He’s baaack: John Knox and St. Andrews Cathedral

He’s baaaaack. And he’s brought a vengeance.

We left John Knox aboard the French galleys in 1547, doing slave labor. He’d been captured by the Catholic forces which had stormed St. Andrew’s Castle. After that, he spent several years imprisoned in France. Upon his release, he had a bit of a rough time rehabilitating. He bounced around from England to Switzerland, from Switzerland to Germany, from Germany back to Switzerland.



While in Switzerland, Knox met a guy named John Calvin who was preaching his own particular brand of Protestantism. Calvinism had a profound impact on Knox’s beliefs, and he adopted a similar form of Protestantism, which would evolve into Presbyterianism.


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In 1559 Knox returned to Scotland, and he had an agenda: To convert the nation to Protestantism and boot the Queen Regent. It’s unclear to what extent Knox’s religious beliefs and his extreme dislike for Marie de Guise (the Queen Regent) and her daughter (the future Mary, Queen of Scots) were intertwined in his head, but it’s quite clear that in his mind, in order to win Scotland for the Protestant cause, he needed to rid it of the Catholic Queen Regent. (I should note that he was only partially successful here – Marie de Guise died of dropsy during the siege of Edinburgh in 1560, a battle resulting from Protestant/Catholic troubles caused in part by Knox, effectively removing her from Scottish religious/political affairs, but her daughter Mary returned to Scotland from France the following year.)


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Knox was a powerful speaker, and he knew it. In 1559, shortly after his return to Scotland, Knox preached a sermon in the town he had spent so many years as a lowly ecumenical assistant: St. Andrews. As had happened a few weeks earlier in Dundee, Knox’s anti-Catholic railing sent the masses into a frenzy, and the magnificent cathedral at St. Andrews was sacked.


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The cathedral had originally been built in the 12th century, but had been expanded and rebuilt and expanded several times over the years to accommodate all the pilgrims coming to see the relics of St. Andrew. In fact, it was expanded so much that, to this day, it’s the largest church to ever have been built in Scotland. The cathedral had become the preeminent church in Scotland and the focal point of Scottish religious life. An attack on St. Andrews Cathedral was more than simple looting – it was an attack on the Scottish establishment, on the status quo, but also on the Scottish way of life and devotional practices. The sack of St. Andrews Cathedral really shook Scotland to its core and built the foundation on which a Protestant Scotland could be built.


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The ruins of the cathedral were left sitting on the shores of Fife, just down the street from the ruined castle. Better care was taken of the cathedral ruins than the castle ruins, and by the time Historic Scotland took over its management, it was in fairly good shape (given that it was a ruin). Visitors today can still see St. Regulus’s Tower (St. Regulus being the guy who brought relics of St. Andrew to Scotland), and the outline of the medieval church has been carved into the ground, so you can still get an idea of what the church would have looked like in its heyday.


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Visiting St. Andrews Cathedral

Getting there: Once you get to St. Andrews, just walk around. The town isn’t that big, and the cathedral is in the same area as the castle.

Opening hours: From April to September, the cathedral is open daily from 9:30 to 5:30. From October to March, it’s open daily from 10:00 to 4:00. Be advised that it’s a ruin, and so the whole thing is outside – weather should be taken into account when you plan your visit!

Admission: Entry is £5 for adults, £3 for children. Historic Environment Scotland members go free. Click here to learn more about Historic Environment Scotland memberships.


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