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Transcribed from the 1905 Longmans, Green and Co. edition by David Price,
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John Knox and the Reformation

[John Knox. From a Posthumous Portrait. Beza's Icones, 1850: knox1.jpg]

To Maurice Hewlett


In this brief Life of Knox I have tried, as much as I may, to get behind
Tradition, which has so deeply affected even modern histories of the
Scottish Reformation, and even recent Biographies of the Reformer. The
tradition is based, to a great extent, on Knox's own "History," which I
am therefore obliged to criticise as carefully as I can. In his valuable
John Knox, a Biography, Professor Hume Brown says that in the "History"
"we have convincing proof alike of the writer's good faith, and of his
perception of the conditions of historic truth." My reasons for
dissenting from this favourable view will be found in the following
pages. If I am right, if Knox, both as a politician and an historian,
resembled Charles I. in "sailing as near the wind" as he could, the
circumstance (as another of his biographers remarks) "only makes him more
human and interesting."

Opinion about Knox and the religious Revolution in which he took so great
a part, has passed through several variations in the last century. In
the Edinburgh Review of 1816 (No. liii. pp. 163-180), is an article with
which the present biographer can agree. Several passages from Knox's
works are cited, and the reader is expected to be "shocked at their
principles." They are certainly shocking, but they are not, as a rule,
set before the public by biographers of the Reformer.

Mr. Carlyle introduced a style of thinking about Knox which may be called
platonically Puritan. Sweet enthusiasts glide swiftly over all in the
Reformer that is specially distasteful to us. I find myself more in
harmony with the outspoken Hallam, Dr. Joseph Robertson, David Hume, and
the Edinburgh reviewer of 1816, than with several more recent students of

"The Reformer's violent counsels and intemperate speech were remarkable,"
writes Dr. Robertson, "even in his own ruthless age," and he gives
fourteen examples. {0a} "Lord Hailes has shown," he adds, "how little
Knox's statements" (in his "History") "are to be relied on even in
matters which were within the Reformer's own knowledge." In Scotland
there has always been the party of Cavalier and White Rose
sentimentalism. To this party Queen Mary is a saintly being, and their
admiration of Claverhouse goes far beyond that entertained by Sir Walter
Scott. On the other side, there is the party, equally sentimental, which
musters under the banner of the Covenant, and sees scarcely a blemish in
Knox. A pretty sample of the sentiment of this party appears in a
biography (1905) of the Reformer by a minister of the Gospel. Knox
summoned the organised brethren, in 1563, to overawe justice, when some
men were to be tried on a charge of invading in arms the chapel of
Holyrood. No proceeding could be more anarchic than Knox's, or more in
accordance with the lovable customs of my dear country, at that time. But
the biographer of 1905, "a placed minister," writes that "the doing of
it" (Knox's summons) "was only an assertion of the liberty of the Church,
and of the members of the Commonwealth as a whole, to assemble for
purposes which were clearly lawful" - the purposes being to overawe
justice in the course of a trial!

On sentiment, Cavalier or Puritan, reason is thrown away.

I have been surprised to find how completely a study of Knox's own works
corroborates the views of Dr. Robertson and Lord Hailes. That Knox ran
so very far ahead of the Genevan pontiffs of his age in violence; and
that in his "History" he needs such careful watching, was, to me, an
unexpected discovery. He may have been "an old Hebrew prophet," as Mr.
Carlyle says, but he had also been a young Scottish notary! A Hebrew
prophet is, at best, a dangerous anachronism in a delicate crisis of the
Church Christian; and the notarial element is too conspicuous in some
passages of Knox's "History."

That Knox was a great man; a disinterested man; in his regard for the
poor a truly Christian man; as a shepherd of Calvinistic souls a man
fervent and considerate; of pure life; in friendship loyal; by jealousy
untainted; in private character genial and amiable, I am entirely
convinced. In public and political life he was much less admirable; and
his "History," vivacious as it is, must be studied as the work of an old-
fashioned advocate rather than as the summing up of a judge. His
favourite adjectives are "bloody," "beastly," "rotten," and "stinking."

Any inaccuracies of my own which may have escaped my correction will be
dwelt on, by enthusiasts for the Prophet, as if they are the main
elements of this book, and disqualify me as a critic of Knox's "History."
At least any such errors on my part are involuntary and unconscious. In
Knox's defence we must remember that he never saw his "History" in print.
But he kept it by him for many years, obviously re-reading, for he
certainly retouched it, as late as 1571.

In quoting Knox and his contemporaries, I have used modern spelling: the
letter from the State Papers printed on pp. 146, 147, shows what the
orthography of the period was really like. Consultation of the original
MSS. on doubtful points, proves that the printed Calendars, though
excellent guides, cannot be relied on as authorities.

The portrait of Knox, from Beza's book of portraits of Reformers, is
posthumous, but is probably a good likeness drawn from memory, after a
description by Peter Young, who knew him, and a design, presumably by
"Adrianc Vaensoun," a Fleming, resident in Edinburgh. {0b}

There is an interesting portrait, possibly of Knox, in the National
Gallery of Portraits, but the work has no known authentic history.

The portrait of Queen Mary, at the age of thirty-six, and a prisoner, is
from the Earl of Morton's original; it is greatly superior to the
"Sheffield" type of likenesses, of about 1578; and, with Janet's and
other drawings (1558-1561), the Bridal medal of 1558, and (in my opinion)
the Earl of Leven and Melville's portrait, of about 1560-1565, is the
best extant representation of the Queen.

The Leven and Melville portrait of Mary, young and charming, and wearing
jewels which are found recorded in her Inventories, has hitherto been
overlooked. An admirable photogravure is given in Mr. J. J. Foster's
"True Portraiture of Mary, Queen of Scots" (1905), and I understand that
a photograph was done in 1866 for the South Kensington Museum.


8 Gibson Place, St. Andrews.


"November 24, 1572.

"John Knox, minister, deceased, who had, as was alleged, the most part of
the blame of all the sorrows of Scotland since the slaughter of the late

It is thus that the decent burgess who, in 1572, kept The Diurnal of such
daily events as he deemed important, cautiously records the death of the
great Scottish Reformer. The sorrows, the "cumber" of which Knox was
"alleged" to bear the blame, did not end with his death. They persisted
in the conspiracies and rebellions of the earlier years of James VI.;
they smouldered through the later part of his time; they broke into far
spreading flame at the touch of the Covenant; they blazed at "dark
Worcester and bloody Dunbar"; at Preston fight, and the sack of Dundee by
Monk; they included the Cromwellian conquest of Scotland, and the shame
and misery of the Restoration; to trace them down to our own age would be

It is with the "alleged" author of the Sorrows, with his life, works, and
ideas that we are concerned.

John Knox, son of William Knox and of - - Sinclair, his wife, {2a} unlike
most Scotsmen, unlike even Mr. Carlyle, had not "an ell of pedigree." The
common scoff was that each Scot styled himself "the King's poor cousin."
But John Knox declared, "I am a man of base estate and condition." {2b}
The genealogy of Mr. Carlyle has been traced to a date behind the Norman
Conquest, but of Knox's ancestors nothing is known. He himself, in 1562,
when he "ruled the roast" in Scotland, told the ruffian Earl of Bothwell,
"my grandfather, my maternal grandfather, and my father, have served your
Lordship's predecessors, and some of them have died under their
standards; and this" (namely goodwill to the house of the feudal
superior) "is a part of the obligation of our Scottish kindness." Knox,
indeed, never writes very harshly of Bothwell, partly for the reason he
gives; partly, perhaps, because Bothwell, though an infamous character,
and a political opponent, was not in 1562-67 "an idolater," that is, a
Catholic: if ever he had been one; partly because his "History" ends
before Bothwell's murder of Darnley in 1567.

Knox's ancestors were, we may suppose, peasant farmers, like the
ancestors of Burns and Hogg; and Knox, though he married a maid of the
Queen's kin, bore traces of his descent. "A man ungrateful and
unpleasable," Northumberland styled him: he was one who could not
"smiling, put a question by"; if he had to remonstrate even with a person
whom it was desirable to conciliate, he stated his case in the plainest
and least flattering terms. "Of nature I am churlish, and in conditions
different from many," he wrote; but this side of his character he kept
mainly for people of high rank, accustomed to deference, and indifferent
or hostile to his aims. To others, especially to women whom he liked, he
was considerate and courteous, but any assertion of social superiority
aroused his wakeful independence. His countrymen of his own order had
long displayed these peculiarities of humour.

The small Scottish cultivators from whose ranks Knox rose, appear, even
before his age, in two strangely different lights. If they were not
technically "kindly tenants," in which case their conditions of existence
and of tenure were comparatively comfortable and secure, they were liable
to eviction at the will of the lord, and, to quote an account of their
condition written in 1549, "were in more servitude than the children of
Israel in Egypt." Henderson, the writer of 1549 whom we have quoted,
hopes that the agricultural class may yet live "as substantial commoners,
not miserable cottars, charged daily to war and slay their neighbours _at
their own expense_," as under the standards of the unruly Bothwell House.
This Henderson was one of the political observers who, before the
Scottish Reformation, hoped for a secure union between Scotland and
England, in place of the old and romantic league with France. That
alliance had, indeed, enabled both France and Scotland to maintain their
national independence. But, with the great revolution in religion, the
interest of Scotland was a permanent political league with England, which
Knox did as much as any man to forward, while, by resisting a religious
union, he left the seeds of many sorrows.

If the Lowland peasantry, from one point of view, were terribly
oppressed, we know that they were of independent manners. In 1515 the
chaplain of Margaret Tudor, the Queen Mother, writes to one Adam
Williamson: "You know the use of this country. Every man speaks what he
will without blame. The man hath more words than the master, and will
not be content unless he knows the master's counsel. There is no order
among us."

Thus, two hundred and fifty years before Burns, the Lowland Scot was
minded that "A man's a man for a' that!" Knox was the true flower of
this vigorous Lowland thistle. Throughout life he not only "spoke what
he would," but uttered "the Truth" in such a tone as to make it unlikely
that his "message" should be accepted by opponents. Like Carlyle,
however, he had a heart rich in affection, no breach in friendship, he
says, ever began on his side; while, as "a good hater," Dr. Johnson might
have admired him. He carried into political and theological conflicts
the stubborn temper of the Border prickers, his fathers, who had ridden
under the Roses and the Lion of the Hepburns. So far Knox was an example
of the doctrine of heredity; that we know, however little we learn in
detail about his ancestors.

The birthplace of Knox was probably a house in a suburb of Haddington, in
a district on the path of English invasion. The year of his birth has
long been dated, on a late statement of little authority, as 1505. {4}
Seven years after his death, however, a man who knew him well, namely,
Peter Young, tutor and librarian of James VI., told Beza that Knox died
in his fifty-ninth year. Dr. Hay Fleming has pointed out that his natal
year was probably 1513-15, not 1505, and this reckoning, we shall see,
appears to fit in better with the deeds of the Reformer.

If Knox was born in 1513-15, he must have taken priest's orders, and
adopted the profession of a notary, at nearly the earliest moment which
the canonical law permitted. No man ought to be in priest's orders
before he was twenty-five; Knox, if born in 1515, was just twenty-five in
1540, when he is styled "Sir John Knox" (one of "The Pope's Knights") in
legal documents, and appears as a notary. {5} He certainly continued in
orders and in the notarial profession as late as March 1543. The law of
the Church did not, in fact, permit priests to be notaries, but in an age
when "notaires" were often professional forgers, the additional security
for character yielded by Holy Orders must have been welcome to clients,
and Bishops permitted priests to practise this branch of the law.

Of Knox's near kin no more is known than of his ancestors. He had a
brother, William, for whom, in 1552, he procured a licence to trade in
England as owner of a ship of 100 tons. Even as late as 1656, there were
not a dozen ships of this burden in Scotland, so William Knox must have
been relatively a prosperous man. In 1544-45, there was a William Knox,
a fowler or gamekeeper to the Earl of Westmoreland, who acted as a secret
agent between the Scots in English pay and their paymasters. We much
later (1559) find the Reformer's brother, William, engaged with him in a
secret political mission to the Governor of Berwick; probably this
William knew shy Border paths, and he may have learned them as the Lord
Westmoreland's fowler in earlier years.

About John Knox's early years and education nothing is known. He
certainly acquired such Latin (satis humilis, says a German critic) as
Scotland then had to teach; probably at the Burgh School of Haddington. A
certain John Knox matriculated at the University of Glasgow in 1522, but
he cannot have been the Reformer, if the Reformer was not born till 1513-
15. Beza, on the other hand (1580), had learned, probably from the
Reformer, whom he knew well, that Knox was a St. Andrews man, and though
his name does not occur in the University Register, the Register was very
ill kept. Supposing Knox, then, to have been born in 1513-15, and to
have been educated at St. Andrews, we can see how he comes to know so
much about the progress of the new religious ideas at that University,
between 1529 and 1535. "The Well of St. Leonard's College" was a
notorious fountain of heresies, under Gawain Logie, the Principal. Knox
very probably heard the sermons of the Dominicans and Franciscans
"against the pride and idle life of bishops," and other abuses. He
speaks of a private conversation between Friar Airth and Major (about
1534), and names some of the persons present at a sermon in the parish
church of St. Andrews, as if he had himself been in the congregation. He
gives the text and heads of the discourse, including "merry tales" told
by the Friar. {6} If Knox heard the sermons and stories of clerical
scandals at St. Andrews, they did not prevent him from taking orders. His
Greek and Hebrew, what there was of them, Knox must have acquired in
later life, at least we never learn that he was taught by the famous
George Wishart, who, about that time, gave Greek lectures at Montrose.

The Catholic opponents of Knox naturally told scandalous anecdotes
concerning his youth. These are destitute of evidence: about his youth
we know nothing. It is a characteristic trait in him, and a fact much to
his credit, that, though he is fond of expatiating about himself, he
never makes confessions as to his earlier adventures. On his own years
of the wild oat St. Augustine dilates in a style which still has charm:
but Knox, if he sowed wild oats, is silent as the tomb. If he has
anything to repent, it is not to the world that he confesses. About the
days when he was "one of Baal's shaven sort," in his own phrase; when he
was himself an "idolater," and a priest of the altar: about the details
of his conversion, Knox is mute. It is probable that, as a priest, he
examined Lutheran books which were brought in with other merchandise from
Holland; read the Bible for himself; and failed to find Purgatory, the
Mass, the intercession of Saints, pardons, pilgrimages, and other
accessories of mediaeval religion in the Scriptures. {7} Knox had only
to keep his eyes and ears open, to observe the clerical ignorance and
corruption which resulted in great part from the Scottish habit of
securing wealthy Church offices for ignorant, brutal, and licentious
younger sons and bastards of noble families. This practice in Scotland
was as odious to good Catholics, like Quentin Kennedy, Ninian Winzet,
and, rather earlier, to Ferrerius, as to Knox himself. The prevalent
anarchy caused by the long minorities of the Stuart kings, and by the
interminable wars with England, and the difficulty of communications with
Rome, had enabled the nobles thus to rob and deprave the Church, and so
to provide themselves with moral reasons good for robbing her again; as a
punishment for the iniquities which they had themselves introduced!

The almost incredible ignorance and profligacy of the higher Scottish
clergy (with notable exceptions) in Knox's youth, are not matter of
controversy. They are as frankly recognised by contemporary Catholic as
by Protestant authors. In the very year of the destruction of the
monasteries (1559) the abuses are officially stated, as will be told
later, by the last Scottish Provincial Council. Though three of the four
Scottish universities were founded by Catholics, and the fourth,
Edinburgh, had an endowment bequeathed by a Catholic, the clerical
ignorance, in Knox's time, was such that many priests could hardly read.

If more evidence is needed as to the debauched estate of the Scottish
clergy, we obtain it from Mary of Guise, widow of James V., the Regent
then governing Scotland for her child, Mary Stuart. The Queen, in
December 1555, begged Pius IV. to permit her to levy a tax on her clergy,
and to listen to what Cardinal Sermoneta would tell him about their need
of reformation. The Cardinal drew a terrible sketch of the nefarious
lives of "every kind of religious women" in Scotland. They go about with
their illegal families and dower their daughters out of the revenues of
the Church. The monks, too, have bloated wealth, while churches are
allowed to fall into decay. "The only hope is in the Holy Father," who
should appoint an episcopal commission of visitation. For about forty
years prelates have been alienating Church lands illegally, and churches
and monasteries, by the avarice of those placed in charge, are crumbling
to decay. Bishops are the chief dealers in cattle, fish, and hides,
though we have, in fact, good evidence that their dealings were very
limited, "sma' sums."

Not only the clergy, but the nobles and people were lawless. "They are
more difficult to manage than ever," writes Mary of Guise (Jan. 13,
1557). They are recalcitrant against law and order; every attempt at
introducing these is denounced as an attack on their old laws: not that
their laws are bad, but that they are badly administered. {9} Scotland,
in brief, had always been lawless, and for centuries had never been
godly. She was untouched by the first fervour of the Franciscan and
other religious revivals. Knox could not fail to see what was so patent:
many books of the German reformers may have come in his way; no more was
wanted than the preaching of George Wishart in 1543-45, to make him an
irreconcilable foe of the doctrine as well as the discipline of his

Knox had a sincerely religious nature, and a conviction that he was, more
than most men, though a sinner, in close touch with Him "in whom we live
and move and have our being." We ask ourselves, had Knox, as "a priest
of the altar," never known the deep emotions, which tongue may not utter,
that the ceremonies and services of his Church so naturally awaken in the
soul of the believer? These emotions, if they were in his experience, he
never remembered tenderly, he flung them from him without regret; not
regarding them even as dreams, beautiful and dear, but misleading, that
came through the Ivory Gate. To Knox's opponent in controversy, Quentin
Kennedy, the mass was "the blessed Sacrament of the Altar . . . which is
one of the chief Sacraments whereby our Saviour, for the salvation of
mankind, has appointed the fruit of His death and passion to be daily
renewed and applied." In this traditional view there is nothing
unedifying, nothing injurious to the Christian life. But to Knox the
wafer is an idol, a god "of water and meal," "but a feeble and miserable
god," that can be destroyed "by a bold and puissant mouse." "Rats and
mice will desire no better dinner than white round gods enough." {10}

The Reformer and the Catholic take up the question "by different
handles"; and the Catholic grounds his defence on a text about
Melchizedek! To Knox the mass is the symbol of all that he justly
detested in the degraded Church as she then was in Scotland, "that
horrible harlot with her filthiness." To Kennedy it was what we have

Knox speaks of having been in "the puddle of papistry." He loathes what
he has left behind him, and it is natural to guess that, in his first
years of priesthood, his religious nature slept; that he became a priest
and notary merely that he "might eat a morsel of bread"; and that real
"conviction" never was his till his studies of Protestant
controversialists, and also of St. Augustine and the Bible, and the
teaching of Wishart, raised him from a mundane life. Then he awoke to a
passionate horror and hatred of his old routine of "mumbled masses," of
"rites of human invention," whereof he had never known the poetry and the
mystic charm. Had he known them, he could not have so denied and
detested them. On the other hand, when once he had embraced the new
ideas, Knox's faith in them, or in his own form of them, was firm as the
round world, made so fast that it cannot be moved. He had now a pou sto,
whence he could, and did, move the world of human affairs. A faith not
to be shaken, and enormous energy were the essential attributes of the
Reformer. It is almost impossible to find an instance in which Knox
allows that he may have been mistaken: d'avoir toujours raison was his
claim. If he admits an error in details, it is usually an error of
insufficient severity. He did not attack Northumberland or Mary Stuart
with adequate violence; he did not disapprove enough of our prayer book;
he did not hand a heretic over to the magistrates.

While acting as a priest and notary, between 1540, at latest, and 1543,
Knox was engaged as private tutor to a boy named Brounefield, son of
Brounefield of Greenlaw, and to other lads, spoken of as his "bairns." In
this profession of tutor he continued till 1547.

Knox's personal aspect did not give signs of the uncommon strength which
his unceasing labours demanded, but, like many men of energy, he had a
perpetual youth of character and vigour. After his death, Peter Young
described him as he appeared in his later years. He was somewhat below
the "just" standard of height; his limbs were well and elegantly shaped;
his shoulders broad, his fingers rather long, his head small, his hair
black, his face somewhat swarthy, and not unpleasant to behold. There
was a certain geniality in a countenance serious and stern, with a
natural dignity and air of command; his eyebrows, when he was in anger,
were expressive. His forehead was rather narrow, depressed above the
eyebrows; his cheeks were full and ruddy, so that the eyes seemed to
retreat into their hollows: they were dark grey, keen, and lively. The
face was long, the nose also; the mouth was large, the upper lip being
the thicker. The beard was long, rather thick and black, with a few grey

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