James Sharp, Minister of Crail, Archbishop of St Andrews.

"For well concocted , cold blooded, systematic  dissimulation , he stands almost without  a match in History " Dodds, The Fifty Year Struggle"p 99.

In Covenanting history James Sharp was possibly the most reviled of all those in power both for allegedly being a turncoat and for his self interest and greed when accepting the elevation from minister at Crail in Fife, to Archbishop of St Andrews. In equity it has to said that there is a considerable body of evidence by episcopalian writers, clergy, historians and the like who make a strong defence of Sharp and his actions. But the balance swings against him in one particular respect - when he became an  ardent pursuer of the Covenanters after his appointment. No amount of circumlocution and excuses of only `doing his duty` can erase the facts that he was implicated directly in many decisions that resulted in execution. His murder on Magus Moor in 1679 was greeted with joy by many extremists; but the majority of Presbyterians saw that there would be a bloody price to pay.

James Sharp was born on 4 May 1618 in Banff Castle, son of the Sheriff-clerk and factor to the Earl of Findlater, his mother being Isabel Lesley, daughter to the Laird of Kinninvy. Some allege that he was not especially bright , although possessed of native cunning. This does not square with  the episcopalian statements of his attributes including  being a child that `promised more than the ordinary`  and " his masterly genius, quick apprehension, and tenacious memory, were early signs  and prognosticks of his future greatness." He went to Aberdeen university where his tutors included Dr Forbes and Baron who were great opponents of the Covenant. He graduate Master of Arts before spending some time in England at Oxford and London where he made contact  with a body of learned Divines including Dr Sanderson, Dr Hammond and Dr Taylor. The recognition by episcopalian worthies was to stand him in good stead.

Interestingly Sharp is described by his supporters  as "finding the  clouds of Sedition, Schism, Faction , and Rebellion to break out  upon Church and State and being known  to be no favourer  of these tumultous practices"  they gave him cause to go to England, hoping the problems would be resolved in the meantime. This suggests an predilection to avoid confrontation or perhaps more likely, reluctance to  accept any responsibility to deal with such issues. He remained in England for several years until ill health prompted his return to Scotland where he first found favour  with Sir James McGill, later Viscount Oxford. Through him Sharp met the Earl of Rothes and gained appointment  as a Professor of Philosophy in St Leonards College, St Andrews.

 He became minister in the village of Crail in Fife where he was allegedly noticed perhaps more by his absence than his ministry, as he spent considerable time in London where he hovered on the fringe of the Court. Others would have us believe that  "his labours were most acceptable, and gained the hearts of the people by calmness, condescension and affability." Such was his intrusion into national affairs, however, that at one stage he was `advised` to go back to Scotland. But he weathered the criticism and soon became a leading figure  for the moderate Presbyterians - the Resolutioners, and was their representative in London. In this role he was seen by the English as the representative of all Presbyterians, although there was no way he would pursue the interests of the breakaway Covenanters.

He was more interested, it seems, in the machinery of the church than ministering to his parish and he was a schemer who during the Restoration of King Charles II in 1660 was at the heart of intrigue. In the November of 1659 Sharp was in consultation with General Monk and was implicit and complicit in the drawing up of plans for the return of Charles II to the thrones. Hewison in the Covenanters (vol II p 58-61) tells of Sharp`s duplicity and an ability to  only tell half a story that gave the impression that Presbyterianism was safe ,with the King swearing to the Covenants etc. But Sharp clearly knew in the winter of 1659 that the return of the King was going to be in support of episcopacy. It is likely that his contribution was rewarded by his appointment to the See of St Andrews.

During this period he was giving his colleagues in Scotland glowing reports of the King`s willingness to support Presbyterianism while placing himself in positions of influence. This duplicity came to head in 1661 when the Privy Council announced the restoration of the Bishops. The decree at the Mercat Cross in Edinburgh on 6 September restored episcopacy, forbade the meeting of the clerical courts and enjoined that non conformists should be committed to prison. In the following December the Rev James Sharp , minister of Crail became Archbishop of St Andrews and wholely subservient to the Crown.

There had already been signs of unease from the likes of the Rev Robert Blair, that James Sharp was becoming a sycophant of the Court, and his elevation confirmed those fears. There were too, tales of Satanic intervention - even that Sharp received such a visitor late at night. Whatever the truth of such stories the reality was that he was widely despised. Among Sharp`s early involvements was his revenge on the Rev James Guthrie whom he called ` hare brained ` and was executed on 1 June 1661. Conjoined with Sharp was another former Presbyterian supporter - John Middleton, the Kings Commissioner in Scotland. Middleton was above all else a soldier who had worked his way up from the ranks. He was a zealous Covenanter in 1644 and 1645 then became a confidant of King Charles whom he served valiantly. But he was also a violent and arbitrary man who was a heavy drinker. With the aid of his cronies and the Parliament packed with the kings men, Middleton began to demolish the the kirk by passing numerous laws - nearly four hundred in the first six months of the Parliament of 1661. Among these was an Act of 11 June 1662, to become known as Middleton`s Act which required ministers who had been ordained after 1649 and were holding appointments from congregations or Presbyteries, to be presented by the patron and the appointment to be sanctioned by a bishop.

It may well have been the intention only to weed out the die hard Covenanters from their kirks, but there was astonishment, and anger from Sharp, when between three and four hundred ministers were ` outed ` . Sharp complained bitterly at the precipitate action and lack of finesse, even though it accomplished one of his objectives. He procrastinated saying  "nor did he imagine that so rash a thing could have been done till he saw it in print."` But it suited his own agenda and that of the bully in his make up, to pick off individuals of whom he disapproved, at a later date,  The pattern he seemed to adopt was allow others to do the hard work and determine prima facie evidence of failure by the individual to obey the church rules. He sat in judgment as of right but would endeavour to find cause of  civil offences having more severe penalties, including death.

 A consequence of the `outings` was the appointment of curates to fill the vacated posts, many of whom had little learning or were callow youths. There followed another Act referred to as `The Bishops Drag Net ` which imposed heavy fines on those who did not attend the church to `hear the curates`. In the same year, 1663, the ` Scots Mile Act ` was introduced which forbade the outed ministers from living within twenty miles of their former kirk and within six miles of Edinburgh. The latter part of this law is thought to have been added by Sharp in order to force Robert Blair from the vicinity of St Andrews, such was his spite and fear of the man. The pettiness of the legislation had one great effect - it marked the beginning of the field meetings or ` conventicle` and a firming up of the Presbyterian resistance especially in the south west of Scotland. When the Parliament broke up in the autumn of 1663 there was an understanding that they would not be recalled, thereby leaving the government of Scotland to the Privy Council . Sharp immediately sought the King`s ear and persuaded him to bring back the obsolete Court of High Commission to deal with the Covenanters by summary law. Sharp was the Court`s President and other members included nine prelates and thirty five laymen. With almost limitless power the Court could summon virtually anyone before it on vague pretexts; it imposed huge fines , banished and imprisoned outed ministers. Its more goulish acts included the whipping of women through the streets, branding on the face with a hot iron and ordering prisoners to sold as slaves in the Colonies. Even giving a slice of bread to a hunted minister was classed as sedition. This then was the powder keg that would become the Pentland Rising and the battle of Rullion Green -  ignited by zealous troopers ill treating an old man who had not paid his fine for none attendance at church.

The Battle at Rullion Green in November 1666 gave Sharp the opportunity to show his true colours when, as President of the Court, he addressed eleven prisoners who had surrendered on promise of mercy. To these he said

“You were pardoned as soldiers, but you are not acquitted as subjects“

The eleven were peremptorily sentenced to death and ordered that their heads and right arms were to be struck off; the heads to be affixed above the city gates and their arms to be fixed to the prison doors at Lanark.

Sharp again showed his spiteful nature when a young minister Hugh McKail was tortured with the boot following the same battle. His reason for not intervening when petitioned was that in a sermon at St Giles, Edinburgh in September 1662, he had been referred to as a Judas. So on 22 December 1666 another martyr gained his diadem while Sharp stood by. Following the ill fated rising Sharp and his cohorts increased their rule of violence by doubling and trebling fines; by hunting down the rebels ; and by dispensing summary justice at the end of a troopers rifle on their own doorsteps. It was at this time that the Earl of Lauderdale, the King`s Secretary, saw that things were getting out of hand and that the severe policies must be restrained. To this end Sharp was brought to a frightened submission and the Earl of Rothes, the Kings Commissioner in Scotland, moved to the post of Lord Chancellor. Lauderdale, himself another former supporter of Presbyterianism, then took charge in Scotland. It is not without significance that during his tenure between 1667 and 1678 the executions of Covenanters ceased. But Sharp  continued his attack on Presbyterianism by helping Lauderdale to pass the Act of Supremacy which gave the King absolute control over ecclesiastical matters.

An early attempt on the life of Sharp took place on 11 July 1668 when James Mitchell, a Covenanter who had not laid down his arms and thought by many to be of unsound mind, sought to purge the nation of his presence. He saw Sharp as the person most responsible for the misfortunes of his colleagues and decided that assassination was the solution. To this end he armed himself with a pistol, loaded with three balls, and waited for Sharp`s coach to pass by at Blackfriar`s Wynd in Edinburgh. Come the moment for action Mitchell fired at the door of the coach but only succeeded in shooting the Archbishop`s travelling companion, Honeyman the Bishop of Orkney. Mitchell escaped and the Privy Council offered a reward of five thousand merks for information and pardon for any accessories to the crime - there were no takers.

 There was tragic ending for Mitchell, however, as in 1674 he was found and seized by Sir William Sharp, the Archbishop`s brother. There followed a long series of appearances in Court and interviews all aimed at getting a confession since there was no hard evidence from other sources which was sufficient to convict. He was threatened and ultimately tortured using `the Boot` a device that would crush the limb. Sent back to the Tolbooth he was then sent for a while to the Bass Rock. Suffice to say that through a combination of treachery, lies and perjury and the desire of Sharp for vengeance, Mitchell was convicted and executed in Edinburgh on 18 January 1678.

His arrest and the release of several suspected with him, are recorded in the records of the Edinburgh Tolbooth ( The Book of the Old Edinburgh Club Vol VI p 122 , 137)

In 1676 the Privy Council, no doubt influenced by Sharp, came to the conclusion that absenteeism from the churches was leading to `the decay of religion`. The fact that so many preferred Presbyterianism was beside the point. They then resorted to  "A Proclamation against Conventicles"` of 1 March 1676.  It ordered the prosecution of papists and other `schismatics`, the seizure of all ministers/preachers and their families who did not attend church, and the fining of all heritors and magistrates for conventicles held on their land with power to recover  the fines from the culprits. Teachers and preachers were required to be licensed, informers to be rewarded as well as fines on magistrates who didnt do their job. A census was ordered  of all who had taken the oath of allegiance and supremacy, and special courts commissioned  to enforce these laws in the shires. The inquisition began by summoning heritors and ministers who were required to disclose any recent dealings and communication (reset) with intercommuned persons. Some gentlemen refused to declare on oath  were deemed to have confessed to such meetings and were heavily fined, with imprisonment until the fine was paid. This legislation was the basis on which so many in the chain of power sought to fill their own pockets - from Commissioner Rothes, via Lauderdale, Claverhouse, Turner, the magistrates, curates, informers and spies that swarmed in the land.

A commission dated 20 July 1676 created a "Committee of Public Affairs" - the Scottish Star Chamber. This consisted of the two Archbishops, Argyll, Mar, Murray, Linlithgow, Seaforth,  Kinghorn, Dundonald, Elphinstone, Lord Privy Seal, President, Treasurer-Depute, Advocate, Justice Clerk, Lord Collington or any three of them. Sharp was vice chairman with plenary powers "to do all things necessary to his Majesties service." It was the device for persecution that soon became Sharp`s personal fiefdom to pursue the Covenanters and others who fell foul of him.

Early in 1679 Sharp introduced possibly the most heinous piece of legislation against the Covenanters. This permitted the killing of any person who was armed either going to, at , or coming from a field meeting or conventicle. No trial was required, and persons could be shot on the spot. This was the documentation that heralded the “ Killing Time “.

But Sharp would not live to see the the consequences of his vindictiveness as his own demise was soon upon him. He was in Edinburgh and about to set off for London to obtain the King`s signature to his latest law but decided that he would first go to St Andrews. Thus on Friday May 2nd 1679 he set out with his eldest daughter and a handful of servants. They stopped the night at  Kennoway, about twenty miles from his destination, at the home of a Captain Seatoun. In the morning the party continued to the Manse at Ceres, where the minister Alexander Leslie was an old friend of his, before moving on again to destiny and death. Not far away a group of Covenanters had met to way lay a magistrate by the name of William Carmichael who had been particularly obnoxious in his dealings with them. However, their plans came to naught as the magistrate did not appear . About midday on Saturday 3rd of May 1679 the party were at Ceres saying their goodbyes prior to dispersing when a farm boy came running to them with the news that the Archbishop Sharp himself would be passing in a few minutes. After brief discussion David Hackston was elected leader for the new challenge but he declined on the grounds that he had a known private grievance with Archbishop Sharp to whom he owed money in a bond for about £1000. It appears that Hackston felt it would detract from the testimony of the action taken by the Covenanters. On the face of it a curious quibble that is difficult to understand and certainly not due to any lack of courage as later events would show. However, the facts were that Hackston was the tutor for a cousin`s children, and had been made responsible for disbursements made by Sharp ( from a forced sale of property for rents owed him).

John Balfour of Kinloch, nicknamed Burley, and a renowned firebrand, (and also David Hackston`s brother in law), took the lead and rode to intercept the coach closely followed by James Russell of Kettle, George Fleming son of George Fleming in Balboothie;  George Balfour in Gilston; David Hackston, Andrew and Alexander Henderson,  sons to John Henderson in Kilbrachmont; and Andrew Gillan. Also named were by different authorities were Robert Dingwal and a William Daniel who later died at Drumclog. The group knew that the Archbishop`s daughter, Isabel, was in the coach and were anxious to avoid harm coming to her and demanded that Sharp come out of the coach. But he refused to do so, and in anger Fleming and George Balfour shot at him seated within, while others thrust at him with their swords. Seemingly , despite this onslaught , Sharp was not injured and was given away by his daughter* sobbing “there`s life yet“ Somewhat reminiscent of the much earlier assassination of Cardinal Beaton (28 May 1546), Balfour told Sharp that they were not slaying him from personal malice but for causing the death of Covenanters, They shot at him again in the coach and one stabbed him. Finally Sharp emerged and crawled to the mounted figure of Hackston to ask for protection . Hackston said that he would not lay a hand upon him and the others with swords drawn turned to complete their deed. Too late Hackston tried to intercede but the murder on Magus Moor had taken place and there would soon be a terrible vengance exacted for it. Not only for David Hackston but for five prisoners taken at Bothwell Brig who had nothing whatsoever to do with the assassination who were hanged on Magus Muir on 25 November 1681 in retribution. The five were Thomas Brown, James Wood, Andrew Sword, John Waddel and John Clyd.

It is difficult to gauge if Archbishop Sharp was as bad as he has been painted. At the time, and without benefit of hindsight, he was seemingly a morally weak man who would go with the stronger side rather than hold unto death to any great principle. He must have been reasonably clever - Cromwell called him ` Sharp of that Ilk ` and recognised his ` supple intelligence `, to have represented the Scottish Presbyterians on a number of occasions in London. That he was duplicitous is borne out by events. The Covenanter Pantheon would have that Sharp was delivered into the hands of the assassins by God`s providence - the wages of sin etc. However, there is a considerable body of evidence in sworn testaments and depositions that there was premeditation to murder both Sharp and other persecutors; and that the plan was being discussed several days before the murder took place. A letter to Donald Cargill from his brother gives a clear hint at the intention for a rebellion in conjunction with such assassinations. Indeed it was only a year before the Queensferry Papers were revealed (June 1680) and preference for a Republic was disclosed.

Did he deserve to be murdered ? . We cannot, indeed must not, apply politically correct 21st century standards to events over three hundred and twenty years ago. Reality then was that no other form of justice was available to the wronged who were themselves being murdered with Sharp`s connivance. There was no independent judiciary nor process that could be used, while the Head of State was a King who himself was prejudiced against the Presbyterians. An `eye for an eye ` approach seems appropriate in the circumstances.

Doubtless the Scriptures would have been quoted including Romans 12 v19 " Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord."

* His daughter Isabel, subsequently married  Cunningham of Barns, in Fife.

Isabel Sharp and the servants` account of the assassination .

Sharp`s mausoleum.


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