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Don't step on Patrick Hamilton: A University of St Andrews Tradition

Updated on October 18, 2017
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Marianne is a history graduate from Scotland. She is interested in cultural history and how myths have developed over time.

Avoid Standing on the Martyr

If you stand for a while on North Street in St Andrews, Scotland and watch people walking past the entrance to St Salvator's Quad. You will notice a lot of them swerve at the same point. They are students avoiding standing on a specific spot with the initials 'PH' on the pavement.

These are the initials of Patrick Hamilton, the first martyr of the Scottish Reformation. Students are told that if they stand on the cobbles they will be cursed by the ghost Patrick Hamilton, and fail their degree.

The Initials on North Street

The PH symbol
The PH symbol | Source

Historical Context

Patrick Hamilton was born in 1504 in Scotland. At this time most of Europe was Christian and loyal to the pope in Rome.

However during Patrick's life the church began one of its most radical changes ever. The sixteenth century saw what is now called the Protestant Reformation. The reform movement was led by Martin Luther of Saxony (part of modern day Germany). In 1517 Martin Luther posted a document called the Ninety-Five Theses which criticized some of the practices of the Catholic Church. Luther questioned the authority of the Pope and suggested that the source of authority for Christianity should be the bible itself. These ideas rapidly spread throughout Europe and threatened the established church, for example by undermining the power of priests, and by suggesting that making donations to the church was not the way to salvation.

Over the course of the sixteenth century these ideas were adopted by many people, resulting in the emergence of two distinct forms of Christianity in Europe: Protestant and Catholic.

Patrick Hamilton was an early Scottish proponent of Protestant ideas who famously died for his beliefs.

Only known portrait of Patrick Hamilton
Only known portrait of Patrick Hamilton | Source

Beliefs

Hamilton's beliefs were influenced by those of Luther. Hamilton's only published work "Patrick's Places" emphasised the importance of faith over "good works".

"works neither make us righteous nor unrighteous: Ergo, no works neither make us good nor evil... Good works make not a good man, nor evil works an evil man: But a good man maketh good works, and an evil man evil works. Good fruit maketh not the tree good, nor evil fruit the tree evil.... A man is good before he do good works, and an evil man is evil before he do evil works; for the tree is good before it bear good fruit, and evil before it bear evil fruit." Patrick Hamilton 1528

Why was this a Problem for the Established Church?

These arguments were a direct challenge to the authority and financing of the established church. In particular the challenge to the importance of "good works" challenged the church's practice of accepting "indulgences'. The idea of indulgences was that order to reduce or be forgiven for one's sins, the church would ask individuals to make a prayer or carry out a good work.

Sometimes this "good work" could include paying money to the church, or indulgences could be bought with cash. Not surprisingly, this practice was subject to abuse by many throughout the Middle Ages - and was open to misuse, by those seeking to make money, rather than genuinely forgive sins.

Luther, Hamilton and other reformers criticised the practice arguing that it was only faith, and not good works that could absolve your sins. You should be judged on your faith, not your actions. This became one of the central beliefs of the Protestant Christian church.

The Catholic church to this day retains the practice of indulgences. Although the Catholic Church did take steps to limit abuse. In 1567 Pope Pius V banned indulgences being granted where the exchange of money was involved.

In Patrick Hamilton's case his public expression of his belief led to him being burned to death.

Patrick Hamilton's Life

Early Life and Studies

Patrick Hamilton was the second son of a nobleman. He became an abbot at a young age, and went abroad to study at the University of Paris. He graduated in 1520, at the age of seventeen. The ideas of Luther and others were being widely debated in Paris, and Hamilton learnt of them there.

St Andrews University

When Hamilton returned to Scotland he settled in the University of St Andrews. He studied at the University, and helped facilitate mass in St Andrews Cathedral. However he began to share and preach some of the new doctrines that he had learnt on the continent. At the time St Andrews was the centre of the established church in Scotland.

The archbishop of St Andrews, James Beaton was not happy when this was brought to his attention, and ordered that Hamilton should be tried for heresy. This means holding beliefs that were contrary to the established religion and doctrine.

Flight to the Continent

In 1527 Hamilton fled from Scotland to the new University of Marburg in Hesse (part of modern day Germany). While there he met Herman von dem Busche, another humanist writer who influenced his thinking.

Return to Scotland

Late in 1527 Hamilton returned to Scotland to live with his brother in Linlithgow and preach his doctrines. In 1528 he published a book called Loci Communes, also known as Patrick's Places which was influenced by Luther's doctrines about the difference between 'Law' and 'Gospel'. This emphasised the importance of faith rather than good works as the means to salvation.

Trial and Sentence to Death

Hamilton was summoned to appear before the Archbishop and his council of bishops and clergy to answer for his 'heretical crimes'.

He was charged with:

"being found in many ways infamed with heresy, disputing, holding and maintianing diverse heresies of Martin Luther and his followers, repugnant to our faith"

Hamilton stuck to his belief that the doctrines he believed in were true, so he was sentenced to be burnt at the stake for his crimes of heresy on 29 February 1728. According to the legend his death was slow and agonising, during which time he continued to stick to his beliefs. It is said it took 6 hours for him to die.

His last words are said to have been:

"How long shall darkness overwhelm this realm? And how long wilt Thou suffer this tyranny of men? Lord Jesus, receive my spirit"


Key Dates and Places

1504: born probably in Stanehouse, Lanarkshire, Scotland

1517: appointed Abbot of Fearn Abbey, Ross-shire, Scotland

1520: graduates with a Master of Arts degree from the University of Paris, France. Exposed to the writings of Martin Luther. Hamilton is also said to have spent time in Leuven, Belgium where Erasmus was based.

1523: became a member of St Leonard's College at the University of St Andrews, Scotland

1524: admitted to the faculty of arts at St Andrews University, Scotland. Preached doctrines influenced by what he had learnt on the continent.

1527: James Beaton, the Archbishop of St Andrews ordered that Hamilton be tried for heretical preaching

1527: Hamilton fled to the University of Marburg in Hesse (now Germany), but later returned to Scotland

1528: Found guilty of heresy and burnt

Legacy

Over the course of the sixteenth century Scotland was to undergo a fundamental change in religion, and become a primarily Protestant country. For the next few centuries Catholicism was a minority religion in Scotland, and many of the Catholics that remained had to practise their religion in secret. Patrick Hamilton became a famous Protestant martyr.

The Entrance to St Salvator's Chapel

It is said that you can see Patrick Hamilton's face in the stonework. Zoom in to the brickwork and you might see where!
It is said that you can see Patrick Hamilton's face in the stonework. Zoom in to the brickwork and you might see where! | Source

The Modern Myth: the University of St Andrews

As described above Patrick Hamilton's initials can be found on North Street in St Andrews outside the entrance to St Salvator's Quad and Chapel. This is said to mark the spot where he was burned at the stake.

Many modern day University of St Andrews students avoid stepping on the initials, just in case the rumour that Patrick Hamilton will make them fail their degree has some truth.

It is said that if students do accidentally step on the initials they can counteract the effect of stepping on the PH by partaking in another St Andrews tradition, the May Dip. This involves swimming in the North Sea at around sunrise on the morning on 1 May.

North Street, St Andrews

A markerNorth Street, St Andrews -
North Street, Saint Andrews, Fife KY16, UK
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Plaque about the PH initials

Source

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    • daydreams profile image
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      Marianne Sherret 4 years ago from Scotland, UK

      Thank you for pointing out the typo - I have fixed it. Glad you enjoyed the hub. Yes, I have studied at St Andrews, seems a long time ago now. If you are into the seaside and ice creams it is a good place to visit on holiday too.

    • MJFenn profile image

      MJFenn 4 years ago

      daydreams: Interesting article! and informative. Hamilton was influenced by Luther, certainly, but in the end from the source which Luther, too, was influenced from: a close reading of Scripture rather than tradition. Enjoyed your hub; none of my hubs about places in Scotland include any about St Andrews because I never visited there! (Did you study there, maybe?) Thank-you. (Ontario, Canada)

      PS: Typo which says '1728' in the main body of your text means 1528, I think.