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Heretic of the Week: John Knox

John Knox in full flow (Wikimedia Commons)

John Knox (c 1512-1572) was born sometime between 1505 and 1515 in Haddington, Scotland. He is thought to have studied at either the University of St Andrews or Edinburgh, and was ordained a Catholic priest on Holy Saturday, 1536.

This was a difficult time for Scotland. King James V was killed in battle against the English in 1542, leaving an infant daughter – destined to become Mary, Queen of Scots. Her mother, Mary of Guise, sent her to France, and ruled as regent; her chief assistant was Cardinal David Beaton.

But Protestant ideas were seeping over the English border, and in the early 1540s, Fr Knox embraced them. In 1544, a plot involving Knox’s friend, George Wishart, to murder the cardinal, depose the regent, forcibly marry Mary to Edward VI and convert Scotland to Protestantism was uncovered. Two years later, Cardinal Beaton had Wishart burnt at the stake for heresy. In retaliation, a group of Wishart’s friends seized the castle where the cardinal lived and murdered him. Knox joined the assassins afterwards, and suffered the same fate many of them did when French troops, summoned by the regent, recaptured the place – that is, two years as a galley slave.

Released for reasons that are still unclear, he spent the next few years travelling between England (where he had a role in further Protestantising the Book of Common Prayer), Calvin’s Geneva and Frankfurt.

In 1560, Mary of Guise was overthrown and Catholicism outlawed. Knox returned. When Mary, Queen of Scots came back, Knox was her nemesis, and rejoiced greatly at her eventual overthrow. Politically, he masterminded Scotland’s subjection to England, while in the religious sphere he was responsible for the Presbyterian Church’s foundation and Calvinist theology. (It is ironic that “the Kirk” has become emblematic of Scots nationality.)

Knox is buried in an unmarked grave in the car park of Edinburgh’s St Giles Cathedral.