Knox’s Curious Attitude Toward Women

OVER HIS LIFETIME, John Knox had personal contact with four female rulers, and his relationship with each was a stormy one.

The first was Mary Tudor of England (Mary I, 1553–1558, also called “Bloody Mary”). Knox was ministering in England when this Catholic monarch ascended the throne; he anticipated the coming persecution of Protestants and fled to Europe. Seeing the imprisonments and martyrdoms inflicted by Mary Tudor, Knox sent instructions back to his English brethren on how 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.”

Pray this way sincerely, Knox assured his flock in England, and God will send a Jehu to slay Jezebel and her followers!

Knox originally showed more hope for Mary of Guise, queen regent governing Scotland (1554–1560). At first, Mary of Guise tolerated Protestants, and Protestants increased their numbers. When Knox’s 1555 preaching tour of Scotland was so successful that a frightened Catholic hierarchy charged him with heresy, Mary of Guise suppressed his trial.

Hoping she might support the Reformation, 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.”

The letter failed. She called it a joke. Worse, after Knox had left Scotland, the bishops revived his trial and burned him in effigy. He never forgot that Mary of Guise had ridiculed him and let him be condemned to death. Henceforth he considered her murderously sly and crafty.

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.”

Then he 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. In a caustic, bitter tone, he argued that women must never govern because God created women as servants and subjects to men. God allowed women to rule only as retribution for national sins.

The First Blast was badly timed. England’s Mary Tudor died, succeeded by Protestant Elizabeth I (1558–1603). Her right to the throne was immediately questioned by her citizens, and she needed support, something Knox publicly refused to do, even though she promoted Protestantism.

Nevertheless the Scottish Reformation needed Elizabeth’s help and got it when it counted. But Knox had no sympathy for emerging Anglicanism, and he denounced Elizabeth’s use of cross and candles: she was “neither good Protestant nor yet resolute Papist.”

Face-Off with the Queen

After Regent Mary of Guise died, her daughter, Mary Queen of Scots, left France to assume her rightful role as monarch of Scotland. Knox dreaded her arrival, fearing the Catholic queen might overturn the Reformation, which had just triumphed. Mary promised to respect Scotland’s new religion, but she insisted on her right to worship privately as a Catholic. To Knox, attending Mass flouted the law and defied God’s Word.

When Knox protested along these lines from the pulpit, he was summoned before the queen in the first of five famous meetings between them. In this first encounter, Mary said subjects should adhere to their monarch’s religion. Knox denied her right to dictate her faith to the people. He left the meeting convinced that Mary had “a proud mind, a crafty wit, and an indurate heart against God and his truth.” She was obstinately “proceeding from evil to worse.”

In his second interview with Mary, Knox learned that she would never attend Protestant services. After the third, he observed the queen advancing a scheme to marry the Spanish crown prince. Knox used the pulpit to warn against her marriage to the Catholic prince—that would be the beginning of persecution of Protestants, he believed.

This led to a stormy fourth interview in which Knox was chastised for interfering with her private life. He wrote, “Howling, besides womanly weeping, stayed her speech,” and her tears were “in greater abundance than the matter required.”

The fifth encounter took place during Knox’s trial for treason. The queen accused Knox of summoning her subjects to meet without her permission. But Mary’s own interruptions upset the trial and enabled others to defend Knox’s right as pastor to gather his congregation freely. He was acquitted.

During these interviews, Knox never demeaned Mary as a woman, and he treated her as he would have treated any king. But he could not conceal his contempt for her. Once when Mary interrupted his argument, he rebuked her, “I began, Madam, to reason with the Secretary, whom I take to be a far better dialectician than your Grace is.”

“Extraordinary Exemplar”

Despite his problems with queens, Knox liked women, enjoyed their company, and ministered to them diligently. More than half his surviving letters addressed their spiritual concerns and questions.

When he was a pastor in England, Knox met Elizabeth and Marjory Bowes, mother and daughter, and soon won Marjory’s hand in marriage. After Mary Tudor’s accession to the English Crown, the two women fled to Scotland. They reunited with Knox during his 1555 preaching tour and lived with him all during the Reformation struggle.

Marjory was level-headed and charming, and she gave Knox two sons as well as valuable service as copyist and secretary. Writing of himself in the third person, Knox noted her passing in 1560, saying, “He was in no small heaviness of heart by reason of the late death of his dear bedfellow, Marjory Bowes.” Elizabeth Bowes continued to care for Knox’s sons and home until he married again.

Before and after his marriage to Marjory, Knox had a close relationship with Mrs. Bowes. The former Catholic studied Scripture avidly and agonized over questions of biblical interpretation, her sinfulness, her election, and temptations to attend Mass. Thirty-one of Knox’s letters preserve her questions and his answers.

On the other hand, she inspired Knox by her perseverance and startled him with comments that gave him insights into his own spiritual problems.

Knox gave Mrs. Bowes sole credit for persuading him to begin his 1555 preaching tour of Scotland: “I praise God in you and for you, whom he made the instrument to draw me from the den of my own ease . . . to contemplate and behold the fervent thirst of our brethren night and day sobbing and groaning for the bread of life.” After her death, he praised Elizabeth Bowes as “an extraordinary exemplar of the Christian life.”

At age 50, Knox married again, this time to 17-year-old Margaret Stewart, a distant relation of Mary Queen of Scots. Margaret gave Knox three daughters and read Scripture to him on his deathbed. He named her and their daughters executors of his estate. She preserved much of his correspondence that has survived.

Knox’s Most Respected Partner

Perhaps the woman Knox respected most as a partner in the Reformation work was Anne Locke, a learned, talented wife of a London merchant.

Knox’s early letters to her give advice to pass on to Protestants suffering under Mary Tudor; he urged trust in God and avoidance of the Mass. She came to Geneva at Knox’s urging, returning to England only after Queen Elizabeth’s accession (1558).

Knox’s later letters contain practical advice for her as a leader and organizer of his supporters outside Scotland. He sent her the Scots Confession of Faith to study, asked her to raise money for Scotland’s struggle, authorized her to open and read his letters, and asked her to send him the latest theological books.

In addition, Mrs. Locke published her own translations of Calvin’s sermons and works by other European Protestant writers. Her service was truly professional, yet she agreed with Knox concerning women and authority. It is a view that no doubt sums up Knox’s:

“Everyone in his calling,” she wrote, “is bound to do somewhat to the furtherance of the holy building, but because great things by reason of my sex I may not do, and that which I may I ought to do, I have according to my duty brought my poor basket of stones to the strengthening of the walls of that Jerusalem whereof (by grace) we are all both citizens and members.”

With such women Knox could easily work. But he had no patience with women who tried to govern men because, as Knox read Scripture, she was doing “great things by reason of her sex she ought not to do.” CH

By Robert Healey

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #46 in 1995]

Robert Healey is emeritus professor of history at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary.
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