John Knox and St Andrews


Preaching of Knox before the Lords of the Congregation (in the Parish Church of St Andrews 10th June 1559) by David Wilkie


Born in East Lothian, around 1514, John Knox came from a modest family, with his father, William Knox, being a merchant. While Knox and his brother, also called William, were young their parents died of unknown circumstances; as a result, the two boys were taken in by a wealthy family who provided a suitable education for both brothers. At the age of 15, Knox left home and came to the University of St Andrews to continue his studies, and after his graduation, became a priest, a profession that had ultimately been decided by him and his guardians.


During this period, Protestantism was expanding across most of Europe, and Knox, like many others, had been both exposed to it and grew to support this new theology, as opposed to the traditional Catholic foundations of Scotland’s religion. Patrick Hamilton, a fellow St Andrews reformer and Protestant martyr, and George Wishart, a priest who had fled to Scotland in 1538 to escape accusations of heresy, both inspired Knox’s conversion to Protestantism, and the three men all became close friends.


In 1546, Wishart was found guilty of his crimes and burnt at the stake, under the decision of Cardinal David Beaton. Knox quickly went into hiding by returning to his studies, but Cardinal Beaton, who lived in the Castle of St Andrews, was slaughtered and his home captured by his murderers. The captors developed a group of nearly fifty people and by April 10th 1547, and Knox returned to St Andrews as preacher for the over-throwers.  Knox openly preached about the corruption of the Roman Catholic Church and a need for social reform, using The Bible as a supportive material to argument.  He gained followers but the threat that Knox and the other Protestant reformers posed caused Mary de Guise, Scotland’s Queen Regent, to summon a French fleet in July 1547, which eventually took back control of St Andrews Castle. As punishment, the Reformers, including Knox, were sent to work as French galley slaves, however, this experience did not weaken Knox but actually strengthened his new found faith.


In 1559, Knox returned to Scotland, landing in Leith, after having visited England under the reign of Catholic Queen Mary I and parts of Europe, with the aim to help strengthen the Protestant cause. He was quickly declared an outlaw upon his return and, along with other Protestants, summoned by the Queen Regent to Stirling; however, fearful of execution, Knox and the other reformers went to Perth, where he delivered a powerful sermon that even caused a riot. Soon, Knox was gaining support from the Scottish nobles, such as the Earl of Argyll and the Earl of Moray, which caused outrage for the Catholic monarch and impended the future of the young Mary, Queen of Scots.


Upon his return to St Andrews, Knox finally made another sermon in the church, an aim he had made during his time in the galleys and, similar to Perth, the speech was fiery and cause public outcry. After a few years of religious uncertainty, Mary de guise died in 1560, which was one of the most critical steps in Scotland’s Protestant revolution. Scottish Parliament called for a meeting to settle all religious issues, on August 1st 1560, Knox and five other minsters came together and within just four days, parliament had voted, passing three new acts; the jurisdiction of the Pope in Scotland was abolished, all doctrine was to be reformed and, lastly, the practice of Mass was to be eradicated in Scotland.  Within a few months, Knox and the others completed work on the Book of Discipline, a text that outlaid the foundations of Scotland’s new religion.


While Knox is often just associated with being a bible-bashing preacher and being against the Catholic Scottish monarchy, nonetheless, his life’s work was crucial in the shaping of modern Scotland. He preached ideas and beliefs that he thought were essential for the development of Scotland, demanding many important social and religious changes in the nation’s history.


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