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John Knox, A Biography
Chapter III - St. Andrews and the Galleys


IT was on the 10th of April 1547 that Knox entered the Castle of St. Andrews. The company that welcomed him was a strange one. It consisted almost entirely of political rebels and religious refugees, or, as Pitscottie quaintly puts it, of those who "suspected themselves to be privy to the said slaughter." Among them were such sober-minded men as Sir David Lindsay, Henry Balnaves, and John Rough, and, along with these, those who had taken an active part in the murder of Beaton, such as young Kirkcaldy, Melville, and the two Leslies.

It would be absurd, of course, to regard these last as murderers in the ordinary sense. Their crime was political, and assassination in those days was quietly debated in the cabinets of kings, and determined on as the only means of suppressing troublesome opponents. But the company in the Castle, which at this time numbered one hundred and fifty, was, to say the least, a very mixed one. Knox was shocked at the conduct of some of them, openly rebuked them, and declared that the corrupt life which they led "could not escape the judgment of God." He did his best to instruct their minds and reform their morals by his teaching and preaching. He continued instructing the three lads who were under his care, and took up their lessons at the point where he had stopped before entering the Castle.

He has told us the nature of the instruction which he imparted. "Besides their grammar and other human authors he read unto them the Catechism, an account of which he caused them to give publicly in the Parish Kirk of St. Andrews. He read, moreover, unto them, proceeding where he left at his departure from Longniddry, where before his residence was, and that lecture he read at the Castle, in the chapel within the Castle, at a certain hour."

The garrison was not long in discovering that a man of more than ordinary power was now in their midst. John Rough was very good in his way, but it was perfectly clear to their minds that he was not equal to John Knox. The leading men among them were anxious that the latter would assume the official position of a preacher of the new faith, and they made a representation to him to that effect. The future Reformer did not yield easily. He held the most serious views on the tremendous responsibility which rested on a man who assumed such an office. At first, he tells us, he utterly refused, alleging that " he would not run where God had not called him." Lindsay and Balnaves, who were shrewd judges of character and had a quick eye for talent, and who had been deeply impressed by Knox's catechising and teaching of his pupils, insisted upon him giving his consent; and Rough, after a special sermon on the election of ministers, suddenly turned to Knox and in the name of all present called upon him to accept the holy vocation of a minister of the Gospel. Then addressing the people, he said: "Was not this your charge to me?" - With one voice they answered: "Thou and we approve it." This appeal quite overcame Knox. He felt that this call to the ministry was in reality a call from God; that the Almighty was speaking through the voice of the people. It was like the summons which in ancient times was issued to the prophets of Israel, and he could not refuse it. Overwhelmed by the appeal, he, as he himself tells us, "abashed, burst forth in most abundant tears and withdrew himself to his chamber."

To us also, at this time of day, there seems a Divine purpose in the call which he thus received to the ministry. The man was ready to discharge the great duties which the times demanded. He did not probably know this himself, but the boldness and ability with which he almost there and then took up his new duties showed that the long years of preparation were ended, that their purpose was served, and that the man was fully equipped at all points. He was ready to wage that battle against ignorance, superstition, and immorality, which would end in the overthrow of the Romish Church and in the establishment of the Protestant religion.

In the very first sermon which he preached in the Parish Church before the University, the garrison, and the townspeople, he struck straight at the roots of the evils of which the Papacy was the fruit. He identified it with the Man of Sin; with Anti-Christ; with the Whore of Babylon; and "deciphered by the way the lives of the various Popes," condemning their lives and jeering at their doctrines as idolatry. The imagery of Knox's sermon, taken from Daniel, St. Paul, and the Apocalypse, was a revelation to his audience if familiar to us. He made a great impression. Some said, "Master George Wishart spoke never so plainly, and yet he was burned; even so will he be." Others said, "Others hewed the branches of the Papacy, but this man strikes at the root."

Archbishop Hamilton, having heard of this sermon, wrote to John Wynram, Sub-Prior of the Monastery of St. Andrews, and called upon him to take steps to have Knox suppressed. This was easier said than done. Wynram, who had a leaning towards the Reformed views, was bound to make a show of obedience, and he caused nine heretical propositions taken from the preaching of Rough and Knox to be drawn up, and the two preachers were summoned before a gathering of the Romish clergy in St. Leonard's College to defend themselves.

Rough was a "good man" and "without corruption," but while liked by the people he was not the most learned. He had also experienced difficulty at former times in meeting the theological attacks of his opponents, but on this occasion he was assisted by a champion who was more than a match for all the Professors and Doctors in St. Andrews. Wynram, who first took up the dispute, soon handed it over to a Franciscan friar, who entirely lost his head, and to the dismay of his fellows made the extraordinary statement, "That the Apostles had not received the Holy Ghost when they had wrote their Epistles, but after they received Him, and then they did order their ceremonies."

But of much more importance than the overthrow of his opponents in argument was the hold that Knox was evidently gaining on the minds and hearts of the common people. We read that they heard him gladly, and in his very first sermon he sounded that note of religious freedom which afterwards burst into a veritable trumpet peal, and summoned to his side the commons of Scotland in the fresh vigour of their new-found independence. In June he administered the Sacrament to two hundred people after the Reformed manner. This was the second occasion on which the Death of our Lord had been commemorated in this fashion. George Wishart, on the night before his execution, celebrated the Sacrament with his jailer according to the rites of the Reformed Church. From this dates the overthrow of the Romish Sacrament of the Mass, which Knox was never weary of declaring to be rank idolatry.

The Earl of Arran, unable to subdue the garrison, tried to bribe it into surrender. He secured a pardon from the Pope which in reality was no pardon at all, and the garrison, looking for assistance from England, determined to prolong the struggle, but on the last day of June a French fleet appeared outside the bay of St. Andrews, and Knox for one saw the doom that was imminent. He declared that their defences would be but "egg-shells," and that they would "fall into the enemy's hands and be carried into a strange country."

The French, who knew how to beleaguer a stronghold, posted cannon in such positions as could command the Castle, and on Saturday the last of July it surrendered. They were careful, however, to yield themselves to the French Admiral rather than to the Regent of Scotland, and they laid down the condition that their lives be saved, that they should be transported to France, and if unable to remain in the French service they should be conveyed at the cost of their captors back to Scotland. This pledge was no sooner given than it was broken. The members of the captured garrison were at once consigned to the galleys and to prisons in France. Among the former was Knox, who for nineteen months toiled as a galley slave, and endured bodily sufferings and anguish of mind and spirit which were almost unutterable.

Knox is very reticent about his life on board the galleys, but on the one or two occasions on which he refers to it, it can be seen that the iron had entered his soul, and that he could not look back upon that period without a shudder. "How long," he says in one passage, "I continued a prisoner; what torment I sustained in the galleys and what were the sobs of my heart, is now no time to recite." His hatred of France is well known, and the nineteen months spent by him as a galley slave must, to say the least, have intensified it.

It is almost impossible for us at this time of day to imagine the kind of life that those miserable wretches who toiled in the French warships had to endure. One of those galleys carried a complement of 450 men; of these 150 formed the crew, and the remaining 300 were slaves who toiled at the oars. Five or six of them sat on a bench which stretched crosswise from side to side of the ship. To this bench they were chained night and day. The labour of rowing was intense. In taking their stroke they had to rise from the bench, and the effort was so great that even in the coldest weather perspiration burst out on their faces. They were scantily clad with coarse canvas coat and cap, and their food was a kind of porridge made of oil and beans, with a biscuit thrown in. From stem to stern ran a gangway, called the coursier, and along it walked the officer in charge with whip in hand, which he plied unsparingly to anyone who lagged at his task. A slight awning screened the slaves from the burning sun; but in rough weather it was removed, and left them exposed to wind and rain and cold.

It almost passes human imagination to picture the horrors of such a life, especially for a man like Knox, who was there for conscience' sake, and who had been accustomed to the amenities which, for most human beings, make existence tolerable. Chained at the same oar with him may have been a Turk or a Moor, a thief or a murderer; but there was no escape. He had to bear the companionship without a moment's relief. One shrinks from even hinting at the horrible conditions under which those poor wretches lived and toiled. Enough to mention that the hospital, which was in the centre and bottom of the ship, was such a plague-stricken hole that many a poor sick creature preferred to die toiling at his oar rather than be put into it.

The French officers would seem to have concerned themselves about the religious opinions of their prisoners, and to have attempted to convert the heretics among them to the old faith. In this connection an incident of considerable interest is related by Knox, and, although he does not say so, he himself must have been the hero of it.

"Those that were in the galleys," he remarks in his History of the Reformation, "were threatened with torments if they would not give reverence to the Mass, but they could never get the poorest of that company to give reverence to that idol. Yea, upon the Saturday at night when they sang their Salve Regina the whole Scottishmen put on their hoods or such things as they had to cover their heads, and when the others were compelled to kiss a painted board called Notre Dame they were not pressed after that once, for this was the chance. Soon after the arrival at Nantes their great Salve was sung, and a glorious painted lady was brought in to be kissed: and among others was presented to one of the Scottishmen then chained. He gently said, 'Trouble me not, such an idol is accursed, and therefore I will not touch it.' The patron and the Argoussin, with two officers having the charge of such matters, said: 'Thou shalt handle it,' and so, they violently thrust it to his face and put it betwixt his hands, who seeing the extremity took the idol, and advisedly looking about cast it into the river, and said: `Let our lady now save herself, she is light enough, let her learn to swim.' After that," he grimly adds, "was no Scottishman urged with that idolatry."

It would appear that on two occasions, while a slave in the galleys, the ship in which he toiled came within sight of the Scottish coast, and the view of his native land seems to have inspired the hope that one day he would be at liberty. On the second of these occasions they were lying between St. Andrews and Dundee. The hardships which he had endured were beginning to tell on him, and he was now broken in health, but his answer to James Balfour, one of his companions at the oar, who asked him if he recognised the spot, shows that, however dejected, he was convinced that the task to which he was consecrated would still be discharged by him. "Yes," answered Knox, "I know it well, for I see the steeple of the place where God first in public opened my lips to His glory, and I am fully persuaded how weak soever I may now appear, I shall not depart this life till that my tongue shall glorify His godly name in that place."

It would seem, however, that a certain liberty must have been allowed to Knox, for he was able to correspond with those members of the garrison who were confined in different castles along the coast of France. Young Kirkcaldy of Grange, and three other Scotsmen who were imprisoned in the Benedictine Abbey of Mont St. Michel, were meditating their escape, and consulted Knox if they might make the attempt. He replied: "Certainly, if ye shed no blood." They took his advice, and in place of killing their jailers they made them drunk with wine and so attained their liberty.

Henry Balnaves, who was confined in the Palace of Rouen, solicited Knox's judgment on a Treatise on Justification by Faith, in the composition of which he had relieved the monotony of his imprisonment. "This composition," Knox states, "was come into his hands while lie was in Rouen lying in irons and was troubled by corporal infirmity in a galley called Nostre Dame." Knox evidently had leisure not only to read the work, "to the comfort of his spirit," but to divide it into chapters and write a digest of it. He afterward sent it with a letter of introduction and commendation to the "Congregation of the Castle of St. Andrews." This work by Balnaves, which will afterwards be referred to, is of considerable interest as the first systematic statement of the Reformed religion prepared by any Scotsman. Patrick Hamilton's Places was a bald composition in comparison, and though both of them were conceived largely on the same lines, that of Balnaves is fuller and more logically reasoned.

But liberty was at last in sight for Knox and his companions. The friendly policy between the two Governments of France and England, which began during the last period of Edward the Sixth's reign, was continued by Protector Somerset. England at last remembered that the garrison of St. Andrews had been fighting as her allies. Terms were arranged between the two Governments, and some time in the month of February 1549 Knox gained his freedom, and in 1550 all his fellow-prisoners were allowed to leave France.


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