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St Giles' Cathedral, Edinburgh
St Giles' Cathedral, Edinburgh

John Knox was probably born around 1513 and died on 24 November 1572. He was one of the leading figures in the Presbyterian Reformation of the Church in Scotland and in another era would have been described as a religious fundamentalist. Knox is thought to have been born in Haddington in East Lothian. He completed his studies at either Glasgow University or St Andrews University: or possibly both. By 1540 Knox had been ordained as a Catholic priest, though it seems likely he acted as a private tutor to several well off families in East Lothian rather than ministering more widely. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.

John Knox
John Knox: Model in St Andrews
Castle Visitor Centre
John Knox's House
John Knox's House, Edinburgh
St Andrews Castle
St Andrews Castle

In 1543 the noted Protestant George Wishart returned to Scotland after a period abroad and met Knox the following year during a visit to East Lothian. Knox was converted by Wishart and became his close associate, accompanying him everywhere, acting as his bodyguard in the face of threats from the anti-Protestant forces in Scotland, led by Cardinal David Beaton.

Wishart was arrested in December 1545 on Cardinal Beaton's orders, tried for heresy, and burned at the stake in St Andrews in March 1546. On 29 May 1546 Cardinal Beaton was himself murdered in St Andrew Castle, in retaliation for the execution of Wishart. St Andrew Castle became a rallying point for Scottish Protestants, and John Knox was among those who took up residence there. By late 1546 the castle was under siege, but was proving impossible to capture. The siege was broken in July 1547 when French ships bombarded the castle.

Those defenders who were not killed were forced to become galley-slaves for the French navy: chained to benches and forced to row. Knox was released at the beginning of 1549, apparently thanks to the efforts of the English government. He spent the following four years as a preacher in England, during which time he became one of the chaplains to King Edward VI and declined a post as Bishop of Rochester, a sign of his disapproval of the Episcopal (ie governed by Bishops) organisation of the Church of England.

After Edward VI's death in 1553, Knox went abroad, ending up in 1554 as the Minister of Eglise de Notre Dame la Neuve in Geneva, which catered for the English speaking residents of the city. During this period Knox married Marjorie Bowes, daughter of Richard Bowes, constable of Norham Castle.

Knox returned to Scotland in 1559 to find the Regent, Marie de Guise, ill and on the defensive as the forces of Protestantism gathered strength. Knox was pivotal in securing the support of the English government for the Reformation in Scotland, then for persuading significant parts of the Scottish nobility to shift their allegiance away from Marie de Guise and her French supporters. And it was a sermon preached in St Giles' in Edinburgh by John Knox on 29 June 1559 that can be regarded as the real starting point of the Reformation of the Church in Scotland.

Marie's death on 10 June 1560, news of which was received by Knox with unseemly glee, opened the way for the Treaty of Edinburgh. This provided for the removal of both English and French military forces from Scotland. And then in August 1560 the Scottish Parliament prohibited the practise of the Latin Mass in Scotland and denies the authority of the Pope, in effect formally implementing the Reformation across Scotland.

Knox himself became minister of the Church of St. Giles' where he had effectively triggered the Reformation not much more than a year earlier. And after the return of the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots to become Queen of a Protestant nation, it was Knox who, during the course of four meetings between the two, impressed on Mary the consequences of any attempt to move the nation back towards catholicism.

Knox's first wife died not long after he took up ministry in Edinburgh, and in 1564 the 51 year old preacher married the 17 year old Margaret Stewart of Ochiltree, daughter of Andrew, Lord Stewart of Ochiltree, who also became his secretary. During his time in Edinburgh, Knox lived in first, a (now long gone) house opposite the St Giles', then a little further down the Royal Mile in what is now known as John Knox's House. He continued to work until his death, on 24 November 1572, leaving behind his still very young widow and their three daughters.

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