The Martyrdom of Patrick Hamilton – the Promised Crown of Life

Patrick Hamilton Color

 Patrick Hamilton “First Preacher and Martyr of the Scottish Reformation”

“Remember how your fathers, in times gone by, defended God’s truth, and blush, ye cowards, who are afraid to maintain it!  Remember that our Bible is a blood-stained book; the blood of martyrs is on the Bible, the blood of translators and confessors.  The pool of holy baptism, in which many of you have been baptized, is a blood-stained pool: full many have had to die for the vindication of that baptism which is ‘the answer of a good conscience toward God.'”  Charles Spurgeon

Patrick Hamilton was the first to suffer in Scotland during the Scottish Reformation, the Martyrs – Patrick Hamilton first to be martyred for his faith. He was born 1504 into a rich family who were related to the royal household and was therefore of royal blood. At the age of about fourteen he went attended a university in Paris. While he was there he heard about the teachings of Martin Luther. Luther, at this time, was openly challenging the Roman Catholic Church’s teachings and doctrine. The writings of Martin Luther were being publicly debated at the Sorbonne while Hamilton was a student. The authorities condemned them as heretical and ordered them to be burned. In weighing Luther’s teaching, Hamilton, a young man of great intellect and honesty, came to the decision that Luther’s doctrines were correct because they were based on the Scriptures. To settle his convictions he went to Holland to study under Erasmus, the great scholar of the original Scriptures.

After finishing at the university in France, Hamilton came home and in 1524 became a Professor at the University of St Andrews. St Andrews with its grand cathedral and its castle was at that time the foremost seat and center of the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland. In that city by the sea, Archbishop James Beaton watched Hamilton openly preaching the doctrines of the gospel which he had learned from Luther’s writings. Hamilton was a man of faith and conviction, however, he was not yet ready to take on the Roman Catholic Church. In 1527 he fled to Wittenberg, Germany where he made the  personal acquaintance of Luther and Melanchthon. Hamilton himself took part in spreading the principles of the Reformation by the composition of his short and only work entitled ‘Loci Communes,’ or ‘Common Places,’ in which the doctrine of justification by faith and the contrast between the gospel and the law were set forth in a series of clear and understandable propositions. ‘Patrick’s Pleas,’ as they were familiarly called, were framed almost literally in the words of the New Testament. They were inserted in the ‘History of the Reformation’ by Knox, and in the ‘Book of Martyrs’ by John Foxe, and so became a corner-stone of protestant theology both in Scotland and England.

He became convicted that he needed to return to Scotland and preach the good news, even though he knew it would be to risk his life. Once again he drew the attention of Archbishop James Beaton. Beaton himself would later write of Hamilton that as “A Lutheran missionary, with royal blood in his veins, and all the power of the Hamiltons at his back, (he) was a more formidable heretic in Scotland than Luther himself would have been”.

Hamilton was invited to a conference at St. Andrews. Arriving in mid January, 1528 he was given liberty to preach and teach while Beaton and his men listened and plotted. They arranged debates in which they vainly tried to convince the young man of his errors. While they gathered their evidence, however, there were those who were persuaded and came to faith. Hamilton’s family and friends during this time were fearful of his life and told him their concerns and urged him to flee, yet he persevered.

Summoned to appear before the archbishop and his council for heresy, he appeared at the appointed day to answer the charges, thirteen in number, of which the first seven contained substantially the doctrine he had asserted in his ‘Common Places.’ The primary charge was ‘that a man is not justified by works, but by faith only.’ The remaining six were pointed at special articles of the Roman creed, such as penance, auricular confession, and purgatory. The boldest was the declaration that the pope was anti-christ, and not superior to any other priest. When interrogated he said he held the first seven undoubtedly true; for the rest he admitted they were disputable, but he would not condemn them until he heard better reason for doing so. The articles were then remitted to the council, who declared the whole thirteen heretical, and appointed judgment to be given on the last day of February 1528. He was remanded to the casted of St. Andrews.

The captain of the castle surrounded his lodgings with troops, and although his friends offered to fight rather than deliver him up, he surrendered, it is said, on an assurance that he would be restored to them without injury. At the meeting of the council the charges were again read, and the judgment of their heretical character announced. Friar Campbell then engaged in a disputation with Hamilton upon the articles seriatim. His argument was little more than denunciation, to which Hamilton replied by reasserting them. When he came to the last, which concerned the authority of the pope, Campbell turned to the assembly and said, ‘My lord archbishop, you hear he denies the institutions of Holy Kirk and the authority of the pope. I need not to accuse him any more,’ Beaton, in name of the council, at once pronounced final sentence, declaring him a heretic, depriving him of all ecclesiastical orders, offices, and benefices, and delivering him over to the secular arm. No time was lost in executing this sentence. The young king was absent at a pilgrimage to Tain in Ross-shire, and Angus, who exercised the chief authority during his absence, was not likely to interfere to save a Hamilton. But his brother, Sir James Hamilton, had collected a force in Lothian, and several of the gentry of Fife, in particular his friend Duncan of Airdrie, were known to be eager to strike a blow on his behalf. It is not known what official gave the necessary warrant, but it was procured the same day (29 Feb.), and a little before noon the captain of the castle brought hm from it to the place of execution on the high ground adjoining and facing the sea. Before being bound to the stake he gave his clothes to his executioner, and his Bible, probably one of Tyndale’s version, of which many had reached Scotland, to a friend. The fagots and powder had in the hurry not been brought in sufficient quantity, and at first only his right arm and side were burnt. Some zealots a baker, Myrton, is mentioned by name brought more straw, and others fresh billets and powder. Vain attempts were made to get him to repeat the Ave Maria, to which his only reply was to ask his accusers to prove the truth of their religion ‘by putting a little finger into the fire with which I am burning with my whole body.’ To the taunt of heresy addressed to him by Campbell, he answered calmly, ‘ Brother, you do not in your heart believe that I am a heretic.’ His death was slow. According to Alesius[1], it was six o’clock before the body was reduced to ashes. Hamilton was, according to one account, only twenty-four years old, certainly under thirty, when he suffered. His youth, his noble blood, his recent marriage, and his unflinching courage moved the hearts of the spectators;’ the reek of Patrick Hamilton infected all it blew on.’ Several witnesses of the scene, some sooner, some later, embraced the principles of the Reformation. It was the distinguishing mark of Hamilton that he represented in Scotland the Lutheran rather than the earlier Wycliffite or the later Calvinist phase of the Reformation.[2]

From KNOX’S History, Book i.

When those cruel wolves had, as they supposed, clean devoured the prey, they found themselves in worse case than before; for then, within St Andrews, yea, almost within the whole realm, who heard of that fact, there was none found who began not to inquire, wherefore Mr Patrick Hamilton was burnt; and when his articles were rehearsed, question was holden, if such articles were necessary to be believed, under the pain of damnation? And so, within short space, many began to call in doubt, that which before they held for a certain verity, insomuch that the University of St Andrews and St Leonard’s college, principally by the labourers of Mr Gavin Logy, the novices of the abbey, and the subprior, began to smell somewhat of the verity, and to espy the vanity of the received superstition; yea, within few years after, began both black and grey friars publicly to preach against the pride and idle life of bishops, and against the abuses of the whole ecclesiastical estate. Amongst whom was one called William Arithe, who, in a sermon preached in Dundee, spake somewhat more liberally against the licentious life of the bishops, than they could well bear. The bishop of Brechin having his parasites in the town, buffetted the friar, and called him heretic. The friar passed to St Andrews, and did communicate the heads of his sermon to Mr John Mair, whose word was then holden as an oracle, in matters of religion; and, being assured of him that such doctrine might well be defended, and that he would defend it, for it contained no heresy, there was a day appointed to the said friar, to make repetition of the same sermon; an advertisement was given to all such as were offended at the former to be present. And so, in the parish church of St Andrews upon the day appointed, appeared the said friar, and had, amongst his auditors, Mr John Mair, Mr George Lockhart, the abbot of Cambuskeneth, Mr Patrick Hepburn, prior of St Andrews, with all the doctors and masters of the universities. Shortly after this, new consultation was taken there, some should be burnt; for men began liberally to speak. A merry gentleman, named John Lindsay, familiar to James Beaton, standing by when consultation was had, said, “My lord, if ye burn any more, except ye follow my counsel, ye will utterly destroy yourselves; if ye will burn them, let them be burnt in hollow cellars; for the smoke of Mr Patrick Hamilton hath infected as many as it blew upon.”

[1] Alexander Alesius: After watching Hamilton be burned at the stake for his beliefs a short time later, he became thoroughly convinced of the truth of the Reformation. The prior at St. Andrews tried to trap Alesius by having him preach, afterwards he brought in soldiers to arrest him. When Alesius begged him not to shed innocent blood he was about to stab him, and then when he fell on the ground and pleaded for mercy the prior kicked him so hard that he fainted. The prior then threw him in the dungeon. The king himself ordered him to be released and the prior promised to do so, but as soon as the king left he threw him into prison again. Eventually his fellow canons were able to get in the prison and release him, and he fled to Europe. He spent the rest of his life in Germany and England, continuing to teach the reformed truth. He died on March 17th, 1565.

[2] Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 24 Patrick Hamilton by Aeneas James George Mackay

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