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1666: Nine Covenanters in Ayr and Edinburgh

December 27th, 2011 Headsman

That prospectively apocalyptic year of 1666 saw the onset of the Scottish Covenanters‘ mass martyr-making under the English gallows.

Three dozen or so were put to death in the aftermath of the Battle of Rullion Green. Among them, nine men — seven in Ayr, two in Edinburgh — paid with their necks on this date.

The Covenanter tragedy stretches back to the first English Civil War, when English parliamentarians enlisted the aid of Scottish Presbyterians by agreeing to a covenant guaranteeing presbyterian church governance in Scotland and England. Essentially, that meant representative ecclesiastical authority, rather than top-down power from the king, via bishops.

The Presbyterians took this covenant very seriously indeed.

This expedient political arrangement flew apart post-hostilities, especially when the Presbyterians’ parliamentary faction got on the wrong side of Cromwell‘s New Model Army.* “Pride’s Purge”, the de facto army coup d’etat which made possible the execution of Charles I, essentially consisted of kicking out of Parliament the Presbyterian types who were ready to strike a deal with the king at the army’s expense and then governing with the remainder.

This made Presbyterians, for whom reformed church governance was the issue, amenable to inroads from the royalist camp. As soon as Charles I lost his head, the un-purged Presbyterian Scottish Parliament recognized Charles II … on condition that he get on board.

Charles was not exactly an enthusiastic partner.


A political cartoon shows Scottish Presbyterians literally holding King Charles II’s nose to the grindstone.

Nevertheless, Charles II did sign on the dotted line as the price for a Scottish throne and a play at restoration … but the army stomped that, too. An exasperated Cromwell asked of these quarrelsome Scots with their presbyter hangup,

“I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken!”

Mistaken or not, the beaten Presbyterians were optimistic — it’s a ridiculous optimism, in retrospect — that the post-Cromwell Restoration of the exiled monarch would finally Presbyterianize the island. But in 1660, it was Charles wielding the grindstone.

Much to his former allies’ chagrin, Charles rolled back the previous years’ church reforms, booted dissenting clerics, and cemented episcopacy.

The Presbyterian frustration here is understandable; they twice came out on the winning side in the civil war carrying signed pledges from the victors, and were twice balked of their prize. And the balked prize was only God’s work on earth.

In November 1666, a thousand aggrieved Covenanters marched towards Edinburgh in the pitiful and improvised Pentland Rising, which was violently stopped at Rullion Green.

Mass executions of prisoners followed throughout December and into January. (Others not executed were transported to the colonies.)

On this particular date, John Ross and John Shields died in Edinburgh.

The remaining seven executed this date in Ayr are notable in part because they ought to have been eight.


Memorial stone for the Covenanters executed in Ayr on December 27, 1666. Image (c) Stephen Wagstaff and used with permission.

Ayr’s public executioner fled rather than put godly Scotsmen to death. A Highlander named William Sutherland, who served the same office, was retrieved from nearby Irvine, but he too refused even when threatened with torture.**

The beneficiary of these principled refusals, in body if not in soul, was Cornelius Anderson, one of the eight doomed to die in Ayr who was finally prevailed upon to take the job of hanging his fellows in exchange for his life. Faltering spirit fortified with too much brandy, Anderson clumsily dispatched this group; later, since the obdurate Irvine hangman had been sacked, he had to do the same to two more Covenanters there.

Guilt-ridden and reviled, Anderson actually might have been the most miserable man on the scaffold. He came to a miserable end.

His conscience troubling him, he went to Ireland, where he was no better; nobody would either give him work or lodging. He built a little house in some common place near Dublin, where he and it and all were burnt to ashes. (Source)

* Specifically, they wanted to disband said army, and do so without coughing up its back pay.

** Sutherland’s torture included the summoning of a firing squad ostensibly to execute him if he failed to perform the executions. He called that bluff and was not executed, thereby depriving this site of a rare and precious “Executioner executed for failing to execute” entry.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,England,Execution,God,Hanged,History,Martyrs,Mass Executions,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Scotland,Soldiers,Treason

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