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John Knox, A Biography
Appendix - When was John Knox Born?


CONSIDERABLE interest has lately been manifested in the date of Knox's birth, but as only a few years, after all, are in dispute, and as no one believes that any point of vital importance hangs on the issue, the discussion may be safely left in the hands of the contending critics. Some significance may of course attach to the question in view of the quarter-centenary celebration of the Reformer's birth having been arranged to take place this year, but unless something more convincing than anything that has yet been said against the traditionary view appears, the Churches may proceed with their preparations without any misgiving.

1. The authorities primarily involved in the question are four in number, two on each side. For the 1505 date there are Spottiswoode and David Buchanan; for a later date Beza and Sir Peter Young. Now the first important fact that emerges is that Spottiswoode and Buchanan agree. "He died," says Spottiswoode, "the twenty-seventh of November, in the sixty-seventh year of his age." "He departed," writes Buchanan, "about eleven hours at night, the 67 years of his age," and in an earlier part of his biographical sketch of Knox he says that the Reformer was born in " the year of Christ 1505." But Beza and Sir Peter Young disagree. Beza in his Icones, published in Geneva in 1580, says that Knox died in his fifty-seventh year (quinquaginta septem annorum), and Sir Peter Young in a letter to Beza, discovered in the Ducal Library at Gotha, and printed in Dr. Hume Brown's Life of Knox, says that the Reformer died in his fifty-ninth year — Decessit undesexagesimo aetatis anno.

2. Spottiswoode and Buchanan wrote independently of each other. Spottiswoode died in 1639, and as Buchanan's edition of Knox's History was not published till 1644, he could not have had that work before him, nor could Buchanan have seen Spottiswoode's History, which was not published till 1655. Professor Cowan's attempt (Athencrum, December 3, 1904) to prove, from internal evidence, that Buchanan had Spottiswoode's MS. before him is too far-fetched to be of much weight. Because both authors speak of Knox as being born of "honest parentage," the one he thinks must have copied from the other. Everyone, of course, knows that this was almost a stereotyped phrase to which no one could claim an original or prescriptive right. Beza and Sir Peter Young did not write independently of each other. Beza, according to Dr. Hay Fleming (Scotsman, May 27, 1904), had Sir Peter Young's letter before him when he wrote his Icones. The letter was written 13th November 1579, and the Icones appeared in 1580.

3. Both Spottiswoode and Buchanan must have been familiar with Beza's Icones. It was dedicated to King James vi., was a book well known at the time on account of its author and subject, yet they reject his statement regarding Knox's age. They must have had more reliable evidence before them.

4. Even Beza would seem to have doubted Young's testimony, for he makes Knox out to have been 57 when he died, while his correspondent declares that he was 59. Must we fall back on the old view that Beza's 57 is a misprint for 67? This would explain his disagreement with Young, and Spottiswoode and Buchanan's apparent disagreement with him.

5. Nor can there be any doubt as to who is the writer of greatest authority. Spottiswoode unquestionably is admitted on all hands to have more weight than Beza, and to be as a rule more accurate. His facts are generally admitted even by inimical historians, and the worst that can be said against him is that he was opposed to Presbyterianism. But take, for instance, Beza's "Icon" of Knox. Carlyle declares it to be "a blotch of ignorant confusion," and he proves his assertion by printed references. Dr. Hay Fleming indulges the hope that Lawson's letter to Beza, which Young told him was being sent, giving full particulars of Knox, may turn up. If it does, Beza will be found guilty of having ignored or grossly misrepresented its contents, for we can hardly conceive Lawson's sending to Geneva such a "blotch of ignorant confusion" as Beza's Icones.

6. Sir Peter Young was a student at St. Andrews when Knox returned to Scotland in 1559, and he must have frequently seen the Reformer, then in the full vigour of his manhood, for Knox made St. Andrews his headquarters at that time. But Young left for the Continent in 15G2, and did not return again till 1568-69, the very year when Knox wrote to John Wood, "I live as a man already dead from all civil affairs and therefore I praise my God." Again that same year he writes to a friend in England, 11 Are not thou (Knox) in that estate by age that nature itself calleth thee from the pleasure of things temporal."

Nov the Knox whom Young describes in his letter to Beza. is not this Knox, but the Knox of 1559, whose image had been imprinted on the young student's mind. Indeed it is doubtful if Young saw Knox on his return from the Continent, for he was immediately appointed to assist George Buchanan in tutoring the King at Stirling, "where he was fixed to the palace never to be taken from it unless by turns."

Young's pen-portrait of Knox is of a man somewhat turned fifty, "beard black mingled with grey," full of vigour, "well knit and graceful figure,"—such a man as Knox was when in 1559 Young saw him at St. Andrews, and certainly not such a man as he was in 1569, a year before he had a stroke of apoplexy. Young, accordingly, would naturally, from his first and only recollection of Knox, be inclined to make him younger than he really was at the time of his death, and he could have had no special knowledge of the date of the Reformer's birth. Spottiswoode was in a different position. His father, who was Knox's colleague and friend, lived for a number of years after the Reformer's death, so that the future historian, though only seven when Knox died, would be in a position to get the most reliable information on the point at issue.

7. Knox's repeated references (two of which we have quoted) to himself as an old man, during the closing years of his life, tell their own story ; and such eminent authorities as the late Professor Mitchell and Dr. Hume Brown saw no reason, even with Sir Peter Young's letter before them, to give up the 1505 date.

8. The minor points mentioned by Dr. Cowan and Mr. Andrew Lang need not concern us much.

(a) Beza's testimony is regarded as weighty on the ground that he "knew Knox for several years in Switzerland." There is no evidence for this assertion. There is no record of him ever having seen Knox. He did not go to Geneva until Knox had left it. Besides, if he knew Knox, what was the necessity for Sir Peter Young sending him his pen-portrait of the Reformer?

(b) Much is made of the tradition that Knox studied under Major in St. Andrews. There is nothing to prove this; but, admitting it, what then? Does that prove that he did not study at Glasgow University? It does not. Knox was at Glasgow in 1522, and Major left Glasgow for St. Andrews in 1523. It is possible that Knox may have followed him. But it is argued that Knox was under Major at St. Andrews between 1529 and 1535, and the only fact given in support of this view is that six or seven full pages of his History are devoted to events that took place in St. Andrews during these years, about a page for each year. Surely an eye-witness, as Dr. Cowan alleges him to have been, of the events chronicled would have given more; a careful searcher for facts and documents, such as Knox was, could not have given less.

(c) Nor is there anything extraordinary, as Mr. Andrew Lang alleges, in Knox, a man of thirty-nine or forty, showing deference to George Wishart. Wishart's enthusiasm and representative position are a sufficient explanation. Knox's respect for Calvin's theological eminence can be accounted for in the same manner. Greatness does not go by age.

(d) To accept the later date would reduce by eight or ten years the blank in the first period of his life. It certainly would, but Knox does not by any means stand alone in this respect. There is a blank of twenty years in David Buchanan's own life; and as for Calderwood, the Church historian, the year of his birth, the place of his education, and the character of the family from which he was descended are all unknown. The earliest ascertained fact of his life is his settlement in 1604 as minister at Crailing in Roxburghshire.


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