ANNA BELFRAGE

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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.

knox-marie-macphersonMarie 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!

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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.

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John Knox. Photo Kim Traynor, licensed under Creative Commons

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?

knox-firstblastPublished 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.

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“Must he nag so?”

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.

knox-louise_rayner_john_knoxs_house_edinburghDespite 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.

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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:

knox-2bott-book-covervWriting 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!

Too much strife, too little love – a Scottish marriage and its consequences

IMG_0317These days, we tend to have a romanticised view of marriage. It is white dresses and orange blossoms, it is love shining out of teary eyes and promises to love and to hold until death do us part. Today, most of us assume people marry for love. Okay, so there are different types of love – some people seem to marry out of love for their intended’s money rather than the intended’s qualities as a person, but in general the presumption is that first we hold hands, then we kiss, then we fall irrevocably in love and get married.

Marrying for love has its downsides. Like people falling out of love – or falling in love with someone else. In historic times, people married for various reasons, but rarely was one of those reasons love. After all, it is difficult to love someone you’ve never met, as in those arranged marriages that were the norm during medieval times (at least if you had land or wealth). I suppose this means that people married with very different expectations from the ones we have today, when we view all that marriage stuff through rose-tinted glasses and sigh at the happily ever after.

Historic couples got married to safeguard their respective families’ wealth and position – and to make heirs. Once that was concluded, the married couple could either rub along happily, or choose to spend as little time as possible together. No one really cared, as long as appearances were upheld when required. This was a pragmatic solution to marriages that were destined to last your entire life – after all, divorce was rarely an option.

In actual fact, divorce was more common than we tend to think. Mostly on the grounds of consanguinity, a sort of “oh dear, I forgot to get a dispensation on account of us being second cousins, and as I utterly hate your guts and you haven’t given me any sons, I’m going to divorce you”. Sometimes, divorce was granted due to lack of consent – although I imagine it was a bit difficult to come back six year after the fact and say that you’d never agreed to the marriage to begin with – or due to the discovery of a pre-contract. i.e. a promise to marry someone else.

However, all in all, divorce before the 20th century was rare. Very rare.  So, most married couples did, in fact, live together until parted by death – quite often through the wife’s death in childbirth.

Knox,_JohnIn England, acquiring a divorce remained a messy thing well into the 20th century. The accepted grounds for divorce were essentially adultery, but further to that, a spouse had to prove cruelty and abuse of some kind or another to be free of the philandering partner. In Scotland, however, things had been much, much easier since back in the 16th century. Personally, I think John Knox deserves a pat on the back for this – but then I am quite ambivalent to this fascinating man, on the one hand vilifying female rulers in his famous “First Blast of the Trumpet”, on the other a man who clearly enjoyed the company of women – and respected them.

So what did Scotland do back in the 16th century? Well, they decided to allow divorce, that’s what those savvy Scots did. Furthermore, the issue of divorce was transferred out of the ecclesiastic courts to be handled by lawmen rather than priests – which makes a lot of sense when one considers that most marriages at the time were contractual arrangements that involved property moving hands. (This is not to say the powerful Scottish Kirk did not keep a beady eye on proceedings – it most certainly did!) However, divorce was still a last remedy, and was essentially only granted for two reasons, one of which was adultery.

These Scots were progressive types, very much into gender equality (well…) How else to explain their decision that both men and women could demand a divorce on account of adultery – quite unheard of in a world where a man’s indiscretions were just that – indiscretions – while a woman’s adventures with another man than her husband were a sin, a grievous, grievous sin, very much in keeping with women’s general lack of morality and propensity for uncontrolled lust.

Interestingly enough, no law was ever passed confirming the right to divorce due to adultery. Instead, it was assumed that the prohibition against divorce on account of adultery went out of the window together with the allegiance to the Pope, and a decade or so later, divorce due to adultery was an established common law practice.

Had the Scots left it at that – divorce on account of adultery – that would have been an improvement, but maybe not a major improvement. However, due to the antics of two people with that intoxicating combination of money and clout, Scottish divorce legislation came to recognise another reason for divorce, namely desertion by either party. This had the benefit of being much easier to arrange – and prove – plus it did not tar one of the parties as being an unfaithful git. But let me introduce you to the main protagonists in all this, namely the Earl of Argyll – Archibald Campbell – and Lady Jean Stewart, one of James V’s many by-blows.

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James V

Little Jean might have been born out of wedlock, but her royal father was well-practiced in handling such sensitive issues and in general took good care of his offspring. On her mother’s side, she was related to the Beatons – a powerful family which counts among its more (in)famous members Cardinal David Beaton, Archbishop of St Andrews who instigated the trial and execution by burning of religious reformer George Wishart, and who some time afterwards was assassinated by William Kirkcaldy and a couple of aggravated Leslies. Beaton’s body was hanged from the window of his castle for everyone to see, and in many ways his handling of Wishart was the fuel that led to the roaring bonfire that was the Scottish reformation.

Enough about David Beaton (a man who deserves his own post, what with his relaxed attitude to celibacy, his constant focus on Number One – this being Davie, not Our Lord – and his strong Catholic and political convictions). Suffice it to say that little Jean was of good lineage on both sides, no matter what side of the blanket she was born on.

Archibald might not be a royal bastard, but his family was wealthy and among the most powerful in Scotland. Very early on, our Archie became an ardent Protestant. During the long regency that followed James V’s death, he, together with James Stewart – yet another of James V’s bastards, later to be Earl of Moray – became a vociferous opponent to Marie de Guise and her pro-French policies, fearing that the little Queen’s mother had every intention of keeping Scotland a loyal member of the Holy Roman Church. Probably a correct assumption, but Argyll’s decision to seek help and support from the English did not endear him overmuch to his countrymen.

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Marie de Guise

Jean was fond of Marie de Guise. The Queen Mother treated her husband’s bastards with kindness, and she was very protective of Jean, the young queen’s only sister. Jean was raised at court and became one of Marie’s most trusted maids, living in close familiarity with the beleaguered regent.

Archie and Jean were married in 1553. Maybe they disliked each other on sight. Maybe their differing opinions on matter religious drove an immediate wedge between the young spouses, at the time still in their teens. Whatever the case, the marriage quickly deteriorated, with Archie living openly with various mistresses, fathering a number of illegitimate children while Jean remained childless. Things did not improve when ardent Archie became a prominent member of the Lords of Congregation, the Protestant faction that led the rebellion that resulted in the Scottish reformation in 1560. Jean couldn’t forgive her husband for siding against her beloved Marie de Guise.

Jean decided to get her own back by taking a lover. The Campbell clan roared in anger at this dishonour to their chief, and Jean was effectively held prisoner. Through the efforts of her – and Archie’s – extended family, the couple achieved some sort of reconciliation in 1561, very much at the hands of John Knox, who seems to have had quite the vested interest in this couple’s marriage.

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Mary, Queen of Scots

Mary Queen of Scots returned to Scotland from France in 1561, and Jean quickly became a favoured lady-in-waiting, while her husband was one of the Queen’s chief political advisors. This didn’t help the marriage. Things went from bad to worse, one could say, with Jean complaining to the Queen, who was quite torn between her loyalties to her sister, and her dependency on Argyll to maintain peace in her realm.

(c) Museums Sheffield; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Mary and Knox as per W Powell Firth

In 1563 the Queen decided to rope in some help in attempting to heal the breach between Archie and Jean. She contacted John Knox. Picture this scene for a moment: The devout Catholic queen turns to her foremost adversary when it comes to matters of faith and asks for a tete-a-tete. In a low, concerned voice, she expresses that something must be done to save the fragile thing that is Jean’s marriage. John Knox agreed, and in 1563, the Queen and the Reformer had a number of sessions with Jean and Archie. Ultimately, it didn’t help – but it was nice that they tried!

Archie was becoming desperate. He needed an heir, and whether it was because Jean refused him access to her bed (in itself a mean feat in the 16th century) or because she was barren, so far there had been no reconciling patter of little feet. Plus, the two spouses obviously hated each other’s guts. So Archie offered Jean a settlement if she would agree to a divorce on the grounds of adultery, with him taking the blame. She refused – as the so called injured party she could.

The Queen was deposed, the realm was in upheaval, and in all this chaos Jean took the opportunity of fleeing for ever from her husband’s tender care. In 1567 she ran away, and the couple’s very public separation forced the Scottish Kirk to attempt to deal with it. Archie needed a full divorce, not a separation. He wanted to be free to wed again and beget children. Jean had no intention of making anything easy for him, and so the Kirk’s leaders – such as John Knox – sucked in their lips and mulled this little conundrum over.

In 1573, the Earl of Argyll succeeded in having the Scottish Parliament pass an Act that allowed divorce on the grounds of desertion. This time, when he pushed Jean for a divorce, she didn’t protest. Her own position was far too shaky at present, with her royal sister imprisoned and her brother, the powerful Earl of Moray, busy with other matters. And so, in August of 1573, Archibald Campbell became a free man again, hastening to re-marry. Unfortunately for him, six weeks later he was dead… Unfortunately for his hapless widow, Jean decided the time was ripe to protest the divorce, insisting she had been forced.

After years of squabbles, a final settlement was made four years later. Jean retained the title of Countess of Argyll (very important to her, apparently), received a generous lump sum and retired to live out the rest of her life at her Canongate residence in Edinburgh. I’m thinking she laughed all the way to the bank, our Jean – or maybe she didn’t. Maybe now and then she felt genuine regret for what could have been a marriage and never rose above a constant bloody strife.

The legal outcome of all this was that in 1573, Scotland implemented an Act that allowed for spouses to be divorced, assuming they could prove desertion by the other. Suddenly, all those unhappy marriages had a “get out of jail” card. Not a bad thing, all in all, even if divorce continued to be rare in the following centuries. A failed marriage was a stigma – especially for the woman, who, as we all know, probably was to blame for its failure to begin with. After all, either she was a nag, or she was barren or, worst of all, she was a lewd and immoral creature, far too tempted by carnal sin. Duh!

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