Tuesday, March 1, 2011

George Wishart Burned at the Stake

'The Scottish affairs were now managed almost entirely by Cardinal Beaton, a statesman, as we before observed, of great abilities, but a bigoted Catholic, and a man of a severe and cruel temper. He had gained entire influence over the Regent Arran, and had prevailed upon that fickle nobleman to abandon the Protestant doctrines, reconcile himself to the Church of Rome, and give way to the prosecution of the heretics, as the Protestants were still called. Many cruelties were exercised, but that which excited public feeling to the highest degree, was the barbarous death of George Wishart.

This martyr to the cause of Reformation was a man of honourable birth, great wisdom and eloquence, and of primitive piety. He preached the doctrines of the Reformed religion with zeal and with success, and was for some time protected against the efforts of the vengeful Catholics by the Barons who had become converts to the Protestant faith. At length, however, he fell into the hands of the Cardinal, being surrendered to him by Lord Bothwell, and was conveyed to the Castle of Saint Andrews, a strong fortress and palace belonging to the Cardinal as Archbishop, and there thrown into a dungeon. Wishart was then brought to a public trial, for heresy, before the Spiritual Court, where the Cardinal presided. He was accused of preaching heretical doctrine by two priests, called Lauder and Oliphant, whose outrageous violence was strongly contrasted with the patience and presence of mind shown by the prisoner. He appealed to the authority of the Bible against that of the Church of Rome, but his judges were little disposed to listen to his arguments, and he was condemned to be burnt alive. The place of execution was opposite to the stately castle of the Cardinal, and Beaton himself sat upon the walls, which were hung with tapestry to behold the death of his heretical prisoner. Wishart was then brought out and fastened to a stake with iron chains. He was clad in a buckram garment, and several bags of gunpowder were tied around his body, to hasten the operation of the fire. A quantity of fagots were disposed around the pile. While he stood in expectation of his cruel death, he cast his eyes towards his enemy the Cardinal, as he sat on the walls of the castle enjoying the dreadful scene.

Captain," he said to him who commanded the guard, "may God forgive yonder man, who lies so proudly on the wall—within a few days he shall be seen lying there in as much shame as he now shows pomp and vanity."

The pile was then fired, the powder exploded, the fire arose, and Wishart was dismissed by a painful death to a blessed immortality in the next world.

Perhaps the last words of Wishart, which seemed to contain a prophetic Spirit, incited some men to revenge his death. At any rate, the burning of Wishart greatly increased the public detestation against the Cardinal, and a daring man stood forth to gratify the general desire, by putting him to death. This was Norman Leslie, called the master of Rothes, the same who led the men of Fife at the battle of Ancrum Moor. It appears, that besides his share of the common hatred to the Cardinal as a persecutor, he had some private feud or cause of quarrel with him. With no more than sixteen men, Leslie undertook to assault the Cardinal in his own castle, among his numerous guards and domestics. It chanced that, as many workmen were still employed in labouring upon the fortifications of the castle, the wicket of the castle-gate was open early in the morning, to admit them to their work. The conspirators took advantage of this, and obtained possession of the entrance. Having thus gained admittance, they seized upon the domestics of the Cardinal, and turned them one by one out of the castle, then hastened to the Cardinal's chamber, who had fastened the door. He refused them entrance, until they threatened to apply fire, when, learning that Norman Leslie was without, he at length undid the door, and asked for mercy. Melville, one of the conspirators, told him, he should only have such mercy as he had extended to George Wishart, and the other servants of God, who had been slain by his orders. He then, with his sword pointed to his breast, bid the Cardinal say his prayers to God, for his last hour was come. The conspirators now proceeded to stab their victim, and afterward dragged the dead body to the walls, to show it to the citizens of Saint Andrews, his clients and dependants, who came in fury to demand what had become of their Bishop. Thus his dead body really came to lie with open shame upon the very battlements of his own castle, where he had sat in triumph to see Wishart's execution...'

The execution Sir Walter Scott describes in his "Tales of a Grandfather" occurred on March 1, 1546.

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