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John Knox, A Biography
Chapter XV - The Return of Mary


THE time had now arrived when the two chief persons in the State were to be brought face to face. Queen Mary landed at Leith on the 20th of August 1561, and shortly afterwards she was to have her first interview with the man who for the next six years was to be her chief opponent. Knox and she had been studying each other's characters at a distance. When it became clear that the time could not be long delayed for her appearance in Scotland, she began in her French home to study the political situation in her native country, and the leading men with or against whom she would have to act; and Knox, who had succeeded after a supreme effort in establishing the Protestant religion, had grave suspicions that the advent of the young Queen would interfere with all his plans and hopes.

Mary's idea of government was radically opposed to that of Knox. She believed firmly in the divine right of princes, and expressed her views to the English Ambassador, Throgmorton, when she said, "God doth command subjects to be obedient to their princes, and commands princes to read His law and govern thereby, themselves and the people committed to their charge." Knox's conception of the authority of princes and of the obedience due unto them by their subjects was, as we know, very different. "Princes," he declared in Mary's own hearing, "were often the most ignorant of God's true religion," and subjects are only bound to obey them when their commands are in accordance with God's holy law. We are not, therefore, surprised in learning that she regarded the Reformer as the most dangerous man in her kingdom, and vowed before she put a foot in it that she would either banish hint from Scotland or refuse to dwell there herself. She even went the length of trying to prejudice him in the eyes of Elizabeth by sending her a copy of his First Blast; while Knox attempted to do a similar disservice to her by warning Elizabeth against Mary's overtures, hinting that her object was not so much to have his book refuted as to make her path easy to the English throne. "Mary," he says, "would not take so much pains unless her craft in so doing shot at a further mark."

The question of the Queen's religion was discussed by the Protestant chiefs before her arrival in Scotland. Knox foresaw very serious trouble on this head, and was firmly convinced that the peace and welfare of the country could only be secured by compelling the Queen to conform to the laws of the land. The politicians among the Protestant party, however, even at this early date, contemplated a compromise, and the Lord James, while opposed to her celebrating Mass, publicly declared that they could not prevent her having it "secretly in her chamber." Knox foresaw the social and religious upheaval that would follow from even so seemingly modest a compromise, but being unable to see his own views carried out he was forced to submit and wait.

In his History of the Reformation he gives a graphic account of the Queen's landing at Leith and her arrival at Holyrood. It was a dull and dismal morning. "The very face of heaven did manifestly speak what comfort was brought unto this country with her, to wit, sorrow, dolour, darkness and all impiety, for in the memory of man that day of the year was never seen a more dolorous face of the heaven than was at her arrival." Knox's forebodings were not without reason. The Queen and he were two antagonistic forces, and however powerful each might be, ultimate success depended very largely upon the attitude that would be taken up by Knox's old friends, the Lords of the Congregation. Prior even to this time he was conscious of a growing slackness on their part. In the closing stages of the revolution, which ended in the establishment of the new religion, those who at one time put the cause of Protestantism in the front substituted for it

political reasons. They declared that they were fighting for the liberty of the nation, for just government, and for the expulsion of the French from the country. Knox, while naturally accepting the new situation thus created, for the purpose, it was alleged, of securing the support of England, never wavered in his conviction that religion was the ground of contention, and that it would be a betrayal of his highest trust to say or do anything that would endanger its sure progress.

As events developed, this breach between him and the Protestant Lords became wider, and, as final results showed, he was right and they were wrong. The policy which they pursued ended in failure, and Knox's cause triumphed. Mary's great object even from the very first was to secure the English throne, and this ambition was her undoing. She was not many days in the country until she saw that the men of most weight were the Protestant Lords, and she deemed it diplomatic to be friendly with them and to use them in carrying out her schemes. The Lord James and Maitland of Lethington, in particular, became her chief advisers. They, too, were anxious for a union with England, and although they did not anticipate its accomplishment by the means which Mary cherished, they made use of her to further their plans. Knox would have none of this deception and double dealing. He could not believe that any good could come of it, and he censured the weak compromises of the Protestant politicians, but they, confident in their own wisdom, heeded hint not.

The very first Sunday after her arrival saw matters brought to a crisis. On that day preparations were made for the celebration of the Mass in Holyrood Chapel. The news spread quickly, and men began openly to speak, "'Shall that idol be suffered again to take place within this realm? It shall not.' The Lord Lindsay, with the gentlemen of Fife and others, plainly cried in the close, I The idolater priest shall die the death according to God's law." A tumult was imminent, and were it not for the Lord James, "the man whom all the godly did most reverence," the tumult might have ended in a riot and rebellion. He took it upon him to keep the chapel door, and assured the mob that no Scotsman would be allowed to enter. Mary and her French courtiers and servants might please themselves, but no countryman of his would touch the idol. His two brothers, the Lord John and the Lord Robert, took the frightened priest under their protection and conveyed him safely to his chamber.

This was surely an indication of what would ultimately happen unless the Queen and her advisers acted reasonably. But Mary Stuart, like the rest of her race, was not so disposed. She carried her fortunes in her own hands, and, by rushing wildly against the most cherished convictions of the best portion of her subjects, courted ultimate ruin. On the very next day, at a meeting of her Secret Council, composed mainly of Protestants, an Act was passed to the effect that in religion things were to remain as the Queen had found them. This meant that the Court religion was to be Roman Catholicism and that of the nation Protestantism. No compromise on the part of her advisers could possibly be weaker. It meant one of two things: an open conflict between the Queen and Knox and their respective parties, or the thin end of the wedge for the ousting of the Protestant religion and the introduction of Popery. The one man among the Protestant aristocracy who took a firm stand in this matter was the Earl of Arran. He made a public protestation to the effect that "no liberty should be given to the Court to offend God's Majesty and to violate the laws of the land," but the Earl stood practically alone.

The supporters of the Protestant religion, the Lords "called of the Congregation" as Knox sarcastically terms them, were coming at this particular time in considerable numbers to Edinburgh to present themselves to the Queen. On hearing that the Mass was permitted they professed at first "great indignation, but after that they had remained a certain space they were as quiet as the former." The Queen was evidently bewitching them. Her youth, beauty, and vivacity, her charm of mind and manner, the novelty of having as their monarch this fair princess, were evidently more than the Scottish lords and barons could withstand. They yielded to her influence, and were prepared to sacrifice even their religious convictions for her favour. Mary knew her power and made the most of it. Knox's old and tried friend, Robert Campbell of Kinyeancleuch, graphically and forcibly stated the situation when he said to Lord Ochiltree, who was one of the latest arrivals, " My lord, now ye are come and almost the last of all the rest, and I perceive by your anger that the fire edge is not off you yet, but I fear that after that the holy water of the Court be sprinkled upon you that ye shall become as temperate as the rest; for I have been here now five days, and at the first I heard every man say `Let us hang the priest,' but after that they had been twice or thrice in the Abbey all that fervency was past. I think there be some enchantment whereby men are bewitched."

But there was one man who was not bewitched, and that man was John Knox. He immediately prepared himself for battle. There was no public press in those days, but there was the pulpit; and the pulpit of St. Giles', over which Knox had supreme control, was the best rostrum in the country. He was the one man to be reckoned with, and, grasping at once the significance of the situation, he inveighed in the strongest possible manner against the conduct of the Queen and the Court, and declared that "one Mass was more fearful to him than if ten thousand armed enemies were landed in any part of the realm, of purpose to suppress the whole religion."

Knox, in afterwards referring to this occasion, expresses regret that he did not act with more firmness and courage and put his thoughts and words into force. He had great influence in the country, and the commons and peasants would have rallied round him, but his sober judgment saved him. The whole power of the Court and nobility would have been against him, and the conflict could only have had one end. He must have seen that at the time, and it was characteristic of him, then as always, that however vehement his words might be his conduct was always prudent and cautious. Many of the Protestant Lords must have heard this sermon, and reports of it would speedily be carried to the Queen. Whether it was on her own initiative or by the advice of her Council is not quite clear, but Knox was summoned to Holyrood to have his first interview with Mary Stuart.

This invitation was a direct tribute to the power and influence of Knox, for its real object was to win him over. The Lord James, who was the only other person present at the interview, and who must have been privy to the command sent to Knox, ought to have known the character of the Reformer better than to have believed that even the Queen could seduce him from his convictions. The interview that followed has drawn to it the eyes of men from then till now, because of the important subject discussed and of the conflicting opinions expressed, but chiefly on account of the two great personages who took part in it. In Mary and Knox we have two types. The former was animated by what may be termed the Hellenistic spirit, and the latter by the Hebraistic. Mary was a child of nature, fond of pleasure, with no serious earnestness or strong feeling about religion. Knox, on the other hand, felt that he was acting not on his own responsibility, but as a servant of the Divine; that the truth committed to him must be held sacred at all hazards, and that not only was he bound to declare it on every occasion, but to resist to the death any who might dare to impugn it. These two forces have, in the history of the world, frequently come into conflict, and the victory has invariably been on the side of the Hebraistic spirit. Moral earnestness, sincerity, the fear of God and no other fear, have never failed to give purpose, strength, and endurance to those who have fought the battle of the eternal verities.

Mary began by accusing Knox of disloyalty and encouraging rebellion against her mother, and took him to task for his authorship of The First Blast. She declared that in England he had been a disturber of the peace, and hinted that he was even in league with the powers of darkness. Knox defended himself against these charges, and explained that if Scotland was satisfied with a female ruler he was "as content to live under her Grace as Paul was to live under Nero." But the heart of the subject was only reached when she charged him with denying to princes the right to dictate to their subjects the religion which they should believe. "Ye have taught the people," she said, "to receive another religion than princes can allow, nor can that doctrine be of God seeing God commands subjects to obey their princes."

Knox's opinion of princes was not of the highest, for, with the exception of Edward vi., he had not come into contact with any who impressed him very favourably, so he replied " princes were often the most ignorant of God's true religion"; and as for obedience to them, that is only lawful when they issue such commands as are conformable to the law of God; indeed, if they act contrary to that law it is the duty of subjects not only to disobey but forcibly to restrain them. "For there is neither greater honour," he added, "nor greater obedience to be given to kings or princes than God has commanded to be given unto father and mother; but so it is, Madam, that a father may be stricken with a frenzy in the which he would slay his own children. Now, Madam, if the children arise, join themselves together, apprehend the father, take the sword or other weapons from him, and finally bind his hands and keep him in prison till that his frenzy be overpast, think ye, Madam, that the children do any wrong? It is even so, Madam, with princes that would murder the children of God that are subject unto them." These views are commonplaces now, but they were certainly very revolutionary then, and we are not surprised when Knox tells us that on hearing them Mary stood aghast. "At these words," he says, "the Queen stood as it were amazed for a quarter of an hour."

It must now have become perfectly clear, not only to the Lord James but to the disputants themselves, that reconciliation between views so antagonistic was utterly impossible. Mary on recovering from her angry surprise said, "Well then, I perceive that my subjects shall obey you and not me." "God forbid," he answered in words which conveyed his inmost convictions, "that ever I take upon me to command any to obey me, or yet to set subjects at liberty to do what pleaseth them, but my travel is that both princes and subjects obey God, who commands Queens to be nurses unto His people. And this subjection," he added, "unto God and unto His troubled Church, is the greatest dignity that flesh can get upon earth." "Yea," said she, "but ye are not the Church that I will nourish, I will defend the Kirk of Rome, for I think it is the true Kirk of God. Ye interpret the Scripture in one manner and they in another, whom shall I believe?" "Ye shall believe God that plainly speaketh in His Word," answered Knox; and at the close of his exposition of how the Scriptures condemned, among other things, the Mass, she struck in, "Ye are too hard for me, but if they were here that I have heard they would answer you."

If Mary's object was to gain Knox to her side, she took the wrong way of doing it. Whatever diplomacy she may have had she certainly managed to conceal it on this occasion. In truth her diplomacy was neither very deep nor far-seeing. It was clever but not convincing. The gulf between her and the Reformer must now have seemed to both impassable. She may have taken Knox's measure. He certainly took hers, for on being asked by several of his intimates what he thought of the Queen, he answered "If there be not in her a proud mind, a crafty wit and an indurate heart against God and His truth, my judgment faileth me." The "crafty wit," we have to acknowledge, is not very conspicuous in her management of the interview, and as for her "indurate heart" it was certainly invulnerable to the doctrines of the Reformed religion. There was something metallic in the charm of Queen Mary which robbed it of much of its power. That "softness" in woman which Goethe and Byron maintain to be her distinctive trait was certainly not the outstanding feature in the character of Mary Stuart.


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