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John Knox: Biography, Timeline & Works

Instructor: Christina Boggs

Chrissy has taught secondary English and history and writes online curriculum. She has an M.S.Ed. in Social Studies Education.

Most have heard of the Reformation in Europe, but how much do you know about the Scottish Reformation? In this lesson, you will learn about the biography and works of John Knox, one of the foremost Scottish Reformation leaders.

The Scottish Reformation

You're probably familiar with the Reformation in continental Europe, which led to the founding of several Protestant faiths, and England's famous break from the Catholic Church by Henry VIII. Meanwhile, further north, Scotland was going through its own religious upheaval under the leadership of reformers such as John Knox.

John Knox: The Early Years

John Knox was born in Scotland sometime around the year 1514, but beyond that fact, very little is known about his early life. Around 1540, Knox went to school to become a Catholic priest. In 1543, Knox became an apostolic notary; as a Church official, he was responsible for drafting official Church documents. After 2 years of working as an apostolic notary, Knox left his position and worked as a tutor, teaching the children of several prominent Scottish Reformation leaders.

Knox Joins the Scottish Reformation

About three decades before Knox joined the clergy, many individuals in Europe were disgruntled with the Church's actions and policies. The Reformation was a widespread movement to reform the Church, but ultimately it led to the creation of new Protestant religions. The Protestants were protesting the Catholic Church by starting their own religions with new rules and practices. By the 1540s, the leaders of the Scottish Reformation wanted to reform the Catholic Church in Scotland.

As a tutor, Knox traveled with several Scottish Reformation leaders and their families, including George Wishart. Knox agreed that there was a need for change in the Catholic Church, and openly supported the Scottish Reformation. His mentor, Wishart, was very outspoken and became a target of the Church; Wishart was burned alive for heresy on the orders of Cardinal David Beaton. Shortly after, Beaton was killed at the hands of Scottish Protestants, and they captured St. Andrews Castle. You can imagine how scary a time this was to live in!

At St. Andrews

Leaders of the Reformation asked a reluctant Knox to bring his students to St. Andrews Castle in 1545. The reformers staying at St. Andrews needed a voice for their movement, and found it in Knox. John Knox became one of the Scottish Reformation's most profound speakers and leaders.

John Knox
John Knox portrait

In 1547, Scotland called upon its French allies to help them recapture St. Andrews. Knox and others were taken prisoner; it took over a year and a half for the British to negotiate his release. Great Britain was by no means a fan of France at the time, and the country had already undergone its own Protestant Reformation under Henry VIII and Edward VI. The British recruited Knox to continue promoting the Scottish Reformation and sent him back to Scotland as a licensed preacher.

Knox on the Run

In 1553, the political and religious climate in England changed drastically. Mary Tudor, a staunch Catholic, ascended to the English throne. She did her best to get rid of Protestantism any way she could, so Knox and others were forced to flee to the European continent. During this time, Knox wrote Faithful Admonition, which stated:

  • Monarchs shouldn't be allowed to change the religion of an entire country just because they disagreed with it.
  • Protestants should resist the changes any way they can, even if that means using violence.

Knox's letter received mixed reviews. Many Scottish Protestants who could not leave the country thought that Knox's directions were easier said than done, especially because he was safe across the English Channel.

Statue of John Knox in Edinburgh
John Knox statue

From 1554 to 1558, Knox spent his time preaching to English exiles. During this period, he wrote several significant pieces, including Letter of Wholesome Counsel and First blast of the trumpet against the monstruous regiment of women. Letter of Wholesome Counsel encouraged Protestants to study their religion at home, but to also meet and study with other Protestants as well. The second text, First blast of the trumpet... spoke out against female monarchs. Knox claimed that women in power was unnatural and went against religious teachings. Right about the time Knox wrote this, Queen Elizabeth took control of England and officially banned him from her kingdom. Can you blame her?

First blast of the trumpet against the monstruous regiment of women
First blast of the trumpet against the monstruous regiment of women

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