John Knox and the Women Who Loved Him

Today, the title First Blast of the Trumpet against the monstrous regiment of women evokes images of an approaching army of terrifying woman-like creatures. Its author, John Knox, meant something quite different. It was the title of a short treatise on government (regiment = rule) held by women, a concept he found unnatural (monstrous).

It was not a controversial idea. At that time, most people believed that government was a male prerogative. The biblical examples of women leaders were seen as an indication of the corruption of times when no man could rise to the task.

Most Protestant leaders, however, wouldn’t have expressed their thoughts in such drastic terms. They were concerned about winning rulers – male or female – to their cause, and tempered their words accordingly. But Knox was not a tame man.

His Life

Born in an obscure village in eastern Scotland, Knox made his bold entrance in the annals of history in 1545, at about 31 years of age, holding a two-handed sword in defense of his peer George Wishart, a fervent Reformed preacher in a stubbornly Roman Catholic country. When Wishart was finally captured and executed, Knox, who had been ordained as Roman Catholic priest, served as minister of the Gospel for a group of Protestants who occupied St. Andrews church in protest.

His strong constitution survived the consequence of his actions: 19 months as prisoner on the cruel French galleys. Freed by the English, he clashed with Thomas Cranmer over the Book of Common Prayer, which he considered too popish. Finally, the Church of England assigned him a pastorate in Berwick, a small town near the Scottish border, where he could relate the gospel to the large community of Scottish immigrants (with the added benefit of keeping him away from London).

With the ascension to the throne in 1553 of the Roman Catholic Mary Tudor, Knox moved to the continent, causing a major stir in Frankfurt by comparing the current Emperor Charles V to the Roman Emperor Nero. Ousted by his congregation, he finally settled in Calvin’s Geneva, a city he deeply loved, where he co-pastored a church of English refugees.

In 1559, he returned to Scotland on the insistence of the growing Protestant community in that country. There, he found that the group of Protestants had grown to become theologically and politically strong. Soon he became part of an actual military revolution, which he galvanized with his fierce sermons. After only two years of fighting, Scotland became an official Protestant country.

The Women Around Him

            In spite of his formidable life and bold choices, Knox is still largely unknown. Maybe his larger-than-life charisma is the very reason for this neglect. People generally remember blazes and flares. In his case, they remember the blasts of his trumpet against women rulers – especially Mary Queen of Scots, “that cursed Jesabel,” as he called her. In the popular mind, he is a misogynist and a kill-joy.

            Why then so many intelligent women loved him deeply, confided in him and zealously supported him until the end?

Elizabeth Bowes

            Elizabeth Bowes was Knox’s mother-in-law, and popular stereotypes have contributed to distort the nature of their relationship. She has been portrayed as a weak and needy woman, perennially unsure about her salvation, and a test of Knox’s patience. In reality, most of her letters to Knox were written soon after she met him in Berwick, while she was fighting her family’s resistance against Knox’s proposed marriage to her daughter Marjorie. And while Knox always saw himself as the pastor in this relationship, he admitted that Elizabeth’s questions helped him to consider more carefully the passages of Scripture she found troubling.

            As she poured out her questions and doubts to him, he opened his heart to her, confessing his own personal struggles with faith, his feelings of guilt, and his fear that his troubles will never end in this life. He used these confessions to help her understand she was not alone in her struggle, and enveloped them with pastoral words of encouragement: “And this is more plain than ever I spake, to let you know ye have a fellow and companion in trouble, and thus rest in Christ, for the head of the serpent is already broken down, and he is stinging us upon the heel.”[1]

When Marjorie died in 1560, Elizabeth stayed with Knox four more years to take care of his and Marjorie’s sons Nathaniel and Eleazar, until he remarried. In 1568, Knox sent his sons, then nine and seven years old, to Elizabeth to continue their education in England.

Anne Locke

            It’s to English poetess and translator Anne Locke, another one of Knox’s closest friends, that he made his notorious confession, “Of nature I am churlish, and in conditions different from many. … I have rather need of all [my friends] than that any hath need of me.”[2]

Anne Locke was among a group of women who offered hospitality to Knox when he was in London. Escaping the reign of Mary Tudor, Anne moved to Geneva at Knox’s insistence with her two small children (her daughter died four days after their arrival). Anne didn’t seem to have the same struggles with assurance of salvation that had been plaguing Elizabeth, and Knox treated her as his equal, encouraging her to keep fighting for the gospel and thanking her for her continual efforts to support the Scottish Reformation.

As he did with Elizabeth, he often revealed the perplexities of his heart, including his struggles to cope with his new tasks as husband and father “wherewith I have not been accustomed, and therefore are fearful,”[3] and his late, painful resignation to the fact that the church will always have imperfections in this life.

Knox’s wives

            While we don’t have any letters from and to Knox’s two wives (Marjorie Bowes and Margaret Steward), we know that they were both strong women who greatly supported him in his ministry. Marjorie showed a great amount of courage in leaving her home to marry Knox against the opposition of her father and many of her relatives, and then again crossing the Channel to follow him to Geneva, where she lived in much humbler conditions than in her English mansion. Besides raising their children and hosting a constant stream of visitors and boarders, she helped her husband with his correspondence and publishing activities.

            We know less about Margaret, but she was by his side at the end of his life, when he suffered some discouragement because the church of Scotland had not progressed as radically as he had hoped and he had been conveniently put aside as being too fanatical. She stayed at his side until the very end, in 1572, when he asked her to read to him John 17, the chapter where he “had cast first anchor.”[4]

Mary Queen of Scots

            We don’t immediately think of Mary Stuart as a woman who loved Knox. In reality, the two had a measure of mutual respect. If he called her Jezebel in her Roman Catholic impositions, he also prayed she would become a new Deborah. Religious matters aside, they cooperated very well in many things for the common goal of maintaining peace in the country (they even worked together as marriage counselors in one case). In her uncomfortable position of Roman Catholic ruler of a Protestant country, she often sought Knox’s assistance, even offering him the opportunity to become her religious adviser. While refusing the role, he remained faithful to the prophetic vocation he believed God had given him.

            In conclusion, why did these and many other women express so much love toward a man who blew a fierce trumpet against female rulers? Maybe it’s because he needed, valued, respected them, and understood their struggles, offering at the same time warm and candid pastoral care.

Simonetta Carr was born in Italy and has lived and worked in different cultures. She worked first as elementary school teacher and then as home-schooling mother for many years. Besides writing books, she has contributed to newspapers and magazines around the world and has translated the works of several authors from English into Italian and viceversa. Presently, she lives in San Diego with her husband Thomas and the youngest of her eight children. She is a member and Sunday School teacher at Christ United Reformed Church.

[1] Thomas M’Crie, The Life of John Knox, pp. 48-49

[2] Letter from John Knox to Anne Locke, 1559

[3] Letter from John Knox to Anne Locke, 1556.

[4] [4] Thomas M’Crie, The Life of John Knox, p. 228.


Simonetta Carr