John Knox House, popularly known as “John Knox’s House“, is a historic house in Edinburgh, Scotland, reputed to have been owned and lived in by Protestant reformer John Knox during the 16th century. Although his name became associated with the house, he appears to have lived in Warriston Close where a plaque indicates the approximate site of his actual residence.
The John Knox House on the 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 fire-brand 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-1500s but with parts dating back to 1470.
Investigate the ground floor and you can see the remnants of medieval ‘lucken booths’, 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 1600s. It is the exterior through which gives John Knox House its romantic image. Timber galleries project out from the street directly into the upper rooms. In the 1500s and 1600s, these historic 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 of God. The figure used to have a miniature pulpit below him so that he looked like 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. 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 had plenty of money, 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 Park 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 Know 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.
John Knox’s History
The house itself was built from 1490 onwards, featuring a fine wooden gallery and hand-painted ceiling. It had belonged to Walter Reidpath whose grandson John Arres inherited it and left it to his daughter Mariota Arres in 1556.
Her husband James Mossman, the Goldsmith, refashioned the crown of Scotland for James V. He remained loyal to Mary, Queen of Scots when she was exiled in England. He worked in Edinburgh Castle making coins for her supporters who held the castle on her behalf during the ‘Lang Siege’. When the Castle surrendered in August 1573, Mossman was charged with counterfeiting, for which he was hanged, quartered and beheaded.
The carvings date from 1850 when the building was restored. They are by Alexander Handyside Ritchie. The building was restored again in 1984. Over the next few centuries, many decorations and paintings were added, and the house and its contents are now a museum. The building is owned by the Church of Scotland and is now administered as part of the new, adjacent Scottish Storytelling Centre Edinburgh