The murder of Archbishop James Sharp near St Andrews on 3rd May 1679 has often been represented as the triumph of Scotland's presbyterian order over an English king's imposition of bishops and prayer books on the Scots. It was, in fact, only one important
incident in a long struggle. From the Reformation settlement of 1560 it took 130 years of wavering loyalties, doctrinal dispute and
civil war before a presbyterian church was accepted as the established Church of Scotland in 1690.
In 1560 there had been no question of creating a church without a hierarchy, even if John Knox preferred to call bishops 'superintendents'. The question of who was to appoint the superintendents created a profound dispute between the kirk and the
Stewart monarchs who maintained their belief in the divine right of kings.
James Sharp, bom in 1613, studied at King's College, Aberdeen, and graduated with an MA in 1637. In that year Charles I, more stubborn over his divine right than his father James VI, imposed religious changes on Scotland including the use of the unpopular Book of Common Prayer.
The Scots reacted by drawing up the National Covenant in February 1638. Signatories declared themselves against all the king's innovations, but loyal to His Majesty. To Charles and his supporters the two sentiments were incompatible. Civil war was inevitable. The word 'Covenanter' was coined.
Copies of the Covenant were sent to the five Scottish universities for signature but, rather than sign, Sharp went to Oxford, returning in 1642 as regent of philosophy at St Leonard's College, St Andrews. In January 1648 he was appointed minister of Crail and from that time on he was rarely out of the ecclesiastical limelight. When Cromwell invaded Scotland in 1651 Sharp, as a member of the Scottish Estates, was arrested and then imprisoned in the Tower of London. Not long after he was appointed spokesman for conservative presbyterians anxious to talk with Cromwell. The mission was a failure. Cromwell despised all presbyterians, but expressed admiration
Later, General George Monck, planning the restoration of Charles II, chose Sharp to go abroad to discuss Scottish church affairs with the exiled king. During these meetings and later, Sharp appears to have convinced the king that the majority of Scots wanted an episcopacy, meanwhile assuring the presbyterians in Scotland that Charles would do all in his power to establish their form of religion throughout Britain according to the Covenant that he had been forced to sign in 1651.
Restored to the throne in 1660, Charles immediately appointed Sharp his chaplain in Scotland and then made him archbishop of St Andrews. Several other ministers agreed to be bishops, believing that Sharp planned to unite the presbyterian and episcopal wings of the church. Nothing was further from Sharp's mind.
In 1664 his title was elevated to primate of Scotland and for the next 15 years he pursued with equal energy the establishment of the episcopal order and the savage persecution of Covenanters. Ministers and entire congregations with Covenanting leanings were banned from churches and mercilessly hunted, and executed out of hand, for attending the outdoor services called Conventicles.
Sharp's self-seeking and brutality, bad judgement and foolish decisions in time alienated even his old friends. He lived well. His marriage to the daughter of a Fife laird produced seven children. He prospered and was granted the barony of Scotscraig in Fife.
On 3 May 1679 he was returning from Edinburgh to St Andrews with his daughter Isabella. On high Magus Muir, within sight of the city, Sharp's carriage was suddenly surrounded by a band of Covenanters led by John Balfour of Kinloch. The Archbishop was dragged
from the carriage and stabbed to death in front of his daughter. Those murderers who were caught suffered executions of horrendous brutality. However, despite official reaction, few genuinely mourned the death of Sharp who had, in the name of serving his country,
generously served himself.
To Tour St Andrews