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Significant Scots
George Wishart



George Wishart (c. 1513 -- 1 March 1546) was a Scottish religious reformer and Protestant martyr. Died at 33 as did Christ

WISHART, GEORGE, a distinguished protestant martyr, was probably the son of James Wishart, of Pitarro, justice-clerk to James V. He is supposed to have studied at Montrose, where he himself gave instructions for some time in the Greek language; a circumstance which, considering the state of Greek learning in Scotland at the time reflects distinguished honour on his literary character. But there were men in power by whom it was reckoned heresy to give instructions in the original language of the New Testament. Owing to the persecution he received from the bishop of Brechin and cardinal Beaton, he left the country in 1538. His history during the three following years is little known. It appears that, having preached at Bristol against the worship and mediation of the Virgin, he was condemned for that alleged heresy, recanted his opinions, and burnt his fagot in the church of St Nicholas in that city. Probably he afterwards travelled on the continent. In 1543, he was at Cambridge, as we learn from the following description quoted by the biographer of Knox, [Dr M’Crie, Life of Knox.] from a letter of Emery Tylney. "About the yeare of our Lord a thousand, five hundreth, forty and three, there was, in the university of Cambridge, one Maister George Wishart, commonly called Maister George of Bennet’s colledge, who was a tall man, polde headed, and on the same a round French cap of the best. Judged of melancholye complexion by his physiognomie, black haired, long bearded, comely of personage, well spoken after his country of Scotland, courteous, lowly, lonely, glad to teach, desirous to learne, and was well travailed. Having on him for his habit or clothing never but a mantill frieze gowne to the shoes, a black milliard fustian dublet, and plain black hosen, coarse new canvasse for his shirtes, and white falling bandes and cuffes at the hands. All the which apparell he gave to the poore, some weekly, some monthly, some quarterly, as he liked; saving his French cappe, which he kept the whole year of my being with him. He was a man, modest, temperate, fearing God, hating covetousnesse; for his charitie had never ende, night, noone, nor daye. He forbare one meale, one day in four for the most part, except something to comfort nature. Hee lay hard upon a pouffe of straw, coarse new canvasse sheetes, which, when he changed, he gave away. He had commonly by his bedside a tubbe of water, in the which (his people being in bed, the candle put out, and all quiet) hee used to bathe himself. He taught with great modestie and gravitie, so that some of his people thought him severe, and would have slaine him; but the Lord was his defence. And hee, after due correction for their malice, by good exhortation, amended them, and he went his way. O that the Lord had left him to me his poore boy, that he might have finished that he had begunne! His learning, no less sufficient than his desire, always prest and readie to do good in that he was able, both in the house privately, and in the school publikely, profusing and reading diverse authors."

Wishart returned to Scotland in July, 1543, in company with the commissioners who had been despatched for the negotiation of the marriage treaty with Henry VIII. [Knox, in his Historie of the Reformation, says 1544; but it is satisfactorily proved that the commissisoners returned in 1543; and hence, as it is more likely that a mistake would arise in the date than in the circumstance, we assume the latter year, as a correction upon Knox’s statement.] From these individuals, many of whom were attached to the reformed doctrines, he had probably received assurances of safety for his person: it is at least certain that, from the time of his entering the country till his death, he was under their protection, and usually in the presence of one or more of them. The chief laymen of the protestant party at this period were the earls Cassillis, Glencairn, and Marischal, Sir George Douglas, and the lairds of Brunstain, Ormiston, and Calder. They were in secret alliance with the king of England, and, at his instigation, several of them formed designs for assassinating cardinal Beaton, whose powerful genius was the chief obstacle to their views.

Thus countenanced, Wishart preached to large audiences in Montrose and Dundee, causing, at the latter of these places, the destruction of the houses of the Black and Grey friars. The authorities having interfered to preserve the peace, Wishart left the town, but not till he had given a public testimony to the friendly nature of his intentions, and the danger that would be incurred by those who refused to hear the truth which he proclaimed. He then proceeded to the west of Scotland, and for some time preached successfully. But in the town of Ayr, he found the church preoccupied by the bishop of Glasgow; in consequence of which he proceeded to the market-cross, "where," says Knox, " he made so notable a sermon, that the very enemies themselves were confounded." He also preached frequently at Galston and Bar. At Mauchline he was prevented from officiating, by the sheriff of Ayr "causing to man the church, for preservation of a tabernacle that was there beautiful to the eye." Wishart, refusing to yield to the solicitations of some who urged him to enter forcibly, exclaimed, "Christ Jesus is as mighty upon the fields as in the church; and I find that he himself, after he preached in the desert, at the sea-side, and other places judged profane then, he did so in the temple of Jerusalem. It is the word of peace that God sends by me—the blood of no man shall be shed this day for the preaching of it." Thereafter he preached in the neighbourhood, so as to produce a wonderful reformation on a gentleman of abandoned character. But while engaged in this part of Scotland, he heard that the plague was raging in Dundee. The devoted preacher hastened thither. In the midst of the disease and misery of the people, he preached so as to be heard both within and without the town, many of the sick being beyond the gate, on these appropriate words, "He sent his sword and healed them;" adding, "It is neither herb nor plaster, O Lord, but thy word healeth all." This discourse produced a very general and powerful impression. He continued to preach and visit the sick with singular benevolence; and, besides the infection of the disease, to which he was constantly exposed, he was, on one occasion, liable to danger from a priest, who had been commissioned to assassinate him. The people, on discovering the dagger which he held in his hand at the conclusion of one of Wishart’s sermons, were inflamed with passion, but the latter embraced him, with these friendly words, "whosoever troubles him shall trouble me, for he hath hurt me in nothing; but he hath done great comfort to you and me, to wit, he hath let us to understand what we may fear: in times to come we will watch better." The truth appears to be, that Beaton, being fully apprized of the designs of Wishart’s friends against his own life, had thought proper to form similar designs against that of a preacher who was perpetually in the company, and in all probability in the confidence of his own enemies, and whose eloquence was threatening his church with destruction. Whether this was the case or not, there can be no doubt that the cardinal now made all possible efforts to apprehend Wishart. The preacher, therefore, never moved in any direction without a tried adherent, who bore a two-handed sword before him; nor did he ever preach except under a strong guard of friendly barons and their retainers. Knox at one time officiated in the character of sword.bearer to his friend.

From Dundee he returned to Montrose, where he spent some time, occupied partly in preaching, "but most part in secret meditation." At Dundee, which he now revisited, he uttered a memorable prediction of future glory to the reformed church in Scotland. "This realm," said he," shall be illuminated with the light of Christ’s gospel as clearly as ever any realm since the days of the apostles. The house of God shall be builded in it; yet it shall not lack, whatsoever the enemy may imagine in the contrary, the very kepstone." For this and other anticipations of the future, Wishart received the credit of a prophet among his followers; nor have writers been wanting in the present age to maintain that he really possessed this ideal accomplishment. It is impossible, however, for a reasonable mind to see anything in the above prediction, beside the sanguine expectations of a partisan respecting his own favourite objects. As for the rest of Wishart’s predictions, which generally consisted in the announcement of coming vengeance, Mr Tytler, who enjoyed the advantage of a closer inspection of the secret history of the period, than any preceding writer, presents the following theory, [History of Scotland, v. 414.] to which we can see little chance of any valid objection being started:—"He enjoyed, it is to be remembered, the confidential intimacy, nay, we have reason to believe that his councils influenced the conduct, of Cassillis, Glencairn, Brunstain, and the party which were now the advisers of Henry’s intended hostilities; a circumstance which will sufficiently account for the obscure warnings of the preacher, without endowing him with inspiration." It is to be remarked that in calling upon the people to embrace the reformed doctrines, and threatening them with temporal destruction if they refused, he was speculating only upon the natural course of events: he must have known that to continue attached to the ancient faith, which was equivalent to a resistance against the English match, was sure to bring the vengeance of Henry upon the country, while an opposite conduct was calculated to avert his wrath.

While at Dundee, Wishart received a message from the earl of Cassillis and the gentlemen of Kyle and Cunningham, requesting him to meet them in Edinburgh, where they intended to make interest that he should have a public disputation with the bishops. On arriving at Leith, he did not, as expected. immediately find his friends, so that, "beginning to wax sorrowful in spirit," from the inactive life to which he was submitting, he preached in Leith, from which, as the governor and cardinal were expected in Edinburgh, he went to the country, residing successively in Brunstain, Longniddry, and Ormiston, the proprietors of which, as well as many other gentlemen of Lothian, were zealous in the cause of reformation. At this time he preached, with much effect in Inveresk and Tranent, and, during the holidays of Christmas, 1545, he proceeded to Haddington. Here he preached several sermons. Before delivering the last of them, he received information that the conference to which he had been invited in Edinburgh could not be fulfilled. This greatly distressed him, and the smallness of his audience on the present occasion added to his depression. Having for more than half an hour walked about in front of the high altar, he proceeded to the pulpit, where his sermon commenced with the following words: "O Lord, how long shall it be that thy holy word shall be despised, and men shall not regard their own salvation? I have heard of thee, Haddington, that in thee would have been, at any vain clerk play, two or three thousand people; and now to hear the messenger of the Eternal God, of all the town or parish, cannot be numbered one hundred persons. Sore and fearful shall the plagues be that shall ensue upon this thy contempt; with fire and sword shalt thou be plagued." He then proceeded to particularize the kind of troubles which should fall on Haddington, and which actually did befall it shortly afterwards. Parting with several of his friends, and even with John Knox, to whom, on his wishing to accompany him, he said, "Nay, return to your children, and God bless you; one is sufficient for one sacrifice," he went, with the proprietor, to Ormiston. At night, the earl of Bothwell came to the house, and, intimating the approach of the governor and the cardinal, advised Ormiston to deliver Wishart to him, promising that he should be safe. Wishart was willing to accede to these terms. "Open the gates," said he, "the blessed will of my God be done." Bothwell’s promises were renewed, and his attendants joined him in his protestations. But they proceeded with Wishart to Elphinston, where Beaton was; and the preacher, having been sent to the capital, and thence brought back to Hailes, lord Bothwell’s seat, was at last committed to ward in the castle of Edinburgh. He was soon after sent to St Andrews, by the cardinal, who, assisted by Dunbar, archbishop of Glasgow, prepared for the trial of the reformer.

On the 1st of March, 1545-6, the dignitaries of the church assembled at St Andrews, when Beaton, being refused the presence of a civil judge by the governor, determined to proceed on his own authority. The alleged heretic, being arraigned on a series of charges, defended himself meekly but firmly, and with a profound knowledge of scripture. The result, as was to be expected, was his condemnation to the stake. On the 28th, he was led from the prison, with a rope about his neck, and a large chain round his middle, to the place of execution, in front of the castle, which was the archi-episcopal palace of the cardinal. "Here a scaffold had been raised, [We here quote the animated description of Mr Tytler.] with a high stake firmly fixed in the midst of it. Around it were piled bundles of dry faggots; beside them stood an iron grate containing the fire; and near it the solitary figure of the executioner. Nor did it escape the observation of the dense and melancholy crowd which had assembled, that the cannon of the fortress were brought to bear directly on the platform, whilst the gunners stood with their matches beside them; a jealous precaution, suggested perhaps by the attempt of Duncan to deliver the martyr Hamilton, and which rendered all idea of rescue in this case perfectly hopeless. On arriving at the place, Wishart beheld these horrid preparations, which brought before him the agony he was to suffer, with an unmoved countenance; mounted the scaffold firmly, and addressed a short speech to the people, in which he exhorted them not to be offended at the word of God, by the sight of the torments which it seemed to have brought upon its preacher, but to love it, and to suffer patiently for it any persecution which the sin of unbelieving men might suggest. He declared that he freely forgave all his enemies, not excepting the judges who had unjustly condemned him." Having signified his forgiveness to the executioner, he was tied to the stake, and the flame began to encompass the holy martyr. "It torments my body," said he to his friend, the captain of the castle, "but no way abates my spirit;" then, looking up to a window, from which the cardinal was contemplating the scene, he said, "He who, in such state, from that high place, feedeth his eyes with my torments, within a few days shall be hanged out at the same window, to be seen with as much ignominy, as he now leaneth there in pride." On this, the executioner drew a cord which had been fastened round the neck of the sufferer, who shortly afterwards expired amidst the flames. The prediction of the dying martyr was literally fulfilled within three months after, by the violent and ignominious death of his persecutor. The admirable biographer of Knox and Melville has recorded this just and comprehensive eulogium on the character of the martyr:—"Excelling," says Dr M’Crie, "the rest of his countrymen at that period in learning; of the most persuasive eloquence; irreproachable in life, courteous and affable in manners; his fervent piety, zeal, and courage in the cause of truth, were tempered with uncommon meekness, modesty, patience, prudence, and charity."


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