John Knox can rightly be viewed as one of the most important people in Scottish history, and one of the most complex. Over the centuries Scotland has produce no shortage of colourful characters. Open any history book and there's an extensive roll-call of heroes and villains; of kings and queens who ruled or misruled; of noblemen and women who backed the right faction or the wrong faction; and of industrialists, inventors, poets, authors, doctors, nurses and clerics. If you ask who did more than any other to make Scotland what it is today, there are a few obvious possibilities. James VI of Scotland has to be considered, because he also became James I of England and so united two kingdoms. But it's arguable that the character of Scotland itself, and the Scots, was shaped more by a commoner, John Knox, than by any of the more obvious candidates.
Most Scots will know that John Knox was the man who in 1560 triggered the Reformation in Scotland, and who then nurtured it and guided it along a very distinctive path. It was largely down to him that in Scotland the trappings of the Roman Catholic church were swept away with a fundamentalist fervour that was unmatched south of the border, and replaced with a form of Presbyterian Protestantism that would, eighty years later, plunge the whole of the British Isles into two decades of warfare and lose a king his head. Viewed from four-and-a-half centuries later this can seem a very double-edged sword. The impoverishment of the built environment that took place during the Reformation, as churches were destroyed or vandalised, has done much to shape the look and feel of modern Scotland, and the religion that emerged helped shape the character of the nation.
"The Second Blast of the Trumpet" by Marie Macpherson is the second in what will become her trilogy of historical novels retelling the story of John Knox, and it is an outstanding book. We can scarcely guess at the amount of research it took to recreate the world of the 1550s in such wonderful and believable detail. The characterisation is also superb. As the preceding paragraphs probably show, we are more than ready to see Knox as an unsympathetic character, a religious fundamentalist unable to see beyond the narrow confines of his belief. What emerges from Marie Macpherson's keyboard is someone altogether more interesting. Knox's negative traits are set out in full view: especially his intolerance and his utter lack of tact and diplomacy. The author also pulls no punches when it comes to what would now be regarded as Knox's deep-rooted misogyny, most clearly characterised by a pamphlet he produced condemning the rule of Queen Mary of England, whose title is picked up in the titles of the books in this series. Yet despite this, we are afforded an understanding of the more rounded man hiding behind the mask, of the real human being behind the firebrand preacher. The result is a book which manages to convey the sense of the religious arguments which flowed back and forth at the time, while still being an entertaining read.
The second book in the trilogy picks up Knox's story in 1549, when he is released from a sentence as a French galley-slave. It follows him to England: to Berwick, Newcastle and London, as he works as an influential preacher within the English Reformation, deeply embroiled in church politics and attached as chaplain to the court of King Edward VI. The king's untimely death and the succession of the vengefully Roman Catholic Queen Mary saw Knox flee to the continent. We follow him to Geneva and Frankfurt, and more than once to Dieppe as he awaits word that he can safely return to Scotland, whose own Reformation is, he feels, overdue. We also see the human side of Knox, as he woos and weds his young wife, and then becomes a father. From a Scottish perspective, this is the part of Knox's story it's easy to gloss over, so it is fascinating to be able to benefit from Marie Macpherson's research and emerge understanding much more fully how he became the man who made such a deep and lasting impact when he did eventually return to Scotland.