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The Murder of Abp. James Sharp


We continue our history of the Covenanting cause in Scotland during the 16th Century.  In this section we’ll cover an important event, the murder of Archbishop James Sharp, at Ceres, in Fife.  But first, we’ll take a short look at two important figures on the government side,Tom Dalziel, and John Graham of Claverhouse.


We have already noted that the government forces at Rullion Green were under the command of one Tom Dalziel.  Following the battle, and the subsequent executions, Dalziel moved his headquarters to Kilmarnock in Ayrshire, where he regarded every one of the locals as a potential rebel, and mistreated them accordingly.  Dalziel ordered summary executions of men women and children.  Covenanters were gaoled in an old gaol which once stood in King Street, Kilmarnock.  At one time there were so many in one cell that they had to stand upright. Sanitary conditions were deplorable, and many were sick. One man fell ill, and the others pleaded with the guards to have him removed from the cell.  Dalziel agreed, on the condition that when he died, he would be returned.  He did die shortly after, and was indeed returned to the gaol, where his body lay rotting outside the prison for some time before Dalziel would allow it to be buried.

Many others were similarly treated, and worse during the time Dalziel was in Ayrshire.  The Castle of Dean where his troops were billeted remained in military hands until the Glorious Revolution.


John Graham (‘Bloody Clavers’) was one of the most notorious persecutors of the Covenanters.  Born near Dundee in 1648, and created Viscount Dundee in 1688, Claverhouse served as an officer in the French and Dutch armies before returning to take up a commission in Scotland.  His commission was simple and direct.  Given an independent troop of horse, he was to root out and destroy the Covenanters.  This he did with enthusiasm, killing many of his victims with his own hands.  One of the most infamous examples of his work was the martyrdom of John Brown of Priesthill.  Claverhouse carried on his bloody work throughout Galloway and Ayrshire up until 1685, when he moved his headquarters to Selkirk.

In 1689 Claverhouse raised an army of highlanders to fight on behalf of James VII & II, and a battle ensued at Killiecrankie, where he succeeded in winning despite the odds of the battle being against him.  However, in the course of the battle, Claverhouse was mortally wounded, and died shortly after.  He is buried at Old Blair Church, near Blair Atholl.



We return now to our story of the conflict, and it was in the atmosphere of excessively unjust laws and sore persecution that the murder of Archbishop James Sharp occurred.  The year was 1679, the date 3rd May.  Sharp had previously been a Presbyterian minister, stationed at Crail Parish in Fife, and had subscribed to the Covenant. So much trusted was he that he was appointed to represent and defend the interests of the Scottish church in London at the time of the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660.   Whilst there he was offered his archbishopric in return for his collaboration with General Monck, the leader of the English army during their decade of Cromwellian rule.  (I interviewed the Curator of the Fife Folk Museum in Ceres in connection with the murder of sharp.  She is convinced that Sharp’s conversion to episcopacy was a result of pressure being brought to bear upon him, and that he did not at first enjoy his new role.) Secretly, Sharp had worked to re-establish the prelacy, and as archbishop he took severe measures to abolish Presbyterianism.

One of the new archbishop’s first actions was to appoint a new sheriff-depute for Fife, one William Carmichael, whose immediate task was to track down any who failed to attend the curate’s churches, and bring them to the gallows.  Carmichael was a drunkard and squanderer of money, having preciously spent his family’s wealth prior to his appointment.  With great relish he imposed heavy fines on the covenanters, tortured thousands of people, including women and children.

Sharp had drafted a new law, and had brought it to the stage where only royal consent was needed for the bill to enter the statute books.  The law decreed that any person found attending a conventicle could be instantly put to death, without trial, by the lowest of common soldiers.  The archbishop had been warned on several occasions that his anti-Presbyterian fervour would eventually bring about his death.  He had suffered one failed attempt, and although the perpetrator was a man of limited intelligence, (The man referred to here is one James Mitchell, who was executed on 18th January 1678 in Edinburgh.  Smellie in ‘Men of the Covenant’ implies that Mitchell was a simpleton, but Purves’ account in Fair Sunshine disagrees.  Here he is portrayed as a deeply spiritual man, who was simply foolish in his belief that he could single handedly remove the scourge of Sharp from the Church.) Sharp pursued him legally until he was hanged, even though the pursuit of the man meant that several notable noblemen had to bear false witness against him.  On one occasion Sharp was openly warned by a member of his own household staff of a threat from a covenanting preacher, following a field meeting.  (Men of the Covenant, Alexander Smellie, Banner of Truth, Pg 264.  The man had attended a field meeting at which the preacher was one John Welwood, a Conventicle Preacher well known for his prophetic utterances, which were often described as being of a dark nature.  Upon seeing the servant at the meeting, Wellwood allegedly told him to return to his master with the message that his death would be sudden, surprising and bloody.)

On Friday 2nd May, Sharp left Edinburgh to travel north to St Andrews, before proceeding south to London, to ask the king to sign his anti-Presbyterian legislation.  Accompanied by his eldest daughter Isabel, he paused overnight at Kennoway, before travelling on to Ceres, where he stopped to rest at the Manse, occupied as it was by an Episcopalian curate.

Meanwhile a group of twelve Covenanters had been gathering on the Fifeshire Moors.  Among them were DAVID HACKSTON, John ‘Burley’ Balfour, James Russel, William Daniel, George Fleming, Andrew and Alexander Henderson, James, Andrew, and George Balfour, Thomas Ness, and Andrew Gillan.  They had gathered with the purpose of inflicting some harm upon William Carmichael, mentioned above, who had relentlessly persecuted the Covenanters.  Carmichael had been warned that certain men were making enquiries about him, and he thought that it was wise to stay indoors that day.   The Covenanters on Magus Muir, three of whose number had already left for home, had waited long enough, and they were about to give up and go home when a farm boy passing by, gave them the news that Sharp himself was coming along the road.

‘Burley’ Balfour declared that God Himself had delivered the archbishop into their hands, and he determined to end once and for all the prelate’s reign of terror.  Hackston and a few of the other conspirators refused to lead the assault.  Hackston on the grounds that there was a personal matter between himself and Sharp, and therefore he could not take part in any attack on the man, lest it be seen as revenge, rather than a righteous act of justice.  ‘Burley’ had no such scruples, and jumped on his horse, shouting, “Gentlemen, follow me!”

As the Archbishop’s carriage reached the rising ground of Magus Moor, the men on horseback became visible.  The Archbishop urged the driver to outrun them, but such a course was impossible.  The carriage was stopped and the servants detained.  Sharp refused to alight from the carriage, and the Covenanters tried to reach in to the carriage with knives to stab him.  Shots were fired, but Sharp remained alive, a fact brought to the attackers notice by Sharp’s distraught daughter, who by this time was hysterical, and cried out, “There still is life”.

Sharp was dragged from the carriage.  His attackers implored him to make his peace with God, but instead Sharp pleaded for his life.  Hackston sat upon his horse, watching the events unfold.  Sharp saw him, and cried out to him, as a gentleman, to spare his life, whereupon, his own life would be spared in return.  Hackston simply replied, “I shall lay no hand upon you.”  Frustrated by Sharp’s refusal to pray and his cowardly pleas for mercy, the matter eventually wearied ‘Burley’ and he determined to end the affair.  The attackers fired simultaneously, and still Sharp lived.  They drew their swords and as Sharp saw the blades glinting in the sun, he lapsed into shear despair and terror.  His daughter tried to stand between him and the attackers.  Hackston could remain silent no more.  He pleaded with his friends to “Spare these grey hairs”, but he was too late.  The swords were already drawn, the blows soon struck, and death followed.  James Russel said to the servants, “Go, go take up your priest.”

The whole sorry affair has cast a blight on the covenanting cause.  Yet Sharp was a despicable villain and his presence was a menace to the true Presbyterian cause.

There were some mitigating circumstances.

* The act of murder was unpremeditated, committed by people who only set out to scare someone..

* Responsible leaders among the Covenanters condemned the act, completely and utterly.

* The leader of the attacking band was John Balfour, an irreligious man who had for many years been refused communion at his local church.  He was a bigoted fanatic whose godlessness erupted in this foul deed.  (But what of Hackston?  Did his standing back from the foul deed excuse him from guilt by association?  Was he not as guilty as the other murderers that black day?)

Sharp’s lifeless body was taken to St Andrews, where messengers were dispatched to Edinburgh to report the incident.  The Council decreed that the men involved were ‘assassinates’, and the landowners of Fife were commanded to bring all of their servants, tenants and cottars to Cupar, Dunfermline, Kirkcaldy or St Andrews for questioning.

Rewards were offered for information leading to the capture of the men responsible, and an amnesty was proclaimed for any of the Covenanters who would turn Crown Witness, and reveal the names of the others.  Still, no one divulged the names, and no one was arrested for the murder, although many of those involved later were executed for continuing Covenanter activities.

Sharp was buried in Holy Trinity Church at St Andrews.  Bishop Paterson, the infamous inventor of the thumbscrews, (Love, D., Stories of the Scottish Covenanters, Pg 59) preached the funeral sermon.

From → Covenanters

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