Archbishop James Sharp, Primate of Scotland, was attacked and murdered on the 3rd of May, 1679.
Originally, James Sharp was a Covenanting Resolutioner, but after many events and political intrigues, he turned his back on Presbyterianism to promote Episcopalianism and, as a reward for his ambition, was consecrated as Archbishop of St. Andrews. In consequence, he is generally reviled and portrayed as a self-seeking defector who betrayed both his colleagues and beliefs. Sharp’s brutality in persecuting his former allies ultimately led to his murder on Magus Muir, three miles outside St. Andrews. James Dodds, in ‘The Fifty Years’ Struggle of the Scottish Covenanters 1638-88’, commented thus on our man Sharp, “For well concocted, cold blooded, systematic dissimulation, he stands almost without a match in History.” Yes indeed, Sharp was one of the bad guys, but he wisnae quick enough to avoid his assassins.
James Sharp was born on the 4th of May, 1618, in Banff Castle. Later, in 1633, James went to Aberdeen University, where he read divinity for two years; at Kings College. Sharp graduated Master of Arts, in 1637, the same year that Charles I imposed religious changes on Scotland. Those included the use of the unpopular ‘Book of Common Prayer’, which led directly to the creation of the National Covenant, in February, 1638.
The Covenanters were a group of Scottish Presbyterians who were bound by oath to protect and defend their religion from prelacy, the introduction of Bishops, and other Episcopalian features. By 1650, this group had been split into two factions, the Resolutioners and Protesters; the groups differing over how much power should be given to the King. Of course, the Stuart monarchs maintained their belief in the ‘Divine Right’ and the King’s complete authority in the Church. Signatories to the Covenant declared themselves against all the King’s innovations, but loyal to His Majesty. To Charles I and his cronies, those two sentiments were incompatible; trouble was inevitable.
Rather than sign the Covenant, Sharp sloped off to Oxford. James Sharp returned to Scotland, in 1642, as Regent of Philosophy at St Leonard’s College, St Andrews. Six years later, in January, 1648, Sharp was appointed Minister of the Parish of Crail. By the time Cromwell invaded Scotland, in 1651, James Sharp had signed the Covenant. Not long after, he became a leader in the moderate, conservative wing of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, the Covenanting faction known as the Resolutioners.
Sharp’s political side was evident early on when, in 1657, he led discussions with Cromwell. The negotiations failed to achieve anything, but Cromwell, who despised all Presbyterians, called him “Sharp of that Ilk” and recognised his “supple intelligence.” Later, following Cromwell’s death, James Sharp was back in London representing the Resolutioners in dealings with General George Monck. Sharp was undoubtedly at the heart of intrigue and involved in Monck’s political machinations.
Monck was planning the restoration of Charles II and, significantly, chose Sharp to discuss Scottish affairs with the exiled King. It was during that time, 1659-60, that Sharp effectively shifted his loyalties. He was complicit in plotting with Monck and the King to restore Episcopacy and, by so doing, betrayed his Scottish Presbyterian comrades. All the time, whilst reassuring the Presbyterians that Charles would accept the Covenant, he secretly intended the opposite.
The payback for Sharp came soon after when, in 1660, Charles was restored to the throne. The lowly Rev. James Sharp, Minister of Crail, was appointed Royal Chaplain in Scotland and Professor of Divinity at the University of St. Andrews. Then, early the next year, he was made Archbishop of St Andrews, when the Privy Council announced the restoration of Episcopacy (Bishops) by decree, at the Mercat Cross, in Edinburgh, on the 6th of September, 1661. Within three years, Sharp was Primate of Scotland.
Sharp then set about implementing an almost savage policy of repression against his former fellows, becoming a very effective oppressor of those he had betrayed. The list of infamous policies he was involved in enforcing includes: the ‘Act of Supremacy’; the act known as ‘The Bishop’s Drag Net’; the ‘Scots Mile Act’ of 1663; and the national extension to the 1669 act anent conventicles, which was proclaimed in Edinburgh on the 26th of April, 1676 as an ‘Act concerning keeping of conventicles’. The ‘Scots Mile Act’ marked the beginning of the field meetings known as ‘Conventicles’ and the several acts against such gatherings effectively engendered a Scottish Inquisition. That was formed in the guise of the Committee for Public Affairs, which was styled the ‘Secret Committee’. It was headed by Sharp, of whom Dodds writes, “[he] was ever to be seen perched upon his eyrie, when there was the prospect of carnage, spoil and destruction.”
Ministers and entire congregations of Covenanters were banned from churches, mercilessly hunted and executed out of hand for attending those outdoor services. With almost limitless power, Sharp’s Presidency of the reinstated Court of High Commission dealt out summary ‘justice’. That was the powder keg that led to The Pentland Rising and the Battle of Rullion Green. In the subsequent ‘trial’, Sharp showed his true malice. To eleven prisoners who had surrendered on promise of mercy he said, “You were pardoned as soldiers, but you are not acquitted as subjects.” Those eleven were sentenced to death and dismemberment. And, early in 1679, Sharp introduced possibly his most heinous piece of legislation, which heralded what was called the ‘Killing Time’. That permitted, without so much as a trial, the ‘on the spot’ killing of anybody who had anything to do a Conventicle.
Finally, on the afternoon of the 3rd of May, 1679, as Sharp was returning to St Andrews with his daughter Isabella via Magus Muir, his carriage was surrounded by a band of Covenanters. Led by John Balfour of Kinloch, they dragged the Archbishop from his carriage and stabbed him to death. Balfour told Sharp that they were not slaying him from personal malice, but for causing the death of Covenanters. Nobody genuinely mourned the death of Sharp who had, in the name of serving his King and country, generously served himself.