By spring of 1558 the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland was fighting a losing battle. Protestantism had begun making inroads into the country in the 1520s, and had been progressively picking up steam since then, powered principally by the importation of English bibles (which were accessible at least to Scots speakers of the Lowlands) and reforming literature from the continent. Efforts to counter the spread of Protestantism by killing its chief advocates, beginning in 1528 (with the execution of Patrick Hamilton) and peaking in 1539 (with the execution of at least eight various Protestant agitators), had backfired, creating martyrs whose message merely intrigued, rather than repulsed, the people. Internal efforts to address, in a series of provincial church councils, the most obvious shortcomings of the Scottish Kirk's clergy—namely, sexual immorality and theological ignorance—and so to undermine Protestant criticisms of the established church had proven unfruitful and, at least from the reformers' perspective, far too conservative in diagnosing the Kirk's ills.
Scotland's Roman Catholic monarch, fifteen-year old Mary Stewart, had been living in France for a decade and, given her pending marriage to the French heir apparent, didn't seem likely to return anytime soon. In her absence, Scotland's Lairds (Lords), many with Protestant sympathies, had assumed greater power. In December of 1557 a number of such nobles had openly pledged themselves to suppress the Roman Catholic Antichrist and support the growing, albeit unofficial, Reformed Kirk in Scotland. John Knox, though still in Geneva, was actively promoting the Protestant cause in Scotland with his pen, and was poised to return to his native country in 1559 and to steer Scotland's final embrace of Protestantism the following summer.
And so, as a kind of last ditch effort to maintain their official status in 1558, Roman Catholic Kirk leaders took one last swipe at suppressing the rising tide of Protestantism through persecution. In the small coastal village of Dysart, Fife, they apprehended a man who twelve years earlier had been accused of promoting Protestant doctrine by Cardinal David Beaton, but had escaped Beaton's grasp and found refuge first in southern Scotland and then on the continent. On April 20th they tried and condemned this man in St. Andrews and—despite rather obvious disgust and opposition from the townspeople—carried out his sentence, burning him at the stake.
Their choice of victims could hardly have been worse.
Walter Milne was 82 years old at the time of his execution. Milne was born in 1476—seven years before Luther—in Forfarshire, to a farming family. He was appointed the vicar of Lunan, a coastal parish midway between Montrose and Arbroath, in 1526, at the rather late age of 50. His whereabouts before then remain somewhat obscure. Some sources place him in Germany in the preceding years, and thereby suggest a Lutheran font to his Protestant convictions. Others place him at the Benedictine monastery in Arbroath (following studies in divinity either at St. Andrew's or Aberdeen), and trace his Protestant convictions to Patrick Hamilton's influence and Milne's own private study of Tyndale's English New Testament.
Regardless, Milne arrived, via one path or another, at Protestant convictions, and propagated the same for nearly twenty years in his quiet coastal parish before coming to the attention of authorities. When initially charged with heresy in 1546, he fled the scene and remained in exile for the next twelve years. Details of his doings during those years are again scarce. There is general agreement that he went (back) to Germany. There is some speculation that he also spent time in Switzerland, where he potentially crossed paths with John Calvin (in Geneva) and/or Henry Bullinger (in Zurich).
In 1558 he returned to Scotland and—apparently—to faithful ministry in the coastal towns he knew best. When he was finally apprehended in Dysart, he was, according to John Foxe, found "in a poor wife's house teaching her the commandments of God, and learning her how she should instruct her bairns [children] and her household, and bring them up in the fear of God." Milne was imprisoned in the dungeon of St. Andrews castle, where for some time he was encouraged by both threats and bribes to recant his Reformed convictions. The refusal of the elderly, frail, and by all accounts impoverished octogenarian to succumb to such encouragement must have surprised his persecutors.
Milne's trial on April 20th, 1558, was conducted in the St. Andrews cathedral. According to contemporary accounts, his legs were too weak to carry him unaided up the stairs into the pulpit to answer the charges brought against him. His voice, however, rang out loud and clear throughout the sanctuary, and much impressed the lay people who had gathered to hear the old man stand trial.
Milne pled guilty as charged to defending clerical marriage and denying sacramental status to confirmation, penance, marriage, ordination, and extreme unction. When accused of preaching (without license) in private houses and open fields, he pointed out to his examiners that they had neglected to add "on the sea," where he had also proclaimed the gospel while "sailing on ships." Perhaps the most poignant testimony to his Protestant convictions came in response to his examiners' charge that he denied the Mass to be a sacrifice for the sins of persons both living and dead. "Christ was once offered on the Cross for man's trespasses," Milne replied, "and will never be offered again, for then he ended all sacrifice." When threatened, finally, with death, Milne insisted that he would gladly forfeit ten thousand earthly existences before he would renounce his place in the heavenly kingdom that awaited him.
The Roman Catholic authorities encountered some difficulties in actually carrying out Milne's sentence. A pyre was constructed outside the cathedral, overlooking the North Sea, but the town Provost, whose responsibilities included conducting executions, flat out refused to play a part in burning the 82 year old man. The Archbishop's Chamberlain was subsequently called upon to fulfill the role of executioner, but he likewise declined. When, finally, a lesser laird named Alexander Somerville, wishing to ingratiate himself with the Archbishop, agreed to perform the deed, one further obstacle was encountered: the town's merchants unanimously refused to sell the authorities the needed means—namely, some rope or a bit of chain—to secure Milne to the stake. Eventually, they were forced to cut a stretch of rope from that which had been holding up a tent erected for the Archbishop for the occasion of the execution.
As the fires were finally kindled beneath him, Milne confidently informed the gathered crowd: "the cause why I suffer this day is not for any crime laid to my charge (albeit I am a miserable sinner before God) but only for the defense of the faith of Jesus Christ, set forth in the Old and New Testament unto us.... I praise God that he hath called me of his mercy, among the rest of his servants, to seal up his truth with my life, which as I have received it of him, so willingly I offer it to his glory."
Needless to say, Milne's execution at the hands of the Roman Catholic Church hardly served to strengthen the Scottish people's confidence in the Kirk, or discourage them from the true gospel of Christ's finished work on their behalf. In John Knox's words, the execution of that "man of decrepit age... did so highly offend the hearts of all the godly, that immediately after his death began a new fervency among the whole people." Milne's martyrdom, in other words, proved to be the proverbial "final nail in the coffin" of the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland, and paved the way for the triumph of Protestantism two years later.
- Scotland's Protestant Martyrs: David Stratoun
- Scotland's Protestant Martyrs: Walter Milne
- Scotland's Protestant Martyrs: Helen Stirk
Dr. Aaron Denlinger is professor of Church History and Historical Theology at Reformation Bible College.