Set against a backdrop of cathedral ruins, picturesque beaches, and the world’s oldest golf course, it is immediately apparent that studying at the University of St Andrews is nothing short of unique. Among the many features that set the University apart are its student traditions, a handful of which date back to its early history. One of these is the curse of Patrick Hamilton, which has literally left its mark just outside the entrance of St Salvator’s College. Along North Street, it is not uncommon to witness students and residents alike deliberately walking around the letters ‘PH’ marked in the pavement on the spot where Hamilton was burnt at the stake. According to student tradition, if a student steps on the ‘PH’, he or she will fall victim to the curse and are at risk of failing their exams or degree.
So, who exactly was the man behind the myth? Born in 1504 to a Scottish aristocratic family with royal connections, Hamilton had a privileged upbringing. At only fourteen years old he studied Divinity overseas at the University of Paris. It was during his time there that he became exposed to the highly controversial teachings of the German priest and theologian, Martin Luther. After obtaining his Master of Arts, Hamilton returned to his home country and accepted a teaching position at the University of St Andrews in 1524. Despite residing in St Andrews, the hub of the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland, Hamilton had adopted Luther’s doctrines and converted to Protestantism. As a result, his sermons quickly captured the notice of Archbishop James Beaton who decreed that Hamilton be tried for heresy. Fleeing for his life, Hamilton left for Germany, where he enrolled at the University of Marburg and wrote his sole publication, Patrick’s Places. More fervent in his convictions than ever, Hamilton was ready to meet his fate awaiting him in Scotland.
However, he was not tried immediately upon his return, but permitted to preach for almost a month in order for his enemies to gather incriminating evidence. On 29 February 1528, Hamilton was finally tried and found guilty on all thirteen accusations. Branded as a heretic, he was sentenced to death and later on the same day burnt at the stake. Ironically, his execution did not have the intended effect, inspiring dissent instead of fear. Hamilton’s refusal to compromise his beliefs and stand up to the Catholic Church earned him his status as Scotland’s first Protestant martyr and inspired many others to do the same. The extent of his influence was so great that “the reek of Mister Patrick Hamilton infected as many as it blew upon” including, quite possibly, John Knox decades later.
Fortunately, the only remainders of the university’s gruesome past are embedded in stone. In addition to the ‘PH’, atop the arch on the entrance wall of St Salvator’s quadrangle, it is said that what looks like a face imprinted on one of the stones is the face of Patrick Hamilton. On the other side of town, towards the Old Course and West Sands, the Martyrs’ Monument honors the martyrs of the Scottish Reformation including Hamilton (d. 1528), Henry Forest (d. 1533), George Wishart (d. 1546), and Walter Myln (d. 1558).
In the unlucky occurrence that a student steps on the ‘PH’, not all is lost. The curse can be reversed either by participating in the May Dip or running around Sallies Quad eight times backwards. While May Dip remains an extremely popular tradition among students, I have yet to witness or hear of someone attempting the latter.
About Vanessa Silvera
Vanessa is a second-year studying Art History at the University of St Andrews. Her favorite artistic movements include the Italian Renaissance, Impressionism / Post-Impressionism and Surrealism. Aside from art, she is passionate about travel, dance, yoga, women’s rights, fashion, and anything with chocolate.