James V died in December, 1542, the same month in which his daughter Mary was born. A regent was appointed, and the one chosen, the Earl of Arran, recanted the Protestant faith under pressure. Unlike ones just mentioned (in previous blog), I have not read of his repentance. He functioned under the control of Cardinal Beaton and a prolonged persecution of Protestants took place. Among the martyrs was Helen Stark and she has the honour of being the only female martyr of the Scottish Reformation.
As part of his plan to eradicate Protestants, Cardinal Beaton went to Perth to investigate what was happening there (Perth had allowed its citizens to express sympathy with the Reformed faith). Six individuals were arrested and among them were Helen and her husband James Ranoldson. They were charged with heresy and of meeting together to discuss the Bible. Specific charges were also brought against them as individuals, and the charge against Helen was that when giving birth she had refused to ask the Virgin Mary for help. She had been urged to do so by her neighbours, probably because the Virgin Mary was regarded as the patroness of women about to give birth. Helen had refused to do so and instead prayed herself that God would give her the strength to give birth safely.
Helen also said words to the effect that had she been alive when Jesus was born, God could have chosen her to be the mother of Jesus. All she meant was that whoever would have been the mother of Jesus had no merit of her own. We can see, however, that her opinion would have been regarded as very offensive by the investigators and it would not have been difficult for them to accuse her of heresy.
All of them were found guilty and sentenced to death. The men were to die by hanging and Helen by drowning. There was considerable sympathy for them in the town, but appeals to the regent to spare their lives were unsuccessful. As a last request, Helen asked if she could die alongside her husband, but this was denied her. She was allowed to go with him to the place of death, and comforted and encouraged him on the way, exhorting him to be faithful to the cause of Christ. When they reached the location, she kissed him and said to him: ‘Husband, be glad; we have lived together many joyful days, but this day, on which we must die, ought to be the most joyful of all to us both, because now we shall have joy for ever. Therefore I will not bid you good night, for we shall suddenly meet with joy in the kingdom of heaven.’
Helen was taken to a pool nearby. Her children, including the one recently born, were with her. She had to give them to neighbours to look after, with the youngest child being given to a friend who had agreed to nurse it. Obviously, such a public set of actions caused sympathy and distress in the watching crowd, but not in the outlook of the authorities. Helen was tied in a sack and plunged into the pool and her spirit soon arrived in the presence of God.
We obviously are to admire Helen Stark as the only woman of the Scottish Reformation who will wear a martyr’s crown. Later, more women were to suffer such a fate during the Covenanting times. She has this unique privilege and it will be recognised yet on the day when Jesus is revealed.
Her experience reminds us of the hostility of the kingdom of darkness against those who profess faith in Jesus and who are prepared to nail their colours to the mast wherever they are. She must have been under great pressure to recant because of the state and the age of her children. I suppose she exemplifies for us the words of Jesus that any who put family or their own lives before him are not worthy of him.
The striking detail of Helen’s behaviour and words is the strength of her assurance and the manner in which she was able to comfort those condemned with her. Her confidence in God was also expressed in the way she left her children in the care of others. And she also had the confidence to express that God would take revenge on those who caused her death and that of her friends, which came true several years later.
Where was Jesus when this was happening to Helen? I suspect we get the answer to this question by recalling how Luke describes the death of Stephen, the first Christian martyr.
As we think of how Helen Stark witnessed for Jesus, we would agree with Donald Beaton’s words in his Scottish Heroines of the Faith: ‘Noble-hearted woman! All honour be to her, or, rather, to the grace that made her strong in the hour of trial! May the land that gave her birth ever honour the truths for which she and others laid down their lives!’