MANY people hold the view that the Reformation in Scotland was a quick affair, more or less completed in a few months in 1560, and there’s no doubt that year was pivotal in the Scottish Reformation, not least because the Parliament in Edinburgh passed the three Acts that were intended to abolish the Roman Catholic religion in Scotland.

Long before then, however, a great many Reformers had brought the teachings of Martin Luther and John Calvin to Scotland, and Glasgow played a crucial role in the Reform process that really began in the mid-1520s. A monk and theologian, Luther had published his ‘Ninety-Five Theses’ attacking the basis of much of Catholicism in 1517, and within two years copies of the Theses and translations of them were circulating as far and wide as Italy and England.

The growing humanist movement of the early 16th century soon had followers in Scotland, while many scholars in the relatively new universities in Glasgow and Aberdeen had come under humanist influence while studying in France and the Netherlands. John Major, for example, taught at Glasgow University that the Pope could be overruled by a General Council and that the people were sovereign in the state, just as the Declaration of Arbroath had stated 200 years earlier. Very controversial in its day…

The Scottish people, and not least the nobles, were heartily sick of the activities of many bishops, priests and monks who were undoubtedly avaricious and often immoral, even if subsequent historians have greatly over-emphasised their sins. The Scottish church was nowhere near as greedy as the church was in other countries, but the people were sick of being told to follow lives of poverty and chastity by prelates and priests who practised neither. The teachings of Luther thus found a willing audience in parts of Scotland, but the intertwined Church and State hit back hard.

With Glasgow’s Archbishop Gavin Dunbar to the fore, the Parliament in Edinburgh voted in July, 1525, to ban Luther’s works from importation into Scotland. The reason was simple – Parliament wanted to halt “the dampnable opunyeounes of heresy spred in diverse cuntreis, be the heretik Luthere and his discipillis.”

The law stated that no strangers arriving by ship into Scotland could bring any of Luther’s books or express Lutheran opinions on pain of ‘suitable’ punishment. The accepted ‘suitable’ punishment for heresy was death by fire.

Both Archbishop Dunbar and his predecessor James Beaton, who had become Archbishop of St Andrews, were determined that the church in Scotland would not be subject to the Protestant Reformation. Indeed as far back as 1494, Beaton had tried to destroy a small religious sect, the so-called Lollards of Kyle, but King James IV resisted Beaton’s pleas and the Lollards were allowed to go home on promise of good conduct. Now 30 years later and assisted by King James V’s early zeal for maintaining church laws, Beaton and Dunbar went to war against anyone even discussing the theories of Luther and his followers.

John Knox in his self-serving book The History of the Reformation of Religion in Scotland pinpoints the true start of the reform process in Scotland as the trial and execution of Patrick Hamilton, generally considered to be the first Scottish Protestant martyr, who was a native of Glasgow diocese. Ironically, given his later protests against the church’s profligacy with other people’s lands and resources, the young Patrick Hamilton was made the titular abbot of Fearn Abbey in Ross-shire which gave him the money he needed to study at the University of Paris from which he graduated in 1520.

The Archbishops of Glasgow and St Andrews were considerable rivals but on February 29, 1528, they conspired together to kill Hamilton. As a well-educated young member of a noble family – his mother was granddaughter of James II – with a gift for words and oratory, Hamilton was just the sort of person who could inspire a revolution and after studying directly under Luther in Wittemberg in Germany, he returned to Scotland fired up with zeal.

He took up residence in St Andrews University and became a popular figure there, not least because he composed music for church services. Beaton let it be known that he was observing Hamilton with a view to prosecuting him for heresy so the young man fled to the Continent only to return in 1527, almost certainly knowing the fate that awaited him.

Dunbar, far from assisting this preacher from his own Glasgow diocese, actively joined in the persecution of Hamilton. They accused him among other things of saying that church laws did not need to be obeyed as he considered them to be human, not divine, in origin. Tricked into meeting Beaton, Hamilton was seized, subjected to a peremptory trial which featured a disputation with a Glaswegian Dominican Friar called Campbell.

The ‘trial’ was of the show variety and the conclusion foregone. With Dunbar signing

his death warrant along with Beaton, Hamilton was condemned to be burned at the stake in St Andrews.

John Knox recounts that the fire took an age to catch ablaze. He wrote: “When at last this was kindled, with loud voice he cried, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit! How long shall darkness overwhelm this realm? And how long wilt Thou suffer this tyranny of men?” The fire was slow, and therefore was his torment the more.”

It took six hours to incinerate Hamilton’s body. Glasgow diocese and Scotland thus had its first Protestant martyr who was just 24. It was said that the “reek of Hamilton” inspired the reformation process to quicken.

Friar Campbell returned to Glasgow where, apparently overcome by guilt at his role in the trial, he died “in a frenzy” as Knox puts it, just a few days later. Hamilton, meanwhile, is commemorated by a stone motif using his initials which is seen in the cobbles outside St Salvator’s in St Andrews at the spot where he was executed.

Hamilton would not be the last martyr for his cause. Next week we’ll show how Archbishop Dunbar and James Beaton’s nephew David, continued the Catholic Church’s war of terror on the Protestant Reformers, and we will learn how Glasgow saw burnings of its own citizens.