John Knox;  Mary of Guise, Queen Regent; and the First Reformation.  

knox3.jpg (32742 bytes)John Knox has been called many things but in the context of the religious reformation then taking place, the comment by  Mary, Queen of Scots, sums him up. She considered him “ the most dangerous man in all the realm”  - meaning his ideas. Knox was first a priest but having heard George Wishart preach he took up the reformed, Protestant, doctrines in 1543. After some time as a minister in England he went to Frankfort in Germany and to Geneva where he preached to  English and Scottish exiles. In Geneva he was influenced by the teachings of John Calvin which he adopted and subsequently brought with him to Scotland. Knox is sometimes unfairly cast as  a zealot and a fanatic when he was simply very earnest  in his beliefs. As with the later Covenanters, he lived and breathed his beliefs with a fervour that we cannot really appreciate in the laid back and largely pagan society of the twenty first century. But these were strengths, to which should be added a commanding intellect that could overawe his audience, and a penetrating mind. He was also possessed of very wide experience from his travels and associations with some of the most learned men in Europe. In short he possessed the qualities needed to be a leader, and capable of standing up to the staunchly Catholic Queen Regent, Mary of Guise, mother of Mary Queen of Scots.

 In Scotland the death of James V on 14 December 1542 brought the one week old Mary to the throne and with her accession a battle for the Regency. The Earl of Arran was Regent for some years during which there were several incursions into Scotland by the English. Scotland, meanwhile, was under great pressure from the French who supported the Queen Mother, Mary of Guise in her bid to be Queenmaryguise.jpg (17523 bytes) Regent. On the pretext of keeping order the Regent Mary was supplied with French troops but this was a tactic to put pressure on England with whom war was looming. With French forces on its borders, the English responded to the threat. The Duke of Somerset defeated the Scots army at Pinkie on ‘Black Saturday,’ 9 September 1547. This was followed by the building of a chain of forts along the border and several years of relative peace. However, French influence remained in Scotland and more French troops arrived to occupy Edinburgh causing the English to finally withdraw. The young Mary, Queen of Scots, was sent to France where she spent the next thirteen years and married the Dauphin, Francis, later King Francis II. While the young Scottish queen was in France, there followed a concurrent period of upheaval in Scotland as Mary of Guise sought to impose her authority and that of the Catholic church. Her position and French influence was improved when she became Queen Regent in 1554 but she made enemies through her appointment of Frenchmen to positions of power. 

Into this cauldron of intrigue came John Knox in 1555 who had been invited by a growing evangelical movement to preach and plan for the establishment of a reformed faith. Knox preached at Duns House, between Montrose and Berwick—the home of John Erskine; at Calder House, West Lothian, the home of Sir James Sandilands; Finlayston House, Kilmalcolm, the home of Alexander Cunningham, Fifth Earl of Glencairn; at Castle Campbell, home of Archibald Campbell (later Fifth Earl of Argyll); and at other homes in Ayr, Barr, Gadgirth, Kinzeancleuch, and Ochiltree in Ayrshire.  Other supporters in the nobility who were strengthened in their faith by Knox’s endeavours included Lord Erskine (later Sixth Earl of Mar) and Lord James Stewart (later Earl of Moray and Regent.)  These were men of great influence and power who were able to summon substantial military forces to their aid and had to be regarded with respect. But even so, with French soldiers in support of Mary of Guise, they had to tread carefully. Even the fearless Knox returned to Geneva for a while in July 1556.

The Queen Regent then sought to raise a standing army to bring pressure on England who was close to war with France.  However, she encountered the strong resistance of the property owners who would be forced to pay for it. A protest meeting of over three hundred lairds in the Abbey Church of Holyrood in 1556 caused her to yield from the proposal.  In England Mary Tudor, eldest daughter of Henry VIII and now Queen of England, declared war on France in 1557. This spurred the Queen Regent in Scotland to assemble an army near Kelso to attack England. But the assembled Lords of Arran, Huntly, Argyll, and others, declared themselves as assembled only for the defence of Scotland and not for aggression against England. 

Meanwhile, in March 1557 the Lords had written to Knox and asked him to return to Scotland. In reply Knox encouraged them to be bold and public, reckoning that their power and influence could help turn the tide against Romanism. This they agreed to do. On 3 December 1557 the first “Band” or Covenant  was signed by the Lairds of the Mearns to establish the word of God and to labour for the institution and support of “faithful ministers purely and truly to minister Christ’s Evangel and Sacraments to His people.”  Their objectives were very simple and explicit: that the public prayers and administration of the sacraments by ministers should be celebrated in their mother tongue so that all people might understand them, and that the election of ministers according to the custom of the primitive Church, should be made by the people.  The signatories to the Band or Covenant were Archibald Campbell, Earl of Argyll; the Earl of Glencairn; the Earl of Morton; Archibald Campbell, Lord of Lorne; and John Erskine of Dun.

Thus came into being “The Congregation of Jesus Christ” or “The Lords of the Covenant” which grew to become a formal opposition to Catholicism. The Congregation then demanded religious freedom to which the Regent responded with the execution for heresy of the eighty-two-year-old Walter Mill on 28 April 1558. He was a former priest who had stopped giving the Mass and joined the evangelical movement. The Congregation immediately demanded that the clergy’s power to try for heresy be suspended but the Regent declined to present the matter to the Estates. This prompted the Congregation to make their own direct Protestation to Parliament and to declare that they intended to follow their own consciences.

The death of England’s Mary Tudor later that year and the accession of the Protestant Elizabeth I gave hope for the Protestant cause in Scotland. An immediate consequence of Mary’s death was the return of many committed Protestants who had been exiled earlier to the Continent. Among them were those from Geneva who had come under the direct influence of Calvin. These people were keen to remove any remaining signs of Popery and became an important element in the subsequent attempts to reform the Church of England.

In Scotland, events came to a head when the Regent Queen Mary of Guise summoned four preachers—Paul Methven, John Christison, William Harlow, and John Willock—to Stirling to answer charges of usurping the ministerial office and preaching sedition. The trial was appointed to take place on 10 May 1559 with the expectation that the ministers would be sentenced to banishment. The Congregation took up the preachers’ cause and assembled at Perth to accompany the accused to see the Regent. Meanwhile, in Edinburgh, great consternation arose amongst the Papists when John Knox returned from the continent and preached there before making his way to preach at Crail, St. Andrews, Dundee, and Perth. 

In St. John’s Church, Perth, there occurred the incident that changed the face of Scotland when a priest was preparing to say Mass. A boy [more likely a young man] made some disparaging remarks, and was cuffed round the ear. In response, the boy allegedly threw a stone at images on the high altar and broke one. Onlookers then threw more stones at the priest and destroyed the ornaments of the church. From this flowed attacks on the monasteries of the Black Friars, Grey Friars, and Carthusians which were all ransacked and gutted. The scenes were repeated in St. Andrews and Scone where the ornaments were removed, but the fabric of the buildings themselves was not torn down.

This “rabelling” was seized upon by Mary of Guise as valid reason to repress the Protestants by fire and sword. This prompted the friends of the Congregation from Angus, Mearns, Fife, and Ayrshire to gather at Perth to defend against the Regent’s French army who were in Auchterarder, north of Perth.  By June the Congregation was assembled in Edinburgh but French troops caused them to withdraw to Stirling. Negotiations continued with the Regent and she eventually gained agreement for the armed supporters of the Congregation to stand down. At this juncture the Earl of Agyll and Lord James Stewart transferred their allegiance to the Congregation because they were disgusted with the Regent’s broken promises to withdraw the French soldiers. Another Band, the Second Covenant, was sworn for mutual defence and the abolition of Popery by the Lords and Barons at Edinburgh on 13 July 1559. On August 1 another Band (the Third Covenant) was sworn in Stirling to work and negotiate together, and to keep one another informed.

In August 1559, French troops landed at Leith and began fortifying it.  Here they butchered Scottish women, children, and old men, dangled their bodies over the walls. The Queen Regent the commented it was “a pleasing tapestry.”  In October the Congregation declared the Regent Mary deposed in the name of her daughter who, it was alleged, had sold the country to France.  Scottish pleas for help from Elizabeth I of England were finally heard and a large army assembled at Berwick where, on 27 February 1560, an agreement securing Scotland’s liberties was signed with the Lords of the Congregation. 

Within a month Leith was surrounded and the English fleet lay offshore. There followed another Band (the Fourth Covenant) on the 27 April 1560 to join with the English to remove the French troops. This was the first Covenant to combine religious and political demands.  On June 11, the Regent Mary died in Edinburgh Castle probably from dropsy. Her death ended the immediate influence of the Guise family and that of France in Scotland.

The Treaty of Edinburgh, 6 July 1560, settled Scotland’s Protestant independence. In August 1560, the Estates assembled to formally sanction the reformed religion, which it did, despite protestations that the assembly was illegal because it had not been called by the Queen of Scotland.

The first General Assembly of the Reformed Church in Scotland was held in Edinburgh on 20 December 1560 with forty-two members present, only six of them being ministers. Calderwood’s History records that they appointed the following ministers and superintendents.  The ministers were John Knox (Edinburgh), Christopher Goodman (was at Ayr but translated to St. Andrews), Adam Heriot (Aberdeen), John Row (St. Johnston – Perth), Paul Methven (Jedburgh), William Christeson (Dundee), David Ferguson (Dumfermline), and David Lindsay (Leith). The superintendents were John Spottiswood (Lothians); John Wynram (Fife); John Willock (Glasgow and the West); John Erskine, Laird of Dun (Angus and the Mearns); and John Carswell (Argyll and the Isles).

The Assembly met in the old Chapel of St. Magdalene in Cowgate, Edinburgh, and did so under its own authority founded on the Word of God. Importantly the first session wisely took the precaution to authorise the Moderator ( possibly Knox at the time) to call future meetings. This precedent was carried on for some twenty years without the presence of a commissioner on behalf of the sovereign—despite the intervention of Maitland of Lethington who questioned the absence of the Queen’s authority. John Knox responded with the prophetic words 

Tack from us the fredome of Assemblies, and tack from us the Evangell for without Assemblies, how shall good ordour and unitie in doctrine be keapt ?”:

which is precisely what King James VI did in later years. 

Next: Mary, Queen of Scots        The Doctrine of Knox


Home Scottish Reformation The Covenanters Ulster Scots English Reformation European Reformation General Topics & Glossary My Books & Bibliography Contact