The John Knox House in Edinburgh, Scotland

“To promote a woman to bear rule, superiority, dominion, or empire above any realm, nation, or city, is repugnant to nature; contumely to God, a thing most contrary to his revealed will and approved ordinance; and finally, it is the subversion of good order, of all equity and justice.”

― John Knox, ‘The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women’


That horrendous and offensive opening quote from John Knox (certainly not something I advocate or believe in) helps to provide a little context into the man discussed in this week’s article. We’re going to visit the John Knox House here in Edinburgh, Scotland. However, that name is a bit misleading as Knox most likely did not ever live there (more on this later). Yet, he was inextricably linked to the house and it all had to do with the Stewart family and Mary, Queen of Scots. As we explore who actually lived in the house, we’ll weave in some of this history and explore a bit of the fiery relationship between John and Mary. So, join us as we step into the Wee Walking Tours time machine and travel back to medieval Edinburgh.

The John Knox House is an important landmark as it is the only surviving medieval mansion in Edinburgh. Situated at the halfway point of the Royal Mile, most of it was built in the mid-1500s, but there are some parts that date to the late 1400s. If we explore the ground floor of the House, we can see the only remaining vestiges of luckenbooths (or locked booths). According to the John Knox House, ‘these small booths are the only remaining example of the medieval shops which once lined Edinburgh’s High Street. Each booth contained a separate shop and the families who lived in the House in the Netherbow would have kept one booth for their own business and rented out the rest’.



Speaking of the Netherbow, let’s step outside for a moment and look at the street to better understand the area to which I am referring. Back in the late 1400s/early 1500s, the Netherbow Port was an important gateway that separated Edinburgh from the Canongate (an area further down the street which, at the time, was a separate burgh). Having a luckenbooth in this area would have been a highly desired location for merchants.



By 1556, the house had been left to Mariota Arres. From 1558- 1572, Mariota and her husband, James Mossman (sometimes spelled Mosman), lived in the house. In fact, you can still see their coat of arms and initials on the outside of the House. The informational boards at the House point out that, Mossman ‘came from a long line of prestigious Edinburgh goldsmiths who enjoyed the royal patronage of Scotland’s Stewart Kings and Queens’. Of note, his father, John, designed the Scottish crown for James V which is still held today in Edinburgh Castle. To better understand what later happens to James Mossman, we must discuss a bit of the history of the Stewarts and John Knox during this period. Therefore, sit tight, as we will come back to Mossman in just a bit.



John Knox and the Marys

John Knox

Unfortunately, James V of Scotland died in 1542 just six days after the birth of his daughter, Mary Queen of Scots. His widow, Marie de Guise (sometimes referred to as Mary of Guise), eventually became regent as Mary was living in France and betrothed to the French heir to the throne (you can read more of that story in our Stirling Castle article). During this time, the Catholic Marie de Guise, was trying to navigate the turbulent times of the Scottish Protestant Reformation. Enter John Knox.


Born in Scotland in 1513, John Knox- originally a Catholic priest- became a key figure in the Protestant Reformation. He was (and still is) a controversial figure as he was quite a firebrand and not afraid to speak his beliefs. Knox’s inflammatory quote that opened this article was from his infamous pamphlet, The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women. Now, to clarify, at that time the phrase, ‘Monstrous Regiment’ meant ‘Unnatural Rule’. Therefore, Knox was speaking against women as rulers and used the Bible to justify his beliefs.


Essentially, Knox wrote that as outlined in the Bible, woman was made to serve and obey man, not to rule and command him. Furthermore, he stated that women were weak, foolish, and cruel by nature, and lacked the masculine capacities to govern. While it was not unusual for women to be deemed inferior to men at the time, Knox took it to a fanatical level. And to be clear, Knox’s work is highly misogynistic.


Knox wrote the pamphlet while in exile. He had spent most of his time in Geneva where he was greatly influenced by the famous Reformer, John Calvin. However, even Calvin did not share in Knox’s beliefs about female rulers (in fact Knox was not publicly supported by most of the Protestant Reformers on this). So, what inspired Knox to write such an unpopular diatribe? Well, Knox’s disgust probably originated with Marie de Guise.


Marie de Guise By Corneille de Lyon - National Galleries of Scotland, Public Domain

Knox had spoken against the Stewart monarchy as they were Catholic and everything he detested as a Protestant Reformer. He was eventually charged with heresy and ordered to stand trial in Edinburgh. However, Marie de Guise intervened and essentially called off the trial. Knox saw this an opportunity to test the waters and try to gain favour with Marie. However, in 1556, in true ‘Knox’ fashion, he wrote to the Queen Regent and, in one fell swoop, managed to praise her (for saving him from the trial) and insult her (speaking against the Catholicism- Marie’s faith). Marie was clearly not impressed.


Despite this, the following year, Knox tried to return to Scotland through England. However, when he got to the French port in Dieppe to sail to England, he found the original invitation given by the English Queen (Mary Tudor) had been withdrawn. Left stranded in France to stew, Knox wrote The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women and published it in 1558. His vehement anger was therefore targeted at Marie de Guise, the Queen Regent of Scotland, her daughter Mary, Queen of Scots, and Queen Mary I of England- all of whom were Catholic female rulers and everything Knox clearly despised.


Knox Conducting Protestant Communion by William Dyce

However, the events that unfolded over the next couple of years would change everything for both John Knox and James Mossman. Mary I died at the end of 1558. When Elizabeth I took over her sister’s reign, Knox thought he would find sympathy with the new Protestant English Queen. However, while ‘The First Blast’ pamphlet wasn’t targeted at Elizabeth, she still found it deeply offensive and refused to give him passage through England on his way back to Scotland. Nevertheless, he was able to officially return to Scotland on the 2nd of May 1559.


During his absence, the winds of change had already started to shift in his favour quite a bit. Many Scottish nobles- known as the Lords of the Congregation- had converted to Protestantism (in fact it was they who invited Knox to return to Scotland). They were against the ‘Auld Alliance’ with France, instead favouring an alliance with England. Upon his return, Knox became the minister of St Giles, and his fiery sermons whipped the crowds into rioting mobs against the Stewart monarchy- especially Marie de Guise and her Catholic followers. Knox’s goal was to get Marie deposed.

Knox Statue at St Giles

Knox’s followers ransacked and destroyed many churches and abbeys throughout Scotland; their destruction included religious works of art that they saw as a form of idolatry. Marie de Guise’s sudden death in June 1560 shifted the tide as France signed the Treaty of Edinburgh with the English and the rebelling Lords of the Congregation. France pulled their soldiers (who had been fighting in support of Marie de Guise’s rule) out of Scotland.


Following the death of her husband, François II of France (in December 1560- just several months after her mother), Mary, Queen of Scots returned to Scotland. However, she returned to a country on the brink of civil war- with Mary fighting to maintain her rule (and the Catholic faith) and Knox and the Lords of the Congregation fighting against her with all their might. With this, we return to James Mossman.



James Mossman and Mary, Queen of Scots


In 1557, while Knox was in exile, James Mossman’s power and status had grown. Most of that was due to his royal patronage. As a result, he rebuilt the House in the ornate Renaissance style that we can still see today- especially from the exterior. However, with Marie de Guise’s death in 1560, James (a loyal servant of the Stewarts and a devout Catholic) found himself on the ‘wrong side’ of the changing Protestant tide.


Therefore, he must have been happy to hear of Mary, Queen of Scots’ return to Edinburgh in 1561- hoping to have Catholicism and his position restored. His loyalty was quickly rewarded, and he was appointed Master Assayer of the Royal Mint in 1561 (his father, John, held a similar title of Keeper/Warden of the Royal Mint). According to the House, ‘this extremely responsible position put [James] Mosman in charge of maintaining the correct balance of precious and base metals for the production of the national coinage’. Additionally, Mossman was commissioned by Mary to make a number of jewelry pieces for her. Eventually, in 1565, Mossman was knighted as Sir James Mossman, Royal Assay.

Tools of the Goldsmith Trade

Unfortunately, our story of James Mossman does not have a happy ending. The final nail in the coffin for Catholicism came when Mary was forced to abdicate to her infant son, James VI, in 1567. Mossman remained loyal to Mary and was one of the key members of the ‘Queen’s Men’ who defended Edinburgh Castle from 1569-1573. He used his knowledge of minting and created coins bearing Mary’s head. This must have infuriated the Lords.

When the Castle fell in 1573 to the rebel Protestants, Mossman was charged with treason. He was dragged by cart to the Mercat Cross (which is up the street next to St Giles) and hanged. During the Siege, the House was taken from the Mossman family.

As for John Knox, he was quite ill by 1572, and there are rumours that he lived in the house for the last few months of his life. He eventually succumbed and died on 24th November 1572. Whether or not Knox lived in the House (most historians doubt it), having his name linked to it surely saved it from destruction over the centuries. At least we can be grateful for that small miracle.

While there is much more to see at the John Knox House. There are a few aspects I would like to highlight. As I mentioned above, most religious works of art and culture were destroyed during the takeover of the Protestantism in Scotland. However, the John Knox House points out that Protestants did encourage some art forms (e.g. book illustration and portraiture) and domestic art also increased. The Oak Room is a perfect example of this.


The original ceiling still exists and dates to about 1600. The paint has long faded, but there is a demonstration of what the colours once looked like on display to the side of the room. The House describes it as a ‘riot of imagery and originally a collection of strong colours. There are signs of the zodiac, winged fairies, and devils'. There is also a painted panel that depicts the Biblical story of Cain and Abel. Slide through the photos to see this exquisite ceiling and paneling:


Moving into the Book Room, we can see some important artefacts related to the Reformation. Calvin and other Reformers advocated for the Bible to be translated from the Latin into modern languages. According to the John Knox House, the first Scottish edition of the English Bible was in 1579. “This Bible, known as the ‘Geneva Bible’, was based on a translation made in Geneva by members of John Knox’s congregation”.



Visiting the John Knox House

If you come to Edinburgh, we highly recommend that you go to the John Knox House. You can find the most up-to-date information on their website to best plan your visit. Please note that the John Knox House is attached to the more modern, Scottish Storytelling Centre. In fact, you enter the House through the Scottish Storytelling Centre entrance. And, as we make our living as storytellers (through this blog and our Edinburgh Walking Tours), we will be sure to do a future post on the Centre.


Furthermore, we are especially thrilled to announce that our friends at The Haggis Box can now be found in the café on the Storytelling Centre side of the building. Therefore, whether you are visiting the John Knox House, Storytelling Centre, or are just walking by- be sure to stop and sample some of their tasty haggis- they have sit-in and takeaway options available. It truly is the best haggis we have had!


I hope you have enjoyed your virtual visit to the John Knox House. Small places like this need our support- so be sure to visit in person when you come to Edinburgh- you won’t be disappointed with the history, drama, and beauty that fills the House.

Until next time- Explore & Discover!


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