Three Covenanters Hanged in the Great Frost, February, 1684
In the last days of the Great Frost of the Winter of 1683 to 1684, three men were tried and executed in Edinburgh. On the day of their trial, a new covering of snow lay on the ground which lasted until after their execution on 22 February, 1684. (Erskine, Journal, 37.)
George Martin had been ‘four years’ and nearly four months’ captivity and bondage’, i.e., since about November, 1679, before his trial. His confession before the council was as follows:
‘February 11th, being interrogate if he owns the king to be lawful, and will pray for him; declares he will not say he disowns him, but owns all lawful authority according to the word of God, He will not answer whether Bothwell-bridge be rebellion; he will not judge of the other folks’ actings, he owns the obligation of the covenant, and will adhere to it while he lives. He will not call Bothwell-bridge rebellion against God, it was rebellion, if not, it was not rebellion. He will not subscribe. Being interrogate if the late king’s death was murder [i.e., the execution of Charles I], declares, they that did it had more skill than he, refuses to call it murder, and says, he does not think it pertinent to give a declaration anent it.’
There is some confusion over the identity of the second man executed, either John Kerr, or John Gilry.
Cloud of Witnesses states that ‘Together with this martyr [i.e., George Martin] suffered John Gilry, wright in the parish of Hounam in Teviotdale.’ and that he his testimony, which it did not reproduce, was ‘much of a piece with his. He dies admiring and praising free grace, adhering to the truths of Jesus, and firmly trusting in him for salvation.’ Cloud also mistakenly records Gilry as the only individual who suffered execution with Martin. (Cloud of Witnesses (1794), 237.)
However, it is clear from the testimony of Carnock, Lauder of Fountainhall and the Reverend Law, that three men were executed. The official government records of the Privy Council, Justiciary Court and Parliament all record that John Kerr was one of the three executed men. They do not mention John Gilry as one of those executed.
Wodrow records that ‘John Ker, wright in the parish of Hownam, in Roxburgh’, was among those executed and mentions the confusion over the names in Cloud of Witnesses. However, he also records that he possessed two letters from a prisoner in the Iron House named John Gilry, dated 27 December, 1683, and that he ‘doubts not but it is the same person here mentioned’. (Wodrow, History, IV, 57-8.)
Lauder of Fountainhall recorded Kerr’s surname as ‘Carstairs’ and described him as one of the ‘other 2 West-country men’.
The evidence suggests that Kerr, rather than Gilry, was executed.
Kerr’s confession was as follows:
‘John Kerr refuses to own the king’s authority. He says the king lays things on his subjects contrary to the word of God, and so he cannot own his authority;—that Bothwell-bridge was lawful, as a defence of truth. As to the bishop’s murder, he says, it is not his part to judge. As to the late king’s murder, he refuses to answer. He owns the covenant, and adheres to the end of it. Refuses to sign.’
The third executed man was James Muir at the Crossford Boat, i.e., the ferry across the Clyde at Crossford, Lesmahagow parish, Lanarkshire. He is often listed in error in several later sources as ‘of Cessford-Boat’ in Roxburgh. Muir’s confession was recorded: ‘He refuses to own the king’s authority, but owns all lawful authority, but says his is not lawful. He refuses to call Bothwell-bridge rebellion, and refuses to call the bishop’s death murder, but says he was not there.’
It is not clear when Muir was captured. It may, or may not, be significant that his trial followed an attack on the horses of dragoons near where he lived.
John Erskine of Carnock, who was an eyewitness in Edinburgh, recorded their trial under 18 February, 1684:
‘This day George Martin, John Kerr, and James Muir, were panneled before the Justiciary Court, and their indictment read, which insisted much on their treasonable principles and assertions, but no actual crime committed was layed to the charge of any them. They all adhered positively to the Covenant, and owned Bothwell as lawfull, tho George Martin did not answer so positively as to that, but said, if it was a rebellion against God, that it was a rebellion indeed, but if it was not a rebellion against God, it was no rebellion. When the judge inquired if it was a rebellion against God, he bade them judge of that. George said, I have read the Bible, but never found that a man was put to death for sins of omission. When they were desired to pray for, and say, God save the King; they said (they all holding one opinion, and answering much after one way), we will pray for all the election, and not exclude the King, They would not directly own the King to be lawfull King of Scotland, nor yet did they deny it. We own all lawful authority, and will own the King in as far as he judges according to the word of God. The Kings’s Advocate, Sir George M’Kenzie, desired them to instance him one text of Scripture that made for them; and finding them not answer him, he said, I am glad they have gotten word about, and we have examined them publickly, that all may know what sort of people they are. The verdict of the jury was, that they all in one voice find George Martin, etc., guilty of their treasonable positions, principles, and expressions. The Lords, after the Assize was come back, and given in their verdict sealed, to the lords or judges, they caused the clerk of the assize alter one word in the verdict, which was the putting in of that word principles. I saw the verdict scored; for Mr. Thomas Gordon, the clerk, refused to put any other thing in the sentence but what was in the verdict, which made them alter it. Their sentence was, to be hanged in the Grassmarket on Friday next; they were carried to prison, and ordained to be put in irons.’ (Erskine, Journal, 36-7.)
Carnock took an interest in their case and attended the session where they were offered a final chance to acknowledge the king and save their lives:
‘(22 February 1684). — After dinner I went to the Laigh Council house, where the three condemned men were brought before Baillie Chancellour, who inquired if they had any more to say for themselves, and if they would bid God save the King? They said, they were not now come to answer, neither would they answer questions, and they refused not to obey all the King’s lawful commands. They refused to hear one of the town curates pray; but he beginning, not desired, George Martin offered to interrupt him the time of his prayer, by saying, ‘Let us be gone, what have we to do here.?’ but he ended his prayer without stopping. They were hanged in the Grassmarket, but I went not to the place of execution.’ (Erskine, Journal, 37-8.)
The Reverend Law also recorded their execution: ‘February 22, 1684, were execute in Edinburgh three men who would not acknowledge the king’s authority.’ (Law, Memorialls, 260.)
Lauder of Fountainhall, too, recorded their execution: ‘Item. 3 men hanged for disouning the king’s authority.’ (Lauder, Historical Obserces, 119.)
Lauder was more expansive on their execution in his Historical Notices. Under 22 February, 1684, he records that ‘one [George] Martin a nottar and schoolmaster, and other 2 West-country men, called Carstairs and [James Muir?], (who ware condemned on the 19 of February last at the Criminall Court,) are hanged this day for ther rebellious principles, allenarly in disouning the King’s authority. They had offers of ther lives, but ware so foolishly pertinacious as to refuse it.’ (Lauder, Historical Notices, II, 501.)
The martyrs’ testimony of George Martin survives. Muir, and possibly Kerr, may not have produced a written testimony.
Text © Copyright Dr Mark Jardine. All Rights Reserved. Please link to this post on Facebook or retweet it, but do not reblog in FULL without the express permission of the author @drmarkjardine
Picture credit: Detail from The Edinburgh gallows in the Grassmarket. From page 233 of ‘Old and New Edinburgh’, Volume IV (c. 1880s). Digitised and published by Edinburgh Bookshelf.