Patrick Hamilton was born in about 1504 on his father’s estate Stonehouse in Lanarkshire. His father, Sir Patrick Hamilton, was a night of the realm. So famed were his exploits that he had three separate chroniclers and was considered first amongst the nights of the realm.
Patrick’s grandfather on his mother’s side was Alexander, duke of Albany, second son of James II of Scotland. Royal blood flowed in his veins from both sides of the family. His uncles grew to be some of the most powerful men in Scotland during their lifetimes.
Valour was his heritage, prestige came by his birth but honour and praise would finally come by his death and outdo all of these other claims to fame.
The environment of his upbringing provided him with the greatest of education, refinement and cultivation. From his youth he was marked out for labour in the church. At about 13 years old he received the abbacy of Ferme, in Ross-shire, making him an Augustinian abbot with an income, although title and position meant nothing to him and he never resided in office or wore the garb of a monk. In fact in later years it was said that “such was his hatred to monkish hypocrisy that he never assumed the monastic habit.”
As a result of the finance produced by this position he was enabled at the age of 14 to go to France for further Schooling at the college of Montaigu in Paris. It was at this very time that Luther was beginning to stir in Germany. In 1519 his writings and his debate with Eck were brought to Paris for two years of study and debates after which, on 15th April 1521, Luther’s writings were condemned publicly before the students of every nation and Luther was proclaimed a heretic.
It was during Hamilton’s stay in Paris that this great contention was stirring and brewing and blowing through the college amongst lecturers and students alike. He could not but help hear the questions, challenges and rebukes put forth against a decadent church. But this short period of open study sowed the seeds of scriptural truth within Hamilton’s heart. It was just after this time in the years 1521-22 that Luther, while in hiding, translated the Bible into the German language.
After receiving his master’s degree in 1520 in Paris, Hamilton went to the University of Louvain in Holland which was the leading school of Europe where Latin, Greek and Hebrew were taught. It was here that he sat as a student under Erasmus who was one of the most brilliant thinkers of the age as well as a scholar of tremendous ability. He had published his new translation of the Greek New Testament in 1516 with other editions following over the next several years which were eagerly used in the college in Paris and Louvain.
The various national translations of the scriptures into the language of the people started and fuelled fires all across Europe which indeed spread out in every direction. Those learned enough could easily study the text in Latin, Greek and Hebrew as well as their own tongue.
Erasmus was calling for improvements in the order of the existing church whereas Luther was calling for a sweeping reform that would replace the rotten system of churchiantity with the biblical order, practice and doctrine of the apostles of Jesus Christ. “Thoughtful men had to make their choice between the branch reformation of Erasmus and the root reformation of Luther.” Erasmus forged weapons which Luther and others used in reform. Both these men had a profound influence upon Hamilton.
Upon his return to his homeland after his six years of study abroad, Hamilton joined St. Mary’s College at St. Andrews on the 9th June 1523 as a graduate student and teacher. St. Andrews was the ecclesiastical capital of Scotland and its university was the oldest and largest in the land.
The following year he joined the faculty of arts and showed a flare and gift for music. He composed a mass in honour of the angels. He certainly was devout, religious and enthusiastic but as yet his convictions did not lead to a denial of Catholic tradition or a rejection of popish paganism.
The Church of Scotland in those days was immoral, corrupt, blood-stained and illiterate in the knowledge of God’s Law and Word. The young prior of the monastery, Patrick Hepburn, boasted frequently of his adulterous relationships with married woman and of outdoing all in his escapades. Not even Beaton could bring him to heal over such matters. This is one of many such incidents in the centres of Scottish religious power. Such things could not have escaped Hamilton’s sharp notice.
At the end of 1524 Luther’s writings created something of a stir upon reaching Scottish shores by smugglers. After they were found in St. Andrews, Linlithgow, Aberdeen and other areas it was brought to the attention of parliament and church alike. In July 1525 the church prelates by the authority of King James V stated,
"Forasmuch as the damnable opinions of heresy are spread in divers countries by the heretic Luther and his disciples...therefore, that no manner of person, stranger, that happens to arrive with the ships within any part of this realm, bring with them any books or works of said Luther's, his disciples or servants — dispute or rehearse his heresies or opinions, unless it be to the confusion thereof, under pain of escheating of their ships and goods, and putting of their persons in prison. And that this act will be published and proclaimed throughout this realm at all ports and burghs of the same, so that they may allege no ignorance thereof.”
This was fuelled all the more by Tyndale’s English translation of the Bible which was brought from the continent by traders for sale in Edinburgh and St. Andrews as early as 1525-26. The written page of Luther’s writings and of Tyndale’s English scriptures laid a foundation but what was needed was a prepared man to herald aloud the gospel in the Scots tongue.
It was nothing strange in those days for a man to be an abbot without being a monk. During his time at St. Andrews it seems that Hamilton received ordination as a priest. The legal age of admittance to the priesthood was 25 but Hamilton was 23 at most which shows the impression his learning, devotion and maturity made on those who met him, especially the church higher-arch. A friend later said “To testify the truth, he sought all means, and took upon him priesthood (even as Paul circumcised Timothy to win the weak Jews) that he might be admitted to preach the word of God.” This was the only means he knew of at that time to be a preacher of the gospel and to work a change for good in the church.
The year 1526 was to be a glorious year. Patrick Hamilton began to give vent to the fire that had been stored up in his bones over recent years. It was time to preach aloud those truths that he had come to learn and experience in such a real and deep way. The Gospel of Jesus Christ was the only hope for darkened Scotland and he must preach justification by faith through the precious Blood of Jesus Christ.
By setting forth God’s Word he exposed the hypocrisy, sin, falsehood and barrenness of the Church of Scotland. One of his greatest and most marked characteristics which undergirded his contending from the very beginning was his courteous manner to friend and foe alike.
By early 1527 he came under the scrutinizing attention of Archbishop James Beaton who gave space in allowing Hamilton to continue preaching only in order to gather evidence for his condemnation. Hamilton took full liberty during this short period to fuel the fires of truth in the hearts of many by bold clear scriptural preaching.
He had only just begun in the great task of preaching and of reforming the Church of Scotland whenever moves were made to stop his mouth.
Refuge in Germany
By 1527 it was clear that Beaton intended to see him dead, so in April of that year Hamilton fled to Germany with two faithful companions and a servant. The fame of God’s work springing out of Wittenberg had been made known across Europe and so Hamilton made his way to this place of refuge and revival, and sat under the great reformation preachers Martin Luther and Philip Melanchthon.
There in Wittenberg and the surrounding region he looked upon a town stripped of superstition and tradition as well as large church congregations fervently singing aloud the truth of God. He listened to Luther’s fiery and compelling expositions and he sat amongst zealous students who had come from across Europe to hear God’s Word. Luther’s translation of the New Testament was read and carried by most along the streets.
When terrible sickness broke out in Wittenberg in May of that year these Scottish friends made their way to the new University of Marburg armed with letters of introduction where they enrolled on the 30th of May with a hundred other students under the tuition of Francis Lambert. He had previously been a notable divine in a monastery in Avignon in France but when he embraced the Reformation he had to flee for his life to Wittenberg.
This great teacher said of Hamilton that his “...learning was of no common kind for his years, and his judgment in divine truth was eminently clear and solid. His object in visiting the University was to confirm himself more abundantly in the truth; and I can truly say that I have seldom met with any one who conversed on the Word of God with greater spirituality and earnestness of feeling.”
At this very same time William Tyndale fled arrest at Worms where he had published two editions of his new English version of the New Testament and came to Marburg for refuge along with his close friend and assistant John Frith. It was here that they continued in their work on the Old Testament. It was in this environment that Hamilton enjoyed rich fellowship with these men of God.
Hamilton became a thorough student of Luther’s writings. Seeing his great ability Lambert greatly encouraged Hamilton to write, debate and teach. It was here in this university surrounded by great friends, examples and encouragement that he wrote what he called Diverse Fruitful Gatherings of Scripture Concerning Faith and Works. This was later renamed Patrick’s Places. This Latin work was later translated by Frith into English and inserted into Fox’s Book of Martyrs.
A little taste of his writings from this work will give you some insight to the message he preached the following year in Scotland:
“The law saith to the sinner. Pay thy debt; the Gospel saith, Christ hath paid it. The law saith, Thou art sinner, despair, thou shalt be damned; the Gospel saith, Thy sins are forgiven thee, be of good comfort, thou shalt be saved. The law saith, Make amends for thy sins; the Gospel saith, Christ hath made it for thee. The law saith, The Father of heaven is angry with thee; the Gospel saith, Christ hath pacified Him with His blood. The law saith, Where is thy righteousness, goodness, and satisfaction? The Gospel saith, Christ is thy righteousness, goodness, and satisfaction. The law saith, Thou art bound and obliged to me, to the devil, and to hell; the Gospel saith, Christ hath delivered thee from them all.”
Little did these three men Tyndale, Frith and Hamilton realise that their martyrdoms were not far off. In the providence of God these three men from Britain were brought together in Germany but would very shortly seal their testimonies for God’s truth by their very lives.
Back to Scotland
Although his two friends begged him to remain in the safety of Germany with them, he was compelled to go forth and preach the gospel of free grace to his own countrymen. After six months in Germany and accompanied with his servant he returned to the family home at Kincavel. His first fruits of genuine converts were among his own family circle beginning with his own widowed mother and followed by his brother and sister. As a result of his initial preaching in the area, monks at Kelso were stirred to anger and distress.
He very soon married a young lady, obviously influenced by Luther’s example who had married only just before Hamilton had visited Wittenberg. We can be most sure that she was amongst his first influx of evangelical converts and so fitted for such a marriage. It is a pity that we do not know her name for she was similar in upbringing and background. They had only one daughter called Isabel who was born after Hamilton’s death. It was to be a very short marriage.
He was a compelling evangelist who turned many from dead religion and tradition to the person of Jesus Christ. He knew his time was short so he gave himself to this one task of preaching in ever widening circles. Not even a new marriage could hinder this primary task and calling.
“A Lutheran missionary, with royal blood in his veins, and all the power of the Hamiltons at his back, was a more formidable heretic in Scotland than Luther himself would have been.”
So alarming was the influence of the gospel in the nation that year that an act of parliament was added stating that the same punishment would be given to Scotch Lutherans as to foreign Lutherans. This preaching of justification by faith was no longer a foreign heresy but was held tenaciously by Scots men and women.
Archbishop Beaton called for Hamilton to attend discussions in St. Andrews on the state and condition of the Church in Scotland. A trap was being weaved. Because of Hamilton’s prestigious family background Beaton had to walk very carefully and cleverly in all his actions of drawing this young firebrand to his death. His first task was to get him to St. Andrews where Beaton had his stronghold of support.
Before leaving home to go meet with Beaton’s council, Hamilton predicted to his relatives that he would not live long. He knew the end was near. Amidst pleadings strong pleadings from them he insisted that he must go.
Upon his arrival in mid January 1528 at St. Andrews he was housed in the castle in comfort. Over the next weeks he was involved in several private conferences with Beaton and his prelates in which they drew him out in gathering evidence for his own condemnation but all the time seeming to admit much truth in what he said of the need for reform in the church.
Hamilton also used the time well to preach openly and freely in the university and wherever he pleased both publicly and privately. It was his great joy to proclaim the pure gospel of Christ in the very heart of ecclesiastical Scotland without restraint. Some came to him with the motive of catching him out and to report his words; others came to persuade and win him back to the mother church; and still others came hungry for truth. The price for doing so would be his life.
He confounded a great many who had gathered to oppose him and converted one of the most esteemed old theologians amongst them who had no answer for his scriptural-logic which burnt with Holy Ghost fire. After a month of such contending and gospel preaching’s he was required to appear before Beaton on trial for heresy. It was strongly rumoured that Beaton had hoped that Hamilton would flee for his life when hearing of the danger, but he most certainly was not going to do so.
When his friends pleaded for him to flee he confessed his willingness and determinations to remain and die for the truth’s sake as a martyr of Jesus Christ.
Trial & Death
His teachings were studied and tested by a private council of theologians who condemned him as a heretic. He was arrested by an armed band and taken to the castle. When his brother, Sir James, caught wind of what was happening he immediately raised an armed band in order to rescue his brother. It was only due to a strong storm on the Firth of the Fourth that he was hindered from reaching St. Andrews in time to save his brother.
Other lairds who had been deeply affected by Hamilton’s ministry also made preparations to aid him from being harmed. When news of this reached Beaton he called several thousand horsemen from the surrounding country to stand guard at St. Andrews and he also made haste in his work that day.
The national clergy also prevailed upon the young King James V to take a religious pilgrimage to Ross-shire so as to be unattainable to intervene in what was about to be done. The stage was set, the time was right. On the last day of February Hamilton was presented to a court of bishops, abbots, priors, and doctors for a tribunal of heresy held in the monastery.
The charges, accusations and condemnations were read to Hamilton by an appointed Friar seven of which were taken from his writings. Hamilton soon confounded the Friar in a calm manner holding forth the written Scripture upon every point as his only confession and profession. As the crowd laughed the poor Friar eventually turned to the high churchmen for help.
A number of these churchmen were immoral men who had fathered a number of children outside of wedlock. Such was the corruption of this case against an innocent righteous godly man. It was this gross corruption by church leaders that brought scandal across the land concerning its so-called church. While such men went into harlots at night they persecuted those who read God’s Word during the day.
He was then condemned and led away by a very large guard to the castle prison under order to be confined there until the performance of his punishment. Immediately after the trial a stake was prepared for his burning outside the front gate of St. Salvator's College. At noon he was marched to the place of burning carrying only a copy of the four gospels in his right hand. Upon reaching the spot he lifted his eyes to heaven and made silent prayer.
In the speed of things he had not been removed from the orders of the priesthood as was normal. When offered his life and called upon to recant by the archbishops men he was able to answer clearly with true conviction,
“As to my confession, I will not deny it for awe of your fire, for my confession and belief is in Christ Jesus. Therefore I will not deny it; and I will rather be content that my body burn in this fire for confession of my faith in Christ than my soul should burn in the fire of hell for denying the same. But as to the sentence pronounced against me this day by the bishops and doctors, I here, in the presence of you all, appeal contrary the said sentence and judgment given against me, and take me to the mercy of God.”
After being bound to the stake by an iron chain he began to pray fervently that God would grant mercy to those who persecuted him, for those deceived and blind in the crowd, and for himself that he might be found faithful to die a martyr’s death. The executioner lit some gun powder which hung around his neck, which once ignited scorched him but nothing else.
With three men attempting to stir the fire and others going to fetch more material from the castle the work was slow. The wind and light rain helped little with the task of martyrdom. With the fire burning low the pain was great and the death long and lingering. During this short time as he paid the ultimate sacrifice, he preached, prayed, exhorted and rebuked while friars and monks reviled him and called upon him to recant and worship Mary.
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!”
The execution lasted for six hours until his body was reduced to ashes. This firebrand twenty-four year old paid the greatest price and showed the greatest love in order that a corrupt church could be reformed, purged and revived out of the ashes of sin, superstition, tradition and decadence.
One eye witness said during the whole time of suffering “the martyr never gave one sign of impatience or anger, nor ever called to heaven for vengeance on his persecutors. So great was his faith, so strong his confidence in God!” It was said at that time that “the smoke of Patrick Hamilton infected all it blew on.” Pinkerton said that, “the flames in which he expired were in the course of one generation to enlighten all Scotland, and to consume with avenging fury the Catholic superstition, the papal power, and the prelacy itself.”
It is no wonder then that when news of his death reached Germany, Lambert from Marburg called him Scotland’s “first and illustrious apostle.” He was the first Scottish Martyr of the Reformation but not the last. As a result of Hamilton’s burning a great flood of New Testaments entered the land, were dispersed and were read widely.
Only a few weeks later Archbishop Beaton held a celebration party to which he invited the young King and other dignitaries to rejoice over the death of this great saint. Hamilton’s brother, Sir James Hamilton was excommunicated and banished, with his lands and goods confiscated for the possession of the crown and so fled to England. In later years his sister Katherine became a fugitive for the sake of the gospel.
From amongst the black friars men of God arose who began to preach the true gospel with power and who rebuked sin in high places. Men like George Wishart and Andrew Melville soon followed as great voices and leaders in the land who carried the work of God forward in seeing the light of the Gospel descend and spread upon the nation.
Others gained courage and were also martyred over the following decades for their love of Jesus Christ and for His written Word. On the seafront at St. Andrews stands a large monument to the protestant martyrs who died between 1528 and 1558 in St Andrews, with Hamilton’s name first in the list.
When John Knox came to write the history of the Scottish Reformation he began with the life of Patrick Hamilton. He wrote of the Martyrs death, “When these cruel wolves, had, as they supposed, clean devoured the prey, they find themselves in worse case than they were before; for then within St. Andrews, yea, almost within the whole realm, there was none found who began not to inquire, Wherefore was Master Patrick Hamilton burnt?...And so within short space many began to call in doubt that which before they held for a certain verity.”
Precursors of Knox or Memoirs of Patrick Hamilton by Peter Lorimor (1857)
The Scots Worthies by John Howie (1870)
Scottish Heroes of the Faith by George W.T. McGown (1907)
Patrick Hamilton – The First Lutheran Preacher and Martyr of Scotland by William Dallmann (1918)