Ancestry, Birth, Education, Environment: 1513(?)-1546
"November 24, 1572.

"John Knox, minister, deceased, who had, as was alleged, the most part of the blame of all the sorrows of Scotland since the slaughter of the late Cardinal."

It is thus that the decent burgess who, in 1572, kept The Diurnal of such daily events as he deemed important, cautiously records the death of the great Scottish Reformer. The sorrows, the "cumber" of which Knox was "alleged" to bear the blame, did not end with his death. They persisted in the conspiracies and rebellions of the earlier years of James VI.; they smouldered through the later part of his time; they broke into far spreading flame at the touch of the Covenant; they blazed at "dark Worcester and bloody Dunbar"; at Preston fight, and the sack of Dundee by Monk; they included the Cromwellian conquest of Scotland, and the shame and misery of the Restoration; to trace them down to our own age would be invidious.

It is with the "alleged" author of the Sorrows, with his life, works, and ideas that we are concerned.

John Knox, son of William Knox and of -- - Sinclair, his wife, {2a} unlike most Scotsmen, unlike even Mr. Carlyle, had not "an ell of pedigree." The common scoff was that each Scot styled himself "the King's poor cousin." But John Knox declared, "I am a man of base estate and condition." {2b} The genealogy of Mr. Carlyle has been traced to a date behind the Norman Conquest, but of Knox's ancestors nothing is known. He himself, in 1562, when he "ruled the roast" in Scotland, told the ruffian Earl of Bothwell, "my grandfather, my maternal grandfather, and my father, have served your Lordship's predecessors, and some of them have died under their standards; and this" (namely goodwill to the house of the feudal superior) "is a part of the obligation of our Scottish kindness." Knox, indeed, never writes very harshly of Bothwell, partly for the reason he gives; partly, perhaps, because Bothwell, though an infamous character, and a political opponent, was not in 1562-67 "an idolater," that is, a Catholic: if ever he had been one; partly because his "History" ends before Bothwell's murder of Darnley in 1567.

Knox's ancestors were, we may suppose, peasant farmers, like the ancestors of Burns and Hogg; and Knox, though he married a maid of the Queen's kin, bore traces of his descent. "A man ungrateful and unpleasable," Northumberland styled him: he was one who could not "smiling, put a question by"; if he had to remonstrate even with a person whom it was desirable to conciliate, he stated his case in the plainest and least flattering terms. "Of nature I am churlish, and in conditions different from many," he wrote; but this side of his character he kept mainly for people of high rank, accustomed to deference, and indifferent or hostile to his aims. To others, especially to women whom he liked, he was considerate and courteous, but any assertion of social superiority aroused his wakeful independence. His countrymen of his own order had long displayed these peculiarities of humour.

The small Scottish cultivators from whose ranks Knox rose, appear, even before his age, in two strangely different lights. If they were not technically "kindly tenants," in which case their conditions of existence and of tenure were comparatively comfortable and secure, they were liable to eviction at the will of the lord, and, to quote an account of their condition written in 1549, "were in more servitude than the children of Israel in Egypt." Henderson, the writer of 1549 whom we have quoted, hopes that the agricultural class may yet live "as substantial commoners, not miserable cottars, charged daily to war and slay their neighbours at their own expense," as under the standards of the unruly Bothwell House. This Henderson was one of the political observers who, before the Scottish Reformation, hoped for a secure union between Scotland and England, in place of the old and romantic league with France. That alliance had, indeed, enabled both France and Scotland to maintain their national independence. But, with the great revolution in religion, the interest of Scotland was a permanent political league with England, which Knox did as much as any man to forward, while, by resisting a religious union, he left the seeds of many sorrows.

If the Lowland peasantry, from one point of view, were terribly oppressed, we know that they were of independent manners. In 1515 the chaplain of Margaret Tudor, the Queen Mother, writes to one Adam Williamson: "You know the use of this country. Every man speaks what he will without blame. The man hath more words than the master, and will not be content unless he knows the master's counsel. There is no order among us."

Thus, two hundred and fifty years before Burns, the Lowland Scot was minded that "A man's a man for a' that!" Knox was the true flower of this vigorous Lowland thistle. Throughout life he not only "spoke what he would," but uttered "the Truth" in such a tone as to make it unlikely that his "message" should be accepted by opponents. Like Carlyle, however, he had a heart rich in affection, no breach in friendship, he says, ever began on his side; while, as "a good hater," Dr. Johnson might have admired him. He carried into political and theological conflicts the stubborn temper of the Border prickers, his fathers, who had ridden under the Roses and the Lion of the Hepburns. So far Knox was an example of the doctrine of heredity; that we know, however little we learn in detail about his ancestors.

The birthplace of Knox was probably a house in a suburb of Haddington, in a district on the path of English invasion. The year of his birth has long been dated, on a late statement of little authority, as 1505. {4} Seven years after his death, however, a man who knew him well, namely, Peter Young, tutor and librarian of James VI., told Beza that Knox died in his fifty-ninth year. Dr. Hay Fleming has pointed out that his natal year was probably 1513-15, not 1505, and this reckoning, we shall see, appears to fit in better with the deeds of the Reformer.

If Knox was born in 1513-15, he must have taken priest's orders, and adopted the profession of a notary, at nearly the earliest moment which the canonical law permitted. No man ought to be in priest's orders before he was twenty-five; Knox, if born in 1515, was just twenty-five in 1540, when he is styled "Sir John Knox" (one of "The Pope's Knights") in legal documents, and appears as a notary. {5} He certainly continued in orders and in the notarial profession as late as March 1543. The law of the Church did not, in fact, permit priests to be notaries, but in an age when "notaires" were often professional forgers, the additional security for character yielded by Holy Orders must have been welcome to clients, and Bishops permitted priests to practise this branch of the law.

Of Knox's near kin no more is known than of his ancestors. He had a brother, William, for whom, in 1552, he procured a licence to trade in England as owner of a ship of 100 tons. Even as late as 1656, there were not a dozen ships of this burden in Scotland, so William Knox must have been relatively a prosperous man. In 1544-45, there was a William Knox, a fowler or gamekeeper to the Earl of Westmoreland, who acted as a secret agent between the Scots in English pay and their paymasters. We much later (1559) find the Reformer's brother, William, engaged with him in a secret political mission to the Governor of Berwick; probably this William knew shy Border paths, and he may have learned them as the Lord Westmoreland's fowler in earlier years.

About John Knox's early years and education nothing is known. He certainly acquired such Latin (satis humilis, says a German critic) as Scotland then had to teach; probably at the Burgh School of Haddington. A certain John Knox matriculated at the University of Glasgow in 1522, but he cannot have been the Reformer, if the Reformer was not born till 1513- 15. Beza, on the other hand (1580), had learned, probably from the Reformer, whom he knew well, that Knox was a St. Andrews man, and though his name does not occur in the University Register, the Register was very ill kept. Supposing Knox, then, to have been born in 1513-15, and to have been educated at St. Andrews, we can see how he comes to know so much about the progress of the new religious ideas at that University, between 1529 and 1535. "The Well of St. Leonard's College" was a notorious fountain of heresies, under Gawain Logie, the Principal. Knox very probably heard the sermons of the Dominicans and Franciscans "against the pride and idle life of bishops," and other abuses. He speaks of a private conversation between Friar Airth and Major (about 1534), and names some of the persons present at a sermon in the parish church of St. Andrews, as if he had himself been in the congregation. He gives the text and heads of the discourse, including "merry tales" told by the Friar. {6} If Knox heard the sermons and stories of clerical scandals at St. Andrews, they did not prevent him from taking orders. His Greek and Hebrew, what there was of them, Knox must have acquired in later life, at least we never learn that he was taught by the famous George Wishart, who, about that time, gave Greek lectures at Montrose.

The Catholic opponents of Knox naturally told scandalous anecdotes concerning his youth. These are destitute of evidence: about his youth we know nothing. It is a characteristic trait in him, and a fact much to his credit, that, though he is fond of expatiating about himself, he never makes confessions as to his earlier adventures. On his own years of the wild oat St. Augustine dilates in a style which still has charm: but Knox, if he sowed wild oats, is silent as the tomb. If he has anything to repent, it is not to the world that he confesses. About the days when he was "one of Baal's shaven sort," in his own phrase; when he was himself an "idolater," and a priest of the altar: about the details of his conversion, Knox is mute. It is probable that, as a priest, he examined Lutheran books which were brought in with other merchandise from Holland; read the Bible for himself; and failed to find Purgatory, the Mass, the intercession of Saints, pardons, pilgrimages, and other accessories of mediaeval religion in the Scriptures. {7} Knox had only to keep his eyes and ears open, to observe the clerical ignorance and corruption which resulted in great part from the Scottish habit of securing wealthy Church offices for ignorant, brutal, and licentious younger sons and bastards of noble families. This practice in Scotland was as odious to good Catholics, like Quentin Kennedy, Ninian Winzet, and, rather earlier, to Ferrerius, as to Knox himself. The prevalent anarchy caused by the long minorities of the Stuart kings, and by the interminable wars with England, and the difficulty of communications with Rome, had enabled the nobles thus to rob and deprave the Church, and so to provide themselves with moral reasons good for robbing her again; as a punishment for the iniquities which they had themselves introduced!

The almost incredible ignorance and profligacy of the higher Scottish clergy (with notable exceptions) in Knox's youth, are not matter of controversy. They are as frankly recognised by contemporary Catholic as by Protestant authors. In the very year of the destruction of the monasteries (1559) the abuses are officially stated, as will be told later, by the last Scottish Provincial Council. Though three of the four Scottish universities were founded by Catholics, and the fourth, Edinburgh, had an endowment bequeathed by a Catholic, the clerical ignorance, in Knox's time, was such that many priests could hardly read.

If more evidence is needed as to the debauched estate of the Scottish clergy, we obtain it from Mary of Guise, widow of James V., the Regent then governing Scotland for her child, Mary Stuart. The Queen, in December 1555, begged Pius IV. to permit her to levy a tax on her clergy, and to listen to what Cardinal Sermoneta would tell him about their need of reformation. The Cardinal drew a terrible sketch of the nefarious lives of "every kind of religious women" in Scotland. They go about with their illegal families and dower their daughters out of the revenues of the Church. The monks, too, have bloated wealth, while churches are allowed to fall into decay. "The only hope is in the Holy Father," who should appoint an episcopal commission of visitation. For about forty years prelates have been alienating Church lands illegally, and churches and monasteries, by the avarice of those placed in charge, are crumbling to decay. Bishops are the chief dealers in cattle, fish, and hides, though we have, in fact, good evidence that their dealings were very limited, "sma' sums."

Not only the clergy, but the nobles and people were lawless. "They are more difficult to manage than ever," writes Mary of Guise (Jan.13, 1557). They are recalcitrant against law and order; every attempt at introducing these is denounced as an attack on their old laws: not that their laws are bad, but that they are badly administered. {9} Scotland, in brief, had always been lawless, and for centuries had never been godly. She was untouched by the first fervour of the Franciscan and other religious revivals. Knox could not fail to see what was so patent: many books of the German reformers may have come in his way; no more was wanted than the preaching of George Wishart in 1543-45, to make him an irreconcilable foe of the doctrine as well as the discipline of his Church.

Knox had a sincerely religious nature, and a conviction that he was, more than most men, though a sinner, in close touch with Him "in whom we live and move and have our being." We ask ourselves, had Knox, as "a priest of the altar," never known the deep emotions, which tongue may not utter, that the ceremonies and services of his Church so naturally awaken in the soul of the believer? These emotions, if they were in his experience, he never remembered tenderly, he flung them from him without regret; not regarding them even as dreams, beautiful and dear, but misleading, that came through the Ivory Gate. To Knox's opponent in controversy, Quentin Kennedy, the mass was "the blessed Sacrament of the Altar . . . which is one of the chief Sacraments whereby our Saviour, for the salvation of mankind, has appointed the fruit of His death and passion to be daily renewed and applied." In this traditional view there is nothing unedifying, nothing injurious to the Christian life. But to Knox the wafer is an idol, a god "of water and meal," "but a feeble and miserable god," that can be destroyed "by a bold and puissant mouse." "Rats and mice will desire no better dinner than white round gods enough." {10}

The Reformer and the Catholic take up the question "by different handles"; and the Catholic grounds his defence on a text about Melchizedek! To Knox the mass is the symbol of all that he justly detested in the degraded Church as she then was in Scotland, "that horrible harlot with her filthiness." To Kennedy it was what we have seen.

Knox speaks of having been in "the puddle of papistry." He loathes what he has left behind him, and it is natural to guess that, in his first years of priesthood, his religious nature slept; that he became a priest and notary merely that he "might eat a morsel of bread"; and that real "conviction" never was his till his studies of Protestant controversialists, and also of St. Augustine and the Bible, and the teaching of Wishart, raised him from a mundane life. Then he awoke to a passionate horror and hatred of his old routine of "mumbled masses," of "rites of human invention," whereof he had never known the poetry and the mystic charm. Had he known them, he could not have so denied and detested them. On the other hand, when once he had embraced the new ideas, Knox's faith in them, or in his own form of them, was firm as the round world, made so fast that it cannot be moved. He had now a pou sto, whence he could, and did, move the world of human affairs. A faith not to be shaken, and enormous energy were the essential attributes of the Reformer. It is almost impossible to find an instance in which Knox allows that he may have been mistaken: d'avoir toujours raison was his claim. If he admits an error in details, it is usually an error of insufficient severity. He did not attack Northumberland or Mary Stuart with adequate violence; he did not disapprove enough of our prayer book; he did not hand a heretic over to the magistrates.

While acting as a priest and notary, between 1540, at latest, and 1543, Knox was engaged as private tutor to a boy named Brounefield, son of Brounefield of Greenlaw, and to other lads, spoken of as his "bairns." In this profession of tutor he continued till 1547.

Knox's personal aspect did not give signs of the uncommon strength which his unceasing labours demanded, but, like many men of energy, he had a perpetual youth of character and vigour. After his death, Peter Young described him as he appeared in his later years. He was somewhat below the "just" standard of height; his limbs were well and elegantly shaped; his shoulders broad, his fingers rather long, his head small, his hair black, his face somewhat swarthy, and not unpleasant to behold. There was a certain geniality in a countenance serious and stern, with a natural dignity and air of command; his eyebrows, when he was in anger, were expressive. His forehead was rather narrow, depressed above the eyebrows; his cheeks were full and ruddy, so that the eyes seemed to retreat into their hollows: they were dark grey, keen, and lively. The face was long, the nose also; the mouth was large, the upper lip being the thicker. The beard was long, rather thick and black, with a few grey hairs in his later years. {12} The nearest approach to an authentic portrait of Knox is a woodcut, engraved after a sketch from memory by Peter Young, and after another sketch of the same kind by an artist in Edinburgh. Compared with the peevish face of Calvin, also in Beza's Icones, Knox looks a broad-minded and genial character.

Despite the uncommon length to which Knox carried the contemporary approval of persecution, then almost universal, except among the Anabaptists (and any party out of power), he was not personally rancorous where religion was not concerned. But concerned it usually was! He was the subject of many anonymous pasquils and libels, we know, but he entirely disregarded them. If he hated any mortal personally, and beyond what true religion demands of a Christian, that mortal was the mother of Mary Stuart, an amiable lady in an impossible position. Of jealousy towards his brethren there is not a trace in Knox, and he told Queen Mary that he could ill bear to correct his own boys, though the age was as cruel to schoolboys as that of St. Augustine.

The faults of Knox arose not in his heart, but in his head; they sprung from intellectual errors, and from the belief that he was always right. He applied to his fellow-Christians -- Catholics -- the commands which early Israel supposed to be divinely directed against foreign worshippers of Chemosh and Moloch. He endeavoured to force his own theory of what the discipline of the Primitive Apostolic Church had been upon a modern nation, following the example of the little city state of Geneva, under Calvin. He claimed for preachers chosen by local congregations the privileges and powers of the apostolic companions of Christ, and in place of "sweet reasonableness," he applied the methods, quite alien to the Founder of Christianity, of the "Sons of Thunder." All controversialists then relied on isolated and inappropriate scriptural texts, and Biblical analogies which were not analogous; but Knox employed these things, with perhaps unusual inconsistency, in varying circumstances. His "History" is not more scrupulous than that of other partisans in an exciting contest, and examples of his taste for personal scandal are not scarce.

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