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
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
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
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
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.