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Chapter 2


KNOX, WISHART, AND THE MURDER OF BEATON: 1545-1546


Our earliest knowledge of Knox, apart from mention of him in notarial documents, is derived from his own History of the Reformation. The portion of that work in which he first mentions himself was written about 1561-66, some twenty years after the events recorded, and in reading all this part of his Memoirs, and his account of the religious struggle, allowance must be made for errors of memory, or for erroneous information. We meet him first towards the end of "the holy days of Yule"--Christmas, 1545. Knox had then for some weeks been the constant companion and armed bodyguard of George Wishart, who was calling himself "the messenger of the Eternal God," and preaching the new ideas in Haddington to very small congregations. This Wishart, Knox's master in the faith, was a Forfarshire man; he is said to have taught Greek at Montrose, to have been driven thence in 1538 by the Bishop of Brechin, and to have recanted certain heresies in 1539. He had denied the merits of Christ as the Redeemer, but afterwards dropped that error, when persistence meant death at the stake. It was in Bristol that he "burned his faggot," in place of being burned himself. There was really nothing humiliating in this recantation, for, after his release, he did not resume his heresy; clearly he yielded, not to fear, but to conviction of theological error. {15a}

He next travelled in Germany, where a Jew, on a Rhine boat, inspired or increased his aversion to works of sacred art, as being "idolatrous." About 1542-43 he was reading with pupils at Cambridge, and was remarked for the severity of his ascetic virtue, and for his great charity. At some uncertain date he translated the Helvetic Confession of Faith, and he was more of a Calvinist than a Lutheran. In July 1543 he returned to Scotland; at least he returned with some "commissioners to England," who certainly came home in July 1543, as Knox mentions, though later he gives the date of Wishart's return in 1544, probably by a slip of the pen.

Coming home in July 1543, Wishart would expect a fair chance of preaching his novel ideas, as peace between Scotland and Protestant England now seemed secure, and Arran, the Scottish Regent, the chief of the almost Royal House of Hamilton, was, for the moment, himself a Protestant. For five days (August 28-September 3, 1543) the great Cardinal Beaton, the head of the party of the Church, was outlawed, and Wishart's preaching at Dundee, about that date, is supposed by some {15b} to have stimulated an attack then made on the monasteries in the town. But Arran suddenly recanted, deserted the Protestants and the faction attached to England, and joined forces with Cardinal Beaton, who, in November 1543, visited Dundee, and imprisoned the ringleaders in the riots. They are called "the honestest men in the town," by the treble traitor and rascal, Crichton, laird of Brunston in Lothian, at this time a secret agent of Sadleir, the envoy of Henry VIII. (November 25, 1543).

By April 1544, Henry was preparing to invade Scotland, and the "earnest professors" of Protestant doctrines in Scotland sent to him "a Scottish man called Wysshert," with a proposal for the kidnapping or murder of Cardinal Beaton. Brunston and other Scottish lairds of Wishart's circle were agents of the plot, and in 1545-46 our George Wishart is found companioning with them. When Cassilis took up the threads of the plot against Beaton, it was to Cassilis's country in Ayrshire that Wishart went and there preached. Thence he returned to Dundee, to fight the plague and comfort the citizens, and, towards the end of 1545, moved to Lothian, expecting to be joined there by his westland supporters, led by Cassilis--but entertaining dark forebodings of his doom.

There were, however, other Wisharts, Protestants, in Scotland. It is not possible to prove that this reformer, though the associate, was the agent of the murderers, or was even conscious of their schemes. Yet if he had been, there was no matter for marvel. Knox himself approved of and applauded the murders of Cardinal Beaton and of Riccio, and, in that age, too many men of all creeds and parties believed that to kill an opponent of their religious cause was to imitate Phinehas, Jael, Jehu, and other patriots of Hebrew history. Dr. M'Crie remarks that Knox "held the opinion, that persons who, according to the law of God and the just laws of society, have forfeited their lives by the commission of flagrant crimes, such as notorious murderers and tyrants, may warrantably be put to death by private individuals, provided all redress in the ordinary course of justice is rendered impossible, in consequence of the offenders having usurped the executive authority, or being systematically protected by oppressive rulers." The ideas of Knox, in fact, varied in varying circumstances and moods, and, as we shall show, at times he preached notions far more truculent than those attributed to him by his biographer; at times was all for saint-like submission and mere "passive resistance." {17}

The current ideas of both parties on "killing no murder" were little better than those of modern anarchists. It was a prevalent opinion that a king might have a subject assassinated, if to try him publicly entailed political inconveniences. The Inquisition, in Spain, vigorously repudiated this theory, but the Inquisition was in advance of the age. Knox, as to the doctrine of "killing no murder," was, and Wishart may have been, a man of his time. But Knox, in telling the story of a murder which he approves, unhappily displays a glee unbecoming a reformer of the Church of Him who blamed St. Peter for his recourse to the sword. The very essence of Christianity is cast to the winds when Knox utters his laughter over the murders or misfortunes of his opponents, yielding, as Dr. M'Crie says, "to the strong propensity which he felt to indulge his vein of humour." Other good men rejoiced in the murder of an enemy, but Knox chuckled.

Nothing has injured Knox more in the eyes of posterity (when they happen to be aware of the facts) than this "humour" of his.

Knox might be pardoned had he merely excused the murder of "the devil's own son," Cardinal Beaton, who executed the law on his friend and master, George Wishart. To Wishart Knox bore a tender and enthusiastic affection, crediting him not only with the virtues of charity and courage which he possessed, but also with supernormal premonitions; "he was so clearly illuminated with the spirit of prophecy." These premonitions appear to have come to Wishart by way of vision. Knox asserted some prophetic gift for himself, but never hints anything as to the method, whether by dream, vision, or the hearing of voices. He often alludes to himself as "the prophet," and claims certain privileges in that capacity. For example the prophet may blamelessly preach what men call "treason," as we shall see. As to his actual predictions of events, he occasionally writes as if they were mere deductions from Scripture. God will punish the idolater; A or B is an idolater; therefore it is safe to predict that God will punish him or her. "What man then can cease to prophesy?" he asks; and there is, if we thus consider the matter, no reason why anybody should ever leave off prophesying. {18a}

But if the art of prophecy is common to all Bible-reading mankind, all mankind, being prophets, may promulgate treason, which Knox perhaps would not have admitted. He thought himself more specially a seer, and in his prayer after the failure of his friends, the murderers of Riccio, he congratulates himself on being favoured above the common sort of his brethren, and privileged to "forespeak" things, in an unique degree.

"I dare not deny . . . but that God hath revealed unto me secrets unknown to the world," he writes {18b}; and these claims soar high above mere deductions from Scripture. His biographer, Dr. M'Crie, doubts whether we can dismiss, as necessarily baseless, all stories of "extraordinary premonitions since the completion of the canon of inspiration." {19} Indeed, there appears to be no reason why we should draw the line at a given date, and "limit the operations of divine Providence." I would be the last to do so, but then Knox's premonitions are sometimes, or usually, without documentary and contemporary corroboration; once he certainly prophesied after the event (as we shall see), and he never troubles himself about his predictions which were unfulfilled, as against Queen Elizabeth.

He supplied the Kirk with the tradition of supernormal premonitions in preachers--second-sight and clairvoyance--as in the case of Mr. Peden and other saints of the Covenant. But just as good cases of clairvoyance as any of Mr. Peden's are attributed to Catherine de Medici, who was not a saint, by her daughter, La Reine Margot, and others. In Knox, at all events, there is no trace of visual or auditory hallucinations, so common in religious experiences, whatever the creed of the percipient. He was not a visionary. More than this we cannot safely say about his prophetic vein.

The enthusiasm which induced a priest, notary, and teacher like Knox to carry a claymore in defence of a beloved teacher, Wishart, seems more appropriate to a man of about thirty than a man of forty, and, so far, supports the opinion that, in 1545, Knox was only thirty years of age. In that case, his study of the debates between the Church and the new opinions must have been relatively brief. Yet, in 1547, he already reckoned himself, not incorrectly, as a skilled disputant in favour of ideas with which he cannot have been very long familiar.

Wishart was taken, was tried, was condemned; was strangled, and his dead body was burned at St. Andrews on March 1, 1546. It is highly improbable that Knox could venture, as a marked man, to be present at the trial. He cites the account of it in his "History" from the contemporary Scottish narrative used by Foxe in his "Martyrs," and Laing, Knox's editor, thinks that Foxe "may possibly have been indebted for some" of the Scottish accounts "to the Scottish Reformer." It seems, if there be anything in evidence of tone and style, that what Knox quotes from Foxe in 1561-66 is what Knox himself actually wrote about 1547-48. Mr. Hill Burton observes in the tract "the mark of Knox's vehement colouring," and adds, "it is needless to seek in the account for precise accuracy." In "precise accuracy" many historians are as sadly to seek as Knox himself, but his peculiar "colouring" is all his own, and is as marked in the pamphlet on Wishart's trial, which he cites, as in the "History" which he acknowledged.

There are said to be but few copies of the first edition of the black letter tract on Wishart's trial, published in London, with Lindsay's "Tragedy of the Cardinal," by Day and Seres. I regard it as the earliest printed work of John Knox. {20} The author, when he describes Lauder, Wishart's official accuser, as "a fed sow . . . his face running down with sweat, and frothing at the mouth like ane bear," who "spat at Maister George's face, . . . " shows every mark of Knox's vehement and pictorial style. His editor, Laing, bids us observe "that all these opprobrious terms are copied from Foxe, or rather from the black letter tract." But the black letter tract, I conceive, must be Knox's own. Its author, like Knox, "indulges his vein of humour" by speaking of friars as "fiends"; like Knox he calls Wishart "Maister George," and "that servand of God."

The peculiarities of the tract, good and bad, the vivid familiar manner, the vehemence, the pictorial quality, the violent invective, are the notes of Knox's "History." Already, by 1547, or not much later, he was the perfect master of his style; his tone no more resembles that of his contemporary and fellow-historian, Lesley, than the style of Mr. J. R. Green resembles that of Mr. S. R. Gardiner.


Andrew Lang

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