John Knox and
the Reformation in Britain

John Knox (1505‑1572) is the most well‑known Scottish reformer of the same period that is also labelled ‘the English Reformation.’ Also famed for his book in 1558 ‘The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women’. One cyclopaedia calls him "the famous divine and Reformer, who stirred Scotland to mighty religious impulses in the reign of Mary, Queen of Scots."

He was born in Scotland and educated there before taking holy orders. The reformation in England burst forth when Henry VIII made himself head of the church in England and this was aided by the beliefs in this island from the days of John Wycliffe and Lollardy as well as to those reformers like Luther in continental Europe from the time after King Henry took the throne in 1509. It’s not surprising that Scotland had a similar movement.

The political situation was different in Scotland as they were ruled by Mary of Guise, (1515‑1560) the powerful French regent and mother of Mary, Queen of Scots. She was catholic and her brother was a cardinal in France. Meanwhile Knox relied on protection from prominent men in Scotland like those whose children he taught. Scotland became a dangerous place though, as George Wishart was burnt as a heretic on 1 March 1546 and then Cardinal Beaton, the last Scottish cardinal prior to the Reformation was murdered on 29 May of the same year. It was in this background that Knox lost his liberty in 1547 under the hand of Mary of Guise.

Henry VIII died in 1547 and was acceded to the throne by his young son Edward who was surrounded by protestant protectors like Somerset and Northumberland and those of his maternal Seymour family. It was this English government who interceded to free him and bring him to England in 1549 where he first served as a preacher in Berwick and then Newcastle where he preached against the mass. He was described as having a ‘magnetic character.’

In 1552 Knox was part of a committee of six to set up a code for priests to have a licence to preach and was involved with Cranmer’s idea to have articles of religion which finally got royal ascent on 12 June 1553. All the while he was bold enough to speak out at covetousness and pride in the seat of power.

Events were soon to change radically for British reformers when King Edward died in July 1553 and the scheme to place his protestant cousin Lady Jane Grey on the throne failed. Therefore Mary Tudor became the first queen regnant and significantly, she was fervently catholic. Some prominent reformers like Hooper, Rogers, Saunders and Taylor were burned and hundreds of others like Knox fled to the continent to places like Frankfurt, Geneva, Strasbourg and Zurich.

Geneva was the place where Knox attended a ‘school’ under the influence of John Calvin who helped with providing the texts to go with certain lines of thought. Calvin accepted Luther’s justification by faith and is largely linked to the doctrine of predestination though he pressed believers to prove themselves as part of the elect. In exile there was a division between those who supported Cranmer’s 1552 Prayer book and those who felt it needed moulding along the line with Calvin’s thoughts. They suggested abolishing vestments, the litany, oral responses to list a few changes. This debate was rife in Frankfurt and Knox was summoned there from Geneva, where Calvin was, to lead the faction who also stated each congregation should elect its own ministers and deacons. The opposite faction led by Dr. Richard Cox brought conflict in Frankfurt, with Knox.

Knox had written many times against Queen Mary and Catholicism and in his writing ‘Faithful Admonition’ heavily libelled Mary and her husband. To Mary he wrote "if she had been sent to hell before these days, her cruelty would not have so manifestly appeared to the world." Therefore he had to leave Frankfurt and the scene of this debate and return to Geneva.

Mary’s death on 17 November 1558 and her sister Elizabeth’s accession led to hundreds of reformers returning to England. In Knox’s case this was too risky due to his 1558 book stating the idea of female monarchs was against Biblical teaching. Nevertheless Elizabeth’s reign had an impact on Scotland too. Knox arrived in May 1559 full of zeal to find the prominent Protestants ready to remove the French from Scotland. With Elizabeth’s largely unofficial support, money and lastly military help they had success. In 1560 there was the Treaty of Edinburgh and she removed French influence from Scotland through Knox and his like. Mary, Queen of Scots was powerless to change this. Hence British Protestantism was secure and Knox’s impact felt in all parts of this island.