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John Knox, born between 1505-1515

Although his years of involvement in the Reformation spanned approximately 30 years, few people made a greater impact on the movement in Scotland than John Knox (b. between 1505 and 1515). He spent the first 40 years of his life as a priest and a tutor but joined the Reformation movement through the influence of the Scottish reformer George Wishart. Knox plunged into the life of a reformer after the death of his mentor, but his work at the Protestant haven of St. Andrews was cut off when he and several others were taken as prisoners by the French.

With the help of English authorities, Knox was freed from the life of a French galley slave. He was able to work as a preacher in England with the help of English patrons, but this was once again cut off when the Catholic princess Mary Tudor became Queen in 1553. With his life in danger, Knox fled to Geneva and spent some time in Frankfurt. He went back to Geneva after some time and served as a preacher to the English refugees.

He came home to Scotland in 1559 and helped organize the Scottish Church during the reign of Mary, Queen of Scots. Civil war engulfed Scotland during his final years, but he continued to preach, write, and work to promote the Reformation in the kingdom. Knox died of natural causes on November 24, 1572.  These events are recorded on the Bible Timeline Poster with World History during that time.

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Early Years

John Knox was born in the Scottish town of Haddington between 1505 and 1515, near the city of Edinburgh. He was the son of a man named William Knox who possibly worked as a farmer or a merchant. His mother died when he was young, and his father remarried soon after.

The younger Knox received a Catholic education in a school at Haddington for the first seventeen years of his life. His father later sent John to the University of Glasgow to study divinity when he reached eighteen. He studied under the Catholic theologian John Major and went on to study at the University of Saint Andrews after his stint at Glasgow. It was also during this time that the Reformation spread in many areas of Scotland with the help of the Scottish reformer Patrick Hamilton.

From Catholicism to Protestantism

John Knox was ordained as a priest between 1531 and 1532 and then served as a notary nine years later. In 1545, he worked as a tutor in East Lothian to the son of John Cockburn, laird of Ormiston and the sons of Hugh Douglas, laird of Longniddry. Both lairds were known to be sympathetic to the Reformation movement in Scotland. It was during this time that he met the Scottish reformer George Wishart who had just returned from his exile in Europe.

Wishart had been preaching in East Lothian when he met John Knox in 1545. Knox soon became his disciple, and later served as Wishart’s bodyguard after an assassination attempt ordered by Cardinal Beaton. In 1546, an agitated Wishart preached in Haddington with Knox as his sword-bearer. He had already been condemned to be burned at the stake so he was fearful for his disciple’s life. Wishart convinced Knox to return to his work as a tutor so that the authorities would not go after him.

Knox followed his mentor’s advice with a heavy heart and went back to Longniddry. The authorities arrested Wishart soon after and he was once again tried and sentenced to death. Wishart was hanged and burned on the 1st of March 1546 in St. Andrews Castle in front of Cardinal Beaton. The cardinal was killed three months later when Protestants from Fife stormed the castle in revenge for Wishart’s death.

Cardinal Beaton’s death angered the Catholic authorities who soon targeted Knox himself. Knox, along with his students, moved constantly between 1546 and 1547 to avoid arrest. He requested the lairds to allow him to flee to Europe, but they refused. In spite of the danger, Knox continued to teach their sons while they were on the move. After some time, the lairds suggested that Knox and their sons hide in the St. Andrews Castle. The Protestants, by then, had converted Cardinal Beaton’s home into their own stronghold after his death. Knox agreed to move, and they arrived at St. Andrews at Easter of 1547.

St. Andrews, by then, was home to a ragtag group of people which included earnest Protestants, lairds, soldiers, preachers, women, and assassins. John Rough, the former chaplain to Governor Arran (James Hamilton), came to live at St. Andrews and discovered Knox’s talent for preaching. Rough, along with Sir David Lyndsay and Henry Balnaves, soon convinced him to preach to the residents of the castle.

The somewhat timid (and prone to tears) Knox refused many times by saying that preaching was not his calling. Besides, he did not have experience in preaching as he worked for many years as a tutor and a notary. He gave in only after Rough preached against the dangers of not answering God’s call and admonished him in front of a crowd.

Knox’s timidity disappeared whenever he stood behind the pulpit. He echoed Luther’s belief on sola fide (“faith alone”) and sola scriptura (“Scriptures alone”). He also started to challenge the Pope’s authority, the existence of Purgatory, and the benefits of praying for the dead. Because of his preaching, many people joined the bands of refugees in the St. Andrews Castle.

The Galley Slave

Knox’s role as a preacher in St. Andrews, however, did not last long. On June 29, 1547, twenty-one French war galleys appeared off the coast of St. Andrews. The galleys were under the command of Admiral Leone Strozzi (cousin of the Queen of France, Catherine de Medici) who immediately ordered the French forces to attack the residents of the castle. The French forces were initially unsuccessful, but an epidemic broke out in the castle which only weakened the defenders. With no hope or allies in sight, the Scottish defenders finally surrendered more than one month after the appearance of the French fleet.

The French forces then took Knox and other inhabitants of the castle and loaded them aboard the galleys. It was far from a pleasure cruise as Knox and his fellow Scots were now galley slaves. They were commanded to row the galleys back to France and were separated when they arrived. Those who belonged to the nobility were sent to Rouen, while Knox and his companions remained as galley slaves.

The French tried their best to get the Scottish prisoners to embrace Catholicism but to no avail. Life as a galley slave took its toll on Knox’s health. In 1548, a feverish Knox and several prisoners were made to row back to the coast near St. Andrews to look for English ships that the French preyed on. When a fellow prisoner named James Balfour asked him if he recognized the place, Knox replied that he remembered the steeple of St. Andrews and that was where he first preached. He vowed that in spite of his illness, he would not die without preaching once again at St. Andrews.

The Exile in England

John Knox was a notable figure in the Scottish Reformation movement, as well as the founder of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland.

John Knox worked as a galley slave until he was freed in early 1549 when relations between the French and the Scots warmed. By then, the kingdom of Scotland (with French support) was already engulfed in a war against England (the Rough Wooing) because of the infant queen Mary Stuart betrothal to the French prince Francis (later Francis II). This betrothal was opposed by King Henry VIII who wanted her to marry his heir, Edward VI.

Apart from the warming relations with the French, it was possible that the Protestant Duke of Somerset and Lord Protector Edward Seymour had a hand in Knox’s release. The Duke was keen on using Knox to strengthen the Reformation in Northumberland, so the Scottish preacher was allowed to stay in England upon his release. The Privy Council even issued him a license to preach in the English border town of Berwick in summer of 1549.

Berwick was the temporary home of English soldiers and foreign mercenaries during the Rough Wooing period. More importantly, however, it was a haven for Scottish Protestant refugees with whom Knox found a home. Anti-Scot sentiments were rampant in this poverty-stricken border town, but strangely, it was here that Knox was said to be at his happiest. Ministering to the refugees took up most up of his time, but he was able to spend the rest of it studying and recovering from his stint as a galley slave. He also became a spiritual mentor for Elizabeth Bowes and her daughter (Knox’s future wife), Marjorie Bowes, during his stay in Berwick.

Knox was well-liked by his congregation in Berwick. His style of preaching was similar to modern Protestant preaching, and he adopted the Calvinist belief on the nature of the bread and wine. He also introduced a more egalitarian way of receiving the bread and wine. He did this by stepping down from the pulpit and sitting with the congregation to receive the elements.

The authorities of the Church of England felt that Knox’s innovation strayed from The Book of Common Prayer, so he was immediately summoned to Newcastle to explain himself. He met with Bishop Tunstall on April 4, 1550, and successfully defended his position on receiving communion. His fame as a preacher spread, and he was soon transferred to St. Nicholas Church in Newcastle.

In 1552, Knox became one of the six chaplains to King Edward VI despite the fall from grace of his patron, the Duke of Somerset. The controversy regarding his belief in the nature of the bread and wine (as well as his innovations on communion) were far from over. This time, however, his refusal to kneel during communion became the subject for debate.

He came to London with his other patron, the Earl of Northumberland, to defend his views before the church authorities. He told them that he refused to kneel because it was an act of idolatry. The divided authorities were forced to create a committee to judge the validity of his belief. In the end, the committee decided that kneeling would be allowed during the communion, but it was only optional.

Happy that Knox was temporarily out of trouble, the Earl of Northumberland then suggested that he be appointed as the new Bishop of Rochester. Knox declined this politically-motivated offer, and promptly returned to Newcastle. The Earl was stung with his refusal, but they remained on good terms even after the incident.

In late 1552, news of King Edward VI’s illness and impending death reached Knox and alarmed him. If the Protestant King Edward died, he would then be succeeded by his sister, the Catholic Princess Mary, to the throne. Her succession only meant renewed violence against Protestants. In spite of his fears, he temporarily put them out of his mind to arrange his engagement (or possible marriage) to Marjorie Bowes. He also refused the offer of vicarship in London because of his disinterest in politics and his insistence on staying independent.

In early 1553, Knox returned to London to deliver one last sermon to the dying king. His sermon offended some of Edward’s advisers, and Knox was soon sent to a remote village in Buckinghamshire as punishment. Edward VI died on June 6, 1553, and he was soon succeeded by his sister, the Princess Mary. Even in his remote village, Knox delivered a scathing sermon against Mary and her intended groom, Philip II of Spain.

News of the sermon eventually reached the Catholic Queen and Knox’s life was once again in danger. He fled Buckinghamshire and traveled north until he reached Newcastle on November 22, 1553. He tried to go to Berwick to see Marjorie, but his friends stopped him as it was too dangerous. With Catholicism back in the mainstream, Knox was forced to leave England for France as an exile. The wanderer arrived in Dieppe in Normandy in February 1554.

The Marian Exile

Knox knew France was not a safe place for him, so he quickly traveled to Geneva to seek refuge. John Calvin welcomed Knox warmly, but the Scottish refugee did not stay long. Knox had asked Calvin his views on Queen Mary Tudor’s right to rule, but the latter was not willing to dip his toes into a new controversy. Knox then traveled to Zurich and posed the same question to Heinrich Bullinger, but he fared no better.

He went back to Geneva, but Calvin would not give the answer that he was looking for. He went back to Dieppe, and despite Calvin and Bullinger’s reluctance to answer the issue, Knox had his mind made up. He wrote and published a pamphlet in the middle of 1554 criticizing Queen Mary, the Catholic bishops of England, and the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.

He went back to Geneva and stayed there for a short while before he joined some English refugees in Frankfurt. The city, however, was embroiled in a dispute between the local Lutherans and Calvinist refugees. Despite this existing conflict, Knox accepted the Calvinists’ offer for him to serve as their minister during the autumn of 1554. These refugees had been using the Book of Common Prayer, but with a few innovations of their own. Another group of refugees arrived in Frankfurt, but this set strictly followed the Book of Common Prayer.

The disagreement on the Book of Common Prayer turned into a new conflict. To resolve the issue, Knox and his colleague William Whittingham were forced to send a letter to Calvin to ask him for views. Calvin sent the Frankfurt congregation a stern warning against the division and advised Knox to settle on a compromise. Knox did as he was advised, but conflict rose once again when Richard Cox (one of the authors of the Book of Common Prayer) arrived and protested the changes. To maintain peace, the authorities in Frankfurt finally advised Knox to leave the city.

Knox left Frankfurt on March 26, 1555, and went back to Geneva to serve as a minister there. He then received a letter from his mother-in-law asking him to see her daughter Marjorie. He left Geneva and returned to Scotland in August of the same year in spite of the dangers he faced to see his wife. He then went on a preaching tour and promoted the Reformed beliefs advocated by his friend Calvin.

He met influential Scottish noblemen along the way, and they became his supporters when he was summoned by the authorities upon the request of the bishops. The meeting was canceled, but the Scottish authorities could not deny that Knox now had an influential base. He left Scotland once again, but this time he took his wife and mother-in-law with him back to Geneva. They arrived in Calvin’s city in late 1556.

Knox and His Family in Geneva

Knox served as a minister to English and Italian refugees while living in exile in Geneva. It was not only the birthplace of his sons but it was also a popular destination for English refugees. He considered the years spent in Geneva the most peaceful in his life, but he continued his harsh criticism of female rulers while he was living there. He specifically targeted the French-born Scottish regent Mary of Guise and Queen Mary Tudor of England in his pamphlet The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstruous Regiment of Women.

In Scotland

Knox returned to Scotland when he received a plea to come home from Scottish Protestant noblemen and preachers. They had been summoned to appear before Mary of Guise and they desperately needed his support. He and his family left Geneva in January of 1559 to be with his countrymen, but the pamphlet he wrote in 1558 came back to haunt him. It had reached and offended Queen Elizabeth I of England, so his request for a safe conduct pass was refused. It was not until May of 1559 that he and his family finally arrived in Scotland.

He was soon declared an outlaw by Mary of Guise, but he still traveled several miles to preach at St John the Baptist Church in Perth. What started out as a sermon soon turned into a riot, and the Queen was forced to send troops to control the crowd. Knox fled to St. Andrews and delivered a sermon in the area, but it once again descended into a riot.

The chaos soon spread to other parts of Scotland, so the Queen was forced to send her troops to check the Protestant rebels. She became distracted when news of the death of King Henry II reached her. She was now one of the most powerful women in Europe, thanks to her brothers who took a lion’s share of the power upon the king’s death. Apart from her brothers, the French queen regent’s influence also grew when her daughter (the future Mary, Queen of Scots) married Henry II’s heir, Francis II, in 1558.

Queen Elizabeth I felt that England was in a dangerous position as it was wedged between an unstable Scotland and Catholic France. Knox used the danger of French incursion in Scotland to appeal for some support from the English queen. She still felt the sting of Knox’s criticism of female rulers, so it was not until 1560 when Elizabeth allowed her troops to intervene in Scotland. The French queen regent died in the same year, so the French troops were forced withdraw from Scotland. With Scotland temporarily at peace, Knox was able to focus on transforming the Church of Scotland along the lines of the Reformed theology.

The Scottish Reformed Church and the Reign of Mary, Queen of Scots

The Scottish Parliament decided to resolve the country’s religious issues once and for all, so they summoned Knox and other ministers to write a confession of faith on August 1, 1560. Knox handed the text of the Scots Confession to the Parliament several days later, and it was soon approved. The Parliament also commissioned Knox to head the creation of a new Scottish Church.

However, his efforts to organize the Scottish church was put on hold when his wife Marjorie died in December 1560. Apart from her grief-stricken husband, Marjorie left behind two young sons. Knox resumed his efforts to organize a Scottish church by writing the Book of Discipline in 1561. In this book, Knox outlined his plans for the Scottish Church, but the Parliament put it on hold to wait for the arrival of Mary, the Queen of Scots, from France.

The young queen was raised in Catholic France, so Knox knew that they would one day come to blows. One of her servants was harassed during the celebration of Mass several weeks after her arrival, so she immediately issued a proclamation forbidding the Scots to interfere with her servants. She also reassured her people that she would not meddle when it comes to religious matters.

Mary knew that Knox was a powerful force in Scotland, so she needed to address his involvement with the church and the government head on. She summoned him before her, and the two discussed her role as queen and his roles as her subject and the leader of the Reformation. The discussion solved nothing, and the heated showdowns between the queen and Knox were repeated several times between 1562 and 1563. Knox’s disapproval of Mary’s planned marriage to Don Carlos of Spain became their most bitter disagreement. The frustrated Mary publicly admonished him, but she soon broke down in angry tears. Knox left the queen’s presence with many things unresolved between them.

Knox rubbed salt into Mary’s wound in 1564 by marrying the queen’s young relative, the 17-year old Margaret Stewart. The marriage produced additional bad blood between the two as Mary was not informed of her young relative’s wedding to the elderly Knox. The marriage produced three daughters.

Later Years

Knox’s endless conflict with and rejection of Mary’s rule took their toll on his popularity. The Queen married Lord Darnley in July 1565, but it proved very unpopular among the Scottish people. Knox, too, publicly criticized this marriage during a sermon with the Queen’s husband in attendance. The outraged Darnley walked out, and Knox was soon prohibited by the authorities to preach in the city while the Queen stayed there.

The murder of the Queen’s secretary, David Rizzio, on March 9, 1566, sparked another conflict during her reign. The chaos that ensued in Edinburgh drove Knox to leave the city and seek refuge in Ayrshire. He used the time to finish the History of the Reformation of Scotland which he had worked on since 1559. He returned to Edinburgh when the hostilities died down, but found that Mary’s position had also deteriorated when she nearly married the main suspect in Darnley’s murder.

Mary abdicated in 1567 and was sent to prison soon after. The Scottish nobility crowned her one-year-old son, James VI, as king of Scotland while Lord Moray served as his regent. Mary’s power was greatly reduced, but Knox continued to preach against her and even called for her death. The deposed queen escaped from prison in May 1568, and soon the kingdom was once again plunged into a civil war.

Age had greatly weakened Knox, and he left Edinburgh in 1571 to escape the hostilities. He returned to St. Andrews and resumed preaching there until 1572. The two sides agreed to a ceasefire, so Knox was able to return to Edinburgh in the same year. He preached for the last time in St. Giles and died on November 24, 1572.


Picture by: Theodore Beza, Icones (1580) – Scanned from an old book, Public Domain, Link

Graham, Roderick. John Knox: Man of Action. Edinburgh: St Andrew Press, 2013.

MacCunn, Florence A. John Knox. London: Methuen, 1904.

Muir, Edwin. John Knox: Portrait of a Calvinist. Dallas: Kennikat Press, 1972.

Parker, T.M. The New Cambridge Modern History: The Counter-Reformation and Price Revolution, 1559-1610. Edited by R. B. Wernham. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1968.

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