The trial of Patrick Hamilton for ‘heresy’ took place in St Andrews Cathedral in Scotland on 29 February 1528.
For an eye-witness description of the occasion, we are indebted to one Alexander Alane (Alesius) (1500-1565). Alane had previously spoken out against Lutheran teaching and consequently been sent by Archbishop Beaton to convince Hamilton of his errors. But it ended up with Hamilton converting Alane!
Alane wrote: ‘I was myself an eye-witness of the tragedy, and heard him answering for his life to the charges of heresy which were laid against him: and he was so far from disowning them, that he defended and established them by clear testimonies of Scripture, and refuted the reasonings of his accuser’.
The key prosecution witness was a Dominican prior called Alexander Campbell, who during the previous month of relative freedom for Hamilton had conversed at length with him, pretending sympathy but all the while gathering evidence against him.
After Hamilton’s resolute answers to the charges against him, Campbell asked the ecclesiastical court for fresh directions. ‘Desist from reasoning’, cried the bishops, ‘Add new accusations; call him heretic to his face’.
The confrontation continued: ‘Heretic! Thou sayest it is but lost labour to pray to or call upon saints, and on the blessed Virgin Mary, as mediators to God for us’.
Hamilton: ‘I say with Paul, there is no mediator betwixt God and man, but Christ Jesus his Son, and whatsoever they be who call or pray to any saint departed, they spoil Christ Jesus of his office’.
‘Heretic! Thou sayest it is all in vain to sing soul-masses, psalms and dirges for the relaxation of souls departed, who are continued in the pains of purgatory’.
Hamilton: ‘Brother, I have never read in the Scripture of God of such a place as purgatory, nor yet believe I that there is anything that may purge the souls of men but the blood of Christ Jesus, which ransom standeth in no earthly thing, nor in soul-mass, nor dirge, nor in gold, nor silver, but only by repentance of sins, and faith in the blood of Jesus Christ’.
Turning to the court, the prior said: ‘My lord archbishop, you hear he denies the institutions of holy kirk, and the authority of our holy father the pope. I need not to accuse him any more’.
The court condemned Hamilton to be degraded from the priesthood and handed to the secular power to be burned to death. The sentence was carried out the same day, to prevent any attempted rescue (Hamilton’s brother, Sir James Hamilton, had indeed set out to rescue Patrick by force, but was delayed by a storm in the Firth of Forth).
Patrick Hamilton was burned, at noon on 29 February, outside the front entrance of St Salvator’s Chapel, St Andrews.
The monks — Campbell foremost among them — gave him opportunity to recant and save his life. But he replied: ‘I will rather be content that my body burn in the fire for confession of my faith in Christ, than my body burn in hell for denying the same’.
Hamilton prayed for mercy for his persecutors, for strength, and for Jesus Christ to be with him in the fire so he wouldn’t deny the faith. He was bound to the stake, with an iron chain round his middle.
Fire was applied to wood mingled with gunpowder and coals, but there was a strong easterly wind blowing and the wood was damp. Although some gunpowder exploded, burning Hamilton’s left hand and cheek, the wood didn’t ignite properly. Three times they tried to light it, but failed.
They fetched dry wood from the castle, meanwhile leaving Hamilton in agony, being pestered by the monks to convert back to Catholicism. ‘Pray to our Lady. Say, “Salve Regina!” [i.e., “save, Queen Mary!”]’, they urged. But he refused and exhorted onlookers with the truth.
As the flames grew fiercer, Hamilton prayed for his widowed mother. By now the iron chain holding him was red hot and eating through the middle of his body. A voice from the crowd called him to give a sign if he still believed in what he was dying for. At this, he raised three fingers of his half-consumed hand and kept them there until he died.
His last words were, ‘How long, Lord, shall darkness overwhelm this kingdom? How long wilt thou suffer this tyranny of men? Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!’ It was six o’clock in the evening before his body was reduced to ashes. The execution process had lasted six agonising hours. ‘But during all that time’, says Alane, ‘the martyr never gave one sign of impatience or anger, nor ever called to heaven for vengeance’.
Though only 24, Patrick Hamilton had been a model of self-control. His gracious behaviour had completely undermined the authorities’ intention. Those watching realised they had witnessed the execution of a martyr, not a heretic.
Appalled and impressed, these witnesses inquired into Hamilton’s beliefs, including reading his treatise Patrick’s Places (see ET, June 2018), and many were converted. One such was Henry Forrest, a Benedictine monk, later sentenced to be burned to death, in 1533.
While Forrest’s execution was being planned, John Lindsay, an associate of Archbishop Beaton, advised that he be burned in a cellar, using now well-known words: ‘My Lord, if you burn any more, except you follow my counsel, you will utterly destroy yourselves. If you will burn them, let them be burned in deep cellars, for the reek [smoke] of Master Patrick Hamilton has infected as many as it blew upon’.
Augustinian and Dominican monks embraced the Lutheran faith, as, by 1540, did prominent citizens in Edinburgh, Leith, Ayr, Dundee, Perth, Stirling and St Andrews. Gavyn Logic, principal regent of St Leonard’s College in St Andrews University, embraced Lutheranism and spread it among his students, until he was exiled in 1534. Sir James Scrymgeour, constable of Dundee and standard-bearer of Scotland, became a fearless defender of the oppressed Lutherans.
Patrick’s Places spread south into England and became a source for a Protestant primer published in 1536, by John Gough. John Knox (1510-1572), future leader of the Scottish Reformation, maintained that its origins were sealed by the blood of Hamilton. He wrote: ‘Almost within the whole realm, there was found none who began not to inquire, wherefore was Master Patrick Hamilton burned?’
The Church of Scotland’s Calvinistic position was set out in its Scottish Confession (1560), but it was the Lutheran Hamilton, who had been like the New Testament martyr Stephen to that Church’s origin.
We should realise that Hamilton’s ‘offence’ was not so much his attack on ecclesiastical abuses, as his stand on justification by faith alone and the impossibility of sinners being saved by good works.
Justification by faith was later anathematised at the Council of Trent. The Reformation was not a mistake, nor an unnecessary schism, but a vital separation of the true from the false and a liberation of the gospel of Jesus Christ from outright heresy.
Today too, we should keep a clear distinction between law and gospel in our preaching. As Hamilton said, ‘the law does nothing but command’; it does not save. Christ’s under-shepherds must not confuse the flock of God by mixing and confusing the categories of law and gospel.
As Hamilton reminds us, this gospel centres on Jesus Christ alone, both in doctrine and in Christ-like behaviour as its fruit. Like Hamilton, our Christian witness is better done with gentle firmness than strident belligerence.
Finally, Hamilton’s martyrdom reminds us that, although many Reformers — including Martin Luther, John Calvin and John Knox — were spared martyrdom, others were called to bear witness with their deaths. Today, are we in the West ready to be martyrs for Christ if called on to be so?
Often it has pleased God to use persecution to amplify the church’s witness. We mustn’t forget that, according to tradition, only John out of the New Testament apostles did not die a martyr’s death. As Tertullian said, nearly 2000 years ago, ‘The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church’. Of this, Patrick Hamilton is a bright and noble example.
Roger Fay is a director and co-editor of Evangelical Times, a director of Evangelical Press Missionary Trust, and elder of Zion Evangelical Baptist Church, Ripon.
Online articles on Patrick Hamilton on the BBC website and by Donald Boyd.
Banner of Truth magazine, ‘Patrick Hamilton, Luther’s Scottish disciple’, by James Edward McGoldrick, April 1989 (there is a longer version in The sixteenth century journal, Spring 1987).
Dictionary of National Biography.
Foxe’s book of martyrs.
Patrick Hamilton, William Dallmann, 1904.
Patrick Hamilton, the first preacher and martyr of the Scottish Reformation, Peter Lorimer, 1857.
The preachers of Scotland: 6th to 19th century, W. G. Blaikie, T and T Clark, 1888.
The story of the Scottish Reformation, A. M. Renwick, IVF, 1960.