1684: Three Covenanters

Add comment February 22nd, 2012 Headsman

Just three indistinguishable Covenanters among very many in the Killing Time.

From the journal of John Erskine of Cardross:

22 February 1684. — After dinner I went to the Laigh Council house, where the three condemned men were brought before Baillie Chancellour, who inquired if they had any more to say for themselves, and if they would bid God save the King? They said, they were not now come to answer, neither would they answer questions, and the refused not to obey all the King’s lawful commands. They refused to hear one of the town curates pray; but he beginning, not desired, George Martin offered to interrupt him the time of his prayer, by saying, ‘Let us be gone, what have we to do here?’ but he ended his prayer without stopping. They were hanged in the Grassmarket, but I went not to the place of execution.

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1666: Nine Covenanters in Ayr and Edinburgh

1 comment 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.

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1683: James Smith and John Wharry, Covenanter bystanders

3 comments June 13th, 2010 Headsman

Inscription on a marker on the road from Kirkintilloch to Kilsyth* in Scotland:

In this field lies the corpse of John Wharry and James Smith, who suffered in Glasgow, 13 June 1683, for their adherence to the Word of God, and Scotland’s Covenanted Work of Reformation: ‘And they overcame them by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony; and they loved not their lives unto the death'” (Rev. xii. 11)

Halt, courteous passenger, and look on
Our bodies dead, & lying under this stone.
Altho’ we did commit no deed,** nor fact
That was against the Bridegroom’s contract,
Yet we to Glasgow were as prisoners brought,
And against us false witness they sought.
Their sentence cruel and unjust they past,
And then our corps on scaffold they did cast.
There we our lives and right hands also lost.
From Glasgow we were brought unto this place
In chains of iron hung up for certain space.
Then taken down interred here we ly–
From ‘neath this stone our blood to heaven doth cry.
Had foreign foes, Turks, or Mahometans,
Had Scythians, Tartars, Arabian Caravans,
Had cruel Spaniards, the Pope’s blood seed,
Commenced the same, less strange had been the deed;
But Protestants, profest our Covenants to,
Our countrymen, this bloody deed could do.
Yet notwithstanding of their hellish rage
The noble Wharry stepping on the stage
With courage bold and with a heart not faint,
Exclaims, This blood now seals our covenant–
Ending, They who would follow Christ should take
Their cross upon their back, the world forsake.


Image (c) Maria ‘Mia’ Gaellman | http://www.mariaphoto.co.uk/

The epitaph above is from this Victorian text, which further observes:

The probability is, that what is called on the new stone “the old tombstone” is not much older than this [the 19th] century, and that it is the successor of an older one on which may have been inscribed the following epitaph:

Halt, passenger, read here upon this stone
A tragedy, our bodies done upon.
At Glasgow Cross we lost both our right hands,
To fright beholders, th’ enemy so commands;
Then put to death, and that most cruelly.
Yet where we’re slain, even there we must not lie,
From Glasgow town we’re brought unto this place,
On Gallow tree hung up for certain space.
Yet thence ta’en down, interred here we lie
Beneath this stone; our blood to heaven doth cry.
Had foreign foes, Turks or Mahometans,
Had Scythian Tartars, Arabian caravans,
Had cruel Spaniards, the Pope’s bloody seed,
Commenc’d the same, had been less strange their deed.
But Protestants, once Covenanters too,
Our countrymen, this cruel deed could do:
Yet, notwithstanding this, their hellish rage,
The noble Wharrie leapt upon the stage.
With courage bold, he said, and heart not faint,
‘This blood shall now seal up our covenant,’
Ending, ‘they who would follow Christ, should take
‘Their cross upon their back, the world forsake.'”

* Kilsyth lays claim to be the birthplace of curling.

** Smith and Wharrie, apparently uninvolved civilians, were seized as the nearest available guys to punish after a Covenanter guerrilla attack near Inchbelly Bridge.

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1685: Margaret McLachlan and Margaret Wilson, the Solway Martyrs

8 comments May 11th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1685, a woman of 63 and another of 18 were staked to the tidal channel of Bladnoch River near Wigtown and drowned by the rising waters.

Margaret Wilson remembered in heroic — and sexy — marble at Knox College in Toronto, Canada. (Larger version.)

They were holdout Covenanters — Scottish Presbyterians resisting English Episcopalian control in a struggle both theological and political (here’s a backgrounder).

To skip over much meaningful history, the Covenanter movement of local presbyter control had at this point been defeated politically and militarily, if not spiritually. The due demanded by the British crown was prayer for the king — an oath, in effect, of submission to the Episcopal hierarchy and, by the same token, to London. Many Scots remained obdurate, including children — the 18-year-old Margaret Wilson was arrested with her 13-year-old sister, though their father managed to scrape together a bond payment to save the younger girl.

And fiendish penalties were deployed to force their capitulation or cow their sympathizers. In this case, a recent law prescribed public drowning for Covenanter women, and the two Margarets were duly condemned to be

ty’d to palisados fixed in the sand, within the flood mark, and there to stand till the flood overflowed them and drowned them.

The ploy on this day was to put the old woman further out, where she would drown first, in hopes of terrifying the teenager into submission. The young Margaret held firm.

Here is the women’s end related in The History of the Sufferings of the Church of Scotland by Robert Wodrow, who dubbed the bloody suppression of the Covenanter movement in the 1680’s “The Killing Time”:

The two women were brought from Wigton, with a numerous crowd of spectators to so extraordinary an execution. Major Windram with some soldiers guarded them to the place of execution. The old woman’s stake was a good way in beyond the other, and she was first despatched, in order to terrify the other to a compliance with such oaths and conditions as they required. But in vain, for she adhered to her principles with an unshaken steadfastness. When the water was overflowing her fellow-martyr, some about Margaret Wilson asked her, what she thought of the other now struggling with the pangs of death. She answered, what do I see but Christ (in one of his members) wrestling there. Think you that we are the sufferers? No, it is Christ in us, for he sends none a warfare upon their own charges. When Margaret Wilson was at the stake, she sang the 25th Psalm from verse 7th, downward a good way, and read the 8th chapter to the Romans with a great deal of cheerfulness, and then prayed. While at prayer, the water covered her: but before she was quite dead, they pulled her up, and held her out of the water till she was recovered, and able to speak; and then by major Windram’s orders, she was asked, if she would pray for the king. She answered, ‘She wished the salvation of all men, and the damnation of none.’ One deeply affected with the death of the other and her case, said, ‘Dear Margaret, say God save the king, say God save the king.’ She answered in the greatest steadiness and composure, ‘God save him, if he will, for it is his salvation I desire.’ Whereupon some of her relations near by, desirous to have her life spared, if possible, called out to major Windram, ‘Sir, she hath said it, she hath said it.’ Whereupon the major came near, and offered her the abjuration, charging her instantly to swear it, otherwise return to the water. Most deliberately she refused, and said, ‘ I will not, I am one of Christ’s children, let me go.’ Upon which she was thrust down again into the water, where she finished her course with joy.”

Update: Gravestone photos and maps of the area can be found here.

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