John Knox (c. 1510 – 24 November 1572) was a Scottish clergyman and leader of the Protestant Reformation who is considered the founder of the Presbyterian denomination. He was educated at the University of St Andrews and worked as a notary-priest. Influenced by early church reformers such as George Wishart, he joined the movement to reform the Scottish church. He was caught up in the ecclesiastical and political events that involved the murder of Cardinal Beaton in 1546 and the intervention of the regent of Scotland, Mary of Guise. He was taken prisoner by French forces the following year and exiled to England on his release in 1549.
While in exile, Knox was licensed to work in the Church of England, where he quickly rose in the ranks to serve King Edward VI of England as a royal chaplain. In this position, he exerted a reforming influence on the text of the Book of Common Prayer. In England he met and married his first wife, Marjorie. When Mary Tudor ascended the throne and re-established Roman Catholicism, Knox was forced to resign his position and leave the country.
Knox first moved to Geneva and then to Frankfurt. In Geneva, he met John Calvin, from whom he gained experience and knowledge of Reformed theology and Presbyterian polity. He created a new order of service, which was eventually adopted by the reformed church in Scotland. He left Geneva to head the English refugee church in Frankfurt but he was forced to leave over differences concerning the liturgy, thus ending his association with the Church of England.
On his return to Scotland, he led the Protestant Reformation in Scotland, in partnership with the Scottish Protestant nobility. The movement may be seen as a revolution, since it led to the ousting of the queen regent, Mary of Guise, who governed the country in the name of her young daughter, Mary, Queen of Scots. Knox helped write the new confession of faith and the ecclesiastical order for the newly created reformed church, the Kirk. He continued to serve as the religious leader of the Protestants throughout Mary's reign. In several interviews with the queen, Knox admonished her for supporting Catholic practices. Eventually, when she was imprisoned and James VI enthroned in her stead, he openly ridiculed her in sermons. He continued to preach until his final days.
Knox was probably educated at the grammar school in Haddington. In his time, the priesthood was the only path for those whose inclinations were academic rather than mercantile or agricultural. He proceeded to further studies at the University of St Andrews or possibly at the University of Glasgow. He studied under John Major, one of the greatest scholars of the time.
Knox first appears in public records as a priest and a notary in 1540. He was still serving in these capacities as late as 1543 when, in a notarial deed dated 27 March, he wrote in his own handwriting, "John Knox, minister of the sacred altar, of the Diocese of St Andrews, notary by Apostolical authority". Rather than taking up parochial duties in a parish, he became tutor to two sons of Hugh Douglas of Longniddry. He also taught the son of John Cockburn of Ormiston. Both of these lairds had embraced the new religious ideas of the Reformation, which were sweeping Europe.
It is not known exactly what happened to Knox immediately after Wishart's arrest. He may had gone into hiding or taken refuge in Longniddry. However, several months later he was still in charge of the pupils, the sons of Douglas and Cockburn, who wearied of moving from place to place while being pursued. He toyed with the idea of fleeing to Germany and taking his pupils with him. While Knox remained a fugitive, Cardinal Beaton was murdered on 29 May 1546, within his residence, the Castle of St Andrews, by a gang of five persons in revenge for Wishart's execution. The assassins seized the castle and eventually their families and friends took refuge with them, about a hundred and fifty men in all. Among their friends was Henry Balnaves, a secretary of state in the government, who negotiated with England for the financial support of the rebels. The fathers of Knox’s pupils also took refuge in the castle and they sent word to Knox that he bring them to the relative safety of the castle to continue their instruction in reformed doctrine. Knox arrived at the castle on 10 April 1547.
Knox's powers as a preacher came to the attention of the chaplain of the garrison, John Rough. While Rough was preaching in the parish church on the Protestant principle of the popular election of a pastor, he proposed Knox to the congregation for that office. Knox did not relish the idea. According to his own account, he burst into tears and fled to his room. Within a week, however, he was giving his first sermon to a congregation that included his old teacher, John Major. He expounded on the seventh chapter of the Book of Daniel, comparing the pope with the Whore of Babylon. A few days later, a debate was staged that allowed him to lay down a thesis that he would promote throughout the rest of his life: that all ceremonies without express warrant from the Bible are idolatry. This included the celebration of the Mass.
In summer 1548, the galleys returned to Scotland to scout for English ships. Knox's health was now at its lowest point due to the severity of his confinement. He was ill with a fever and others on the ship were afraid for his life. Even in this state, Knox recalled, his mind remained sharp and he comforted his fellow prisoners with hopes of release. While the ships were lying offshore between St Andrews and Dundee, the spires of the parish church where he preached appeared in view. James Balfour, a fellow prisoner, asked Knox whether he recognised the landmark. He replied,
Yes, I know it well; for I see the steeple of that place where God first in public opened my mouth to glory; and I am fully persuaded, how weak soever I now appear, that I shall not depart this life, till that my tongue shall glorify his godly name in the same place.
In February 1549, after spending a total of 19 months in the galley-prison, Knox was released. It is uncertain how he obtained his liberty.
On his release, Knox took refuge in England. The Reformation in England was a less radical movement than its Continental counterparts, but there was a definite breach with Rome. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, and the regent of King Edward VI, Edward Seymour, 1st Duke of Somerset, were decidedly Protestant-minded. However, much work needed to be done to bring reformed ideas to the clergy and to the people. On 7 April 1549, Knox was licensed to work in the Church of England. His first commission was in Berwick-upon-Tweed. He was obliged to use the recently released Book of Common Prayer, which was mainly a translation of the Latin Mass into English and was largely left intact and unreformed. He therefore modified its use along Protestant lines. In the pulpit he preached Protestant doctrines with great effect as his congregation grew.
In England, Knox met his wife, Marjorie Bowes. Her father, Richard, was the younger brother of Sir Robert Bowes, a descendant of an old Durham family, the Bowes of Streatlam and her mother, Elizabeth, was an heiress of a Yorkshire family, the Askes of Richmondshire. Elizabeth Bowes presumably met Knox when he was employed in Berwick. Several letters reveal a close friendship between them. It is not recorded when Knox married Marjorie Bowes. Knox attempted to obtain the consent of the Bowes family, but Robert and Richard were opposed to the marriage.
Towards the end of 1550, Knox was appointed a preacher of St Nicholas' Church in Newcastle upon Tyne. The following year he was appointed one of the six royal chaplains serving the king. On 16 October 1551, John Dudley, 1st Duke of Northumberland overthrew Edward Seymour to become the new regent of the king. Knox condemned the coup d'état in a sermon on All Saints Day. When Dudley visited Newcastle and listened to his preaching in June 1552, he had mixed feelings about the fire-brand preacher, but he saw Knox as a potential asset. Knox was asked to come to London to preach before the Court. In his first sermon, he advocated a change for the second edition of the Book of Common Prayer. The liturgy required worshippers to kneel during communion. Knox and the other chaplains considered this to be idolatry. It triggered a debate where Thomas Cranmer was called upon to defend the practice. The end result was a compromise in which the famous Black Rubric, which declared that no adoration is intended while kneeling, was included in the second edition.
Soon afterwards, Dudley, who saw Knox as a useful political tool, offered him the bishopric of Rochester. Knox refused, and he returned to Newcastle. Invited back to London several times in 1553, he gave his last sermon before King Edward VI on 12 April, at Westminster. He was also in London on 6 July when the young king died. Edward's successor, Mary Tudor, reestablished Roman Catholicism in England and restored the Mass in all the churches. Protestants such as Cranmer, Nicholas Ridley, and Hugh Latimer were imprisoned in the Tower. With the country no longer safe for Protestant preachers, Knox left for the continent in January 1554 on the advice of friends. On the eve of his flight, he wrote:
Sometime I have thought that impossible it had been so to have removed my affection from the realm of Scotland that any realm or nation could have been equally dear to me. But God I take to record in my conscience that the troubles in the realm of England are double more dolorous unto my heart than ever were the troubles in Scotland.
Knox disembarked in Dieppe, France, and continued on to Geneva, where John Calvin had established his authority. When Knox arrived, however, Calvin was in a difficult position. He had recently authorised the execution of the scholar Michael Servetus for heresy, a ruling which had discredited Calvin among his peers, and all the cities of Switzerland were against him. Knox asked Calvin four difficult political questions: whether a minor could rule by divine right, whether a female could rule and transfer sovereignty to her husband, whether people should obey ungodly or idolatrous rulers, and what party godly persons should follow if they resisted an idolatrous ruler. Calvin gave cautious replies and referred him to the Swiss reformer Heinrich Bullinger in Zürich. Bullinger's responses were equally cautious; but Knox had already made up his mind. On 20 July 1554, he published a pamphlet attacking Mary Tudor and the bishops who had brought her to the throne. He also attacked the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, calling him "no less enemy to Christ than was Nero".
In a letter dated 24 September 1554, Knox received an invitation from a congregation of English exiles in Frankfurt to become one of their ministers. He accepted the call with Calvin's blessing. But no sooner had he arrived than he found himself in a conflict. The first set of refugees to arrive in Frankfurt had subscribed to a reformed liturgy and used a modified version of the Book of Common Prayer. More recently arrived refugees, however, including Edmund Grindal, the future Archbishop of Canterbury, favoured a stricter application of the book. When Knox and a supporting colleague, William Whittingham, wrote to Calvin for advice, they were told to avoid contention. Knox therefore agreed on a temporary order of service based on a compromise between the two sides. This delicate balance was disturbed when a new batch of refugees arrived that included Richard Cox, one of the principal authors of the Book of Common Prayer. Cox brought Knox's pamphlet attacking the emperor to the attention of the Frankfurt authorities, who advised that Knox leave. His departure from Frankfurt on 26 March 1555 marked his final breach with the Church of England.
After his return to Geneva, Knox was chosen to be the minister at a new place of worship petitioned from Calvin. In the meantime, Elizabeth Bowes wrote to Knox, asking him to return to Marjorie in Scotland, which he did at the end of August. Despite initial doubts about the state of the Reformation in Scotland, Knox found the country significantly changed since he was carried off in the galley in 1547. When he toured various parts of Scotland preaching the reformed doctrines and liturgy, he was welcomed by many of the nobility including two future regents of Scotland, James Stewart, 1st Earl of Moray, and John Erskine, 17th Earl of Mar.
Though the queen regent, Mary of Guise, made no move to act against Knox, his activities caused concern among the church authorities. The bishops of Scotland viewed him as a threat to their authority and summoned him to appear in Edinburgh on 15 May 1556. He was accompanied to the trial by so many influential persons that the bishops decided to call the hearing off. Knox was now free to preach openly in Edinburgh. William Keith, the Earl Marischal, was impressed and urged Knox to write to the queen regent. Knox's unusually respectful letter urged her to support the Reformation and overthrow the church hierarchy. Mary took the letter as a joke and ignored it.
Shortly after Knox sent the letter to the queen regent, he suddenly announced that he felt his duty was to return to Geneva. In the previous year on 1 November 1555, the congregation in Geneva had elected Knox as their minister and he decided to take up the post. He wrote a final letter of advice to his supporters and left Scotland with his wife and mother-in-law. He arrived in Geneva on 13 September 1556.
For the next two years, he lived a happy life in Geneva. He recommended Geneva to his friends in England as the best place of asylum for Protestants. In one letter he wrote:
In my heart, I could have wished, yea, and cannot cease to wish, that it might please God to guide and conduct yourself to this place, where I neither fear nor eshame to say, is the most perfect school of Christ that ever was in the earth since the days of the apostles. In other places I confess Christ to be truly preached; but manners and religion to be so sincerely reformed, I have not yet seen in any other place beside.
Knox led a busy life in Geneva. He preached three sermons a week, each lasting well over two hours. The services used a liturgy that was derived by Knox and other ministers from Calvin's Formes des Prières Ecclésiastiques. The church in which he preached, the Église de Notre Dame la Neuve—now known as the Auditoire de Calvin—had been granted by the municipal authorities, at Calvin's request, for the use of the English and Italian congregations. Knox's two sons, Nathaniel and Eleazar, were born in Geneva, with Whittingham and Myles Coverdale their respective godfathers.
In the summer of 1558, Knox published his best known pamphlet, The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women. In calling the "regiment" or rule of women "monstrous", he meant that it was "unnatural". The pamphlet has been called a classic of misogyny. Knox states that his purpose was to demonstrate "how abominable before God is the Empire or Rule of a wicked woman, yea, of a traiteresse and bastard". The women rulers that Knox had in mind were Mary Tudor, the queen of England, and Mary Stuart, the queen of Scotland. Knox's prejudices against women were not unusual in his day; however, even he was aware that the pamphlet was dangerously seditious. He therefore published it anonymously and did not tell Calvin, who denied knowledge of it until a year after its publication, that he had written it. In England, the pamphlet was officially condemned by royal proclamation. The impact of the document was complicated later that year, when Elizabeth Tudor became queen of England. Although Knox had not targeted Elizabeth, he had deeply offended her, and she never forgave him.
With a Protestant on the throne, the English refugees in Geneva prepared to return home. Knox himself decided to return to Scotland. Before his departure, various honours were conferred on him, including the freedom of the city of Geneva. Knox left in January 1559, but he did not arrive in Scotland until 2 May 1559, owing to Elizabeth's refusal to issue him a passport through England.
Two days after Knox arrived in Edinburgh, he proceeded to Dundee where a large number of Protestant sympathisers had gathered. Knox was declared an outlaw, and the queen regent summoned the Protestants to Stirling. Fearing the possibility of a summary trial and execution, the Protestants proceeded instead to Perth, a walled town that could be defended in case of a siege. At the church of St John the Baptist, Knox preached a fiery sermon and a small incident precipitated into a riot. A mob poured into the church and it was soon gutted. The mob then attacked two friaries in the town, looting their gold and silver and smashing images. Mary of Guise gathered those nobles loyal to her and a small French army. She dispatched Archibald Campbell, 5th Earl of Argyll, and James Stewart, to offer terms and avert a war. She promised not to send any French troops into Perth if the Protestants evacuated the town. The Protestants agreed, but when the queen regent entered Perth, she garrisoned it with Scottish soldiers on the French pay roll. This was seen as treacherous by Campbell and Stewart, who switched sides and joined Knox, who now based himself in St Andrews. Knox’s return to St Andrews fulfilled the prophecy he made in the galleys that he would one day preach again in its church. When he did give a sermon, the effect was the same as in Perth. The people engaged in vandalism and looting.
With Protestant reinforcements arriving from neighbouring counties, the queen regent retreated to Dunbar. By now, the mob fury had spilled over central Scotland. Her own troops were on the verge of mutiny. On 30 June, the Protestants occupied Edinburgh, though they were only able to hold it for a month. But even before their arrival, the mob had already sacked the churches and the friaries. On 1 July, Knox preached from the pulpit of St Giles', the most influential in the capital.
Knox knew that the queen regent would ask for help from France. So he negotiated by letter with William Cecil, Elizabeth's chief adviser, for English support. Knox sailed to Lindisfarne, off the northeast coast of England, for secret negotiations, but he was forced to return to Scotland when he was recognised. When additional French troops arrived in Leith, Edinburgh's seaport, the Protestants responded by retaking Edinburgh. This time, on 24 October 1559, the Scottish nobility formally deposed Mary of Guise from the regency. Her secretary, William Maitland of Lethington, defected to the Protestant side, bringing his administrative skills. From then on, Maitland took over the political tasks, freeing Knox for the role of religious leader. For the final stage of the revolution, Maitland appealed to Scottish patriotism to fight French domination. Support from England finally arrived and by the end of March, a significant English army joined the Scottish Protestant forces. The sudden death of Mary of Guise in Edinburgh Castle on 10 June 1560 paved the way for an end to hostilities, the signing of the Treaty of Edinburgh, and the withdrawal of French and English troops from Scotland. On 19 July, Knox held a National Thanksgiving Service at St Giles'.
Parliament reconvened on 15 January 1561 to consider the Book of Discipline. The Kirk was to be run on democratic lines. Each congregation was free to choose or reject their own pastor; but once he was chosen, they could not fire him. Each parish was to be self-supporting, as far as possible. The bishops were replaced by ten to twelve "superintendents". The plan included a system of national education based on universality as a fundamental principle. Certain areas of law were placed under ecclesiastical authority. The Parliament did not approve the plan, however, mainly for reasons of finance. The Kirk was to be financed out of the patrimony of the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland. Much of this was now in the hands of the nobles, who were reluctant to give up their possessions. A final decision on the plan was delayed because of the impending return of Mary Stuart, the queen of Scotland.
On 13 December 1562, Mary sent for Knox again after he gave a sermon denouncing certain celebrations which Knox had interpreted as rejoicing at the expense of the Reformation. She charged that Knox spoke irreverently of the queen in order to make her appear contemptible to her subjects. After Knox gave an explanation of the sermon, Mary stated that she did not blame Knox for the differences of opinion and asked that in the future he come to her directly if he heard anything about her that he disliked. Despite her friendly gesture, Knox replied that he would continue to voice his convictions in his sermons and would not wait upon her.
During Easter in 1563, some priests in Ayrshire celebrated Mass, thus defying the law. Some Protestants tried to enforce the law themselves by apprehending these priests. This prompted Mary to summon Knox for the third time. She asked Knox to use his influence to promote religious toleration. He defended their actions and noted she is bound to uphold the laws and if she did not, others would. Mary surprised Knox by agreeing that the priests would be brought to justice.
The most dramatic interview between Mary and Knox took place on 24 June 1563. Mary summoned Knox to Holyrood after hearing that he had been preaching against her proposed marriage to Don Carlos, the son of Philip II of Spain. Mary began by scolding Knox, then she burst into tears. "What have ye to do with my marriage?" she asked, and "What are ye within this commonwealth?" "A subject born within the same, Madam," Knox replied. He noted that though he was not of noble birth, he had the same duty as any subject to warn of dangers to the realm. When Mary started to cry again, he said, "Madam, in God's presence I speak: I never delighted in the weeping of any of God's creatures; yea I can scarcely well abide the tears of my own boys whom my own hand corrects, much less can I rejoice in your Majesty's weeping. He added that he would rather endure her tears, however, than remain silent and "betray my Commonwealth". At this, Mary ordered him out of the room. Knox's final encounter with Mary was prompted by an incident at Holyrood. While Mary was absent from Edinburgh on her summer progress in 1563, a crowd forced its way into her private chapel as Mass was being celebrated. During the altercation, the priest's life was threatened. As a result, two of the ringleaders, burgesses of Edinburgh, were scheduled for trial on 24 October 1563. In order to defend these men, Knox sent out letters calling the nobles to convene. Mary obtained one of these letters and asked her advisors if this was not a treasonable act. Stewart and Maitland, wanting to keep good relations with both the Kirk and the Queen, asked Knox to admit he was wrong and to settle the matter quietly. Knox refused and he defended himself in front of Mary and the privy council. He argued that he had called a legal, not an illegal, assembly as part of his duties as a minister of the Kirk. After he left, the councillors voted not to charge him with treason.
On 26 March 1564 Knox stirred controversy again, when he married the daughter of an old friend, Andrew Stewart, a member of the Stuart family and a distant relative of the queen, Mary Stuart. The marriage was unusual because he was a widower of fifty, while the bride, Margaret, was not yet seventeen. Very few details are known of their domestic life. They had three daughters, Martha, Margaret, and Elizabeth.
Nothing is known of Knox's activities for the next fourteen months. He was silent when Mary married Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley. He did not take an active role in the General Assembly. A possible explanation is that he was old and tired of the political battles. He is next noted preaching in the presence of the new king consort on 19 August 1565, when his passing allusions to the royal couple caused Darnley to walk out. Knox was summoned and prohibited from preaching while the court was in Edinburgh.
On 9 March 1566, Mary's secretary, David Rizzio, was murdered by Protestant rebels loyal to Darnley. Mary escaped from Edinburgh to Dunbar and by 18 March returned with a formidable force. Knox fled to Kyle in Ayrshire, where he completed the major part of his magnum opus, History of the Reformation in Scotland.
Knox launched one final campaign against Mary. When he returned from Kyle, he found the Protestant nobles divided over what to do with her. By now, she had abdicated and was imprisoned in Loch Leven Castle. Knox's old friend James Stewart had become the regent of James VI. Other old friends of Knox's, Archibald Campbell and William Kirkcaldy, stood by Mary. On 29 July 1567, Knox preached James VI's coronation sermon at the church in Stirling. Mary's life was spared, and she escaped on 2 May 1568. During this period Knox thundered against her in his sermons, even to the point of calling for her death.
The fighting in Scotland continued. James Stewart was assassinated on 23 January 1570. The regent who succeeded him, Matthew Stewart, 4th Earl of Lennox, was also a victim of violence. On 30 April 1571, the controller of Edinburgh Castle, Kirkcaldy, ordered all enemies of the queen to leave the city. But for Knox, his former friend and fellow galley-slave, he made an exception. If Knox did not leave, he could stay in Edinburgh, but only if he remained captive in the castle. Knox chose to leave, and on 5 May he left for St Andrews. He continued to preach, spoke to students, and worked on his History. At the end of July 1572, after a truce was called, he returned to Edinburgh. Although by this time exceedingly feeble and his voice faint, he continued to preach at St Giles'.
After inducting his successor, Lawson of Aberdeen, as minister of St Giles' on 9 November, Knox returned to his home for the last time. With his friends and some of the greatest Scottish nobles around him, he asked for the Bible to be read aloud. On his last day, 24 November 1572, his young wife read from Paul's first letter to the Corinthians. A testimony to Knox was pronounced at his grave in the churchyard of St Giles' by James Douglas, 4th Earl of Morton and newly-elected regent of Scotland:
Here lies one who neither flattered nor feared any flesh.
He was buried in St Giles' graveyard. Due to modern constructions, there is no marked grave or tombstone for Knox other than a small golden plaque on the ground next to the church.
Knox was survived by his five children and his second wife. Nathaniel and Eleazar, his two sons by his first wife, moved to England, where their mother’s family lived, and died without issue. His second wife, Margaret, remarried to Sir Andrew Ker, a supporter of the Reformation. Knox's three daughters also married: Martha to James Fleming, a minister of the Kirk; Margaret to Zachary Pont, son of Robert Pont and brother of Timothy Pont; and Elizabeth to John Welsh, also a minister of the Kirk.
John Welsh became a reformer in his own right and a successful preacher in France. When in 1622, near the end of his life, he decided to return to Scotland, James VI refused him permission. James, who had had become King of England in 1603, was pressing to reestablish the episcopacy in the Kirk at the time. Elizabeth petitioned him to allow her husband to return. When she was introduced to James, he was said to have exclaimed, “Knox and Welsh! The devil never made such a match as that.” He then asked her about Knox’s children, and when she replied that he had three daughters, he cried out, “God be thanked!”, while lifting up both his hands, and said, “for an they had been three lads, I had never enjoyed my three kingdoms in peace.”
Knox has been compared to other great reformers, such as Martin Luther and John Calvin. He may be called an important figure in Europe because his five years work in England and his stay in Frankfurt and Geneva strongly influenced the Puritan movement. His greater historical significance, however, rests on his contribution to the Scottish Reformation. The revolution of 1560 not only reformed religion in Scotland but marked a change from princely authority to individualism. Knox is considered the founder of the Presbyterian denomination whose members number millions worldwide.