This article by Sean Morris appeared in the May issue of Ad Fontes magazine. To subscribe to receive full issues in your inbox, click here.
How Do You Solve a Problem like Maria (and Mary, and Mary, and Elizabeth)? Part II
by Sean G. Morris
The first part of this article appeared in the November, 2016 issue of Ad Fontes.
In this commemorative 500th year since the Reformation, it can be helpful to look back at our heroes and their legacies: to do a bit of homework, to glean from their examples, and to see if our impressions hold up under historical scrutiny.
A number of months ago we examined the interactions between the Scottish Reformer John Knox (c. 1505-1572) and several significant women in his life. It is popular – both in academic circles and more widely – to hold that Knox was a surly woman-hater, dismissive of their value to the Kingdom of God. But, as we showed previously, this conclusion cannot be sustained.
A man of his times? Certainly. But Knox’s political convictions in this regard are fairly nuanced and complex. A man of Knox’s historical significance warrants our careful attention. We are obliged that much as historians, not to mention as lovers of truth—no easy task in an age in which we are conditioned to evaluate historical figures with a predictable lack of nuance.
Given our previous article’s limitations, here we shall examine a little more closely Knox’s political interactions; namely, those with the four Queens of England and Scotland with whom he dealt over the course of his life.
Setting the Scene
Knox’s study of Scripture, the popular Renaissance estimation of women’s abilities, and the accession of a queen in both Scotland and England were the factors which drove Knox to give such consideration to the issue of women in political power. For the first half of his life, female monarchs were remarkably rare in Europe. However, not long after Knox set forth in his public ministry and reform efforts in Britain (when he was around 40 years old), several developments prompted him to think through the topic: First, in 1547, the child Queen of Scots, Mary Stuart, after a short betrothal to the Prince of Wales, was taken instead to France as the betrothed of the Dauphin. Then, in 1553, Mary Tudor became monarch of England. Finally, in 1554, the dowager queen, Marie/Mary of Guise, or Lorraine, became regent of Scotland.
The first such interaction was with Mary Tudor of England (Mary I, 1553–1558, also called “Bloody Mary”). Mary Tudor’s accession to the throne created a crisis for England’s previously established reformed church. Under Edward VI (who had been largely supportive of the Protestant Reformation in England), Mary had sponsored and attended nominally private Masses in defiance of her brother’s royal religious authority.
Though deeply vexed that a Catholic should inherit the throne, Knox dutifully performed his roles as subject, pastor, and royal chaplain. He even composed a prayer for use in public worship, an appeal that God would convert the queen and her council to the true gospel religion of the Reformation, and turn them away from persecuting Protestant Christians. Sadly, however, that prayer was answered to the contrary. Seeing the imprisonments and martyrdoms inflicted by Mary Tudor, Knox eventually fled England and, while in exile in Switzerland, sent instructions back to his English brethren on a new way to pray for her and her government:
“Delay not thy vengeance, O Lord! but let death devour them in haste; let the earth swallow them up; and let them go down quickly into hell. For there is no hope of their amendment … consume them in thine anger, and let them never bring their wicked counsels to effect.”
Strike one between Knox and one feminam regem.
Mary of Guise
Knox held out more hope for Mary of Guise, the queen regent governing Scotland (1554–1560). Initially, the Protestant church prospered under her reign. Much to his surprise, in 1555 when Knox was charged with heresy by the Catholic hierarchy on account of his popular and successful preaching tour of Scotland, Mary suppressed the trial.
Spurred on by this apparently favorable disposition, Knox wrote a letter urging her to reform the church. If she obeyed God’s will, God would “crown your battle with double benediction and reward you with wisdom, riches, glory, honor, and long life in this your [temporal rule], and with life everlasting.”
Mary considered the letter a joke. Not only that, but after Knox had left Scotland, the bishops resuscitated his trial and concluded by burning him in effigy. Henceforth, Mary was the subject of Knox’s prophetic ire.
In a 1558 letter, he writes of the “hot displeasure of God” against her for persecuting the righteous and ignoring the call to reform. Her regent’s crown, he later added, was as fitting as “a saddle upon the back of an unruly cow.”
It was shortly after these incidents that Knox published his infamous The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment [unnatural government] of Women, in which he called for rebellion against England’s Mary Tudor and vehemently protested all female rulers as an unnatural deviation from God’s created order and principles of governance.
Strike two against queenly rule.
After the death of Mary Tudor, the English throne was succeeded by the Protestant Elizabeth I (1558–1603). Her right to the throne, however, was in question and she needed support – something Knox publicly refused to do, even though she promoted Protestantism. At this point, one might be tempted to regard the First Blast as poorly timed, prematurely committing Knox to a position he might otherwise have reassessed (considering the advantages of a less-than-ideal, though preferable, woman on the English throne).
All the same, Elizabeth proved helpful to the Scottish Reformation. Ever the ideological purist, though, Knox had little patience for Elizabeth’s more moderate form of Protestantism, and he decried Elizabeth’s use of crosses and candles: she was “neither good Protestant nor yet resolute Papist.”
Mary, Queen of Scots
In 1561, Mary Queen of Scots left France to assume her role as monarch of Scotland upon the death of her mother, the Regent Mary of Guise. Knox feared the Catholic queen might overturn the still-fresh results of Reformation. Mary promised to respect Scotland’s new religion, but in exchange, she demanded her right to worship privately as a Catholic. For Knox, attending Mass not only violated the law of the land, but it was tantamount to pagan idolatry—brazen defiance of God’s Word—and he publicly declared this from his pulpit. Consequently, Knox was summoned before the queen, resulting in five famous meetings between them.
In the first encounter, Mary argued that subjects should adhere to their monarch’s religion, while Knox denied any prerogative for the monarch to forcibly thrust her religion upon the people of her realm.
In their second meeting, Mary vowed that she would never attend Protestant services. After the third meeting, Knox learned of Mary’s plot to marry the Spanish crown prince, entrenching her more firmly within the trappings of Catholicism and further elevating the potential for persecution against the reformed Church of Scotland. Knox again took to the pulpit, this time to warn against her marriage to the Catholic prince.
This led to a fourth meeting in which Knox was rebuked for interfering with Mary’s private life. He wrote, “Howling, besides womanly weeping, stayed her speech,” and her tears were “in greater abundance than the matter required.”
Knox was eventually put on trial for treason, during which the fifth encounter took place. The queen accused Knox of summoning her subjects to meet without her permission. Ironically, however, Mary’s own interruptions frustrated the court proceedings and led to Knox’s eventual acquittal. Her blunders enabled others to mount a strong defense of Knox’s ministerial right to gather his congregation freely.
It is important to note that during these interviews, Knox never demeaned Mary as a woman, and he treated her as he would have treated any king. This did not however, prevent him from his concealing his obvious contempt, stating at one point during the court proceedings, “I began, Madam, to reason with the Secretary, whom I take to be a far better dialectician than your Grace is.”
Strike four and out.
There can be no doubt that Knox held tempestuous relationships with the four female monarchs of the realms where he carried out his public ministry. It may even be fair to conclude that the griefs he endured at their hands were brought on by his own actions. But as we have seen in the previous installment of this essay, Knox’s stern dealings and contentions with these rulers was brought on, not merely by a socially-conditioned estimation of the female sex typical of his times, but also by a resilient loyalty to his parishioners, a dogged commitment to the cause of Reformation in Scotland, and a justified fear of persecution and suffering being enacted against the Protestant church. Once again, when considering the actions and impetuses of our historical figures, history proves to be never as tidy as we’d prefer.
Sean Morris is a Presbyterian minister serving at Westminster Presbyterian Church of Roanoke, Virginia. He also serves as the Academic Dean of the Blue Ridge Institute for Theological Education. He received his B.A. from Grove City College (2010), his M.Div. from Reformed Theological Seminary (2014), and is currently enrolled as an MTh candidate at the University of Glasgow, with a view toward a Ph.D in Scottish theology and church history. He and his wife, Sarah, have one son, Benjamin, and an adorably useless beagle, Max.
 Robert M. Healey, “Waiting for Deborah: John Knox and the Four Ruling Queens,” The Sixteenth Century Journal 25, No. 2 (Summer 1994): 371.
 Healey, 375.
 Healey, 378-379.
 Healey, 381-382.
 Healey, 385.