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Issue 69 - Reforming John Knox

Scotland Magazine Issue 69
June 2013


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Reforming John Knox

Roddy Martine on the legacy of John Knox

Reputations consigned to history are, alas, at the mercy of those who choose to interpret character and motives for their own personal agendas. Hence, at a recent dinner party I found myself sitting next to a pretty young academic who proceeded to harangue me on the misogynist legacy of John Knox, the founder of the Church of Scotland.

“He was a child abuser,” she began, her nostrils flaring. “He was fifty and he married a fourteen year old!”
Aside from the fact that such differentials in age were commonplace in nuptials during the sixteenth century, I pointed out that Knox's second wife Margaret Stewart was, in fact, seventeen when they married. Moreover, from what we know about them, it was a seemingly happy union and produced three daughters, one of whom, incidentally, was an ancestor of the Reverend John Witherspoon, the only clergyman to sign the American Declaration of Independence.

She would have none of it. “Have you read The first blast of the trumpet against the monstruous regiment of women?” she said indignantly.”That says it all.”

As it transpired, I had, and also his The History of the Reformation in Scotland (1586–1587), albeit cursorily. She looked irritated.

What Knox was complaining about, I told her, had nothing to do with disliking the female sex, but everything to do with Scotland being governed at the time by Mary de Guise, the Queen Mother; England being ruled by the Queen Mary, and France being dominated by Catherine de Medici. All three were busy burning heretics.

“All the same, he was a horrid man,” she announced and turned her back on me to talk to the guest on her other side.

Such conversations, much to my surprise, do occasionally occur at dinner parties in Edinburgh, separating them refreshingly from the usual banter of social tittle tattle. However, a little information is a dangerous thing.

Happily I note that there is not only a fictional trilogy on the life of John Knox by Marie Macpherson currently being published but, in addition, Professor Jane Dawson of Edinburgh's New College is working on a major biography to be released next year to coincide with the 500th anniversary of Knox's birth.

His is a reputation badly in need of a resurrection. The religious strife that occurred in Scotland in the centuries after his death in 1572 can hardly be laid at his doorstep, but there are those who repeatedly attempt to do so and mostly encouraged by the the ignorance of others.

Immediately after his death, he was lionised and a plaque under a car parking space behind the Kirk in which he preached from 1559 until 1572 allegedly marks his last resting place. Even as late as 1825 a monument by Thomas Hamilton was raised in his memory on Glasgow's Necropolis hill, but when the Church of Scotland split ranks in 1843 to form the Free Church of Scotland, it was as if he had fallen from grace.

A year or so ago, I was a guest at a christening in St Giles Kirk in Edinburgh when the person beside me, a herald with the Court of the Lord Lyon King of Arms, no less, drew my attention to a bronze statue standing on the northern aisle. “I see they've brought John Knox in from the cold,” he observed, adding, “Did you know that he was a galley slave?”

I did. For eighteen months following his capture after the surrender of St Andrews Castle in 1547, Knox was sentenced to hard labour with the French galley fleet stationed on the Loire.

He was released after nineteen months but there can be little doubt that the experience stiffened his resolve. Nine years later, the Scottish Parliament voted in the Scottish Reformation.

“Rather a good thing being a galley slave,” pronounced my friend. “Lots of fresh air, good exercise, and lots of discipline. Most suitable for a Protestant!” s.

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