University of Glasgow


Part of the Library and University Services

Please note that these pages are from our old (pre-2010) website; the presentation of these pages may now appear outdated and may not always comply with current accessibility guidelines.

Book of the Month

November 2001

Archbishop James Sharp 


Sp Coll MS Gen. 210

November's book of the month is a volume of correspondence relating to James Sharp (1613-1679), an intriguing character who during his lifetime took on the roles of Presbyterian minister, leader of the Resolutioners, diplomatic envoy and Archbishop of St Andrews. Ultimately, Sharp was murdered by Covenanters on Magus Muir just outside St. Andrews.

page 19: letters

This manuscript is a letterbook, a type of document common in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. Strictly speaking, the letterbook would contain copies of letters from the author to the recipient and also the originals or copies of the replies. Also commonly included were copies of letters from relevant third parties; documents other than letters such as financial documents, diary entries and memoranda could also be found. This book contains over 100 letters detailing the correspondence between James Sharp and fellow Presbyterians such as Robert Douglas (one of the Resolution leaders) and David Dickson (preacher and defender of Presbyterian polity), and also General George Monck (English soldier and politician). Although letterbooks are fairly common, any dating from this period are quite rare.

Also of interest is the language and form of writing used in this volume. The letters are written in a late secretary hand - a hand developed in the Fifteenth Century in order to provide a style of handwriting that could be quickly written and easily understood. There are a number of characteristic letters in this hand, which are well illustrated throughout the volume. 
For example, the typical letterforms for  e and  r are found, while displays good examples of secretary g, e and both medial and final versions of s. The language is Anglicised Scots, with several Scots words being used such as ane and desine. The language differs slightly from today’s with some of the words employed now having fallen out of use. For example, in a letter to the Earls of Crawfurd and Lauderdale from Mr. Robert Douglas and George Hutchesone it is stated "We love not to write encomasticks…". Encomasticks derives from the word 'encomiast' meaning 'one who praises'. 

The book's content makes it a significant historical document documenting an important time in the history of the Scottish Church and Sharp's life. Often portrayed in historical literature as a hated figure who betrayed his colleagues and beliefs, Sharp was recognised from an early age as someone adept at negotiation. From his home town in the North East of Scotland, Sharp quickly rose through the ranks via an education at Aberdeen University – by 1648 he had served as a regent at St. Andrews University and had his own parish at Crail. Sharp’s political side was also evident early on; prior to 1660 he had been imprisoned by Cromwell and had been sent on several diplomatic missions to England. In 1657 he was sent to London to represent the Resolutioners and this was his mission again in 1660.

Sharp was a Covenanter, a group of Scottish Presbyterians who were bound by oath to defend their religion. The basic premise behind the Covenanters was to protect and defend Scottish Presbyterianism from Episcopalianism and prelacy. By 1660, this group had been split into two factions, the Resolutioners and Protesters, the groups differing over how much power should be given to the King.

portrait of Sharp (from Stone q69: plate facing p.81)

page one: letter to General Monck, 10 January 1660

In early 1660, a letter was received by the Resolutioners from General George Monck asking for Sharp's presence in London. At the same time, the Resolutioners had requested that Sharp be allowed to join Monck in London. Sharp arrived in London in February 1660 and remained there until August 1660, and, throughout his stay he corresponded regularly with the Edinburgh ministers. During this time Sharp was instrumental in the political machinations of General Monck and the Resolutioners, al though whose interests he was more concerned with has long been a point of debate.

page 3: instructions to Sharp, 6 February 1660

The letters in general deal with a number of issues and themes such as the possibility of Sharp's visit to Breda, the activities of the Protestors, the Restoration, meetings with the King and the settlement of the church. Sharp and the Resolutioners corresponded very regularly and in great detail;  therefore, this book gives us an in depth first hand account of activities.

Whilst in London, Sharp did exert some political influence. For example, to an extent he influenced the release of several members of the Scottish Presbyterian nobility from prison.

Notable to the debate on Sharp is that throughout these letters he repeatedly asks to be sent home and returned to his Parish. On March 27 1660, for instance, Sharp states I long to know when you will take me of this imployment which continues still to be toylesom and on June 9 in the same year: I weary much of my imployment here now, and long absence from my charge, finding I can do no good here, to the stemming of that current for prelacy. However, both Monck and the Edinburgh Resolutioners thought that Sharp should remain in London.

page 36: extract of letter from Sharp, 27 March 1660

murder of Sharp (from Stone q69 p.403)

Sharp finally left London in August 1660 and returned to Edinburgh. On his return he was appointed Royal Chaplain and took up a post as professor of divinity at the University of St. Andrews. After many events and political intrigues, Sharp turned his back on Presbyterianism and on 15 December 1661 was consecrated as Archbishop of St. Andrews. Many of Sharp's contemporaries had problems with his actions and ultimately he was murdered three miles outside St. Andrews.
There has been longstanding historical debate on the personality and actions of James Sharp. Certainly an ambitious politician, he is generally portrayed as a defector who turned his back on the needs of Presbyterianism. This document is of great importance in this debate as it provides us with primary, first hand accounts of Sharps sentiments and actions, as well as those of the other major characters such as George Monck and the Resolutioners.

This book is a hardbound quarto with the Glasgow University crest stamped on both the front and the back covers. This differs slightly from the present crest in that underneath the book is a crown. The University motto Via Veritas Vita is arched around the top of the crest. As well as bearing a University binding, we know that the book was in the possession of the University library by the early Eighteenth Century as a note at the top of the first page states Ex Libris Bibliotheca Universitatis Glasguensis 1727.

detail of front cover

The Special Collections Department does not house any further manuscript material in relation to James Sharp, but does have several printed books. These include The life of Mr James Sharp, From his birth to his instalment in the Archishoprick of St. Andrews. Written in the time of his life, 1719: Mu56-h.20; Life of James Sharp, Archbishop of St. Andrews. First printed in 1678. To which is now added an account of his death, by an eyewitness, 1818: T.C.L. 3117; and The secret and true history of the Church of Scotland From the Restoration to the year 1678 by the Rev, Mr James Kirkton. To which is added an account of the murder of Archbishop Sharp by James Russell, an actor therein, 1817: Stone q69

Also in Special Collections is a printed book written by Sharp himself entitled A true representation of the rise, progresse and state of the present divisions of the Church of Scotland, 1657: Ogilvie 1035. The Department also holds many books relating to covenanting, Covenanters and Presbyterianism.


Return to main Special Collections Exhibition Page

Lynne Dent November 2001