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January 25th 1544

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The heretics of Perth

Though it was to be another sixteen years before Scotland officially embraced the doctrines of Protestantism, there were already many people receptive to the new religious ideas. The fact that heresy, which tended to mean merely opposition to the Catholic faith, was in almost all cases punishable by death, served not to stamp out the heretical opinions but only to provide more martyrs for the Protestant cause. The town of Perth was particularly receptive to the new doctrines, perhaps because the multiplicity of religious houses in the town demonstrated too often the corruption into which the Catholic orders had fallen.

In January 1544, while on a visit to Perth, Cardinal Beaton and the Earl of Arran, acting as Regent for the country, received a complaint from Friar Spence that Robert Lamb and his wife Helen Stark had interrupted his sermon in which he had taught that there was no salvation without intercession and prayers to the saints. They confessed the charge adding that it was the duty of everyone who knew the truth to bear testimony to it and not suffer people to be abused with false doctrine as that was.

Also accused were three men indicted for nailing two ram’s horns to the head of a statue of St Francis, putting a cow’s rump to his tail and eating goose on All Hallow’s eve. Another, James Hunter, “simple and unlearned”  was charged with haunting the company of the heretics. Helen Stark was further charged with refusing to pray to the Virgin Mary when in child birth. She had said that she would only pray to God in the name of Jesus Christ. All were condemned to die.

The townspeople were in a tumult but because of an apparent promise made by Arran they were persuaded to go back to their homes. But “the Cardinal who had the Regent in his power had taken his measures.”  Next day they were brought out for execution while Cardinal Beaton “feasted his eyes from the window of the Spey tower with their execution.”  After the men were executed Helen Stark was taken “to a pool of water hard by, where having recommended her children to the charity of her neighbours, her sucking child being taken from her breast and given to a nurse, she was drowned and died with great courage and comfort.” 

Perth continued to be a centre of opposition to the Catholic faith. Two years later Cardinal Beaton himself was murdered in his own castle of St Andrews and his lifeless body left suspended from the walls.

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