1679: Five Covenanter prisoners from the Battle of Bothwell Bridge

Add comment November 25th, 2017 Headsman

From The Original secession magazine, Volume 15 (1878), reprinting a public letter that had previously appeared in The People’s Journal:

Sir, —

Our boasted freedom is not so highly prized as it ought to be because we have always enjoyed it; but our forefathers struggled hard for it, in many cases even unto death. In the long array of Scottish patriots the Covenanters in many respects stand preeminent, as they wrestled both for religious and civil liberty; and though the line of duty was often made sharp as a razor’s edge, they refused to cross it by a hair’s-breadth, lest in doing so they should deny their Master. Five of the prisoners taken at Bothwell Bridge, though they had no connection with Bishop Sharp’s death, were executed at the place where he had been killed six months previously in order to terrify others. Their lives were offered them if they would sign the bond acknowledging their appearance at Bothwell Bridge to be rebellion, and binding them not to rise in arms against the King; but they chose rather to be crushed under the iron heel of despotism than to save their lives by a sinful compliance. Their joint and individual testimonies, and also their dying speeches, breathing the fragrance of heaven, are in Naphtali, and are a spirited defence of that covenanted work of reformation which they soiled with their blood. Though unlearned, and occupying a humble sphere in society, they were indeed Christ’s nobility, and their dying words have been quoted to shew what Christianity cau do for man; but, as your space is valuable, I only crave room for one extract from the dying speech of John Clyde, who was about 21 years of age. When at the foot of the ladder, while his four brethren were hanging before him, to the assembled crowd of spectators he said —

I bless the Lord for keeping me straight. I desire to speak it to the commendation of free grace, and this I am speaking from my own experience, that there are none who will lippen to God and depand upon Him for direction but they shall be kept straight and right. But to be promised to be kept from tribulation, that is not the bargain; for He hath said that through much tribulation we must enter the kingdom. He deals not with us as Satan does, for Satan lets us see the bonniest side of the temptation; but our Lord Jesus lets us see the roughest side and the blackest. After that the sweetest thing comes, and He tells us the worst thing that will happen to us. For He hath not promised to keep us from trouble; but He hath promised to be with us in it, and what needs more? T bless the Lord for keeping me to this very hour, for little would I have thought a twelvemonth since that the Lord would have taken a poor ploughman lad, and have honoured me so highly as to make me first appear for Him, and then keep me straight, and now hath kept me to this very hour to lay down my life for Him.

These five martyrs were hung in chains to rot, but the greatest risk did not deter an aged couple from taking them down and burying tbem; and 49 years afterwards, when a gravestone was set up to their memory, some of their bones and clothes were found unconsumed. Fully 70 years ago this gravestone was broken, and for a long time the only thing to mark the place was the uncultivated bit of sward where they are resting. Yesterday a handsome and durable stone, designed from the former cue, and bearing an exact copy of its inscription, was erected by John Whyte Melville, Esq.,* the worthy and respected Convener of the County, and is enclosed by the substantial wall which he built this spring. The inscriptions are: —

Here lies Thos. Brown,
James Wood, Andrew Sword,
John Weddell, & John Clyde,
Who suffered martyrdom on Magus Muir
For their adherence to the word of God
And Scotland’s Covenanted work of Reformation.

Nov. 25, 1679.

On the reverse side: —

‘Cause we at Bothwel did appear,
Perjurious oaths refused to swear;
‘Cause we Christ’s cause would not condemn,
We were sentenc’d to death by men
Who raged against us in such fury,
Our dead bodies they did not bury,
But up on Poles did hing us high,
Triumphs of Babel’s victory.
Our lives we feared not to the death,
But constant proved to our last breath.

Restored 1877.

Andrew Gullan‘s stone, which had long been illegible, but which Mr. Melville caused to be renewed, was also re-erected yesterday in the little copse at Claremont. Mr. Melville’s munificence in this matter deserves the highest praise, and every true Scotchman must feel grateful to him.

Can Scotland e’er forget that cause, F
So dear in times long fled,
When for Christ’s Covenant, Crown, and Laws
Her noblest blood was shed?

No! — Buried memories shall arise
From out each hallowed spot, where lies,
‘Neath turf or heath-bell red,
Her martyr’d worthies. And, again,
Her Covenanted King shall reign.

Let the community show their gratitude to Mr. Melville by protecting these gravestones from thoughtless and malicious persons.

I am, &c.,

D. Hay Fleming.
St Andrews, 11th Dec. 1877.

* I believe the writer alludes to the father of novelist George John Whyte-Melville.

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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 allies 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

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