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John Knox, the great Scottish Reformer, was born at Giffordgate, a suburb of the town of Haddington, in 1505, the year preceding the birth of his famous countryman, George Buchanan. Knox has himself told us in a single sentence all that is definitely known of his family connections: "My lord," he represents himself as saying to the notorious Earl of Bothwell, "my grandfather, grandsire (maternal grandfather), and father have served under your lordship's predecessors, and some of them have died under their standards." He received the elements of his education in the grammar school of his native town, and in 1522 was sent to the University of Glasgow. St. Andrews was nearer his home, and possessed the more famous university; but he was probably drawn to Glasgow by the fame of the most distinguished literary Scotchman of his generation--John Major, the schoolman. For this reason, at least, Buchanan was sent to St. Andrews, though Glasgow was nearer his native place, when Major had migrated to the former university. At Glasgow, under Major, Knox could have been subjected to none of the influences of the great intellectual revolution which substituted for the studies and methods of mediaevalism the ideas of the Revival of Letters. Like all his educated contemporaries, he learned to speak and write Latin with perfect fluency; but it was always with an idiom that showed he had none of the humanist's scruples regarding purity of language. What he learned from Major was the art for which that scholar was renowned throughout Europe--the art of logical exercitation; and Knox's writings everywhere show that all through life he had a natural delight in the play of dialectic. He left the university without taking the degree of master of arts, thus by the conditions of all the mediaeval universities precluding himself from the career of an academic teacher.
During the eighteen years that follow his leaving the university, Knox passes completely out of sight. All that is known of him during this period is that, from 1540 to 1543, he acted as notary in his native town of Haddington. As in the documents that establish this fact his name appears with the addition of "Sir," the title of priests who were not Masters of Arts, Knox must have been in orders in the Church of Rome till as late as 1543. In 1544 we find him acting as tutor to the sons of Douglas of Lorgniddry and Cockburn of Ormiston--families, it is to be noted, both favorably disposed to the new opinions in religion now making their way in Scotland. Through these families he was brought into contact with George Wishart, who had lately returned from travelling in Germany and England, with the burning zeal to gain his country to the Lutheran reformation. From this period the future direction of Knox's life was decided, and thenceforward, with an intensity and self-devotion never surpassed, he is the apostle of the cause with which his name is forever identified--the establishment in Scotland of what he deemed the only true conception of the primitive church as based on the teaching of Christ and the apostles. We have reason to believe that, even before this date, his sympathies were on the side of reform in religion, but the teaching and example of Wishart seem first to have brought to him the clear consciousness of his mission. Knox identified himself with Wishart with all the impetuosity of his character, and was in the habit, he tells us, of carrying a two-handed sword before the preacher. When Wishart was seized by the emissaries of Cardinal Beaton, Knox would willingly have attended him to the last; but Wishart, who knew the fate in store for him, rejected the offer. "Return to your bairns" (meaning Knox's pupils), he said, "and God bless you. One is sufficient for one sacrifice."
Wishart was burned in St. Andrews in March, 1546, and in May of the same year Cardinal Beaton was murdered. The cardinal's murderers held possession of the castle of St. Andrews; and, as Knox was known to be the enemy of Beaton (though he had no share in his assassination), he was forced (1547) for his own safety to join them with his pupils. Here his zeal and theological attainments made him so conspicuous that, at the instance of the leaders of the reforming party (Sir David Lyndsay among the rest), he was formally called to the ministry, and preached with much acceptance in the castle and parish church of St. Andrews. A few months later the castle surrendered to the French; and, in the teeth of the express terms of capitulation, the more prominent of the besieged party were sent as prisoners on board the French galleys. For eighteen months Knox remained a captive, his first winter being spent in a galley on the Loire, the second in prison in Rouen. His constitution was not naturally robust, and his hard experience during these two years seriously impaired his health for the rest of his life. The breach of faith on the part of the French, and the ignominy to which he was subjected, were never forgotten by Knox, and must in part explain and justify his life-long conviction that no good thing could come of French policy or French religion.
In February, 1549, on the express intercession of Edward VI., Knox regained his liberty. As it was still unsafe for him to return to Scotland, for the next four years, till the death of Edward VI., he made his home in England. From all that is known of him during these years, it is clear that he made himself a person to be reckoned with by those at the centre of authority in the country. By his preaching at Berwick he gave such offence to the Bishop of Durham that he was removed to Newcastle, where it was supposed his influence would be less mischievous. In 1551 he was appointed one of six chaplains to Edward VI., and in 1552, at the suggestion of the Duke of Northumberland, he was offered the bishopric of Rochester. As the duke's object in suggesting the appointment was simply to check, as far as he could, what he deemed the dangerous activity of Knox, the offer was unhesitatingly rejected. Knox's importance in England is still further proved by the fact that, along with five others, he was consulted by Archbishop Cranmer regarding his forty-five (afterward forty-two) articles of religion.
On Mary's accession, Knox, like the majority of the Reformed ministers, had to seek refuge on the continent. That he might be within call, should circumstances permit his return either to Scotland or England, he took up his abode at Dieppe till the beginning of the following year (1554), when he proceeded to Geneva. In July of this year he was again in Dieppe, "to learn the estate of England;" but with Mary of Lorraine as regent in Scotland, and Mary Tudor as Queen of England, he was convinced that for the present both these countries were closed against him. He accordingly accepted a call from the English congregation at Frankfort-on-the-Main, where, however, on account of a dispute regarding the use of the Book of Common Prayer, he remained only a few months. At Geneva he found a congregation of his own way of thinking; but, eager to be an apostle in his own country, he once more returned to Dieppe (August, 1555), whence he ventured into Scotland in September. He remained in Scotland till July of the next year, residing chiefly in Edinburgh, but making preaching journeys into various parts of the country. The new doctrines were steadily spreading in Scotland, but as yet their supporters were not strong enough to present a confident front against the government. It was at his own risk, therefore, that Knox remained in the country; and at the prayer of the congregation in Geneva, he returned to that town in July, 1556. It was probably during this visit to Scotland that he married his first wife, Marjory Bowes, to whom he seems to have been engaged during his sojourn in Newcastle. For the next two years he remained in Geneva, ministering to his congregation, and seeing much of Calvin, whose influence on Knox regarding all the great questions of the time was afterward to bear fruit in the ordering of affairs in Scotland. To this period also belong several of his minor writings, and notably his "First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women," the publication of which he must afterward have regretted in the interest of the cause he had most at heart.
Meanwhile, in Scotland the ground was being prepared for the great work in store for Knox. Under Mary of Lorraine as regent, the French influence had come to be regarded as a danger to the independence of the country, and a sense of this danger threw many into the party of reform. The unworthy lives of the old clergy, and the cupidity of many of the nobles, worked in the same direction. In 1557 the advocates of reform bound themselves, by what is known as the First Covenant, to do all in their power to effect a religious revolution, and by 1558 they felt themselves strong enough to summon Knox to their aid in the work he deemed the mission of his life.
In May, 1559, Knox found himself again in Scotland, which he never again left for a prolonged period. He at once became the life and soul of his party. At the moment of his arrival the Lords of the Congregation, as the Protestant nobility termed themselves, were in open revolt against the regent. By his preaching at Perth and St. Andrews Knox gained these important towns to his cause, and by his labors in Edinburgh, of which he was appointed minister, he also won a strong party against the government. But the reformers, of their own resources, could not hold their ground against the regent, subsidized by France with money and soldiers. Mainly, therefore, through the efforts of Knox, who all through his public career was deep in the politics of the time, the assistance of England was obtained against what was now deemed the French invasion. The help of England proved effective, and by the treaty of Leith (1560), and the death of the regent the same year, the insurgent party became masters of the country. The estates of Parliament having met on August 1st, the ministers were ordered to draw up a Confession of Faith which should embody the new teaching, and on August 17th Protestantism was formally established as the religion of the country. Having gained thus much, the ministers, desirous of practical results from their victory, drew up the first Book of Discipline--a document ever memorable in the history of Scotland, and admirable in itself for its wise and liberal suggestions for the religious and educational organization of the country. These suggestions, however, were little to the mind of the majority of the Protestant nobles, who, "perceiving their carnal liberty and worldly commodity to be impaired thereby," sneeringly spoke of them as "devote imaginationis." In the revolution that had been accomplished Knox had been the leading spirit; but he saw that the victory was as yet only half gained, and that the deadliest struggle had still to be decided.
The return of the young queen to Scotland (August, 1561) revived all the old dissensions, and introduced new elements into the strife of parties. By every opinion she held on religion, on the relations of prince and subject, on the fundamental principles of life, Mary was separated as by an abyss from the party represented by Knox. If we may judge from the language which each used of the other, Knox and she failed to find one point on which genial intercourse was possible. As the minister of St. Giles (then the only Reformed church in Edinburgh), Knox believed that Mary was his special charge. Her personal conduct, therefore, no less than her public policy, were made the subject of his most stringent criticism; and during the six years of her reign his attitude toward her was that of uncompromising insistence. The celebration of mass in Holyrood Chapel, in defiance of the late religious settlement, first roused his wrath; and a sermon delivered by him in St. Giles led to the first of those famous interviews with Mary, the record of which makes such a remarkable portion of his "History of the Reformation." The division of ecclesiastical property, by which those in actual possession received two-thirds, the reformed ministers one-third, was a further ground of quarrel with the new government. The delay of Mary to confirm the late religious settlement also gave rise to the greatest anxiety on the part of Knox and his brother ministers. In view of the precarious interests of the great cause, Knox spoke out with such frankness as to alienate the most powerful noble in the country, and the one whom he respected most--Lord James Stuart, afterward the Regent Moray. The marriage of Mary with Darnley (1565), again, however, led them to common counsels, as both saw in this marriage the most serious menace against the new religion. In the subsequent revolt, headed by Moray and the other Protestant nobles, Knox nevertheless took no part, and remained at his charge in Edinburgh. But after the murder of Rizzio, he deemed it wise, considering Mary's disposition toward him, to withdraw to Kyle, in Ayrshire, where he appears to have written the greater part of his history.
The events of the next two years--the murder of Darnley, Mary's marriage with Bothwell, and her subsequent flight into England--again threw the management of affairs into the hands of the Protestant party; and under Moray as regent the acts of 1560, in favor of the reformed religion, were duly ratified by the estates of the realm. As in the former revolution, Knox was still the same formidable force the nobles had to reckon with; and at Stirling, at the coronation of James VI. (1567), he preached in that strain which gave his sermons the character and importance of public manifestoes. The assassination of Moray, in 1570, and the consequent formation of a strong party in favor of Mary, once more endangered the cause to which he had devoted his life, and the possession of the castle of Edinburgh by the queen's supporters forced him to remove to St. Andrews for safety. He had already had a stroke of apoplexy, and he was now but the wreck of his former self, but his spirit was as indomitable as ever. The description of him at this period, by James Melville, can never be omitted in any account of Knox. "Being in St. Andrews, he was very weak. I saw him every day of his doctrine go hulie and fear with a furring of martricks about his neck, a staff in the one hand, and good, godly Richart Ballanden, his servant, holding up the other, oxter from the abbey to the parish church; and be the said Richart and another servant lifted up to the pulpit where he behooved to loan, at his first entry, but or 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."
It was the desire of his congregation of St. Giles to hear him once more before he died. Accordingly, by short stages, he made his way to Edinburgh, and on November 9, 1572, at the induction of his successor in office, he made his last public appearance. He died the same month, at the age of sixty-seven, and was buried in the churchyard then attached to St. Giles, behind which church a small square stone in the pavement of Parliament Square, marked "J. K., 1572," now indicates the spot where he is supposed to lie. The saying of Regent Morton at his grave, "Here lieth a man who in his life never feared the face of man" (Calderwood), was the most memorable panegyric that could have been pronounced to his memory.
Knox was twice married. His first wife, Marjory Bowes, died in 1560, leaving him two sons. By his second wife, Margaret Stewart, daughter of Lord Ochiltree, whom (little more than a girl) he married in 1564, he had three daughters. His widow and all his family survived him.
In their broader features the character of Knox and of the work he achieved cannot be misread. In himself he stands as the pre-eminent type of the religious reformer--dominated by his one transcendent idea, indifferent or hostile to every interest of life that did not subserve its realization. He is sometimes spoken of as a fanatic; but the term is hardly applicable to one who combined in such a degree as Knox, the shrewdest worldly sense with an ever-ready wit and a native humor that declares itself in his most serious moments and in the treatment of the loftiest subjects. To blame him for intolerance or harshness is but to pass judgment on his age and on the type to which he belongs. It is his unquestionable tribute, that the work he accomplished was the fashioning anew of his country's destinies. It has to be added that by his "History of the Reformation in Scotland," Knox holds a place of his own in the history of literature. His narrative, as was to be expected, is that of one who saw only a single aspect of the events he chronicles; but the impress of the writer's individuality, stamped on every page, renders his work possibly unique in English literature.