John Knox House on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile is a well-known tourist attraction, described by one architectural historian as ‘improbably picturesque’. It is actually a matter of debate whether the firebrand preacher ever lived there. Ironically, when Knox was at the height of his fame, the owner of the building was on the other side of the political debate – as the goldsmith to Mary Queen of Scots.
The house is certainly one of the oldest in Edinburgh, mostly built in the mid-16th century, but with parts dating back to 1470. Investigate the ground floor and you can see the remnants of medieval ‘luckenbooths’, or locked booths, once rented out as shops.
The Oak Room on the top floor is particularly atmospheric, with wood panelling and a painted ceiling from the early 17th century. It is the exterior though which gives John Knox House its romantic image. Timber galleries project out from the first floor, and forestairs give access from the street directly into the upper rooms. In the 16th and 17th centuries, these features would have been a very common sight along the High Street.
At the corner of the building, between the ground and first floors, is a figure of Moses kneeling on top of a sundial. On the image of the sun next to him are the Greek, Latin and English words for God. The figure used to have a miniature pulpit below him, so that he resembled John Knox preaching.
The first mention of the building in the archives comes in a document of 1525. This records that it had been the property of Walter Reidpath, but was conveyed by his daughter to her son John Arres. In turn, he was to leave the house to his daughter Mariota.
Painted ceilings and wood panelling on the first floor. Image via David Ross and Britain Express
In 1556 Mariota Arres and her wealthy husband, goldsmith James Mossman, acquired the building and set about developing their new home. The couple must have been wealthy, as in 1540 Mossman had refashioned the royal regalia for King James V. Their coat of arms and initials still decorate the outside of the house, along with the biblical inscription ‘Luve God abuve al and yi nychtbour as yi self’.
Yet within a few years Mossman, a confirmed Catholic and supporter of Mary Queen of Scots, found himself caught up in the religious turmoil of the times. In 1571 he lost all his possessions, was sacked from his position as master of the Royal Mint, and charged with treason. In 1573 following the surrender of Mary’s supporters, he was arrested, dragged on a cart from Holyrood to the Mercat Cross, and hanged.
Whether he actually lived in the house or not, the connection with John Knox certainly saved the building from demolition. In 1840 the tenement next door to John Knox House suddenly split in two, and it was said, exposed the residents inside having their breakfast. The future of the entire site was in jeopardy, but an outcry from antiquarians and the church limited the scale of the destruction.
The building underwent concerted restoration in the mid 19th century and opened as a museum in 1853, run by the then Free and United Free Churches of Scotland, and later by the Church of Scotland.
John Knox House is still open to the public, telling the story of the Reformation and showing how people lived 400 years ago. Tradition says a small window on the first floor was once used by Knox, leaning out to preach at people in the street. Today it is probably not advisable to follow his example, but the view down the Royal Mile from this window is still stunning, and well worth paying a visit to this survivor from Old Edinburgh.