13 June 2007
"a wife whose equal is not to be found"
Wife of John Knox
By J. H. Alexander
MRS. BOWES and her daughter, Marjorie, were among the gentry of Berwick-upon-Tweed at the time when John Knox was posted there by Archbishop Cranmer in 1548. Knox was forty-four and only on the threshold of his great career. His appointment as an itinerant preacher was a new one. It arose in this way. Cranmer had been given authority under King Edward VI and his Protector to spread the Reformation throughout England, but how could this be achieved in practice? English Bibles were put in the churches and there was much interest in the Reformed doctrines, but there was also great ignorance and secret animosity in bishops and people alike. To place godly ministers in appropriate pulpits did not seem enough. Then they hit upon the excellent plan of inviting learned Protestants from the Continent and placing them, some as professors at the universities to raise a body of enlightened young men, and some as itinerant preachers. Knox had, two years before this, been captured at St. Andrews by the French and put to the galleys. On his release he dared not show himself in Scotland because of his outspoken sermons there just before his capture. But he had hardly arrived in London before he was recommended to the council for this work of teacher-preacher, and was very soon allocated to Berwick, an important garrison town. The work appealed greatly to him. He threw himself into it with zeal and love, soon causing a remarkable change of heart in the district as well as an improvement in manners, notably in the garrison.
Mrs. Bowes had already been drawn from popery towards the Reformed doctrines but now ‘received from his sermons much instruction and pleasure. She highly esteemed his talents and character’ and became as a mother to him. During those two years a mutual attachment sprang up between Knox and Marjorie Bowes, and before he left Berwick he ‘made faithful promise to her before witnesses’. However, Mr. Bowes, Sir Robert his elder brother, and some other relations were opposed to the match, partly through family pride and partly from lack of sympathy with the Reformation. On this account the marriage was postponed and sorrowful letters reveal the wounded feelings on the part of Knox and Marjorie towards their relations. By this time Knox had become one of King Edward’s royal chaplains (Latimer, Bradford, and Grindal were other names), vested with more authority but still itinerating, sometimes in London, sometimes in the West Country, sometimes North again. But 1553 came. The young king died. Queen Mary came to the throne. Knox, up in Berwick, now married his Marjorie, though her father still disliked the union. The ladies were anxious that Knox should live permanently in the district, out of danger’s way, and Mrs. Bowes earnestly pleaded for her husband to use some of his ample means to settle them in a suitable home, but nothing would persuade him to it. Nor would Knox give up his work, which now held grave danger. Poor Marjorie had to live under the constant frown of her father and great anxiety for her husband. Courtiers and learned men who had had to tolerate the bold words of the royal chaplains now turned on them and the lives of these godly men were in jeopardy. Knox, back in London, narrowly escaped death and fled to France.
With him out of the way, Marjorie and her mother were now subjected to quite a persecution from the father’s side of the family, not so much for holding the Reformed doctrines as for foolishness in not conforming to the ruling of the moment. But neither of them would yield. In spite of a timidity of character (indeed Mrs. Bowes was a women of deep abasement of spirit for whose encouragement Knox wrote his ‘Fort for the Afflicted’, an exposition of Psalm 6) they ‘determined not to forsake upon any consideration the faith which they had embraced from full conviction of its truth’. Knox confirmed them in this by his letters ‘. . . Continue stoutly to the end and bow you never before that idol, and so will the rest of worldly troubles be unto me more tolerable. . . . Comforting myself I appear to triumph that God shall never suffer you to fall in that rebuke.’ Throughout this persecution they were able secretly to meet a few like-minded persons, and although deprived of preaching they regularly enjoyed a simple form of worship together.
There came a happy reunion ‘at the close of harvest 1555’ but Knox really wished to make a secret journey into Scotland. Meeting his friends there he found ‘an ardent thirst for the Word’ and could not tear himself away. Eventually Marjorie and her mother, who was now a widow, joined him in Edinburgh, moving about from friend to friend. It was too dangerous for him to settle, and when the next year he received an invitation to become pastor to the English congregation in Geneva he felt he should accept. Marjorie and her mother bade adieu to their friends ‘with no small dolour to their hearts and unto many of us’ says Knox, and set sail from Leith to Dieppe. After visiting and taking farewell of the brethren in different places (like Paul), Knox followed them.
For three years they lived peacefully in Geneva and two sons were born there. Marjorie was beloved by all who knew her abroad, Calvin calling her ‘a wife whose equal is not everywhere to be found’. (He had lost his Idelette seven years previously.) The friendship of Calvin, a little younger than himself, was precious to Knox, but all the time he felt to be in exile, so that when he received an invitation from the Scottish Protestant nobles he responded to it at once, and went home in January 1559, leaving his family until he felt assured of their safety in Scotland. They were duly sent for in June and made the tedious journey — licences and passports needed, much like today. Marjorie did not long survive the settlement in Scotland. Though he now had a regular ministry and a ‘comfortable establishment for her and her children’ it was too late. She died at the close of that year, leaving this blessing to her two sons, Nathaniel and Eleazar, ‘that God, for his Son Christ Jesus’ sake, would of his mercy make them his true fearers, and as upright worshippers of him as any that ever sprang out of Abraham’s loins’.
The two boys grew up to be worthy sons of their godly parents. Both trained at St. John’s College, Cambridge, one becoming a Fellow and the other a preacher at the college.
It was about two years after the death of Marjorie that Mary, Queen of Scots arrived at Edinburgh, so that she never knew of the great troubles and conflicts between those two opposite characters, which is now almost all that the modern reader knows of Knox; events which have been highlighted and distorted in many a novel and television play.