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Patrick Hamilton (Martyr)

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PatrickHamiltonPortrait, 1645-1730, Wikimedia PD
Patrick Hamilton
Portrait 1645-1730

Patrick Hamilton (1504 – 29 February 1528) was a Scottish churchman and early Protestant Reformer in Scotland. Tried as a heretic by Archbishop James Beaton, he was sentenced to death and burnt at the stake in St Andrews, becoming a martyr and first to be killed for his faith.

Hamilton had been the influential abbot at St Andrews, and brought the reformist teachings of Martin Luther to Scotland.

Luther had been a priest but has turned to teaching and writing about the corruption and false teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. He was shocking people with the shocking declaration that men and women could only get to Heaven by putting their faith in Jesus Christ, not by their good works. He maintained that people should be allowed to read the Bible for themselves, to see if what he was saying was true.

Hamilton was convinced that Luther’s teachings came from the Bible and was converted, but St Andrews was then the centre of Roman Catholicism in Scotland. His new beliefs attracted the attention of Archbishop James Beaton in 1527, and then only aged 23, Hamilton was in no position to take on the Roman Catholic Church, and fled to Germany. There he wrote a book, Patrick’s Places, supporting the belief that people could only be saved through their faith in Christ, not by good works. He was determined to return to his home and to preach the good news, even though he knew his life would be at risk. He did return and began preaching, with his brother and sister both becoming believers, followed by many others followed.

Archbishop Beaton soon became aware of his return and summoned Henderson to appear before him. His accusers had allowed him to preach openly in the university for about a month, hoping this would give them more evidence against him, but this did not go quite as planned, as many important people were converted as a result.

On 29 February 1528, Hamilton was summoned for trial. Refusing to deny his beliefs, he was sentenced to be burnt at the stake the same day as a heretic, for accepting false doctrines.

While burning at the stake was often not as horrific as may be thought, in most cases the sentence was preceded by strangling, in Hamilton's case his killers ensured an agonising death for the heretic. But the very nature of the execution had wide implications, as the tale was repeated and spread through Scotland:

On the 29th of February Hamilton was summoned for trial. He refused to deny his beliefs and was sentenced to be burnt at the stake the same day for being a heretic (accepting false doctrines). His death was slow and painful because the fire kept going out, and it took him six hours to die. His death was a turning point however. Archbishop Beaton was advised that if he had to burn any more heretics, he should do it in deep cellars so that no-one would know, because ‘the reek of Mister Patrick Hamilton has infected as many as it blew upon’. His courage, brilliance and gentleness inspired many. Throughout Scotland, as people heard of his death, they began to ask why it had happened. The teaching of God's Word, instead of dying, spread.

- Patrick Hamilton at Reformation History.[1]

The student curse

Patrick Hamilton's initials, 2012
Patrick Hamilton's initials
© kim traynor

The Lutheran scholar and Protestant martyr Patrick Hamilton's initials are marked out in setts outside St Salvator's Church in North Street, his place of execution in 1528.

Hamilton's last words were: "How long, O Lord, shall darkness overwhelm this realm? How long wilt thou suffer this tyranny of men? Lord Jesus receive my spirit!"

As he died, Hamilton is also said to have unleashed a curse on future students of St Andrews who might set foot on the place where he burned.

While this further story of the a curse seems unlikely (why would Hamilton curse the students, since they were not his accusers or killers), other than as a modern invention, students traditionally avoid stepping on the monogram.

St Andrews students are warned to not step on the stone 'PH' initials set into the ground near the entrance to St Salvator’s chapel and quadrangle, as the misstep could result in exam failure, or even the loss of a degree, if the offender is a final year student.[2]


1 Reformation History Retrieved February 11, 2017.

2 Saint Salvador's Unlucky PH – Saint Andrews, Scotland | Atlas Obscura Retrieved February 11, 2017.

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