Patrick Hamilton

Patrick Hamilton

It is fair to say that most Scots have never heard of Patrick Hamilton. Even in the Church of Scotland, maybe only a handful of people know who he was. I suspect that if I asked all the children in the schools not one of them will have heard of Patrick Hamilton.

Every Roman Catholic child in Scotland will have heard of John Ogilvie. Here’s an issue. It does not matter whether you are right in something - if you don’t protect and practise - then the lesser truth and right will triumph. If the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland is stronger than the Church of Scotland in fifty years time as Cardinal Wining suggested it would be - it will be because they care more about preserving their Catholicism than Protestants do about preserving their Faith.

Peter Howson, one of Scotland’s leading contemporary painters was commissioned by Bishop Mario Conti to paint a huge scale wall painting of John Ogilvie in St Andrew’s Cathedral in Glasgow. John Ogilvie is regarded as a saint in the Roman Catholic Church. He was born in 1579 and died on 10 March 1615. He was a Scottish Roman Catholic Jesuit martyr.

Ogilvie, the son of a wealthy laird, was born into a respected Calvinist family near Keith and was educated in mainland Europe where he attended a number of Roman Catholic educational establishments. In the midst of the religious controversies and turmoil that engulfed the Europe of that era he decided aged seventeen to become a Roman Catholic. He joined the Society of Jesus in 1608 and was ordained priest in Paris in 1610. After ordination he asked to be sent to Scotland to minister to the few remaining Roman Catholics in the Glasgow area. This was illegal at the time. He came back to Scotland in November 1613 disguised as a horse trader named John Watson. Thereafter he began to preach in secret, celebrating mass clandestinely in private homes.

This ministry was to last less than a year. In 1614, he was betrayed and arrested in Glasgow and taken to jail in Paisley. He suffered terrible tortures, including being kept awake for eight days and nine nights, in an attempt to make him divulge the identities of other Roman Catholics. Nonetheless, Ogilvie did not relent; consequently he was convicted of high treason for refusing to accept the King's spiritual jurisdiction. On 10 March 1615, aged thirty-six years, he was paraded through the streets of Glasgow and hanged and disembowelled, according to the penalty of the time, at Glasgow Cross. Hence the new painting of John Ogilvie in Glasgow reminding Roman Catholics of the enmities of the past and the extreme suffering of one of their own. It is a defiant and provocative gesture and goes against the tenor and rhetoric of ecumenical conversation.

No-one in the Church of Scotland has commissioned a painting of Patrick Hamilton to be hung in Glasgow Cathedral, St Giles High Kirk or in any of the churches or colleges in Aberdeen or St Andrews. Oddly enough, if the Roman Catholic Church had wished to be truly catholic, they might have commissioned a double portrait of Patrick Hamilton and John Ogilvie side by side. The Church of Scotland would, of course, would want little to do with either.

Patrick Hamilton was born in 1504 to an aristocratic Scottish family who lived at Kincavel not very far from here. He was well brought up, well spoken, well mannered and well educated. Two of his uncles were bishops and abbots of monasteries. He was groomed for high office in the pre-reformation Church. Patrick went to Paris in 1517 (aged 13) to further his studies. In the same year on 31st October 1517, Martin Luther initiated the Reformation by posting his 95 theses on the door of the Church in Wittenburg, Germany. Reformation ideas were sweeping Europe and Patrick Hamilton went on to study in Holland before returning to Scotland in 1523, aged 19 years. He brought with him the Biblical theology of Martin Luther and he took a critical view of the malaise and corruption of the Church in Scotland at the time. He settled in St Andrews and joined St Leonard’s College there.

Patrick Hamilton due to his family position, personal bearing, practising faith and recent education became respected and well known. He was ordained priest aged 23 years, 2 years earlier than normal. But he promoted public debates on the ideas and theology of Martin Luther. Archbishop James Beaton of St Andrews was alarmed and summoned him for questioning and he was warned of the final consequences of continuing to preach and teach and promote Reformation theology.

Patrick Hamilton escaped to Germany in April 1527, not out of cowardice, but to better equip himself with learning and understanding for the struggle ahead. He went to Wittenberg, Luther’s city, the centre of the Reformation. He was 23 years old. He heard Protestant sermons and he met other Reformers. He sensed the energy and enthusiasm and spiritual fervour of the early Reformation in Germany. The monasteries were empty. Monks and nuns had left and married as Luther and his wife Catherine had also done. At Marburg University Patrick Hamilton wrote up his theological statement of faith which became known as Patrick’s Places. This was the first doctrinal statement of the Reformation by a Scot. It was Biblical, spiritual and theological in character. In the autumn of 1527 Patrick Hamilton returned to Scotland.

An outline of Patrick’s Places ie., common places of Christian understanding, includes:
The 10 Commandments
General Biblical principles such as good neighbourliness
The essence of the Christian Gospel - Christ is the Saviour of the word, Christ died for our sins, Christ is our righteousness, Christ hath delivered us from the law, from the devil and hell, The Father of heaven hath forgiven us for Christ’s sake
The difference between the law and the Gospel
Justification by faith
Faith. Hope and love
Good works as a response of faith

Patrick Hamilton’s first congregation was formed in his family home along the road at Kincavel along with family friends and servants. He then began preaching in the villages of that area including Linlithgow. In the St Michael’s of the time, there were 16 altars rented by noble families for their own pre-Reformation worship. In one of his sermons Patrick said, 'It is not the coat of St Francis or the overcoat of St Dominic that saves us, but the justice of Christ. It is not the cutting of the hair that makes a man holy, but a restored heart. It is not the blessing of the Church but of the holy Spirit that floods our souls with grace'.

There, Patrick Hamilton met and married a young woman who agreed to be his wife although she recognised the perils of his position. A daughter was later born and called Isobel - but she never knew her father. Patrick Hamilton was not as fiery or enraged as John Knox. His was a more gracious presentation. But he nevertheless articulated clearly the distinctive Lutheran teachings which were the basis of the Reformation. He said, 'Faith comes from the Word of God. Hope comes from faith and charity is born of these two'. This was refreshing, liberating teaching and like his Lord, Patrick Hamilton spoke with authority about real immediate personal faith - as against - second and third hand ritualised and man-made rules and money and power centred regulations.

In November 1527 while Archbishop James Beaton was at Dunfermline he heard of the return and charismatic preaching of Patrick Hamilton. The word ‘heretic’ began to be used to describe him. He now had a powerful enemy. Beaton invited Patrick Hamilton to visit him at his palace in St Andrews. Knowing the likely outcome, Patrick Hamilton still made the journey and accepted the invitation. Like Jesus going to Jerusalem and St Paul returning there when he might not have, Patrick Hamilton realised that he could not be seen to flee for safety. The importance of his message was too great and he would not undermine the faith he had instilled in others. Christian truth was worth dying for if that is what was required.

Patrick Hamilton was allowed to preach freely in St Andrews while Beaton gathered the evidence necessary to condemn him. It was not long before he as summoned to answer in public for his life and doctrine and to defend himself against the charge of heresy. Unsurprisingly, after a few days deliberation, he was found guilty and imprisoned. He exhorted his friends 'Do not fight for my cause'. The judgement was published on 29 February 1528. Patrick’s brother Sir James Hamilton with a band of soldiers had left Kincavel to go to St Andrews to rescue him but a storm on the Forth prevented their crossing.

Patrick Hamilton refused to recant his Gospel. The ten men of the jury convicted him of heresy. 'Therefore, his condemnation and sentence are definitive and he ought to be denied all his dignities, honours, orders, offices and benefits from the Church and also we judge him and pronounce that he ought to be handed over to secular powers in order to be punished and all his property be confiscated'. Patrick Hamilton’s execution was ordered for the same day in case an armed rescue bid was attempted and in case his brother found a way to get to St Andrews in time.

He was led from prison to the place of bonfire. You can visit the actual spot because his initials are marked on the cobbles outside St Salvator’s College and a commemorative plaque also marks the place. His bearing was one of grace and peace. His biographer Joe Carvalho calls him 'The Stephen of Scotland'. Patrick Hamilton’s last words were, 'I am not going to deny what I said be cause of fear of the stake for my confession and my belief are in Christ Jesus…I would rather give my body to be burned in this fire for the cause of the faith which I profess than to have my soul burned in the fire of hell for denying it'.

He was tied to the stake by a tight iron chain and prayed, 'Almighty God have mercy on those who persecute me for they are blinded by their ignorance and do not know what they are doing. Help me Lord through your Son, my Saviour, and by the power of the Holy Spirit'. The wood was lit and the gunpowder beneath it exploded and burnt Patrick Hamilton’s left hand. Then the fire went out. They could not get it going again. Patrick Hamilton asked 'Do you not have any dry wood for the fire?' The order was given to go the castle for more wood and gunpowder. His enemies taunted him and he in spite of his pain responded, 'I am not a heretic and you also know that it is for the cause of God’s truth that I am now suffering. You even confessed this to me privately. You are going to answer for this in front of the court of God, whose judge is Christ Jesus'.

With more wood and straw the fire was relighted. The hot iron chain burnt through his waist and stomach. He said, 'How long, O Lord, will darkness overwhelm this kingdom' and later the words of St Stephen 'Lord Jesus, receive my spirit'. Someone in the crowd asked him if he still believed the doctrines he was dying for and he raised his hand with its three burnt fingers to affirm. Then he died. His execution had taken six hours.

We know from the life of Jesus and the history of the early Church that unjust treatment of God’s servants is counter-productive. And so it was with Patrick Hamilton. Throughout the land it was asked, 'Why was Master Hamilton burnt at the stake?…Why cannot the Church not be questioned about its mistakes and deviations without fear of punishment?' If anyone acting in the name of God acts unjustly - for sure - he is already defeated and the cause he opposes strengthened. And so far from discouraging Reformation, Patrick Hamilton’s martyrdom inspired Reformation. It gave legitimacy to the new teachings and the new worship. It is a terrible thing to persecute a serious Christian.

This actually happened and is well documented in history. Richard Dawkins cannot deny Patrick Hamilton’s life or death. Christianity is not easily won even in our time and the sacrifices we are asked to make are small in comparison and even then we are reluctant and doubtful. The Scottish Reformation did not have the self-sacrificial quality of the life of Patrick Hamilton and arms and politics were used to establish it. Archbishop James Beaton’s nephew became his successor. He kept women and a family and lived lavishly. He ordered the burning at the stake of the Reformer George Wishart in March 1546. But the Reformers took revenge and assassinated him soon thereafter.

The quality and character of Protestant Christianity in Scotland was set in these difficult and troubled times. Christian grace was clearly seen in Patrick Hamilton but not many were willing to be so sacrificed for the name of Jesus Christ. The Reformation was not a peaceful non-violent movement. Bitterness, harshness and an unforgiving spirit has characterised 450 years of Scottish Church life. However, these years of Christian history have also given the world many great Christian men and women, and the spiritual freedoms won in those times are the aspirations of all of humanity to this day.

We are not worthy heirs or successors of Patrick Hamilton and the truths he died for have in some measure been abandoned by the Church of Scotland. Let us, however be faithful in little to Jesus Christ because we know that it works. Christianity will live long down the centuries for our modest commitment in our lives today.



Robert Anderson 2017

To contact Robert, please use this email address: replies@robertandersonchurch.org.uk