Whenever Scots are involved in religious conflict, it doesn’t end well. Such was surely the case with George Wishart and David Beaton. Wishart’s martyrdom would leave a lasting legacy, while Beaton’s legacy after his own murder would be chiefly confined to the eight children he sired with his mistress. Such was the state of the Scottish church.
In England, the well-known political and familial machinations of Henry VIII led to a reform of the church in England which was, in many ways, in spite of Henry’s personal convictions. It is within the context of Henry’s break from Rome that two men, both born to Scottish nobility, confronted one another. That confrontation changed the course of the history of Scotland and was the catalyst for reformation there. The details of their lives and deaths are filled with strange ironies, tragic drama and even biblical parallels. And, depending upon one’s perspective, both are considered by their supporters as patriotic and heroic. Our account begins in 1519 in the royal court of France.
David Beaton was on the fast track. Being well-educated in the humane letters and divinity, and being a favorite of James V, he was sent as the Scottish ambassador to the French court. Over the next twelve years, he was charged with countering English intrigues in Paris and strengthening the historic alliance against England. Shortly after Beaton permanently returned to Scotland, George Wishart also re-turned from the Continent (likely Germany). Wishart was also a well-educated nobleman’s son and, in 1538, he began teaching at a newly established school in Montrose on the eastern coast of Scotland. In his possession were copies of the Greek New Testament he brought with him from the Continent and he gave them to his students. His activities were reported and he fled for his own safety to Cambridge. It was there that Wishart met some of the leading lights of the Reformation in England: Miles Coverdale, Thomas Bilney and Hugh Latimer. Cambridge was fertile ground for the Reformed faith and, being a member of the faculty, Wishart secured a license to preach and set about preaching the Reformed doctrines at St. Nicholas Church in Bristol under the protection and auspices of Bishop Cranmer. While many received the message well, powerful forces op-posed him and he was charged with heresy. The charges misrepresented his doctrine, but he relented and escaped with a relatively mild sentence. Nevertheless, he returned to the Continent and, while there, made the first translation into English of The First Helvetic Confession. Meanwhile, Beaton’s star continued to rise in Scotland and France.
In 1537, Beaton was consecrated bishop of Mirepoix, and in 1538 he took the Cardinal’s hat with rights of inheritance to the estates in France as a sign of royal favor. Beaton returned to Scotland with Mary of Guise as bride to King James and assumed the oversight of the diocese of St. Andrews (eventually succeeding his uncle as bishop). The new Cardinal Beaton soon sought to persecute those who had succumbed to the reformed doctrines which had stated to gain ground in Scotland. He was in a unique position to effectively persecute the Reformed faith; he had power and authority in both the church and at court and he used that power to compel recantations and even burn some of the “heretics.” Meanwhile in England, Henry had finally sired a son and he sought to further his interests by negotiating a future marriage for his son, Edward, with the infant Scottish queen, Mary. Scottish commissioners came to Greenwich to negotiate the marriage. Wishart decided to join the commissioners when they returned to Scotland with the intention to preach the faith in his homeland. Wishart found that the cardinal was not inclined to sit idly by, and Wishart was compelled to take refuge in his ancestral home for nearly two years.
After taking refuge and determining that he was compelled to bring the light to his follow Scotsmen, Wishart rented a house near the church in Montrose and began to hold bible studies with whoever came. He then moved to Dundee and publicly read and explained the book of Romans. Once again, Wishart’s labors attracted the attention of Cardinal Beaton and Wishart was forced out of the church and fled Dundee. He returned when a plague broke out shortly thereafter and resumed preaching and ministering to those suffering from the plague. It was at this point that the cardinal decided that he must permanently rid Scotland of Wis-hart. His chosen method was to hire an assassin. A priest in Dundee was hired to wait for Wishart below the pulpit in the church. After preaching to, and dismissing the congregation, Wishart descended the pulpit and saw the priest with the dagger in his hand. Wishart grabbed the assassin and said, “What would you do, my friend?” At that challenge, the priest fell to his knees and begged for mercy! Those who lingered in the church heard the commotion and came to the aid of Wishart and were threatening to take the priest away and kill him. And in a demonstration of mercy, Wishart intervened by saying that, “He who touches him will trouble me.”
The failure of the plot did not hinder the cardinal from trying to silence the troublesome Wishart. Rather, it prompted him to seek another means to silence the one who was starting to have a greater and greater effect. While back in Montrose, Wishart received a messenger who informed him that a good friend was near death and was calling for him. But upon being led out of the town on the provided horse, Wishart suspected that there was something amiss. Some companions rode ahead and found dozens of horsemen lying in wait for him. Once again, the cardinal’s scheme was foiled and Wishart returned to the town.
Wishart’s zeal was not abated and he continued to preach and teach in the countryside moving ever closer to the seat of Beaton’s ecclesiastical and civil authority in Edinburgh. Among some of the nobles of Scotland, Wishart had support and protection, but the Earl of Rothwell, in an attempt to ingratiate himself to the powerful cardinal, betrayed Wishart. Rothwell promised Wishart that he would protect him from the cardinal, but Wishart knew that his fate had been sealed. Rothwell gave him up and Wishart was taken to Edinburgh Castle and thrown in the dungeon. After a quarrel regarding who had the authority to try Wishart, the governor or the cardinal, Cardinal Beaton prevailed. Beaton summoned the bishops to Edinburgh and the trial commenced.
In his biography of Wishart, the Rev. Charles Rodgers records the courtroom scene as follows. It rivals any courtroom scene concocted by Hollywood and the parallels between this courtroom scene and the Savior’s response to His accusers is plain:
Lauder, a priest and member of the Priory, stood forward as accuser. Reading the articles of indictment with unbecoming haste, he demanded of the prisoner an immediate an-swer. After on his knees engaging in solemn prayer, Wishart rose, and said, “Words abominable even to conceive have been ascribed to me, wherefore hear and know my doctrine: Since my return from England, I have taught the Ten Commandments, the Twelve Articles of Faith, and the Lord’s Prayer. In Dundee I expounded St Paul’s Epistle to the Romans; and the manner of my teaching I shall presently explain—”
“Renegade, traitor, and thief!” exclaimed Lauder, “you have been a preacher too long, and have exercised your function without authority.”
The bishops having concurred, Wishart expressed a desire that he might be tried by the governor.
“The cardinal is a judge, more than sufficient for thee,” said Lauder. “Is not my Lord Cardinal Chancellor of Scotland, Archbishop of St Andrews, Bishop of Mirepois, Commendator of Arbroath, legatus natus, and legatus a latere?”—“I do not despise my Lord Cardinal,” rejoined the preacher, “but I desire to be tried by the requirements of Holy Scripture, under the authority of the governor, whose prisoner I am.”
“Such man, such judge,” exclaimed the bystanders, while the cardinal proposed to pronounce sentence.
On further consideration, it was ruled that, better to justify the proceedings, the charges should be read a second time, and the prisoner questioned upon each.
“Renegade, traitor, and thief,” proceeded Lauder, “thou hast deceived the people, and despised Holy Church, and the authority of the governor. Prohibited from preaching in Dundee, thou didst continue. So when the Bishop of Brechin cursed thee, delivered thee to the devil, and commanded thee to cease preaching, thou didst obstinately disobey.”—“I read in Holy Scripture,” answered Wishart, “that we ought to obey God rather than man.”
“False heretic, thou didst say that a priest at the altar saying mass was as a fox in summer wagging his tail.”—“The external motion of the body,” re-plied the preacher, “without grace in the heart, is like the play of a monkey. God searches the heart, and those who truly worship Him must worship Him in sincerity. Such is my teaching.”
“Thou hast falsely taught that there are not seven sacraments,” said Lauder.—“I believe,” replied Wishart, “in those sacraments only which were instituted by Christ, and are set forth in the Holy Gospel.”
“Thou hast denied the Sacrament of Confession, affirming that men ought to confess sin to God, and not to the priest.”—“I teach, my lord,” said Wishart, “that priestly confession has no warrant, but that confession to God is blessed. In the 51st Psalm David makes confession to God, saying, ‘Against Thee, Thee only, have I sinned.’ When St James writes, ‘Confess your faults one to another,’ he counsels us against being high-minded, and so to acknowledge our sinfulness before all. This do not the Grey Friars, who say they are already pure.”
The bishops expressed a strong dissent, while Lauder proceeded to read the fifth article:
“False heretic, thou didst affirm that it was essential that man should understand the nature of baptism.”—“My lord,” said Wishart, “none of you would transact business with one to whose language you were a stranger. So the parent should understand what in baptism he undertakes for his child.”
“Thou hast the spirit of error!” exclaimed a chaplain of the cardinal. Lauder went on:
“False heretic, traitor, and thief, thou didst set forth that the sacrifice of the altar was but a piece of bread, and the consecration of the Eucharist a rite of superstition.”—“Sailing on the Rhine,” replied the preacher, “I met a Jew, with whom I reasoned respecting his religion. ‘Messias, when He cometh, will not abrogate the law as ye do,’ said the Jew; ‘we support our poor, ye allow your needy to perish; we forbid the worship of images, your churches are full of idols; and ye adore a piece of bread, saying it is your God.’ This incident I have related in my public teaching.”
“Read the next article,” interrupted the cardinal.
“False heretic, thou didst affirm that extreme unction was not a sacrament.”—“To, extreme un-ction I referred not in my teaching,” was the preacher’s reply.
“False heretic, thou didst deny the efficacy of holy water, and impugned the cursing of Holy Church.”—“I never estimated the strength of holy water,” said Wishart. “and I cannot commend exorcism or cursing while such have no warrant in the Holy Scripture.”
“False renegade,” proceeded Lauder, “thou hast denied the power of the Pope, and maintained that every layman is a priest.”—“On the authority of the Word,” replied the prisoner, “I taught that believers are ‘a holy priesthood,’ and that those ignorant of the Scriptures, whatever their rank or degree, cannot instruct others; without the key of knowledge, they cannot bind or loose.”
The bishops smiled derisively, while Lauder proceeded with the indictment.
“False heretic, thou hast denied the freedom of the will and taught that man can of himself neither do good nor evil.”—“Not so,” answered the prisoner, “I teach in the words of Holy Scripture: ‘Whosoever co-mmitteth sin is the servant of sin;’ and, ‘If the Son shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed.’ “
“False heretic,” said Lauder, reading the eleventh article, “thou hast said that it is lawful to eat flesh on Friday.”—“In the writings of St Paul I read,” replied Wishart, “ ‘Unto the pure, all things are pure, but unto those that are defiled and unbelieving is nothing pure.’ Through the Word the faithful man sanctifies God’s creatures: the creature may not sanctify that which is corrupt.”
“That is blasphemy,” said the bishops.
“Thou hast taught, false heretic,” continued the accuser, “that men should pray to God only, and not to the saints. Answer, yea or nay.”—“The first commandment,” replied Wishart, “teaches me to worship God only; and, as St Paul writes, there is only ‘one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.’ He is the door by which we must enter in. He that entereth not by this door, but climbeth up some other way, the same is a thief and a robber. Concerning the saints, we are not taught to pray to them, and it is not certain that they will hear us.”
“False heretic, thou sayest there is no purgatory.”—“In the Scriptures,” replied the preacher, “such a place is not named.”
“Thou hast falsely contemned the prayers of monks and friars, and taught that priests may marry, and have wives.”—“I read in St Matthew’s Gospel,” was the Reformer’s reply, “that those who abstain from marriage for the kingdom of heaven’s sake are blessed of God. Those who have not the gift of chastity, and yet have become celebates, ye know have erred greatly.”
“Renegade and heretic, thou hast refused to obey our general and provincial councils.”—“Should your councils teach according to the Word of God, I shall obey them,” was the answer.
“Proceed with the articles,” shouted John Scot of the Greyfriars’ monastery.
“Thou hast taught that God dwells, not in churches built by men’s hands, and that it is vain to consecrate costly edifices to His praise.”—“God,” replied Wishart, “is present everywhere. ‘Behold,’ said Solomon, ‘heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain Thee: how much less this house which I have built.’ In the Book of Job God is described as ‘high as heaven: deeper than hell: His measure longer than the earth, and broader than the sea.’ Yet God is pleased to honour places specially dedicated to His worship: ‘Where two or three,’ said the Saviour, ‘are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.’ God is certainly present where He is truly worshipped.”
“Thou hast, false heretic, averred that men ought not to fast.”—“Fasting,” replied the prisoner, is commended in Scripture; and I have learned by experience that fasting is beneficial to the body. God honoureth those only who truly fast.”
“False heretic, thou hast said that the souls of men do sleep until the Day of Judgment.”—“God forgive those who so report me,” replied Wishart. “The soul of the believer does not sleep, but at once enters into glory.”
As the preacher closed, the bishops returned a verdict of “guilty.” Wishart, on his knees, expressed these words of prayer: “Gracious and everlasting God, how long wilt Thou permit Thy servants to suffer through infatuation and ignorance? We know that the righteous must suffer persecution in this life, which passeth as doth a shadow, yet we would entreat Thee, merciful Father, that Thou wouldest defend Thy people whom Thou hast chosen, and give them race to endure and continue in Thy Holy Word.”
Cardinal Beaton was convinced that he had finally prevailed and that ecclesiastical and political peace would be sealed with the execution of this “heretic.” The place of execution would be in front of the main entrance to Edinburgh Castle. Above the scene, reclined within a festooned balcony, the cardinal and other bishops had a view of the spectacle (and the crowd a view of them). Wishart, after kneeling in prayer for those who had betrayed him and falsely accused him, was fastened to the stake. As the bundles were lit, he was encouraged by the governor to seek pardon and forgiveness for his errors. Wishart responded by saying, “This flame occasions trouble to my body, indeed, but it hath in nowise broken my spirit. But he who so proudly looks down upon me from yonder place shall, ere long, be ignominiously thrown down, as now he proudly lolls at his ease.” George Wishart died on March 1, 1546. The martyrdom of George Wishart did not have the effect which Cardinal Beaton intended. Beaton had killed a messenger, but not the message.
On May 29th, an armed party broke into the cardinal’s bedroom and assassinated him. What Beaton had so strenuously strived to accomplish had been lost. The flames of the executioner’s stake were no match for the flame of Reformation in Scotland. Wishart’s companions and supporters were further emboldened to stand for the truth, and after more tribulation, the Reformed faith would prevail. George Wishart was not the first to die; he would not be the last. But his life and death were, and continue to be, an inspiration.