George Wishart – A Willing Martyr

The name George Wishart is generally associated with John Knox, one of his most devout followers, who remembered him fondly in his History of the Reformation. By the time Knox heard Wishart exhorting in Leith, Scotland, on 13 December 1545, the preacher had already gained a fame as one of the most dynamic Scottish preachers.

            At that time, both men were in their early thirties – full of energies and hopes. The liberating message of the gospel, powerfully expounded in Germany and Switzerland, had slowly seeped into Scotland, in spite of its remoteness. It was brought by young men who traveled to the continent to study.

            One of the earliest Scottish “gospeler,” as these evangelists were called, was Patrick Hamilton, author of a treatise (simply known as “Patrick’s Places”) on the difference between law and gospel and the sufficiency of Christ. Hamilton’s boldness on these subjects left no question about his Lutheran leanings. Arrested and executed in 1528, he displayed such a courage in the flames where he burned for six hours that someone felt compelled to advice the archbishop, “My Lord, if ye burn any more … ye will utterly destroy yourselves. … for the reek of Master Patrick Hamilton has infected as many as it blew upon.”[1]

Wishart’s Life

            Equally bold, by 1545 Wishart had been able to preach for over a year, probably because of his frequent change of locations and his large number of friends in high places. Born in 1513 to a respected family (his father was the Laird of Pitarrow), he studied first at the University of Aberdeen and then at the University of Louvain, in today’s Belgium, where he came in contact with Lutheran and Reformed teachings. Back in Scotland, he worked as a schoolmaster and teacher of the New Testament at the Montrose Academy, the first school in Scotland to teach classical Greek.

            He had to leave the country again in 1538, when the Bishop of Brechin began investigating him for heresy. After that, he hopped from country to country, mostly in England, Switzerland, and Germany. He was particularly influenced by the Swiss Reformers and translated the First Helvetic Confession into English. By 1543, he was teaching and studying at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.

             He returned to Scotland the following year as part of a Scottish embassy to arrange the marriage of Henry VIII’s child Edward to the infant Mary, who later became Queen of Scots. The marriage didn’t take place, but Wishart stayed in Scotland, this time preaching freely in spite of the church’s opposition. His ministry included assistance to the needy (such as the victims of a plague in Dundee). He was accompanied on his travel by a group of disciples who were eager to learn his views on theology and ecclesiology.

            At times, he preached in the open air, in order to avoid armed confrontations with guards who could bar the entrance of churches – as they had done before. Knox, who had been waiting for Wishart’s arrival in his region, was ready to join his band of followers, together with the two fathers of students he had been hired to tutor.

Choosing Martyrdom

            Wishart must have known that preaching at Leith was a risky move, for its proximity to both Edinburgh and St. Andrews, where Cardinal David Beaton resided. Beaton had no intention to be lenient with Wishart, no matter how many noblemen were on the preacher’s side.

            As Wishart journeyed to Hamilton, about 20 miles east of the capital, he realized his hour had come, and told his followers to go back home. To Knox’s protests, he replied, “Nay, return to your bairns [the students Knox was tutoring], and God bless you. One is sufficient for a sacrifice.”[2] He also asked him to give up the two-handed sword Knox had been carrying during their travels, probably as a symbolic gesture (since Knox had not been trained to fight). Before dismissing his friends, Wishart asked them to sing with him the metrical version of Psalm 51, the penitential psalm.

            That same night, some guards surrounded the house of the Laird of Ormiston, where Wishart was staying, and brought the preacher to St. Andrews, where Beaton tried him and condemned him to die. On March 1, 1546, Wishart was burned at the stake in front of the episcopal castle. Knox mourned him as “a man of such graces as before him were never heard within this realm, and are rare to be found yet in any man.”[3]

            In his account of the story, Knox (who had omitted any mention of his own name until that point, as if nothing in his previous life had mattered) leads the reader to find similarities with Christ’s last hours. Like Christ, Wishart went willingly to his death, as if he had been foreseeing the repercussions of his sacrifice.

The Aftermath

            Wishart was not wrong in thinking that his death would be of benefit to the Scottish Reformation. In fact, the reaction to his execution was so extreme that some critics have ventured to say he and his friends had planned it in advance.

            Well aware of the high probability of a violent outcome, Beaton added fortifications to his walls until his castle seemed impregnable. In spite of this, on May 29, eighteen men were able to enter not only the castle but the cardinal’s bedroom, where they killed Beaton, They then hanged on the castle’s wall for all to see.

            The episcopal castle was then transformed into a Protestant fortress where the rebels formed what might be described as the first congregation of the Church of Scotland. Knox joined the venture at that point, first as tutor for the same students who had also moved there, and later as preacher.

            In his ministry, Knox retained Wishart as his model. In the short five weeks as his follower, Knox had learned a new way of preaching according to the Scriptures. He had learned that Christ only instituted two sacraments: baptism and Lord’s Supper, and that the latter should be served in both elements (bread and wine) as a spiritual participation in the body and blood of Christ. He learned that congregants should participate in the service by singing Psalms together.

            Eventually, the Scottish government was able to recapture St. Andrews by employing the help of the French fleet. Knox was arrested and sentenced to work in the French galleys. Other Protestants were imprisoned. But the Scottish Reformation had already made too much progress to be suddenly quenched. It survived and spread quietly among the nobility of the country, who were able to gain power in 1560, setting up a Protestant Parliament. Knox, who was released from the galleys in 1549, played a great part in this revolution.


[1] John Knox, The History of the Reformation of Religion in Scotland, edited by Cuthbert Lennon, London, Andrew Melrose, 1905, p. 11

[2] Jane Dawson, John Knox, New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 2015, p. 31

[3] John Knox, The History of the Reformation, p. 52


Simonetta Carr