne of England. Henry II of France died and power fell to the Guises. Mary, Queen of Scots, was consort to Francis II of France, and French support in Scotland grew to aid the overthrow of Elizabeth. Knox played this threat as an ace card, and in the spring of 1560 English troops finally joined the Scottish Protestants. The Queen Regent died in Edinburgh castle, and the French gave up. That summer, the Scottish Parliament met, without royal authority, and the Scots Confession, written in great haste by Knox and others, was adopted. Papal jurisdiction in Scotland was abolished.

The foundations of the new Kirk in Scotland were laid down. The Swiss model, as seen in Geneva by Knox, was used, with church elders, Kirk sessions, and a general Assembly. These changes were also the basics of later Presbyterianism. Mary Queen of Scots returned to Scotland in 1561, a young widow. In return for being able to practice her own Mass undisturbed, she allowed for the continuation of reform. This compromise could not sit easily with a man as stern and committed as Knox, and conflict was inevitable. Oh to be a fly on the wall at four meetings Knox had with Mary. He further enraged her by marrying a 17-year-old daughter of Lord Ochiltree, Margaret Stewart, and a distant relative of Mary (without her approval naturally). This was in 1564, at the age of 50.

In 1567 Mary was forced to abdicate. Before then, she had dismissed her Protestant advisors and had tried to rule herself, with dismal failure. Knox suffered a stroke. Though an ill man, on 9 November 1572, after hearing of a massacre in France of Protestants, he dragged himself into St Giles for his last sermon. He died on 24 November.

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