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Episode 78: John Knox

Episode 78 of the Renaissance English History Podcast is on John Knox. Listen and read the transcript below.

Related episode on Mary Tudor

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Heather Teysko: Hello and welcome to the Renaissance English History Podcast. I’m you’re host Heather Teysko, and I’m a story teller who makes history accessible because I believe it’s a pathway to understanding who we are, our place in the universe, and our connection to our own humanity. This is episode 78, another joint episode with Melita of Tudor Times on John Knox. Just a quick note that the Renaissance English History Podcast is a proud member of the Agora Podcast Network. You can learn more about our network at agorapodcastnetwork.com. And the Agora Podcast of the month is When Diplomacy Fails. He’s got some really special projects going on now celebrating his five year anniversary, so go check that out. Remember, you can get all the links to more information, resources, and sign up for the super awesome mailing list with extra mini-casts, free E-courses, stuff like that at englandcast.com.

Now, let me introduce you to Melita Thomas. Melita is a co-founder and editor of Tudor Times, a website devoted to Tudor and Stuart history in the period from 1485 to 1625. You can find it at tudortimes.co.uk. Melita, who has always been fascinated by history ever since she saw the 1970s series Elizabeth R with Glenda Jackson. Also contributes articles to BBC History Extra and Britain Magazine. We started with her going right into who John Knox is and the history of his life, and then we get into talking about his relationship to women, which is what I know him for. But let’s not judge, let’s just start right with his history of his life.

Melita Thomas: And you have to remember that Scotland, in the years after John Knox was born, was still absolutely shell-shocked from the Battle of Flodden.

And there was a huge amount of political infighting and unrest during the reign of James V. And there was a pro-English party, a pro-French party. The politics of the whole of his life really were efforts of both England and France to control Scotland. He was the son of a merchant. Nobody really knows much about his mother’s background or his father’s family. He had the usual education of a merchant’s son; went to the local church school, went to the grammar school, went to the University of St Andrews. And he became a Catholic priest, which probably most people don’t think of John Knox, but he was actually a Catholic priest.

Heather Teysko: Wow. [crosstalk 00:02:28] You’ve just blown my mind.

Melita Thomas: Yeah. But like most … That was the career for anybody who … Wasn’t going to be a merchant because his brother would have taken over from his father. So anybody who was academic or wanted an office job effectively. Because you couldn’t really do anything else if you weren’t a priest. You could be [inaudible 00:02:49]. But the church and state were very closely interlinked. So he became a priest and he became a notary public, which is an office that still exists today. You taking oaths and you witnessing signatures and so forth. But that was essentially a church job.

There was no official state post. That was what he did. And he continued living quietly being a notary until he was about 30. And then, he heard some preachers. No, preach and reform, as was becoming widespread in Southern Scotland in the early 1540s. And the two chaps he heard, they were a couple of Dominican friars who had moving along the path to reform because the early reformers, of course, all started out as Catholics, but they all moved along a path to a different interpretation of religion. And some of them went further, and some of them came back.

But you couldn’t really easily say somebody was a Catholic or a Protestant at this point. People were moving around on a continuum.

Heather Teysko: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Melita Thomas: Knox heard these two, and then he heard the most …

Probably one of the other most influential man in Scotland on the reformation, a chap called George Wishart. I think I pronounce that correctly, Wishart.

Heather Teysko: Okay.

Melita Thomas: And George Wishart was apparently of an extremely charismatic preacher. And he was preaching the doctrines of reform, and particularly those which had found favor in Switzerland with Bullinger and Calvin; which was a more radical form of Protestantism than the English were dabbling with. Wishart, when Knox heard him, he literally did what they said in the Bible, and he left his home and he left his job, and he followed Wishart. Not for very long because Wishart was arrested, handed over to Cardinal Beaton, who was the Scottish Cardinal, but he was also a rival with the Governor Aaron for the regency of Mary Queen of Scots. Again, there was a lot of political infighting as well as the religious element to it. Wishart was burnt. Some authorities say he was strangled before he was burnt, but others said he was burnt. But whichever it was, it was dreadful.

Heather Teysko: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Melita Thomas: But Wishart had a number of followers, and they laid a plot to assassinate Cardinal Beaton; probably with English help, or almost certainly with English help. Although the English government couldn’t openly be saying to be assassinating people from other countries, but they were involved. This group assassinated Beaton and took over his castle at St Andrews. And Knox … Seems rather odd from our perspective. But Knox, who was by now a tutor to some sons of other men interested in reform, took his pupils and joined the group who were besieged in the castle of St Andrews.

After Beaton had been assassinated, Aaron sent a force to try to recapture the castle.

It was all a bit half-hearted. And this group of reformers, including Knox, were in the castle of St Andrews for getting on for two years. And they were called the Castilians. And rather oddly, they seemed to have a great deal of freedom to come and go within the city and town of St Andrews. And Knox began to gain a reputation amongst the Castilians, themselves, as a preacher. And they decided that he ought to spread his wings and start preaching in the local church.

Heather Teysko: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Melita Thomas: He was initially rather shy about the whole thing, which is … Got to imagine, but … He said, “No, no.” He couldn’t do that. He wasn’t sure that God had called him to be a minister. And it was very important amongst the reformers that ministers were chosen by the people rather than priests at the Catholic church who were effectively imposed from above, in a sense.

Heather Teysko: Okay.

Melita Thomas: It was really important that the congregation called the minister.

Heather Teysko: Okay.

Melita Thomas: The Castilian congregation in the castle and also in the local church called Knox to preach. And he realized that this was God’s voice. And he got up in the pulpit, and he never looked back. He said that when he was preaching, it was God’s voice working through him. He didn’t … I mean, obviously he prepared to a point, but he was one of those people who could just get up and speak. And he was enormously charismatic and effective.

And whether you like the message or you don’t, he breathed new life into Christianity in Scotland, which like much of Europe at the time … The church was corrupt, there was a lot of feeling that all they cared about, all the priests cared about, was worldly power and government, and they weren’t looking after their flock.

Heather Teysko: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Melita Thomas: Knox felt it, and he believed it, and people were converted when they listened to him. He was very, very powerful. After a while, the whole political scene changed, and the French acting for the new regent Mary of Guise. I simplified it a bit, but you know the complicates. The French took a hand and they helped capture the Castle of St Andrews. Knox and his fellow Castilians were put into the French galleys as galley slaves.

In fact, their physical treatment was not much worse than if you were just an ordinary sailor on a ship; but you couldn’t leave, so he was stuck as a galley slave. He endured that for about 18 months. Yes, it ruined his health because obviously the food wasn’t brilliant and his digestion suffered ever after. But clearly, he was a man of enormous physical endurance, as well. Towards the end of the 18 months … 18 months after he’d been captured, there was a change of government in England.

Henry VIII died, and the new government of Edward VI was very much more Protestant in its outlook. Henry had broken with the Roman Catholic hierarchy, but religion in England had stayed much the same. But now, it moved into a much more Protestant vein. Government of England asked the government of France to release the galley slaves as part of negotiations between England and France.Knox was released, and he was given a license to preach in England, moved to England, and began preaching first in Berwick, and then in Newcastle. And he built up quite a following.

He became engaged to a lady named Margery Bowes. Her mother, Elizabeth, was one of Knox’s closest friends for the rest of their lives. Margery’s father disapproved, but he eventually agreed to them being betrothed, but they weren’t married at this point. Knox then started preaching in front of Edward VI in the court, but he was in conflict with Cranmer, who was less radical. And there was a huge row about the prayerbook of 1552. Knox wanted it to be made … Well, Knox didn’t want people to kneel to take communion, and Cranmer did.

And Cranmer was very angry and Knox would try to undermine it, and he insisted that kneeling stayed. But they added in a little paragraph called The Black Rubric, which emphasized that kneeling was a sign of respect, it wasn’t anything to do with the Catholic interpretation of the communion.

But Knox, although lots of people admired him, he was felt to be rather troublesome. And the Duke of Northumberland, having offered him Bishop of Rochester and been refused, sort of washed his hands of him saying that he was, “Neither grateful nor pleasurable.” [inaudible 00:10:22] pleased.

Knox went back to the north to continue preaching in Newcastle and Berwick. Then, he was on a preaching tour in Buckinghamshire, when Edward died and Mary became Queen. He knew that he would be deeply unpopular under Mary. And he and a number of the more radical Protestants left the country, and he went to various places, but he ended up first in Geneva, where he met with Calvin and the other leaders of the Swiss and French reformations. And it was whilst he was there that he began wondering about whether women could or should be rulers.

And he was concerned that the Bible did not permit women to be rulers.

Calvin and Bullinger and Bayes are the other reformers that he asked. They were a great deal more circumspect, and said, “Well, you know really, it depends on the laws of the country and it maybe isn’t anything to do with them.” They didn’t want to get involved in politics.It was a very serious thing, in the 16th century, to question a monarch’s right to rule. And most of the reformers wanted to steer clear of the whole idea. But Knox, it started to … He was thinking about it in the back of his mind for some time after that.

He then went to Frankfurt, where he was called to be the minister to the English congregation in Frankfurt, and became embroiled in what they called the Frankfurt Conflict. Or the Conflict between the Knoxians and the Coxians, which is a fun way to remember it. But again, it was all about the English prayerbook; should that be used in Frankfurt, or should they use the more radical prayerbook that the French group in Frankfurt were using. There was all the usual infighting of committees, and everybody wanting their own way, and general disagreements.

Eventually, they smoothed the matter over, and Knox stayed preaching in Frankfurt for a while. Then, the whole thing flared up again and he left and went to Geneva. In the meantime, back in Scotland, the Protestant movement was increasing. Some of the senior nobles had converted; particularly Lord James Stewart, who was the half-brother of Queen Mary of Scotland. And Queen Mary of Scotland was living in France; she was still a young woman, just a girl. Her half-brother was back in Scotland, her mother was acting as regent, and Mary of Scotland was in France.

But Lord James and his colleagues asked Knox to visit Scotland, which he did. And in that period, again, he was an enormously successful preacher; lots of conversions.But then he returned to Geneva. And whilst he was there, he became more and more distressed at the persecution in England. Because under Queen Mary of England, there was a quite vigorous persecution of Protestants. Now, we have to accept that Knox wasn’t against persecution in principle, he just didn’t like the persecution of people he agreed with. He was perfectly happy to rant against Catholics and suggest that they should be executed for idolatry, but he was very unhappy about the persecution against the godly, as he saw it.

They were persecutors on both sides, but the persecution in England was very disturbing for him and his congregation. And it fed into his fears about female rule, generally.The regent in Scotland, Mary of Guise, although she was tolerant and not interested in any kind of persecution, he felt that she wasn’t really going far enough in introducing Protestantism in Scotland. And Mary of England was fairly vigorously camping down on Protestants.

So he wrote he marvelously entitled first blast against the monstrous regiment of [inaudible 00:14:13]. It’s hard to imagine, but actually Knox had an awful lot of women friends. He was one of those charismatic types who … What should we say? Emotionally needy people tended to latch on to. He did spend a good deal of his time writing letters of comfort and affection to his flock, many of whom were women.

Heather Teysko: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Melita Thomas: He was very attached to his wife and to his children. He wasn’t somebody who hated women per say, or had any … It wasn’t just a blanket hatred of women. It was the ideas of his own time, which thought that women were inferior because God had made them inferior to men, and that therefore it was wrong for a woman to be a ruler. He always claimed that the first blast was aimed at Mary of England, and he wasn’t really complaining about other women in general.

But funnily enough, they didn’t really like that. He timed his first blast very unfortunately because Mary of England died to be replaced with her half-sister, Elizabeth. And Knox thought that he would race back to England, take up his duties again in Berwick and Newcastle, and spend some time in Scotland. But Elizabeth wouldn’t let him anywhere near England. She couldn’t stand him, couldn’t stand any of his friends or his ideas, and the Marian exiles were more radical than Elizabeth’s. And quite a few of them who went back to England didn’t get very far under Elizabeth.

She was much more traditional in her religion.Knox returned to Scotland, and he was part of the Protestants in a conflict that became known as the Wars of the Congregation, where the Protestant Lords wanted to implement the reformed faith. And because Mary of Guise would not agree, they deposed her as regent and introduced the reformed faith into parliament in Scotland in 1560. And Knox was a major player in the Wars of the Congregation; he was the army chaplain. He wrote the, with others, but he wrote the Confession of Faith that became the doctrine that the parliament of 1560 implemented.

All was going swimmingly, and then Mary of Guise died and her daughter, Mary of Scotland/Mary Queen of Scots, having been widowed in France, decided to come back to Scotland. Now, she had agreed with her half-brother, Lord James, that she wouldn’t interfere with the reformation. That provided, she personally could be allowed to continue with her Catholic faith, she would not try to overturn the reformation. Which you might have thought everybody would be happy with, but Knox fundamentally did not believe that Mary would keep her word.

He was absolutely certain that Mary would, like her cousin Mary of England, introduce French troops and reimpose Catholicism by force. No matter what Mary did or said, Knox was convinced that this was the case. You know, she could not do anything right.When she came to Scotland, she made an attempt to be on good terms with Knox. She invited him to call on her. And when you think … Although we don’t think like this now, he was just a minister in a church parish in Edinburgh and she was the Queen of Scotland and the dowager Queen of France. The social gulf between them was enormous.

But Knox appeared to pay absolutely no attention to the social conventions of his time, and he spoke to Mary like he’d speak to an errant school girl, which Mary found quite difficult to cope with. She was only 18 or 20. She was 18, I think, when she came back to Scotland. She was a young woman, widowed, in a country that had changed out of all recognition since she’d left it at the age of five. And then, there was this man haranguing her. And no matter what she did, he criticized her.

He criticized her dancing, he criticized her friends, he criticized whatever she did.Knox became more concerned as time past because Mary actually was quite a clever politician. And had she been older and more experienced, things might have worked out rather differently. And then, she made rather a bad move when she married a second time. Because her second husband Darnley, although he was a very good choice on paper, he was an absolute nightmare in the flesh.

And Knox immediately disapproved of him just on principle because although Darnley was hardly a man of religion, he was nominally Catholic.Darnley went to hear Knox preach, and Knox took the opportunity to tell his audience that countries that God wished to punish were given boys and women as rulers. So again, [inaudible 00:18:54] likely to appeal to the new King. In his estimate of Darnley character, he was pretty much spot on. And the marriage went disastrously wrong.

Knox was certainly aware of, if not involved in, the murder of David Rizzio, Mary’s secretary, because all of the Protestant Lords knew about it and half of them were actually present, including Darnley. Then, matters went from bad to worse. Darnley, himself, was assassinated, and Knox was absolutely convinced that Mary was behind it. Nobody really knows. My feeling, I think, would be that … It wasn’t her idea, but she knew something was going on. But I don’t think you could reasonably say she was actually a party to it. But I think she chose not to know in the same way that Mary, her brother Lord James not the other Mary, he chose not to know. They were both pretty aware that something was going on.

But in fact, of course it all backfired and Mary got the blame.Knox, he preached against her as a murderess, and an idolatress, and a scarlet woman, and inflamed the population. Mary was defeated at the Battle of Langside, escaped to England. And over the next few years, the late 1660s and the early early 1570s, Knox was strongly of the party that wanted to keep Mary out of the country, or ideally have her sent back to be executed. It was tantamount to civil war in Scotland between the King’s party and the Queen’s party.

The King’s party was led by Murray, and Knox was a prominent member of it. And the Queen’s party was led, in fact, by some of Knox’s old friends, which upset him hugely because he as worried that they would be damned for their support of the Queen.Moving away from politics. In the 1560s, he lost his wife young; very, very upset about that. They had two sons, and she was a great companion and a help to him. Then, he rather … Some of the shine fell off him when he married a second time to a girl of 17, when he was in his 50s. And people were just as likely to raise eyebrows about men in their 50s marrying girls of 17 in that time as they are now, so there you go.

He had three children by his second wife, of whom he does seem to have been very fond. And her, she was attached to him as well. He was a friend of her fathers, so perhaps … There’s nothing to suggest that the girl was forced into it, so I don’t want to give that impression. And she, also like his first wife, became a great help to him in his ministry; writing letters, and she was a very educated Protestant, herself. It wasn’t all what we might think.His health began to deteriorate, so he still preached to vast crowds, but he had a couple of strokes. And yeah, thus so he sort of faded away in the early 1570s.

But he was still enormously influential every time he preached. He died in 1572, and it really was the passing of an era with him gone. But his influence over the next generation of Scottish ministers was huge. He spent some time in St Andrews training the new breed of Scottish minister. And it was his support in the Wars of the Congregation, his ability to preach, his single mindedness.Knox was distressed to discover that the Protestant Lords were no more interested in the general welfare of people than the papists had been. To quote, “They appeared to take no more care of the instruction of the ignorant and in the feeding of the flock of Jesus Christ than ever did the papists.”

Because as Mary of Guise had long suspected back in the 1540s and early 1550s, the Protestant Lords wanted to get their hands on the church’s wealth far more than they wanted to reform religion. I’m sure not all of them, and you can’t make too many sweeping statements, but they weren’t all the men of God that Knox wanted them to be.Obviously Knox’s brand of the reformed faith was more reformed than the sort of soft Protestant or semi-Catholic situation in the Anglican church. The two countries were not aligned religiously, although they became much more aligned politically in Knox’s lifetime. His vision of the church is what inspired Scotland, or certainly the lowlands of Scotland, for several hundred years, and hugely influenced the branch of Protestantism that moved to America.

Heather Teysko: Interesting. Can you tell me … I’m really interested in his … What he’s really famous for with his effect on the legacy of Mary … In England. Bloody Mary comes, I think, largely from him.

Melita Thomas: Yes. Well, from him and Foxe and his Book of Martyrs. There’s Foxe, Knox, and Cox. Foxe and Knox were friends. And yes. Knox’s vision, or his description, of Mary as a jezebel; both Mary’s. In fact, anybody called Mary, really, he seemed to have problems with. Mary of England, she was a jezebel, she was an idolater, she was a traitor to her country by marrying the Kind of Spain. One of the reasons he was actually dismissed from Frankfurt, in fact, was his diatribes against Mary of England, of course, upset the Emperor Charles, who was her father-in-law.

And Frankfurt was in his territory, so that was one of the reasons he had to leave Frankfurt.This became … And I’m in no way saying that the persecutions in Mary’s reign were acceptable, but they were … Persecution happened on both sides. And Knox was forever preaching that idolaters ought to be put to death, so he didn’t disagree with it in principle. But this vision of Mary as a jezebel, as a murderess, as a traitor very much influenced English and Scottish perceptions of Mary for, well, even up to our own day most people will refer to Queen Mary as Bloody Mary.He tried to curry favor with Elizabeth by saying the first blast wasn’t about her and that God had obviously called her … He’d made a special acception in Elizabeth’s case.

Heather Teysko: Right.

Melita Thomas: And he thought that Elizabeth would be pleased by this. And he sent a message via [Sissel 00:25:35] to Elizabeth saying if Elizabeth just admitted that she was a special case, he would be very, very happy to live in England under … Her godly rule, and so forth. But if she thought that she actually had a right of birth to be a Queen, then that was completely unacceptable and she would be damned for that notion. It was only because she was a special exception.

And Elizabeth wasn’t very impressed by that one.Similarly, when Mary of Scotland complained about the first blast, he said that he would be as happy to live under Mary of Scotland if the public of Scotland accepted her as St Paul had lived under the Emperor Nero, which again was not the kind of thing that Queen Mary expected one of her subjects to say to her. But he seemed to be completely tone deaf; he could not understand why Elizabeth and Mary of Scotland disliked him or felt threatened by his statements. He felt that he was doing God’s work and if their hearts were opened to God, they would understand that he was admonishing them for their own good.

Heather Teysko: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Melita Thomas: Yes, a level of egotism that’s quite-

Heather Teysko: Right. Hard to-

Melita Thomas: Astonishing. He does seem to have conflated insults against himself with insults against God. He couldn’t seem to see the difference between the two. But yes. His affect on the reputations of both Mary of England and Mary of Scotland had been extremely negative. Yes. It’d be a long time before they get over them.

Heather Teysko: How did his relationship with Elizabeth change? How did that evolve? I know she wasn’t too happy about his comments as well. Do you have any evidence on kind of how that –

Melita Thomas: Yeah. She absolutely refused to allow him into England. When the Lords of the congregation wanted money from England, and Knox was sent secretly to England to try to persuade the English government to support them, [Sissel 00:27:32] said that on no account, was Knox’s name to be mentioned to the Queen because he was so odious to her that the very mention of his name would prevent her helping the Lords of the congregation. And she never changed that opinion. She wouldn’t allow him in the country and she considered him odious.After the death of Darnley, when he was preaching virulently against Mary in Edinburgh, Elizabeth’s ambassador, Randolph, actually … Sorry, Throckmorton, was given instructions to tell him to tone it down. But he refused.

Heather Teysko: I know you talked a little bit about it, but just what would you say his legacy is, then, and why is he important?

Melita Thomas: I think he’s important because his vision of the reformed faith was what took hold in Scotland. Which I suppose, getting out of our period, probably quite strongly affected the civil war of the next century because of the different Protestant faiths within the British Isles; the more radical Calvinist Presbyterian world of James Knox versus the Anglican tradition of King Charles and Archbishop Laud. Those two were never going to be reconcilable, so I think that was one of the underlying tensions in the civil war.And I think also, his more reformed faith informed those who went to America much more. The Puritan wing of the English church was much more in line with Knox’s view than the Catholic wing of the Anglican church. I would say his influence was huge in Scotland and in America.

Heather Teysko: Interesting. Yeah, I think there’s a college named after him in Oregon. Or maybe it’s John Foxe, I get them confused.

Melita Thomas: Yeah.

Heather Teysko: Yeah, anyway. Okay. So where can people find out more about John Knox?

Melita Thomas: There’s a couple of very good biographies about him. One by Jane Dawson, which is the latest biography and uses some information that’s only recently been discovered about letters relating to the period in Frankfurt. Then, there’s another one which is actually slightly different in tone, but possibly a bit more human interest in, is by Rosalind Miles. They’re both called “John Knox” because there’s nothing else you can call him, really.

And the one by Rosalind Miles actually gives very interesting insight into his personal characteristics, a very much more emotional man than perhaps we think of. The affection for his family, and his children, and … He’s very, very emotional. You tend to think of him as this strident rock, but actually he was very emotionally driven. And probably that’s what made him so charismatic. So there’s those two. Obviously we’ll be having something on Tudor Times by the time this goes out.Then, there are … He’s a bit player in all of the other histories of Scotland. Most books on Mary Queen of Scots tend to see him as the villain of the piece. His own book, the History of the Reformation In Scotland, runaway best seller, is obviously an important record of the time although clearly written from his perspective.

Heather Teysko: All right. Any final thoughts of John Knox? Any parting words?

Melita Thomas: Yeah. I struggle to like the man. He’s so different from our perceptions now. His attitude towards women, and towards rulers, and towards anybody with a different vision of the truth are just so difficult for us to understand, that it is hard to warm to him. But he was a man of integrity, and he did believe what he said.

Heather Teysko: Thank you again to Melita Thomas for taking the time to tell us about John Knox. For more information on him, go to tudortimes.co.uk or see the resources available on the England Cast site at englandcast.com. We’ve also got the transcript from this episode up at englandcast.com, so check that out.Next week, I’ve got an episode on Tudor crime coming up, so stay tuned for that. Talk with you soon. Bye-bye.

Speaker 3: [music 00:31:46]

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