Patrick Hamilton: the beginning of the Scottish Reformation
Although there was one clear moment in August 1560 when Protestantism was formally established in Scotland, it did not appear out of nowhere. As early as the 1520s, publications spreading the ideas of Luther had reached Scottish shores and were banned by Act of Parliament. Early Lutheran Protestantism in Scotland, and the Catholic church’s own attempts at reform and control, are much less familiar today than the memory of Knox and his Calvinist beliefs, so one of the things we wanted to do with this exhibition was to show the evidence for both Protestantism and Catholicism in the first half of the 16th century.
Which brings me to Patrick Hamilton. According to John Knox, the history of the Scottish Reformation began with Patrick Hamilton (c.1504-1528). Intellectually brilliant, Hamilton exemplified much about the late medieval Catholic church, and his early career is absolutely typical of many young men of his class. He was the younger son of a baronet, connected to the King himself through his mother’s family. As a younger son he was destined for the church, and as a teenager was appointed Abbot of Fearn in Ross-shire because of his noble family connections.
But Hamilton soon came under the influence of the new Lutheran ideas. He fled to Germany where he met Luther, and wrote Latin theses which clearly set out his belief in justification by faith alone. After he returned to Scotland, he was brought before the religious authorities, found guilty of heresy, and burned at the stake, still under twenty-five years old. This dramatic case brought the Protestant cause to Scottish attention.
Hamilton’s writings, however, were not published during his lifetime. Although printing had begun in Scotland in 1508, it seems to have been on hiatus during the 1520s, so his works could not have been printed in Scotland - and would probably never have been licensed by the government because they would have been seen as heretical.
But Hamilton’s theses did reach a wider audience. The English reformer John Frith, who might have known Hamilton in Germany, was one of the many early Protestants who were influenced by them. He translated them into English under the title ‘Patrick’s Places’ (that is, ‘commonplaces’ or theses). They were published in Antwerp at a time when they would have been banned everywhere in the British Isles for their Lutheran ideas, and it is this Antwerp edition which we have displayed in our exhibition (Patrick Hamilton, [Patrick’s Places, tr. John Frith. Antwerp: S. Cock, 1531?], shelfmark Ry.III.h.37). The story of Hamilton’s life and his teachings were also spread in a book I hope to write about in more detail later on, John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.
- Patrick Hamilton and John Frith in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (accessible through NLS licensed digital collections)
- A nineteenth-century edition of Patrick’s Places freely available through Google Books
- Patrick Hamilton in an online edition of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs
- See images of the Antwerp edition of Patrick’s Places through Early English Books Online (EEBO, accessible through NLS licensed digital collections)