The Confusion over the Covenanters Hanged in the Grassmarket on 12 August, 1685 #History #Scotland

Grassmarket Covenanters Monument

For centuries, there has been some confusion over which Covenanters were hanged in Edinburgh’s Grassmarket on 12 August, 1685. Was it three or was it four? What where their names? Histories have disagreed on the details, but it is those details that make up our understanding of the Killing Times …

Now, at last, who was executed and how many were hanged is clear.

The executions in the Grassmarket were the result of the trial of eleven prisoners (or twelve if you include Thomas Archer who was too wounded to immediately stand trial) that was ordered on 30 July and conducted on 6 August:

‘July 30th, [1685] the advocate is ordered to process before the justiciary, Thomas Stodhart, James Wilkison, Matthew Bryce, Archibald Campbell, Edward Stit, David Low, Gavin Russel, William Cunningham, John Muirhead, William Jackson, and Mr Alexander Shiels, for treason, rebellion, and not owning his majesty’s authority’. (Wodrow, History, IV, 234.)

Wodrow also recorded the sentence passed on three of them:

‘August 6th, Thomas Stodhart, James Wilkison, and Matthew Bryce, are found guilty of treason by an assize, because they refuse the abjuration; and the lords sentence them to be hanged at the Grass-market, Wednesday August 12.’ (Wodrow, History, IV, 234.)

From that, it would appear to be a simple task to work out which of the eleven men tried on 6 August were executed on 12 August. However, as we shall see, it is not an easy task to resolve who was executed. The sentence on 6 August was only an indication of what was intended to happen in those three particular cases, rather than confirmation of their execution six days later.

Before looking at the historical sources from the time, it is worth reviewing who later histories claimed was executed.

Cloud of Witnesses (1714) claimed that ‘Thomas Stodart’, ‘James Wilkie’ and Matthew Bryce were executed. Cloud contains the testimony of Stoddart and, in the ‘relation’ of the other two, refers to a testimony from Bryce. It does not mention a testimony derived from Wilkie. (Thomson (ed.) CW, 443-6.)

The former were the three men known to have been sentenced to be hanged at their trial on 6 August.

A few years later, Wodrow agreed in his History that ‘Thomas Stodhart’, ‘James Wilkison’ and Matthew Bryce in Carmunock parish were hanged. He drew some of his information from Cloud and some from the records of the justiciary court, but he also added, seemingly from information he had received, that a fourth man, Gavin Russell, was executed that day. (Wodrow, History, IV, 234-5.)

Two centuries later, one of the great historians of the Covenanters, Hewison, stated that ‘of the twelve prisoners tried on 6th August for treason, rebellion and refusing to own the King’s authority, Thomas Stodhart, Gavin Russell, and James Wilkieson, being intractable in not taking the Oath of Allegiance, were hanged in the Grassmarket on 12th August; [William] Cunningham, [John] Muirhead and [William] Jackson were banished; Alexander Shields, the preacher, took oaths, was sent to the Bass, then brought to Edinburgh, whence he escaped in [late] 1686; and four, Matthew Bryce, Archibald Campbell, Edward Stit, and David Low, said to have been executed, were sent back to prison’. Hewison admitted that the fate of the last four was ‘difficult to trace’. (Hewison, Covenanters, II, 494, 494n.)

The twelfth prisoner that Hewison did not mention in that paragraph was the minister, Thomas Archer, whose trial and execution was delayed due to the wounds he received at the Battle of Muirdykes.

Campbell’s Standing Witnesses (1996, p190.) appears to follow Hewison, as he listed the same three men as hanged: Stoddart, Russell and Wilkieson.

In the above, all the later histories agree that Stoddart and Wilkieson were hanged, a majority accept that Russell was hanged and are evenly divided on the fate of Bryce.

Gallows Edinburgh

However, there is a problem beyond whether they agree on the names or not. The contemporary historical sources (as opposed to later histories) list some different names. The records of the Edinburgh Tolbooth under 12 August confirms that three named individuals and an anonymous fourth individual were hanged:

‘David Law Gavine Russall Thomas Stodhart and [blank] execute ye sd day at ye Grassmarcatt’. (Book of the Old Edinburgh Club, XII, 171.)

That is fairly convincing evidence that four men were executed on 12 August and for three of their names. The problem is that David Law was not identified as one of those executed in the later histories. Both he and Gavin Russell were tried and forfeited on 6 August.

It is important to note that the records of Edinburgh Tolbooth for 1685 were transcribed and published in the Book of the Old Edinburgh Club in 1923, i.e., more than a decade after Hewison had published his work. Cloud of Witnesses, Wodrow and Hewison did not use the Tolbooth records as a source.

One indication of who was forfeited in the 6 August trial is the list of forfeitures reversed in 1690. It indicates that the following were forfeited at the trial:

‘Thomas Stoddart,
James Wilkinson,
Matthew Bryce,
Archibald Campbell,
David Law
Gavin Russell
Mr Thomas Archer, preacher [Executed 1685],’

That suggests that six of the eleven men tried were faced with the prospect of execution after their conviction for treason on 6 August. (Archer’s trial was delayed due to his wounds.)

Two of the six forfeited men, Archibald Campbell and James Wilkieson, were reprieved on 11 August, the day before their execution was due to be carried out. They do not appear in the Tolbooth execution record, but are listed under the previous day:

‘The Lords of his Maties privie Councill doe vpon the address and desyre of Archbald Campbell prisoner in Edr Tolbuith heirby repryve and discharge the execution of the sentence of daith pronunced against him by the Lords Commissioners of Justitiary untill the ffirst ffryday of December nixt and ordaines intimation to be made heirof to the Magistrats of Edr that they may give obedience accordingly’ (Book of the Old Edinburgh Club, XII, 171.)

‘The Lords of his Maties privie Councill doe vpon the address and desyre of James Wilkiesone prisoner in the tolbuith of Edr repryve and discharge the execution of the sentence of daith pronunced against him by the lords commissioners of justitiary vntill the ffirst ffryday of december nixt and ordaines intimatione to be made heirof to the Magistrats of Edr that they may give obedience accordingly’. (Book of the Old Edinburgh Club, XII, 171.)

It is clear that Wilkieson and Campbell were reprieved at the last minute, which was several days after their conviction and forfeiture. That information contradicts the later historical accounts which all agree that Wilkieson/Wilkie was executed.

Also reprieved on the 11 August and baished was Edward Stit:

‘Thes are giving ordor and warrand to the Magistrats of Edr and to Keepers of the Tolbuith therof immediately on sight heirof to delyver to the Livetennent of Captane Grahames Company the persone of Edward Stitt prisoner who is heirby ordored to see him aboard of the ship bound for Jamaica and delyvered to Mr John Euing ffactor for Sir Phihp Howard to be transported with the other prisoners banished to the plantations this by the ordor of Councill’. (Book of the Old Edinburgh Club, XII, 170.)

From the historical sources, above, it is clear that Stoddart, Law and Russell were among the four men hanged and that the fourth man was probably Matthew Bryce.

Fountainhall’s Account

Lord Fountainhall, a keen observer of legal proceedings at that time, helps to confirm which of the eleven or twelve prisoners were executed following their trial on 6 August. At times, one has to fill in the omissions in Fountainhall’s narrative in order to clarify who precisely it was that he referred to:

‘6 Augusti 1685. — At Criminall Court, 11 or 12 prisoners are pannelled, ather for ther disloyall principles, or ther being with Argile, viz. Mr. Thomas Archer minister, to whom a physitian and chirurgian being sent to prison, they declared on soull and conscience he was raging of a fever, and so not able to be brought to the bar; and therfor continued his condemnation for some dayes.

2do. Mr. Alexander Sheills student of Divinity, sent doune from England by the King last winter, and was before the Articles of Parliament; he, after much velitation, at last consented to signe the abjuration of thesse treasonable principles of rising in armes, &c., but declined to swear it; which is conforme to the 23d Act of the last Parliament in 1685, not mentioning swearing. The Anabaptists in Germany, in the Boors’ war, was tryed with the same Formula, if they ouned ther Princes, yea or no; but it should be only statu belli [i.e., in “a state of war”…] Sheills would have entred ane protestation, that he signed it only in so far as it was consistent with his duety; but this was utterly rejected, and he required to doe it simply. Then he complained, that the only liberty of a subject being that of the freedome of his judgement and thoughts in controverted cases, this should be retrenched; yet, seing authority required him, he was content to declare he ouned the present King, and that it was unlawfull to raise war against him, or to assasinate his adhærers; yet a man might declare many things he could not swear; and he said, tho’ he was a Presbyterian, yet he was against the imposition and pressing of the Covenant itselfe; and, at last, he subscribed the abjuration; but in regard he had formerly retracted his taking the said abjuration, and said he was forced, it was marked now that what he had done was voluntar; they ware resolved only to banish him. [Shields was sent to the Bass on 7 August.]

Then ther was 3 or 4, viz. [William] Cunyghame, [William] Jackson, and Edward Stit, (who had in a mad fit proclamed the Duke of Monmouth King,) who ware so wise as to oune the King, and abjure ther principles; and so ware remanded to prison, that they might apply to the Privy Counsell to obtain to be banished.

[Those three prisoners agreed to take the Abjuration Oath after their trial on 6 August and the diet against them was dropped in return for accepting banishment. As indicated above, Edward Stit was banished on 11 August. Wodrow confirms that William Cunningham, William Jackson and John Muirhead all agreed to banishment on the day of the executions. (Wodrow, History, IV, 235.)]

The rest of them [at the trial, who were six in number], viz. [Archibald] Campbell, [Thomas] Stoddart, [Gavin] Russel, Mathew, Bryce, &c.,[i.e., David Law and James Wilkieson] being ather obstinat in ther principles, or unclear to disoune the lawfulnes of rising in armes, and the [Societies’] Declaration of war: or it being proven against them by witnesses, that they ware with Argile, (tho’ the pannels alledged they ware forced by him,) they ware remitted to the knowledge of ane assise, and, by ther verdict, ware returned guilty of treason, and sentenced to be hanged on the 14t of August. But some of them being better advised, and ready now, on the prospect of hanging, to renunce ther disloyall opinions, portions, and principles, it was exspected the Privy Counsell would commute ther punishment into banishment to the Plantations. [i.e., Archibald Campbell and James Wilkieson, who were reprieved on 11 August.]

Some of thir [i.e., these], sentenced to death, had got ther ears cropt the day before, (vide 5to Augusti, [when 40 had their ears cropped, i.e., Edward Stit (Wodrow, IV, 218.) Archibald Campbell and James Wilkieson (Wodrow, IV, 220.)] which seimed to make it res judicata, that they could not be pannelled for ther life, […] But 1o It was said, they had thronged in with the rest, after they had got ther indytments for treason, and concealled it. 2do, Since that pæna [i.e., punishment] was inflicted, they had reiterated ther guilt by refusing to oune the present King; tho’ indeed they only shifted the quæstion, asserting they ouned all kingly authority in the generall; and when they ware put to disoune that Declaration of war [i.e., the Societies’ Apologetical Declaration Against Intelligencers of November, 1684], they said they disouned all murder, and yet would not disoune that paper in particular. And Stit said, He knew not if he was our King, because new Kings used to be crouned, and then grant goall-deliveries to prisoners, and pardons, which they had not yet seen.

[We know from the Tolbooth records that Campbell and Wilkieson were reprieved from execution on 11 August, i.e., after they were forfeited on conviction. Edward Stit, whom Fountainhall expressly says had his sentence commuted to banishment and was banished on the 11 August, was not executed. That leaves four names in the frame for being hanged who were also forfeited…]

On the 12 August, 4 of thir pannells were hanged; and Mr. [Thomas] Archer being recovered, was then sentenced, and hanged on the 14t of August.’ (Lauder, Historical Notices, II, 658-9.)

From the above, it is clear that Thomas Stoddart, David Law, Gavin Russell were forfeited and executed, just as the Tolbooth record indicates, and that the fourth man hanged was almost certainly the ‘obstinat’ Matthew Bryce, who was forfeited and is said by Cloud to have left a martyrs’ testimony.

It is clear that Cloud of Witnesses mistakenly based its list of those executed on the sentence to be hanged on the death sentence passed against Stoddart, Wilkieson and Bryce on 6 August, rather than on any direct evidence from the hangings. Cloud only had testimony evidence for only two of the men hanged, Thomas Stoddart and Matthew Bryce.

Cloud’s error that Wilkieson was hanged was transmitted via Wodrow, but at least the latter received information that Gavin Russell was executed with them. Later, Hewison carefully hedged his bets by admitting that the fate of the others, including David Law, was ‘difficult to trace’.

Only when the Edinburgh Tolbooth records were published in 1923, did it become possible to find all of those who were hanged on that day. However, it has taken nearly another century to reveal who they actually were.

The evidence indicates that Matthew Bryce, David Law, Thomas Stoddart and Gavin Russell were hanged in the Grassmarket on Wednesday 12 August, 1685.

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Text © Copyright Dr Mark Jardine. All Rights Reserved. Please feel free link to this post on Facebook or other social networks or retweet it, but do not reblog in FULL without the express permission of the author @drmarkjardine

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~ by drmarkjardine on November 15, 2016.

2 Responses to “The Confusion over the Covenanters Hanged in the Grassmarket on 12 August, 1685 #History #Scotland”

  1. […] 12 August, 1685, eight prisoners, including Edward Stit who was tried for the treason of spreading the false news that the Duke of Monmouth had been proclaimed king, were sent back to a […]

  2. […] of the prisoners tried for treason on 6 August, 1685, were banished on the ‘Henry & Francis’ to Perth Amboy, for the Scots’ Colony of East […]

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