A Spotlight on St Andrews: The 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation

Five hundred years ago, on 31st October 1517, a young German priest named Martin Luther wrote a spirited letter to his bishop which would alter the course of the religious history of Europe. Luther, at the time newly ordained and holding two doctorates in theology and biblical studies, was deeply concerned about the Papacy’s practice of selling indulgences (certificates offering reduced time in purgatory) to raise funds for the rebuilding of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. His grievances with the Catholic Church soon became numerous and Luther, via the dissemination of his countless treatises thanks to the advent of the printing press, gained followers throughout the continent and the British Isles, not least in Scotland. The university town of St Andrews, which at that time had the largest cathedral in the country making it a principal centre of Catholicism, was inevitably drawn into the events leading to the Protestant Reformation. Although the university’s three colleges, St Salvator’s, St Leonard’s and St Mary’s, were originally founded to defend Catholicism against heresy, they became places of debate where knowledge of reformist ideas began to convert students. Theological debate was inflamed by the availability of Lutheran books which were smuggled into Scotland via the ports at Edinburgh and St Andrews. It was the following events in sixteenth-century St Andrews, and those who played a part in them, which propelled Scotland into a new age and which are still remembered to this day.

portrait-of-martin-luther-as-an-augustinian-monk
Portrait of Martin Luther when he was an Augustinian Canon.

As Lutheran ideals began to bleed into Scottish society, several individuals fervently sought to spread the new doctrine in St Andrews and its surrounding areas. Threatened with excommunication and even death, four men, Patrick Hamilton, Henry Forest, George Wishart and Walter Mylne, were condemned by university and cathedral officials and executed for their beliefs. Hamilton was the first to be burnt at the stake; having studied in Paris and Germany where he wrote treatises against the efficacy of good works and indulgences, he returned to Scotland in 1527 as a Lutheran sympathiser and preached around Linlithgow. The archbishop of St Andrews, James Beaton, set up an inquiry into Hamilton’s behaviour and, after initially releasing the priest, sentenced him to death on 29th February 1528 after he refused to cease preaching. Hamilton was burnt outside St Salvator’s College; the execution was slow and horrific with Hamilton suffering for some six hours before succumbing to death. The place where he died is marked by the letters PH, and it is thought that university students today who step on this mark bring bad luck upon themselves for their exams (hardly surprising given the gruesome history of the spot).

“My Lord, yf ye burne any mo, except ye follow my counsall, ye will utterlye destroy your selves. Yf ye will burne thame, lett thame be brunt in how [deep] sellarris; for the reik of Maister Patrik Hammyltoun hes infected as many as it blew upoun.”

John Lindsey to Beaton (Knox, History, ed. Laing, 1.42)

The second Protestant preacher to die in the town was Henry Forest in 1533, who was convicted for owning a copy of the New Testament in English. He had also openly declared that Patrick Hamilton had died a martyr and ascended into heaven. Forest, like all those executed for their Protestant beliefs, was tried in the cathedral, and once he had been found guilty of heresy was executed at its north door. It is said that this was a deliberate decision made by his judges who desired that smoke and debris from the pyre would travel up the coast towards Angus. This coastline was home to many reformist-leaning villages and Archbishop Beaton wanted to inform their inhabitants of the fate that awaited them should they continue in their heretical beliefs.

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The third reformer to be tried, George Wishart, had in 1538 already got himself into trouble with local authorities in Bristol, who imprisoned him for a time on charges of heresy. Having been released due to popular unrest at Protestant suppression, Wishart went into exile on the continent and, like Hamilton before him, became learned in the doctrine of the new faith. Returning to Scotland in the summer of 1543, he performed the Lord’s prayer in the vernacular in direct opposition to Catholic teaching. The new Archbishop of St Andrews, James Beaton’s nephew Cardinal David Beaton, sent a priest, John Wigton, to assassinate Wishart while he was preaching in Dundee. The attempt failed, but Wishart was soon brought for inquiry before the cardinal, where he denied the intercession of saints and purgatory, since these were not found in scripture. He was condemned, hanged and burned outside St Andrews Castle, the seat of the cardinal’s power in Scotland, on 1st March 1546. But by this time popular opinion had turned and many who were sympathetic to reform were outraged by Wishart’s murder.

As a direct result of his martyrdom, in the early hours of 29th May 1546 St Andrews Castle was seized by Protestant rebels. Disguised as masons the group, led by the son of the Earl of Rothes, entered the castle and killed the porter before gaining access to Cardinal Beaton’s rooms. There they murdered him and displayed his body from an artillery blockhouse built by Beaton’s predecessor. The Catholic regent of Scotland, the Earl of Arran, besieged the castle and in late 1546 attempted to break through its defences by excavating a tunnel under the gate tower. This was met by a counter-tunnel dug by the rebels and both can be seen when visiting the castle today. In April 1547 Protestant preacher John Knox joined the rebels in the castle, but soon afterwards a French galley arriving to aid the Catholic forces bombarded the fortress and the rebels were defeated. Knox among others was imprisoned on the galley until he was later freed and returned to Scotland in June 1559.

The last to be executed for his Protestant beliefs was Walter Mylne in 1558. By this time the reformation was gathering speed and followers; Holy Trinity Church on North Street, the main parish church and religious centre of the town’s craft guilds, held both Catholic and Protestant services at different times of the week during the 1540s. Even Archbishop Hamilton’s 1552 catechism, a recall to the true faith written in Scots to attract lapsed Catholics, failed to counter the progress of reform. Mylne had been a priest at Lunan, Forfarshire for more than forty years when he refused to say mass on the grounds that it was idolatrous. Accused as a heretic, he fled to the continent before returning in secret to Scotland in 1556. Upon being discovered in April 1558, Mylne was arrested and sent to St Andrews for trial where the elderly and infirm priest offered a spirited apologia, defending clerical marriage, insisting on only two sacraments, and denying purgatory. Hostile to the burning of the 82-year-old cleric, the townspeople declined to provide materials for the pyre, thereby delaying the execution. On 28th April armed men escorted Mylne to a site in front of the priory of St Andrews where he was burned. The crowd piled stones in Mylne’s memory on the site of his burning, repeating their action after the stones were removed, only to have them taken away a second time.

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Despite the university and the Church’s rigorous condemnation of Protestant beliefs, the popular attitude in St Andrews towards reform had swung in favour of change, and less than a year after Mylne’s execution John Knox returned to fan the flames of the movement. Following a determined speech to a large audience in Holy Trinity church, Knox incited the townsfolk to march on the cathedral and strip it of its finery. St Salvator’s too was robbed of its statues and interior decoration and by 1560 Catholic services there had stopped completely. Instead, reformers ordered college members to worship with the commons in the town kirk instead of standing apart, reinforcing the Protestant belief that priests were not strictly necessary for worship. In 1579 an Act of Scottish Parliament named ‘The New Foundations’ reformed St Salvator’s, St. Leonard’s and St. Mary’s. The first and second were transformed into colleges of art and philosophy, while the latter taught Protestant theology. Interestingly, St Leonard’s, which was the college most sympathetic to reform, was already teaching Reformist theory by 1560. In 1586 Knox wrote his History of the Reformation in Scotland, recording the deeds of the four Protestant martyrs executed in St Andrews and today, an 1843 monument situated on the Scores overlooking West Sands marks their death and significance.

The events which occurred in the turbulent decades of the sixteenth century in St Andrews and the players who were at their centre are worthy of remembrance for their part in advancing Scotland’s development into a Protestant country. Dramatic changes in the way Scottish people practised Christianity, which was central to the daily life of the individual and the community, would also go on to radically transform the face of Scottish government when leading nobles failed to support Scotland’s Catholic Queen Mary. Exiled and eventually executed in 1587, Mary’s staunch Catholicism meant that she had few allies among the Scottish nobility and so was left to the mercy of her captor, her Protestant cousin Elizabeth I of England. But I find that the most significant change to Scottish society to be advanced by the Reformation was a sense of individualism. Not only had Scotland removed itself from the traditional Catholic sense of Christendom and established a more national identity under the reformed faith, but in doing so Scottish Protestantism encouraged the faithful to reflect upon their devotion to God in their own hearts and minds. This was in contrast to the earlier mentality of a collective Catholic community which could only communicate with God through intercession by his saints, which in turn could only be contacted through a priest, and which did not allow for contemplation on one’s own faith. It should be remembered that the Catholic Church was not a homogeneous monolith without its own divisions and deviants, but it was Luther’s belief in salvation as a result of “sole fide” (“faith alone”) which may have allowed every man, woman and even child to begin to think of themselves as an individual with their own relationship with God, their own opinions and their own desires.

Special thanks to St Andrews University Special Collections and Bess Rhodes of St Andrews University School of History.

Want more Reformation goodness? Check out these exhibitions while you still can!

National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh http://www.nls.uk/exhibitions/treasures/the-reformation 

MUSA, St Andrews (permanent collection) https://www.st-andrews.ac.uk/musa/see/

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