Archive for January 18th, 2016

1678: James Mitchell, Covenanter assassin

Add comment January 18th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1678, Covenanter radical James Mitchell was hanged at Edinburgh for attempting to murder the Archbishop of St. Andrews.

Mitchell’s intended victim, James Sharp by name, is one of Scottish history’s great villains — tasked as he was to cheat Presbyterians of the religious reform they had spent a generation seeking. After Cromwell had King Charles I beheaded, his heir Charles II was nothing but an exile pretending to the throne his father had been deposed from.

Desperate for allies, he made a reluctant pact with Scottish to promulgate Presbyterianism throughout the realm should he regain the kingdom: this meant, in practice, bottom-up church governance as against the top-down authority of bishops characterizing Episcopacy. For a king, this would entail ceding considerable power over religious matters.

Such a promise was more readily given than honored. When Charles II regained the English throne in 1660, he instead restored Episcopacy in the north and everywhere else — selecting our man James Sharp, up until then a Presbyterian minister of the moderate faction, to boss Scotland’s most exalted ecclesiastical post. “The great stain will always remain, that Sharp deserted and probably betrayed a cause which his brethren intrusted to him,” Walter Scott wrote.

From this position, whose very existence was obnoxious to his former friends, our Judas* was Charles’s point man for reintroducing and enforcing all those ecclesiastical prerogatives of the monarchy that the Presbyterians had been so desperate to abolish.

He drove from the church irreconcilable Covenanter ministers — so named for their adherence to the objectives of those discarded covenants. That faction despised Sharp, and he returned the sentiment. On one occasion, he had to call for the militia to disperse an angry mob, only to be told that the militia’s members had joined the mob too. After a Covenanter rising was put down at the Battle of Rullion Green, Sharp okayed the withdrawal of quarter for surrendered foes with the taunt “You were pardoned as soldiers, but you are not acquitted as subjects” — putting his episcopal imprimatur on numerous ensuing hangings.

It was only a matter of time before someone tried to murder him.

On the 11th of July in 1668, James Mitchell — a zealous but unordained freelance preacher and dyed-in-the-wool Covenanter — stepped to a carriage the archbishop was embarking and took a shot at him. Mitchell missed, and pinged one of the prelate’s companions in the wrist, crippling the hand.

Mitchell managed to escape and live for several years with sizable sum on his head and nobody interested in claiming it** before Sharp’s own brother finally captured him in 1674. The proceedings against him are surprisingly protracted considering the famous vindictiveness of his target, and resolved by (as Mitchell said at his hanging) “an extrajudicial confession, and the promise of life given to me thereupon by the chancellor, upon his own and the public faith of the kingdom.” Given his party, he ought not have been surprised that the promise was not kept; as an added bonus, his retraction of the confession — which was the only evidence against him — resulted in his torture by the boot.

In 1679, a different bunch of Covenanters finally succeeded in assassinating the hated Archbishop Sharp.


The Murder of Archbishop Sharpe on Magus Muir near St. Andrews, 1679, by William Allen (c. 1840).

There’s a public domain biography friendly to Sharp (and perforce extremely hostile to the Covenanters) here.

* Cromwell met Sharp — still a Presbyterian minister at that time — in a negotiation during the Protectorate and allegedly rated him “ane Atheist, and of noe principles at all.”

** At one point Mitchell resided in Edinburgh with another man bound for the scaffold, Major Weir

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Assassins,Attempted Murder,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,God,Hanged,History,Notable for their Victims,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Scotland,Torture

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