6 MIN READ TIME
St Andrews has been the main religious centre of Scotland since the medieval period. It’s no surprise then that this corner of Fife saw plenty of conflict during the turmoil of the Protestant Reformation and the Covenanter crisis that followed.
Evidence can be found in the cobbles, walls and monuments in and around the town, telling the stories of those who died for their religion.
Patrick Hamilton was one of the very first Protestant preachers in Scotland. A privileged aristocrat, he was destined to be a churchman from a young age, spending time studying in Paris as an abbot. Hamilton could have had a very comfortable life in the Catholic Church, but instead he returned to Scotland with his head full of radical new ideas.
He publicly preached this alternative form of Christianity around St Andrews and Linlithgow, drawing the attention of Archbishop James Deacon. In 1528, Hamilton was arrested and tried for heresy, bravely accepting both his guilt and his death sentence.
The authorities were concerned that if they spent too long preparing for his execution, powerful friends might rescue the condemned man. It was decided that he should be burned at the stake immediately and a pyre was hastily prepared outside St Salvator’s Chapel.
Unfortunately, it was a damp day and the freshly gathered wood burned slowly. Hamilton stood for hours in agony amongst the smouldering pile. To speed things along, the executioners threw gunpowder on the embers which exploded, but still didn’t end his torture.
Eventually, things were too much for poor Hamilton to bear and he pled for death, allegedly crying "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!" Almost immediately the preacher died, but the excruciating pain of his 6-hour burning is said to have left a lasting mark. When the smoke cleared, the impression of a tortured face had appeared on the wall of St Salvator's. That face is still there, directly above the doorway and Patrick Hamilton’s initials set into the cobbles.
If Hamilton’s death was supposed to end the Protestant movement, then it badly failed. Henry Forrest would be executed 5 years later, simply for owning a Bible in English rather than Latin. Next it was George Wishart who would take up the role of preacher to the people.
After speaking extensively around the Lowlands of Scotland, Wishart was eventually captured in Ormiston in 1546. He was dragged to St Andrews and found guilty of heresy, before being burned right outside the castle walls. Just like Patrick Hamilton, initials are set into the cobbles to mark the spot of Wishart’s execution.
St Andrews Castle was home to Cardinal David Beaton who had presided over George Wishart’s fate. Beaton was disliked in Fife even before the preacher’s trial, with many lairds and members of minor nobility holding grudges against the churchman. The death of Wishart brought like minded individuals together and a plot was hatched to get revenge against the Cardinal.
2 months later, a group of Fife lairds managed to sneak into St Andrews Castle, disguised as stonemasons. Quickly making their way to the Cardinal’s private quarters, they found the cowering form of Beaton. Partly in revenge for the fate of George Wishart and partly to further the Protestant cause in Scotland, the Cardinal was stabbed to death before his corpse was hung out of a castle window.
Barricading themselves inside St Andrews Castle, the group of Protestant lairds managed to hold out against a royal siege for 14 months. Eventually, French ships arrived to save the blushes of the
Scottish establishment. Positioning cannons on top of surrounding buildings, they quickly pounded the castle into submission.
Before long, the elderly Walter Myln would follow these men to the flames, barely able to walk but defiant to the end. Just 2 years later and he would have been safe, with Scotland officially becoming a Protestant country.
The violence wasn’t over though, and it wouldn’t be contained inside the town walls either. In the 17th century, a new religious group called the Covenanters had formed. They believed that the Church of Scotland, now headed by the King, had rolled back into something far too similar to Catholicism. Conflict was inevitable and these groups became heavily persecuted by those loyal to the crown.
In 1679, a small band of rebellious Covenanters lay in wait alongside the road to St Andrews, hoping to ambush the Sheriff of Fife. He had been ruthless in attacking those loyal to their cause and they were determined to get revenge. However, somebody had tipped off the Sheriff and he stayed well clear of their trap.
Instead, Archbishop James Sharp’s carriage appeared at the spot now known as Bishop’s Wood. This was the man who gave the Sheriff his orders and the assassins took it as a sign from God. Just one day before his 61st birthday, Sharp was dragged from his carriage, repeatedly stabbed and finally put out of his misery by a shot to the chest.
The killers escaped but somebody would need to be punished for the death of such an influential figure. A few months later, after the Battle of Bothwell Bridge, five captured Covenanters were brought to where Sharp was ambushed. None of them had been involved in the archbishop’s death, but that didn’t matter.
They were offered the chance to sign a bond compelling them to give up their religious practices. Every one of them refused, claiming they would be breaking an oath already made to God. The men were hanged in the woods and left to swing in the wind.
Those Covenanter victims were eventually cut down and buried, their combined grave now standing in a well-tended field. Just a short distance away, Archbishop Sharp is commemorated as a Catholic martyr by a pyramid surrounded by yew trees. Both sides of this tragic story are told, less than 30 metres away from each other in this beautiful patch of woodland.
For 150 years this once peaceful town witnessed more than its fair share of brutal killing, but the era of St Andrews martyrs was finally over.
Storytelling by Scotland's Stories