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The Execution of James Renwick

The last of the Covenanter martyrs

James Renwick was a Scottish Presbyterian minister who became the last of the prominent Covenanter martyrs of Scotland. He was executed on 17 February 1688 for his resistance to the religious policies of King Charles II and his brother James VII (James II of England).

James Renwick was born on 15 February 1662 in Moniaive, Dumfriesshire, to a weaver named Andrew Renwick and his wife Elizabeth Corson. He grew up in a devout Presbyterian family that adhered to the National Covenant of 1638 and the Solemn League and Covenant of 1643, which bound Scotland to maintain its reformed religion and oppose any attempts by the Stuart kings to impose episcopacy (the rule of bishops) on the Scottish church.

Renwick showed an early interest in learning and religion, and at the age of 12 he joined a group of Covenanters who met secretly for worship and prayer in the hills around his home. He also witnessed some of the brutal persecutions that befell his fellow Covenanters under Charles II’s “killing time”, such as the execution of John Brown of Priesthill by John Graham of Claverhouse (later Viscount Dundee) in 1685.

Renwick pursued his education at Edinburgh University from 1676 to 1679, where he studied philosophy, mathematics, and theology. He also became acquainted with some of the leading Covenanter ministers, such as Alexander Peden and Richard Cameron. Cameron was one of the founders of a radical faction within the Covenanter movement known as the Cameronians or Society People, who rejected any compromise with the Stuart regime and declared Charles II a tyrant and usurper.

In 1679, Renwick left Scotland for Holland, where he continued his studies at Groningen University under Jacobus Altingius, a renowned Reformed theologian. He also received ordination as a minister from several exiled Scottish clergymen in Rotterdam in 1683.

Renwick returned to Scotland later that year with a commission from his fellow exiles to preach and organize resistance among the Society People. He soon became their leader after Cameron’s death at the Battle of Airds Moss in July 1680. Renwick preached throughout Scotland, often under cover of night or in remote locations, attracting large crowds of followers who were willing to risk their lives for their faith.

Renwick also drafted several political manifestos that denounced both Charles II and his brother James VII (who succeeded him in February 1685) as enemies of God and His people. One such document was The Informatory Vindication (1687), which defended
the principles and actions of the Society People against their critics. Another was The Sanquhar Declaration (1680), which proclaimed:

“We do hereby disown Charles Stuart that has been reigning on these lands … We do declare … that we will not own him nor any other name or title whatever … We do hereby declare war with such tyrant … We do hereby testify our willingness … to stand to defend ourselves … against all opposition whatsoever.”

James Renwick was hunted all over Scotland until Government troops caught up with him in February 1688. It is believed he was betrayed by a fellow Covenanter during a secret meeting in Edinburgh. After refusing to swear an oath to King James he was hanged in Edinburgh’s Grassmarket at the age of 26.

The persecutions of Covenanters would end with the removal of King James and the ascension of William of Orange and his wife Mary (James’ daughter) to the thrones of Scotland and England in the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688.

Editorial
Editorial
Online publication covering Scottish history, heritage and archaeology. Featuring articles, reviews, historic attractions, places to visit, and events. mail@scottishhistory.org

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