John Knox, by Jane Dawson

A fine new biography of the Protestant zealot opens up the vast panorama of the Reformation, finds Lucy Wooding

June 4, 2015
Book review: John Knox, by Jane Dawson

In an acrimonious century, the Scottish reformer John Knox achieved a worse reputation than most. He is still most famous as the man whose spectacularly misogynous treatise against female rule left Elizabeth I permanently enraged. The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women (intended, in a classic example of bad timing, to attack Catholic queens but published just as Elizabeth acceded to the throne) helped establish a lasting caricature of “the ranting Scotsman with the long beard and preaching gown”.

Jane Dawson’s superb new book rescues Knox from this parody. Deploying a significant amount of previously unknown evidence, it is a rich and satisfying account of a quite remarkable life. Knox emerges as a much more complicated and laudable person: a loving husband, a steadfast friend, a fervent believer who was still frequently troubled by doubts, a brave fighter in the service of his faith, an unquenchable evangelist. He endured 19 months as a galley slave after his capture by the French, not something he often mentioned, although he never fully recovered. A violent death for the sake of his religion was always a strong possibility, and he was often afraid, but he fought in the front line anyway.

This is not just Knox’s story. Dawson paints an extraordinary panorama of the Reformation as it unfolded across Europe, from Edinburgh to Frankfurt, London to Geneva. Knox lived and died “a member of the great body of international Calvinism”, a pivotal figure in England, Scotland and Geneva, and this biography skilfully conveys the breathtaking scope of this international Protestant endeavour as well as the striking importance within it of different personalities, friendships and feuds.

This is not the Knox of legend, but even so, it is the story of an undoubtedly difficult man. Dawson does her best: the book opens, for example, with a touching depiction of him weeping with joy at his son’s baptism. Yet it is also clear that Knox was inflexible, confrontational, vindictive towards his enemies and astoundingly devoid of subtlety. His interventions in politics generally left everyone bruised; after being ousted from one political role he wrote indignantly, “I am judged…too extreme.”

His greatest gift was also his biggest liability, namely an unshakeable conviction that his interpretation of the faith was the right one. He did not care whom he offended if it furthered the Gospel. Exiled in Frankfurt, he was furious with his fellow exiles for using the Book of Common Prayer. Perhaps the greatest achievement of Edward VI’s Reformation, the Book was still not reformed enough for Knox, who described it as “unperfect, uncleane, unpure, damnable and full of superstition deservinge also death, plague and exile”. This was to his fellow Protestants; his verdict on Catholicism was even more eloquent.

Knox himself seems not to have anticipated how challenging he could be. He was “hurt and surprised” by Elizabeth’s reaction to his First Blast; appalled when fellow Protestants distanced themselves from his “rash and inconsiderate writing”.

This is an exceptionally fine biography – lucid, packed with evidence, and so deeply engaged with Knox’s writings that it seems as if Dawson talked with her subject only yesterday. Yet if he is to be acquitted of the charge of misogyny and obduracy, it is only because these are submerged in the wider realisation that for this complicated, passionate, indomitable man, everything – man or woman, friend or foe – was subjugated to his devastating vision of the kingdom of God. Centuries later, his fiery invective and furious commitment can still take your breath away.

Lucy Wooding is senior lecturer in early modern history, King’s College London.

John Knox
By Jane Dawson
Yale University Press, 384pp, £25.00
ISBN 9780300114737
Published 30 April 2015

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