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Significant Scots
John Hamilton


The Catechism of John Hamilton, Archbishop of St Andrews, was the first book printed at St Andrews.HAMILTON, JOHN, archbishop of St Andrews, and the last Scottish primate of the Roman catholic faith, was the natural son of James, earl of Arran, by a gentlewoman of Ayrshire. No nearer approximation seems to have been made to the period of his birth, than that it must have happened some time during the reign of James V. The early education of a person so situated is not likely to have attracted much attention, and we may, with a pretty equal chance of arriving at the truth, either receive or reject the statement of M’Kenzie, made with the laudable desire of biographers, to afford complete and minute information, that he studied the belles lettres and philosophy at Glasgow, and theology in France, where he entered into holy orders. It is, however, sufficiently ascertained, that he returned in the year 1543, from some residence or journey in France, and found himself abbot of Paisley, a situation within the limits of the extensive church patronage of his father, to which the son was nominated in 1541. [M’Kenzie’s Lives of Scots Writers, iii. 102.—The accurate authors of the History of the Senators of the College of Justice, have referred this presentation to so early a period as 1525. These authors are usually extremely minute in their references, but here the authority is omitted. We presume it to be that of Crawford, who in his Officers of State refers the event to the same period. The latter is certainly the more veracious authority of the two, yet, admitting that we have not undergone the labour of an investigation among the original records which might clear up so wide a divergence, we are inclined in this instance to believe the dictum of M’Kenzie. The authors of the late work alluded to falsify the statement of M’Kenzie, that Hamilton was on the continent for some years previously to 1543, by a reference to the records of parliament, in which the abbot of Paisley is mentioned in two sederunts, that of 1534, and that of 1540. If Hamilton was not appointed till 1541, this must have been the previous abbot. If he was appointed in 1545, we can only accede to M’Kenzie a statement of his absence on the continent, on the supposition that he had taken advantage of the act 3d. James I. chap. 52, which entitled prelates, earls, &c. to appear by their procurators, on producing proof of a necessary cause of absence—a privilege which, if it was ever taken advantage of, fell soon after into disuse.] The circumstance of his journey through England in his return from France introduced this ambitious man to the commencement of his restless career. He was graciously received by Henry VIII., and either in duplicity, or ignorance of the scene of action about to open to him, he entered into the views of the English monarch with regard to a matrimonial alliance with Scotland, which he was afterwards to use his best endeavours to frustrate. On his arrival in Scotland he found the path of distinction just opened to his view, by the recent advancement of his vacillating brother to the regency of the kingdom, and may have conceived those high projects which the weakness of his unhappy relative fostered, while it interfered with their consummation. He joined cardinal Beaton in that opposition which the primate’s fears for the safety of the church prompted him to exhibit towards the matrimonial alliance with England, and the enemies of Hamilton have not been backward in attributing to him an unhesitating application to the most ungenerous and infamous means for the achievement of his ends, throughout the heart-burning and unfortunate progress of that renowned conference. The change produced in the regent’s policy by the persuasion of the abbot, and the something more than persuasion of the cardinal, assisted by the insults of the English monarch, is well known, with all its calamitous consequences. The perseverance of Hamilton was rewarded by the offices of privy seal, and of high treasurer, in which latter he succeeded Kirkaldy of Grange. In 1545, he was further rewarded by the wealthy bishopric of Dunkeld. With much modesty he wished to retain, after his elevation, both the dignity and emolument of his abbacy, but was prompted to resign them on his brother James being nominated his successor, with the moderate reservation of the fruits of the benefice during his lifetime, and the power to re-enter, in the event of surviving his brother. On the death of cardinal Beaton, Hamilton was translated to the archbishopric of St Andrews. Unmindful of the fate of his predecessor, he commenced his inauspicious career with blood. A man of the name of Adam Wallace, was tried before him in a synod, in the Blackfriars’ church of Edinburgh, and being found guilty of acting as a vagrant preacher, baptizing his own children, and of inability to discover the term "mass" in the Holy Scriptures, he was delivered over to the civil judge, and burnt at the stake. But the archbishop was not one of those who welcomed the rising strength of the Reformation with fire and sword. He was a strong thinking and acute man, with a mind conversant in the weaknesses and prejudices of men, and well adapted to hold the balance firmly and cautiously between, contending parties. He was not of those spirits framed to be the scourges of the earth, but fate had cast him in evil days on an unhappy land, where men were not accustomed to scruple at the measures by which they gratified their passions or prejudices, and the minds formed in more peaceful times for the best things, burst the regulating power, which might have restrained them in a period of less temptation.

Hamilton saw the coming enemy, and the moderation and firmness with which he defended the church, protracted for a short period the fall of the crumbling fabric. He used his utmost endeavours to put to rest a fiery controversy, which inflamed his district, on the subject of addressing the Lord’s prayer to the saints; a heterodox English priest having maintained that it should be addressed to the Deity alone, while an orthodox friar of St Andrews proved, by a syllogistic examination of each department of the prayer, that there were good reasons why it ought to be addressed to the saints, because there were no references in it which would not apply to their situation, excepting towards the end, where requests were made which it was entirely beyond the power of saints to grant, and in which their intercession only should be presumed to be requested. Out of the discussions on this matter, arose disputes on the exact mental value of the appeal to the saints, some maintaining it to be made to the saints materialiter, while it was made to the Deity formaliter—others, that while it was addressed to the Deity principaliter, it came before the saints minus principaliter: and the grades of distinction being too numerous for the consideration of the primate, who was never a casuist without having some purpose in view, he remitted them to a provincial synod, which duly attended to the interest of the saints. At this synod the archbishop performed one of those prudent acts of reconciliation, by which he sought to avert the fall of his order. He had prepared a catechism containing an exposition in English of the commandments, the creed, and the Lord’s prayer, which was formally approved of by the synod, and ordered to be read to the people on Sundays and holidays, by the curates of the respective churches, and which was afterwards circulated through the country at such a small price, as might remunerate the hawkers by whom it was vended. In the year 1551, the days of this ambitious priest appeared to be nearly ended by a stubborn asthmatic complaint, which defied the skill of the Scottish physicians, who pronounced his recovery as hopeless. The celebrated Cardan was induced, by a magnificent remuneration, to visit him, and the disease yielded either to the medicines of the empyric or to nature. M’Kenzie has taken much pains to prove that, in calling for the assistance of this singular individual, the primate did not appeal to the powers of magic, as Buchanan and others have accused him of having done; but it is much to be doubted whether, from the character of both parties, the patient did not suppose he was receiving, and the physician that he was administering, the aid of unholy powers. The influence of Hamilton’s mind over that of his brother, is shown by the advantage taken of his sickness. The queen mother seized the opportunity which her own ambitious views, and the instigations of her family had prepared her to use, and extracted from the feeble regent a resignation of his authority into her own hands. The archbishop on his recovery felt the indignation natural to a fierce and ambitious spirit, compelled by his situation to depend on a person whose facile mind required to be kept at its purpose by the firmness of his own. According to Sir James Melville, the convalescent priest received the intelligence with a burst of rage; "he cursed, and cried out that the governor was a very beast for quitting the government to her," bestowing an epithet not very decorous on the princess who stood between his brother and the throne. But Sir James Melville mentions the intelligence as having been received by him when abroad, and from the information of captain Ninian Cockburn, "a busy meddler,"—and however certainly we may judge of the ambitious prospects of the archbishop, it is not likely that he would have uttered them in a situation which would have admitted their being reported to such a person. The effect of his recovery is a farther evidence of his powerful mind. The resignation not duly and formally completed was revoked, and with all the advantage of possessing the dignity, the powerful princess was compelled to submit for a time. After a protracted conference, the queen mother, aided by the influence of those whom her polished manners had secured, and of the protestant party in general, whom she affected to protect, seconded by the will of her daughter, no longer an infant, obtained her end; but the advantages stipulated for by the archbishop on the part of his brother, were the same as those which had been held out to him as a bait at the commencement of the contract, acknowledging, as a principal article, the ex-regent’s right of succession, failing the young queen, which seems to have presented to the archbishop golden views of ambition which it were difficult to fathom. Hitherto the primacy of Hamilton had been marked by but one act of persecution, with which he was but indirectly connected; but just after the period of the last incident described, he appalled the nation by the perpetration of an act, for which neither religious bigotry, opposition to the regent, nor the alleged influence of the abbot of Kilwinning, are sufficient satisfactorily to account, in a man who knew so well the advantage of moderate counsels. Walter Mill, an aged protestant minister, was tried at St Andrews, before the archbishop, found guilty of heresy, and condemned to death by the flames. Men looked with such deep horror on the act, that an individual possessing the requisite powers could hardly be found to add the supplementary authority of the civil judge - no one would furnish a rope to bind him to the stake, and the archbishop had to provide with his own sacred hands the necessary implement. The people of the country marked the spot of the reputed martyr’s death by rearing over it a heap of stones, and so often as these were removed, the sullen memorial was restored by the patient and unyielding people. This was one of the marked acts which either terrify, or give impulse to a slowly approaching enemy—it had the latter effect—Knox preached soon after in the pulpit of his cathedral church, and the usual destruction attended his presence. The archbishop, who, whatever he might be in politics, was no bigot in religion, strove to compromise with the arch-reformer, admitting that there were many evils in the church which should be remedied, but that "he should do wisely to retain the old policy, which had been the work of many ages, or then put a better in its place, which his new model was far from,"—but the proffer was unnoticed. He made a last and daring effort in the committee of estates in 1560, which gave the sanction of law to the doctrines and government of the protestant faith. He there objected to his own brother, the bishop of Argyle, and to the bishop of Galloway being admitted as lords of the articles, to prepare the measure for the adoption of the house, according to the constitution of the parliament of Scotland; because they had embraced presbyterianism, and were therefore disqualified by the constitution they were about to alter: and, along with the bishops of Dunkeld and Dumblane, gave an unavailing opposition to the measures.

Three years after this convention, he became amenable to one of its provisions, which prohibited the celebration of mass, and was committed to the castle of Edinburgh, whence he was released through the reiterated tears and intercessions of queen Mary. Royal favour still beamed on the archbishop, but it was clouded by popular hatred. In 1566, at the imprudent request of the queen, he baptized the young prince with the ceremonies of the church of Rome, and with still more imprudence, if not with a design of aiding the perpetration of deep wickedness, he was, on the 23d of September, of the same year, personally re-invested by the queen’s signature, in the consistorial jurisdiction, of which the clergy in general had been deprived by the legislature. Whitaker, with the purposes of a special pleader before him, maintains this not to have been a revival of the jurisdiction, but the special gift of an authority which had not been discontinued. Not to argue on the improbability, that a jurisdiction belonging to the body of right, should be bestowed on one particular member by favour, the act of parliament which transfers to the commissaries the consistorial authority of the church, is as plain as a Scottish act usually is. The dangerous and invidious jurisdiction thus bestowed, was used on one great occasion, and history has preserved no other instance of its application: he granted a commission to judges, who severed the inconvenient bonds betwixt earl Bothwell and his wife, which interfered in some respects with the formality of a marriage with the queen, and this act, coupled with the circumstance that the archbishop was one of those who prepared the account of the murder of Darnley, so hastily transmitted to the French court, originated in the minds of his enemies suspicions of deep guilt, the justice of which we do not pretend to judge.

The fidelity of the archbishop towards the queen, however much party spirit may account for it on ambitious grounds, is, by a charitable interpretation, a pleasing part of his character. He was the heart and head of the party which associated for her cause, during her confinement in Lochleven. He aided her escape, and boldly urged on the battle, so unfortunate to the queen, which followed. He now bid a perpetual adieu to the state and pomp he had so long sustained, and seems to have for more than a year wandered through the country in search of a roof to protect him. On the capture of Dumbarton castle in 1571, the governor of which had bestowed on him temporary protection, he was tried on an accusation of four several acts of treason. First, "That he knew, and was participant or accomplice in the murdering of king Henry, the queen’s husband. 2d, That he conspired against the king’s person at the murdering of the first regent, intending to have surprised the castle of Stirling, and to have been master thereof at his pleasure. 3d, That he knew, or was participant in the murder of James, earl of Murray, the late regent. 4th, That he lay in wait at the wood of Calendar, for the slaughter of Matthew, earl of Lennox, the present regent." With a candour which ought to weigh much with the world, in the consideration of the other atrocities of which he has been accused, he confessed with contrition a participation in the third crime laid to his charge: and confusion and mystery attend the accounts of this trial which have reached our time, but it would appear that some difficulties, either in form or evidence attending the proof of the crimes laid to his charge, prompted recourse to a fiction convenient on such occasions, and disgraceful to the law in which it found a place—an act of forefaulture in absence had been passed against the archbishop in the first parliament of regent Murray, and in terms of that act he was hanged on the common gibbet of Stirling, in his pontificial robes, on the 5th April, 1571. The law of that period, like a weapon of war, was used by party against party, and was a protection to none but those who could wield it, a terror to none but those against whom some powerful adversary could direct it; and hence even those punishments, which, as abstract rewards of guilt, might be looked on as equitable, became unjust—because they were the offspring of malignity, and not dealt for the prevention of farther crimes. The archbishop had committed the crime of religious intolerance, which is a crime under what-ever form it appears, however casuists may vindicate it by the arguments which may be used in vindication of any crime whatever—prejudice and conviction of the mind—and a crime which mankind may be said never to forgive or forget, but to treasure for the indignation of future ages. Yet those crimes which are perpetrated by the assistance of the law, are not fit for receiving punishment from that instrument: public opinion, and the weight of the public voice are the restraints which men and legislatures should feel under such temptations; for the punishment of persecution, being always bestowed by the party which has been persecuted, is a repetition of the crime, and a re-opening of the wounds of party rancour. The ignominy gratuitously bestowed on the reverend head of their party and religion was not soon forgot by the adherents of the Hamiltons, and long after his haughty indomitable spirit had ceased to oppose the progress of the reformation, his name, and the memory of his fate, were bonds of union to the papists, and dreaded by the protestants. Like that of all violent partizans, the memory of Hamilton has been coloured with much blame, and with much praise. Buchanan has wasted good Latin both in prose and verse in ascribing to him all the vices of which poor human nature is susceptible—nor does he hesitate to charge him with accession to two deliberate murders, from the punishment consequent on one of which, his influence protected the principal perpetrator, the father of his mistress. His incontinence is a charge which circumstances have, to a considerable extent, justified.

His open and received mistress was a female of the name of Semple, whom his defenders maintain he had married early in life, and before he had entered into holy orders; but the proof is insufficient to meet the contrary presumptions. An article of the treaty of Perth has been discovered, restoring the son of the archbishop to the possessions of his father, forfeited through treason. It appoints "that the heirs and successors of persons forfeited, properly comprehended under this pacification, and now departed this life, shall be restored, and made lawful to enter by brieves to their lands and possessions, notwithstanding of the forfeitures laid against their fathers or predecessors, and as giff they had died at our sovereign Lord’s faith and peace, and especially of John, archbishop of St Andrews," &c. The circumstance is rather unintelligible; if the son was in law illegitimate, the restoration could not without legitimation admit his suing forth a brief of service to his father, and the circumstance of the father having been a priest, was sufficient to establish the illegitimacy, whether a marriage had taken place before his advancement to the priesthood or not. It would appear that the female in question was the wife of another man, while she was the mistress of the archbishop. "But supposing," says M’Kenzie, "that the bishop had made this slip in his youth, it is not a sufficient ground to stain the whole course of his after life with."


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