Patrick Hamilton was only 24 years old on that fateful day in 1528. A tempest was raging through the streets of St Andrews, home to Scotland’s oldest university and once the resting place of the bones of Scotland’s patron saint. Another storm was raging in the hearts of the Scottish people. The flames which consumed the young Hamilton were about to spill out as raging inferno across the land. The Scottish Reformation had begun, and young Patrick Hamilton was to be its first victim.
The Trial of Patrick Hamilton
Early on the dark morning of the 29th February, in a hastily arranged church council in St Andrew’s Cathedral, Hamilton was brought before Archbishop James Beaton. The young faculty of arts teacher had published a treatise outlining what he saw as corruption within the Catholic church. In addition, he called for the Bible to be made available to the common people who were unable to read Latin.
Hamilton had been sent to the Sorbonne in Paris at the age of thirteen and had obtained the degree of Master of Arts by the time he was sixteen. It was here that he was converted to the teachings of Martin Luther. Not only did he have a brilliant mind, but the blood of kings coursed through his veins. He came from one of the greatest houses in Scotland and as such was more of a threat to Catholicism in Scotland than if Luther had come in person to preach his new religion.
A Hurried Execution
The Archbishop felt threatened by this formidable opponent and set out to make an example of Hamilton. He was tried as a heretic and sentenced to death at the stake. Meanwhile, Patrick’s brother, Sir James Hamilton, was on his way to rescue his sibling. Hamilton had connections. Not only did he come from a rich family, but he was a distant cousin of King James the Fifth of Scotland. Fearing that Hamilton would either be rescued or pardoned, Beaton took the unusual step of having the execution performed on the same day as the trial.
The Execution of Patrick Hamilton
At Noon, the prisoner was led down the cobbled streets to the gates of St Salvator’s College. At the place of execution, Hamilton removed his coat, gown and bonnet and gifted them to his manservant saying, “These will not profit in the fire. They will profit thee.”
Then Hamilton walked with quick and firm steps towards the stake, watched by thousands. Bound and chained to the stake, he was given once last chance to recant. Calmly and with dignity, he maintained his stand for his beliefs. There was no going back.
The Torment of Patrick Hamilton
A train of gunpowder was made and lit, but it was lashing rain and a strong easterly wind blew through North Street. Some of the powder exploded, scorching Hamilton’s hands and head. However, the pyre of coal and faggots had become wet and would not kindle. Men ran to the castle for more powder and wood. Three more attempts were made. Eventually, a slow-burning fire took hold, prolonging the young martyr’s death. As the flames arose, he was taunted by the very man who had betrayed him to the Archbishop: Alexander Campbell, The Black Friar.
His torment lasted for six hours! He died, leaving a young wife and a child named, Isobel.
The Curse of Patrick Hamilton
Today, Hamilton’s initials are depicted in the cobbles where he met his end. And if you look upwards at the Church tower of St Salvator’s you will see what appears to be a face melted into the stone. This is purported to be the image of Hamilton’s face, burned into a brick at the time of his death.
The spot where he died is said to be cursed. Saint Andrew’s passing students tread carefully in this area, for it is said that those who walk over the cobbles will fail their exams.
One person, it seems faced a greater curse. Within days of the martyrdom, the Black Friar died in Glasgow in a state of frenzy and despair.
As for the Archbishop, it soon became apparent that he had made a grave mistake. Rather than silencing Hamilton’s ‘heresy’, he had fuelled the flames of the Protestant Reformation in Scotland.
The curse of Patrick Hamilton is not the only spooky tale to come from St Andrews. Nor would Patrick Hamilton be the last protestant martyr to meet his death in St Andrews at the hands of a Beaton. James Beaton’s nephew would become the infamous Cardinal Beaton but that is a tale for another day.
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