RAB MCNEIL’S SCOTTISH ICONS: John Knox – the fiery preacher whose pal got burnt at the stake



THIS week’s Icon might cause a schism among readers. With my usual lack of awareness, I hadn’t given the Protestant v Catholic daftness much thought, and had chosen a subject based purely on his importance in Scottish history.

Also, there was a statue to him. That’s iconic, right? Then I thought: ‘A statue! Aw naw. It’s 2022. Statues bad!’ As my research reached the five-minute halfway mark, it also struck me that John Knox himself might have considered his statue idolatrous: from iconic to ironic.

I used to pass that statue twice-weekly when the reconvened Scottish Parliament met at New College on yonder Mound in Edinburgh. Depending on what kind of day I’d had, I’d acknowledge it by saying, “Aw right, big man?” or “And you can shut up, tae!”

Beyond that, the bloke on the plinth meant little to me. Funny hat. Shouting the odds. Some kind of theological pundit. I knew vaguely that he hadn’t seemed terribly fond of Catholicism, though I’ve since read two minutes ago that his legacy was arguably more about making the Kirk more presbyterian and less anglican. Which must mean something to somebody.

Cards on the table: I don’t, to mex my mitaphors, have a dog in this fight. Of mixed apathetic religious parentage myself, I worship only at the Church of Rab, which holds that there might be a god and, if so, he’s pretty crap. Please feel free to split off and form your own sect.

In the meantime, let’s see how John Knox came to be formed. Born in Haddington, East Lothian, circa 1514, his father was a merchant called William. His mother’s maiden name was Sinclair (when on the run Knox adopted the pseudonym John Sinclair). At grammar school, priesthood was all the careers officer could suggest in those days if you were bookish and didn’t want to be a merchant or pick turnips.

So, young John signed on to study at St Andrews Yoonie and, in 1536, was ordained a Catholic priest, which must have seemed a good idea at the time (though denomination choice was somewhat limited).

According to Britannica – encyclopedia of that ilk – “he ended his training with a mind imbued with that delight in abstract thought and dialectical disputation which … was recognised throughout Europe as typical of Scottish scholarship”. Oh God, he was up for a pagger.

Knox was in priest’s orders by 1540 and working as an apostolic notary – me either – in the Haddington area. In 1545, he became tutor to the sons of two local lairds, who filled his heid with the new religious ideas of the Reformation.

Through them, he enountered George Wishart, the reformist preacher who was burnt at the stake on the orders of Cardinal Beaton. Beaton was, in turn, murdered and mutilated, with his corpse hung from a castle window. This was beginning to sound worse than a Celtic v Rangers game.

Instead of keeping his heid doon, Knox continued ululating about important science-fiction subjects such as Purgatory. And so, soon, he was arrested and forced to row in French galleys under a whipmaster. Couldn’t make this stuff up.

Released from this maritime servitude after two years, Knox sought refuge south of yon Border, where he was licensed to work in the Church of England. His first commission was in Berwick-upon-Tweed and, after another in Newcastle, he was appointed a chaplain to King Edward VI.

He met his wife around this time (presumably not at the dancing), and must have been happy, while still nitpicking about liturgy, kneeling, idolatry and other important matters.

Such frivolities came to an end when Eddie 6 was succeeded by Mary Tudor, who re-established Catholicism in England, forcing John to don his asbestos suit and head for the Continent. After arguing with folk in Geneva and Frankfurt, he returned to Auld Maw Scotia, which had changed since they’d bunged him on a galley, and he was able to stoat aboot hither and yon shouting the odds.

He even wrote, respectfully, to the Queen Regent, Mary of Guise, asking her to overthrow the church hierarchy. Alas, she thought the letter a joke and binned it. So John legged it back to Geneva, where he performed his stand-up act three times a week.

In 1558, Knox had the brass neck to publish a pamphlet called The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, in which he said, “how abominable before God is the Empire or Rule of a wicked woman”. This was aimed at Queen Mary I of England and Mary of Guise. Wisely, he published the pamphlet anonymously. These women had matches.

Returning to Scotland, he was declared an outlaw, but preached a fiery sermon in Perth that caused a riot, with a mob smashing images in a church and nicking stuff. Same thing happened in St Andrews, where the cathedral was left in ruins.

The mob fury spread and, in 1559, the Scottish nobility deposed Mary of Guise. The Scottish Parliament called on Knox and five other ministers to draw up a new confession of faith. The Pope’s jurisdiction in Scotland was abolished and Mass forbidden.

All was going swimmingly for our Johnny … until Mary, Queen of Scots, returned. You’ll have read of Mary and John in our Icon feature aboot the lassie. To recap: they were never besties.

Other relations with women were more cordial: Knox became the talk of the steamie when, as a widower of 50, he married a lass of 17. Eventually, Mary was forced to abdicate, not before Knox had called for her to be executed. Instead, she escaped to England. Where she was executed.

As for Knox, he pegged out in 1572, having to his credit – or debit – made little dosh during all this. In his will, he claimed: “None have I corrupted, none have I defrauded; merchandise have I not made.”

It’s said he was more intemperate in speech than practice, and we should mention that he was a champion of education. Dubbing him an icon doesn’t mean you need worship him. He’d just boot you up the bahookie if you did.

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