Patrick Hamilton

Patrick Hamilton

Patrick Hamilton

(1503-1528, Scotland's first Protestant Martyr)

There is a saying in life (or maybe it was Rutger Hauer in "Bladerunner") that "it is better to have burned brightly and briefly, than never to have shone at all."

We think that Patrick Hamilton would certainly have agreed with the sentiment. Because, interesting though his short life was, it is the manner of his death in February 1528 which really earns him his place within these pages.

Hamilton was sentenced as a heretic to burning at the stake but, far from burning brightly and briefly, the poor chap was made to suffer a slow and agonising death because the people carrying out the sentence screwed up big time.

In a scene that might be laughable were it not so horrific, his executioners underestimated the amount of fuel required to do the job and at the first attempt, with Hamilton still alive but nicely grilled, the fire exhausted itself and petered out.

Amidst much scratching of heads, as the blistered victim writhed and screamed for a merciful end to his suffering, fresh supplies of wood and kindling were called for and the process was resumed, eventually taking six hours to consume the body.

In fairness, the executioners can't really be blamed. After all, nobody had ever burned a heretic before and this was something of a test case. In time, however, the Scottish authorities soon got the hang of it and before very long they were burning Protestant heretics all over the place with well-practiced efficiency, so hurrah for that.

Hamilton was a great grandson of King James II, but in those days Royal connections were no guarantee of protection or immunity from the all-powerful Catholic Church which really ran (and owned) the country.

He studied in Paris where he first came across the work of the leading reformist Martin Luther, whose own writings were burnt at the University (burning was obviously a very popular pastime in the middle-ages) in 1521.

Hamilton returned to Scotland, determined to spread the Lutheran word, and soon attracted the attention of Cardinal Beaton, Scotland's religious patriarch, who was less than delighted with the rising popularity of "dangerous" views such as his.

In January 1528, Beaton invited Hamilton to St.Andrews for a conference, after which he was allowed to openly preach in the town for a month, a surprising concession which should have aroused his suspicions, but didn't. In February, after his month was up, Hamilton was seized, tried and convicted of the crime of heresy, and sentenced to death.

The execution took place in front of St.Salvator's College, and the rest, as they say, is blistery.

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