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
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.
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.
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.
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
were pardoned as soldiers, but you are not acquitted as
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.
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.
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 “.
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 .