482 years ago today, on 29/2/1528, Patrick Hamilton was burned to death in front of the gate of St Salvator’s College, St Andrews, for preaching the doctrines of the Bible.
He was the first martyr of the Scottish Reformation, which reintroduced the Gospel of God’s free salvation to sinners through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Over the next 30 years, persecution continued until the death of the aged Walter Mill who was martyred on 28/8/1558, also at St Andrews. He was the last martyr before John Knox spearheaded the Scottish Reformation in 1559-1560. John Knox had been a follower of George Wishart who was also burned at St Andrews on 1/3/1546.
The Martyrs Memorial at St Andrews was erected to the honour of Patrick Hamilton, George Wishart and other martyrs of the Reformation era. The initials PH and GW are set as monograms into the cobblestone paving at the places of their execution not far apart from each other. Wishart was burned in front of St Andrews Castle, and Hamilton in front of the gate of St Salvator’s College. Although 18 years separated their deaths, they were burned on the same day of the year as Hamilton died in a leap year. Today is the anniversary of both of their deaths.
Preparation for Reformation
There were three strands to the Scottish proto-Reformation:
1. the Lollard strand from John Wycliffe,
2. the Lutheran strand through Patrick Hamilton, and
3. the Calvinistic strand through John Knox. Only the third one succeeded in Reforming Scotland.
The poorly identified Zwinglian strand entered on the back of John Wycliffe’s earlier Lollard movement and with John Knox. Duncan Shaw has written on “Zwinglian Influences on the Scottish Reformation” in the Scottish Church History Society Records, Vol. 22, Part 2, 1985. The same volume contains an article by Professor Gerhard Muller on “Protestant Theology in Scotland and Germany in the early days of the Reformation”, which compares Patrick Hamilton’s theology to that of Luther and Melanchthon. However, Lollardism did not succeed in reforming Scotland.
Patrick Hamilton’s Lutheran teaching was slowly influenced by and replaced by Zwinglian elements, and the combination of Zwinglian elements with Calvinism in the teaching of John Knox finally ushered in Scotland’s Protestant Reformation. John Knox has the honour of being known as the Reformer of Scotland.
However, Knox’s success came on the back of 30 years of faithful witness to the doctrines of grace, a witness sealed with the blood of a series of martyrs who were faithful unto death. Hamilton’s youth, nobility and gracious bearing had such a strong influence that the “reek of Patrick Hamilton infected all on whom it did blow”. (This quotation in slightly different forms may be found in Laing’s Knox, i. 42; Calderwood’s History, i. 86; and Spottiswoode’s History, i. 130.) The bloody persecution prepared Scotland for John Knox’s ministry.
Hamilton was in the vanguard of this movement. On 9/6/1523 Patrick Hamilton enrolled in the University of St Andrews, the same day that John Major was received as Principal of St Mary’s College. Major had formerly been teaching in the College of Montaigu, Paris, where Hamilton graduated MA in 1520. Hamilton became convinced of the Reformation doctrines and visited Germany where he was impressed by Martin Luther and Melanchthon. He composed what became known as Patrick’s “Places”, which is the earliest Scottish doctrinal production and decidedly Lutheran. They are likely named after Melachthon’s Loci Communes of 1521. They were translated by John Frith, the English martyr, and embodied by John Knox in his History of the Reformation, and by Fox in his Acts and Monuments.
Hamilton returned to Scotland to promote the Reformation there. He confounded his opponents with his mannerly opposition to Roman Catholic teaching of salvation by keeping the rules of Roman Catholicism, but his youth, manners and noble birth did not protect him from the blood-thirsty persecutors who speedily secured his death by burning.
There had been earlier martyrdoms in Scotland, such as Paul Craw, the Bohemian Hussite preacher, who was burned at St Andrews in 1433. However, this 30-year period of persecution from the death of the young, noble Hamilton in 1528 till that of the aged, august Mill in 1558, was that period when the blood of the martyrs nourished the seed of the church.
The standard biography of Patrick Hamilton for many years was Patrick Hamilton, the First Preacher and Martyr of the Scottish Reformation, by Peter Lorimer, D.D., Edinburgh and London 1857. Lorimer was the Professor of Hebrew and Exegetic Theology at the English Presbyterian College, London. Half a century later, in America, another biography appeared Patrick Hamilton: The First Lutheran Preacher and Martyr of Scotland, William Dallmann, St Louis, Missouri, Concordia Publishing House, third revised printing, 1918.
The 400th anniversary of Hamilton’s death was commemorated in St Andrews with an open air service on the site of his martyrdom pyre, and by a series of addresses in the Town Hall by the Professors of Ecclesiastical History in the Universities of Scotland. These addresses were published as Patrick Hamilton: First Scottish Martyr of the Reformation, edited by Alexander Cameron, The Scottish Reformation Society, Edinburgh 1929.
The most recent contribution to his memory is the first biography in almost 100 years Patrick Hamilton – The Stephen of Scotland (1504-1528): The First Preacher and Martyr of the Scottish Reformation, by Joe R. D. Carvalho, AD Publications, Dundee 2009.