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John Knox: Scottish Religious Reformer

Originally published by British Heritage magazine. Published Online: June 12, 2006 
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Martin Luther is synonymous with Protestantism in Germany. In France, John Calvin led the reform movement. Scotland, too, had its giant of ecclesiastical reform in John Knox. His opposition to the Roman Church and its rituals made him a controversial figure in his own day, and his writings, such as his First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, have earned him the scorn of many right down to the present. Not the least of his political and theological enemies were the Protestant Queen Elizabeth of England and the Catholic Queen Mary of Scotland.

It's little wonder that John Knox grew to be such a troublemaker. His earlier days are a classic example of what parents and teachers like to call 'associating with the 'wrong' sort.' Ordained a Catholic priest, he came into contact with many of the leading reformers throughout Europe. His early years are not well documented, but he most probably attended St. Andrews University, where Patrick Hamilton taught before he was burned at the stake for heresy. However, while conservative churchmen might consider Hamilton and like-minded people the wrong sort, an increasing number of the common folk embraced their interpretation of biblical doctrines.

Knox, too, felt attracted to these views, and his curiosity was nourished by George Wishart, who had earlier fled Scotland, studied under reformers in England and on the Continent, and then returned to his native country, more passionate about reform than ever.

While Wishart's preaching kept him in the forefront of the reform movement, Knox was content to live in his shadow, serving as tutor to the sons of Hugh Douglas and Alexander Cockburn, two influential Protestant noblemen, and as Wishart's bodyguard. They must have made a rather incongruous-looking pair, Wishart with Bible in hand and Knox with a sword, but their fears were not unfounded. In a frenzy of violence that did neither faction any credit, Wishart was arrested, tried, and convicted of heresy for preaching against the Catholic Mass. On the 18th anniversary of Hamilton's death, Cardinal Beaton, the nephew of the man who had burned Hamilton, sent Wishart to the same end. Knox reputedly offered to go to the stake with Wishart, who dissuaded him, saying, 'One is sufficient for one sacrifice.'

Within weeks, Beaton himself was dead at the hands of vengeful Scottish Protestants, who then took refuge in the dead archbishop's palace, St. Andrews Castle. Douglas and Cockburn instructed Knox to take their sons to the castle and to continue tutoring them under the protection of the rebels inside. Knox, seemingly holding a more realistic view of the castle's potential as a long-term sanctuary, and less than eager to throw in his lot with a murderous mob at any rate, obeyed very grudgingly. Bereft of their former spiritual leader, the dissidents then invited Knox to play that role for them. It was not a calling Knox had looked for, and he is said to have shed tears over the prospect of taking up Wishart's crusade in such a conspicuous way. However, he felt a divine calling to fill the role, and did so. His 'parishioners' may have wondered what they had gotten themselves into. Far from behaving as though he felt indebted to them, Knox, in his sermons, challenged the questionable morality of his own flock as much as they did the established Church.

The little kingdom within St. Andrews Castle did not retain its independence for long. The rebels appealed to Protestant England for aid, while the Scottish governor begged help from the French. Either the governor was more persuasive or the French Catholics were more zealous, for the French arrived first and retook the castle, capturing the rebels. They forced Knox to serve aboard a French slave galley for the next 19 months. His health was never the same afterwards.

The English ultimately intervened on Knox's behalf and secured his release. The kingdom of Edward VI had embraced Protestantism and, much like the mob in St. Andrews Castle, used Knox to promote their own schemes. He was given a license to preach and sent north to Berwick-upon-Tweed, about as close to Scotland as he dared to venture. There he led a congregation and met his future wife, Marjorie Bowes. For the next two years he preached throughout various parts of England, playing an important role in shaping English Protestantism. But he grew to be an outspoken and politically volatile figure, beholden to no one and subservient only to his own conscience. He turned down high offices extended to him by the Duke of Northumberland after King Edward's death, wary of the Duke's motives and ambitions, and unwilling to settle for the reforms that had taken hold in England, which he believed did not go far enough. Instead, he devoted himself mostly to simple itinerant preaching.

But if Knox fretted over the plots of Northumberland, his prospects for a future in England only worsened when Mary Tudor took the throne and repressed the Protestant movement with a vengeance. Fleeing England, he settled next in Switzerland. The bitterness of a second exile drove him to espouse a more radical reform philosophy, one which uncannily resembled the rationale of the American patriots of a later century in its justification of rebellion against an oppressive regime. Knox declared that Godly people have the right–and the duty–to resist by force any ruler who suppresses 'true religion.' This was much farther than most reformers were willing to go. Likewise, many Protestants in England thought it somewhat incongruous that one who had himself fled to the safety of the Continent should then urge them on to armed resistance.

Chief among the suppressors of true religion, in Knox's eyes, were Mary, Queen of Scots, 'Bloody' Mary Tudor, and Mary of Guise. All–not coincidentally to Knox's way of thinking–were women. To the Thundering Scot, their repressions bore out his rigid belief that women should never have authority over men, and that a government in the hands of a woman was an affront to God. In 1558, Knox distilled this controversial opinion in his most famous–if not infamous–treatise, The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women. 'For who can deny it is repugnant to nature,…' Knox asked, 'that the foolish, mad, and frenetic shall govern the discreet, and give counsel to such as be sober of mind? And such be all women, compared unto man in bearing of authority.'

Even the Protestant successor to Bloody Mary, Queen Elizabeth of England, was outraged and banned Knox from preaching within her realm. But at about the same time, events in Scotland took a turn that finally drew Knox back to his homeland.

Aristocratic Scottish Protestants, in line with Knox's admonitions to resist the opponents of true religion, signed a covenant pledging themselves to defend the cause of the reformed church. They styled themselves 'The Lords of the Congregation.' Intimidated by the threat of force, the Queen Regent, Mary of Guise, appeased the reformers and granted them greater liberties. But the political situation in Europe soon allowed her to play a stronger hand. A rapprochement between France and Spain ended a conflict between those two Continental powers and allowed France to take a more active role in intrigues farther from home. To the Queen Regent, the time was right to rein the Protestants back in, permanently.

The Lords of the Congregation saw it coming and acted first. They called Knox back from Geneva to join them, then marched on Perth, where Knox delivered a fiery sermon. The reformers took control of Edinburgh, where Knox also preached in St. Giles Cathedral, but by then the Lords' momentum had pretty much run its course. Royal forces recaptured Edinburgh, and for a time the spark of reform was kept alive solely by the power of Knox's vehement exhortations to persevere.

Salvation came in the form of the English. Fearing that a firmly Catholic Scotland would be a natural ally of France against England, Elizabeth's ministers persuaded her to intervene on the Scottish Protestants' behalf. The English army, coupled with the sudden death of the Queen Regent, persuaded the French to withdraw their support, and a potentially explosive situation fizzled out. Both the English and the French agreed to leave the Scottish reformers to govern the country's own church affairs.

Deprived of outside interference, the reformers fell to arguing among themselves. Under Knox's direction, the Scottish Parliament abolished papal authority and banned the Mass. Knox himself drew up a new Scots Confession, a reformed liturgy, and a Book of Discipline. The last of these outlined his ambitious scheme for social programs, which included free compulsory education and aid for the poor. The programs would have been funded out of the profits raised by renting Church lands. The nobles who had been receiving those benefices balked at sharing the wealth, however, and instead proposed that two-thirds of the profits should continue to accrue to themselves, and that the remaining third be split between the Church and State. Knox sarcastically replied, 'I see. Two parts freely given to the Devil; and the third must be divided between God and the Devil.' Unrepentant, Parliament rejected the Book of Discipline.

The following year, a another old rival arrived in Scotland–Mary, Queen of Scots. Though neither had any liking for the other, she and Knox met several times for 'conversations.' By the last one, the two shared an intense personal distaste for each other. Among the topics of their talks was Knox's public disapproval of Mary's impending marriage. 'What have ye to do with my marriage?' Mary challenged, 'Or what are ye within this Commonwealth?'

'A subject born within the same, Madam,' Knox answered, 'and albeit I neither be Earl, Lord nor Baron within it, yet has God made me (how abject that ever I be in your eyes) a profitable member within the same.' At one point Mary charged him with treason, but the Privy Council acquitted him.

The antagonism between the two festered until Queen Mary's downfall. The loyal reformer James Stewart took the reigns of government, but in a time-honoured royal tradition, he was murdered, and the country, and therefore Knox, was once again plunged into turmoil. The thundering preacher was by this time no longer the tower of strength he had been. He suffered a stroke and retired to his hometown of St. Andrews. Knox recovered sufficiently to preach again at St. Giles, most notably following the massacre of 100,000 Protestants in France on St. Bartholomew's Day. His health never fully returned, however, and he died in Edinburgh the following year.

From a perspective of more than 400 years, Knox's treatises and sermons sound decidedly shrill and impolitic. Certainly they were controversial enough in his own day, but while he was at the forefront of radical reform, he never deviated so far from the common attitudes of the day that he alienated the reform-minded masses. To reformers, he was a devoted servant of his God. To those who opposed him, he was a holy terror.



This article was written by Bruce Heydt and originally published in British Heritage Magazine in August/September 2002.

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One Response to “John Knox: Scottish Religious Reformer”


  1. 1
    Brian J Orr says:

    Your article on Knox is somewhat unfair and distorted. May I offer my own work "A Laymans Guide to the Scottish Reformation " Heritage Books Inc, 2004. ISBN 0-7884-3188-9 which goes into detail of the very complex issues in Scotland which was ruled by a French (Catholic) Regent Mary of Guise ( one of the strongest Catholic families in Europe dedicated to extirpating Protestantism of any form) She was Mary Queen of Scots mother. Above all Knox was a fervent believer and catalyst for change who seized the moment to bring Presbyterianism to Scotland in a matter of weeks when Mary of Guise died in June 1560 and before Mary QoS returned to her throne in August.Could add much more, but you will get the gist.



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