02 April 2022
What is the truth behind the traditional belief that John Knox and Mary Queen of Scots were bitter enemies? Professor Jane Dawson, author of a new definitive biography of Knox, explores the evidence.
Many tourists in Edinburgh encounter a man wearing a black gown and sporting a long beard leading tours down the Royal Mile and this John Knox character is often seen haranguing Mary Queen of Scots.
Their confrontation represents the Scottish equivalent of the '1066 And All That'’s choice between ‘Wrong but Wromantic’ and ‘Right but Repulsive’. This popular image mixes some grains of truth with a large portion of myth.
AN UNLIKELY PAIRING FOR A COMMON GOAL
The interviews between the Scottish Queen and Knox certainly did happen, though their conversations were only recorded in Knox’s own History of the Reformation in Scotland. These were not slanging matches but there was no meeting of minds. Away from contentious political and religious issues, surprisingly, the pair did co-operate to achieve a common goal.
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Both Knox and Mary Queen of Scots, were striving to reconcile a husband and wife whose marriage was on the rocks and whose estrangement had become the top celebrity gossip of its day.
Jane Stewart, Countess of Argyll, was the Queen’s half-sister and one of her ladies at court. Her husband Archibald Campbell, fifth Earl of Argyll, was one of the most prominent Scottish Protestants and head of Clan Campbell.
Knox and the Queen agreed to divide the task between them along gender lines, with the preacher tackling the earl and Mary her sibling. Though they chose different methods, this unlikely pair of relationship counsellors achieved some success. The earl and countess resumed living together and their marriage survived a further four years before ending in a messy and protracted divorce that created Scottish legal history.
THE 'MONSTROUS REGIMENT OF WOMEN'
In this instance Knox worked alongside Mary Queen of Scots, treating her as an individual. In their other encounters, he addressed the stereotype of ‘Queen Mary’ he had created in his own mind. This composite character amalgamated three of the Queens Knox had encountered: the English Mary Tudor; the French Mary of Guise and her daughter Mary, Queen of Scots.
He had merged these three Catholic female rulers into one and was convinced Mary Queen of Scots, would act in the same way as the other two Queens.
In his famous tract The First Blast of the Trumpet against the monstrous regiment of women, Knox had proved to his own satisfaction that the very existence of a regnant Queen was a violation of the divine and natural order of the world. In addition to the gender issue, the Queens were Catholic rulers and Knox assumed Mary of Guise and Mary, Queen of Scots would follow the grisly example of burning heretics set by ‘Bloody’ Mary Tudor.
He was sure both mother and daughter had a hidden agenda for Scotland and given their chance they would champion the Roman Catholic Church and start a sustained persecution of Protestants.
Predictably given his mindset, Knox and Mary Queen of Scots failed to find common ground on religion and politics.
Curiously, Knox was away from Edinburgh and then from Scotland during the crises that ended the Queen’s personal rule. Returning after her imprisonment in Lochleven Castle, Knox added his voice to those condemning Mary as an adulteress and murderess and for the rest of his life spoke of her as ‘that wicked woman’.
He probably experienced an ‘I told-you-so’ moment because his prediction appeared to be vindicated that female rule was bound to end in disaster. However, Knox’s views and encounters with the Scottish Queen were atypical of his relations with women. He did not deserve the label of complete misogynist often attached to him and in the biography emerges as a far more complex and multi-faceted character.
Professor Jane E A Dawson, University of Edinburgh
Professor Dawson is the author of John Knox, published by Yale University Press. Casting a surprising new light on the public and private personas of a highly complex, difficult, and hugely compelling individual, Professor Dawson’s fascinating study offers a vivid, fully rounded portrait of this renowned Scottish preacher and prophet who had a seismic impact on religion and society.