Patrick Hamilton (1504-1528) literally lit the flame of the Reformation in Scotland. Ten years after Luther started it all in Germany by hammering his 95 Theses into the church door in Wittenberg, Hamilton died a horrific and agonising death, but started something in Scotland that has never ended, even to this day.
In 1517, at the age of just 13, Hamilton went to University in Paris. By this time Europe was ablaze with talk of Reformation, and Hamilton was heavily influenced by Luther’s writings. In 1523, Hamilton became a member of St Andrews University, and the following year he enrolled to study theology – which he did, concentrating his efforts on the Lutheran doctrines sweeping across Europe. This put him on collision-course with the church authorities.
Despite the church’s attempts to suppress the ideas of the Reformation, tracts, books and publications were available in Scotland, and were increasingly popular through the 1520s. Hamilton became the first Scottish preacher of such doctrines. He was ordained a priest at St Andrews in 1527 and his preaching quickly aroused the consternation of the authorities.
He was summoned to appear before Archbishop Beaton at St Andrews and warned about preaching Lutheran doctrine. Hamilton went to Germany for a time – to see Luther, to consider, to reflect – until the time was right to return to Scotland. Under Luther, Hamilton was able to sharpen his thinking; get clearer in his arguments; understand better the errors inherent in medieval Catholicism. He became even more convinced that Luther’s doctrine was right and was determined to return and proclaim it in Scotland.
So in late 1527 Hamilton returned to Scotland, and began preaching – very much aware of the potential consequences, but determined to do so anyway. As one of his biographers notes: “The flames of zeal in his heart for God were greater than the flames of the fire which was going to confront him because of his love for his Lord and Master, Jesus Christ.”
He preached at Linlithgow on one occasion – and St Michaels there was as bad as anywhere for relics, prayer-to-the-saints, and all the worst excesses of medieval-catholicism. He boldly declared the gospel of grace – and one young woman was converted on the spot! She made herself known to him, and they quickly fell in love, and were soon married. Very little is known about her – not even her name. But they did have a child, Elizabeth, who was born after Hamilton’s death.
News of Hamilton’s activities reached Archbishop Beaton in St Andrews. Beaton made it his top priority to get rid of this young heretic. He invited Hamilton to St Andrews to ‘talk theology.’ Hamilton knew perfectly well it was a trap, but went anyway – he seems to have calculated that it would advance the cause of the Reformation if he went. After several days of discussion at St Andrews Castle, Beaton gave Hamilton freedom to preach. The idea seems to have been to give him enough rope to hang himself – though that wasn’t the method of execution that would be used!
Hamilton knew what was going on, but took every opportunity to preach the reformed doctrines anyway. Like the Apostle Paul before him, he reckoned the Gospel – and the connected glory of Christ – as of infinitely greater value than his own life.
So Beaton moved to spring the trap. Hamilton was called before him to answer to 13 charges of heresy. Beaton believed – wrongly – that Hamilton’s execution would put an end to his teaching and be a deterrent to others. Hamilton reckoned – rightly – that his execution, if that’s what it came to, would fan the flames of the Reformation, and keep the momentum going.
It was no surprise when Hamilton was found guilty – and a date for execution was set: February 29, 1528. It’s said that Hamilton walked calmly and briskly to the place of execution – outside St Salvator’s church in St Andrews (the spot marked to this day by his initials). He prayed silently, then took off his outer clothes and gave them to a friend, along with his New Testament, and said: “These things will be of no use in the fire, but will be useful to you. When this is all over you will receive nothing more from me than the example of my death, which I pray that you will never forget, for although it is harsh on the flesh and fearful for men, it is the entrance to eternal life, which none who deny Christ in this evil generation will possess.”
He was then given a final opportunity to recant his ‘heretical’ views – to which he replied: “As to my confession, I will not deny it for awe of your fire, for my confession and belief is in Jesus Christ . . . I will rather be content that my body burn in this fire for confession of my faith in Christ than have my soul burn in the fire of hell for denying the same.”
So the wood, coal and gunpowder at his feet were set alight – there was an explosion, and then immediately the fire went out. This was something of a fiasco of an execution. Beaton’s officials tried 3 times to re-light the fire, to no avail. Hamilton provoked the laughter of the crowd, by calling out: “Do you not have any dry wood for the fire? Do you not have more gunpowder as well?” The officials left the scene in search of the necessary materials to get the fire going – as Hamilton used the delay to continue to profess the true Christian faith!
The execution took 6 hours and Hamilton endured it all without wavering, as had been his hope. His last words were: “How long, O Lord, will the darkness overwhelm this kingdom? How long wilt thou suffer this tyranny of men?” And then this: “Lord Jesus, receive my Spirit.”
If Beaton had thought he could put out the fire by putting Hamilton in the fire … well, his plan crashed-&-burned! He was advised by a friend not to do any more burnings-at-the-stake – “for the reek of Master Hamilton has infected as many as it blew upon.” That is a great testimony!
Hamilton had been right. His death did, indeed, set Scotland ablaze with Reforming zeal. It was a sacrifice, but one that he was willing to make. Many who’d been influenced by Hamilton took up the cause – and suffered the same fate.
In 1546, George Wishart was also burnt at the stake in St Andrews.
Soon thereafter Archbishop Beaton was murdered by protestant sympathisers … and by then John Knox was thundering the gospel from the pulpits of the land.
A confession of faith was procured – The Scots Confession. The role of Patrick Hamilton in the whole story cannot be exaggerated – he literally lit the flame of the Reformation in Scotland.
We give thanks for his memory and legacy.
And we do well to be inspired by his example of sacrificial commitment to Christ.