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History and Ethics, and The Murder of Archbishop James Sharp


You be the Judge!

History and Ethics, and The Murder of Archbishop James Sharp.

Is it ever right for a Christian to retaliate?  The Scottish Covenanters, back in the killing times of the 17th century, were under severe duress.  Hounded from their homes, forced to worship in fields and hilltops, harassed, arrested, wrongfully imprisoned, tried on trumped-up charges, and cruel tortured and executed.  Under the oppression of the Stuart dynasty, they banded together into militias, and waged war, openly against their enemies, in battles at Rullion Great, Ayres Moss, Bothwell Bridge and many other battlegrounds.  But an open battle is different from a guerrilla style attack, by a group of renegades, on a man travelling with his young daughter – no matter who the man is…. Isn’t it?  Even if the man is a wicked opponent of freedom and truth, and a persecutor of Christians.  In this podcast we’ll remember the murder of Archbishop James Sharp at Ceres, in Fife, we’ll show the context – in other words illustrate why the Covenanters were so aroused against this man and his ilk that they would seek his life, and we’ll ask whether such an attack can ever be right or justified, and explore some ethical parameters for justly pursuing a conflict, if such exist at all.



Ceres in Fife was and is, an important historical site, even if its primary notoriety is an act of foul murder.  That murder prompts me to ask whether it is ever right for Christians to take up arms to defend themselves, even under the most extreme provocation, and the Covenanters certainly did take up arms. As we’ve already noted, they organised themselves into militias, fought long and bloody battles against the government. The persecution of the Covenanters in Scotland, in the seventeenth century was severe in the extreme.  

But before we can go further, we need to remember the words of Paul in Romans 13:1 Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God.  Be under no illusions, the ruling authorities in Paul’s days were no angels.  Paul lived under the crushing heel of the Roman Empire, and they were utterly ruthless, as the suffering and death of Jesus on the cross well illustrates.  They knew how to terrorise their subjects into compliance, and they did it with a cruel and ferocious brutality.  When we say that Jesus, God’s sinless Son, ‘suffered under Pontius Pilate’ we rarely can appreciate the extent of that awful suffering.  The Romans were cruel, yet Paul tells us that as Christians we are to be subject to the higher powers, – to the ruling authorities, because God in his providence has placed them there. Romans 13:2 Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. The government’s men who ruled in Scotland in the 17th Century were cruel too, – would Paul not expect the Covenanters to be in subjection to them too?  

Of course Paul doesn’t just leave his teaching in Romans at that point.  He goes on to tell us that the authorities also have a responsibility.  Romans 13:3-4 For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: 4 For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.  So the who govern over us have a God given responsibility to to what is right, to reward good behaviour and punish evildoers, but what if the government are doing the opposite to that?  Ethically, what happens when the government attacks the church, as it did in Scotland, and fails in its side of the equation. What happens when the government oppresses the church – as it did with the Presbyterians in Scotland?   There is of course a biblical precedent for this. It is found in Acts 5, where the Jewish authorities ordered the Apostles to cease and desist from preaching about Jesus. READ Acts 5:5:24-29  The key here seems to be that the governing authorities were hindering and prohibiting the preaching of the Gospel.  Peter’s answer in this passage is clear. In these circumstances, (and in very few others) our first duty is to obey God, not men.  And that was the case with the Covenanters in Scotland in the 17th century, who rose up against the Stuart kings, – men who were trying to use the ‘divine right of kings’ to enforce Anglican conformity (and popish ritual) over and above the clear teaching of God’s Word.

So, on the one hand we have the clear injunctions of Scripture, that we are to obey those in authority, to live peaceably with all men, as far as is possible, that we are to turn the other cheek, that we are to bless and pray for our enemies, Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.”   But there is also the concept of the ‘just war,’ The Christian theory of the Just War began as a moral argument around the time of Augustine of Hippo and is still used by Christians today as a guide to whether or not a war can be justified. War may be needed, for example in the case of a country that has been invaded by an enemy, or occupying force, and the only way to restore democracy and justice may be war.  So the use of force may be right, even if it is not good.  

Of course, as we know, not all those who fought alongside the Covenanters in the various battles of that century were Christians in the sense that we would understand ‘Biblical Christianity.’Alongside the many deeply committed Presbyterian Christians who attended the conventicles, and heard the sermons of the covenanting ministers, were others who were simply nationalistic Scots, who didn’t want to be told what to do in any way by the English establishment.  But many Covenanting Christians DID take up arms against the king’s forces, and those who would support them.  There are some basic principles that those who accept the ‘just war’ theory must consider.  For example, to be just, a legitimate war must only be DEFENSIVE.  Christians must never be aggressive, or initiate conflict.  Also, the intention of the war must be to secure peace for everyone involved.  Revenge, economic gain or political advancement cannot be considered as just causes for war.   Again, such a war must be the last resort.  We should only go to war after every other avenue has been explored, when negotiations have finally failed, and every compromise been exhausted.  The objective of such a war should be clearly stated, and there should be no ‘mission creep.’  Finally, the force used should not be disproportionate, just enough to secure peace.  

So now that we’ve learned all that, we can look at the murder, by a group of Covenanters, of Archbishop James Sharp.  Was it right, for men who are claiming to be Christians,  rallying under the Blue Banner, proclaiming Christ’s crown and Covenant to murder a man in revenge?  Even a despicable, wicked man like Sharp.  It wasn’t a good thing to do, but was it a just action?  Was it defensive, was it intended to bring about a betterment, to promote peace, had every other avenue been exhausted, and was the force used proportionate, or did they go too far?  Or was it less unpremeditated than some historians might paint it?  Certainly the appearance of Sharp on that moor at Ceres was unexpected, for Sharp was supposed to be on route to London, to obtain the Royal Assent for his Bill, and only at the last minute decided on a detour to St. Andrews.  Yet there is some evidence that already at that point, some Covenanters were planning to mount a rebellion, and to establish a republic in Scotland.  Certainly the next decade was marked by rebellions and bloody battles.  Why were those Covenanters out on the moors that night?  Why were they armed?  They had intended to dispatch William Carmichael, to finally stop him in his mischief, – but was that just a local insurrection, or part of a larger, planned uprising?

Now, to enable us to adequately assess the actions of the Covenanters in this event, let’s first try to get a clear picture of the type of enemy they were facing.  Let’s take a short look at two important figures on the government side, enemies of the gospel and the Covenanters, Tom Dalziel, and John Graham of Claverhouse, just to get some idea of why these men in the ambush at Ceres were so outraged and angry with their rulers and oppressors.


The government forces at the Battle of Rullion Green in 1666, were under the command of one Tom Dalziel.  Following the battle, and the subsequent executions of Covenanter prisoners, 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, but only 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 under William of Orange.


John Graham (who earned the nickname ‘Bloody Clavers’) was one of the most notorious persecutors of the Covenanters.  He was 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, a commission that was simple and direct.  Given an independent troop of horse troops, his commission 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.

John Brown, of Priesthill, known as ‘the Christian Carrier’ was a humble peasant crofter, whose life was taken by Claverhouse at his own farm, and in front of his wife and children. Brown lived at Priesthill, a small croft, along the Strathaven Road, just north of Muirkirk. Although the farmhouse itself is long gone, a small monument marks the site where the murder took place; about two and a half miles walk from the public road. The farm was never prosperous, and Brown would have owned little more than a cow and a few sheep. For this reason, perhaps, he also acted as a carrier, for being a fit man; he was able to take parcels by packhorse to inaccessible areas of the countryside.

Brown was not a minister, nor even a preacher. He suffered a speech impediment, which would have made such a calling impossible. However, Brown did run a Bible class for young boys at his home. By summer he taught his students in the sheepfold, and by winter in the barn. Many illegal Covenanter services were held at Priesthill, and many of the hillmen lodged there from time to time.

It is recorded that when he married his second wife, Isabel Weir, the marriage was solemnised, at his own home, by Alexander Peden, who was a close friend. Following the ceremony, Peden warned Isabel Brown that she would not enjoy her husband’s company for long, and that she should always keep fresh linen close to hand, to wrap his body.

In 1680, Brown was reported for not attending the curate’s services at the parish of Sorn, where he lived at the time. The Session minutes of the time record that Brown had stated most clearly that he regarded the minister of Sorn as one of those who kept company with Indulged Ministers, that the minister paid tribute to the government, and that the true messenger of Jesus Christ (Richard Cameron) was lying under the muirs at Ayres Moss.

On 1st May 1685, Rev Sandy Peden stayed the night with the Browns, and on leaving early the next morning, turned to Isabel Brown and said, “Poor Woman! A fearful morning – a dark misty morning.” After morning prayers, Brown and his nephew, John Browning left the home to go to cut peat in the hills, and shortly after leaving the house, found themselves surrounded by troops, under the command of John Graham of Claverhouse. Brown was questioned as to why he did not attend the services of the curates, and why so many Covenanters stayed at his house.  

John Brown was asked to swear the oath of allegiance, which of course he refused. It is recorded that when Brown was answering Claverhouse, his stammer left him. So much so that Clavers asked his lieutenant whether Brown had ever preached. The lieutenant testified that he had not.

Janet Brown, John’s young daughter, had witnessed the arrest and she had gone to fetch Isabel. In front of Brown’s wife, daughter, and baby son, Claverhouse ordered the crofter to go to his prayers. Much to Clavers’ annoyance, the prayer continued for some time; Claverhouse shouting that he had given time to pray, not to preach. Brown’s reply was that Clavers would not know the difference! Claverhouse ordered his troops to shoot Brown, but they refused, and having run out of patience with the situation, Claverhouse himself drew his pistol and shot the Covenanter dead.

Isabel went to her dead husband, and cradled his head in her lap. Clavers asked her, “Well, what do you think of your husband now?” She replied, “I ay thocht muckle o’ him, but now more than ever.” Clavers threatened to put her beside her husband, and she challenged him as to how he would answer before God for his days work. Clavers answered with characteristic arrogance, “To man I am answerable, as for God, I will take Him into my own hand.” Later, he confessed that he suffered nightmares because of the final words of John Brown.

Sandy Peden was about ten miles away when the murder happened. He was with a Christian family named Muirhead. They were fellowshipping in prayer, when Peden cried to the Lord, “Lord, when wilt Thou avenge Brown’s blood.” John Muirhead asked Peden what he had meant, and Peden replied, “I mean that Claverhouse has been at Priesthill, and has cruelly murdered John Brown. His corpse is lying at the end of the house, his poor wife sitting by it, with not a soul to speak comfortably to her.”  Isabel Brown sat with her dead husband until found in that position by Jean Brown, a widow; whose own husband and two sons had suffered a similar fate.

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 murder at Ceres, 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.  (In 1998 I interviewed the then 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. It was a cruel law, removing the need for a fair trial, simply for attending worship, and with the potential for serious abuse. It was highly provocative.  The archbishop had been warned on several occasions that his anti-Presbyterian fervour would eventually bring about his death.  He had suffered one failed assassination 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.  Alexander 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, the Sheriff Deputy, 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.  In the debate that followed we see elements of consideration of the ‘just war’ theory.  Hackston and a few of the other conspirators refused to lead the assault.  Hackston refused 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.  A very clear understanding of the ethics of war.  ‘Burley’ though, 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 then 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 has been considered by most historians to be unpremeditated, committed by people who only set out to scare a wicked government official.

* 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 cotters 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. Five Covenanters  who had been arrested at Bothwell Brig were hanged on Magus Moor as an act of retaliation, and the fate of David Hackston requires some examination.


David Hackston, although present at the scene of the crime was not actually involved in the deed; he was nevertheless blamed by the government, and considered to have been the ringleader.

Hackston had fought at many of the battles where the Covenanters faced the government forces, and after the defeat at Ayres Moss, bleeding severely from head wounds and almost dead he was taken to Edinburgh.  Along with others he was marched barefoot to Lanark where he was interrogated by Dalziel, who threatened to roast him alive on a gridiron if he did not reveal the names of others.  Hackston said nothing, and Dalziel, realising that the man would quickly die if tortured, and not willing to deprive the state of an execution, ordered that the Covenanter should be taken on to Edinburgh.  Along with others, who had been captured at Ayres Moss, Hackston was brought to the Capital on bareback horse, sitting facing the tail, with his feet tied underneath.

In the prison, Hackston wrote to friends regarding his condition, and he remained faithful to God despite being in terrible pain.  He appeared before the court twice, and was sentenced to die.  The sentence was a fearful one.  

This section has been omitted from the Podcast…

Hackston was dragged backwards to the gallows, where his right hand was severed, his left being struck off a period of time afterwards. The hangman made such a poor job of hacking off his right hand that Hackston pleaded for his left to be severed at the joint, and this was done.  He was then hoisted to the top of the gallows, where he was hanged until at the point of asphyxiation, and then lowered again.  The hangman then cut out his heart and bowels, while Hackston was still alive, and held up his heart for all to see.  It is said that his heart was still fluttering as the hangman displayed it to the crowds on the end of his knife.  The executioner shouted to the people, “Here is the heart of a traitor.”  

The indignity was not yet over.  Hackston’s head was severed and put on display on the Netherbow, while the rest of his body was quartered and displayed in towns throughout the region as a warning to others.

It was a wicked and bloody retribution for Sharp’s death, for which David Hackston was blamed, and his faithfulness to the cause of the Covenants.


So what do you think?  Was that group of renegade covenanters in any way justified in murdering Sharp, in front of his young daughter?  Take into account their extreme provocation.  

Was there a JUST CAUSE?  – I think there was.  The reality in those days was that there were no independent courts before which the Covenanters could plead their case. Ultimately the government of the land, lay in the hands of a king who was no friend of the Presbyterians.   

But was the bloody and violent execution JUSTLY carried out?   I think not, – and was there a JUST outcome?  This illegal and unsanctioned execution seems to have achieved nothing for the covenanting cause, for a decade of horrendous persecution followed. 

Was it just a wicked act of revenge?

YOU be the judge!

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