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Chapter 4


KNOX IN ENGLAND: THE BLACK RUBRIC: EXILE: 1549-1554


Knox at once appeared in England in a character revolting to the later Presbyterian conscience, which he helped to educate. The State permitted no cleric to preach without a Royal license, and Knox was now a State licensed preacher at Berwick, one of many "State officials with a specified mission." He was an agent of the English administration, then engaged in forcing a detested religion on the majority of the English people. But he candidly took his own line, indifferent to the compromises of the rulers in that chaos of shifting opinions. For example, the Prayer Book of Edward VI. at that time took for granted kneeling as the appropriate attitude for communicants. Knox, at Berwick, on the other hand, bade his congregation sit, as he conceived that to have been the usage at the first institution of the rite. Possibly the Apostles, in fact, supped in a recumbent attitude, as Cranmer justly remarked later (John xiii. 25), but Knox supposed them to have sat. In a letter to his Berwick flock, he reminds them of his practice on this point; but he would not dissent from kneeling if "magistrates make known, as that they" (would?) "have done if ministers were willing to do their duties, that kneeling is not retained in the Lord's Supper for maintenance of any superstition," much less as "adoration of the Lord's Supper." This, "for a time," would content him: and this he obtained. {33a} Here Knox appears to make the civil authority--"the magistrates"--governors of the Church, while at the same time he does not in practice obey them unless they accept his conditions.

This letter to the Berwick flock must be prior to the autumn of 1552, in which, as we shall see, Knox obtained his terms as to kneeling. He went on, in his epistle to the Berwickians, to speak in "a tone of moderation and modesty," for which, says Dr. Lorimer, not many readers will be prepared. {33b} In this modest passage, Knox says that, as to "the chief points of religion," he, with God's help, "will give place to neither man nor angel teaching the contrary" of his preaching. Yet an angel might be supposed to be well informed on points of doctrine! "But as to ceremonies or rites, things of smaller weight, I was not minded to move contention. . . ." The one point which--"because I am but one, having in my contrary magistrates, common order, and judgments, and many learned"--he is prepared to yield, and that for a time, is the practice of kneeling, but only on three conditions. These being granted, "with patience will I bear that one thing, daily thirsting and calling unto God for reformation of that and others." {33c} But he did not bear that one thing; he would not kneel even after his terms were granted! This is the sum of Knox's "moderation and modesty"!

Though he is not averse from talking about himself, Knox, in his "History," spares but three lines to his five years' residence in England (1549-54). His first charge was Berwick (1549-51), where we have seen he celebrated holy Communion by the Swiss rite, all meekly sitting. The Second Prayer Book, of 1552, when Knox ministered in Newcastle, bears marks of his hand. He opposed, as has been said, the rubric bidding the communicants kneel; the attitude savoured of "idolatry."

The circumstances in which Knox carried his point on this question are most curious. Just before October 12, 1552, a foreign Protestant, Johannes Utenhovius, wrote to the Zurich Protestant, Bullinger, to the effect that a certain vir bonus, Scotus natione (a good man and a Scot), a preacher (concionator), of the Duke of Northumberland, had delivered a sermon before the King and Council, "in which he freely inveighed against the Anglican custom of kneeling at the Lord's Supper." Many listeners were greatly moved, and Utenhovius prayed that the sermon might be of blessed effect. Knox was certainly in London at this date, and was almost certainly the excellent Scot referred to by Utenhovius. The Second Prayer Book of Edward VI. was then in such forwardness that Parliament had appointed it to be used in churches, beginning on November 1. The book included the command to kneel at the Lord's Supper, and any agitation against the practice might seem to be too late. Cranmer, the Primate, was in favour of the rubric as it stood, and on October 7, 1552, addressed the Privy Council in a letter which, without naming Knox, clearly shows his opinion of our Reformer. The book, as it stood, said Cranmer, had the assent of King and Parliament--now it was to be altered, apparently, "without Parliament." The Council ought not to be thus influenced by "glorious and unquiet spirits." Cranmer calls Knox, as Throckmorton later called Queen Mary's Bothwell, "glorious" in the sense of the Latin gloriosus, "swaggering," or "arrogant."

Cranmer goes on to denounce the "glorious and unquiet spirits, which can like nothing but that is after their own fancy, and cease not to make trouble and disquietude when things be most quiet and in good order." {35} Their argument (Knox's favourite), that whatever is not commanded in Scripture is unlawful and ungodly, "is a subversion of all order as well in religion as in common policy."

Cranmer ends with the amazing challenge: "I will set my foot by his to be tried in the fire, that his doctrine is untrue, and not only untrue but seditious, and perilous to be heard of any subjects, as a thing breaking the bridle of obedience and loosing them from the bond of all princes' laws."

Cranmer had a premonition of the troubled years of James VI. and of the Covenant, when this question of kneeling was the first cause of the Bishops' wars. But Knox did not accept, as far as we know, the mediaeval ordeal by fire.

Other questions about practices enjoined in the Articles arose. A "Confession," in which Knox's style may be traced, was drawn up, and consequently that "Declaration on Kneeling" was intercalated into the Prayer Book, wherein it is asserted that the attitude does not imply adoration of the elements, or belief in the Real Presence, "for that were idolatry." Elizabeth dropped, and Charles II. restored, this "Black Rubric" which Anglicanism owes to the Scottish Reformer. {36a} He "once had a good opinion," he says, of the Liturgy as it now stood, but he soon found that it was full of idolatries.

The most important event in the private life of Knox, during his stay at Berwick, was his acquaintance with a devout lady of tormented conscience, Mrs. Bowes, wife of the Governor of Norham Castle on Tweed. Mrs. Bowes's tendency to the new ideas in religion was not shared by her husband and his family; the results will presently be conspicuous. In April 1550, Knox preached at Newcastle a sermon on his favourite doctrine that the Mass is "Idolatry," because it is "of man's invention," an opinion not shared by Tunstall, then Bishop of Durham. Knox used "idolatry" in a constructive sense, as when we talk of "constructive treason." But, in practice, he regarded Catholics as "idolaters," in the same sense as Elijah regarded Hebrew worshippers of alien deities, Chemosh or Moloch, and he later drew the inference that idolaters, as in the Old Testament, must be put to death. Thus his was logically a persecuting religion.

Knox was made a King's chaplain and transferred to Newcastle. He saw that the country was, by preference, Catholic; that the life of Edward VI. hung on a thread; and that with the accession of his sister, Mary Tudor, Protestant principles would be as unsafe as under "umquhile the Cardinal." Knox therefore, "from the foresight of troubles to come" (so he writes to Mrs. Bowes, February 28, 1554), {36b} declined any post, a bishopric, or a living, which would in honour oblige him to face the fire of persecution. At the same time he was even then far at odds with the Church of England that he had sound reasons for refusing benefices.

On Christmas day, 1552, {37a} he preached at Newcastle against Papists, as "thirsting nothing more than the King's death, which their iniquity would procure." In two brief years Knox was himself publicly expressing his own thirst for the Queen's death, and praying for a Jehu or a Phinehas, slayers of idolaters, such as Mary Tudor. If any fanatic had taken this hint, and the life of Mary Tudor, Catholics would have said that Knox's "iniquity procured" the murder, and they would have had fair excuse for the assertion.

Meanwhile charges were brought against the Reformer, on the ground of his Christmas sermon of peace and goodwill. Northumberland (January 9, 1552- 53) sends to Cecil "a letter of poor Knox, by the which you may perceive what perplexity the poor soul remaineth in at this present." We have not Knox's interesting letter, but Northumberland pled his cause against a charge of treason. In fact, however, the Court highly approved of his sermon. He was presently again in what he believed to be imminent danger of life: "I fear that I be not yet ripe, nor able to glorify Christ by my faith," he wrote to Mrs. Bowes, "but what lacketh now, God shall perform in His own time." {37b} We do not know what peril threatened the Reformer now (probably in March 1553), but he frequently, later, seems to have doubted his own "ripeness" for martyrdom. His reluctance to suffer did not prevent him from constant attendance to the tedious self-tormentings of Mrs. Bowes, and of "three honest poor women" in London.

Knox, at all events, was not so "perplexed" that he feared to speak his mind in the pulpit. In Lent, 1553, preaching before the boy king, he denounced his ministers in trenchant historical parallels between them and Achitophel, Shebna, and Judas. Later, young Mr. Mackail, applying the same method to the ministers of Charles II., was hanged. "What wonder is it then," said Knox, "that a young and innocent king be deceived by crafty, covetous, wicked, and ungodly councillors? I am greatly afraid that Achitophel be councillor, that Judas bear the purse, and that Shebna be scribe, comptroller, and treasurer." {38a}

This appears the extreme of audacity. Yet nothing worse came to Knox than questions, by the Council, as to his refusal of a benefice, and his declining, as he still did, to kneel at the Communion (April 14, 1553). His answers prove that he was out of harmony with the fluctuating Anglicanism of the hour. Northumberland could not then resent the audacities of pulpiteers, because the Protestants were the only party who might stand by him in his approaching effort to crown Lady Jane Grey. Now all the King's preachers, obviously by concerted action, "thundered" against Edward's Council, in the Lent or Easter of 1553. Manifestly, in the old Scots phrase, "the Kirk had a back"; had some secular support, namely that of their party, which Northumberland could not slight. Meanwhile Knox was sent on a preaching tour in Buckinghamshire, and there he was when Edward VI. died, in the first week of July 1553. {38b}

Knox's official attachment to England expired with his preaching license, on the death of Edward VI. and the accession of Mary Tudor. He did not at once leave the country, but preached both in London and on the English border, while the new queen was settling herself on the throne. While within Mary's reach, Knox did not encourage resistance against that idolatress; he did not do so till he was safe in France. Indeed, in his prayer used after the death of Edward VI., before the fires of Oxford and Smithfield were lit, Knox wrote: "Illuminate the heart of our Sovereign Lady, Queen Mary, with pregnant gifts of the Holy Ghost. . . . Repress thou the pride of those that would rebel. . . . Mitigate the hearts of those that persecute us."

In the autumn of 1553, Knox's health was very bad; he had gravel, and felt his bodily strength broken. Moreover, he was in the disagreeable position of being betrothed to a very young lady, Marjorie Bowes, with the approval of her devout mother, the wife of Richard Bowes, commander of Norham Castle, near Berwick, but to the anger and disgust of the Bowes family in general. They by no means shared Knox's ideas of religion, rather regarding him as a penniless unfrocked "Scot runagate," whose alliance was discreditable and distasteful, and might be dangerous. "Maist unpleasing words" passed, and it is no marvel that Knox, being persecuted in one city, fled to another, leaving England for Dieppe early in March 1554. {39}

His conscience was not entirely at ease as to his flight. "Why did I flee? Assuredly I cannot tell, but of one thing I am sure, the fear of death was not the chief cause of my fleeing," he wrote to Mrs. Bowes from Dieppe. "Albeit that I have, in the beginning of this battle, appeared to play the faint-hearted and feeble soldier (the cause I remit to God), yet my prayer is that I may be restored to the battle again." {40a} Knox was, in fact, most valiant when he had armed men at his back; he had no enthusiasm for taking part in the battle when unaided by the arm of flesh. On later occasions this was very apparent, and he has confessed, as we saw, that he did not choose to face "the trouble to come" without means of retreat. His valour was rather that of the general than of the lonely martyr. The popular idea of Knox's personal courage, said to have been expressed by the Regent Morton in the words spoken at his funeral, "here lieth a man who in his life never feared the face of man," is entirely erroneous. His learned and sympathetic editor, David Laing, truly writes: "Knox cannot be said to have possessed the impetuous and heroic boldness of a Luther when surrounded with danger. . . . On more than one occasion Knox displayed a timidity or shrinking from danger, scarcely to have been expected from one who boasted of his willingness to endure the utmost torture, or suffer death in his Master's cause. Happily he was not put to the test. . . ." {40b}

Dr. Laing puts the case more strongly than I feel justified in doing, for Knox, far from "boasting of his willingness to face the utmost torture," more than once doubts his own readiness for martyrdom. We must remember that even Blessed Edmund Campion, who went gaily to torture and death, had doubts as to the necessity of that journey. {40c}

Nor was there any reason why Knox should stay in England to be burned, if he could escape--with less than ten groats in his pocket--as he did. It is not for us moderns to throw the first stone at a reluctant martyr, still less to applaud useless self-sacrifice, but we do take leave to think that, having fled early, himself, from the martyr's crown, Knox showed bad taste in his harsh invectives against Protestants who, staying in England, conformed to the State religion under Mary Tudor.

It is not impossible that his very difficult position as the lover of Marjorie Bowes--a position of which, while he remained in England, the burden fell on the poor girl--may have been one reason for Knox's flight, while the entreaties of his friends that he would seek safety must have had their influence.

On the whole it seems more probable that when he committed himself to matrimony with a young girl, the fifth daughter of Mrs. Bowes, he was approaching his fortieth rather than his fiftieth year. Older than he are happy husbands made, sometimes, though Marjorie Bowes's choice may have been directed by her pious mother, whose soul could find no rest in the old faith, and not much in the new.

At thirty-eight the Reformer, we must remember, must have been no uncomely wooer. His conversation must have been remarkably vivid: he had adventures enough to tell, by land and sea; while such a voice as he raised withal in the pulpit, like Edward Irving, has always been potent with women, as Sir Walter Scott remarks in Irving's own case. His expression, says Young, had a certain geniality; on the whole we need not doubt that Knox could please when he chose, especially when he was looked up to as a supreme authority. He despised women in politics, but had many friends of the sex, and his letters to them display a manly tenderness of affection without sentimentality.

Writing to Mrs. Bowes from London in 1553, Knox mentions, as one of the sorrows of life, that "such as would most gladly remain together, for mutual comfort, cannot be suffered so to do. Since the first day that it pleased the providence of God to bring you and me in familiarity, I have always delighted in your company." He then wanders into religious reflections, but we see that he liked Mrs. Bowes, and Marjorie Bowes too, no doubt: he is careful to style the elderly lady "Mother." Knox's letters to Mrs. Bowes show the patience and courtesy with which the Reformer could comfort and counsel a middle-aged lady in trouble about her innocent soul. As she recited her infirmities, he reminds her, he "started back, and that is my common consuetude when anything pierces or touches my heart. Call to your mind what I did standing at the cupboard at Alnwick; in very deed I thought that no creature had been tempted as I was"--not by the charms of Mrs. Bowes, of course: he found that Satan troubled the lady with "the very same words that he troubles me with." Mrs. Bowes, in truth, with premature scepticism, was tempted to think that "the Scriptures of God are but a tale, and no credit to be given to them." The Devil, she is reminded by Knox, has induced "some philosophers to affirm that the world never had a beginning," which he refutes by showing that God predicted the pains of childbearing; and Mrs. Bowes, as the mother of twelve, knows how true this is.

The circular argument may or may not have satisfied Mrs. Bowes. {43}

The young object of Knox's passion, Marjorie Bowes, is only alluded to as "she whom God hath offered unto me, and commanded me to love as my own flesh,"--after her, Mrs. Bowes is the dearest of mankind to Knox. No mortal was ever more long-suffering with a spiritual hypochondriac, who avers that "the sins that reigned in Sodom and Gomore reign in me, and I have small power or none to resist!" Knox replies, with common sense, that Mrs. Bowes is obviously ignorant of the nature of these offences.

Writing to his betrothed he says nothing personal: merely reiterates his lessons of comfort to her mother. Meanwhile the lovers were parted, Knox going abroad; and it is to be confessed that he was not eager to come back.


Andrew Lang

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