Collection of material relating to John Knox (1505-1572)

  • This material is held at
  • Reference
      GB 237 Coll-395
  • Dates of Creation
  • Language of Material
  • Physical Description
      1 manuscript volume, 1 letter, 1 charter.
  • Location
      Dc.4.17; Dc.4.103 Knox; SRC.1.4

Scope and Content

The material includes: History of the Reformation in Scotland circa 1635; a facsimile of a letter of Knox to Sir William Douglas of Lochleven, 312 March 1570; and, a facsimile of a notarial instrument in the hand of John Knox.

Administrative / Biographical History

The Scottish reformer and historian John Knox was born in Haddington, East Lothian, in 1505. He was educated in Haddington then studied briefly at Glasgow University in 1522 and at St. Andrews University from 1523. He appears not to have graduated from either institution, perhaps rejecting scholastic theology. Although he was ordained as a priest, he did not obtain a parish appointment - having adopted the principles of reform - and went on to study law instead, acting as a notary in Haddington and as a tutor to the sons of the local wealthy. In the 1540s the reformer George Wishart (c. 1513-1546) came to the area to escape the persecution of Cardinal David Beaton (c. 1494-1546), the pro-French Chancellor of Scotland and Archbishop of St. Andrews. Wishart was given asylum by the father's of Knox's pupils, and Knox himself accompanied Wishart as a protector while he preached in the area. In January 1546, Wishart was seized by Patrick Hepburn (c. 1512-1556), 3rd Earl of Bothwell, and taken to St. Andrews where he was burned as a heretic. In an act of revenge, Beaton was murdered by the Reformers who occupied St. Andrews Castle. Although he had no hand in the killing, Knox went to St. Andrews to act as preacher to the Reformers but when the Castle fell in July 1547 after siege and attack by the French troops of Mary of Guise and French naval vessels, Knox was captured and spent the next nineteen months as a prisoner rowing on French galleys. He was released in February 1549 with help of the English king, Edward VI.

Between 1549 and 1550, and with Edward's favour, Knox was preaching in Berwick and in Newcastle and had by then become well known for both preaching and writing. As King's Chaplain he took part in the revision of the second English Prayer Book of 1552, but with his views becoming more radical he declined the offer of the Bishopric of Rochester in 1552 and the offer of All Hallows, in Bread Street, London, in 1553. When Edward VI died in 1554, Knox returned to Newcastle to escape the persecutions of Mary Tudor. He then went to Geneva meeting Calvin for the first time, and also for a short period ministered to the English congregation in Frankfurt-on-Main. He returned to Scotland in 1555 and found that the progress of the Reformation there had been rapid with converts from all levels of society. He preached and taught in many parts of Scotland over the winter 1555-1556 before returning to Geneva and to closer contact with Calvin, but not before sending The letter to the Queen Dowager to Mary of Guise.

This tract was followed in 1558 by The first blast of the trumpet against the monstrous regiment of women meant to be directed against Mary Tudor and her persecutions (but published after the accession of Elizabeth I) and also aimed at Mary of Guise and at the hostility displayed against the Reformation by Catherine de Medici. This First blast was one of six tracts published in 1558 covering the whole ground of conflict within Scotland. These doctrinal views were repeated in The second blast of the trumpet.

Knox ended his exile in 1599 returning to Scotland from Switzerland in early-May. Later that month the Protestant Lords joined in armed revolt against Mary of Guise. In July 1559 - the same month that Francis II ascended the French throne with Mary, Queen of Scots - Knox was ordained as Minister of St. Giles, Edinburgh, and became the focus of the Scottish Reformation. The First book of discipline (1560) outlined the policy and structure of the new Church in Scotland which was to have Elders, Kirk Sessions, and a General Assembly. In June 1560, Mary of Guise died, and on the death of Francis II in December 1560, Mary, Queen of Scots, decided to return to Scotland. Mary arrived on 19 August 1561 and conflict with Knox began almost immediately when Mass was celebrated in the Chapel of Holyrood on Sunday 24 August. Although a compromise was reached whereby Mary allowed the continuation of reform in return for her own undisturbed Mass, angry discussions between Knox and the Queen were to continue.

The whereabouts of Knox on 9 March 1566, when David Rizzio was murdered, are unknown. It is also uncertain whether he had any foreknowledge of the event. He was also absent - in England - when Darnley met the same fate as Rizzio on 10 February 1567. Knox returned to Edinburgh only after Mary's surrender at Carberry on 15 June 1567 and her imprisonment on an island castle in Loch Leven. It is unknown whether Knox had any part compelling her to abdicate in favour of the infant Prince James.

In addition to tracts and publications outlining his doctrinal views, Knox also published a History of the reformation in Scotland.

Knox married twice. His first marriage was to Marjory Bowes, daughter of Richard and Elizabeth Bowes, captain of Norham, in 1553. He had two sons, Nathaniel born in Geneva in 1557, and Eleazar also born in Geneva, in 1558. His second marriage - at the age of 50 - was to the seventeen year old Margaret Stewart, daughter of the Lord of Ochiltree, in 1564. They had three daughters, Martha born circa 1565, Margaret born circa 1567, and Elizabeth born circa 1570.

John Knox died on 24 November 1572.

Access Information

Generally open for consultation to bona fide researchers, but please contact repository for details in advance.


The biographical/administrative history was compiled using the following material: (1) Keay, John. and Keay, Julia (eds.). Collins encyclopaedia of Scotland. London: Harper Collins Publishers, 1994. (2) Lee, Sidney (ed.). Dictionary of national biography. Vol. 11. Kennett-Lluelyn. London: Smith, Elder and Co., 1909.

Compiled by Graeme D Eddie, Edinburgh University Library, Special Collections Division.

Other Finding Aids

Important finding aids generally are: the alphabetical Index to Manuscripts held at Edinburgh University Library, Special Collections and Archives, consisting of typed slips in sheaf binders and to which additions were made until 1987; and the Index to Accessions Since 1987.


Check the local Indexes for details of any additions.

Related Material

The local Indexes show several items of Knox related material in the Laing Collection (check the Indexes for more details): History of the Reformation in Scotland, at La.III.210; fragment of Book 4 of History of the Reformation in Scotland, at La.III.211; Books 1-3 of History of the Reformation in Scotland, at La.III.212, and Book 4, at La.III.213; copy of the Vautrollier edition of History of the Reformation in Scotland, 1587, at La.III.609, and another similar, at La.III.634; The epistles of Mr. John Knox worthy to be read because of the authority of the wryter the solidity of the matter and the comfortable Christian experience to be found therein, 1683, at La.III.345; and, a nineteenth century transcript of a letter of Knox to Mary of Guise, Queen Dowager of Scotland, 1556, at La.III.534/1. There are also several items with a mention of Knox: David Buchanan named as editor of the common folio editions of Knox, La.III.355, p.65; a genealogical table showing Knox's descendants, La.IV.17; portrait of Knox by Sir D. Wilkie mentioned in letters, La.IV.6; mention of Knox's "cavillations" in a letter from W. Brown to D. Laing, in the Laing Correspondence; mention of letters of Knox in letters of J. A. Froude to D. Laing, at La. IV.6; descendants of Knox mentioned in letters from Joseph Bain to D. Laing, La.IV.17; letter about Knox from A. B. Grosart to D. Laing, at La.IV.17; letter recounting descendants, at La.IV.17; letter about papers relating to Knox, at La.IV.17 (J. Miller, QC); and, mention in a letter of C. Roger to D. Laing. There is also an article by Lord Charles John Guthrie, John Knox's influence on Scottish education, written for Everyman, circa 1913, in Sar.Coll.18.