Calvinism, Christianity, Edinburgh, Edinburgh Tourism, James Mossman, John Knox, John Knox House, Mary Queen of Scots, Netherbow, Puritans, Royal Mile, Scottish Nationalism, Scottish Storytelling Centre, The Devil
“A tense, musty, unignorable silence/ Brewed God knows how long. Hatless, I take off/ My cycle-clips in awkward reverence.” It is surely a sign of the contemporary decline in religious faith that the attendance of John Knox’s House is now so low. In fact, it is almost midday and I am the only soul here.
John Knox’s House is a squat structure, which is stacked higgledy-piggledy, as neatly ornate as a chalet clock, half snuggled into the Royal Mile and half leaning out to peer disapprovingly over the street below. One could imagine a fiery Calvinist preacher watching over the morals of the city from the street-facing windows, fuming as a particularly splendid bonnet or a daring hemline sailed by. But this house is haunted by the wrong ghost. There is no evidence that Knox ever lived here, although the leaflet which accompanies the House rather naughtily claims that it “was Knox’s home for only a few months… it is believed that he died here.” Believed, that is, by the gullible tourist.
Knox may have visited the House, but he may have visited any other dwelling in the surrounding ten miles. In the 1840s, when the House was an inglorious slum, the Kirk convinced itself that Knox had once lived here, purchased the building, and restored it as a museum. It was a marriage of convenience: Knox was a homeless national hero who needed a museum, whilst his name saved this quaint, quirky structure from demolition. The sagging House would be literally held up by the construction of a church next door, which also bore Knox’s name.
In Knox’s day, the actual owner of the House was James Mossman, a jeweller, goldsmith, and monarchist, who was hanged after the downfall of Mary Queen of Scots. The prominently placed House, which seems to have elbowed its way past all of the others in the street, was intended to exhibit his status, but he ended up being “harled in a cart backwards” past its facade on his way to the gallows. To us, such a public humiliation may seem horrific, but to the upper classes of the period it was probably an expected part of everyday life.
This House has passed through so many hands, and seen so much history, but the restoration has not decided upon a particular point in its past: a confusion which is readily symbolised in the Oak Room fireplace, which mashes together the tiles of two separate images into an unsightly chaos. Only the Oak Room attempts to evoke a sense of what the House may have looked like in the sixteenth century, and the rest of the rooms have been washed by the tides of history into a complete blankness. They are now home only to museum display cases. Even the history here is garbled, offering a senile muddle of Knox’s theological books and Mossman’s workshop detritus.
One comes across hopeless efforts to entertain children, rather like the old toys which are placed in dentists’ waiting rooms. There is a giant puzzle in which one is supposed to assemble the pictures of historical figures, and a cap and gown for children to dress as John Knox. Alas, the huge false beard needed to complete the effect is missing. Wandering these rooms, one struggles for a firm grasp of their layout and purpose. One ends up in a tiny room, smaller than a modern bathroom, which nevertheless contains a fireplace, and one is left to imagine how the House ended up with such a feature. Doors labelled “private” lead away into secret inner passages and chambers, and one suspects that a significant portion of the House is being withheld from the tourist’s investigation.
But the true tourist is like a pirate – intent upon treasure! – and the House yields some tolerable booty. There is a 1521 Latin Bible and a 1579 Bassandyn Bible, the first ever English Bible to be printed in Scotland. There are original volumes of works by Knox and George Buchanan, and a fascinating 1580 illustration of IOANNES CNOXUS from Theodore Beza’s Icones. These books may bemuse the sceptical admirer of John Knox. Perhaps all that iconoclasm did not involve destroying religious art, but merely privatising it. To think of that sumptuous Bible, now opened agonisingly at a single, arbitrary point, being horded lovingly in somebody’s home whilst churches fell to the mob.
Elsewhere, the House contains an example of the 1565 silver coin which appears to portray Mary and Darnley as joint monarchs (it was speedily withdrawn from circulation). Fortunately, the abundantly bearded patriarch reclining with two maidens turns out to be Lot lying with his daughters, rather than John Knox and his parishioners. This is one of two ceiling panels, now mounted as paintings, and the second reputedly portrays the agonies of Cain. In a curious detail, the sinner sits before a brook which is decorated with swans so ludicrously small that they could nest in the palm of his hand.
But the star of this House is the Devil. He is a bonny chap, and a hermaphrodite to boot, with fresh breasts bared like a modern Page 3 girl, a tiny merry cock, and the ears of a deer. He is painted on the ancient ceiling beams of the Oak Room, along with several other demonstrably un-Puritanical motifs, and this specimen of Reformation lowbrow only kept himself out of harm’s way over the centuries by hiding behind a false ceiling. At one point in the House’s history, the image was apparently removed from the ceiling and exhibited privately to visitors. Looking at him today, through the eyes of a twenty-first sophisticate, I can almost imagine what it would be like to masturbate over this Devil’s chest, with my fellow Masons, whilst he grinned happily.
To think of such a beast in John Knox’s House, looking so carefree and welcoming. But this was never Knox’s house to begin with and the centuries have surely granted the Devil squatter’s rights. The time has come to cast off the Knox pseudonym and rename this building “The House of the Devil.”