The King ‘Deserves to Dye’: The execution of Cuthill and Thomson, 1681.

For over three centuries their heads have lain buried in a long-forgotten grave near Edinburgh College of Art. The story of William Cuthill and William Thomson has been overshadowed by the execution of Donald Cargill on the same day. Perhaps, Presbyterian historiography had better things to focus on than ‘ganging to houk up hunder-year-auld banes’, but now, at least a little more of their intriguing story can be told.

The execution site at Edinburgh’s Mercat Cross © kim traynor and licensed for reuse.

Almost everything that is known about the lives and views of Cuthill and Thomson comes from the official record of their trial and their martyrs’ testimonies.

William Thomson
Thomson was variously described as a ‘servant in Fresk’ at his trial, as a servant in ‘Frosk in Fifeshire’ by Cloud of Witnesses and as a ‘servant in Frosk’ by Wodrow. (CST, X, 850; Thomson (ed.), CW, 172; Wodrow, History, III, 282.)

A letter from Charles II described him as a ‘labourer’. (Wodrow, History, III, 497.)

Frosk, now known as Throsk, does not lie in Fife, as is located on the south bank of the Forth in St Ninians parish, Stirlingshire. On General Roy’s map of the mid eighteenth century, Throsk was recorded as ‘The Frosk’ and appears to have been more of a scatter of buildings than a defined village. In 1681, the lands of Throsk were held by Charles Erskine, earl of Mar, (1650-1689). (RPS, 1685/4/93.)

Bing OS Map of Throsk           Google Street View of Throsk

The Old Forth Rail Bridge at Throsk © Gerald England and licensed for reuse.

Little is known about Thomson’s background. Before the Bothwell Rising of 1679, he does not seem to have been a strong supporter of the presbyterian cause. According to his testimony, before Bothwell he was ‘running away, with the rest of this generation, to God-provoking courses’, but when he ‘saw the people of God going to draw together to adventure their lives in the Lord’s quarrel, the Lord took a dealing with me at that time, so that I could neither get night’s rest, nor day’s rest’. Thomson was ‘afraid lest I should have been the Achan in the Lord’s camp’, but he ‘resolved to go with them’. He was not captured in the rout at Bothwell Brig and did not take the bond of peace offered in its aftermath. (Thomson (ed.), CW, 174.)

Old Bo’ness © Tom Sargent and licensed for reuse.

William Cuthill
‘William Coothill’ or Cuthill was a ‘seaman in Borrostunnes’, i.e., Borrowstounness or Bo’ness, a port and burgh of regality in Linlithgowshire on the southern bank of the Forth.

Bing OS Map of Bo’ness            Google Street View of Bo’ness

Little is known about Cuthill’s background. He presumably worked out of the old harbour at Bo’ness, which now lies under a car park.

Google Street View of the old harbour of Bo’ness

There is no evidence that he was at the battle of Bothwell Brig, however, he appears to have been in Edinburgh on 14 August 1679 when Mr John Kid and John King were executed for their part in the Bothwell Rising:

‘I bear my testimony against their treachery at Edinburgh, when a proclamation came out to the view of the world, blaspheming God’s true religion, and declaring that all that belonged to God was due to Charles Stuart, which is the plain sense of the Act; and they sat in an assembly, and voted for a liberty coming from him to preach by [i.e., the third indulgence]; though that same very day that this was proclaimed, two of their more worthy and faithful brethren [Messrs John King and John Kid] were murdered. [The Indemnity after Bothwell, published August 14, 1679.] I think this people are grown like brute beasts.

Oh, how much pomp and joviality was that day in rejoicing over the ruins of the work of God and His people, yea, over Himself. There was first a scaffold made on the east side of the Cross, and a green table set down on it, and two green forms; and then the Cross was covered, and, about twelve hours of the day, the Pursuivants, and Heralds, and Lyon King at Arms, and eight trumpeters, went up to the Cross, and fourteen men on the foresaid scaffold, and seven of them with red gowns of velvet, and seven with black, and then that Act was read, and at night the bells were ringing, and bonfires burning. Oh! I think it was a wonder, that God made not all the town, where such wickedness was acted against and in despite of Him, to sink to the lowest hell.’ (Thomson (ed.), CW, 183-4.)

Cuthill may have been related to the ‘Stephen Cuthel’ of Bo’ness whom Patrick Walker described as ‘a serious Christian’. After Ayrsmoss on 22 July 1680, Cuthel took ship to the United Provinces where he met with Robert MacWard, the chief ideologue of the militant presbyterian movement who lived in exile in Rotterdam. He had probably been present at Ayrsmoss, as he gave MacWard an account of Richard Cameron’s death and dismemberment on the battlefield. Intriguingly, Walker described Cuthel’s meeting with MacWard as his ‘ordinary’ mode of behaviour, i.e., a regular event, which may indicate that Cuthel couriered information and documents between the militants in Scotland and Rotterdam. Cuthel was not captured and lived until 1715. (Walker, BP, I, 206.)

Prior to William Cuthill’s execution, the small burgh of Bo’ness had produced three martyrs, Archibald Stewart (Dec., 1680), Marion Harvie (Jan., 1681) and William Gogar (Mar., 1680), and witnessed the birth of the extreme Sweet Singers led by John Gibb in early 1681.

Airth Castle © James Allan and licensed for reuse.

The Airth Rescue
From the indictment against them, it appears that both men were alleged to taken part in the rescue of two presbyterian prisoners near Airth at some point before their capture. However, only Thomson confessed that he had ‘assisted to the taking of two prisoners furth of Airth imprisoned by [the earl of] Airth’. (CST, X, 889.)

Bing OS Map of Airth           Google Street View of Airth

Beyond the charge against Thomson, nothing in known about the prisoner rescue, however, it clearly involved William Graham, the second earl of Airth (d.1694), whose seat was at Airth Castle.

Bing OS Map of Airth Castle              Google Street View of Airth Castle

Alloa Tower © JThomas and licensed for reuse.

The Capture of Thomson
Thomson was captured when returning from Donald Cargill’s preaching at Devon Common in Fife of 26 June, 1681. (Thomson (ed.), CW, 173.)

Bing OS Map of Devon Common

Three other militants, Lawrence Hay, Andrew Pitilloch and Adam Philip, were also captured in Fife after the preaching.

Thomson was seized at Alloa in Clackmannanshire. John Slezer’s evocative etching of Alloa gives a good impression of the town at the time of Thomson’s capture. According to Robert Sibald, Alloa was ‘situated on a pleasant Plain to the North of Forth; and hath a convenient Harbour for Ships of Burthen, many of which come thither for Salt and Coals. Here the Earl of Marr, Chief of the Areskins, hath a pleasant Dwelling with a Wood adjacent’.

Thomson was probably captured at, or heading for, the harbour, where a ferry made the short journey across the Forth to South Alloa, which lay next Thomson’s home at Throsk.

Google View of Alloa and Throsk

It is not clear who captured him, but it was probably the earl of Mar’s men, as Charles Erskine, earl of Mar, (1650-1689) had been commissioned to discover fugitives from Bothwell in Stirlingshire. The final deadline for all fugitives, either heritors or commoners, to take the bond of peace had expired a few months before on 1 March 1681. (Wodrow, History, III, 127, 142n, 189.)

He may have been initially held in Alloa Tower, which belonged to the earl of Mar.

Bing OS Map of Alloa Tower           Google Street View of Alloa Tower

Charles Erskine, earl of Mar

The Capture of William Cuthill
The circumstances behind Cuthill’s capture are also obscure, although his later statements before the privy council make it clear that he, too, was a follower of Donald Cargill. Cuthill was captured by ‘some of the earle of Mar’s men, with two pistolls and a durk, about him’. No date or location was given for his capture, but the presence of Mar’s men may indicate that he was taken in Stirlingshire in early to mid 1681.

George Livingston, 3rd earl of Linlithgow (1616-1690).

Before the Privy Council
When they were brought to Edinburgh, the only evidence against Cuthill was that he had been armed in suspicious circumstances. Had Cuthill acknowledged the authority of the King and Council, then he could have expected to spend some time in Edinburgh’s tolbooth before being liberated under caution on the conditions that they lived orderly and did not attend field preachings.

The charges against Thomson were far more serious. As a fugitive from Bothwell who had not taken the King’s peace, had been involved in the Airth rescue and present at Cargill’s Devon Common preaching, he could have expected little mercy. Their fate, at least in Cuthill’s case, depended on their answers before the council. The documents concerning their appearances before the Council on 12 to 13 July, confirm that both Cuthill and Thomson committed treason by publicly denying the King and Council’s authority:

‘Edinburgh, the 13 July 1681. In presence of the Committee for Publict Affairs.
W[illiam]. Thomson, servant in Frosk, in Stirlinshyre, confesses he was at Bothwelbridge, but has not taken the bond, nor will not take it. Confesses he assisted to the taking of two prisoners furth of Airth imprisoned by Airth, being interogat if the ryseing in armes at Bothwelbridge was a rebellion, or if he ownes the king’s authoritie, or if he thinks the killing of the Archbishop was a murther, refuses to answer these questions, and refuses to signe this his declaration. Being asked if he thinks it lawful to kill the officers of the army, he speired at the committie, if it was lawfull for them to kill the people of God, and lay the one to the other. Being asked if to save his lyff he would say God save the king, answers he will not buy his lyff at so dear a rate.
Sic Subscribitur,
Linlithgow, Balcarres, R. Maitlanii, Elphinston, A. Ramsay.’ (CST, X, 889.)

‘William Coothill, seaman in Borrowstounnes, confesses he was taken by some of the earle of Mar’s men, with two pistolls and a durk, about him. Being interogat, if he thinks it lawful to kill the king, answers the king has broken the covenant, and presses other persons to doe it by his forces, and therfor he thinks he deserves to dye, and disownes his authoritie upon that account, and confesses he cane subscribe but will not subscrybe this his declaration.
Sic Subscribitur,
Linlithgow. Balcarres. R. Maitland.’ (CST, X, 890.)

‘Being farder interogat if he thinks the persons that killed the archbishop of St. Andrews [in May 1679], did right or wrong in it, declaires he thinks the persons that did it, had the glory of God before ther eyes.
Sic Subscribitur,
Linlithgow, I. P. Com.’ (CST, X, 890.)

James, duke of York

Both Cuthill and Thomson were then brought before James, duke of York, and the privy council:

‘The saids W[illia]m. Thomson and William Coothill being called befor his royall highnes, his majesties high commissioner [i.e. James, duke of York], and lords of councill, do adher to ther former declarations, emitted befor the committie [of public affairs], and farder the said William Coothill sayes, that not only the king deserves to dye for breaking the covenant, and pressing others to do it, but because he has caused take the blood of many upon that account, and both refuse to signe, albeit they confesse they can wreitt.
Sic Subscribitur,
Ch. Maitland, I. P. D.’ (CST, X, 890.)

Faced with such obviously treasonable statements, such as Charles II ‘deserves to dye’, the privy council’s request that the Lord Advocate send them for trial was a mere formality.

Cuthill’s Interview with a Presbyterian Minister
According to Cuthill, he was offered a reprieve in the days before his trial, if he was prepared to acknowledge royal authority and retract his statement that the King ‘deserves to dye’. Cuthill refused to contemplate the offer and asked for Cargill to be sent to him:

‘I bear my testimony against them, for their untenderness to weak consciences, and making use of their gifts and parts to wrest the word of God, to put out that light, which God has given poor things; of which I, among others, have a proof; for one of them came into the prison, and told me, that he had been dealing with him, who had been pursuing us to death, (the king’s Advocate [George Mackenzie of Rosehaugh]) that he would not take innocent blood upon him, and out of love and tenderness to our souls, he came to pay us a visit; and said, he was neither a curate nor an Indulged man, but a minister of the Gospel. So he said, that we would be well advised what we were doing, for the Advocate had said we were shortly to be before the criminal court. And I asked, what he advised us to do? and began to tell him the ground whereupon we were accused, which was this; that Charles Stuart, having broken and burnt God’s Covenant, and compelled all that he could by his forces to do the like, and slain many upon that account; upon this head I declined his authority; and being hard questioned, confessed that I thought it lawful to kill him, but I did not say by whose hands. And he said, all that would not free me from being his subject, and instanced Zedekiah’s case to prove it. But I was not in case to speak to him (being confused with a distracted man who was in with us). Only I told him there was as great a difference betwixt that of Zedekiah, and this in hand, as east was from the west. And he called us Jannes and Jambres [i.e., magicians], who withstood the truth, when we would not hear him; and said, there was no such thing as any condition holden out in the form and order of the coronation, that did free us from allegiance to Charles Stuart upon that account. […] He said, that he could send me any of the ministers, whom I pleased to call for. I said, that I heard tell Mr Donald Cargill was taken; would he send him to me, and I would take it as a great kindness off his hand? But he said, that he had taken a way by himself.’ (Thomson (ed.), CW, 185-6.)

Cuthill’s use of ‘we’, ‘us’ and ‘our’ in his testimony probably indicates that Thomson was also offered of a reprieve. Cuthill did not identify the minister involved, but he was plainly a moderate presbyterian minister as he was neither indulged, nor an episcopal “curate” associated with the Restoration regime.

Thomson Prepares His Testimony
Before he was sent to trial, Thomson composed a written martyrs’ testimony as did not know ‘when I may be taken and murdered’, i.e. executed.

Testimony of William Thomson July 1681

Cuthill also composed a written testimony before his execution, which is discussed below.

Sir George Mackenzie of Rosehaugh

The Trial
On 26 July, 1681, Cuthill and Thomson were tried before the justiciary alongside Donald Cargill, Walter Smith and James Boig.

His Majesty’s Advocate, George Mackenzie, led the case against them based on their confessions before the council:

‘And ye the saids Wm. Thompson and Wm. Coothill, are indyted and accused, that wher notwithstanding be the laws and acts of parliament above-mentioned, yet ye shacking off all fear of God, respect and regard to his majestie’s authoritie and lawes, have presumed to ryse and joyn with the forsaids rebells in armes, at Bothwell-bridge, in June 1679, and to continue with them committing all acts of hostility, rebellion, and high treason, tilt they wer defate, and sicklyke, you did upon the ——— day of ——–, assist to the taking of two prisoners furth of Airth, who wer imprisoned for ther accession to the said rebellion. Lyke as both of you have disowned and declined the king’s sacred majestie and his authoritie, ye the said William Thomson saying that ye would not buy your lyff at so dear a rate as by saying God save the king; and ye have declaired it as law full to kill the officers of his majestie’s army, as it is lawful! for his majestie’s judges to execut justice upon rebellious traitors like yourself, whom ye call the people of God; and ye the said William Coothill has most treasonable declaired that ye think the king deserves to dye because he has brocken the covenant, and presses other persons to doe it by his forces, and has most falslie asserted that he has caused take the blood of many upon that account. Lykeas ye have most blasphemouslie declaired, that those who murdered the archbishop of St. Andrews hade the glorie of God befor ther eyes, in that act, the whilk crymes ye have not only confessed in presence of his majestie’s privie council!, but also in presence of his royall highnes his majestie’s high commissioner [i.e James, Duke of York], and lords of privie councill, upon the 12th of July instant, and of the whilk crymes above specifit, ye and ilk ane of you are actors art and part, which being found be ane assyse, ye ought to be punished with the paines of death, forfaulture and confiscation of lands and movables, to the terror of others to commit the like herefter.’ (CST, X, 881-2.)

After their confessions were presented to the court, ‘William Thomson and William Coothill, prisoners, adhere to ther former confessions emmitted in presence of the committie of councill, and disownes the king’s majestie and his authoritie’.

The lords of justiciary:

‘ordained the Assyse to inclose and returne ther Verdict, and the saids persons of assyse having removed altogether furth of court to the assyse house, wher having reasoned and voted upon the poynts and articles of the dittay and probation above wreitten, adduced for verifieing therof, and being therwith well and ryplie adwised, they re-entered againe in court, and returned ther Verdict in presence of the saids lords, wherof the tenor followes:

The assyse all in one voice be the mouth of William Dunbar Chancellor, finds … William Thomson guilty of being at the rebellion at Bothwel-bridge, and of … treasonablie declining of the king’s authoritie’. It also found ‘William Coothill, guilty of the owneing of the treasonable principles mentioned in the treasonable paper called the Declaration at Sanquhar, and of declining the king’s majesties authoritie. […] Therfor be the mouth of Andrew Cuningtiame, dempster [i.e. doomster] of court, decerned and adjudged the said … William Thomson and William Coothill to be taken to the market croce of Edinburgh, tomorrow being the twentie sevinth instant, betwixt two and four o’clock in the efternoon, and ther to be hanged on a gibbet, till they be dead, and therefter ther heads to be severed from their bodies, … and the heads of the saids William Thomson and William Coothill to be affixt on the west port, and ther names memory and honours to be extinct, and ther armes to be riven furth and delate out of the bookes of armes, suae that ther posteritie may never have place nor be able herefter to bruck or joyse any honours, offices, or dignities within this realme, in tyme comeing, and to have forfault, ammitted, and tint all and sundrie ther lands, heretages, tenements, annual rents, offices, titles, dignities, tacks, steadings, roumes, possessions, goods and gear whatsomever, pertaining to them, to our soveraigne lord, to remaine perpetuallie with his highnes, in propertie. Which was pronounced for doom, and wherupon his majesties advocat asked, and took instruments’. (CST, X, 890-1.)

Edinburgh’s West Port

After the trial, Mackenzie of Rosehaugh was accused of saying, ‘that the permitting the common people to read the Scriptures did more evill then good’. (Fountainhall, Historical Notices, I, 311.)

The Mercat Cross in Edinburgh in the seventeenth century

The Execution of Cuthill and Thomson

Cuthill and Thomson were executed with Cargill, Smith and Boig at the Mercat Cross of Edinburgh on 27 July, 1681. Today, Edinburgh’s mercat cross has moved location and only the shaft of the cross survives from the seventeenth-century cross. In 1756 the cross was removed from the city, but it returned a century later when it was repositioned a few metres up the road from its seventtenth-century site and mounted on a new octagonal platform. The original site of the cross is marked on the pavement.

Google Aerial View of the Cross of Edinburgh.

Sir John Lauder of Fountainhall recorded their execution with these simple words:

‘26 July, 1681.—Mr Donald Cargil and 4 of his disciples ware condemned for rebellion, and disouning the King, and hanged the nixt day:’ (Fountainhall, Historical Notices, I, 305.)

Unlike Cargill, there is no record of Cuthill or Thomson’s last words.

According to Patrick Walker:
‘[Cargill] was first turned over: Mr. Smith, as he did cleave to him in Love and Unity in Life, so he died with his Face upon his Breast; next Mr. Boig, then William Cuthil and William Thomson: These five Worthies hang all on one Gibbet at the Cross of Edinburgh, on that never to be forgotten bloody Day, the 27th of July 1681. The Enemies got this great Glut of Blood, the Day before the Down-sitting of the Parliament, wherein the Duke of York did preside as Commissioner. The Hangman hash’d and hagg’d off all their Heads [upon the Scaffold] with an Ax. Mr. Cargill’s, Mr. Smith’s, and Mr. Boig’s Heads were fixed upon the Netherbow-port, William Cuthil’s and William Thomson’s upon the West-port.’ (Walker, BP, I, 250; II, 1, 49.)

Area of Lauriston Yards

The evidence suggests that Cuthill and Thomson’s heads may have been quickly removed from the spikes on the West Port by their militant brethren, taken up Heriot Lane and buried in Lauriston Yards, which lay just outside of Edinburgh’s walls. According to Patrick Walker:

‘Alexander Tweedie, the foresaid Gardner [at Lauriston Yards], said, when dying, There was a Treasure hid in his Yard, but neither Gold nor Silver. Daniel Tweedie his Son came along with me to that Yard, and told me that his Father planted a white Rose-bush above them, and further down the Yard a red Rose-bush, which were more fruitful than any other Bush in the Yard; and he is perswaded that some others of our Martyrs Heads were buried there, as Archibald Stewart, John Potter, William Cuthel, William Thomson, and others, whose Heads were fixt upon the West-port, but shortly taken away by Friends.’ (Walker, BP, I, 284.)

The exact location of Lauriston Yards is not clear, however, it lay close to the south-west corner of the city walls by Lauriston Place in Edinburgh.

Google Street View of Approximate area of Lauriston Yards

The Fate of their Testimonies
The anonymous editor or editors of Cloud of Witnesses did not think that a large section of Cuthill’s testimony was worthy of public consumption:

‘This testimony having a large preamble, wherein he gives his private opinion concerning some things then in debate, which do not relate to the causes of his suffering, and which are of no use now; these vain janglings and unprofitable strifes of words being ceased, and his opinion about them not being a testimony for truth, nor espoused by any of the godly as a head of suffering or contending for; the encouragers of this work have thought fit that the preamble be passed by, and the Testimony itself only published.’ (Thomson (ed.), CW, 181.)

Only an extract was printed in Cloud. A copy of the extract from Cuthill’s Testimony, which primarily denounces the moderate presbyterian ministry, can be found here:

Testimony of William Cuthill July 1681

Presbyterian tradition was also keen to downplay the radical nature of their views. Wodrow wrote somewhat loftily that

‘I have little to add as to the two country people, who suffered with them, probably not without a design in them who ordered it so. … what they had to lay to the charge of these two men we have seen. Both of them run much higher in the papers they left behind them, than any of the other three; and certainly, allowances ought to be made for the different character, and capacity of the persons.’ (Wodrow, History, III, 284.)

The account of them in later editions of Cloud of Witnesses followed Wodrow’s advice to make ‘allowances’ for the ‘capacity of the persons’. About Thomson, Cloud warned:

‘As might be expected from his position in life (a servant), his testimony is not so well written as those of his fellow sufferers, Cargill and Smith. It is that, however, of a pious, God-fearing man, who had cast all his care upon Christ, and trusted Him for all things.’ (Thomson (ed.), CW, 172-3.)

About Cuthill, it warned:

‘It must be remembered, that we owe this confession, which he did not sign, to his enemies, and they may purposely have made its language stronger than it really was.’ (Thomson (ed.), CW, 178-9.)

The attempts by Presbyterian tradition to neutralise, sideline and separate Cuthill and Thomson’s radical views from Donald Cargill’s preaching should not be confused with the historical reality in 1681. Both men were inspired by Cargill’s preaching and their views were shared by other followers of Cargill at that time, such as James Russell, Christopher Miller, William Gogar, Robert Sangster, Lawrence Hay and Andrew Pitilloch.

Text © Copyright Dr Mark Jardine. All Rights Reserved.

~ by drmarkjardine on September 6, 2011.

5 Responses to “The King ‘Deserves to Dye’: The execution of Cuthill and Thomson, 1681.”

  1. […] captured after Devon Common shared similar militant views on the assassination of Charles II. (See William Cuthill and William Thomson, and Lawrence Hay, Andrew Pittilloch and Adam […]

  2. According to Maurice Grant, Preacher to the Remnant, p.266, the suppressed part of Cuthill’s testimony is preserved among the Laing MSS and refers to his connection with John Gibb.

    • Hi Douglas,

      Thanks for that information. Much appreciated. I’ve been working my way through Maurice Grant’s excellent new book on Renwick. I am hoping to follow up that reference and transcribe the supressed part of Cuthill’s testimony in the Laing MSS in EUL. For some reason, probably title related, it is proving quite tricky to find the exact reference to it in the EUL online catalogue. Looks like a trip to EUL will be required.

  3. […] William Cuthill was executed alongside Cargill, James Boig, Walter Smith and William Thomson on 27 July, 1681. […]

  4. […] the execution of Donald Cargill and four others in July, 1681, Cockburn had ‘hash’d and hagg’d off all their Heads [upon the Scaffold] with […]

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