Many of the details of Knox's early life are unclear. His place of birth is not known for certain, though Giffordgate, a suburb of the burgh of Haddington, East Lothian (16 miles/26 km east of Edinburgh), is the generally accepted location. He may have been born in either 1513 or 1514, though some sources favour 1505. His father, William Knox of Haddingtonshire, had fought at the Battle of Flodden; his mother's maiden name was Sinclair. The young Knox received his education via the Scottish Church, which was regarded as "liberal" when compared with the pre-reformation Catholic standards of the day. The uncertainty about Knox's early life is such that it is not even known at which university he studied, since the dates and time he spent at college are uncertain. He certainly studied under the celebrated John Mair (or John Major), a native, like Knox, of East Lothian and one of the greatest scholars of his time. Mair was at the University of Glasgow in 1522 and at St. Andrews in 1531. The name "John Knox" is listed amongst Glasgow's incorporati in 1522, though it is also claimed that he went to St. Andrews. Knox did not shine as an outstanding scholar when compared with contemporaries such as George Buchanan and Alesius. Indeed, there is no evidence that he even graduated. He did, however, know Latin well, and was familiar with the works of classical writers, such as Saint Augustine and Saint Jerome. From his writing it is clear that Knox learnt the Greek and Hebrew languages after ending his formal studies. Knox is first mentioned as a priest in 1540, and in 1543 he was still an ordained Catholic clergyman. A notarial instrument dated 27 March 1543 and signed by him in his capacity as a priest is still in existence, and is kept in the charter-room at Tyninghame Castle. Up to this time, however, he seems to have employed himself in private tuition, rather than in parochial duties. At the moment when he last signed his name as a priest, he was probably already engaged in the office (which he held for several years) of tutor in the family of Hugh Douglas of Longniddry, in East Lothian. He was also responsible for the education of the son of a neighbour, John Cockburn of Ormiston. Both of these lairds, like Knox himself, had an interest in new religious ideas sweeping Europe at this time.
Conversion to Protestantism
Knox first publicly professed the Protestant faith about the end of 1545, though it is thought that his beliefs had been moving in that direction for sometime. According to Calderwood, it was Thomas Guillaume, a fellow native of East Lothian, who was the first "to give Mr. Knox a taste of the truth." Guillaume was originally a member of the order of Blackfriars, and had been chaplain to James Hamilton, 2nd Earl of Arran, Regent of Scotland, for a short time in 1543. However, it is thought that the Knox's actual conversion was probably the result of his friendship with George Wishart. Wishart, who had returned to Scotland in 1544 after a period of banishment, had preached in favour of the reformation, Knox became one of Wishart's closest associates, and he followed him everywhere. He acted as Wishart's body-guard, bearing, it is said, a two-edged sword in order to defend Wishart against supporters of Cardinal David Beaton, leader of the anti-Protestant movement within the Scottish church. In December 1545, Wishart was seized on Beaton's orders, and transferred to Edinburgh Castle on 19 January 1546. Knox was present on the night of Wishart's arrest, and was prepared to follow him into captivity, and consequently, in all probability death. Wishart persuaded him against this course however, saying: "Nay, return to your bairns [children]. One is sufficient for a sacrifice." Wishart was subsequently tried for heresy and burnt at the stake in St Andrews in March 1546. Knox went on to become a Protestant minister in St Andrews, a place with which he had strong links throughout his life. It does...
References: Mackenzie, The Reverend James, The History of Scotland, London: T. Nelson and Sons, 1888.
Schaff, Philip, The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, Vol. VI: Innocents - Liudger, Grand Rapids: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 2000-01-27, v0.1.
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