Providence or Politics?: Prophet Peden’s “Escape” from Banishment

Gravesend

In December 1678, Alexander Peden and sixty-seven other presbyterian prisoners were banished from Leith aboard the St Michael, a merchant vessel bound for Virginia. However, Peden and the others were not destined for banishment. According to John Howie of Lochgoin, when the St Michael docked at Gravesend, Peden and his comrades were ‘delivered’ to a ship’s master in London for banishment to Virginia. At first, he viewed them as ‘thieves and robbers’, but when he met them he saw them as ‘all grave, sober Christians’ that he would not ‘sail the sea with’.

Lochgoin firmly places the emphasis on the master’s change of heart when confronted by such godly prisoners. His popular narrative of Peden’s release is overlayed with providential overtones and roughly accords with history up to a point, but it only tells half of the story.

How did Peden evade banishment? Tucked away in Lochgoin’s account is a brief reference of the earl of Shaftesbury’s possible involvement in Peden’s release. Since Lochgoin chose to dwell on the providential nature of Peden’s release, he made little of it. (Howie, Scots Worthies, 518-19.)

The source of Lochgoin’s story was Patrick Walker’s Life of Alexander Peden, which contains two contrary versions of the story of Peden’s release. Lochgoin chose to dwell on Walker’s first version of the story of Peden’s release, rather than on the second.

In the first version, Walker, too, makes great play of the hand of providence in Peden’s escape from banishment; both before and throughout the voyage the old prophet confidently predicts that they will not be banished. (Walker, BP, I, 44-5.)

However, Walker’s second version tells a very different story. It was based on the evidence of a gentleman who was ‘much in’ Peden’s company in London.

According to the second version, Peden and his fellow prisoners were ‘only’ set at liberty due to the direct intervention of Anthony Ashley Cooper, earl of Shaftesbury, one of the leaders of the English Whigs, a loose political faction who were broadly sympathetic towards the political aims of Scottish presbyterian dissent.

After failing to prevail with Charles II to release Peden and the other banished prisoners, Shaftesbury ‘went to the master of the ship [in London], and said that, if he did not set these prisoners at liberty, he would never sail in English seas’. In other words, Shaftesbury threatened to exclude him for trading at English ports or in English waters for the illegal kidnap of Peden and the other prisoners as they had not been banished under English law.

Shaftesbury had a strong case, as Scotland and England were separate kingdoms and separate legal jurisdictions united by the personal rule of Charles II as sovereign in both states. In other words, whatever was done in the name of Charles II in Scotland, did not apply in England if it was illegal under English law. If there was no evidence that they should be banished from England, then Peden should be released.

Walker continues: ‘At length he [ie. the ship’s master] came down to Gravesend, and set them at liberty’. For Walker’s source in London, Shaftesbury’s legal threats to the master’s livelihood led directly to Peden’s liberty. Clearly, Shaftesbury’s political pressure and threats had achieved the desired effect. (Walker, BP, I, 105.)

Bearing in mind the second version, it is worth taking a closer look at one of Peden’s reported pronouncements in the first version:

‘When they were on Ship-board, in the Road of Leith, there was a Report, that the Enemies were to send down Thumbikins to keep them from rebelling; at the Report of this, they were discouraged; he came above Deck, and said, Why are you so discouraged ? you need not fear, there will neither Thumbikin nor Bootikin come here; lift up your Hearts and Heads, for the Day of your Redemption draweth near ; if we were once at London, we will all be set at Liberty’. (Walker, BP, I, 44.)

Peden’s confidence that the boots and thumbikins would not be brought onboard the St Michael came from the fact that he knew that while torture of those suspected of treason for evidence was legal in Scotland in certain circumstances, it was not permitted in England.

What were the implications of Peden managing to evade banishment? In the short term, Peden remained in London and England for the next few months where he received many kindnesses from ‘friends’. As a result, he did not participate in the militant-led presbyterian rising in Scotland in June 1679 which was defeated at the battle of Bothwell Brig. (Walker, BP, I, 45-6.)

In the longer term, Shaftesbury’s track record of support for Scottish dissenters like Peden would culminate in the support of some moderate presbyterians and a section of the United Societies for his plans for a joint rising with English Whigs against the rule of Charles II in early 1683. (Jardine, ‘United Societies’, I, 79-104.)

For James Renwick of the United Societies, Peden’s acceptance of political influence on his behalf to prevent his banishment was possibly one of the reasons, among many others, why a few years later in July 1682 he wrote that Peden ‘had [been] many times tried, and practice had proved him unfaithful in times bypast’. (Houston, Letters, 73.)

For Renwick, banishment was form of martyrdom and a ‘providence’ from God which could not be evaded: ‘Yea, though the deep should be your grave, or though you die in a strange land, yet your deaths shall be a testimony, and shall cry for vengeance upon persecutors’. (Carslaw, Letters, 249-50.)

By his yardstick, Peden’s acceptance of Shaftesbury’s legal threats and political influence to evade the testimony of banishment and stay free and alive was complicity with the sins of the land.

Text © Dr Mark Jardine. All Rights Reserved.

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~ by drmarkjardine on September 20, 2010.

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