A misunderstood misogynist? Meet John Knox!
I have a fascination with the Reformation. While we tend to simplify and see it as a spur of the moment thing caused by the sale of indulgences, the Holy Church has always had its fair share of people who have questioned its interpretation of scripture and its general approach to things. Such debates could be very vigorous. In some cases, they led to changes. In some cases, the person questioning ended up dead.
I any case, all this internal criticism came to a head in the late fifteenth/early sixteenth century, and this time the division was too deep to be healed. Ergo the Reformation, which was not, as some think, one Protestant faction versus the Holy Church. Nope: it was many, many Protestant factions versus the Holy Church. One such faction were the Calvinists, and today I have invited Marie Macpherson to tell us some more about John Knox, Calvinist reformer of Scotland.
Marie was born in Musselburgh, has a degree in Russian and English and wrote her PhD thesis about Russian writer Lermontov. The rich history of East Lothian – especially the Reformation period – provided the inspiration for her first fictional work, based on the early life of the Scottish reformer, John Knox. Having read both the first and now the second of Marie’s books, I’d say what she doesn’t know about John Knox is probably not worth knowing, and so, with no further ado, allow me to turn you over into her capable hands!
John Knox and the “Monstrous Regiment”
The question I’m often asked is why would I, a woman, choose to write about John Knox? Some may idolise the founding father of the Scottish Reformation as a saint – not something the iconoclast would approve of – but for many Knox is the fire-breathing, pulpit-thumping tyrant who penned that vitriolic anti-feminine tract, The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women.
To be fair, this was not an attack on all women but aimed at the ‘unnatural’ rule or regime of Mary Tudor in England, with sideswipes at Regent Marie de Guise in Scotland and Mary, Queen of Scots in France. Neither was Knox a rogue male chauvinist in trumpeting the view that women were inferior beings: most men of the time agreed with him using scripture to justify their argument, though none were as vociferous as the fiery Scot. He not only wanted to depose the ‘three Marys’ but, if necessary, execute the tyrants. This was tantamount to treason.
But did Knox hate women? Surprisingly, the answer is no. In contrast to his abject hate and loathing of Catholic queens, Knox loved female company and formed several close relationships with women throughout his life. The twice-married father of five children was also quite the ladies’ man. The celibate Roman Catholic priest in the first half of his life made up for lost time in the second half. According to one source, “Whenever he made a journey he took around with him a certain number of women whom he used to satisfy his lusts.” Or, as someone at one of my talks remarked, “I never knew Knox was such a babe magnet.’ Needless to say, all this sheds a completely different light on Knox and contradicts his reputation as a rampant misogynist.
His relationship with his mother-in-law, Mrs Bowes, is particularly fascinating. Freed from the galleys in 1559, Knox was a pariah in Scotland but welcomed in England. Appointed minister in Berwick-upon-Tweed, he met Elizabeth Bowes, wife of the warden of Norham Castle. This middle-aged matron and mother of 15 children had been a devout Roman Catholic until the religious rug was pulled from under her. Inspired by his sermons, she developed a ‘crush’ on the charismatic Scots preacher. A religious hypochondriac, continually tortured by the devil with doubts about whether or not she was one of the elect, she poured out her heart to her substitute priest/confessor.
When she confessed to being guilty of the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah, Knox must have been horrified – until realising she had no idea what they were. After explaining that these consisted of pride, riotous excess, idleness that provoked filthy lusts, resulting in all abomination and unnatural filthiness, he asked, ‘In which of these, Mother, are ye guilty?’ Unfortunately her response is not recorded.
Nevertheless, their intimacy has led to prurient speculation. The notorious cupboard incident at Alnwick where Knox confessed, “In very deed I thought nae creature had been temptit as I was,” has been wheeled out as evidence of adultery. But this vision of Knox lurking behind the linen cupboard to snatch a furtive embrace with his ‘belovit mother’ has been dismissed as fantasy. To quash rumours, Knox wrote a letter to the faithful explaining that the cause of his familiarity with Mrs Bowes was neither flesh nor blood but entirely of the spirit. More likely, Mrs Bowes was a maternal figure, the soft feminine presence Knox craved in a male dominated life. Though he endured her outpourings with the patience of a saint, she drove him to distraction at times with her “fasherie and nuisance”. She sounds like the mother-in-law from hell – and a novelist’s dream.
At the age of 33 he married Mrs Bowes’s 16 year-old-daughter, causing accusations of cradle snatching to be flung at him. However, in an age when women frequently died in childbirth, it was quite common for an older man to take a young wife. More shocking was Mrs Bowes’s decision to abandon her husband and family and follow her daughter and son-in-law to Geneva. Nevertheless, Marjory proved to be the perfect wife for Knox, not only his dear bedfellow but his helpmeet and secretary. Calvin certainly approved, calling her “the most delightful of wives” and “a rare find”. In Geneva, she gave birth to two sons and her premature death in 1560 left Knox in “no small heaviness”.
Invited to London in 1552 as one of King Edward VI’s court preachers, Knox lodged with the Lockes, a family of wealthy London mercers. He forged an intense relationship with Henry Locke’s young wife Anna, an intelligent, educated woman who wrote poetry and translated Calvin’s writings.
Whether or Anna was, according to Robert Louis Stevenson, the love of Knox’s life, she certainly became a life-long confidante and correspondent and his letters give some insight into the private man. In stark contrast to the image of the bully and brute, they reveal his sensitive ‘feminine’ side’. Exiled in Geneva, he expressed thirst and langour for her presence: “Sometimes I sobbed fearing what should become of you”, he wrote, fearing for her life during Mary Tudor’s persecution. So much so that he invited Anna and her children to Geneva where their ménage-à-quatre dashed any hopes Knox may have had of living a quiet scholarly life. Did these domestic troubles drive the hen-pecked Knox to distraction and fuel the flames for his infamous tract?
Published anonymously in 1557, Knox’s First Blast was not only misjudged. Drawing howls of horror from all sides – including John Calvin – it was grossly mistimed. Despite his famous gift of prophecy, he failed to foresee Mary Tudor’s death in November 1558 or the accession of yet another queen – albeit a Protestant one.
Though Knox tried to mince his words, the young Queen Elizabeth I was not at all amused and refused his request for safe passage through England. When Knox finally arrived in 1559, Scotland was in the brunt of civil war and he took up the fight against the Regent, Mary of Guise. Her death in June 1560 heralded the triumph of Protestantism in Scotland.
In December 1560, Knox and Mary Stewart both suffered personal tragedies: the unexpected death of his wife, Marjory, and her husband, King François. Despite these common losses, the elderly widower and the young widow could not be more different and clashed in a series of famous meetings. The staunch Protestant believed the people had the right to depose an ungodly ruler while the devout Roman Catholic queen believed in the divine right of a monarch to rule. Thus she was furious when Knox dared to challenge her marriage to Henry Stewart, Lord Darnley.
Neither was she pleased when, after being widowed for three years, 50-year-old Knox took another 17 year-old bride. Mary “stormeth wonderfully”, not only because he’d wed her distant cousin, Margaret Stewart, without royal consent but because it brought Knox into the family. Catholic commentators even accused him of having used the black arts to secure the match.
Whatever his secret, Knox managed to sire three daughters within six years. As well as fulfilling her role as bedfellow, Margaret acted as Knox’s secretary and PA. But the fact that, after his death, the merry widow wed Andrew Ker of Fawdonside who had held a pistol to Mary Stewart’s pregnant belly during David Riccio’s murder, suggests a more spirited character than Marjory.
Despite his success in establishing the Protestant Reformation in Scotland, Knox became increasingly embittered in his final years as he realised that religion was not a priority for many of the lords reneging to the queen’s side. In November 1572, Knox died in his bed rather than atop a burning pyre, as he’d always feared, in James Mossman’s house, now known as John Knox House, on High Street. A plaque in the car park outside St Giles Cathedral marks where he was buried – perhaps next to his beloved, tragic Marjory.
I rather like the idea of Mary, Queen of Scots, “storming wonderfully” 🙂 Thank you, Marie for this interesting post, and should you want to know more about Marie and her books, I recommend you visit her Amazon page. You can also connect on FB or Twitter.
As to her book, I recently read The second blast of the trumpet, and here is my review:
Writing a book about John Knox comes with its own particular challenges—principally that of creating some sympathy for a man mostly remembered as a harsh and uncompromising reformer of the church. Fortunately, Ms Macpherson manages to do just that, presenting us with a complex character who is self-righteous and weak in turns, thereby inspiring the odd bout of tenderness
The book covers the period 1549 to 1559. It continues the story begun in Ms Macpherson’s first book, The First Blast of the Trumpet, and for the sake of clarity—and enjoyment—I recommend reading them in order.
Had this book been only about John Knox’s efforts to promote his religious doctrine, it could quickly have become boring. Luckily, there is an unfolding romance within, with Knox being struck with Cupid’s arrow the first time he claps eyes on little Marjory Bowes. Not that Marjory reciprocates his feelings – not initially – but over the years she develops a special fondness for this bearded and passionate man. As does Marjory’s mother. Ms Macpherson handles the resulting tensions with aplomb and a certain tongue-in-cheek, resulting in a very colourful Mrs Bowes.
Ms Macpherson is an accomplished writer. The prose is fluid, the historical details elegantly inserted, the descriptions vivid. All in all, this is an engaging read, my only quibble being the rather abrupt ending. I am looking forward to reading the next instalment in the Knox Saga!