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John Knox (1514-1572)
John Knox, was the foremost leader of the Scottish Reformation and therefore a leading Scot whose influence has lasted to this day. Knox studied for the Catholic priesthood (he was later to call the Catholic Church "the synagogue of Satan"), yet it was his influence, above that of all others, that set the austere moral tone of the Church of Scotland. In addition and perhaps in the long run of more importance, is his shaping of the democratic form of government of the church, a form later mirrored in the government of the state itself.

It is not too much of a surprise to find that the Reformation took hold of Scotland so readily while, at the same time, it failed to influence Ireland. It was the Scottish Lowlands where most of the wealth and power of Scotland was concentrated; it was here that commerce thrived and it was here that English influence was most felt. It was indeed a fertile ground for the spread of Protestantism.

Much has been written about the corruption of the Scottish Church, the wealth amassed by a few leading Bishops and the ignorance of most of the clergy. Suffice to say, that when the newly translated Scriptures were appearing in England, they were eagerly welcomed over the northern border. English influence and settlement had been so pervasive in the Lowlands that, unlike the situation in Wales, an English language Bible had an immediate impact in Scotland, fostering a spontaneous movement of popular dissent that can be called revolutionary.

As in many parts of Europe, the answer of the established Church to the spread of new ideas was to execute those who brought them. Patrick Hamilton thus became an early Scottish martyr when he was slowly roasted to death on the orders of the Bishop of St. Andrews in 1528. The fires that burned under Hamilton, however, spread throughout much of the country. It was up to Cardinal Bishop David Beaton, who had ordered them, to try to extinguish them. This proved to be a futile attempt in the face of a whirlwind: Father John Knox had arrived on the scene.

The young priest Knox, who had been born in East Lothian and educated at St. Andrew's arrived back in Scotland in 1544 with Protestant leader George Wishart, who had sought refuge on the continent to escape the eager clutches of Bishop Beaton. In addition to his Bible, Knox managed to carry a huge, two-handed sword. He came to conquer with the Word, however, not the sword. He had been well taught by the teachings of Thomas Gwilliam, the former prior of the Black Friar's Monastery at Inverness. The eager pupil's zeal in winning converts gave rise to a period known as The Rough Wooing.

Henry VIII of England (still called himself "the defender of the faith" despite the many reforms being carried out by his lieutenant Thomas Cromwell) had offered a large reward for the murder of Cardinal Beaton. On a charge of participation in Henry's plot, and for collaboration with the English, the prelate had Wishart burned at the stake in 1546. Two months later came revenge; the last words spoken by the Cardinal were "Fie, Fie, All is gone" as he was stabbed to death and his body thrown from a window of his castle at St. Andrews by a group of Protestant leaders.

For his part in the assassination of the Bishop, the young John Knox, captured with the other conspirators with the aid of a French fleet ordered by Marie de Guise, was ordered to slave in the ships' galleys, no doubt to await further dispensation. He was released two years later with enthusiasm undimmed. Often traveling incognito, in times of danger he used the name John Sinclair (after his mother's maiden name).

Henry VIII of England died in 1547. His son Edward VI was destined to die early. Strange as it seems in retrospect, it looked as if the Protestant movement in Scotland would not succeed, especially since the Council of Trent had begun the Church's long-awaited, sorely needed and far-reaching reforms. More important than that, however, was the assumption of the Regency in Scotland by non other than the Catholic Marie de Guise and the inauguration of a reform-minded Bishop to succeed the murdered Beaton.

In Scotland, as in many countries in northern Europe, efforts to turn back the clock and restore the old religion were all too late. Single-minded, hard-nosed individuals determined to end the corruption of the Church had been inspired by "the Word" and John Knox was, perhaps, the most inspired of all. King Edward 's government sent him back to Scotland to preach. When the extreme Protestant Duke of Northumberland assumed virtual rule of England, Knox was free to spread his message. Thousands flocked to his call and eagerly accepted his teachings.

Upon the accession of the Roman Catholic Mary Tudor to the throne in 1553, Knox once again had to flee the country. He spent some time in Geneva, sopping up with unbridled enthusiasm the teachings of John Calvin and arguing that the fate of the Reformation in England should not depend upon the whims of one woman, let alone a Catholic ruler. He formulated the policy that magistrates and the nobility have the right and the duty to resist by force such rulers who threaten the safety of "true religion." He returned to Scotland to continue his work in 1559, being warmly received in a country that had rapidly accepted his teachings. He then returned to his beloved Geneva, but leaving behind his polemics against the three women who were in control of government in England, France and Scotland.

Before Knox's return to Geneva, the Protestant lords had signed their famous Covenant to foster and defend the faith and its ministers. After Spain and France ceased hostilities in 1559, Mary de Guise, the regent in Scotland saw her chance to invite French intervention to prevent the spread of the Protestant faith in Scotland. She summoned the Protestant leaders to Stirling, Knox returned home and the crisis began.

Mary de Guise wished to depose Elizabeth I of England and unite the three kingdoms under Francis II, of France and Mary Tudor. It was therefore necessary for the English Crown, despite its earlier reservations, to come to an agreement with the Scottish Protestant lords. Secretary Cecil needed no convincing, but it was Knox's leadership that saved the day in Scotland, where French armies were doing their best to exterminate Protestant strongholds. Elizabeth finally sent an army north. The Queen regent died and the French lost heart to continue the struggle in a most unwelcome climate. Under Knox's direction, with Queen Mary absent in France, the Scottish lords (in the Parliament or Estates) adopted the Scots Confession as the faith of the country; papal jurisdiction was abolished and the mass prohibited.

Knox's Liturgy, laid out in The Book of Common Prayer became the rule of the day. Rules for government of the church were specified and in The Book of Discipline an elaborate educational scheme was outlined, from elementary to university level. Then Queen Mary arrived back in Scotland in 1561 a sworn enemy of John Knox and all he stood for. The Privy Council, however, refused to convict him on her charge of treason. She then dismissed her Protestant advisors but in 1567 her abdication and the murder of the Earl of Moray led to the bitter struggle between the various factions. Even after suffering a debilitating stroke, John Knox managed to deliver a powerful sermon at St. Giles Church in Edinburgh that warned his people of the dangers of a return to Catholicism. It struck home. The Massacre of French Protestants on St. Bartholomew's Day had imprinted its severe warning on northern Europe.

Though he had earlier studied for the Catholic priesthood, the dynamic Knox as the foremost leader of the Scottish Reformation set the austere moral tone of the Church of Scotland. It was he who inserted into The Book of Common Prayer the denial of the doctrine of trans-substantiation. To his credit, seeing the dangers inherent in sectarianism, he insisted that the Puritan movement, which he did much to foster, stay within the English Church.

More important, however, was Knox's shaping of the democratic form of government that the church adopted, for it was a form later mirrored in the government of the state itself. Knox, thoroughly anglicized in speech and outlook, did much to extend English political and cultural influence in a land where the Gaelic religion and way of life were increasingly being pushed aside. As far as the Reformation is concerned, Knox's greatest work came as a pamphleteer. As G. Donaldson points out (in Daiches), almost one third of his History of the Reformation in Scotland consists of documentsand his pre-eminence may be due more to his autobiography, History of His Own Times, than to his actual work in the field. logo
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