When people look incredulous and ask, ‘What on earth possessed you to write about John Knox?’ I usually answer, ‘He did.’ For the founding father of the Scottish Reformation is not the most obvious choice for a hero, nor was he foremost in my mind when I started writing my novel. For me, growing up in Scotland Knox was a pulpit-thumping tyrant, a cartoon Calvinist who hated women and banned not only Christmas but playing football on Sundays. Besides, the tragic, romantic figure of Mary Queen of Scots had always held far more fascination for me than the dour Scottish reformer. But it was a series of coincidences that led to the ghost of Knox hijacking my original project.
I’d been doing some research into the Treaty of Haddington, signed in 1548 betrothing Mary to the dauphin of France, when I came across a surprising story. In the local archives I read an article about Elisabeth Hepburn, prioress of St Mary’s Abbey at the time of the treaty who had been forced into becoming a nun to protect the Hepburn family interests at this wealthy convent. Clearly she did not buckle down to a life of quiet contemplation for she was later accused of a certain misdemeanour. This made me eager to find out more about this feisty, free-spirited woman.
It just so happened that I had studied 16th century Scottish literature at university and was blown away by the works of these early writers, especially the playwright David Lindsay who wrote a scathing attack on the Roman Catholic Church, A Satire of the Three Estates. In his play he denounces a prioress for her immoral behaviour and I wondered if by any chance Elisabeth had inspired this character who cursed her friends for ‘compelling her to be a nun and would not let her marry’?
At the time Lindsay had been exiled to Garleton Castle just a few miles away from Haddington and it was not beyond the bounds of possibility that they had met. In fact, the novel, originally entitled The Abbess of Unreason, was going to focus on the intriguing relationship between these two characters.
I was then thrilled to find that Lindsay had urged Knox to preach his first sermon – to sound his first blast of the trumpet – against the Church of Rome at St Andrews shortly before he was arrested and sent to the galleys. Did Lindsay have more influence on Knox than many historians give him credit for? The radical ideas expressed in his play must have affected Knox. Perhaps he learned his preaching skills from the playwright and director, Lindsay. That, to me, suggested a close relationship and I was curious to know how and when it began.
Knox himself was notoriously tight-lipped about the first thirty years of his life. As far as he was concerned, he was born again when the Reformist preacher, George Wishart, pulled him from the ‘puddle of papistry’. What is known about his early life is that this poor orphan lad, born in Haddington in 1513 or 1514, was educated at the local grammar school and St Andrews University and that puzzled me. How could a man of base estate and condition’ have afforded an expensive education? Also unexplained was his relationship with the powerful Hepburn family, the earls of Bothwell. Unearthing these bare bones inspired me to flesh out a story with a dark secret at its centre.
It just so happens that in 2013 (or 2014 as some maintain) Knox will celebrate his 500th birthday and perhaps Knox thought it merited some kind of fanfare. He was certainly instrumental in changing the title which I borrowed from his polemical pamphlet The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women. But unlike his misogynistic rant against female monarchs, my First Blast, the first of a trilogy of novels, does not rail against women but is an attempt to unveil the man behind the myth.
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