top of page
  • Writer's pictureDr. Roger D Duke

This Day in Christian History: The Burning of George Wishart

George Wishart, 1513-1546

Some assert his burning helped begin the Scottish Reformation!

By the way, has anyone noticed the date of George Wishart's birth - 1513?

Well, we have!  And we are planning a commemorative quincintennial event to celebrate George Wishart's birthday on August 31st, 2013, preliminary details here.

George Wishart was born in 1513, the son of James Wyschart and Elizabeth Learmont. His father was the Laird of Pitarrow, so he was probably born in Pitarrow House, and his father was the Laird until 1525.

George Wishart studied classics at the University of Aberdeen and worked as a schoolmaster at the Grammar School in Montrose, where the first teaching of Greek in Scottish schools began. He taught the New Testament in Greek.

But in 1538, he was charged with heresy by the Bishop of Brechin and fled to Switzerland and Germany where he joined the followers of Jean Calvin (1509-64). He returned to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge in 1543, and then to Scotland in 1544 as part of a mission sent by the English King Henry VIII (1509-1547) to arrange the marriage of his son Edward (later Edward VI (1547-1553)) to the young Mary, Queen of Scots (1542-87). Wishart's story from 1544 to 1546 was told by John Knox who was his disciple and friend.....

George Wishart was a famous member of the Pitarrow family, the martyr, a powerful Protestant preacher, confidant and mentor of John Knox. While preaching the Protestant Reform in 1546 he was betrayed to Cardinal David Beaton and imprisoned in the bottle dungeon at the Castle in St. Andrews. Subsequently he was tried for heresy, condemned to death and burnt at the stake outside the Castle.

Some weeks later George Wishart's friends conspired against the Cardinal and gained entry to the Castle by subterfuge. They found Cardinal Beaton in his room, killed him and hung his body from the battlements. It is said that afterwards they formed, in the Castle, the first congregation of the Church of Scotland.

The spot where George Wishart died is marked by the letters GW in cobblestones outside the Castle, and commemorated by a plaque nearby (erected jointly by the St. Andrews Preservation Trust and the Wishart Society). He is also recorded on the Martyr's Monument at St. Andrews, and in a painting by John Drummond entitled "George Wishart on his way to Execution Administering the Sacrament for the First Time in Scotland after the Protestant Reform". The painting below is entitled "Wishart's Last Exaltation", by Sir William Quiller Orchardson (1832-1910). It is reproduced courtesy of the University of St. Andrews.

Preaching throughout this part of Scotland, especially in Dundee during an outbreak of the plague, Wishart came to the notice of Cardinal Beaton who planned an ambush for him which failed. Wishart is reputed to have said "I know that I shall finish my life in that bloodthirsty man's hands, but it will not be after this manner".

Wishart went to Edinburgh and preached at Leith where he was seized by the Earl of Bothwell, taken to Edinburgh Castle and then handed over to Cardinal Beaton who brought him back to St. Andrews Castle. There he was condemned to be burnt at the stake.

On the fateful day the Captain of the Castle invited Wishart to breakfast and gave him bags of gunpowder to put in his clothing. The executioner fell on his knees before the pyre to beg Wishart's forgiveness, which he gave. When the burning began the gunpowder exploded but did not kill him straight away and his agony was prolonged. Cardinal Beaton watched from his window.

Public reaction was hostile, and George Wishart's martyrdom was the real trigger which set the Reformation in train in Scotland.  For a contemporary account of George Wishart's life and death, see Martyrdom, or download Charles Rogers' 19th century book Life of George Wishart here.

Taken and adapted from the Wishart Society by the editor, can be found at

8 views0 comments


bottom of page