Francesco Guicciardini

Francesco Guicciardini
Francesco Guicciardini
Guicciardini was born in Florence to patrician parents. After receiving a humanistic education, he obtained a degree in civil law from the University of Padua and began practicing law in Florence.

In a calculated maneuver that was designed for political advancement, he married Maria Salviati, whose family was aligned with the Medici. Within a few years of his marriage, he became ambassador to Ferdinand of Aragon for the Republic of Florence and later served in the Florentine government when the Medici family held political power.

Although Guicciardini was critical of clerical abuses in the church, he did not hesitate to accept political preference from the papacy when it was to his advantage. He was an official in several cities and territories in the Papal States under popes Leo X and Clement VII and served as counselor and papal lieutenant general for the latter.

Guicciardini’s writings on politics and history are extensive. They include a history of Florence and a critique of his friend Niccolò Machiavelli’s Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livy. However, today Guicciardini is appreciated primarily for his Ricordi and for his magnum opus, The History of Italy.

The Ricordi’s maxims offer a set of reflections on politics, history, and the conduct of life. Those that deal with Guicciardini’s sense of history demonstrate that he held a view of history that differed from that of Machiavelli and humanist historians, who perceived history as exemplary and counseled their contemporaries to imitate ancient Rome.

Guicciardini stressed that the mutability of human affairs, driven by the conflicting self-interests of leaders, coupled with the unpredictability of fortune make it impossible to derive lessons from history. To expect his contemporaries to act like citizens of ancient Rome, he wrote, was similar to expecting a jackass to behave like a horse. Guicciardini believed that the value of history lies in its ability to preserve the memory of the past.

The History of Italy is the product of his mature thinking about the momentous events that he participated in or was witness to from the l490s to 1534. Its scope and its stress on the self-aggrandizement of the secular and religious leaders of the time give the book an appeal that far exceeds the parochial orientation of humanist history.

The book opens with the invasion of Italy in 1494 by the forces of Charles VIII of France, an event that Guicciardini regarded as calamitous because it opened the door to repeated invasions by European powers. It marked the end of city-state hegemony on the peninsula and the balance of power politics brokered by Lorenzo de’ Medici.

The discovery of the New World, the spread of syphilis in Europe, and an awareness of the impending rift in Christianity are also features of the book. The History ends with the rapacious sack of Rome by the Imperial forces of Charles V and the death of Pope Clement VII. Guicciardini was completing the History when he died at his estate in Santa Margherita on May 22, 1540.

Niccolò Machiavelli

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Machiavelli was born in Florence on May 3, 1469. His parents provided him with a humanistic education, with a stress on Latin grammar, rhetoric, and history. As he matured, he deepened his knowledge of the works of the philosophers and historians of ancient Greece and Rome and became familiar with the comedies of Plautus.

Machiavelli was head of the Second Chancery and secretary to the Ten of War of the Florentine Republic from 1498 to 1512. His duties included diplomatic missions to heads of state on the Italian peninsula and elsewhere in Europe.

Especially noteworthy are those missions to Louis XII of France, Emperor Maximilian I, Caterina Sforza of Forli, Pope Julius II, and Cesare Borgia, the son of Pope Alexander VI. When the Medici overthrew republican rule in 1512, Machiavelli was suspected of a conspiracy against them, imprisoned, and tortured. After his exoneration and release under a general amnesty in 1513, he turned to writing.

Machiavelli’s literary output is extensive. His History of Florence, commissioned by the Medici, begins with the city’s origins and ends on a pessimistic note with the death of Lorenzo de’ Medici in 1492. The Art of War is a technical look at military preparations and makes a plea for a citizen militia.

Machiavelli’s best known work, The Prince, is based on his diplomatic experience and his reading of ancient history. It is a complex assessment of the qualities needed for political leadership by a new prince.

Although the book is modeled on the “mirror for princes,” advice books common to the Renaissance era, many of its recommendations are the inverse of the princely virtues advocated by that literature. Its meaning has often been reduced to the trite phrase “The end justifies the means.” Some critics have deemed the book an advice manual for would-be autocrats.

As early as the century in which he lived, Machiavelli and The Prince were condemned and demonized in French Protestant circles and in Elizabethan English literature. Leading Jesuits also attacked him, and his works were placed on the Index of Prohibited Books of the Roman Catholic Church in 1559.

his statue
Although criticism of Machiavelli and The Prince continues, recent scholarship has modified these negative assessments. Greater stress is now placed on his advocacy of republicanism, especially as expressed in the Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livy. Modern scholars also recognize Machiavelli’s literary creativity.

His play Mandragola presents a comic as well as ironic look at Renaissance marriage patterns and offers an astute analysis of desire and ambition. Another, Clizia, revolves around an aged married man’s attempts to gain the love of a young woman. The fable Belfagor recounts the experiences of a fiend who is delegated by the devil to spend time in marriage on Earth.

His Tercets on Fortune is an extended study of Fortune, whom he personifies as a woman and associates with discord and unpredictability in human affairs. Machiavelli died on June 21, 1527, and is entombed in the basilica of Santa Croce in Florence.

Portuguese in Macao

Portuguese in Macao
Portuguese in Macao

Portugal established a trading empire in Asia in the 16th century by means of a string of important ports that tapped the products of the continent. Macao (Macau) was Portugal’s outpost on the South China coast.

Vasco da Gama was a Portuguese explorer and the first European to reach India via Africa. He was followed by Afonso de Albuquerque (1435–1515), viceroy of Portuguese India, who arrived in Goa on the western coast of India. In 1410, he sent a fleet to capture Malacca on the Malay Peninsula.

There they found many Chinese sailing vessels trading in silks and other products throughout Southeast Asia. In 1517, Portugal’s envoy Tomé Pires arrived in Guangzhou (Canton) on the Pearl River delta, an important trading port for two thousand years.

The eight Portuguese ships fired cannon shots as a salute upon entering the harbor, a ritual that the Chinese misunderstood. Pires however remained in China, attempting to negotiate with the government of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644). The Chinese held him responsible for the misdeeds of Portuguese sailors and he died in a Chinese jail in 1524.

Despite this inauspicious beginning, the Portuguese continued to explore trading opportunities along the Chinese coast and finally were permitted to build an outpost at the end of a peninsula on the southwestern end of the Pearl River estuary in 1535, a two-square-mile land with a good harbor called Macao. The Portuguese paid rent to China for Macao and in return were allowed to build docks, trading facilities, a church, schools, and so on, and to govern themselves.

Even when other European nations were allowed to establish trading companies in Guangzhou, they had to leave their “factories” (offices and warehouses) along the waterfront outside that city when the trading season was over and retreat to Macao. In addition, Macao became the base for Jesuit missionaries coming to China.

Jesuit missionaries were honored and their services in fields such as astronomy, cartography, architecture, and weaponry were valued by the Ming, and later the Qing (Ch’ing [1644–1911]) court. Several Jesuit fathers designed and supervised the making of European style weapons such as cannon pieces in Macao for the Ming government up to 1644 and the Qing after that.

The arrival of the Portuguese in China in the early 16th century opened a new chapter in China’s relations with the outside world. Sino-Western relations would be fundamentally different from China’s interactions with its land neighbors and with earlier Persian, Arab, and Malay maritime traders in eras past.

Martin Luther

Martin Luther
Martin Luther
Martin Luther began the Protestant Reformation in 1517 when he nailed his 95 Theses on the castle church door in Wittenberg, Germany. Luther was a controversial figure in his day, with great friends and foes during a period of tumult in the Roman Catholic Church.

Born in 1483, Luther was the son of a reasonably prosperous copper miner. An intelligent boy, he was sent away to school by his father, who hoped he would be a lawyer. That was not to be. At the end of his university studies at Erfurt in 1505, Luther was caught in a terrible thunderstorm, where he prayed to St. Anne for deliverance, vowing to become a monk. Soon after that, he made good on his promise and entered the Augustinian monastery in Erfurt.

The monastic life at that time varied greatly, depending on the monastery. The Augustinian monks were quite strict, with fasting and a rigorous schedule of prayer, study, and work. Luther was ordained a Catholic priest in 1507 and completed his doctoral studies in 1512.

He then was assigned by his superior to teach biblical studies at the University of Wittenberg in Germany. Preparing his lectures on the Bible (especially the books of Romans and Galatians), he became increasingly dissatisfied with the current practice of the church compared to what he saw in the Bible. His lectures were quite popular among the students, and he drew together a circle of other professors around him for discussion.

In 1517, he decided to tackle the issue of the sale of indulgences (a document granting a person exemption from the penalty for his or her sins) by writing a document that contained 95 statements (or theses) that argued against the practice of the sale of indulgences.

Many knew that Prince Albert of Germany had arranged with Pope Leo X to turn over half of the proceeds from the sale of indulgences to the pope, who needed money to finish building St. Peter’s Basilica, and turning the rest over to bankers who had funded Prince Albert’s purchase of bishoprics. But it was the shameless manner in which the indulgences were sold that was too much for Luther.

Freedom from the penalty of even the gravest sins was promised by the Dominican monk Tetzel as he sold the indulgences in the neighboring areas. At that time, Luther did not imagine the storm of controversy that his few pages would cause. Because of the recently invented movable type printing press, within a few short months, Luther’s 95 Theses were printed and sent out all over western Europe.

The Catholic Church’s response was first to wait and see whether the controversy would die down. When it did not, Luther was approached by high-ranking church officials who asked him to retract or recant his statements. Finally in 1521, Luther was summoned before the emperor at the Diet of Worms.

There, with his books and pamphlets in front of him, he was asked to recant his writings. His response, considered apocryphal by some, “Unless I can be instructed and convinced with evidence from the Holy Scriptures or with open, clear and distinct grounds and reasoning ... then I cannot and will not recant, because it is neither safe nor wise to act against conscience. Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me! Amen.”

Luther knew that his statements would probably cause his expulsion (excommunication) from the Roman Catholic Church and that he would have to flee for his life. Fortunately for Luther, a sympathetic German prince, Frederick the Wise, “kidnapped” him and hid him in the Wartburg castle till the storm blew over.

Because of the support of Frederick and other German princes, the “Lutheran” movement grew in strength over the next 10 years. Excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church, Luther and his followers took over the churches in the areas in Germany that had sympathetic princes.

Luther continued to teach and write at the University of Wittenberg. He married a former nun, Katherina von Bora, in 1525 and had six children. Luther died in 1546. Luther wrote a great many books and shorter articles. (There are more than 100 volumes of his works.) These include Luther’s Small Catechism, Luther’s Large Catechism, The Bondage of the Will, and On the Freedom of a Christian. He also translated the Bible into German—prior to this time it was only available in Latin.

Luther was an outspoken man, tending to make outrageous statements, especially at the dinner table (e.g., “When I die I want to be a ghost and pester the bishops, priests, and godless monks so that they have more trouble with a dead Luther than they could have had before with a thousand living ones”).

Some controversy has arisen in more recent years about Luther’s statements in his later years against the Jews. These were not unusual for their time but are seen by Lutherans today as very unfortunate.

Many people try to simplify the Reformation as if Martin Luther appeared out of nowhere with a strident call for reform. This was not the case. There were many calls for reform and many attempts at it during the previous 100 years.

Luther was also heavily influenced by the humanists, especially Erasmus of Rotterdam, who were arguing for an intellectual reform, returning to the original Greek and Hebrew sources for both philosophical and Christian thought.

“Luther hatched the egg that Erasmus laid” is a common phrase describing the intellectual development of Luther. Luther was a somewhat reluctant, but certainly courageous leader and thinker during a time of great change in the church and society.


The Luba-Lunda states, in what is now the southeast of the Democratic Republic of the Congo in Central Africa, were a network of kingdoms that lasted from the 15th to the 19th centuries c.e.

The Luba culture had emerged a millennium earlier, a civilization that soon began working in iron and dam construction. The local conditions—marshy wetlands that required drainage and provided a surplus of fish—encouraged large, stable communities and communal labor over individual self-sufficiency.

In time, trade relations and intermarriages between smaller communities led to a unified Luba state around the end of the 15th century c.e., by which time the Luba people were widely respected for the sophistication of their art and the quality of their ironwork, especially their axes and spears.

Luba kings ruled by right of descent from Kalala Ilunga, a mythic cultural pendekar who had invented much of Luba culture. The Luba king was the head of a large hierarchy of officials at the state and local levels, who paid him tribute he redistributed as rewards for loyalty.

Prominent in this hierarchy were the Bambudye, the “memory men” (though women were included) who maintained oral histories of the Luba kings and their deeds. As the Egyptian pharaohs and rulers in much of the ancient and antique world, Luba kings were revered as deities upon death, and these oral histories are comparable to Christian “saints’ lives” and other religious biographies.

The Luba system of divine kingship spread to other nearby cultures, notably including the Lunda, a strong military force in the region who increased their power by intermarrying their royal family with the Luba’s and colonizing large parts of central Africa before European colonization arrested their expansion.

The Luba kingdom itself extended its power and resources to include not only the copper mines of communities who had once been only trade partners, but New World goods from the Portuguese colonists (in exchange for ivory and slaves, among other commodities), leading to a centuries-long period of growth. The Lunda continued to self-govern, though were closely aligned with the Luba; they soon controlled much of the copper trade.

By the end of the 19th century, the Luba and Lunda states were in decline. Prosperity and intermarriage had encouraged infighting in periods when royal succession was not clear-cut; neighboring tribes had acquired firearms, a significant military advantage to which neither the Luba nor the militarily superior Lunda had any recourse except to acquire guns of their own, which they did by devoting more efforts to the slave trade.

But the slave trade itself was dwindling, and this proved not only disruptive to the economy and political balance, but also ultimately ineffective. Belgian colonists took control over the region, which King Leopold II called the Congo Free State.

The Luba rebelled several times, but fruitlessly, and many were sent into forced labor in the copper mines. The Luba and Lunda (and their other client tribes) persist today as ethnic groups, but their culture has been absorbed into that of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

John Locke

John Locke
John Locke
Of all of the thinkers of modern times, few have had the wide impact of John Locke. Locke was born in Wrington, in Somerset, England, on August 29, 1632, during the political ferment that preceded the English Civil War (1642–49). At the time, Charles I was ruling without Parliament and exercising his firm belief in the doctrine of the divine right of kings.

This basically held that the king, anointed with holy oil at his coronation, was the representative of God on Earth and thus could commit no wrong in his rule. The idea of limiting the power of the monarch would dominate England through the rest of the 17th century and form the seminal basis of much of Locke’s great work.

Locke’s first significant educational experience was gained in the Westminster School, in 1646, while the English Civil War was at its height. Among noteworthy graduates of Westminster School were Jeremy Bentham (father of the utilitarian school of philosophy), Robert Cotton (founder of the Cottonian Library), England’s great poet John Dryden, and the historian Edward Gibbon, author of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. At Westminster, Locke was one of the gifted King’s Scholars.

Locke was a ingusan student at Christ Church College, at Oxford University, in 1652, where he studied medicine, although he did not receive his bachelor’s in medicine until 1674. At Oxford, Locke became acquainted with the leading minds of his day, including Robert Boyle and Sir Isaac Netwon.

They left an indelible imprint upon Locke, who had found the medieval approach of studies of the ancient Greek philosophy Aristotle to be sterile and devoid of meaning for his times.

Initially, there was little to indicate that Locke would make his greatest contribution to the emerging study of the philosophy of politics. In 1666, while at Oxford, Locke met Anthony Ashley Cooper, the later earl of Shaftesbury, certainly one of the boldest—and most unscrupulous—figures in the great age of English political intrigue.

As Shaftesbury’s ambition launched him on what became a drive for power, Locke loyally followed his patron. Shaftesbury’s eventual fall from grace led Locke to return to complete his studies at Oxford for his bachelor’s degree in medicine. This was followed by a 15-month tour of France, which may have been occasioned in part by his close identification with the fallen earl.

In Holland, Locke actively joined English exiles seeking to bring down King Charles and his brother. Charles’s agents infiltrated the group. When Charles II died in 1685, James II began a reign that would lead to the Glorious Revolution and the rule of William and Mary.

It is likely that Locke, with his wide contacts, played a role in the intrigue that came to a climax upon William’s and Mary’s landing in England. The extent of Locke’s role in the machinations seems clear from the fact that he sailed on board the same ship with William and Mary as a close counselor.

Back in England, Locke penned two works that would shape the future of philosophy and government. In An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), he posited that human beings gain almost all knowledge through experience. Consequently, Locke became one of the founders of the empirical school of knowledge.

In helping to propagate the empirical view, he helped shape modern philosophy, removing forever the primacy of the teachings of Aristotle (against which he had rebelled years ago as a student at Oxford) and the medieval view of Thomas Aquinas.

Locke also looked at the political turmoil of his kala and attempted to apply his perspective of reason to government. He produced a clearly written document free from the use of biblical Scripture and frequent appeals to ancient guides like Aristotle. Locke’s views are related in Two Treatises on Government.

In the First Treatise, he attacks the divine right of kings, which formed the basis of the governments of Charles I, and to a lesser extent that of his son, James II. The Second Treatise on Government would have important relevance to the American Revolution because America’s founders based much of their opposition to the tyranny of George III on the writings of Locke.

Locke’s theory of government holds that man, once in a state of nature, where arbitrary force ruled, agreed to government as a way to seek protection for all from the willful use of force to dominate them, to replace the law of the jungle with the rule of law.

With his Two Treatises on Government, Locke had used the political turmoil of his time to write a document that would transcend his time. No more would people accept willful, dictatorial governing.

Instead, all administrations would govern under the revolutionary concept that their government was done by the consent of those they governed. Locke died on October 28, 1704, at Oates in the home of his friends, Sir Francis and Lady Masham.

Leo Africanus (Hassan El Wazzan)

Leo Africanus exemplified the positive cross-cultural exchanges between the Muslim and Christian worlds in the 15th and 16th centuries. Hassan El Wazzan was born circa 1494 in Granada during the last years of Muslim rule in Spain. His family, following the example of Boabdil, the last Muslim ruler of Granada, went into exile to Fez in present-day Morocco around 1502 after the selesai Reconquista of the Iberian Peninsula by Christian forces.

Leo Africanus received a classical Islamic education at the well-known Quarawin (Kairaouine) mosque and university in Fez. He worked for a short time in a maristan, a combination hospital and asylum for the mentally ill. While in his teens, he accompanied a relative on major diplomatic missions within Morocco and Africa.

Leo Africanus lived during an age of political and cultural changes. He twice visited the famed city of Timbuktu, as well as much of the Sudan in western Africa (Mali and Mauritania), Constantinople, and Cairo, where he saw the defeat of the Mamluks by Ottoman forces.

In 1518, the ship he was traveling on from Egypt to Tunis was captured by Portuguese Christian pirates (corsairs); however, owing to his learning and diplomatic experience he was not sold into slavery as a galley slave but was given to Pope Leo X as a gift.

The pope made use of Leo Africanus’s knowledge of Arabic and the Muslim world in his dealings with other Mediterranean political powers. While under the patronage of the pope, Leo made what was probably a conversion of convenience to Christianity and was baptized Johannes Leo de Medici in Italy.

His Latin/Hebrew/Arabic dictionary indicates the centrality and common use of these three languages by the educated elite in the 16th century. He also wrote a compiled description of 30 famous Arab thinkers, but the Cosmographia del’Africa (Description of Africa) written in a corrupt form of Italian from Arabic notes in 1526, is Leo’s most famous work.

It was translated into English and published in London in 1600 and served as a major resource on African societies for hundreds of years. His descriptions, especially of Timbuktu, fueled Western imaginations about Africa while his life may have been a model for Shakespeare’s Othello.

After the death of his patron Pope Leo X and the accession of Adrian VI in 1521, Leo fell out of favor. It is not known for certain but following the sack of Rome in 1524, Leo may have left Italy for North Africa, although it is likely he returned to Fez, where he died around 1554.

Pope Leo X

Pope Leo X
Pope Leo X
Pope Leo X was born Giovanni de’ Medici in Florence on December 11, 1475, and died in Rome on December 1, 1521. He was the second son of Lorenzo the Magnificent. He became abbot of Font Douce in France in 1483, at the age of eight. Under political pressure by Lorenzo Giovanni, he was made a cardinal at age 13 by Pope Innocent VIII.

His family’s political dealings caused friction in late 15th century Italy, and Giovanni fled to France at the election of Ravenna, probably for purposes of ransom.

Giovanni was elected pope on February 21, 1513, at age 38, again because of the political pressures of his family on the college of cardinals. He lived a lavish life and expended the papal treasury within two years of his election; he also sold offices within the church to raise money to support the papacy.

This practice, known as simony, led in part to the Reformation in Germany and other parts of Europe. The reformers argued against the selling of church offices and indulgences, practices taken up by Leo X and other popes and bishops. Leo never recognized the gravity of the Reformation, and the Counter-Reformation did not come about until after his death.

He was a great patron of the arts and prepared a critical edition of the works of Dante. His greatest contribution was his support of the collection of historical Christian manuscripts and the merging of the Medici family library with the papal library.

John Knox - Religious Leader

John Knox
John Knox
The country of Scotland is well known for its fiery, individualistic spirit, which is combined with a deep loyalty to the Scottish people and their religion. John Knox, the “thundering Scot,” was no exception to this tradition.

Knox is best known as the founder of Scottish Presbyterianism, and he lived during a tumultuous time in the history of Scotland. Not known for his tact, Knox viewed himself in the style of an Old Testament prophet, being God’s “trumpet,” blasting against every king and queen reigning during his lifetime.

John Knox was born around 1513 in the region of Lothian, Scotland, to a middle-class farmer. Little is known of his upbringing or education. It is likely that he studied at St. Andrews University in St. Andrews, Scotland.

Knox was listed on the rolls in 1540 of St. Andrews as a papal notary, leading most historians to believe that he was ordained to the Roman Catholic clergy by that time. Unlike England to its south, which became Protestant in 1533 under King Henry VIII, Scotland had remained Roman Catholic.

However, many lairds and nobles of Scotland were increasingly influenced by Protestant preaching and thought. In 1543, Knox became a tutor to the two sons of a Protestant-leaning laird named Hugh Douglas. During this time, Knox became a convinced Protestant. In 1544, Knox became a bodyguard for a fiery theologian and preacher named George Wishart.

Wishart preached against Catholic cardinal Beaton and Scotland’s queen mother, Mary of Guise, who were aligning themselves with Roman Catholic France against the military might of England under King Henry VIII. Wishart was eventually captured by the Roman Catholics and strangled and burned in March 1545. The death of Wishart was a turning point for Knox, making him determined to continue the work of Protestant reform in Scotland.

In 1546, men conspired successfully to murder Cardinal Beaton and take over his Castle of St. Andrews. Knox was not involved in the initial conspiracy but came into the castle in 1547, simply as a tutor for three boys. Soon after, he was asked to take over the spiritual leadership of the people in the castle.

Agreeing reluctantly, Knox preached his first sermon in the castle church in 1547. The castle was eventually forced to capitulate later in 1547 to a fleet of French galley ships and Knox was captured. Knox served two years as a galley slave, then was freed in 1549, and moved to northern England, where he began to preach in Newcastle.

In 1553, the Catholic Mary I ascended the throne of England, forcing Knox to flee to Frankfurt, Germany, and eventually to Geneva, Switzerland, home of John Calvin. Knox greatly respected Calvin’s thought and writing and their meeting in Geneva led to a long period of friendship and correspondence.

Knox became increasingly convinced that the only way for England and Scotland to have freedom for Protestant worship was by military intervention. He began writing pamphlets, the most controversial of which was entitled “A Faithful Admonition to the Professors of God’s Truth in England.”

In it, he called the preachers to rebuke more aggressively those leading sinful lives, but then went on to thunder against Queen Mary I of England, who at the time was considering marriage to the Roman Catholic king Philip II of Spain, charging her with usurping the government and handing it over to a foreign ruler. This pamphlet proved influential in strengthening the Protestant resistance to Mary I, which continued to her death in 1558 when her Protestant half sister Elizabeth I took the throne of England.

In 1557, Knox published his most famous pamphlet, entitled “The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment [unnatural reign] of Women.” Arguing from the Old Testament, Knox contended that it is wrong for a woman to be the head of state, especially turning over the reign of a country to a foreign husband. While there were exceptional times when a woman could reign, he felt that the normal result was disaster.

In 1559, Knox returned to Scotland via England, where he received a frosty reception from Queen Elizabeth. By this time, Scotland had several influential Protestant nobles who could protect Knox.

Knox was called to serve in St. Giles, the most important church in Edinburgh, where the queen mother, Mary of Guise, and her daughter, Mary, Queen of Scots, lived. In 1560, a treaty was signed by England, Scotland, and France, and as a result, Scotland became officially Protestant, though Queen Mary remained Roman Catholic. Thus began 12 years of conflict between Knox and Queen Mary, often resulting in public rebukes on both sides.

From 1560 till his death in 1572, Knox did much to establish the Protestant church in Scotland, from which the current Presbyterian Church takes much of its form. He was a tireless preacher but also organized a system of discipline for both pastors and church members. Knox was against any practice not found directly in the Bible (such as kneeling during communion or devotion to the saints).

He also organized a system of financial help for the poor, out of funds raised for the churches. Knox married his wife, Marjory (Bowes), around 1555. Marjory bore him two sons (Nathaniel, Eleazer) but died in 1560. He married a second wife, Margaret (Stewart), in 1563, who bore him three daughters (Martha, Margaret, Elizabeth). He died November 24, 1572.