Caledonian Sunday

Service Date: 
26 November, 2017

The Scottish Reformation


Patrick Hamilton was born around 1504, the second son of Sir Patrick Hamilton of Kincavil and Catherine Stewart, daughter of Alexander, Duke of Albany, second son of James II of Scotland. He was born in the diocese of Glasgow, probably at his father's estate of Stanehouse in Lanarkshire, and was most likely educated at Linlithgow. In 1517 he was appointed titular Abbot of Fearn Abbey in Ross-shire. The income from this position paid for him to study at the University of Paris, where he became a Master of Arts in 1520. It was in Paris, where the ideas of Renaissance humanism, critical of aspects of the established Catholic Church, and the writings of Martin Luther, were already exciting much discussion, that he began to learn the doctrines he would later uphold. According to one account, Hamilton subsequently went to Leuven, probably attracted by the fame of Erasmus, who had his headquarters there. On his return to Scotland, Hamilton settled in St Andrews, capital of the Scottish Church and the nation’s foremost seat of learning. On 9 June 1523, he became a member of St Leonard's College, part of the University of St Andrews, and on 3 October 1524 he was admitted to its Faculty of Arts, as a student and then colleague of the humanist and logician John Mair. At the university, Hamilton attained such influence that he was permitted to conduct, as precentor in the cathedral, a musical setting of the Mass which he himself had composed. The reforming doctrines had now obtained a firm hold on the young abbot, and he was eager to communicate them to his fellow-countrymen.

The ideas of the Renaissance and Reformation had begun to reach Scotland towards the end of the fifteenth century. Unlike his uncle King Henry VIII of England, James V of Scotland avoided major structural and theological changes to the Church, instead – I can only use the word “cannily” – using it as a source of income and for appointments for his illegitimate children and favourites. Scotland was therefore much better prepared than England for the teachings of Reformers like Hamilton.

Hamilton had been studying and teaching in St Andrews for over three years when, in 1527, his anti-Roman stance was brought to the attention of James Beaton, Archbishop of St Andrews. Beaton ordered that he be formally tried, but Hamilton fled to Germany, enrolling himself as a student in the brand new University of Marburg, where he probably met fellow fugitive William Tyndale, translator of the first English Bible, among other prominent scholars.

Hamilton returned to Scotland in the autumn of the same year, going first to his brother's house at Kincavel, near Linlithgow, where he preached frequently. There he met and married a young lady of noble rank, whose name is unrecorded. In 1528, he published a book in which he introduced into Scottish theology Martin Luther's rediscovery of the distinction between the Gospel of salvation by grace through faith, and the Law of God which acceptance of God’s grace would lead the believer to seek to fulfil; the book was called, rather charmingly, Patrick’s Places.

Hamilton came of an aristocratic family and had married also well, so Beaton, wishing to avoid any risk of public disorder, invited him to a conference at St Andrews. Hamilton accepted the invitation, and for nearly a month was allowed to preach and dispute, perhaps in order to provide material for accusation. He was summoned before a council of bishops and clergy presided over by the archbishop, and faced with thirteen charges of heresy based on his Lutheran beliefs and teachings. On examination Hamilton maintained their truth, and the council condemned him as a heretic on all thirteen charges. Hamilton was seized and handed over to be burnt at the stake outside the front entrance to St Salvator's Chapel in St Andrews. The sentence was carried out on the same day to preclude any attempted rescue by friends. Today the spot is marked with a monogram of his initials set into the cobblestones of the pavement of North Street; it is also said that, as he burned, an image of his face appeared in the stonework above the archway, and there is in fact a pattern in the stone that looks rather like a face.

James V died in 1542, leaving as his heir the infant Mary, Queen of Scots, and opening the way for a series of English invasions later known euphemistically as the ‘Rough Wooing’.

Archbishop James Beaton was succeeded by his brother, Cardinal David Beaton, who continued a rigorous policy of repression against the Scottish Reformers. In 1546, George Wishart, a New Testament scholar and itinerant preacher from Angus strongly influenced by Ulrich Zwingli, who had already been accused of heresy by the Bishop of Brechin in Scotland and Thomas Cromwell in England, was burned at the stake in St Andrews on Beaton’s orders; his initials can also be seen in the cobblestones on the spot where he died, just outside the entrance to the Bishop’s castle on The Scores.

The executions of Hamilton and Wishart, however, far from discouraging the Scottish Reformers, stimulated the development and spread of their ideas. Wishart's supporters, who included a number of Fife lairds, seized St Andrews castle and assassinated Cardinal Beaton, holding out there for a year before they were defeated with the help of French forces. The survivors, who included one John Knox, were condemned to serve as galley slaves. This repression both stirred up the resentment of the Catholic French and inspired further martyrs for the Protestant cause. In 1549, the defeat of the English with French support led to the marriage of Mary to the French Dauphin and a regency over Scotland for the queen's mother, Mary of Guise.

Limited toleration and the influence of exiled Scots and Protestants in other countries, led to the expansion of Scottish Protestantism, with a group of lairds declaring themselves Lords of the Congregation in 1557, to represent their interests politically. The collapse of the French alliance, the death of the Mary of Guise, and English intervention in 1560, meant that this relatively small but highly influential group of Protestants had the power to impose reform on the Scottish Church. The Scottish Reformation Parliament of 1560 adopted a Protestant confession of faith, rejecting papal jurisdiction and the celebration of the Mass.

John Knox, having escaped the galleys and spent time in Geneva where he became a follower of Calvin, emerged as the most significant figure in this second phase of the Scottish Reformation. The Calvinism of the Reformers, led by Knox, resulted in a settlement that adopted a Presbyterian system and rejected most of the elaborate trappings of the mediaeval Church. When Mary’s husband Francis II died in 1560, the Catholic Mary returned to take the throne of Scotland, but her six-year reign was marred by a series of crises, largely caused by the intrigues and rivalries of the leading nobles. Opposition to her third husband James Hepburn, fourth Earl of Bothwell, led to the formation of a coalition of nobles who captured Mary and forced her abdicate in favour of her son, who came to the throne as James VI of Scotland in 1567. James was brought up a Protestant, but resisted Presbyterianism and the independence of the Kirk, setting out in a series of pamphlets addressed to his son, his firm belief in “the Divine Right of Kings”: a doctrine which is still the official position of the British monarchy even in 2017.

The Reformation resulted in major changes in Scottish society. These included a desire to plant a school in every parish and major reforms of the university system. The Kirk discouraged many forms of plays, as well as poetry that was not devotional in nature; however, significant playwrights and poets did nevertheless emerge. Scotland's ecclesiastical art also paid a heavy toll as a result of Reformation iconoclasm, and craftsmen and artists turned to secular patrons, resulting in the flourishing of Scottish Renaissance painted ceilings and walls. The Reformation revolutionised Church architecture, with new churches built and existing churches adapted for reformed services, particularly by placing the pulpit centrally in the church (this pulpit seems to have slipped a little), as preaching was at the centre of worship. The Reformation also had a severe impact on Church music, with song schools closed down, choirs disbanded, music books and manuscripts destroyed and organs removed from churches (we seem to have slipped up there, too). These were replaced by the congregational singing of psalms, despite attempts of James VI to re-found the song schools and choral singing. Women gained new educational possibilities and religion played a major part in the lives of many women, but there was an attempt to criminalise them through prosecutions for scolding, prostitution and witchcraft (perhaps St Andrews hasn’t slipped so very far!). Scottish Protestantism was focused on the Bible and from the later seventeenth century there would be attempts to stamp out popular activities such as well-dressing, bonfires, guising, penny weddings and dancing. The Kirk became the subject of national pride and many Scots saw their country as a new Israel.

Thus far the Scottish Reformation... For us, it has left a legacy of access to the Bible for everyone, theologies firmly grounded in critical Biblical scholarship, and greatly devolved systems of Church authority and governance. Even its aesthetic iconoclasm has provided us with opportunities, because, it has enabled us to start with something of a clean sheet; we have gradually reclaimed and re-established certain aspects of art and music and ceremony which we now find conducive to our Christian life and worship, but with a much greater appreciation of their value.

Today we remember the struggles of the Scottish Reformation, and the tragedy of those on both sides who lost their lives; but we also recommit ourselves to the vision of a Church filled with the grace and love of God.


Revd Robert Beard BD