But who shall open the martyr-roll in Scotland?
A youth of royal lineage was selected for this high honor. Patrick Hamilton, princely in mind as in birth, comes first in this saintly procession. He was the great-grandson of James II both by the father’s and the mother’s side. He was born in the year 1504. In 1517 he was appointed titular abbot of Feme, a Premonstratensian abbey in Ross-shire, and the same year he left Scotland to study in the University of Paris. There, it is probable, he formed his first acquaintance with the reformed doctrines, for at that time the opinions of Luther were the subject of keen discussion in both the city and university of Paris. He returned to his native country about the year 1522, taking up his abode for a short time at the family mansion of Kincavel, near Linlithgow. He soon removed to St. Andrews, then the first city of the kingdom, and whose colleges, schools, and learned men gave it special attractions in his eyes. He was at this time fully as much the disciple of Erasmus as of Luther; that is, he loved the ancient learning, he hated the monks, he earnestly longed for church reform; but the reform he aimed at was only transformation of the Roman Church. He never went to reside in his abbey; but in 1526 he had become less an Erasmian and more a Lutheran, for we find that early in 1527 rumors reached the archbishop of St. Andrews that Hamilton had openly espoused the cause of Luther ; and on inquiry into the truth of these rumors, the archbishop, finding that the young abbot was “inflamed with heresy, disputing, holding, and maintaining divers heresies of Martin Luther and his followers repugnant to the faith,” –summoned him before his tribunal at St. Andrews.
By this time James IV had fallen on the field of Flodden; around him, stretched out in death, lay the flower of the Scottish nobility. James V was a child, Margaret Tudor, the widow of the deceased monarch and sister of Henry VIII of England, held the regency; but the government of the kingdom had been grasped by the clergy, headed by the proud, profligate, and unscrupulous Beatoun, archbishop of St. Andrews and chancellor of the kingdom. The young Hamilton, whose rank and talents joined to his heresy made him so formidable a foe to the priesthood, Beatoun, beyond doubt, would have sent to perish at the stake, had not Hamilton, to avoid the danger, fled to Germany.
His purpose, when he left the Scottish shore, was to visit Wittenberg, then in the height of its fame, and make the acquaintance of Luther and Melanchthon; but Marburg lay in his way, and be repaired to it. Francis Lambert, the ex-monk of Avignon, who was altogether a remarkable man, was living there, Philip of Hesse having invited him to aid in the reformation of his dominions. Between the reformer and the young Scotchman a warm friendship speedily sprang up, and the simplicity and purity of Hamilton’s theological views, as afterwards disclosed in his teaching in Scotland, is to be accounted for by the indoctrination he now received from Lambert, whose opinions were entirely free from the mysticism, especially on the doctrine of the Supper, which continued to cloud Luther’s views to the very end of his life. “The large acquaintance with the Word of God which Hamilton possessed,’ says D’Aubigne, speaking of this visit to Marburg, “astonished Lambert; the freshness of his thoughts and of his imagination charmed him; the integrity of his character inspired a high esteem for him; his profound remarks on the gospel edified him. A short time after this the Frenchman, speaking to the Landgrave Philip, said,’ This young man of the illustrious family of the Hamiltons, which is closely allied by the ties of blood to the king and the kingdom of Scotland, who, although hardly twenty-three years of age, brings to the study of Scripture a very sound judgment, and has a vast store of knowledge, is come from the end of the world, from Scotland, to your academy, in order to be fully established in God’s truth. I have hardly ever met a man who expresses himself with so much spirituality and truth on the Word of the Lord.”
The college which the Landgrave Philip had founded at Marburg was opened during our countryman’s stay at that town. After the inaugural address, the rector, Montanus, opened the roll of the university to enter in it the names of its members. Among the first names to be inscribed was that of “P. Hamilton, of Linlithgow, a Scotchman, Master of Arts, Paris.” The name may be read in the registers at this day. When Hamilton set out for Germany his purpose was to visit Wittenberg, then at the height of its fame, and make the acquaintance of Luther and Melanchthon, those renowned teachers and champions of the reformed faith. Of his visit to Wittenberg no record exists, D’Aubigne’s Reform, in Europe, vol. 6, p. 40. and the probability is that it never was made. A rumor, which at this time was circulated throughout Germany, that Luther was dead, and that the plague was raging at Wittenberg, may have led to a change of purpose on the part of Hamilton. The plague had indeed visited Wittenberg; and so great were its ravages, that the university was closed, and the lectures were transferred to Jena. It was of no use therefore to go thither. The young Scotchman prolonged his stay a little while at Marburg, and employed his time in compiling certain theses known as Patrick’s Places, which he maintained in public debate in such fashion as to throw an eclat over the new university. The sum of his Places is that faith is the only door by which we can enter into a state of justification before God, and a life of good deeds before men. The doctrine of his theses was not more evangelical than the phraseology was clear, precise, and salient, qualities rarely found in the theological writers of Germany, Luther being the solitary exceptional most among his countrymen.
Hamilton’s preparation for his work “destined to be brief but brilliant” was now completed. He saw that the doctrine of “salvation by works” had covered Christendom with darkness, and that the opposite doctrine, “salvation by grace,” could alone cover it with light. He began to burn with a vehement desire to spread the knowledge of that doctrine in his native land. He could not hide from himself the danger of returning to Scotland, ruled over as it was by a vicious and tyrannical churchman, whose glory and pleasures the diffusion of the gospel would bring to an end. But he must and would brave the danger. He set out, and arriving on his native shore, he took up his abode at the family mansion of Kincavel. It was not to taste repose, much less to enjoy the revenues of his abbacy that he had returned to Scotland; but to engage in a great work, though that work had to be done with the sword of Beatoun hanging above his head.
He began, first of all, to communicate the good news of the recovered gospel to the members of his own family. His elder brother, Sir James Hamilton, who had succeeded to the titles and estates; his brother’s wife, Isabella Sempill, who belonged to an ancient Scottish family; his sister, who in decision and elevation of character resembled himself; and especially his mother, the widow of a knight who in his day had been the mirror of Scottish chivalry all opened their hearts to the truth now communicated to them by their young-relative, and in later life gave good proof of the sincerity of their conversion.
After his kinsfolk, his neighbors were his next care. He visited the houses of the gentry in the neighborhood, where his birth, the grace of his manners, and the fame of his learning made him at all times welcome, and he talked with the inmates on the things that belonged to their peace. He began to preach in the “churches of the surrounding villages, and among his audience might be seen priests from Linlithgow and ladies of noble birth. The common people liked to gather round him; nor did he wait till they came to him; he went forth into the field in quest of them, and joining himself to groups of laborers as they rested in the heat of the day, he would explain to them the mysteries of the kingdom, and exhort them to press into it.
Waxing yet bolder, he entered the church of St. Michael, Linlithgow, and there, amid its images and altars, preached the gospel. Linlithgow was then the Versailles of Scotland, although its palace boasts a much greater antiquity than that of Louis XIV, and members of the royal family would at times come to hear the young reformer. Avoiding declamation, he discoursed with that simplicity and chastity of speech which was best fitted to win its way with such an audience as was now before him; Knowest thou what this saying means,” would he say, “Christ died for thee? Verily that thou should have died perpetually, and Christ, to deliver thee from death, died for thee, and changed thy perpetual death into his own death, for thou made the fault and he suffered the pain. . . . He desires nothing of thee but that thou wilt acknowledge what he hath done for thee, and bear it in mind; and that thou would help others for his sake, even as he helped thee for nothing and without reward.”
Among his hearers was a maiden of noble birth, whose heart the gospel had touched. Won by her virtues and graces, and disobeying the commandment which the pope had laid on priests, “thou shalt not marry,” seeing in it, as Luther did, an affront to God’s institution, and a source of enormous pollution to society, he asked this lady to be his wife. The marriage was celebrated but a few weeks before his martyrdom.
On the other side of the Firth of Forth, its towers almost visible from the spot where the young reformer was daily engaged in evangelizing, was the archiepiscopal palace of Dunfermline, where Archbishop Beatoun was at that moment residing. Tidings of the young evangelist’s doings were wafted across to that watchful enemy of the gospel. Beatoun saw at a glance the necessity and yet the difficulty of taking steps to stop the work that was in progress.
Had Hamilton been an ordinary evangelist the case would have been a very simple one; but here was a preacher with royal blood in his veins, and “all the Hamiltons at his back,” throwing down the gage of combat to the hierarchy. What was the head of that hierarchy to do? He could not send men-at-arms to seize Patrick, and yet he could not suffer him to go on undermining the Papacy and preparing its fall: he in must in some way or other waylay him and dispatch him. The cruel and crafty Beatoun, after consulting with his fellow priests, hit on a device which succeeded but too well.
We will cover the final outcome in Patrick’s life in “The Proto-Martyr of Scotland, Patrick Hamilton. Part Two, His Martyrdom.
Taken from, The Scots Worthies, Their Lives
Written by, J.A. Wylie