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Chapter XVIII: Abbot John Hamilton, 1525-1547

Ebbed, far away from prior and priest,
The life that day by day increased;
From kirk and choir ebbed far away
The thought that gathered day by day;
And round the altars drew
A weak, unlettered crew.
                            W. C. Smith.



THE youthful Monk of Kilwinning, whose appointment to the Abbacy of Paisley scandalised Magnus, the English Ambassador, seems to have had nothing against him but his tender age. He was a lad of virtue and of learning, and even John Knox allows him to have had in his youth a reputation for piety and purity of life which was not always associated with ecclesiastics of that period. [1] At the time when he assumed the mitre, Paisley was famed throughout the kingdom as a place of pilgrimage and devotion. It was then one of the four great places of pilgrimage in Scotland, and shared that honour with Melrose, Scone, and Dundee.[2] The shrine of St. Mirin and Our Ladye of Paisley [3] were held; in high esteem by the devout, and in the Chamberlain's Accounts of James V. there is a disbursement to “thirteen chaplains to say mess afor oure Ladye of Paislay” The youthful head of the Abbey seems at this time to have taken little interest in its affairs. In October, 1525, Alexander Walcar, claustral prior of the Monastery, acts as his depute in letting the Abbey lands. [4] Four years after his appointment, the Abbot constituted certain noblemen and others his procurators, giving them full power for holding courts, levying rents, inflicting fines, and carrying on the management of the temporalities. [5] The names of these commissioners are not given in the deed of appointment, but the transference of authority to them indicates that the Abbot himself hardly pretended to rule. In 1535 his name appears in the Parliament which prohibited the works of the great heretic Luther from being introduced into Scotland, and forbade all discussion of the new opinions except with a view to prove their falsehood. In 1540 he was again in Parliament. The new doctrines were beginning to spread. Several heretics had been burned. The English Court was doing everything possible to promulgate the Reformed opinions in Scotland, and it took all the power of King and Parliament to repress them. [6] They seemed, however, for a time to be successful in staying the growth of heresy. The Church was seemingly as powerful as ever; and it was with little idea of any impending change that the Abbot left Scotland for France—it is said to study at the University of Paris, [7] leaving the Abbey under the government of the Prior. The Abbot remained abroad for three years, during which great changes took place in Scotland. When he returned James V. was dead. The Earl of Arran, the brother of the Abbot, was Governor of the Kingdom. The principles of Protestantism were in the ascendant. The Governor was favourable to the new views, and entertained in his house two Protestant preachers. Cardinal Beaton was in disgrace. The Bible in the vulgar tongue was permitted by Parliament to be read by the common people and the way to obtain favour at Court was to profess reformed opinions. The coming home of the Abbot of Paisley was watched by the Church party and their opponents with the greatest interest. There was much speculation as to the part he would take. Henry VIII. received him graciously at his Court as he passed through England, and bestowed on him many presents, [8] seeking to bind him to his interest and that of the Reformation party. It was the custom of that Monarch to attach men to him by bribes, and much of the spoil of the English monasteries went in that way. The Abbot was accompanied by David Panter, a distinguished ecclesiastic, afterwards Bishop of Ross; and John Knox tells what deep interest they excited on their return. [9] “The brut [10] of the learning of the two, and their honest lyff, and of thare fervency and uprightness in religion, was such that great esperance thare was that their presence should have been comfortable to the Kirk of God. For it was constantly affirmed of them that without delay the one and the other of thame weld occupye the pulpit and trewly preach Jesus Christ.” [11]


[1] John Knox, Hist., Vol. I., Wodrow Society, page 106.
[2] Chambers' Domestic Annals, Vol. I., p. 27.
[3] Chamberlain's Accounts in Pitcairn's Criminal Trials.
[4] On 21st April, 1535, he signs leases at Paisley as Abbot.
[5] Reg. de Pas., p. 435, dated 20th Jan., 1529. See Rental, in Appendix.
[6] Pitcairn's Criminal Trials, p. 278.
[7] Crawford's “Officers of State.”
[8] 1543.—“Johne Hamiltone, Abbot of Paisley, the Regent's brother, who had been long in France following his studies, returns home through England, and is made very welcome by King Henry, and is dismissed with rich propyns.”—Balfour, Vol. I., p. 278.
[9] Hamilton returned between the 2d and 15th April, 1543.
[10] Report.
[11] Knox Hist., Wod. Ed., Vol. I., p. 106.