Among all the makers of the Scottish Reformed Church one stands pre-eminent: John Knox. To some, he was the greatest-ever Scotsman. To others, such as Andrew Lang and Edwin Muir, he was a paranoid bigot responsible for all the ills we have suffered since the Reformation.
Yet, for all the attention he has received, key facts in Knox’s life remain a mystery. Even his place and date of birth are uncertain. The general consensus is that he was born at Haddington in East Lothian. But when? The traditional date was 1505, but recent scholars prefer 1513-14. Over against this we have to set the fact that in 1564 a contemporary described Knox as "a decrepit old priest". If he was born only in 1513-14, he must have been decrepit in his late forties: a claim that the rest of the young elderly will find hard to thole.
Other details of Knox’s life prior to the martyrdom of George Wishart in 1547 are equally scanty. He was educated at St Andrews, where one of his professors was John Major, a scholar of European renown. In 1536 he was ordained as a Catholic priest, but by 1544 he was Wishart’s companion. When Wishart was arrested, Knox pressed to go with him, but Master George turned him back with the words, "Nay, return to your bairns, and God bless you. One is sufficient for a sacrifice."
Between 1547 and 1559 Knox was in almost perpetual exile. These years, hard though they were, were an indispensable preparation for his future work as leader of Scotland’s Reformation. After the murder of Wishart, he joined the Protestants in the castle at St Andrews, and when it fell to the French he had to face nineteen long months as a galley-slave. Knox never spoke of these months, beyond one cryptic statement: "What torment I sustained in the galleys, and what were the sobs of my heart, is now no time to recite."
On his release from the galleys, he went to England where he became Chaplain to Edward VI, assisted in the revision of the Prayer Book and was offered the bishopric of Rochester. On the accession of Mary Tudor ("Bloody Mary"), Knox, like many other English Protestants, left for the continent. For a brief period he was pastor of the English congregation at Frankfurt. The remaining years were spent mainly in Geneva, "the most perfect school of Christ," he wrote, "that ever was on the earth since the days of the Apostles."
On the 2nd of May, 1559, he returned to Scotland, never again to leave it.
Knox was first and foremost a preacher. His whole duty in life, as he saw it, was "to blow my Master’s trumpet". Yet he was no eager volunteer, but a reluctant conscript. While in the castle at St Andrews he was tutor to "some gentleman’s children" and began to expound parts of the Gospel of John to his young wards. Others began to listen and take notice, among them John Rough, the overworked Castle preacher. They "began earnestly to travail with him, that he would take the preaching place upon him." But Knox was deaf to their entreaties. "He would not run where God had not called him."
The congregation decided on a more direct approach. John Rough preached, by arrangement, a sermon on the election of ministers, stressing the power of a congregation over any man in whom they saw the gifts of God, and warning how dangerous it was to refuse their call. He concluded by turning to Knox: "Brother, in the name of God, I charge you that you refuse not this holy vocation; but that as you esteem the glory of God, the increase of Christ’s kingdom and the edification of your brethren, you take upon you the public office and charge of preaching, even as you look to avoid God’s heavy displeasure."
Then he turned to the congregation: "Was not this your charge to me? And do you not approve of this call?" They answered with an enthusiastic, Yes!
But Knox himself was far from enthusiastic. He withdrew in tears and "no man saw any sign of mirth of him, neither yet had he pleasure to accompany any man, many days together." He eventually left his seclusion to lay down a public challenge to a Roman Catholic priest who had been harassing John Rough. After that there was no going back: "The people cried with one consent, ‘We cannot all read your writings, but we may all hear your preaching.’"
James Melville, nephew of the illustrious Andrew, has left a memorable picture of Knox as a preacher, all the more remarkable in that it comes from the closing months of his life, during his last visit to St Andrews. He had to be helped up to the pulpit and once there he had to lean, "but ere he had done with his sermon he was so active and vigorous, that he was like to ding that pulpit in blads and fly out of it."
But Knox was no ordinary preacher. He was a revolutionary of whom Dr Croft Dickinson justly said that his rebellion against the church became also a rebellion against the state. Knox had a profound aversion to the Auld Alliance with France and saw himself as involved in a war of liberation in which Scottish Protestants took the sword not only for "Christ Jesus his glorious Evangel", but also for "the liberty of this our native country to remain free from the bondage and tyranny of strangers." He firmly believed that, in the words of the Scots Confession, the preservation and purification of religion was the duty of kings and governments. He believed equally that a hostile government would be fatal to the Reformation. By the time he returned to Scotland in 1559 he had developed a doctrine of civil disobedience which went far beyond Calvin’s. He had certainly lost any scruples he had ever had about resisting princes.
Mary blanched; and sometimes Knox’s own friends, particularly John Calvin, blanched, too. But 120 years later, when Britain banished the Stuarts and instituted limited monarchy, it was merely implementing Knox’s principles, albeit belatedly. The American War of Independence, the French Revolution and the overthrow of apartheid were fruits of the same seed. We today can speak freely at no risk to our lives only because men like Knox spoke freely at the risk of theirs.
One of the accusations made by Mary was that Knox "had written a book against her just authority". She meant, of course, The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women. To most people, unfortunately, the title suggests that Knox was launching a tirade against all members of the fair sex. Nothing could be further from the truth. Knox was no woman-hater. He was twice married: the second time, at the age of fifty-nine to a bride not yet sixteen, and if his Catholic contemporaries are to be believed he approached the whole affair like an incorrigible romantic. They tell us (and Muir accepts it as gospel) that he rode out gaily to his sweetheart’s house on a trim gelding, wearing a jacket adorned with ribbons and gold. So much for the gloomy Calvinist!
Knox’s first marriage had ended three years previously with the death of his first wife, Marjory Bowes. Some of Knox’s letters to her are still extant, but she remains a shadowy figure. Also extant are letters to a Mrs Guthrie, a Mrs Locke and a Mrs Adamson.
Clearly, then, it was not with women as such that Knox had a problem. The problem was the regiment of women. The modern word would be regime: women should not rule. The First Blast reflected Knox’s own bitter experience of women in power. Mary Tudor had murdered many of his closest friends in England. Mary of Guise, Regent of Scotland, made it impossible for him to return to his native land. Later, Mary Queen of Scots would undermine the Reformation. And unfortunately for Knox, Elizabeth of England, at whom the Blast was not aimed, came to the throne the very year it was published. Like her cousin in Scotland, she never forgave it.
Which is hardly surprising. The central argument of the book was unwelcome enough to Their Royal Highnesses. It contended that to promote women to power was repugnant to nature, subversive of civil order and an insult to the Bible. Many a man had lost his head for saying considerably less. But Knox had to say more. He had to make the argument personal: "How abominable before God," he exclaimed, "is the empire or rule of a wicked woman (yea, a traitress and a bastard)." Mary, married to England’s arch-enemy, Philip of Spain, and daughter of one of Henry VIII’s dubious marriages, was both traitress and bastard. Elizabeth, ‘illegitimate’ daughter of Anne Boleyn (who became Henry VIII’s second wife even though his marriage to his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, had not been annulled), was in little better case. Mega-tantrums were inevitable.
Knox himself never expressed remorse for the book. Regrets were not his way. But he did say, "My First Blast hath blown from me all my friends in England." It would haunt him for the rest of his life. Even Calvin was dismayed and had to assure William Cecil that the book was a year in print before he heard of it; and that when he did hear of it, he was "much displeased that such paradoxes should be published."
Knox’s personal assistant, Richard Bannatyne, has left us a moving account of the closing days of his life. He preached his last sermon on Sunday, 9 November, 1572, at the induction of his successor, James Lawson. The following Tuesday, he was seized with a violent respiratory illness: so violent that he was unable to read his daily portions of scripture (Knox read through the entire Psalter every month). He told his wife to pay the servants. One of them, Jamie Campbell, had been with them since 1556. Knox told him, "Thou wilt get no more out of me in this life," and gave him 20 shillings extra.
On Saturday, he had unexpected visitors and despite his weakness he came down to lunch with them. It was a merry occasion: Knox had them open a barrel of wine from his cellar.
A further week passed, during which Knox took farewell of his elders and deacons. Before they parted, one of them read the Prayer for the Sick from Knox’s own Liturgy.
On the 22nd, he told Richard (Bannatyne) to go and make his coffin.
Two days later, about five in the afternoon, he said to his wife, "Go read where I cast my first anchor." She understood at once and read "the 17th of John’s Evangel". After that, someone read from Calvin’s Sermons on Ephesians.
Knox died at eleven o’clock that evening, the 24th of November, 1572. Two days later he was buried in the churchyard of St Giles, and lies somewhere under the modern Parliament Square (the almost illegible memorial-plaque is in Bay 23 of the car-park). All of Scotland’s nobility were at his graveside and it was there that the Regent, the Earl of Morton, uttered his famous epitaph, "There lies he who never feared the face of man!"