George Wishart (1513 – 1546)

Wishart Tree WIS0014

Wishart, George (c.1513–1546), evangelical preacher and martyr, was according to a later family account a younger son of James Wishart of Pitarrow and Elizabeth Learmont; he was the brother of Justice Clerk James Wishart of Pitarrow (d. 1524). A portrait of indeterminate authenticity states that he was thirty years old in 1543, and a birth date about 1513 seems possible. Nothing further is known of his early years. Wishart appears on the matriculation rolls at Louvain, where he graduated in arts in 1532; he was at some stage ordained priest. The length of his stay on the continent at this time is unknown, but he was back in Scotland by 1535, when on 20 March he witnessed a charter for John Erskine of Dun in Montrose. Alexander Petrie, writing in 1662, claimed that he had learned from ‘very antient men’ that Wishart was schoolmaster in Montrose, and taught his students the New Testament in Greek, for which he was summoned by John Hepburn, bishop of Brechin, in 1538, and fled the country (Petrie, 182). The knowledge and teaching of Greek suggest the influence of humanist scholarship, perhaps acquired at Louvain; Wishart’s association with John Erskine of Dun indicates evangelical leanings at this early stage in his career.

Bristol, 1538–1539

Wishart’s flight took him to Bristol, perhaps drawn by the presence of Hugh Latimer as bishop of Worcester. By January 1539 he had begun preaching there, and he soon came into controversy. Charged with heresy by John Kene, the rural dean, and imprisoned for a time, Wishart was released owing to the threat of popular unrest, as attested by anonymous letters which threatened violence against the ‘enemies to God’s word’ who had accused the ‘faithful young man … who holds the King of Heaven before the king of England’. Wishart (not identified by name) had done ‘nothing but scripture would bear him’, and the ‘hard-hearted knaves’ who imprisoned him would have been burned out of their houses had they failed to release him (LP Henry VIII, 14/1, no. 184). But the controversy intensified: the ‘stiffnecked Scott’ preached in St Nicholas on 15 May 1539 ‘the moost blasphemous heresy that euer was herd, openly declaryng that Christ nother hath nor could merite for hym ne yett for vs’, and the sermon ‘brought many of the Comons of this Towne into a greate errour’ (Smith, 55). The charge suggests that Wishart held the radical belief that Christ’s suffering and death were exemplary rather than propitiatory. He also declared that ‘exorcising of holy water or holy bread were execrable and detestable’ (LP Henry VIII, 14/1, no. 1219).

On 9 June the mayor of Bristol sent word of the case to Thomas Cromwell, before whom Wishart had already appeared in January. It was before Archbishop Cranmer, however, that he stood trial, and with the passage of the Act of Six Articles that month, it was part of the archbishop’s ‘own particular crucifixion’ to enforce the act at the expense of Wishart and others (MacCulloch, 255). Wishart was forced to bear a faggot in recantation at Paul’s Cross on 6 July, but, refusing to carry it to where he had received it, he threw it to the summoner. Perhaps because of this defiance, Wishart was compelled to bear the faggot twice more in Bristol, on 13 July at St Nicholas, and 20 July at Christchurch.

The charge of denying Christ’s merits has been described as ‘even for Wishart improbably way-out stuff’ (Elton, 119–20), but it has also been taken seriously. At his final trial in 1546, Wishart was to face accusations of radical belief on soul sleep and baptism, which he denied; all further evidence from his career reflects a developed and Reformed theology. As Kene’s accusation preceded the Act of Six Articles, it may have needed exaggeration to force a trial; this would explain Wishart’s defiance in his first recantation. Any chance that Wishart might be vindicated, moreover, was removed once the act was passed, for his evangelical leanings would violate this policy of renewed conservatism; the letter-writer in Bristol had anticipated the difficulty that the king could ‘fail us’ (Skeeters, 54). Kene’s accusation of radical belief must, therefore, be regarded as doubtful. On the other hand, if Wishart had been preaching against merit in the death of Christ in 1539, his subsequent volte-face was rapid and complete.

Continental exile, 1539–1542

In the three years following this incident, Wishart’s movements and activities can only be guessed. It has been suggested that the charges of radicalism were genuine, and that Wishart was sent by Cranmer to Cambridge ‘to learn a more acceptable doctrine’ (Durkan, ‘Scottish reformers’, 5), but in the aftermath of the Act of Six Articles it is far more likely that Wishart, like his fellow Scots Alesius and John MacAlpine, found it necessary to go into exile again, this time on the continent. During this period, therefore, he may have had the encounter with a Jew while sailing on the Rhine which he related in his trial. While debating whether Jesus was the Messiah, the Jew mentioned that Christians were uncaring toward the poor, idolatrous, and worshipped as God bread ‘backin upone the aschis’ (Works of John Knox, 1.159).

It was also probably on the continent during his years of exile that Wishart translated the first Helvetic confession into English. This confession was produced in 1536 by a Swiss committee including Bullinger, Jud, Myconius, Grynaeus, and Megander, assisted by Bucer and Capito, in an effort to unite Reformed and Lutheran protestants; Luther would later indicate his approval. Wishart’s posthumously published The Confescion of the Fayth of the Sweserla[n]des (Hugh Singleton or Thomas Raynolde, 1548?) was the first printed edition of this confession, and it was probably printed to serve as a unifying document in the early stages of Edward VI’s reign. Wishart’s language was Anglicized, and the title-page said of its translator only that he was a Scot who had been burned in 1546. Wishart translated from a Latin manuscript, and added a final passage by Bullinger and Jud which was never officially part of the confession. His access to this limited manuscript addition helps to substantiate the contention of Leslie and others that he was for a time in ‘Germanie’, and provides indirect evidence for a sojourn in Basel or Zürich.

The first Helvetic confession places scripture above tradition, describes creation, original sin, and free will in Augustinian terms, and offers essentially orthodox doctrine on the incarnation, atonement, and final judgment. The Christological articles clearly contradict the charge against Wishart in Bristol: salvation comes only by ‘the marcie of God, and merite of our Sauiour Christ’, and remission of sin ‘by Christes death’. Good deeds follow faith but do not obtain merit before God. The church is governed by Christ and regulated by discipline; ‘Romenishe heedes’ are not recognized, and ‘Idols and Images’ should be ‘put awaye’. The sacraments are ‘tokens of secrete thynges’; they are not ‘naked sygnes, but … sygnes and verities together’, thus distancing the confession from the widespread caricature of Zwingli’s memorialism. For both baptism and the eucharist the confession uses Bucer’s favoured term ‘exhibit’ (exhibere). Baptism is expressly for ‘oure infantes’, and ‘Anabaptistes’ are not welcome in the church. Magistrates have the ius reformandi, and should ensure true preaching, education, discipline, support for ministers, and care for the poor; they should be obeyed so long as their commands do not transgress God’s commands. Finally, marriage is instituted by God for all, and ‘monckely chastite’ is ‘repugnant bothe to the comune weale and to the Churche’ (Laing, 11–23).

Wishart’s translation of the first Helvetic confession generally sticks close to the Latin text as printed in 1581; later versions vary widely. Bullinger and Jud’s addition to the text, translated by Wishart, state that this confession was not a ‘certayne rule’ for all churches, as each could use its own terminology, so long as the meaning was the same. Wishart must have thought that the confession would be useful in Scotland or England, and it is safe to assume that it represents his own theological commitments, particularly as they are corroborated in his trial.

Cambridge, 1542–1543

Wishart was back in England by 1542, at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. Forty years later a fellow student, Emery Tylney, provided John Foxe with a memoir of this ‘talle … polled headed’ man of ‘Melancholye complexion … blacke heared, long bearded … well spoken after his countrey of Scotla[n]d’. Although Tylney did not mention Wishart’s particular involvement in the college, he described this ‘wel traueled’ scholar teaching ‘wyth great modestie and grauitie’. During his tenure, some who thought him ‘seuere’ plotted to kill him, but he ‘amended them’ and escaped their plots. Tylney was particularly struck by Wishart’s personal habits, including the regular donation of his clothes to the poor, apart from his ‘Frenche cappe’; he also regularly gave away his bed-sheets. Wishart fasted ‘one meale in three, one daye in foure’, and bathed himself most nights. Tylney remembered Wishart as one who wished ‘to doe good vnto all, and hurte to none’ (Foxe, 1268).

Apart from his public lecturing and reasonable financial security, nothing further is known of Wishart at Corpus Christi College. He was in Cambridge for only a year, and returned to Scotland in the summer of 1543 (misdated by Knox to 1544) with Henry Balnaves and other Scottish commissioners who had been sent to England to negotiate the marriage of Prince Edward to the infant Queen Mary. No doubt Wishart was lured back to his homeland by the prospect of broadening reforms under the regent, Arran, but by this time Cardinal David Beaton had returned to power and the situation was changed. Perhaps following a stay in Pitarrow, Wishart returned to Montrose and preached in a house two doors from the church, thus beginning a period of itinerant preaching which he would pursue until his death. Details of this period were recorded by Knox, who was an eyewitness to some of them.

Itinerancy in Scotland, 1543–1546

Having left Montrose, Wishart went to Dundee and preached from Romans, also teaching the ten commandments, the creed, and the Lord’s prayer in the vernacular. He continued in spite of both a charge from the governor to desist, and the cursing of Bishop Hepburn of Brechin, until finally Beaton sent Robert Myll to command him in public to cease preaching; Wishart predicted calamity for Dundee as a result. Although some local gentry, and also the third Earl Marischal, wanted him to stay in the area, Wishart departed swiftly for the ‘west-land’ (Works of John Knox, 1.125–6). Wishart’s awareness that he would find support in the south-west reflects the links that had developed between evangelicals in east and west Scotland.

The timing of Wishart’s departure from Angus and the Mearns is difficult to establish. It has generally been assumed that the outbreak of plague which drew Wishart back to Dundee occurred in autumn 1545, so that he may have stayed about a year in the west. One intermediate journey is possible, as it has been suggested that the ‘Scottishman called Wysshert’ who arrived in Newcastle on 17 April 1544 wishing to deliver a letter to Henry VIII, can be identified with George Wishart. This man bore letters from Alexander Crichton of Brunstane declaring that James Kirkcaldy and Lord Rothes would assassinate the cardinal, and that along with the Earl Marischal, Norman Leslie, master of Rothes, James Sandilands of Calder, and ‘friends of lord Grey’ (who was in prison), they would destroy abbeys and bishops’ houses in the east (LP Henry VIII, 19/1, no. 350). The same Wishart had met Henry by 26 April. An identification with George Wishart is suggested by his associations at some point with most of the plotters mentioned in the letters, his time spent in England, and his conflict with the cardinal. Moreover, Wishart might have thought it expedient to leave the country for a while after the burnings of several lay heretics in Perth in January. On the other hand, it seems extremely improbable that Wishart, with no political experience and a reputation for both prophetic denunciation and defiance of authority, would be sent to negotiate with Henry, particularly since he had been forced to recant in England not long before. Other Wisharts who have been suggested as possible bearers of the letter did not have George Wishart’s connections with Crichton of Brunstane, but Wishart’s association with East Lothian evangelicals is certain only from 1545. On balance it seems improbable that George Wishart was the Wishart who made this secret mission.

Some time after Wishart had travelled to the west, Beaton sent Archbishop Gavin Dunbar of Glasgow to prevent him from preaching in Ayr. When Dunbar occupied the church first, Wishart’s supporters (including the fourth earl of Glencairn) wanted to take it by force, but Wishart directed them to one of the market crosses, where he preached a ‘notable’ sermon; no further action was taken against him by Dunbar, and he had wide scope for preaching during his stay, helped by a network of sympathetic lairds. Under their protection he preached at Galston, at the home of the Lockharts of Barr, but at Mauchline he encountered opposition from the sheriff of Ayr, Hugh Campbell of Loudon, who was guarding the church in order to protect a ‘tabernakle’ there, thus associating Wishart’s preaching with iconoclasm. Again Wishart restrained his followers from force, stating that ‘Christ Jesus is as potent upoun the feildis as in the kirk’, and he preached on a dyke for more than three hours, by the end of which Lawrence Rankin of Sheill had undergone a tearful conversion (Works of John Knox, 1.128). Wishart left the west at once for Dundee when he heard of an outbreak of the plague there.

In Dundee, Wishart preached from the East Port of the city walls to the ill without and the healthy within. Both in his preaching and in his physical visitation he comforted the sick, ministering to poor and rich alike, before Beaton sent a priest, John Wigton, to assassinate him. After a sermon, Wishart saw that Wigton had a dagger and wrested it from him, only to embrace his attacker and defend him from the angry congregation. Wishart left Dundee to meet evangelicals from the west in Edinburgh, where they wanted him to hold a public disputation with the bishops. After stopping in Montrose and escaping another of Beaton’s plots, Wishart continued his journey, against the advice of John Erskine of Dun. In Invergowrie he began his repeated predictions that his death was imminent. In December 1545 he arrived in Leith and preached publicly, but was persuaded to leave by evangelical lairds who kept him in their homes at Brunstane, Longniddry, and Ormiston. Now accompanied by an admiring and armed John Knox, he preached at Inveresk, where he denounced two Franciscans whispering in the back with ‘great vehemencye’ in the middle of his sermon (Works of John Knox, 1.136). The following two Sundays he preached to large congregations in Tranent. In Haddington, a similarly large congregation was expected, but in the course of three sermons the numbers decreased, owing to pressure from the third earl of Bothwell, who was sheriff of East Lothian.

Before his final sermon in Haddington, Wishart received word that his western contacts could not arrange the disputation in Edinburgh. Faced with another small audience, Wishart preached for an hour and a half on the judgments that would befall the town, before turning to a short exhortation and returning to Ormiston. He refused to let Knox accompany him on his way, telling him to return to his pupils as ‘[o]ne is sufficient for one sacrifice’ (Works of John Knox, 1.139). After dinner Wishart sang with his friends Psalm 51 in metrical form, and went to bed, only to be awakened by the arrival of Bothwell, who took him into custody, promising to protect him from the cardinal. Wishart was warded by Bothwell until late January 1546, when he was sent to Edinburgh and then to St Andrews. Knox believed that his writings in prison had been suppressed.

Trial and execution

An account of Wishart’s trial, held on 1 March 1546, was printed in 1548 by John Daye; this account, though without the introduction by Robert Burrant, was incorporated verbatim into their histories by Foxe and Knox. Escorted from the castle, by 100 armed men, Wishart ‘flang his purse’ to a beggar on the way to trial (Works of John Knox, 1.150). After a reformist sermon by John Winram, John Lauder read the accusations fervently. Wishart knelt in the pulpit to pray, and unsuccessfully appealed the case to Arran. The eighteen charges against Wishart range widely, and his answers are not always complete, as he was not always given time to respond. First charged with disobedience to the governor’s command to stop preaching, he cited Acts 5, saying that he was obeying God rather than men. A number of accusations concerned the sacraments. The eucharist had to be received with the ‘inward moving of the harte’ or it was ineffective; he cited his encounter on the Rhine to explain his memorialism. The Zwinglian principle of the primacy of scripture is evident in his appeal to a lack of biblical warrant for auricular confession. Regarding the necessity of understanding baptism, Wishart distanced himself from this latent suggestion of radicalism by suggesting that parents should know what is being promised for the infant. On the number of sacraments and on extreme unction, Wishart simply denied teaching anything.

Further accusations dealt with other church practices. Wishart claimed that he had not taught anything about holy water, but that he would accept, like curses, only what was ‘conformable to the word of God’ (Works of John Knox, 1.160). Regarding the eating of meat on Fridays and the criticism of expensive churches, Wishart cited several scriptural passages, and denied encouraging the destruction of churches (although he had not been accused of this). Wishart cited his own practice of fasting in denying the charge that he forbade it.

Doctrinal accusations began with the priesthood of all believers, in defence of which Wishart cited positive scriptural passages. Cut short in answering to the denial of free will, he nevertheless cited passages suggesting a connection between freedom and regeneration. Wishart was direct in denying, as charged, the intercession of saints and purgatory, since these were not found in scripture. On soul sleep, Wishart again strongly denied a radical tenet. Wishart turned the charge of accepting clerical marriage back at the accusers, many of whom had not ‘ower come the concupiscence of the flesche’ (Works of John Knox, 1.164). General and provincial councils were to be obeyed, said Wishart, so long as they were in accord with scripture. Beaton took the precaution of sending the audience away before sentencing Wishart to death.

Awaiting execution in St Andrews Castle, Wishart refused to make confession to two Franciscans, asking instead for Winram. According to Buchanan, the cardinal forbade Winram to give communion to Wishart. However, while eating with the governor of the castle, Wishart gave an extemporaneous sermon on the sufferings of Christ, broke the bread, and gave out communion in both kinds. Taken to the scaffold to the west of the castle, at which the castle ordnance was directed, Wishart blessed beggars and again refused the Franciscans. After a final prayer and exhortation upon the scaffold, forgiving the executioner with a kiss on the cheek, he was hanged and burned. 

Image and influence

Wishart has excited controversy in death as in life, particularly with regard to the extent of his religious radicalism and his involvement in the plots against Beaton. A number of writings on the latter issue were produced in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, without ultimately resolving it. Wishart’s importance in the early period of Scottish protestantism is in any case unquestioned, both as the first proponent of Swiss reformed theology and as a central figure around whom scattered evangelicals could unite, particularly as a martyr. His freedom to preach for more than two years in different parts of a loose evangelical network, combined with his skills in oratory and his theological sophistication, contributed both breadth and depth to religious dissent in Scotland. He may have been the first in that country to preside at a protestant communion. Wishart’s legacy to Scottish protestantism includes a firm commitment to the principle of the primacy of scripture, a tradition of incendiary preaching, sacramental memorialism, and, in limited cases, iconoclasm; perhaps the provision for the poor and the encouragement of fasting in the reformed kirk of the 1560s can also be traced to him.

To contemporaries Wishart was personally gentle and generous, austere but forgiving; however, his vehemence from the pulpit could also show him to be harsh and vindictive, and thus he had both close friends and bitter enemies. John Knox was impressed by both the private and public faces of his mentor, and drew attention repeatedly to what he regarded as Wishart’s gifts of predictive prophecy. Wishart had correctly prophesied not only doom, as to the citizens of Dundee and Haddington, but also that ‘[t]his realme shalbe illuminated with the light of Christis Evangell’ (Works of John Knox, 1.133). Later accounts of Wishart’s death would develop this theme, adding a prediction from the scaffold of Beaton’s imminent death. Wishart’s execution stiffened the resolve of Scottish evangelicals even as it drove them underground, and it reached a wider public still through its inclusion in successive editions of Foxe’s Actes and Monuments; regardless of whether Beaton’s murderers thought of themselves as avenging Wishart’s death, it had lasting consequences.

Buchanan’s nickname for Wishart was Sophocardius, a Greek version of ‘wise heart’, which confused some later writers, including Thomas Dempster, who thought that Wishart and Sophocardius were two different persons. A mural of a papal procession at Pitarrow, which was destroyed in the nineteenth century, evidently depicted a papal procession with satirical verses attached; this has been improbably associated with Wishart. More lastingly, after a commemorative service on the 400th anniversary of Wishart’s death, the letters GW were inserted into the pavement outside St Andrews Castle as a memorial.

Martin Holt Dotterweich

Sources   The works of John Knox, ed. D. Laing, 6 vols., Wodrow Society, 12 (1846–64), vol. 1, pp. 125–72, 534–7; vol. 6, pp. 667–72 · D. Laing, ed., The miscellany of the Wodrow Society, Wodrow Society, [9] (1844), 3–23 · The tragical death of Dauid Beato[n] … wherunto is joyned the martyrdom of maister George Wyseharte (1548) · The maire of Bristowe is kalendar, by Robert Ricart, ed. L. Toulmin Smith, CS, new ser., 5 (1872), 55 · LP Henry VIII, 14/1.65, 499; 19/1.228, 255, 261 · J. Foxe, Actes and monuments, 4th edn, 2 vols. (1583), 1267–72 · G. Buchanan, The history of Scotland, trans. J. Aikman, 6 vols. (1827), 2.353–61 · A. Petrie, A compendious history of the Catholick church, from the year 600 untill the year 1600, 2 vols. (1662), vol. 2, p. 182 · J. M. Thomson and others, eds., Registrum magni sigilli regum Scotorum / The register of the great seal of Scotland, 11 vols. (1882–1914), 3.323 · Reg. PCS, 1st ser., 1.20 · M. H. B. Sanderson, Cardinal of Scotland: David Beaton, c.1494–1546 (1986), 192–4, 206–11, 214–20 · J. Durkan, ‘Scottish reformers: the less than golden legend’, Innes Review, 45 (1994), 1–28, esp. 2–7 · J. Durkan, ‘Scottish evangelicals in the patronage of Thomas Cromwell’, Records of the Scottish Church History Society, 21 (1981–3), 127–56, esp. 143–4, 149–50 · J. Durkan, ‘George Wishart: his early life’, SHR, 32 (1953), 98–9 · M. Skeeters, Community and clergy: Bristol and the Reformation, c.1530–c.1570 (1993) · F. Bardgett, Scotland reformed: the Reformation in Angus and the Mearns (1989) · F. Bardgett, ‘John Erskine of Dun: a theological reassessment’, Scottish Journal of Theology, 43 (1990), 59–86 · M. Sanderson, Ayrshire and the Reformation (1997), 65–8 · J. Kirk, ‘The religion of early Scottish Protestants’, Humanism and reform: the church in Europe, England, and Scotland, 1400–1643, ed. J. Kirk (1991), 382–3 · Heinrich Bullinger Bibliographie, ed. J. Staedtke, 1 (1972), 288–94 · D. Shaw, ‘Zwinglian influences on the Scottish Reformation’, Records of the Scottish Church History Society, 22 (1984–6), 119–39 · J. Kirk, ‘Iconoclasm and reform’, Records of the Scottish Church History Society, 24 (1990–92), 366–83, esp. 378–9 · I. Cowan, The Scottish Reformation (1982), 102–5 · D. MacCulloch, Thomas Cranmer: a life (1996) · G. R. Elton, Policy and police (1985) · G. H. Williams, The radical reformation (1962) · P. Schaff, Creeds of Christendom (1993) · Thomae Dempsteri Historia ecclesiastica gentis Scotorum, sive, De scriptoribus Scotis, ed. D. Irving, rev. edn, 2 vols., Bannatyne Club, 21 (1829)

Likenesses   oils, 1543, Scot. NPG [see illus.] · portrait, U. Glas. · woodcut, repro. in Foxe, Actes and monuments, 1271