The Presbytery of Paisley and the pursuit of papists.

At the turn of the sixteenth century the concerns for the `trew religioun` and the fear of a return to Catholicism or papacy were very much in the mind of the relatively new Presbyterian Church. Thus Paisley Presbytery was not alone in being charged with the responsibility of ensuring compliance, including attendance at church and the taking of the Communion, and the rooting out of Papacy and Romish practices.

The matters that came before the Court were many, including suspicion of Popery. They included absence from Church and Communion which was taken as prima facie evidence of Popery; and `adherence` which was actually about husbands and wives living apart who were summoned and admonished by the Presbytery and usually directed to live together. Other offences included adultery and fornication; banning or swearing; keeping superstitious holidays (such as Yule); and keeping or attending dancing greens. The latter were open spaces where people would gather, often on the Sabbath afternoon, to join in dancing to the tunes of a piper.  In pre Reformation days these gatherings were often in the churchyard itself and old habits died hard much to the consternation of the Kirk Sessions.

The process of bringing about compliance was almost as wearing on the Kirk as it was on the sinner. To begin with the sinner was summoned by the minister of the parish in which he or she lived to appear before the Court. If they did not appear they were summoned from the pulpit of the parish church on three occasions. If they still declined attendance they were admonished on three occasions. If this did not work, they were then prayed for,  for the first, second and third time. If this did not work steps were taken to excommunicate them, to which the General Assembly might add banishment to the punishment. Apart from strict impartiality the Court had one other feature - it never let go until the issue was brought to resolution. Thus a sinner might leave the district but should they return, even years later, the charge would be taken up against them once more.

The Countess of Glencairn with the second Marquess of Hamilton and James, seventh Earl of Glencairn were pursued for allegedly hearing a private mass. The men it seems duly submitted to the Presbytery, but the Countess, Margaret, the second daughter of Sir Colin Campbell of Glenurchy, was of Popish tendencies.  Ministers were despatched to counsel her and to make her attend the parish church each Sunday. But she was `found contumax` (stubborn refusal) and summoned before the Court. When she did not compear the matter was referred to the Synod who met on 11 April 1603. They sent Mr Patrick Hamilton and George Maxwell to see the Countess and also the two priests who had held the mass. Neither party complied with the Synod. In March 1604 the matter was referred to the Synod Assembly to proceed with summons. What happened then is unknown but the Countess of Glencairn died in 1610, apparently unrelenting in her adherence to her chosen faith.

The Presbytery was no respecter of age either. In the case of the Dowager Lady Duchal they pursued her for many years before she finally conformed for one year. She then reverted to her previous behaviour and did not attend her parish church upon which the Court resumed its process. Again there was a break in the pursuit of the old lady and it seems that about ninety years of age she probably eluded her spiritual tormentors by dying.

Some of the Maxwell family were prominent Papists and several members of the family were pursued. Margaret Cunningham, widow of George Maxwell of Newark was twice summoned before the Presbytery for absence from Communion.  David and John Maxwell, brothers of Sir Patrick Maxwell of Newark were excommunicated for their Papacy and not relieved of the sentence for some time. Other prominent persons to have their names handed in by parish ministers included Gabriel Cunningham of Carncurran, Robert Algeo ( a burgess in Paisley) of Greenock; William Wallace Laird of Johnston; and Margaret Houston, Lady Auchinames.

The matter of the Countess of Abercorn is well documented. A stubborn lady no doubt, she would not bend to the Presbytery`s will. Already under process by the Assembly in Glasgow she refused to allow a relative, the Principal of the University of Edinburgh, Robert Boyd of Trochrigg to take up residence in the manse in Paisley. His temporary home was subsequently entered in his absence, his books thrown down and the door locked. Later the baillies were unable to unlock the door which mechanism had been jammed with stones. As he was leaving the `women of the town`  shouted and cajoled him and threw stones and dirt. In the face of this (organised) opposition Boyd left town and went to Glasgow. For this the Countess and her son, the Master of Paisley, were summoned before the Bishop and reproved but Boyd declined to return to Paisley.

 Action continued, however against the Dowager Duchess for nonconformity and despite an intervention by the Archbishop, she was eventually excommunicated  on 20 January 1628. She sought refuge in Edinburgh but was seized and thrown into the Tolbooth where she lingered in poor health through the winter of 1628-9. Representations were made to the King who was reluctant to intervene with the Church , and, after further containment in the Cannongate Jail and Dunvartie House, she was allowed  to return to Paisley in March 1631 to conduct some urgent business. Released on bail of five thousand merks, she never returned to Edinburgh but died shortly after reaching home.

But even the Dowager`s poor health (and later death) did not halt the Presbytery from pursuing her son and some of the families servants. The Earl however, left the country by April 1628 taking with him Robert Pendreiche and Francis Leslie who were due to be excommunicated along with a servant of the Dowager Duchess, Isobel Mowatt.  When the Earl returned both he and his wife were proceeded against once more. After much haranguing, giving of assurances and breaking of promises, the Earl was excommunicated in 1649 and banished by the General Assembly. Following this the Earl sold his estates to the Earl of Angus and went abroad to seek peace and quiet (and his religious freedom).

The extreme case was probably that of Margaret Hamilton. Her sister Bessie was very bold and defied the Presbytery from the outset and was soon excommunicated. But her sister was of a gentler kind, and not in good health. Despite many protests and visits by ministers and Commissioners from the Presbytery, she long delayed her submission. Eventually the Presbytery were satisfied with her compliance but they desired one further thing - her physical presence and public submission in the Kirk of Paisley.  Her condition was such that she could not travel over the bumpy paths that passed for a roadway and she was literally carried in her bed the four miles to the Kirk. Here she was exposed to the public gaze and the formalities concluded. This was done in the cause of fanaticism surely, and could hardly have been for the glory of God.

                         Andro Knox - the Papist catcher

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