RENWICK, James, alias James Bruce (1662-1688). Scottish covenanter. Executed in Edinburgh 17 February 1688.
Autograph Letter Signed to an unnamed correspondent ('Right honourable & Dear Sir'), 4 pages folio, Edinburgh, 26 September 1683. Describing how he narrowly escaped arrest at Rye and Dublin during his perilous sea journey back to Scotland from Holland where he had recently been ordained.
'... we went ashore [at Rye], and were much noticed by the Tyrants waiters, it being upon the back of the discoverie of their plot.we thought it not fit (fearing snares) to stay ashore, and thrfor[e] went aboard again. But after some days the s[ai]d waiters in their passing by came aboard of us, and askt very rudelie the Skipper, where we were; who replyed that we were aboard: And then asking what men we were, was answered by the Skipper, that he know not. Which I overhearing thought that his answer would make these said waiters more inquisitive.Then after this, the Skipper did what he could to ensnare us in the Sabbath-day, but the Lord so struck him with his own hand that he was not able to go forth to give any information of us. ...'The letter continues with an account of a detour in Dublin, where he converted the congregation of certain '(so called) ministers' and engaged in 'some battells' ('upon your account, but ... it was not you, but the Cause and partie, which they reviled'). Renwick then mentions two field-meetings in Scotland ('which made me to think, that, if the Lord could be tied to any place, it is to the mosses and muirs of Scotland') and reflects on 'your Honoured Dear Brothers case' ('... For his enemies' cruelty and threatenings against him are great, and their snares and subtilties no less.') and the fate of other covenanters
'... Robert Lawson (O sad and sweet in severall respects!) he is suffered to cast all his former doings, to the hardening of back-sliders, and the grief of the Godlie. But Edward Aitken he is escaped, and intends to come to you and follow his book; but his carriage in the publick matters hath been very hurtsome to the Cause; and in private, very unchristian ... Also I expect that Tho[mas] Lining will be sent unto you, and I hope ye will be satisfied with him; for he hath been very satisfying, refreshing and encouraging to me, since I came home. Likeways (according to your direction) I challenged Mistres Binning upon her intimacie with your Sister, but she says there is noe ground for it.'Renwick ends his letter with a promise to send on any further information that may be of advantage in their cause.
Renwick was writing at a pivotal moment in his career. A year earlier he had proved his commitment to the 'united societies' of covenanters as one of the forty men who posted the Lanark declaration renouncing allegiance to Charles II. He spent several months receiving theological training in Groningen, and was ordained there in May 1683. That summer, while waiting for a favourable wind to take him back home, his fellow-passengers threatened to denounce him when he refused to drink the king's health, and he embarked on another ship bound for Ireland. He sailed at a particularly dangerous time (in the wake of the Rye House Plot in June several arrests had already taken place, including those of William, Lord Russell and Algernon Sidney), so it is no small feat that he managed to elude his enemies when his ship ('little, and not at all firm') was forced to seek refuge in Rye.
A few days after writing this letter, Renwick accepted a call to ministry and on 23 November delivered his first sermon to the assembled societies at Darmead. He spent the next five years field-preaching around Scotland, with an ever-increasing price on his head, especially after April 1685, when acknowledgement of the covenant became a treasonable offence. He was finally captured and executed in February 1688, becoming one of the last covenanting martyrs.
Renwick's correspondent has not been identified, although the tone and content of the letter suggests he was another Presbyterian exile in the Netherlands, and perhaps a mentor like Sir Robert Hamilton (1650-1701), another covenanter and a frequent correspondent to whom Renwick had written a month earlier with much the same news about his return to Scotland. It is possible that Renwick also wrote the present letter to Hamilton, perhaps expecting the earlier one (signed with his alias, 'James Bruce') to have gone astray or been intercepted. The mention of the recipient's 'Honour'd Dear Brother' could well refer to Hamilton's brother-in-law, Alexander Gordon of Earlston (1650-1726), who had been arrested on 1 June, imprisoned in Edinburgh, and threatened with torture while awaiting execution (he was finally freed in June 1689). Both Gordon and Hamilton had been acting as agents of the United Societies in the Netherlands, and the latter was still there in September 1683, deeming Scotland too dangerous to return to at that time.
This letter is printed in The Life and Letters of James Renwick, ed. W.H. Carslaw, 1893, pages 67-71. Paper brittle and with some tears and slight stains. Inlaid to a mount at the the edges and with an old oak frame (some damage to frame).
The image links to a larger or more detailed version.