Search just our sites by using our customised search engine

Unique Cottages | Electric Scotland's Classified Directory

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

John Knox, A Biography
Chapter I - Early Years

THE first forty years of John Knox's life are almost an unbroken blank. His History of the Reformation in Scotland, which is practically his own biography writ large, maintains a singular silence regarding the early years of his career. It is supposed that he was so ashamed "of the time spent in the puddle of papestry" that he preferred to make no reference to it. What we know of his birth and parentage, and the influences which were at work in producing him, can be briefly stated.

He was born in the year 1505 [See Appendix.] at Gifford Gate, near Haddington. His father was called William, and he had a brother of the same name. His mother was a Sinclair. This we know from the fact that, following the common custom of the time, he used her name as his own to shelter him from persecution. His earlier biographers connect his family with the noble House of the Knoxes of Ranfurly in Renfrew-shire, but there is no ground for this belief. He describes himself as "a man of base estate and condition," and in an interesting interview which he had with the Earl of Bothwell the fact of his humble origin is made perfectly clear. "For albeit that to this hour it hath not chanced me to speak with your Lordship, face to face, yet have I borne a good mind to your house. . . . For, my Lord, my grandfather, goodsher, and father have served your Lordship's predecessors, and some of them have died under their standards." It is possible that Knox here refers to the Battle of Flodden; in any case the interview shows that a feudal relation existed between the House of Bothwell and his family. Like the other two supreme Scotsmen, Burns and Carlyle, he sprang from the people. In mind and heart and character he was a genuine product of the Scottish soil.

The district of East Lothian was, long before Knox's day, one of the greenest and most fertile parts of Scotland. It had little in its physical features to suggest that hardiness and sternness of character which have been associated with Knox in popular tradition. But, as those who have made a deeper study of the life of the great Reformer know, there was a tenderness in his character which formed no unfitting counterpart to the scenes of his childhood and youth. The religious Revolution, in which be

was to play so distinguished a part, demanded qualities which threw into the background the sympathy and gentleness which by nature were his. In his native town Knox would see the Romish Church in all its splendour and, at the same time, in all its corruption. Haddington was rich in monasteries and churches, and one of the latter, from its beauty of architecture, was called "The Lamp of Lothian." Whatever his affection for Haddington may have been, he was at no pains to hide the slowness with which it accepted the new religion. In the account which he gives of Wishart's preaching there, he declares that Haddington was fonder of witnessing Clerk Plays than listening to the Gospel. The wealth and power of the Church in that district may have accounted for this.

The future Reformer was educated first in the Burgh School of his native town, and afterwards in the University of Glasgow. Scotland, even at so early a date, showed that interest in education which has characterised it ever since. Knox afterwards, in his Book of Discipline, gave a sketch of an ideal system of education for his country, but that system was not his own invention; it had its bedrock in pre-Reformation times. The burgh schools of Scotland were no unworthy precursors of the famous grammar schools of a later age.

Knox entered Glasgow University in 1522, at the age of seventeen years. He would naturally have gone to the University of St. Andrews, which was nearer, but the fame of John Major, who had recently been appointed principal regent or tutor in the College of the Faculty of Arts in Glasgow, and who was himself a Haddington man, and educated in its Burgh School, drew Knox to the younger and more distant University of the West.

John Major would seem to have been the beau-ideal of the Scottish professor of the time, but, reading his works in the light of modern thought, it is not easy to discover the secret of his popularity. Buchanan, who studied under him afterwards in St. Andrews, is at no pains to conceal his contempt. He criticises his professor's teaching as "sophistry rather than dialectics," and the fact that both he and Knox should have afterwards travelled far in different directions from the teaching of Major, shows that he had no great influence over them. Major was a type of the Schoolman who knew something of the new Learning without being affected by it. He studied in Paris in the same College as Erasmus, but, unlike the great Humanist, he remained practically uninfluenced by the spirit of the Renaissance. All the same, he had imbibed some generous opinions of government and of the natural rights and liberty of subjects in relation to their rulers. In this respect he influenced both Buchanan and Knox, and the latter's manly insistence on his independence and rights to Queen Mary, "Madam, a subject born within the same," may have been the full development of the views of his old master.

Glasgow University at that time gave little or no promise of its great future. It was poor in endowments and in teaching. The city itself was dominated by the Church. The Cathedral, with its Archbishop and Prebendaries, was the centre and source of the life both of the city and the University. Knox had the benefit of Major's teaching for a year only, for the latter was transferred in 1523 to the University of St. Andrews, and he himself is supposed to have left without taking a degree.

Thus far the career of the Reformer can be partly traced, but for the next twenty years hardly a single record of it can be found. It is generally believed, however, that he returned to East Lothian, and acted first as a notary and afterwards as private tutor in the families of the local gentry. Indeed, this can be authenticated, for documents have been recently discovered which prove him to have acted in the former capacity, and he himself tells us that at the time of Wishart's preaching in Haddington he was private tutor in the families of Cockburn of Ormiston and Hugh Douglas of Longniddry. There is no record of the time when he took priest's Orders, but in later years his Catholic adversaries railed at him as one of the "Pope's Knights," and as having received Orders by which he "were umquhile called Sir John." The tradition, incorporated in his Life by Beza, and repeated and expanded by later biographers, that he excelled as a lecturer in Philosophy, and threw over the study of Aristotle for that of St. Jerome and St. Augustine, may be true, but it is without historical proof.

Knox, however, must have been during those long years directing his attention to the great questions which were influencing the whole of Western Europe. The minds of men everywhere were being stirred by the religious Revolution which had already all but run its course on the Continent, and the fact that Knox suddenly appeared in the Castle of St. Andrews in 1547 fully armed for the great warfare which he was to wage, shows that he must have been preparing for it by a long course of thought and study. He never pretended that there was anything miraculous in his renunciation of the old religion and his acceptance of the new. Study and reflection, and external influences, must be regarded as having played an important part in that transformation of heart and mind which not only saved himself but his country from Popish darkness and superstition.

On the Continent, and even in England, the Renaissance preceded the Reformation; in Scotland this was reversed. Indeed, the Renaissance never really took hold in Scottish soil. The Revolution was pre-eminently a religious one. This may account for its thoroughness, and for the supreme influence which the Reformed religion exercised over the life and thought of Scotland for generations. Theology became the absorbing interest, to the exclusion of Art and Letters. In Germany and in England it was different. The Renaissance in the former country preceded the Reformation, and in England they went hand in hand. This may explain the more human religious life of Luther and the less intense fervour of the English Reformers. They took a broader view of life and destiny. Their minds were both Hebraistic and Hellenistic; while the Scottish mind was Hebraistic only. It is hard to say whether the Scottish people have gained or lost by this. For one thing, it has given that moral grit to the nation which has made it great; while, on the other hand, it has, to a certain extent, robbed it of those more human interests which play a necessary part in the all-round development of a people.

But long before the times of Luther and Calvin a spirit of reform had manifested itself in the Scottish Church. The Lollards of Kyle in the fifteenth century preached some of those very doctrines which afterwards became the watchwords of the Reformation. They had their spiritual descendants, and from their day until the time of Knox himself, the blood of Scottish martyrs testified that the spirit of pure religion was far from dead. The country was thus prepared for a full participation in the religious Revolution which had already powerfully affected the Continent, and was making rapid headway in England. The Reformed views were being spread by means of books and preachers. The nations that had been under the influence of the Papacy were beginning; to assert their political rights and to become individualised. They were attaining to self-consciousness. The age of unquestioning faith was gone; and Scotland, though a little in the rear of this movement, was about to show that in carrying it out it meant to be thorough.

Had the Church in England, however, not been reformed it is possible that no religious- Revolution would have taken place in Scotland. The northern, country at this time was divided in its allegiance between France and England. Both countries courted its alliance. James v. was dead. The nation was nominally under the Regency of Arran, but, as a matter of fact, the real power lay in the hands of Cardinal Beaton and the Queen-Dowager Mary of Lorraine. 'Those who were bound by every tie to France saw in an alliance with it the only hope for the Catholic Church. England, on the other hand, courted the friendship of Scotland chiefly for political reasons. Henry VIII., in order to bind the two countries together, determined to marry his son, the future King Edward VI., to the young Queen Mary of Scots. Between Scotland and England there had been a long and deadly enmity, and the natural tendency of politicians was to favour an understanding with France; but the secret policy of the latter country, which was to make of Scotland a French province, caused them to hesitate, and the Protestant party in the country, which was now considerable, saw that their only chance of success lay in friendship with England. Had England remained Roman Catholic the incipient Protestantism of Scotland would have died a natural death, for it was the support, partly genuine and partly selfish and political, which the country across the border gave in the time of need that really saved Protestantism for Scotland.

Return to Book Contents Page


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus