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John Hamilton

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Archbishop of St. Andrews; b. 1511; d. at Stirling, 1571; a natural son of James, first Earl of Arran. Placed in childhood with the Benedictines of Kilwinning, he acquired, through James V, the abbacy of Paisley, which he held from the age of fourteen till his death. It is doubtful whether he ever actually entered the order. After studying in Glasgow he entered the University of Paris. Then he received holy Orders, and returned to Scotland in 1543. His half-brother James, second Earl of Arran, being then regent during Mary Stuart's minority, Hamilton was speedily promoted to important offices of state, becoming privy seal, and later, high treasurer. Knox's "Historie" gives evidence of the hopes entertained by the reformers of winning him over, but he soon showed himself a strong partisan of Cardinal Beaton and the Catholic party, and was instrumental in overcoming the Protestant sympathy of Arran and reconciling him with the cardinal. In 1544 Hamilton was appointed Bishop of Dunkeld, and after the assassination of Beaton, succeeded that prelate not only as metropolitan, but also as the prominent opponent of nascent Protestantism. By the assembling of ecclesiastical councils in 1549, 1552 and 1559, the archbishop took an important part in the framing of statutes for the much-needed reformation of the clergy and religious instruction of the laity. When the packed parliament of 1560 voted the overthrow of Catholicism and the adoption of the Protestant "Confession of Faith", Hamilton was the leading dissentient. He has been accused of making too feeble a protest, but his correspondence with Beaton, Archbishop of Glasgow, then in Paris, shows that he regarded the matter as one of less serious import than events proved. When the Abbey of Paisley was wrecked by the reforming mob in that same year, Hamilton narrowly escaped with his life. In 1563 he was seized and put to trial together with forty-seven other ecclesiastics, on the charge of saying Mass and hearing confessions, contrary to the new laws; after imprisonment for a time, he was released through the queen's intervention. He baptized with solemn rites, in December, 1566, the infant prince James, afterwards James VI. The opposition of the Protestant party to the use of Catholic ceremonies, upon which Mary was determined, had delayed the baptism for six months. The queen having restored the archbishop's consistorial jurisdiction, which the parliament of 1560 had abolished, he took his seat in the assembly of 1567. In the troubles which beset the hapless Mary, Hamilton was the queen's constant supporter. After the ruin of her hopes at Langside, and her flight into England, which he had done his utmost to prevent, he was compelled to seek his own safety in Dumbarton Castle, but in 1571 that stronghold was cast down and Hamilton taken prisoner. He was carried to Stirling, and three days after his capture, was hanged there in his pontifical vestments on the common gibbet. No record remains of any formal trial; he was put to death on the strength of his previous forfeiture as a traitor on the fall of Mary. Though a man of wisdom and moderation, possessed of many sterling qualities, and a valiant champion of the Catholic cause, Hamilton was not free from grave irregularities in his private life, as records of legitimation of his natural children testify. His complicity in the murders of Darnley and of the regent Murray has never been proved; with his last breath he protested that his death was due solely to his loyalty to Church and sovereign. It is difficult to explain how he could declare the nullity from consanguinity of the marriage between Bothwell and his countess, enabling the earl to espouse Queen Mary, although he had previously granted the necessary dispensation; it has been suggested, however, that the dispensation was worthless, owing to some flaw.

Two works bearing his name, since they were published by his authority and at his expense, though compiled by another, are "Archbishop Hamilton's Catechism" and "Ane Godlie Exhortatioun". The catechism was printed at St. Andrews in August, 1552. It had been drawn up in obedience to a decree of the provincial council of the previous January, for the use of the clergy in instructing their people. The council ordered it to be read in the churches on all Sundays and Holy Days, when there happened to be no sermon, for the space of half an hour.

The work consists of an introduction commending its use to the clergy, followed by another addressed to the laity on the necessity of a thorough knowledge of the doctrines of faith. The body of the book is divided into four parts: I, "Of the ten commandis", consisting of 26 chapters; II, "The twelf artiklis of the Crede", in 13 chapters; III, "The sevin Sacramentis", 13 chapters; IV, "Of the maner how Christin men and wemen suld mak their prayer to God"; 10 chapters are devoted to an explanation of the seven petitions of the Pater Noster, followed by instructions on the Ave Maria, invocation of saints, and prayer for the dead. The whole work is in the vernacular Scottish of the period. The catechism is thoroughly Catholic in tone, while it has been highly commended, even by Protestant writers, such as Bishop Keith and Hill Burton, as an excellent work of its kind—learned, moderate, and skilfully compiled. It is especially valuable as a specimen of pure Scottish speech, unadulterated by foreign idioms. The original work is very rare. There have been two reprints; one a facsimile in 1882, edited by Professor Mitchell; the other published in 1884 with a preface by the Right Hon. W.E. Gladstone.

The "Godlie Exhortatioun" is much smaller, consisting of but four pages of black letter. It was printed in 1559. Besides its proper title, it has often borne that of "The Twopenny Faith", given in derision on account of its price when hawked abroad by pedlars. The treatise consists of an explanation of Holy Communion; it was intended to be read by the clergy to the people when the latter approached the sacraments. A facsimile reprint is appended to the 1882 edition of the catechism.

Hamilton was a munificent benefactor to his cathedral city; he completed and endowed St. Mary's College, strengthened the castle, erected other buildings, and constructed as many as fourteen bridges in the neighbourhood. He was the last Catholic metropolitan of the pre-Reformation Church in Scotland.


LANG, History of Scotland (Edinburgh and London, 1902), II, 235; BELLESHEIM, tr. HUNTER-BLAIR, Hist. of the Cath. Church in Scotland (Edinburgh, 1890), II, 200-219, 240-53, 302-7; III, 15, 73, 117, 128, 154, 161-4, 214; Regist. Mag. Sigil. in Rolls Series, 1551 and 1580; THEINER, Monumenta (Rome, 1864), 538; MITCHELL, Archbishop Hamilton's Catechism (Edinburgh, 1882).

About this page

APA citation. Barrett, M. (1910). John Hamilton. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Barrett, Michael. "John Hamilton." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 7. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by WGKofron. With thanks to Fr. John Hilkert and St. Mary's Church, Akron, Ohio.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. June 1, 1910. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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