IT was on this date in 1547 that the siege of St Andrews Castle reached its conclusion.

The day ended with one of the most important people in Scottish history, John Knox, heading for 19 months of a dreadful existence as a slave on board a French galley, chained to the oars which he and his fellow slaves rowed day and night.

It is not a period of the great Reformer’s life which many people know about, not least because Knox himself, so usually a chronicler of his own every deed, left out much of the detail of his time in captivity in his History Of The Reformation Of Religion In Scotland – like Winston Churchill with his history of the Second World War, Knox made sure his role in the Reformation was given prominence by the simple expedient of writing it himself.

The siege of St Andrews Castle began with the brutal assassination of Cardinal David Beaton, head of the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland, by a group of Protestant lairds on May 29, 1546. They had acted in retaliation for the Cardinal having had the Reformation leader George Wishart burned at the stake for heresy almost three months earlier.

Led by Normal Leslie of Rothes and William Kirkcaldy of Grange, the assassins and their accomplices dug in for a long siege at the Castle, and were joined by Knox, a disciple and bodyguard of Wishart. Using the third person, Knox tells how he became tutor to the Castilians as the occupiers soon became known: “Besides their grammar and other human authors he read unto them the Catechism, an account of which he caused them to give publicly in the Parish Kirk of St Andrews. He read, moreover, unto them, proceeding where he left at his departure from Longniddry, where before his residence was, and that lecture he read at the Castle, in the chapel within the Castle, at a certain hour.”

The Castilians urged Knox to preach and so it was that in the midst of the siege Knox preached his first proper sermon. By his own account, it was a cracker and he became their religious leader.

For more than a year the Castilians held out against the forces of Marie de Guise, regent for her daughter Mary, Queen of Scots, and the other regent, the Earl of Arran.

England’s Protestant King Henry VIII promised to help those under siege, but did not do so before his death in January 1547, and it was the Catholic French, allies to the Guise family, which intervened dramatically.

On July 30, 1567, the French forces attacked the Castle by land and sea and their superior cannon ruthlessly began to demolish the walls. Kirkcaldy of Grange negotiated a surrender which would see the Castilians taken to France.

When they got there the Scots were divided into “nobles” and “others” and as one of the latter Knox was carted off to the galleys. Constantly under the whip, fed little but gruel and a vessel so unhealthy the rowers refused to go into the sick bay because it was a death sentence, Knox and his fellow Scots survived though the Reformer’s health was broken in time.

He did tell one humorous story, again referring to himself in the third person: “Those that were in the galleys were threatened with torments if they would not give reverence to the Mass, but they could never get the poorest of that company to give reverence to that idol. Yea, upon the Saturday at night when they sang their Salve Regina the whole Scottishmen put on their hoods or such things as they had to cover their heads, and when the others were compelled to kiss a painted board called Notre Dame they were not pressed after that once, for this was the chance.

“Soon after the arrival at Nantes their great Salve was sung, and a glorious painted lady was brought in to be kissed: and among others was presented to one of the Scottishmen then chained. He gently said, ‘Trouble me not, such an idol is accursed, and therefore I will not touch it.’ The patron and the Argoussin, with two officers having the charge of such matters, said: ‘Thou shalt handle it,’ and so, they violently thrust it to his face and put it betwixt his hands, who seeing the extremity took the idol, and advisedly looking about cast it into the river, and said: ‘Let our lady now save herself, she is light enough, let her learn to swim.’ After that was no Scottishman urged with that idolatry.”

The French even taunted Knox and his fellow Scots by taking the galley to within sight of St Andrews. James Balfour, one of his fellow slaves from the Castle, asked Knox if he recognised where they were and he replied: “Yes, I know it well, for I see the steeple of the place where God first in public opened my lips to His glory, and I am fully persuaded how weak soever I may now appear, I shall not depart this life till that my tongue shall glorify His godly name in that place.”

It was a prophecy and it came true.

In my opinion, the best biography of Knox was published in 1905 by Donald MacMillan. He records: “Liberty was at last in sight for Knox and his companions. The friendly policy between the two Governments of France and England, which began during the last period of Edward the Sixth’s reign, was continued by Protector Somerset. England at last remembered that the garrison of St Andrews had been fighting as her allies.

“Terms were arranged between the two Governments, and some time in the month of February 1549 Knox gained his freedom, and in 1550 all his fellow-prisoners were allowed to leave France.”

We can only imagine how Knox suffered over that 19 months, but suffice to say that when Knox emerged an even tougher person, his detestation of Catholicism now total.

He wrote: “How long I continued a prisoner; what torment I sustained in the galleys and what were the sobs of my heart, is now no time to recite.”

He had a job to do and by 1559 he was leading the Reformation in Scotland.