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You are here: Information & History | Religion - Patrick Hamilton

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Patrick Hamilton

Religion - Patrick Hamilton

Patrick Hamilton was the first preacher and martyr of the Scottish Reformation. Born around 1504, he was the son of Sir Patrick Hamilton of Kinavel and Stonehouse, and nephew of the Earl of Arran. His mother, Catherine Stewart, was closely related to the Royal family, being a daughter of the Duke of Albany and grand daughter of James II. As well as all his Royal connections Patrick Hamilton could claim some of the most prominent and distinguished of his countrymen as his friends and relatives.

Of his early life little is known, other than he became through family influence an Abbot of Ferne, in Rossshire; probably with a view to providing him with the necessary funds to gain an education on the Continent. In 1520 he took a degree of MA at the University of Paris. He later moved on to the University of Louvaine where he was greatly admired for his intellect, liberalism and character.

On returning to Scotland in 1523 he entered St.Andrew’s University and was considered a man of great talent in learning. Entering the priesthood before the canonical age of 25, he refused to conform to many of the laws and regulations of the Church. Confiding in friends and cathedral canons, Patrick Hamilton was critical of the church and hypocrisy practised in many of its facets.

An event, however, occurred at this stage of his life which changed his relations to his ecclesiastical superiors, and made it desirable to seek asylum elsewhere. In a Parliament held at Edinburgh, in 1525, an Act was passed, under the influence of the bishops and clergy, declaring the opinions of Luther and his disciples heretical, and forbidding strangers to introduce Lutheran books into the kingdom, under pain of forfeiting their property and exposing their persons to imprisonment.

Hamilton was not a man to conceal his new convictions. Under the ever watchful eye of the church in St.Andrews he began sowing the seeds of reform. Soon the rumour of his heretical opinions reached the ears of Archbishop Beaton in 1527, who found that he was “infamed with heresy, repugnant to the faith”. Having been summoned to answer this accusation, the young reformer resolved to leave Scotland for a season with three companions to Wittenberg in Germany.

While in Germany he met Tyndale (translator of the English Bible) who, with his friend and companion John Firth set about translating the Old Testament. Here, they worked together shaping their reformist views, destined for martyrdom in the knowledge that they were preparing themselves for trial and suffering on their return home.

After a passing of six months in Germany, Patrick Hamilton returned to Scotland, to resolve, at whatever risk, to make known to his fellow countrymen his beliefs and convictions. On arrival many were impressed with his knowledge and teaching. It was around this time that he was to be married, but to whom it is unknown.

He found it impossible to conceal his evangelistic labours from his enemies, and soon they became known to Archbishop Beaton. Beaton sent him a message of apparently friendly character, proposing a conference at St. Andrew’s to discuss matters of the church as it would appear to be in need of reform. Though suspecting the snare which had been laid for him, he felt that it was his duty to comply with the request, knowing imprisonment awaited him. The most his family could persuade him to do for his safety was to arrange that he should not go alone, ensuring a party of friends and kinsmen accompany him.

Arriving in St.Andrew’s around January 1528, a conference took place, with Beaton. Hamilton both in public and in confidence began professing his reformist views. His liberalism in his speeches, however, made it easy to procure sufficient evidence to secure his condemnation. Hamilton however had many influential friends, and so it was in Beaton’s interest not to provoke them, but to allow Hamilton to condemn himself by his own words.

When danger became imminent Hamilton refused to escape and an attempt was made by his friends to release him. Foreseeing the trouble that lay ahead, Sir James Hamilton, his brother, and the laird of Airdrie collected a strong force but were only prevented by a long continued storm from reaching St. Andrews in time. Alarmed by this and fearing a rescue attempt, Beaton issued an order for his immediate apprehension. Drawing a cordon around the house where Hamilton lodged, the captain of the castle demanded admission; whereupon, he surrendered. Hamilton was imprisoned and charged with certain articles, regarding which he had been previously interrogated by the Primate and his Council. Hamilton, instead of disowning his previously stated convictions, defended and established them from Scripture. Hamilton proceeded with his defence concealing nothing and speaking the truth as he saw it but in so doing was accused of denying the institutions of the Church and the authority of the Pope.

Without further delay Hamilton was condemned as an obstinate heretic, deprived of all ecclesiastical dignities and offices and delivered over to the secular power for punishment. On the afternoon of the same day; for their business was such as required haste, he was hurried to the place of execution in front of the Old College, where a fire had been already prepared.

Taking off his cloak and giving it to a servant, Hamilton said, “This stuff will not help me in the fire, yet will do thee some good. I have no more to leave thee but the example of my death, which I pray thee to keep in mind; for albeit the same be bitter and painful in man’s judgement, yet it is the entrance to ever lasting life, which none can inherit who deny Christ before this wicked generation.” Having thus spoken he commended his spirit into the hands of God and being bound to the stake was burned to death.

On visiting the site of his execution at St.Andrew’s, the initials PH are inscribed on the pavement where he was burned at the stake. It is also said, of which I have witnessed; the image of a mans head of the exterior wall overlooking the location of Patrick Hamilton’s death. It is said that he suffered considerable pain during his execution due to the wood being wet and taking a considerable length of time to burn. Some belief the image above captures his suffering moments in death. Thus died this noble martyr, on the last day of February, 1528, in the twenty fourth year of his age. The flames in which he expired were in the course of one generation to enlighten all Scotland.

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