JOHN KNOX (1514?-1572)
The fourth huge limestone figures on the Wall of the Reformation in the Parc des Bastions in Geneva is of John Knox. Why should the leader of the Scottish Reformation be commemorated in Geneva? In fact, he did spend a short time there.
Very little is known about his early life. Those who have studied the subject assume that he was born into a farming community to the east of Edinburgh, Scotland, in about 1514. It is equally assumed that he trained as a priest, probably at St Andrews. What is known is that by 1540 he was a priest working in the village where it is believed he was born, and he was well viewed by the (Catholic) church authorities.
Nevertheless, at about this time the Protestant Reform that was sweeping through Europe was finally brought to Scotland by a man called George Wishart. By 1545 John Knox had become one of Wishart’s close friends and allies. But these were tumultuous times as Protestants and Catholics fought bloodily for control of the Christian church. The following year the Archbishop of St Andrews had George Wishart arrested and burnt at the stake for heresy. The martyrdom of Wishart was quickly avenged, for a few weeks later the Archbishop himself was murdered by a group of Protestants. The castle of St Andrews then became the headquarters of the Protestant movement in Scotland.
John Knox would normally have led a quiet academic life, except that in April 1547 he came to the castle of St Andrews accompanied by his little group of scholars-an obscure and unknown teacher. But the sermons he preached electrified the garrison and they at once recognized that the great leader of the Scottish Protestants had arrived. After initial resistance and an internal struggle with himself, Knox finally accepted that he had been chosen by God to assume this role.
However, the Catholic authorities had asked France for some troops and when they arrived they quickly captured the castle of St Andrews and sent all of its occupants into captivity as galley slaves. Some nineteen months later, through the intervention of the English government, Knox was released-but his health was permanently impaired.
There followed an interlude in England, where the government of the boy-king Edward VII was desperate to recruit enthusiastic Protestant preachers. Knox was sent all over England and was even for a time a preacher at the royal court. At this time he married. He was offered important posts in the religious hierarchy, but refused. He was one of the founders of Puritanism, but used his influence to stop England breaking up into numerous religious sects.
But then in 1553 Edward VII died at the age of 15 and his sister Mary Tudor became Queen of England. She was a fierce Catholic and the Protestant leaders fled for their lives. Many who stood firm were burned at the stake. Knox took refuge in Frankfurt and then Geneva. He noted that the fate of religion often depended on the personal whims of an ’ungodly’ monarch-even worse ’a woman’! ’The exercise of authority by a woman,’ he stormed, ’is contrary to natural law!’ (This declaration was to go down very badly with (the Protestant) Queen Elizabeth I who followed her sister Mary Tudor to the English throne.) He went so far as to suggest that the Protestant religion must be preserved by force if necessary. In Geneva, Jean Calvin and Th?odore de B?ze were more inclined to patience and prayer. But Knox came to the fateful decision that the church leaders should
resist-by whatever means necessary-any ruler who threatened their religious beliefs.
For four short years-from 1555 to 1559-Knox was minister to the English-speaking exiles living in Geneva. Here he spent the happiest years of his life, esteemed by all around him. However, in Scotland Protestantism was spreading like wildfire, fanned by Knox’s frequent letters from Geneva.
Scotland was falling apart with religious and civil discord. The situation became such that the regent of Scotland, Mary of Guise, decided to rid her country once and for all of Protestants. She summoned the Protestant leaders to appear before her. Suspecting a trap, they called Knox back from Geneva. He arrived post-haste in May 1559 and immediately inspired his followers to take up arms. Mary of Guise once more called in French troops. In the autumn and winter of 1559 the Scottish Protestants had a tough time. Finally, Queen Elizabeth I of England, realizing that if the Catholics won Scotland they would win England too, sent troops who chased the French out of the
At this point, Mary of Guise died, to be succeeded by her Catholic daughter, Mary Queen of Scots. But before she could arrive from France in 1561 Knox had forged the Reformed Church of Scotland into a sturdy, autonomous institution, capable of resisting any royal command.
Mary Queen of Scots was inclined to be tolerant of people’s religious beliefs, but John Knox was a fanatical Protestant and developed a deep hatred for her. Finally, after a tumultuous existence Mary abdicated in 1567 (see box).
Knox’s first wife having died, in 1564 (when he was presumably 50 years old) he married Margaret Stewart, the 17-year-old daughter of an
impoverished aristocratic family. His Catholic enemies accused him of gross immorality, but since no law had been broken his reputation as a Puritan remained intact.
The religious battles were not over for there followed further bitter struggles between Catholics and Protestants, during which Knox suffered a paralytic stroke. Despite this, in 1572, he dragged himself to the pulpit to preach in a white-hot rage against the enemies of his church. In November of that year he died. Eventually, Protestant Presbyterianism became the official religion of Scotland.
Knox was a remarkable preacher, convincing his hearers with the force of his words and building Scottish Presbyterianism on a faith as firm as rock. He has also been described as a biased and bigoted zealot.
MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS (1542-1587)
Upon the death of her father, James V, Mary became Queen of Scotland when she was one week old. At the age of 17 she became Queen of France when her husband, Fran?ois II, acceded to the throne. He died eighteen months later. Had she wanted it, she could very easily have married a Spanish Prince and become Queen of Spain. But what she wanted most-and what would lead to her undoing-was to be Queen of England. Mary was tall, beautiful, intelligent, full of vitality and nineteen years old when she returned to Scotland from France in 1561 to become Queen of Scotland again. She wanted peace and prosperity for her people, and was opposed to religious persecution. But it all went terribly wrong. Mary was virtually powerless as ruthless and unscrupulous nobles fought for political power. Since she was a Catholic, the Protestant leader John Knox treated her with ferocious contempt. A horrifying series of ill-fated marriages, imprisonments, murders, kidnappings, escapes and battles ended with a fugitive Mary asking Queen Elizabeth I for refuge in England in May 1568. In the process she had produced an infant son and abdicated in his favour. This son would later become James VI of Scotland and James I of England. Mary represented a threat to the Protestant Elizabeth I since she was the closest Catholic claimant to the English throne. She was kept in comfortable captivity in England for nineteen years and then beheaded for plotting to overthrow Elizabeth I.