Knox’s conduct to Queen Mary, the harsh visits he used to make in her own palace, to reprove her there, have been much commented upon.
Continuing John Knox and Scotland’s Reformation,
our selection from On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and The Heroic in History by Thomas Carlyle published in 1841. The selection is presented in three easy 5 minute installments. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages.
Previously in John Knox and Scotland’s Reformation.
Time: 1559 to 1572
Our primary characteristic of a hero, that he is sincere, applies emphatically to Knox. It is not denied anywhere that this, whatever might be his other qualities or faults, is among the truest of men. With a singular instinct he holds to the truth and fact; the truth alone is there for him, the rest a mere shadow and deceptive nonentity. However feeble, forlorn the reality may seem, on that and that only can he take his stand. In the Galleys of the River Loire, whither Knox and the others, after their Castle of St. Andrew’s was taken, had been sent as Galley-slaves — some officer or priest, one day, presented them an image of the Virgin Mother, requiring that they, the blasphemous heretics, should do it reverence. Mother? Mother of God? said Knox, when the turn came to him: This is no Mother of God: this is “a pented bredd” — a piece of wood, I tell you, with paint on it! She is fitter for swimming, I think, than for being worshipped, added Knox; and flung the thing into the river. It was not very cheap jesting there: but come of it what might, this thing to Knox was and must continue nothing other than the real truth; it was a pented bredd: worship it he would not.
He told his fellow-prisoners, in this darkest time, to be of courage; the Cause they had was the true one, and must and would prosper; the whole world could not put it down. Reality is of God’s making; it is alone strong. How many pented bredds, pretending to be real, are fitter to swim than to be worshipped! This Knox cannot live but by facts: he clings to reality as the shipwrecked sailor to the cliff. He is an instance to us how a man, by sincerity itself, becomes heroic; it is the grand gift he has. We find in Knox a good, honest, intellectual talent, no transcendent one; a narrow, inconsiderable man, as compared with Luther: but in heartfelt, instinctive adherence to truth, in sincerity, as we say, he has no superior; nay, one might ask, what equal he has? The heart of him is of the true Prophet cast. “He lies there,” said the Earl of Morton at his grave, “who never feared the face of man.” He resembles, more than any of the moderns, an old Hebrew Prophet. The same inflexibility, intolerance, rigid, narrow-looking adherence to God’s truth, stern rebuke in the name of God to all that forsake truth: an old Hebrew prophet in the guise of an Edinburgh minister of the sixteenth century. We are to take him for that; not require him to be other. Knox’s conduct to Queen Mary, the harsh visits he used to make in her own palace, to reprove her there, have been much commented upon. Such cruelty, such coarseness, fills us with indignation. On reading the actual narrative of the business, what Knox said, and what Knox meant, I must say one’s tragic feeling is rather disappointed. They are not so coarse, these speeches, they seem to me about as fine as the circumstances would permit! Knox was not there to do the courtier; he came on another errand. Whoever, reading these colloquies of his with the Queen, thinks they are vulgar insolences of a plebeian priest to a delicate high lady, mistakes the purport and essence of them altogether. It was unfortunately not possible to be polite with the Queen of Scotland, unless one proved untrue to the Nation and Cause of Scotland. A man who did not wish to see the land of his birth made a hunting-field for intriguing, ambitious Guises, and the Cause of God trampled underfoot of falsehoods, formulas, and the Devil’s Cause, had no method of making himself agreeable! “Better that women weep,” said Morton, “than that bearded men be forced to weep.” Knox was the constitutional opposition party in Scotland: the Nobles of the country, called by their station to take that post, were not found in it; Knox had to go, or no one. The hapless Queen; but the still more hapless Country, if she were made happy! Mary herself was not without sharpness enough, among her other qualities: “Who are you,” said she once, “that presume to school the nobles and sovereign of this realm?” “Madam, a subject born within the same,” answered he. Reasonably answered! If the “subject” have truth to speak, it is not the “subject’s” footing that will fail him here.
We blame Knox for his intolerance. Well, surely it is good that each of us be as tolerant as possible. Yet, at bottom, after all the talk there is and has been about it, what is tolerance? Tolerance has to tolerate the unessential; and to see well what that is. Tolerance has to be noble, measured, just in its very wrath, when it can tolerate no longer. But, on the whole, we are not altogether here to tolerate! We are here to resist, to control, and vanquish withal. We do not “tolerate” Falsehoods, Thieveries, Iniquities, when they fasten on us; we say to them, Thou art false, thou art not tolerable! We are here to extinguish Falsehoods, and put an end to them, in some wise way! I will not quarrel so much with the way; the doing of the thing is our great concern. In this sense Knox was, full surely, intolerant.