corner graphic   Hi,    
Facebook image
Finding the new version too difficult to understand? Go to

The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 24 — Protestantism in Scotland

Chapter 9 — Trial of Knox for treason

Resource Toolbox

 1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10  11  12  13  14  15  16  17  18  19  20  21  22  23  24

 1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10  11  12  13  14  15  16  17  18  19  20  21  22  23  24  25  26  27  28  29  30

Distribution of Ecclesiastical Revenues — Inadequate Provision for the Protestant Ministry — First Book of Discipline — Mary Refuses to Ratify the Ecclesiastical Settlement of 1560 — Faithlessness of the Nobles — Grief of Knox — His Sermon — Rebuke of the Protestant Nobles — Summoned to the Palace — Interview with the Queen — Knox's Hardness — Mass at the Palace — Threatened Prosecution of Protestants — Knox's Circular — Put upon his Trial for Treason — Maitland of Lethington — Debate between Maitland and Knox — Knox's Defense on his Trial — His Acquittal — Joy of the Citizens — Consequences of his Acquittal — Knox's Political Sentiments — His Services to the Liberties of Great Britain

In the room of a sacerdotal hierarchy there had been planted in Scotland a body of teaching pastors. The change had been accomplished with the sanction of Parliament, but no provision was made for the temporal support of the new ecclesiastical establishment. This was a point on which Knox was not unnaturally anxious, but on which he was doomed to experience a bitter disappointment. The Romish Church in Scotland had possessed a boundless affluence of houses, valuables, and lands. Her abbacies dotted the country, mountain and meadow, forest and cornfield, were hers; and all this wealth had been set free by the suppression of the priesthood, and ought to have been transferred, so far as it was needed, to the Protestant Church. But the nobles rushed in and appropriated nearly the whole of this vast spoil. Knox lifted up his voice to denounce a transaction which was alike damaging to the highest interests of the country, and the characters of those concerned in it: but he failed to ward off the covetous hands that were clutching this rich booty; and the only arrangement he succeeded in effecting was, that the revenues of the Popish Church should be divided into three parts, and that two of these should be given to the former incumbents, to revert at their death to the nobility, and that the third part should be divided between the court and the Protestant ministers. The latter had till now been entirely dependent upon the benevolence of their hearers, or the hospitality of the noblemen in whose houses some of them continued to reside. When Knox beheld the revenues which would have sufficed to plant Scotland with churches, colleges, and schools, and suitably provide for the poor, thus swallowed up, he could not refrain from expressing his mortification and disgust. "Well," exclaimed he, "if the end of this order be happy, my judgment fails me. I see two parts freely given to the devil, and the third must be divided between God and the devil. Who would have thought that when Joseph ruled in Egypt his brethren would have traveled for victuals, and would have returned with empty sacks to their families?" It was concern for his brethren's interest that drew from the Reformer this stern denunciation, for his own stipend, appointed by the magistrates of Edinburgh, was an adequate one. The same cause occasioned to Knox his second great disappointment. He had received from the Privy Council a commission, along with Winram, Spottiswood, Douglas, and Row, to draft a plan of ecclesiastical government. Comprehensive in outline and perfect in detail, incalculable, we have already seen, would have been the moral and literary benefits this plan would have conferred upon Scotland had it been fully carried out. But the nobles liked neither the moral rules it prescribed, nor the pecuniary burdens it imposed, and Knox failed to procure for it the ratification of the Privy Council. Many of the members of Council, however, subscribed it, and being approved by the first General Assembly, which met on the 20th of December, 1560, [1] it has, under the name of the "First Book of Discipline," always held the rank of a standard in the Protestant Church of Scotland. [2]

A third and still more grievous disappointment awaited the Reformer. The Parliament of 1560, which had abolished the Papal jurisdiction, and accepted Protestantism as the national religion, had been held when the queen was absent from the kingdom, and the royal assent had never been given to its enactments, not only did Mary, under various pretexts, refuse to ratify its deeds while she resided in France, but even after her return to Scotland she still withheld her ratification, and repeatedly declared the Parliament of 1560 to be illegal. If so, the Protestant establishment it had set up was also illegal, and no man could doubt that it was the queen's intention, so soon as she was able, to overthrow it and restore the Romish hierarchy. This was a state of matters which Knox deemed intolerable; but the Protestant lords, demoralized by the spoils of the fallen establishment and the blandishments of the court, took it very easily. The Parliament the first since Mary's arrival — was about to meet; and Knox fondly hoped that now the royal ratification would be given to the Protestant settlement of the country. He pressed the matter upon the nobles as one of vital importance. He pointed out to them that till such assent was given they had no law on their side; that they held their religion at the mere pleasure of their sovereign, that they might any day be commanded to go to mass, and that it was indispensable that these uncertainties and fears should be set at rest. The nobles, however, found the matter displeasing to the queen, and agreed not to press it. Knox learned their resolve with consternation.

He could not have believed, unless he had seen it, that the men who had summoned him from Geneva, and carried their cause to the battle-field, and who had entered into a solemn bond, pledging themselves to God and to one another, to sacrifice goods and life in the cause if need were, could have so woefully declined

in zeal and courage, and could so prefer the good-will of their sovereign and their own selfish interests to the defense of their religion, and the welfare of their country. This exhibition of faithlessness and servility well-nigh broke his heart, and would have made him abandon the cause in despair but for his faith in God. The Parliament had not yet ended, and in the pulpit of St. Giles's, Knox poured out the sorrows that almost overwhelmed him in a strain of lofty and indignant, yet mournful eloquence. He reminded the nobles who, with some thousand of the citizens, were gathered before him, of the slavery of body, and the yet viler slavery of soul, in which they had been sunk; and now, when the merciful hand of God had delivered them, where was their gratitude? And then addressing himself in particular to the nobility, he continued, "In your most extreme dangers I have been with you; St. Johnston, Cupar-Moor, the Craigs of Edinburgh" (names that recalled past perils and terrors) "are yet fresh in my heart; yea, that dark and dolorous night wherein all ye, my lords, with shame and fear left this town, is yet in my mind, and God forbid that ever I forget it. What was, I say, my exhortation to you, and what has fallen in vain of all that ever God promised unto you by my mouth, ye yourselves are yet alive to testify. There is not one of you, against whom was death and destruction threatened, perished; and how many of your enemies has God plagued before your eyes! Shall this be the thankfulness that ye shall render unto your God? To betray his cause when you have it in your hands to establish it as you please?... Their religion had the authority of God, and was independent of human laws, but it was also accepted within this realm in public Parliament, and that Parliament he would maintain was as free and lawful as any that had ever assembled in the kingdom of Scotland." He alluded, in fine, to the reports of the queen's marriage, and bidding his audience mark his words, he warned the nobility what the consequences would be should they ever consent to their sovereign marrying a Papist. [3]

Knox himself tells us in his History that this plainness of speech gave offense to both Papists and Protestants. He had not expected, nor indeed intended, that his sermon should please the latter any more than the former. Men who were sinking their patriotism in cupidity, and their loyalty in sycophancy, would not be flattered by being told to their face that they were ruining their country. Another result followed, which had doubtless also been foreseen by the preacher. There were those in his audience who hurried off to the palace as soon as the sermon was ended, and reported his words to the queen, saying that he had preached against her marriage. Hardly had he finished his dinner when a messenger arrived from Holyrood, ordering his attendance at the palace. His attached friend, Lord Ochiltree, and some others, accompanied him, but only Erskine of Dun was permitted to go with him into the royal cabinet. The moment he entered, Mary burst into a passion, exclaiming that never had prince been vexed by subject as she had been by him; "I vow to God," said she, "I shall once be revenged." "And with these words, hardly could her page bring napkins enough to hold her tears." Knox was beginning to state the paramount claims that governed him in the pulpit, when the queen demanded, "But what have you to do with my marriage?" He was going on to vindicate his allusion to that topic in the pulpit on the ground of its bearing on the welfare of the country, when she again broke in, "What have you to do with my marriage? or what are you in this commonwealth?"

Posterity has answered that question, in terms that would have been less pleasing to Mary than was Knox's own reply. "A subject born within the same, madam," he at once said with a fine blending of courtesy and dignity: "a subject born within the same, madam, and albeit I be neither earl, lord, nor baron in it, yet has God made me (how abject that ever I be in your eyes) a profitable member within the same; yes, madam, to me it appertains no less to forewarn of such things as may hurt it, if foresee them, than it doth to any of the nobility, for both my vocation and my conscience require plainness of me; and, therefore, madam, to yourself I say, that which I spake in public place — whensoever the nobility of this realm shall consent that ye be obedient to all unfaithful husband, they do as much as in them lieth to renounce Christ, to banish his truth from them, to betray the freedom of this realm, and perchance shall in the end do small comfort to yourself." Mary's reply to these words was a burst of tears. [4]

Erskine of Dun stepped forward to soothe her, but with no great success. Knox stood silent till the queen had composed herself, and then said he was constrained, though unwillingly, to sustain her tears, rather than hurt his conscience and betray the commonwealth by his silence. This defense but the more incensed the queen; she ordered him to leave her presence and await in the ante-chamber the signification of her pleasure. There he was surrounded by numbers of his acquaintances and associates, but he stood "as one whom men had never seen." Lord Ochiltree alone of all that dastardly crowd found courage to recognize him. Turning from the male, but not manly, courtiers, Knox addressed himself to the queen's ladies. "O fair ladies," said he, in a vein of raillery which the queen's frown had not been able to extinguish, "how pleasing were this life of yours,

if it should ever abide, and then, in the end, we might pass to heaven with all this gay gear! but fie upon that knave Death that will come whether we will or no." Erskine now came to hint to say that the queen permitted him to go home for the day. Mary was bent on a prosecution of the Reformer, but her councilors refused to concur, and so, as Knox says, "this storm blew over in appearance, but not in heart." [5]

Sternly, uncompromisingly, Knox pursues his course! Not an uncourteous, undignified, treasonable word does he utter; yet what iron inflexibility! He sacrifices friends, he incurs the mortal hatred of his: sovereign, he restrains the yearnings of his own heart; the sacrifice is painful — painful to himself and to all about him, but it is the saving of his country. What hardness! exclaim many. We grant it; Knox is hard as the rock, stubborn as the nether millstone; but when men seek to erect a beacon that may save the mariner from the reef on which the tumultuous billows are about to pitch his vessel headlong, it is the rock, not the sand-heap, that they select as a foundation.

At last, as the queen thought, the Reformer had put himself in her power. Had it been as Mary believed, no long time would have elapsed till his head had fallen on the scaffold, and with it, in all human reckoning, would have fallen the Protestant Church of his native land. During the queen's absence at Stirling, the same summer, mass was celebrated at Holyrood by her domestics with greater pomp than usual, and numbers of the citizens resorted to it. Some zealous Protestants of Edinburgh forced their way into the chapel, principally to see who of their fellow-citizens were present, and finding the priest attired for celebration, they asked him why he durst do these things in the queen's absence. The chaplain and the French domestics, taking fright, raised a cry which made Comptroller Pitarrow hasten to their aid, who found no tumult, however, save what he brought with him. Information having been sent to the queen, she caused two of the Protestants to be indicted for "forethought felony, hamesucken, and invasion of the palace." Fearing that it might go hard with the accused, the ministers urged Knox, agreeably to a commission he had received from the Church, to address a circular to the leading Protestants of the country, requesting their presence on the day of trial. A copy of this letter having been sent to the queen, she submitted it to the Privy Council; and the Council, to her great delight, pronounced it treasonable.

In December, 1563, an extraordinary meeting of Council was called, and Knox was put upon his trial. Mary took her seat at the head of the table with an affectation of great dignity, which she utterly spoiled by giving way to a fit of loud laughter, so great was her joy at seeing Knox standing uncovered at the foot of the table. "That man," said she, "made me weep, and shed never a tear himself; I will now see if I can make him weep."

Secretary Maitland of Lethinton conducted the prosecution, and seemed almost as eager as Mary herself to obtain a conviction against the Reformer. Maitland was a formidable opponent, being one of the most accomplished dialecticians of the age. He had been a zealous Protestant, but caring little at heart for any religion, he had now cooled, and was trying to form a middle party, between the court and the Church. Nothing has a greater tendency to weaken the insight than the want of definite views and strong convictions, and so the secretary was laboring with all his might to realize his narrow and impracticable scheme, to the success of which, as he deemed, one thing only was wanting, namely, that Knox should be got rid of. The offense for which the Reformer was now made answerable was, "convening the lieges" by his circular; but the sting of his letter lay in the sentence which affirmed that the threatened prosecution "was doubtless to make preparation upon a few, that a door may be opened to execute cruelty upon a greater number." Knox had offended mortally, for he had penetrated the designs of the court, and proclaimed, them to the nation. The proceedings were commenced by the reading of the circular for which Knox had been indicted. "Heard you ever, my lords," said Mary, looking round the Council, "a more spiteful and treasonable letter?" This was followed up by Maitland, who, turning to Knox, said, "Do you not repent that such a letter has passed your pen?" The Reformer avoided the trap, and made answer, "My lord secretary, before I repent I must be shown my offense." "Offense!" exclaimed Maitland, in a tone of surprise; "if there were no more but the convocation of the queen's lieges, the offense cannot be denied." The Reformer took his stand on the plain common sense of the matter, that to convene the citizens for devotion, or for deliberation, was one thing:, and to convene them with arms was another; and Maitland labored to confound the two, and attach a treasonable purpose to the convocation in question. "What is this?" interposed the queen, who was getting impatient; "methinks you trifle with him. Who gave him authority to make convocation of my lieges?. Is not that treason?" "No, madam," replied Lord Ruthyen, whose Protestant spirit was roused — "no, madam, for he makes convocation of the people to hear prayers and sermon almost daily, and whatever your Grace or others will think thereof, we think it no treason."

After a long and sharp debate between the Reformer and the secretary, the "cruelty upon a greater multitude," for which the summons served on the two Protestants would, it was affirmed, prepare the way, came next under discussion. The queen insisted that she was the party against

whom this allegation was directed; Knox contended that its application was general, and that it was warranted by the notorious persecutions of the Papacy to exterminate Protestants. He was enlarging on this topic, when the chancellor interrupted him. "You forget yourself," said he; "you are not now in the pulpit." "I am in the place," replied the Reformer, "where I am demanded of conscience to speak the truth, and therefore the truth I speak, impugn it whose list." At last Knox was withdrawn, and the queen having retired, in order that the judgment of the Council might be given, the lords unanimously voted that John Knox had been guilty of no violation of the laws. Secretary Maitland stormed, and the courtiers stood aghast. The queen was brought back, and took her place at the head of the table, and the votes were called over again in her presence. "What!" said the members, "shall the Laird of Lethington make us condemn an innocent man?" The Council pronounced a second unanimous acquittal. They then rose and departed. The issue had been waited for with intense anxiety by the Protestant citizens of Edinburgh, and during the sitting of Council a dense crowd filled the court of the palace, and occupied the stairs up to the very door of the council-chamber. That night no instruments of music were brought before the queen; the darkened and silent halls of Holyrood proclaimed the grief and anger of Mary Stuart. But if the palace mourned, the city rejoiced. [6]

We have missed the true character of this scene if we have failed to see, not Mary Stuart and Knox, but Rome and the Reformation struggling together in this chamber. Where would Scotland have been today if the vote of the Privy Council that night had consigned Knox to the Castle, thence to pass, in a few days, or in a few weeks, to a scaffold in the Grass Market? The execution of the Reformer would have been immediately followed by the suppression of the ecclesiastical and educational institutions which he had set up, and Scotland plunged again into Popery would have been, at this day, a second Ireland, with a soil less fertile, and a population even more pauperized. Nay, the disastrous consequences of the Reformer's imprisonment or death would have extended far beyond his native land.

Had Scotland been a Popish country at the time of the Armada, in all human probability the throne of Elizabeth would have been overturned. Nay, with Scotland Popish, it may be doubted whether the throne of Elizabeth would have stood till then. If Mary Stuart had succeeded in restoring the Papacy in Scotland, the country would, as an almost inevitable consequence, have fallen under the power of France, and would have become the door by which the Popish Powers would have entered England to suppress its Reformation, and place the Queen of the Scots upon its throne. Had Knox that night descended the stairs of the royal cabinet of Holyrood with a sentence of condemnation upon him, his countrymen would have had more cause to morn than himself, and England too would, in no long time, have learned the extent of the calamity which had befallen the great cause with which she had identified herself, when she saw the fall of the northern kingdom followed by the destruction of her own Protestant religion and liberties.

Even yet we hear at times echoed of the charge preferred against Knox at the council-table of the queen. Tried by the political creed of Mary Stuart, it must be confessed that his sentiments were disloyal Mary held by the principle, to sovereigns a convenient one, of "the right divine of king to govern wrong;" Knox, on the contrary, held that "all power is founded on a compact expressed or understood between the rulers and the ruled, and that no one has either divine or human right to govern, save in accordance, with the will of the people and the law of God." This is the amount of all that Knox advanced under that head in his various interviews with Queen Mary. His opinions may have sounded strange to one reared in a despotic court; and when the Reformer enunciated them with such emphasis in the Palace of Holyrood, they were before their time; but the world has since seen cause to ratify them, and States of no mean name have acted upon them. Holland embodied them in its famous declaration of independence twenty years afterwards; they received a signal triumph when the British nation adopted them at the Revolution of 1688; and they form, at this day, the basis of that glorious constitution under which it is now happiness to live. Branded as treason when first uttered beneath the royal roof of Holyrood, not a day now passes without our reading these same sentiments in a hundred journals. We hear them proclaimed in senates, we see them acted on in cabinets, and re-echoed from the throne itself. Let us not forget that the first openly to avow them on Scottish soil was John Knox.

Let it be remembered too, that there was then no free press, no free platform, no one organ of public sentiment but the pulpit; and had Knox been silent, the cause of liberty would have been irretrievably betrayed and lost. He had penetrated the design of Mary, inflexibly formed, and craftily yet steadily pursued, of overturning the Reformation of her native land. Knox was the one obstacle in Mary's path to the accomplishment of that design. When nobles and burgesses were bowing down he stood erect, unshaken in his firm resolve, that come what might, and forsake it who would, he would stand by the cause of his country's Reformation. He saw in the back-ground of Mary's throne the dark phalanx of the Popish despots who were banded together to crush the Reformation of Christendom by making a beginning of their work in Scotland, and he stood forward to

denounce and, if possible, prevent the perpetration of that gigantic crime. In that chamber of Holyrood, and in the pulpit of St. Giles's, he fought the noblest battle ever waged upon Scottish soil, and defeated a more formidable foe than Wallace encountered at Stirling, or Bruce vanquished at Bannockburn. He broke the firm-knit league of Papal conspirators, plucked from their very teeth the little country of Scotland, which they had made their prey, and, rescuing it from the vile uses to which they had destined it, made it one of the lights of the world, and, along with England, a mother of free nations. Through all the ages of the future, the foremost place among Scotsmen must belong to Knox. [7]

Lectionary Calendar
Sunday, March 18th, 2018
the Fifth Sunday of Lent
There are 14 days til Easter!
Search Historical Writings
Enter query in the box below
To report dead links, typos, or html errors or suggestions about making these resources more useful use our convenient contact form
Powered by Lightspeed Technology