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John Knox and the Scottish Reformation

The Early Years
The life of John Knox is surrounded in controversy and some facts cannot be easily obtained or verified which include his birthplace, date of birth, where he studied; either Glasgow or St. Andrews Universities or both, and his parents social standing which was very important in the 16th century. Even the spelling of his name had many variations. John Knox was either born in Gifford near Haddington in East Lothian, Scotland or Giffordgate in Haddington and was born either in 1505 or 1514! When Knox was at university in Scotland in the 1530s it was illegal to teach the Scriptures in Greek; bearing in mind that the majority of the New Testament was originally written in Greek. Several hundred years before Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit in Mary’s womb, (incarnate on earth, as a baby) the Old Testament had been translated into the Greek Septuagint.

Ordained a Priest
In April 1536, Knox was ordained a Catholic priest by the Bishop of Dunblane and at first could not find a parish, so from 1540-1543 he became both a tutor and a chaplain to a wealthy family. On the 28th March 1543, Knox wrote a document ‘…witnessed in faith through Christ to whom be glory’ so preceding this date Knox probably was converted to salvation by faith in the Saviour Jesus Christ and in Him alone and thus became a Protestant. By this date, the notion of ‘saved by faith’ as mentioned in the Holy Bible had become more popular in Scotland as the Reformation of religion was sweeping Europe under Martin Luther in Wittenberg, Germany and John Calvin in Geneva, Switzerland. Europe was changing as the medieval system in which the Pope, Holy Roman Emperor and King or Queen who reigned supreme was in question and challenged. Europe was seen as chessboard where many people were plying for power and marriages were arranged for political reasons of power, prestige and religion.

King Henry VIII
In Scotland, Protestants had been executed for their faith but some of the nobility, earls and lairds were Protestants themselves or sympathetic to the cause and gave refuge and support for the believers. England, under King Henry VIII had broken away from Rome in 1527 over his divorce or the fact that he was refused a divorce / annulment from the Pope. England became an official Protestant country in 1534 when King Henry VIII founded the Church of England of which he naturally became the head. However, in May of 1543, he passed a law stating the Bible could not be read in English (in churches the Latin version was used), which was punishable by death. Also Cranmer's Prayer Book was to be used in church services instead, thus eliminating the need for an English Bible. Even though by this time, England had become a place of refuge for fleeing Protestants from the Catholics and especially the wrath of Cardinal Beaton.

The Church of Rome Corruption
The Church of Rome was as corrupt as it could be and piety was rarely shown; it was a place where even the Bishops openly flaunted their mistresses and the priesthood was seen as a good financial sound career move with plenty of perks. King Henry VIII of England had some of the Scottish nobles on his payroll who were encouraged to fight and conspire against the Roman Catholic Church and the Catholic Regent, Mary Guise and then Queen Mary.

In 1544, the English army attacked Edinburgh in Scotland and many other towns and villages. They burnt and pillaged anything that got in their way. This led to John Knox’s view of violence as a means of advancing Reformation when the God given leader of nation was ungodly and therefore had indisposed themselves of their ‘divine’ authority and standing. Martin Luther and John Calvin did not share this controversial doctrinal viewpoint but it did eventually change the nation.

Knox the Bodyguard
The unknown John Knox then became a bodyguard to the fiery preacher and prayer warrior, George Wishart and carried a two-handed sword for their protection. Wishart was a pious man who had studied and worked in both the reformed Germany and Switzerland. Henry VIII had stumped up £1000 for the assassination of Cardinal Beaton. Rome was allied to Catholic France whom England was at war with (on and off for many centuries) and now was no exception. Both England and France wanted Scotland to be brought under the dominion of their control.

King Henry had ordered the abolition of the lavish monasteries in England to help fund the war and thus had thrown a stone (so to speak) in the Pope’s eye. The assassination attempt on Cardinal Beaton went wrong and George Wishart was implicated in the plot, probably due to his anti-Rome pulpit rhetoric. Wishart ordered Knox to leave him in January of 1546 knowing his fate, saying “…One is sufficient for sacrifice.” The Earl of Bothwell with his small army arrested Wishart and on the first of March 1546, Wishart was tied to a stake, strangled and burnt. Knox was broken hearted, the Cardinal was well pleased but in less than two months, he too was killed.

Protestants Verses Catholic
The Protestants fought and preached against the Papal system of pardons, pilgrimages, fasts and indulgences as a means of salvation and argued straight from Scripture, pointing to absolute truths which could not be denied. The sacraments under the Protestants were reduced from seven to two, baptism and communion. The Catholics believed that the Church was supreme and the ultimate authority on all matters and the Church traditions was just as important and equal to the Scriptures themselves, whereas the Protestants declared that the Word of God (Holy Bible) was the exclusive foundation stone on which church doctrine and tradition must heed.

From Chaplain to Galley Slave
In April 1547, John Knox reluctantly took the position of Chaplain at St. Andrews Castle in Scotland but he was not the exclusive preacher from the parish church. Knox was summoned to attend a meeting because of his outspoken attitude against the Catholic state where he presented his inquisitors with a list of their churches heretical doctrines. In July of 1547, the French captured the Castle and Knox along with others was incarcerated as a galley slave aboard a French ship. Knox with other prisoners was released in 1549 with help from British negotiators and was offered a job as a minister in Berwick, England under the Lord Protector, Somerset who was the uncle of the King to be, Edward VI. Knox views soon led him into trouble as he disliked traditional Anglican services as convened in Cranmer’s Prayer Book and saw the mass as idolatry and the doctrine of Transubstantiations (the bread and wine turning into Jesus' body and blood) as heretical.

There were three main Protestant doctrines:
  • 1. The primacy of Scripture (over Church traditions and canon law)
  • 2. Justification by faith alone
  • 3. The priesthood of all believers

    Knox the Preacher
    John Knox became a popular preacher and when he moved towns from Berwick to Newcastle to London, many Scots followed him. In London the Earl of Northumberland, the Lord Protector of England (Henry VIII died in 1547) made Knox a court preacher (among many) to the young King of England, Edward VI (1547-1553) and his subjects. Edward had become King because the rightful heir, Mary as a woman was initially refused the position.

    The Lord Protector in 1552 for political reasons offered John Knox the Position of Bishop of Rochester in Kent, which he turned down. In the same year Cranmer’s ‘Book of Common Prayer’ was made compulsory in all churches in England and the Latin mass abolished. In 1553, Knox was offered the job of Vicar of All Hallows Church in London which he turned down but finally accepted a position in Amersham in April of the same year.

    The British Monarch
    Four days after King Edward’s death on the 6th July 1553, Lady Jane Grey was proclaimed Queen of England from orders of the late King. However, Mary; Henry’s VIII’s only surviving child by Catherine of Aragon, a committed Catholic, was the rightful heir to the throne according to Henry VIII’s will and had the right of succession and was gathering support in Suffolk. She and her followers rode into London nine days later and imprisoned Jane and her supporters. Mary Tudor (1553-1558), Queen Mary also known as ‘Bloody Mary’ took her throne with high hopes of restoring England to Catholicism even though she stated on 12th August ‘she would not compel adherence to her faith.’

    The Reformation had taken firm root throughout Northern Europe and in much of England. Mary set about having Parliament repeal the Act of Supremacy, reinstate heresy laws and petition for reunion with Rome. The Latin Mass was restored and Catholic bishops were reinstated; the burning of ‘heretics’ began and Protestant leaders, men of influence and hundreds of lesser men, women and children who refused to adopt the Catholic faith were martyred – often burnt at the stake.

    Travels in Europe
    John Knox had been preaching and writing anti-Mary sentiment (but did not name her personally) fled to Dieppe, France, and lived in a Scots Colony. By January 1554, he travelled the one thousand kilometres to Geneva in Switzerland arriving in September or October of the same year. Knox had fellowship with John Calvin and had a list of questions that he hoped he would be able to answer. Knox studied the Hebrew language for the first time.

    Frankfurt in Germany had become a safe haven for European Protestants and they flocked there by their thousands; John Knox along with others was invited to be a minister to these wandering sheep and duly arrived in November where he was forced to use Cranmer’s liturgy, but was able to strike a compromise until a fellow preacher arrived who outvoted him on church format. The Frankfurt church council found him guilty of treasonable offences with his anti-establishment rhetoric against Queen Mary of England and referring to the Emperor as like Nero; as it was the Emperor who had granted Frankfurt its safety to harbour Protestants! Knox was forbidden to preach and returned to Geneva with many of his followers in April 1555.

    Knox's Marriage
    In 1549, the marriage of priest’s had become legal and in October 1555, John Knox returned to Edinburgh and married Majority (Elizabeth) Bowles who was twenty years his junior. They had two sons and Knox had corresponded for a long time with her and was especially friendly with her mother (who was nearer Knox’s age).

    John Knox tried to reform the landowner and the minds of the nobility but to no avail, even though he had their backing when in May he was summoned on a heresy charge which was later dropped for fear of an uprising on behalf of the Bishop and the Queen Mother, Mary of Guise. Knox even sent her a letter asking her to become Protestant. Knox was then invited back to Geneva, which he accepted. Before he left, he drew up a manifesto for Scots Protestants to follow, especially in the matter of regular Bible reading. Knox arrived in Geneva in September 1556; but then some Scottish nobility sent word to him to return to Scotland so he travelled back to France only to be told that perhaps now was not a good time to return and so headed back to Geneva! By December 1557, Knox had become a joint minister of an English-speaking congregation from where he verbally and by pen ‘attacked’ those who had opposed him much to the embarrassment of John Calvin. In England, Queen Mary had died; to much relief and jubilation of her realm.

    Queen Elizabeth I
    Queen Elizabeth I of England ascended the throne of England (1558-1603); she was the daughter of the late Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. The queen needed the support of the common people to help her cut her ties with Rome, the majority of whom were overwhelmingly Protestant and anti-Rome. She did allow some of the ceremonies associated with Catholicism to remain. Later on, her Protestant faith resulted in her excommunication. The communion service could be a Mass for those who wished. She chose the middle road of the Anglican Church, rather than accepts the harsh doctrines of such men as Calvin and Knox. The Reformation in Scotland had taken a much different path than it was to take in England after Mary, for Elizabeth was no Calvinist, remaining the head of the Church. Her Supremacy Bill and the Uniformity Bills of 1559, which made the Church of England law, substituted fines and penalties for disobedience instead of burnings and banishment.

    Spokesperson for the Scottish Reformation
    John Knox returned alone to Scotland as the spokesperson of the Reformation in May 1559 and headed for Dundee, Scotland. Scotland was on the edge of a civil, religious war and many preachers including Knox were outlawed by a proclamation in Glasgow. England, under her new Queen and government were encouraging the Reformation as England still wanted to get Scotland under her control. The Scottish nobility were all jostling for position and swapping sides when it suited them the most while the Queen Regent, Mary of Guise, was looking to the French for help and wanted her realm to remain purely Catholic. In these days of civil and noble unrest, many treaties and truces were made and broken or conveniently forgotten.

    John Knox carried on preaching and stirred up the congregations when preaching on topics such as Jesus cleansing the Temple and tearing down the high places. Knox even went on a secret mission to England to try to raise more support to overthrow the ‘evil regime.’ By September 1559, Knox’s family returned to Scotland where his wife, Marjory died in 1560 or 1561 and his two young children were brought up by his mother-in-law in Edinburgh. Knox sat on the council of the Kirk (the established Protestant Scottish Church as opposed to the Roman Catholic Church) which was situated in St. Andrews (which was still the Catholic headquarters) where they administered biblical justice for moral offences.

    Scottish Church and State
    Church attendance was compulsory for those who professed to be Protestant, many Catholic priests converted and admission tokens were distributed to the believers, which provided an accurate way of checking attendance. John Knox and his fellow godly revolutionaries had been preparing the Scots Confession and the First Book of Discipleship which outlined how the ‘new’ state would run in social, civil and legal matters (the Discipleship Book never came into effect).

    On the 6th July 1560, the Treaty of Edinburgh was signed between the French and the English; all French troops had to leave Scotland and the question of state religion was referred to the Scottish Parliament. The Reformation was well on its way in theory but Queen Mary would not ratify the treaty and offered her obedience to the newly elected Pope Pius IV, whilst her husband King Francis was persecuting the French Protestants.

    On 15th August 1560, Scotland officially became a Protestant state with the mass outlawed and the Popes' jurisdiction denied. However, it was not until 1567 that the Acts of 1560 were ratified when the Queen was forced to abdicate. However, the question of who financed the new church was left undone even though the old Catholic Church could still legally demand church income. The Queen refused to endorse the policies of the Reformation Parliament but nonetheless on the 20th December 1560, the first General Assembly of the new church met in Edinburgh. Mary, the eighteen year old daughter of Mary of Guise arrived from France and was crowned Queen Mary of Scots.

    Catholic Queen Mary of Scots
    The new Catholic Queen passed a law which stated the religion was to stay the same without fear of death, but legally it could be argued that either Protestant or the Catholic belief were correct as reforms had been passed without royal ratification. Five times, John Knox spoke to the new Queen and on one occasion even reduced her to tears as they both had opposing views, especially concerning her marriage to be.

    From 1562, the Scottish Catholics became more outspoken against the Protestant state and Jesuit priests held secret meetings with the Queen. John Knox travelled as a preacher but still held his pulpit in St. Giles. When groups of Roman Catholics were arrested for religious offences the Queen would intervene to seek their release. The Queen had to ask the nobles permission before she married and they were encouraging her to marry a Protestant noble. John Knox remarried in March 1564 to Margaret Steward and they had three daughters.

    On the 29th July 1565, Queen Mary of Scots married the Catholic Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, and assumed the role of King and his head even appeared on the coinage. John Knox preached on a few occasions while Darnley was in attendance and referred to him as Ahab and the Queen as Jezebel! The Privy Council would not allow him to preach in Edinburgh when the King and Queen were present. Within the first decade of the Scottish Reformation, one thousand churches sprang into being, but due to the lack of finances, not enough ministers could be fully employed; many lay readers filled the gap. In the last couple of years, there was much starvation among the commoners and John Knox appealed to the Queen to surrender her 33% share of church income that came from the nobility’s tithe to which she declined. Therefore, he turned to the middle classes for voluntary contributions to help support the struggling ministers.

    Overthrow of the Scottish Monarch
    In early 1566, the mentally unstable King Henry Darnley had become jealous of Mary’s Italian advisor Rizzio, and had him murdered along with a Friar called John Black. John Knox was alleged to be in on the plot and fled to England for several months, before returning. Mary gave birth to a son, and Prince James was baptised a Catholic.

    In February 1567, the King was assassinated and in late April the Queen was kidnapped by the married Earl Bothwell. Bothwell obtained a quick divorce and an annulment for good measures and on May 15th they were married under a Protestant ceremony. In June 1567, an army of rebels led by the nobles attacked and called Mary to renounce Bothwell which she refused. In the same year, there was a failed assassination attempt on John Knox's life when a shot was fired through his window. Bothwell fled into exile to the Orkneys in Scotland and Mary was incarcerated in Loch Leven Castle, Scotland. John Knox called for her death but she was forced to abdicate by the Lords in favour of her infant son who was crowned James VI on the 29th July and John Knox preached at the coronation.

    In December 1567, the Scottish Parliament endorsed all that had been done in 1561 and all future kings were to give an oath at their coronation to govern by the written Word of God. All officers of state were to be Protestants and all schoolteachers had to be approved by the church.

    On May 2nd 1568, Queen Mary escaped and took refuge among some nobility, the Hamilton’s. On the 17th May, a battle took place between the Queens' forces and the infant Kings Lords. The King side won and Mary fled to England and received shelter from her cousin Queen Elizabeth I, but both parties continued to fight on and off until on the 31st July 1572 when they agreed a truce.

    Knox Last Years
    John Knox had a stroke in 1571 and on the 24th November 1572, Knox passed into glory. He had prophesied his own death only a week before by ordering his coffin and by purchasing a new hogshead of wine and encouraging his guest to drink freely since he would not live to finish it. In his lifetime, John Knox was known as a prophet and it was said that Queen Mary feared his prayers more than she feared the English Army. John Knox was buried in the churchyard adjoining St. Giles; today it is a car park for the Court of Sessions and a plaque on space forty-four denotes the spot. John Knox's influence in the Scottish Reformation and beyond was honoured by a monument in Geneva, Switzerland to the European Reformers. In 1586, Mary conspired in the Babington plot to kill Queen Elizabeth and was beheaded.

    Scotland and England United
    When Queen Elizabeth I died, James I from the house of Stuart (1603-1625) in Scotland was declared King of both England and Scotland. He greatly favoured a union of the two kingdoms and the new national flag, the Union flag, bore the crosses of St. Andrew and St. George. But though the Estates passed an Act of Union in 1607, it wasn’t until 1707 that a treaty was signed. James’ attempted to impose the Five Articles on the Scots, dealing with matters of worship and religious observances were met with strong opposition. He pushed through his reforms in 1618; they were ignored throughout Scotland. James issued a new translation of the Bible, and in 1611 The King James Bible (the Authorised Version) was completed.

    2011, saw the 400th anniversary of the publication of this Bible and in November, a special service was held in Westminster Abbey, London, England; the bells pealed out in celebration as had happened on the 29th April when there had been the royal wedding of Prince William and Catherine ‘Kate’ Middleton.

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