George Wishart

George Wishart

GEORGE WISHART (1513?-1546)

Preacher, Martyr

George Wishart, the future martyr, was the only son of James Wishart of Pitarrow, by his second wife. He was probably called George after his maternal grandfather; the name was certainly derived from his mother’s family. The precise date of his birth is unknown, but it has generally been assigned to the year 1513.

George Wishart chose the clerical profession, in which several members of his family had attained distinction. His prospects of advancement were considerable, owing to the intimacy which exsisted between his family and David Beaton, Abbot of Arbroath, the future cardinal. As his name does not occur in the registers of any of the Scottish colleges, it is extremely probable that he was sent by his maternal uncle to one or more of the universities in Germany. While studying it is likely that he embraced the new reformed doctrines. In 1534 John Erskine of Dun established at Montrose a school to teach Greek, under the superintendence of a learned Frenchman. This was very unusual as Greek was hardly known in Scotland at that time.Wishart, who had recently returned from the Continent, replaced the Frenchman who had retired. Having imported copies of the Greek New Testament, he distributed them among his pupils. This was reported in 1538 to John Hepburn, Bishop of Brechin, who summoned him to appear in his diocesan court.

The times were dangerous; already several believers had been burned at the stake, so Wishart fled to England. It seems like a strange choice of haven as many had been burned at the stake by Henry VIII in recent years and there were more to come. He went to Cambridge University which was a nursery for the Reformed doctrines. Hugh Latimer, Bishop of Worcester, appointed Wishart a ‘reader’, and he began his work in May 1539 at St Nicholas’ Church, Bristol. The authorities were looking out for those who spoke about the new doctrine, so they were on to Wishart at once, charging him before the mayor and justices with preaching doctrines condemned by the Church. In June the mayor asked for advice from Lord Cromwell, the Lord Privy Seal.

Just at this time the Catholic party came into ascendency. An indictment by the Bristol clergy against Wishart was laid before an ecclesiastical court, consisting of archbishop Cranmer, Clark, bishop of Bath; Repps, bishop of Norwich; and Sampson, bishop of Chichester. Advised by Cranmer, Wishart consented to retract his 'heretical' doctrine.Receiving his submission, the court decreed that he should carry a faggot in St Nicholas’ church, Bristol, on Sunday the 13th July, and in Christ church of the same city on the following Sunday. The idea of this was humiliation.

It was over the reasons for Wishart being accused of heresy that some have claimed that his doctrines were wrong and that he was guilty of what became known as Socinianism (denying the divine nature of Christ). Charles Rogers, whose book on the life of Wishart this essay is taken from, successfully argues that Wishart’s doctrines were in fact correct. (The argument is quite complex, so if you want to know more you can visit the website that is given at the end of the essay.)

Having, by burning his faggot, escaped death as the result of his evangelical labours at Bristol, Wishart proceeded to the Continent. According to bishop Lesley, his contemporary, ‘he remained long in Germany.’In defending himself during his trial at St Andrews, he referred to his having sailed on the Rhine. It is also probable that he visited Switzerland, as he translated into English the first Confession of the Helvetian Churches. In 1542 he returned to Cambridge and there looked for employment as a tutor. Emery Tylney, one of his pupils, gave the following account to John Foxe, the martyrologist (I have changed some of the spelling).

‘About the year of our Lord, a thousand, five hundred, forty and three, there was in the university of Cambridge one Master George Wishart, commonly called Master George of Bennet’s College, who was a man of tall stature, polde headed, and on the same a French cap of the best. Judged of melancholy complexion by his physiognomy, black haired, long bearded, comely of personage, well spoken after his country of Scotland, courteous, lowly, lovely, glad to teach, desirous to learn, and was well travelled, having on him for his habit or clothing, never but a mantell frise gown to the shoes, a black Millian fustain, doublet, and plain black hose, course new canvas for his shirts, and white falling bands and cuffs at the hands. All the which apparel, he gave to the poor, some weekly, some monthly, some quarterly as he liked, saving his French cap, which he kept the whole year of my being with him.He was a man modest, temperate, fearing God, hating covetousness, for his charity had never end, night, morning, nor day, he forbare one meal in three, one day in four for the most part except something to comfort nature. He lay hard upon a pouf of straw, course new canvas sheets, which, when he changed, he gave away. He had commonly by his bedside a tub of water, in the which (his people being in bed, the candle put out, and all quiet) he used to bathe himself. He taught with great modesty and gravity, so that some of his people thought him severe and would have slain him, but the Lord was his defence. And he, 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 poor boy, that he might bane finished that he had begun! For in his Religion he was as you see here in the rest of his life, when he went into Scotland with divers of the Nobility that came for a treaty to King Henry the eight. His learning was no less sufficient than his desire, always present and ready to do good; in that he was able both in the house privately and in the school publicly, professing and reading divers authors.

If I should declare his love to me and all men, his charity to the poor in giving, relieving, caring, helping, providing, yea infinitely studying how to do good unto all and hurt to none, I should sooner want words than just cause to commend him.

All this I testify with my whole heart and truth of this godly man.He that made all, governs all and shall judge all, knows I speak the truth, that the simple may be satisfied, the arrogant confounded, the hypocrite disclosed. EMERY TYLNEY.’

To complete the long-pending negotiations with the English Government for the marriage of Edward Prince of Wales with the infant Queen Mary, commissioners from Scotland proceeded to London in June 1543. These commissioners were the Earl of Glencairn, Sir George Douglas, Sir William Hamilton of Sanquhar, James Learmont of Balcomie, and Henry Balnaves. They met the English commissioners at Greenwich on the 1st of July when the marriage treaty was settled and certain differences between the countries amicably adjusted. When the commissioners left Scotland, the governor Arran, then a professor of the Reformed faith, was at variance with Cardinal Beaton.As no reconciliation between them seemed probable, Learmont of Balcomie regarded the season as especially suitable for his relative leaving Cambridge and returning to the north. Accepting his counsel, Wishart joined the commissioners and accompanied them to Scotland, which they reached before the 31st of July.

Wishart intended at once to enter upon the duties of an evangelist. But the altered condition of public affairs rendered such a proceeding absolutely dangerous. Beaton had regained his authority and the weak governor, in becoming reconciled to him, evidenced a desire to perpetuate his friendship by publicly abjuring the Reformed faith. Amidst the perils of the time, Wishart found a retreat in his native home, the mansion of Pitarrow. There he remained from July 1543 till the spring of 1545, dividing his time between the study of theology and the cultivation of the arts.

Tired of his prolonged seclusion at Pitarrow, Wishart determined to resume his duties as an evangelist. In reading the Scriptures to the people in their native tongue he had the authority of the State, and being a lay reader, he possessed as an instructor, the sanction of the Church.Renting a house at Montrose, the ‘next unto the church except one,’ he there read and explained the Scriptures to all who came. After a time he removed to Dundee, where he publicly read and expounded the Epistle to the Romans. His work, which was conducted within eleven miles of the Castle of St Andrews, could not escape for long the notice of Cardinal Beaton, who, since his reconciliation with the governor, possessed almost absolute power. Charging Wishart with calling together the people without royal sanction, he procured from the queen regent and the governor a proclamation calling on him to desist. Robert Mill, a magistrate of Dundee, who had professed the Reformed doctrines, but had lately abjured them, handed the proclamation to the preacher as he conducted service.‘He remained,’ writes Knox, ‘a little space with his eyes bent towards heaven, and thereafter looking sorrowfully to the speaker and the people, said, “God is witness that I never intended your trouble but your comfort.Yea, your trouble is more dolorous to me than it is to yourselves. But I am assured that to refuse God’s Word and to chase from you His messengers shall not preserve you from trouble but it shall bring you into it. For God shall send to you messengers who will not be afraid of horning nor yet banishment. I have offered unto you the Word of Salvation, and with the hazard of my life I have remained among you. Now ye yourselves refuse me, and therefore must I leave my innocence to be declared by God. If it be long prosperous with you, I am not led by the Spirit of Truth; but if unlooked-for trouble apprehend you, acknowledge the cause and turn to God, for He is merciful.’

Among those present when Mill served the proclamation was the Earl Marischal, who entreated the preacher to disregard it, or to accompany him to the north and carry on his ministry there. But Wishart had promised the Earl of Glencairn that he would next preach in Ayrshire, so he went there instead.

Ayrshire was part of the see of Glasgow, and Gavin Dunbar, the archbishop, was determined to stop the spread of heretical opinions in his diocese. Informed that Wishart was preaching in Ayr, he went there with a body of men and took possession of the church. Lord Glencairn and George Crawfurd of Loch Norris, attended by their men, also went there to defend the preacher. But Wishart did not want violence. He invited the people to accompany him to the market cross, where, writes Knox, ‘he made so notable a sermon that his very enemies themselves were confounded.’

Wishart preached chiefly in the district of Kyle. For a time he occupied the parish church of Galston, under the protection of John Lockhart of Barr, a Protestant landowner. Invited to preach at Mauchline, an adjoining parish, he agreed, but the use of the church was refused on the grounds that an elegant shrine preserved in it might be damaged by the people. Wishart went to a meadow, and there from a stone fence preached to an eager crowd. His sermon lasted three hours. It resulted in the conversion of Laurence Rankin, the laird of Sheill, a man whose corrupt life had been notorious.

Under the protection of the Earls of Cassilis and Glencairn, and others, Wishart had preached in Ayrshire for about four weeks when he was recalled to Dundee. A plague had broken out there four days after his departure. His leaving from Kyle grieved many who had become attached to his ministry. He returned to Dundee and preached from the East Port Gate, to those who were sick outside the wall and to those who were healthy inside. He frequently preached and ministered to the sick.

His actions were again reported to the cardinal, who now employed an assassin. John Wighton, a priest from Dundee, undertook the task. Armed with a dagger he entered the place of worship in which Wishart was preaching and, concealing himself behind the pulpit, waited for him to come down. Happily, Wishart noticed him and seized him before he had time to strike. ‘What would you do, my friend?’ said the preacher calmly. Dreading instant death, Wighton threw himself on his knees and begged for mercy. The congregation had left, but a few people who remained behind gave the alarm, and a crowd burst in. Wishart remarked that he was unhurt and begged that the man be spared.

Wishart stayed in Dundee until the plague was over. He was told that a provincial Synod of the Church was to meet at Edinburgh on the 13th January and he was promised a public hearing. Wishart went back to Montrose where he preached occasionally.

Having failed to silence the preacher by the dagger of the assassin, Beaton devised a plan for his arrest. At Montrose Wishart received a letter reporting that his friend John Kinnear of Kinnear, in Fife, lay dangerously sick, and wanted to see him at once. Wishart got on a horse brought by the messenger, and in the company of a few friends, began his journey. Having passed the outskirts of the town, he told his friends that he began to suspect treachery. Some of his friends rode ahead and discovered at a sheltered spot a troop of about sixty horsemen, evidently waiting for something. The preacher and his friends returned to Montrose.

Around the end of November Wishart decided to go to Edinburgh, ignoring the advice of his friend, Erskine of Dun, to stay hidden. He went the circuitous route to Edinburgh to avoid being caught. It was the beginning of December, and he expected that the Earls of Cassilis and Glencairn would be in the capital awaiting his arrival. As they had not come, he was advised to remain in temporary hiding. He did this for a short time, but complained, ‘Wherein do I differ from one dead, except that I eat and drink? Hitherto God has accepted my labours for the instruction of the ignorant and the exposure of error. Now I lurk in secret as one who is ashamed.’ Arrangements were therefore made for him to minister on the second Sunday of December at Leith, selecting as his subject the Parable of the Sower. The boldness of his teaching increased the alarm of his friends, who, believing a report that the governor and the cardinal were to be in Edinburgh shortly, begged that he would leave the area. Three staunch Protestants looked after his safety between them.

The following Sunday he preached at Inveresk parish church. At the close of the afternoon’s service, Sir George Douglas, brother of the Earl of Angus, stood up and in the hearing of the congregation, said, ‘I know that my Lord Governor and the cardinal will hear that I have been present at these services. I shall make no denial and I will fearlessly defend the preacher and uphold his doctrines.’

As the governor and cardinal were now in Edinburgh only a few miles away, Wishart was, for greater safety, conducted to the mansion of Longniddry. There he had an opportunity of spending time with John Knox, who, deeply interested in his missionary labours, became his body guard armed with a two-handed sword. On January 14th, 1546 they went to Haddington where he preached twice; the second time to a small congregation because the Earl of Bothwell had told people not to attend.

The Lords Cassilis and Glencairn sent Wishart a note that they would not be coming to Edinburgh. Wishart discerned that their passion for the Reformation had cooled and this upset him a great deal. The Provincial Synod met at Edinburgh on the 13th January, but Beaton at once adjourned it until after Easter, promising to those assembled that in the interval he would silence a heretic who was giving him much concern by disturbing the Church. Obtaining the co-operation of the Earl of Bothwell, as Sheriff of Haddington, he accompanied him to Elphinstone Tower at the head of five hundred men. Wishart’s arrival at Ormiston House being duly reported, Bothwell resolved to please the cardinal by capturing him. At midnight the house of Ormiston was surrounded by troops, while Cockburn and his guests were summoned to surrender. To Cockburn Bothwell promised that should Wishart be delivered into his hands, he would become personal surety for his safety, even against the power of the cardinal himself.

Informed that he was wanted, Wishart said meekly, ‘Let the will of the Lord be done.’ He said to Bothwell, ‘I thank God that one so honourable as your lordship receives me this night, being assured that, having pledged your honour, you will preserve me from injury without order of law. The law, I am not ignorant, is corrupt, and is used as a cloak under which to shed blood; but I less fear to die openly than to be slain in secret.’Bothwell replied, ‘Not only shall I protect you from secret violence, but I shall shelter you from the designs, both of the governor and cardinal. In my keeping you shall be secure till I restore you to freedom or bring you again to this place.’

Wishart was imprisoned in Elphinstone Tower, then moved by Bothwell to Hailes Castle, then Edinburgh Castle. Clearly, Bothwell’s promises were not worth anything. The cardinal then moved him to the sea tower at St Andrew’s Castle. Beaton wanted Wishart dead, however the Church might condemn, but a fatal sentence could only be carried out on the authority of the governor. To the governor Beaton applied, asking him to appoint a commission, with a criminal judge to conduct the business of the trial. Unwilling to offend his powerful rival, Arran would have granted this request but for the vigorous pleas of Sir David Hamilton of Preston, who pointed to the cardinal’s ambition and the unwarrantable character of his demand. Arran accordingly, refused the commission and expressed his wish that in the meantime all proceedings should be stopped. Beaton said, ‘That he had only sent to him out of mere civility without any need for it; for that he, with his clergy, had power sufficient to bring Mr Wishart to condign punishment.’

The cardinal brought him to trial on February 28th. On the morning of the trial the bishops were ushered into the cathedral by the cardinal’s retainers. An armed party fetched the prisoner, who, on entering the gate of the cathedral, threw his purse to a beggar, remarking that it would no longer be useful to himself.

Wishart was invited to ascend the pulpit to answer the articles of accusation. Wishart rose from his knees, 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.’ ‘Renegade, traitor, and thief!’ exclaimed Lauder, ‘you have been a preacher too long and have exercised your function without authority.’ Wishart asked to be tried by the governor, but this was refused. They were about to issue judgement, but thought it would look better if he were asked to defend himself on each point.

After Wishart answered the final charge, 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.’ He was then sentenced to be burned at the stake the following day.

The execution took place in front of the main gate into the castle. Wishart was wearing black, with bags of gunpowder hanging round his neck. At the stake, Wishart fell on his knees, and exclaimed aloud: ‘Saviour of the world, have mercy upon me.Heavenly Father, into Thy hands I commend my spirit.’Turning to the crowd he said: ‘Christian brethren and sisters, be not offended at the Word of God on account of the tortures you see prepared for me. Love the Word which publisheth salvation, and suffer patiently for the Gospel’s sake. To my brethren and sisters who have heard me elsewhere, declare that my doctrine is no old wife’s fables, but the blessed Gospel of salvation. For preaching that Gospel I am now to suffer, and I suffer gladly for the Redeemer’s sake. Should any of you be called on to endure persecution, fear not them who can destroy the body, for they cannot slay the soul. Most falsely have I been accused of teaching that the soul shall sleep after death till the last day; I believe my soul shall sup with my Saviour this night. I beseech you, brethren and sisters, exhort your prelates to acquaint themselves with the Word of God, so that they may be ashamed to do evil and learn to do good; for if they will not turn from their sinful way, the wrath of God shall fall upon them suddenly and they shall not escape.’ Again falling on his knees, he prayed for those who had, through ignorance condemned him, and for all who had testified against him falsely. One of the executioners, who entreated his forgiveness, he kissed on the cheek, saying to him, ‘By this token I forgive thee; do thine office.’ Wishart was now made fast, to the stake, while a heap of faggots was piled around his body. Fire being applied, the bags of gunpowder attached to his person exploded, and he died.

Shortly after the death of Wishart, Cardinal Beaton was killed by Wishart’s supporters.

Wishart’s life and death are important to the Reformation. Firstly, for the number of people who turned to Christ under his ministry, secondly, for the influence he had on John Knox and thirdly for the influence his death had on the people of Scotland. Killing godly men in such a brutal way just makes people look into their teachings and life to find out why they were executed. Far from stopping the Reformation throughWishart's death, Beaton helped to light the flame of the Reformation.

This essay is taken almost exclusively from ‘The Life of George Wishart’ by Rev Charles Rogers, published in 1876. The full publication can be seen on