Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Wishart, George (1513?-1546)

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WISHART, GEORGE (1513?–1546), Scottish reformer, was a cadet of the family of Wishart of Pittarrow, near Montrose [cf. Wishart, Robert], but whether he was a younger son of James Wishart of Pittarrow, who was justice clerk between 1513 and 1520, or his nephew, both of which conjectures have been made, is uncertain. The supposed date of his birth is taken from the inscription ‘1543 ætatis suæ 30’ on a portrait which belonged to Archibald Wishart, W.S., Edinburgh, who died in 1850, and is now in the National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh. It is believed by good judges to be genuine, though its ascription to Holbein, who died in 1543, is very improbable. Wishart first appears on record as witness to a charter by John Erskine (1509–1591) [q. v.] of Dun on 20 March 1535 (Great Seal Register, No. 1462), in which he is styled ‘Master G. Wishart;’ and, as he is unlikely to have acted as witness under the age of twenty-one, his birth can scarcely have been later than 1514, and so corroborates the date on the portrait. It has been conjectured that he was educated and graduated in arts at King's College, Aberdeen; his designation on the above portrait as master appears to show he had taken a degree in arts. Alexander Petrie [q. v.], in his ‘Compendious Church History,’ 1662, says he heard when young, ‘from very antient men,’ that Wishart ‘had been a schoolmaster at Montrose, and there did teach his disciples the New Testament in Greek.’ If so, it was no doubt at the grammar school of that town, whither Erskine of Dun had brought in 1534 a Frenchman, Marsilier, to teach Greek, the first introduction of that language into the schools of Scotland. Wishart probably acted as assistant after learning the language from Marsilier. Richard, the father of James Melville [q. v.], is said in his son's diary to have been one of Wishart's companions at Montrose. Petrie also relates that in 1538 Wishart was summoned on a charge of heresy by John Hepburn, bishop of Brechin, for teaching the Greek New Testament, and fled the country, but after six years returned ‘with more knowledge of the truth and more zeal.’

In 1538, or more probably in 1539, a Scotsman, Wishart, is mentioned in two English documents as lecturing in Bristol, at that date in the diocese of Worcester, of which Hugh Latimer [q. v.] was then bishop. He was accused of heresy by John Kerne, dean of Worcester, and sent to the archbishop of Canterbury, by whom, the bishops of Bath, Norwich, and Chichester, and other doctors, he was convicted and condemned; he bore his fagot (i.e. recanted his heresy) on 15 July in the church of St. Nicholas, and on 20 July in Christ Church (Ricart, Kalendar, Camden Soc., p. 55; cf. Letters and Papers of Henry VIII, xiv. i. 184, 1095). It has been doubted by Dr. Grub (Ecclesiastical History of Scotland) whether these documents refer to George Wishart; but as they name George ‘Wischarde,’ a Scotsman born (the difference in spelling the name meaning nothing at that date), and correspond precisely to the time when he fled from Scotland, where also he had been accused of heresy, the inference is strong that they do. Dr. McCrie, in his ‘Life of Knox,’ through the miswriting of the word ‘nouther’ as ‘mother’ in the copy sent him of the Bristol entry, was misled into the belief that Wishart's heresy was a denial, not of the merit of Christ, but of the Virgin Mary; but Dr. Lorimer (Scottish Reformation, 1860) corrected this by inspection of the original record, which has been also correctly printed in Seyer's ‘Memoirs of Bristol.’ It may be doubted, however, whether the denial of the merit of Christ attributed to Wishart was not the misrepresentation of his accusers. No similar charge was brought against him in Scotland either before or after his visit to Bristol.

Either in 1539 or in 1540 Wishart left England and visited probably both Germany and Switzerland. After his return he translated from the Latin the ‘Confession of Faith of the Church and Congregation of Switzerland,’ called the ‘Helvetic Confession.’ It was not printed till after his death, probably in 1548; it was reprinted in 1844 by David Laing in the ‘Wodrow Miscellany’ (i. 11), from a copy belonging to William Henry Miller of Craigentinny, which is believed to be unique. About 1543 Wishart returned to England and became a member of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. One of his pupils, Emery Tylney, has left a graphic portrait of his person, habits, and character. ‘Master George Wishart, commonly called Master George, of Benet's College, who was a man of tall stature, polled headed, and on the same a round French cap of the best, judged to be of melancholy complexion from his physiognomy, black-haired, long-bearded, comely of personage, well spoken after his country of Scotland, courteous, lovely, glad to teach, desirous to learn, and was well travelled; having on him for his habit a clothing never but a mantle or frieze gown to the shoes, a black Millian fustian doublet and plain black hosen, coarse new canvas for his shirts and white falling bands and cuffs at the hands, all the which apparel he gave to the poor, some monthly, some quarterly, as he liked saving his French cap, which he kept the year of my being with him. He was a man modest, temperate, fearing God, hating covetousness, for his charity had never end night, hour, nor day; he forbore one meal in three one day in four for the most part except something to comfort nature; he lay hard upon a puff of straw, coarse new canvas sheets which, when he changed, he gave away. … He loved me tenderly and I him for my age as effectually.’ He went into Scotland, Tylney adds, ‘with divers of the nobility that came for a treaty to King Henry VIII,’ probably in July 1543.

The Scottish reformer has often been identified, even by Tytler and Burton, with the Wishart who was concerned in the plot to murder Cardinal Beaton (cf. State Papers, Henry VIII, v. 377; Haynes, Burghley State Papers, i. 32–3; Hamilton Papers, ii. 344; art. Wishart, Sir John). This Wishart had relations with Crichton, laird of Brunston in Midlothian, who was undoubtedly willing to engage in a plot to murder Beaton, and who became in 1546 an active supporter of the reformer when he made a preaching tour in that county. Froude (iv. 28) argues that, whether this was so or not, the murder of such a prelate as Beaton would not have been alien to the temper of such reformers as Wishart or Knox; and Bellesheim and Canon Dixon naturally adopt the identification (Hist. Church of England, 3rd ed. ii. 389–90). The evidence, however, is inadequate to identify the two Wisharts, and it has been shown not only that the name was common, but even that there was a George Wishart, merchant and baillie, of Dundee, who had allied himself with the plotters against the cardinal's life (Laing's edition of Knox's History of the Reformation, App. ix. p. 536; Maxwell, Old Dundee, p. 92). Such a part as the Wishart who came from the laird of Brunston in April 1544 played is, in spite of Froude's opinion, out of keeping with the character of George Wishart. There is no evidence that he returned to England in 1544. Nothing came of the Brunston plot, and the burning of Wishart preceded the assassination of the cardinal.

Petrie, who had private information, mentions that Wishart ‘came home’ in 1544, and this agrees with Knox. It is possible that by ‘home’ Petrie means Montrose, and not merely Scotland, whither Wishart seems to have returned about July 1543, for he goes on to say, ‘He preached first in Montrose within a private house next to the church except one,’ which had evidently been pointed out to Petrie. If he went to Montrose and began preaching there in 1544, it is extremely unlikely that he went back to England from East Lothian in the spring of the same year. He is credited by tradition with painting some frescoes in the house of Pittarrow, now destroyed, one of which showed a procession at Rome of the pope and cardinals, and had satirical verses written under it.

From this point till his death the life of Wishart has been told by John Knox, his disciple and intimate friend. Knox's vivid narrative may be relied on for facts within his personal knowledge or communicated to him by Wishart himself, or, as regards his trial and execution, by eye-witnesses, but must be received with caution when it contains inferences against Cardinal Beaton or prophecies attributed to Wishart. In 1545 Wishart went from Montrose to Dundee, where he preached on the epistle to the Romans, till Robert Myll, one of the principal men of the town, inhibited him in the name of Mary of Guise and the governor Arran. He came down from the pulpit into the the kirk, but not before he had threatened his adversaries with God's vengeance by fire and sword for interfering with His messenger. The earl marshal and other noblemen entreated him to stay. He declined and passed ‘with all expedition’ to Ayrshire, another centre of the reformers, where the lollards of Kyle had sown seed which had never been wholly rooted out by persecution. He was driven from Ayr by Dunbar, the bishop of Glasgow, who took possession of the church and preached against him, though the Earl of Glencairn and the gentlemen of Kyle supported him. Before leaving he preached at the market cross ‘so notable a sermon that the very enemies themselves were confounded.’ In Kyle he remained some time, preaching commonly at the kirk of Galston, residing at the house of Lockhart of Barrs in that parish. In summer he preached at Mauchlin, and being debarred from using the kirk by Campbell of Mongaswood and other catholic gentlemen, he preached from a dyke on the Muir, near Mauchlin, saying to his supporter Campbell of Kinzeancleuch, afterwards the devoted friend of Knox, that Christ is ‘as potent in the field as in the kirk.’ News having come that Dundee was suffering from the plague, he returned thither probably in August, and preached at the head of the East Port, the sick sitting or standing outside the port, from the text, ‘He sent his word and healed them,’ Psalm cvii. Not content with preaching, though this was his special office, he visited the plague-stricken and aided the poor. A desperate priest, Sir John Wighton, was, according to Knox, sent by the cardinal to murder him. Wishart, suspecting his design, drew the whinger out of his hand, but saved Wighton from the vengeance of his followers. He remained in Dundee till the plague ceased, and then passed to Montrose, where the cardinal, by a forged letter pretending to be an invitation from Wishart's friend John Kinnear of that ilk in Fife, tried to draw him into an ambuscade laid for him within a mile and a half from Montrose. Suspecting the plot, Wishart declined to go until his followers had examined the road and discovered the ambush. Wishart, when told, exclaimed, according to Knox, ‘I know I shall finish this my life by this bloodthirsty man's hands, but it will not be in this manner.’ Having trysted the gentlemen of the west to meet him at Edinburgh, he returned to Dundee and stayed a night at Invergowrie with ‘a faithful brother,’ James Watson, where also he prophesied his own early death and the triumph of the Reformation. Next day he went to Perth, and so by the Fife ferry crossed the Forth to Edinburgh. On Sunday, 10 Dec., he preached at Leith from the parable of the sowers. Continuously preaching in various parishes in the neighbourhood, he passed after Christmas to Haddington, where his audience, which had been large at his other sermons, diminished through the influence of Patrick Hepburn, third earl of Bothwell [q. v.] He stayed at the house of David Forres (afterwards general of the mint), and at Lethington with Sir Richard Maitland [q. v.], who was ‘ever civil albeit not persuaded in religion.’ Next day he received a note that the gentlemen who promised to come from Kyle to him could not come, and he told John Knox, then acting as tutor at Longniddry, who had been with him since he came to Lothian, that ‘he wearied of the world.’ He had again few hearers, and in his sermon he inveighed against their absence. Like Knox, he had full assurance of his own mission, and never spared the denunciation of his opponents. The same day, before midnight, he was seized by Bothwell in the house of Ormiston, to which he had been taken by Cockburn, its laird, Sandilands the younger of Calder, and Crichton of Brunston. He had refused the company of Knox, who attended him since he came to Lothian with a two-handed sword, saying to him, ‘Return to your bairns, and God blesse you; one is sufficient for one sacrifice.’ After supper he had spoken of the death of God's chosen children, asked his host and fellow guests to join in singing the fifty-first Psalm in Scots metre, and gone earlier than his wont to bed, praying ‘God grant qwyet rest.’ His rest was broken by Bothwell, who declared that opposition was vain, as the governor and cardinal, who were at Elphinston Tower, were coming after him. On a promise being given by Bothwell that he would preserve him from violence and not deliver him to the will of the governor or the cardinal, he surrendered. Bothwell took Wishart to Edinburgh, and then brought him back to his own house of Hales. There, soon after 19 Jan. 1545–6, on a warrant of the privy council, he delivered Wishart, who was transported to Edinburgh Castle. At the end of January the governor gave him up to the cardinal, who took him to the Sea Tower in his castle of St. Andrews, where he remained in strict confinement. On 28 Feb. he was tried by a convocation of bishops and other clergy.

Knox and Pitscottie both give a full account of the trial and articles of accusation brought forward by John Lauder, archdeacon of Teviotdale, and Andrew Oliphant, with Wishart's answers from a tract printed by John Daye, and embodied in the first edition of Foxe's ‘Book of Martyrs,’ printed at Basle in 1559, with many affecting particulars of the last day of Wishart's life. The substance of Wishart's defence was an appeal to scripture from the leading doctrines of the catholic church on the mass, auricular confession, purgatory, the celibacy of the clergy, and the authority of the church, than which there could be in the eyes of his judges no more damning heresy. How far the narrative of the trial is accurate it would be hard to say. It was certainly embellished by Foxe and Knox with Wishart's prophecy of the cardinal's speedy death, which Pitscottie also gives: ‘God forgive that yon man that lies so glorious on yon wall head; but within a few days he shall lye as shameful as he lyes glorious now.’ Wishart was convicted of heresy, and burnt on 1 March 1545–6 on the ground at the foot of the castle wynd opposite the castle gate. His last words given by Knox were spoken to the executioner, to whose prayer for forgiveness Wishart answered, ‘Come hither to me, and when he was come kissed his cheek, and said, “Lo, here is a token that I forgive thee. My harte, do thine office.”’

Lindsay of Pitscottie (Scottish Text Society's edit. ii. 54, 56) mentions that the cardinal sent to the governor for a criminal judge to ‘give doom on Master George if the clergy found him guilty,’ and the governor wrote to the cardinal to continue the case until they had spoken together, but if he would not, that ‘his own blood would be on his own head.’ If this is true, Beaton accepted the responsibility. He seems certainly to have been present at the burning, watching it with the other bishops from the tower near the gate, nor is there any record of a sentence by a temporal judge. Beaton's murder was avowedly in revenge for Wishart's death, though some of the actors had other grievances.

Besides the portrait above referred to, there are portraits professing to be of George Wishart in the college of Glasgow, and in the Roman catholic college of Blairs, Aberdeenshire, which are of doubtful authenticity. Wishart's only known writing is the translation of the ‘Helvetic Confession’ above referred to. It has been conjectured that he may have had some share in an ‘Order for Burial of the Dead’ used at Montrose, also printed in the ‘Wodrow Society Miscellany.’

[Tylney's Narrative in Foxe's Book of Martyrs, Knox's account of Wishart in his History of the Reformation, and Pitscottie's Chronicles are the primary and contemporary authorities; Laing's notes are, as always, instructive. There is, unfortunately, no account of Wishart on the catholic side, except that of Lesley in his History, which is very brief. Petrie, in his Compendious History of the Church (The Hague, 1662), adds a few particulars. By modern writers more than one controversy has been raised over Wishart's life, which of course could not be passed over by any church historian. Grubb's Ecclesiastical History is the most impartial. The late Professor Weir's article in the North British Review, 1868, and Professor Mitchell's note in his edition of the Gude and Godlie Ballates (Scottish Text Society, 1897); Rogers's Memoir of George Wishart, 1876; Hay Fleming's Martyrs and Confessors of St. Andrews; The Truth about George Wishart, by W. Cramond, 1898.]

Æ. M.