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The Ghost of John Knox

John Knox is one of the most influential and divisive characters in early modern Scottish history.


He is known as the Father of the Scottish Reformation, which shaped the country we see today, and is commemorated with statues, along with streets and landmarks named after him. Yet, his long religious battle with Mary, Queen of Scots, was instrumental in her downfall and many say his misogynistic views aided the fear that led to the main Scottish Witch Trials. It should also be remembered that it was King James VI, son of Queen Mary, who triggered the first major witch-hunt based on his mother's Witchcraft Act, and his own views were far from complimentary regarding women.



Knox was born a few miles outside Edinburgh, and although his exact date of birth is not certain, it is believed to have been between 1505 and 1514. He studied theology at St Andrews University before becoming ordained into the priesthood. Knox later became influenced by the preachings of early Protestant Reformers and, by 1545, he had openly declared his conversion to the Protestant faith. One of the most influential preachers in Knox's conversion was a Protestant Reformer named George Wishart, and Knox took up the role of travelling with Wishart, providing a degree of protection to him.


It was events in St. Andrews that are believed to have shaped Knox. George Wishart had come to the attention of Cardinal Beaton, Archbishop of St. Andrews Cathedral and senior leader of the Scottish Catholic Church. After attempts to discredit and assassinate Wishart failed, Cardinal Beaton had him arrested and brought to St Andrews Castle, where he faced a mock trial on the charge of heresy.


Wishart was burned at the stake outside St Andrews Castle on 1st March 1546, while Cardinal Beaton watched from his private quarters. Any hopes he had that this would quell the Reformation were soon dashed. On 29th May, a number of George Wishart's supporters passed into the castle with a group of workmen. By the time they were noticed, it was too late to stop them, and in the panic that followed, they managed to secure themselves inside. They found Cardinal Beaton hiding in his chamber, where they killed him and are said to have hung his body out of the window for all to see.


They held the castle for around a year, with John Knox joining them, until a French fleet arrived in the Bay of St Andrews. France at that time remained a Catholic country and were allies to Scotland. With the castle being bombarded from both sea and land, those inside were forced to surrender. Rather than give themselves up to the Scottish forces, they instead surrendered to the French, and John Knox spent around eighteen months as a slave on a French galley before he was released.


He returned initially to England, which was already a Protestant country by that time, before returning to Scotland. In 1553, Mary Tudor became Queen of England. As she was Catholic, Knox feared for his safety and returned to mainland Europe. He visited Scotland a few times to preach until he finally returned in 1559 when his famed fiery sermons led to riots and the destruction of Catholic religious houses. In 1560, Scotland formally adopted the Protestant faith.



From his turbulent life and strong passion, it is fair to understand that the spirit of John Knox may return to revisit places of significance in his life, and one such place his phantom has been witnessed is outside St Andrews Castle, close to the spot where George Wishart was burned, which is marked with the initials 'GW'.


Although he is often seen as an older man, in the early 1960s a passer-by noted a young man standing silently staring towards the castle ruins. What stood out to her was that he was wearing an unusual, long cloak-like garment and a skull cap. She also noted his short beard, moulded into a pointed shape. She had a torch due to the fading light, yet when she turned to shine the light towards the man, he was nowhere to be seen. Oddly, neither she nor her companion felt disturbed by the incident and instead had a feeling of calmness. Neither associated the figure with John Knox until years later when she was reading an illustrated book about him and saw an illustration of him as a young man, which she recognised as being the figure they had seen that night.


With those who witnessed him that night not even realising it was a spirit until years later, it makes you wonder how many others have seen the curious-looking young man and not made the connection.

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