Scotland’s Protestant Martyrs: Helen Stirk

from Jul 18, 2015 Category: Articles

Among the twenty-odd persons martyred for their beliefs during the decades preceding Scotland’s official embrace of Protestantism (1560), there was only one woman: Helen Stirk.

The only information we have about Helen Stirk’s life comes to us, ironically, from accounts of her death. We know that she was married, that she was the mother of at least one child, and that she was a woman of rather remarkable faith and courage. Beyond that, her life and doings remain shrouded in mystery.

Helen was arrested in Perth on the 25th of January, 1544, along with her husband, James Ronaldson, and three other residents of the town, Robert Lamb, William Anderson, and James Hunter. Perth, like most of Scotland’s east-coast towns, proved to be a hotbed for reforming ideas, largely because its shipping industry guaranteed regular contact with the European continent (and thus continental books and ideas). Sensitive to the inroads Protestantism was making in Perth, several high ranking officials of the Roman Catholic Church visited the town in early 1544 with the express intent of discouraging evangelical opinions. The detainment of Helen and her husband and friends was one outcome of that visit.

The five persons apprehended were collectively charged with meeting to read and study an English Bible together, in direct violation of recent Scottish laws prohibiting the possession and/or reading of vernacular editions of Scripture. Judging by the nature of the additional charges brought against the members of this illegal Bible study, their corporate reading and examination of Scripture had powerfully influenced their convictions about God and the gospel.

So, for instance, Robert Lamb was charged with disrupting the preaching of a local Friar surnamed Spence when said Friar’s teaching proved to be at odds with New Testament teaching. Lamb apparently had his English Bible in hand when he stood up and cried foul on the Friar’s doctrine, and seemed ready and willing to demonstrate from the biblical text what was wrong with the sermon. Accounts differ on what Spence said that drove Lamb to such desperate measures: according to some the Friar had insisted that no person should hope for salvation without the intercession of the Saints; according to others he had encouraged his listeners to intercede themselves—presumably with both prayers and pocketbooks—for their dead ancestors who were suffering in purgatory. Regardless, Lamb’s opposition would seem to have stemmed from his conviction that Christ’s atoning work upon the cross was sufficient to secure the full salvation of each and every repentant believer (Heb. 10:14).

Some records implicate Helen’s husband James Ronaldson for, like Lamb, disrupting the unorthodox preaching of the town’s priests. James was, by common consent, also charged with that most devious of crimes—making fun of the Roman Catholic Kirk’s piety and personnel. Along with Lamb and Anderson, James had apparently desecrated an image of Francis of Assissi (d. 1226) by nailing horns to the cherished Saint’s head and a tail to his posterior. These same persons had added insult to their injury of the Saints by cooking and consuming a goose in direct violation of the Kirk’s prescribed fast on All Hallow’s Eve (Halloween). James had gone one step further than his friends by having the head of a newel post in his (and Helen’s) home carved to resemble the Pope’s triple tiara—a rather curious act which was interpreted as ridicule of Roman Catholic clergy.

Helen Stirk’s individual crime was arguably more intriguing than any of her companions. Helen had recently given birth to a child, and had refused encouragement during labor to invoke the Virgin Mary’s assistance for the delivery and well-being of her baby. Indeed, she had—much to her neighbors astonishment—been so bold as to beseech God Himself directly that He might grant her strength for the delivery of her child (cf. 1 Peter 5:7). When challenged on this (ostensibly after the successful delivery of her baby), she apparently defended her actions by naming Christ as the sole and sufficient Mediator between God and men (1 Tim. 2:5), and insisting that Christ had gained believers’ access directly to God’s throne of grace (Heb. 10:19-22). She further claimed, rather curiously, that had she lived 1500 years earlier, she herself, rather than Mary, might have given birth to the Messiah. Helen’s intent was not thereby to elevate herself, but merely to point out that Mary possessed no special merit—by virtue of her piety or own immaculate conception—that prompted God to appoint her the mother of His incarnate Son. The Virgin Mary, in other words, was an ordinary woman (albeit one entrusted with an extraordinary role in human history), and thus no fit object for prayer, during childbirth or any other time

Following a night of imprisonment in the tower of Perth’s medieval gatehouse, Helen and her Protestant companions were sentenced to death and executed. Helen was denied her request to hang beside her husband at the gallows, her persecutors having readied a different form of death for her. As she prepared to witness his death before facing her own, “she gave him comfort [and] exhorted him to perseverance and patience for Christ’s sake.” She kissed him, but declined to bid him “goodbye,” confident that they would very soon be reunited “with joy in the kingdom of heaven.”

Helen was subsequently marched to the banks of the River Tay to face her own fate. Her plight could hardly have failed to invoke sympathy from the townspeople, especially (perhaps) the mothers—the child whose birth had brought her “heresy” to light was not yet weaned. She entrusted that child to the care and upbringing of friends, and then prepared to meet her Savior (and to be reunited with her recently deceased husband). She was thrown into the river and—one presumes—succumbed rather quickly to the ice-cold waters descending from Scotland’s snow-capped mountains to the North Sea.

Helen’s only recorded words as she faced death by drowning proved prophetic. Upon passing the house of the Franciscan Friars en route to the river, she paused and remarked, “They sit in that place quietly, who are the cause of our death this day, but He who seeth this execution upon us shall… shortly see their nest shaken.” Fifteen years later John Knox, recently returned to Scotland from Geneva, preached a sermon in Perth on Christ’s cleansing of the Temple which led the townspeople to sack the Franciscan House among other centers of Roman Catholic religion in the city. Their actions were testimony not only to Knox’s ability to stir a crowd, but also to the extent of Protestant sympathy in Perth on the eve of Scotland’s official Reformation. No doubt there were persons who heard Knox preach in 1559 and participated in the subsequent reformation of their town and country who remembered well, and were inspired by, Helen Stirk and the clear witness she bore to the full sufficiency of Christ’s work on behalf of sinners.

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Dr. Aaron Denlinger is professor of Church History and Historical Theology at Reformation Bible College.