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The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 24 — Protestantism in Scotland

Chapter 8 — Knox's interview with Queen Mary

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Mary's Secret Purpose — Her Blandishments — The Protestant Nobles begin to Yield — Mass in the Chapel of Holyrood — Commotion — Knox's Sermon against Idolatry — The Mass more to be Feared than 10,000 Armed Men — Reasonableness of the Alarm — Knox Summoned to the Palace of Holyrood — Accused by the Queen of Teaching Sedition — His Defense — Debate between Knox and Mary — God, not the Prince, Lord of the Conscience — The Bible, not the Priest, the Judge in Matters of Faith, etc. — Importance of the Interview

The nobles had welcomed with a chivalrous enthusiasm the daughter of their ancient kings; and the people, touched by her beauty and her widowhood, had begun to regard her with mingled feelings of compassion and admiration. All was going well, and would doubtless have continued so to do, but for a dark purpose which Mary Stuart carried in her breast. She had become the pivot around which revolved that plot to which those monstrous times had given birth, for the extermination of the Protestant faith in all the countries of the Reformation. If that conspiracy should succeed, it would open the Scottish queen's way to a fairer realm and a mightier throne than the kingdom she had just arrived to take possession of. The first step in the projected drama was the forcible suppression of the Protestant faith in Scotland, and the restoration in it of the Church of Rome. This was the dark purpose which Mary had carried across the seas, and brought with her to Holyrood. [1]

But meanwhile, as tutored by her uncles the Guises, who accompanied her, she dissembled and temporized. Smiles and caresses were her first weapons; the nobles were to be gained over by court blandishments and favors; the ministers were to be assailed by hypocritical promises; and the people were to be lured by those fawning arts of which there lived no greater adept than Mary Stuart. The "holy water of the court" soon began to tell upon the Protestant leaders. Even the lords of the Congregation were not proof against the fascination which the young queen seemed to exert upon every one who entered her presence. If her thinly-veiled Romish proclivities had at first alarmed or offended them, they had been no long time in the queen's presence till their anger cooled, their fears were laid aside, and their Protestant zeal in some measure evaporated. Every man, one man excepted, who entered this charmed circle was straightway transformed. Knox in his History has quaintly described the change that passed upon the nobility under this almost magical influence. "Every man as he came up to court," says he, "accused them that were before him; but, after they had remained a certain space, they came out as quiet as the former. On perceiving this, Campbell of Kinyeancleugh, a man of some humor and zealous in the cause, said to Lord Ochiltree, whom he met on his way to court, "My lord, now ye are come last of all, and I perceive that the fire edge is not yet off you, but I fear that after the holy water of the court be sprinkled upon you, ye shall become as temperate as the rest. I think there be some enchantment by which men are bewitched." [2]

On the first Sunday after her arrival, Mary adventured on an act, by the advice of her uncles, which was designed to feel the pulse of her Protestant subjects; [3] at all events, it unmistakably notified to them what her future course was to be: mass was said in her chapel of Holyrood. Since the establishment of the Reformation, mass had not been publicly celebrated in Scotland, and in fact was prohibited by Act of Parliament. When the citizens learned that preparations were making for its celebration in the Chapel Royal, they were thrown into excitement and alarm, and but for the interposition of Knox would have forcibly prevented it. Lord James Stuart, Prior of St. Andrews, and the brother of Mary, stood sentinel at the door of the chapel, all the time the service was going on; the man who carried in the candle trembled all over; and the priest who performed the rite was, at its conclusion, conducted to his chamber by two Protestant lords. The queen's relatives and attendants threatened that they would instantly return to France, for they could not live in a land where mass could not be said, without which they could not have the pardon of their sins. "Would," says Knox, "that they, together with the mass, had taken good night of this realm for ever." [4]

On the following Sunday, Knox, although he had restrained the more zealous of the Protestants who sought by force to suppress the celebration, sounded a note of warning from the pulpit of St. Giles's. He preached on the sin of idolatry, "showing what tenable plagues God had taken upon realms and nations for the same;" and added, "One mass is more fearful to me than if 10,000 armed enemies were landed in any part of the realm, of purpose to suppress the whole religion." [5] We are apt at this day to think that the alarm expressed was greater than its cause warranted.

So thought the queen's guards at the time, who said openly in the church that "such fear was no point of their faith." But, we may ask, had mass no more significance in the Scotland of the sixteenth century than it would have in the Scotland of the nineteenth? Mary had not yet ratified the Act of Parliament establishing the Protestant faith, and alienating the national revenues from the Romish Church. Her refusal implied that what the Estates had done in changing the national faith was illegal, and that the Reformation was rebellion. What construction then could her subjects put upon this mass, but that it was the first step towards the

overthrow of the Protestant Church, and the restoration of the Romish ritual and hierarchy?

Nor did they do their sovereign injustice in so construing it. To compel her subjects to abjure their Protestantism, and to embrace again the creed they had renounced, by soft methods if possible, and if not by the stake and the cord, was Mary's settled purpose. In Italy, in Spain, in France, and in the Netherlands, pries were at that moment blazing in support of the mass. The same baleful fires were but newly extinguished in England and in Scotland; and were they to be lighted before they had well ceased to burn, or the ashes of the noble men who had perished in them had grown cold?

Had not all their past experience told them that the stake followed the mass as invariably as the shadow followed the substance; that the written law of the Popish system, and its ineradicable instincts, made it at all times and in all places a persecutor? The Scots would have shown themselves incapable of reading the past, and forecasting the future, had they failed in these circumstances to take alarm. It was the alarm not of timidity, but of wisdom; no of bigotry, but of patriotism.

It is probable that the substance of the Reformer's sermon was reported to the queen for in a few days after its delivery she sent a message to Knox, commanding his attendance at the palace. This interview has gathered round it great historic grandeur, mainly from the sentiments avowed by Knox before his sovereign, which made it one of the turning-points in the history of the man and of the country, and partly also from the charge which the flatterers of despotic princes have founded upon it, that Knox was on that occasion lacking in courtesy to Mary as a woman, and in loyalty to her as his sovereign; as if it were a crime to defend, in words of truth and soberness, the religion and liberties of a country in the presence of one bent on ruining both. The queen opened the conference, at which only her brother Lord James Stuart, and two ladies in waiting were present, with a reference to the Reformer's book on the "Regiment of Women," and the "necromancy" by which he accomplished his ends; but departing from the grave charge of magic, she came to what was uppermost in her mind, and what was the head and front of Knox's offending.

"You have taught the people," remarked the queen, "to receive another religion than that which their princes allow; but God commands subjects to obey their prince;" ergo, "you have taught the people to disobey both God and their prince." Mary doubtless thought this syllogism unanswerable, till Knox, with a little plain sense, brushed it away completely.

"Madam," replied the Reformer, "as right religion received neither its origin nor its authority from princes, but from the eternal God alone, so are not subjects bound to frame their religion according to the tastes of their princes. For oft it is that princes, of all others, are the most ignorant of God's true religion. If all the seed of Abraham had been of the religion of Pharaoh, whose subjects they long were, I pray you, madam, what religion would there have been in the world? And if all in the days of the apostles had been of the religion of the Roman emperors, I pray you, madam, what religion would there have been now upon the earth?... And so, madam, you may perceive that subjects are not bound to the religion of their princes, although they are commanded to give them reverence."

"Yea," relied the queen, "but non of these men raised the sword against their princes."

"Yet, madam," rejoined Knox, "they resisted, for they who obey not the commandment given them, do in some sort resist."

"But," argued the queen, "they resisted not with the sword."

"God, madam," answered the Reformer, "had not given them the power and the means."

"Think ye," said the queen, "that subjects having the power may resist their princes?"

"If princes exceed their bounds, madam, and do that which they ought not, they may doubtless be resisted even by power. For neither is greater honor nor greater obedience to be given to kings and princes, than God has commanded to be given to father and mother. But, madam, the father may be struck with a frenzy, in which he would slay his own children. Now, madam, if the children arise, join together, apprehend him, take the sword from him, bind his hands, and keep him in prison till the frenzy be over, think ye, madam, that the children do any wrong? Even so is it, madam, with princes who would murder the children of God who are subject unto them. Their blind zeal is nothing but a mad frenzy; and, therefore, to take the sword from them, to bind their hands, and to cast them into prison till they be brought to a sober mind, is no disobedience against princes, but a just obedience, because it agreeth with the will of God."

We must carry ourselves three centuries back, and think of the slavish doctrines then prevalent all over Christendom — that it was taught as infallibly true in theological canons and juridical codes, and echoed back from university chairs, that kings reigned by Divine right, and that the understandings and consciences of their subjects were in their keeping; and we must think too of the high-handed way in which these demoralizing and enslaving doctrines were being carried out in Europe — that in every Popish country a scaffold or a stake was the certain fate of every man who dared to maintain the right of one's thinking for oneself -- we must transport ourselves into the midst of these times, we say, before we can fully estimate the courage of Knox in avowing these sentiments in the presence of Mary Stuart. These

plain bold words, so different from the glozing terms in which she had been accustomed to be addressed in France, fell upon her ear like a thunder-peal. She was stunned and amazed, and for a quarter of all hour stood speechless. If her passion found not vent in words, it showed itself in the pallor of her face. "Her countenance altered."

The past age of feudalism and the coming age of liberty stood confronting each other under the roof of Holyrood. We wait with intense anxiety during that quarter of an hour's silence, to see what the next move in this great battle shall be, and whether it is to be maintained or abandoned by Knox. Vast issues hang upon the words by which the silence is to be broken! If Knox yield, not only will Scotland fall with him, but Christendom also; for it is Philip of Spain, and Pius IV of Rome, who are confronting him in the person of Mary Stuart.

At last Lord James Stuart, feeling the silence insupportable, or fearing that his sister had been seized with sudden illness, began to entreat her and to ask, "What has offended you, madam?" But she made him no answer. The tempest of her pride and self-will at length spent itself. Her composure returned, and she resumed the argument.

"Well then," said she, "I deafly perceive that my subjects shall obey you, and not me; and shall do what they list, and not what I command; and so must I be subject to them, and not they to me."

"God forbid," promptly rejoined the Reformer, "that ever I take upon me to command any to obey me, or to set subjects at liberty to do whatever pleases them." Is then Knox to concede the "right Divine?" Yes; but he lodges it where alone it is safe; not in any throne on earth. "My travail," adds he, "is that both subjects and princes may obey God. And think not, madam, that wrong is done you when you are required to be subject unto God; for he it is who subjects peoples unto princes, and causes obedience to be given unto them. He craves of kings that they be as it were foster-fathers to his Church, and commands queens to be nurses to his people."

"Yes," replied the queen; "but ye are not the Kirk that I will nourish. I will defend the Kirk of Rome, for it is, I think, the true Kirk of God."

"Your will, madam," said Knox, "is no reason; neither doth it make that Roman harlot to be the true and immaculate spouse of Jesus Christ. I offer myself, madam, to prove that the Church of the Jews which crucified Christ Jesus was not so far degenerate from the ordinances and statutes given it of God, as the Church of Rome is declined, and more than 500 years hath declined, from the purity of that religion which the apostles taught and planted."

"My conscience," said Mary, "is not so." "Conscience, madam," said Knox, "requires knowledge, and I fear that right knowledge ye have none."

"But," said she, "I have both heard and read." "Have you," inquired Knox, "heard any teach but such as the Pope and cardinals have allowed You may be assured that such will speak nothing to offend their own estate."

"You interpret the Scripture in one way, and they interpret it in another," said Mary: "whom shall I believe, and who shall be judge?"

"You shall believe God, who plainly speaketh in his Word," was the Reformer's answer, "and farther than the Word teaches you, ye shall believe neither the one nor the other. The Word of God is plain in itself, and if in any one place there be obscurity, the Holy Ghost, who never is contrary to himself, explains the same more clearly in other places, so that there can remain no doubt but unto such as are obstinately ignorant." He illustrated his reply by a brief exposition of the passage on which the Romanists found their doctrine of the mass; when the queen said that, though she was unable to answer him, if those were present whom she had heard, they would give him an answer. "Madam," replied the Reformer, "would to God that the learnedest Papist in Europe, and he that you would best believe, were present with your Grace, to sustain the argument, and that you would patiently hear the matter debated to an end; for then I doubt not, madam, you would know the vanity of the Papistical religion, and how little foundation it has in the Word of God."

"Well," said she, "you may perchance get that sooner than you believe."

"Assuredly," said Knox, "if I ever get it in my life I get it sooner than I believe; for the ignorant Papist cannot patiently reason, and the learned and crafty Papist will not come in your presence, madam, to have the, grounds of his belief searched out, for they know that they cannot sustain the argument unless fire and sword and their own laws be judges. When you shall let me see the contrary, I shall grant myself to have been deceived in that point."

The dinner-hour was announced, and the argument ended. "I pray God, madam," said Knox in parting, "that ye may be as blessed within the commonwealth of Scotland, as ever was Deborah in the commonwealth of Israel." [6]

Luther before Charles V at Worms, Calvin before the Libertines in the Cathedral of St. Pierre, and Knox before Queen Mary in the Palace of Holyrood, are the three most dramatic points in the Reformation, and the three grandest passages in modern history. The victory in each of these three cases was won by one man, and was due solely to his faith. Luther, Calvin, Knox at these unspeakably critical moments stood alone; their friends could not or dared not show themselves; they were upheld only by the truth and greatness

of their cause, and the aid of Him whose it was. A concession, a compromise, in either case would have ruined all; and Worms, St. Pierre, and Holyrood would have figured in history as the scenes of irretrievable disaster, over which nations would have had cause to weep. They are instead names of glorious victory; Marathon, Morat, and Bannockburn shine not with so pure a splendor, nor will they stir the hearts of men so long. The triumph of Luther at Worms secured the commencement of the Reformation, that of Calvin in St. Pierre its consummation, and that of Knox in Holyrood its preservation.

Lectionary Calendar
Saturday, October 31st, 2020
the Week of Proper 25 / Ordinary 30
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