The Court of High Commission,  

The original Court of High Commission was created by Elizabeth I in 1559  by which she gave authority  to a mixed committee of knights, counsellors and clerics to enforce  `an Act for the uniformity of Common Prayer` and An Act restoring  to the Crown the ancient jurisdiction` [of the Church ] .It was specifically enjoined to take action  against

  … all and singular heretical opinions, seditious books, contempts, conspiracies, false rumours, tales, seditions, misbehaviours, slanderous words or shewings, published, invented or set forth or heerafter to be published invented or set forth by any person or persons against us  or contrary or against the laws or statutes of this our realm, or against the quiet governance and rule of our people and subjects in any county, city or borough 

 Its all embracing nature gave enormous power to a quorum of six people, which included the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of London. Ominously these very posts would later be occupied by William Laud in 1633.

The Court of High Commission in Scotland originated in 1610 from the exercise of the Royal Prerogative by James I. There were originally two Courts, one in each of the archbishoprics of Glasgow and Edinburgh, which were united in 1615. They had no standing in law by way of the parliamentary process and had the role of exercising disciplinary powers over offences in life and religion.  

Under James I the Court of High Commission was a device for imposing and enforcing episcopacy while the basic structures of Presbytery remained untouched. It was thus initially an irritation but one which hardened in its dealings under King Charles I. The validity and authority of the Court was roundly questioned by David Calderwood when summoned before it in 1617 and was deprived of his living for non conformity. David Dickson was a minister who at first did not object to episcopacy but soon changed his mind. He was summoned before the Court 29 January 1622 and declined its authority. It is indicative of the abuse of power of the Court that Archbishop Spottiswoode railed against him and said “ I hanged a Jesuit in Glasgow for a like fault “ .

  The reconstitution of the Court in October 1634 by Charles I was in order to enforce the adoption of `novations` that were to be made, including the Book of Canons (1636) , and  the Book of Common Prayer (1637). The changes included affirmation of the royal authority in ecclesiastical matters and instructions about the manner of conducting worship. Samuel Rutherford was pursued by the Court in 1630 for publishing a critical document Exercitationes de Gratia. and again by the Bishop of Galloway in 1634.In 1638 he was charged with nonconformity when the Marquis of Argyll intervened on his behalf.In 1637 David Dickson was charged because he had allowed three ministers (Blair, Cunningham and Livingstone ) who had been deposed from their livings in Ireland, to participate in the Communion.

 The Court became the mechanism for gross abuse by Archbishop Sharp and the persecution of the `outed` ministers following the Restoration of Charles II in 1660. Sharp obtained permission to set up the Court following a visit to London in January 1664 with the purpose of ensuring Acts of Parliament were `put in vigorous and impartial execution.` and was supposed to last until November that year.  The constitution of the Court was nine prelates and thirty five laymen, of whom any five ( with at least one prelate) formed a quorum. It quickly followed that there was an inevitable preponderance of bishops and ecclesiastics in the Court who met at short notice in out of the way locations to conduct their oppressive business. At this time the court was able to impose any sentence except the death penalty. It became the vehicle for imposing fines and their collection by the military under Sir James Turner, the pursuit of conventiclers by Claverhouse, and the imprisonment, banishment and selling of prisoners into slavery. There was no appeal against sentence, no one was acquitted by the Court and no one escaped without a penalty of some kind.

 The Court was described as a Commission for  executing the laws of the Church and the Commissioners were authorised to call before them, besides Catholics and “Popish traffickers”

·        All obstinate contemners of  the discipline of the Church, or for that cause  suspended , deprived and excommunicated.

·        All keepers of conventicles

·        All ministers who, contrary to the laws and Acts of Parliament or Council, remain or intrude themselves  in the function of the ministry in their parishes or bounds inhibited  by these Acts.

·        All such as preach in private houses  or elsewhere without licence of the bishop of the diocese.

·        All such people who keep meetings at fasts, and the administration of the sacrament of the Lord`s Supper, which are not approven by authority.

·        All who speak, preach, write, or print to the scandal, reproach, or detriment of the estate of government of the Church or Kingdom now established.

·        All who contemn, molest or injure the ministers who are obedient to the laws.

·        All who do not orderly attend divine worship, administration of the Word and sacraments performed in their respective parish church by ministers legally settled for taking care of these parishes in which these persons are inhabitants.

·        All who without any lawful calling. Or as busy-bodies, go about houses and places corrupting and disaffecting  people from their allegiance, respect and obedience to the laws.

·        All who express disaffection to His Majesty`s authority, by contravening Acts of Parliament  or Council in relation to Church affairs.

When it was found that the application of the powers were not working  to the prelates satisfaction, the device introduced was to arrest and imprison  without warrant or reason given, or charge, simply on the strength of a letter signed by one or more of the Commission. A large number of the gentry in the West and South of Scotland were arrested and imprisoned in Edinburgh, Stirling and Dumbarton. Under Sharpe the Court of High Commission achieved its greatest notoriety where it became the Archbishop`s tool for venting his great spite upon his former colleagues.  Typical was Sharpe`s spiteful attempt to slur James Wood`s name while the latter lay on his deathbed. Sharpe spread slanderous allegations that Wood had recanted which was denied in a notarised statement. It is no surprise that the statement was ordered to be burnt by the Court.

The minutes of the proceedings of the Court of High Commission have never been found !.

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