I’ve written before on Marie Macpherson’s remarkable Knox trilogy—remarkable not least because she makes John Knox so human, even sympathetic. Here’s a man known as a grim reformer, an opponent not just of the Catholic Church but of any activity not associated with the strictest observance of Calvinism, and meddler in Scottish politics during one of its tensest periods: the mid-sixteenth century, when Mary Queen of Scots strove to balance her matrimonial disasters and her political responsibilities under constant pressure from her southern neighbor, England’s Elizabeth I. Indeed, Macpherson’s John Knox does all of these things, but he is neither grim nor joyless, merely intensely dedicated to his religous goal.
Knox may be the main focus of this series, but he is far from its only or even its most interesting character. Now that the series has reached its end with The Last Blast of the Trumpet, Marie Macpherson has kindly agreed to answer my questions about the whole. Read on to find out more.
This is the third book in your Knox Trilogy. Could you give us a short summary of what came before?
The First Blast of the Trumpet opens on Hallowe’en 1511 at Hailes Castle, near Haddington, East Lothian. The young Elisabeth Hepburn, who longs to marry her lover, is being forced to become a nun at nearby St. Mary’s Abbey. As Knox’s godmother, her fate is strongly entwined with his, and she proves to be an influential figure in his life. As the narrative unfolds, we follow Knox from his humble beginnings to his education at St. Andrews University and his years serving as a Roman Catholic priest before being converted to Protestantism by the charismatic preacher George Wishart. Knox is then arrested as a heretic and sentenced to toil in the French galleys. The First Blast ends with the signing of the Treaty of Haddington at St. Mary’s Abbey. Mary of Guise, Mary Queen of Scots’ French mother, has agreed to the betrothal of her five-year-old daughter to the Dauphin of France. She sails off in a galley rowed by John Knox.
The Second Blast of the Trumpet begins in 1549 with Knox’s release from a nineteen-month stint in the galleys from which he wasn’t expected to survive. His experience has fired him up with a mission to strike at the roots of papistry in Scotland. Although branded a heretic in his own land, he is welcomed in Protestant England, where he becomes chaplain to the young King Edward VI in London. With Edward’s untimely death and the accession of the Catholic Mary Tudor, Knox is forced to flee her fires of persecution.
In Geneva, he meets the leading reformer Calvin and makes dangerous enemies among the English exiles whose liturgy he challenges. Meanwhile in Scotland, his godmother, Prioress Elisabeth, is helping Mary of Guise to stem the rising tide of reform and keep the throne for Mary Queen of Scots.
When the Protestant Queen Elizabeth succeeds to the English throne, Knox, who has married and sired two sons, hopes to return with his family and resume his mission in England. However, while the hell-raising preacher may have attracted a flock of female admirers, his polemical tract The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, in which he attacks female rulers, has antagonized Queen Elizabeth.
And what takes John Knox back to Scotland in 1559?
In 1559 the Lords of the Congregation—who have initiated a rebellion, ostensibly to overturn Catholicism but in reality to depose Regent Mary of Guise—call Knox back from Geneva. A bitter civil war ensues, ended only by the death of Mary of Guise. The victorious Knox is confident of his place leading the reform until the young widow, Mary Queen of Scots, returns to claim her throne. She challenges his position and initiates a ferocious battle of wills as they strive to win the hearts and minds of the Scots. But the treachery and jealousy that surround them both as they make critical choices in their public and private lives have dangerous consequences that neither of them can imagine.
He’s had a rather exciting time since his last visit, including that stint on a galley. How did it come about, and have his experiences changed him?
James V’s death in 1542 initiated a power struggle for the regency of the nine-day-old infant Mary. In his effort to quash the rising Protestant threat, Cardinal David Beaton, who supported Mary’s mother, burnt Knox’s mentor, George Wishart, at the stake in 1546. A few months later, Beaton was murdered by the Protestant lairds, who took refuge in St. Andrews Castle and coaxed Knox out of hiding to become their preacher. When the French broke the siege of the castle, Knox was arrested and sentenced to toil in the galleys. Semi-starved, ill, and feverish, Knox was flung into the bowels of the ship and left to die. However, as his galley passed St. Andrews, he interpreted the sound of bells as God calling him to be His divine messenger with a mission to convert Scotland to the Protestant faith.
Elisabeth Hepburn has long played a special role in John Knox’s life, but at the opening of this third book, they are on opposing paths. What’s the source of their conflict?
After the death of his parents—his father at the Battle of Flodden in 1513 and his mother soon afterwards—responsibility for the orphan’s upbringing passed to the Hepburns of Hailes, his liege lords, and to his godmother, Elisabeth Hepburn. At the choir school in Haddington the young scholar showed so much academic promise that Prior John Hepburn sent him to be educated at St. Leonard’s, the college he’d co-founded in St. Andrews. When Knox was later ordained as a Catholic priest and served as a notary apostolic in Haddington, Prioress Elisabeth had high hopes for his successful career in the Catholic Church. However, Knox had imbued reformist ideas at St. Andrews and, some time after 1540, abandoned the priesthood to follow Preacher Wishart. His burning at the stake would make Knox reconsider, the prioress hoped, and abandon heretical ideas. Instead, Wishart’s martyrdom only served to intensify Knox’s beliefs. From then on, the prioress and the preacher became deadly religious rivals, with the godmother striving to maintain the Catholic faith and the godson seeking to defeat papistry and impose Protestantism on Scotland.
And who is Isabelle Hepburn? What part does she play in the novel?
When Isabelle and her brother Jamie were orphaned, Knox brought them to the abbey to be raised by the prioress. Jamie went on to serve as a sailor with Knox’s brother William and then as Knox’s right-hand man. Adopted by the prioress, Isabelle was ordained as a nun in order to succeed Elisabeth as prioress of St. Mary’s.
In The Last Blast, Knox’s reformation puts paid to that ambition, forcing Isabelle to forge another path as apothecary to Mary Queen of Scots. However, she never forgets her promise to the prioress to regain control of the abbey and seeks support from her kinsman James Hepburn, Fourth Earl of Bothwell.
We needn’t go into details, but what made you decide to end the series where you did, and was it difficult to say goodbye to this character you’ve worked with for so long?
The decision to end the series was made for me. Spoiler alert! In the final scene Knox dies. I can’t say I was sad to bid farewell to the fiery reformer. The controversial figure was a very tricky character to portray, with his fanatical faith and unrelenting self-belief, but I was heartbroken to leave Elisabeth Hepburn, my jaggy thistle, and sad to abandon Isabelle.
This was a massive project, and the last book appeared just a few months ago. Do you have a new project in mind?
There are several ideas whizzing round my brain, and I’m waiting on one of them to settle. Isabelle is tugging at me, itching to move forward, but I’m also being tempted by a story set in Russia during the reign of Peter the Great. But that would mean ploughing a whole new field of research. I may need to call upon you for advice!
Thank you so much for answering my questions!
Hailing from the historic Honest Toun of Musselburgh, six miles from Edinburgh, the capital of Scotland, Marie Macpherson developed a love for literature and languages from an early age. Her inspiration comes not only from historical records and documents but from the landscape of the Scottish lowlands, where she tries to conjure up what life was like for the inhabitants of those now ruined castles and deserted abbeys. Exploring the personal relationships and often hidden motivations of historical characters drive her curiosity.
She is the author of the Knox Trilogy: The First Blast of the Trumpet, The Second Blast of the Trumpet, and The Last Blast of the Trumpet. Find out more about her and her novels on her website or listen to her New Books in Historical Fiction interview, recorded not long after the first book appeared.