Bishop Dr George Wishart (1599 – 1671)

Wishart Tree WIS0025

Born: 1599 – Haddington, East Lothian
Died: 26 July 1671 – Forfarshire, Scotland

Wishart, George (1599–1671), bishop of Edinburgh, was a younger son of John Wishart of Logie-Wishart, Forfarshire. He was born in Haddingtonshire, where his father lived until succeeding to his estate in 1629, and probably studied at the University of Edinburgh before moving to the University of St Andrews, where he matriculated in St Salvator’s College in 1612 and graduated as master of arts in 1613. Nothing is known of the next decade of his life except that at some point he married Margaret Ogilvy, and it is likely that he travelled and studied on the continent. He was presented as minister to the parish of Monifieth, Forfarshire, in August 1624, being ordained by John Spottiswood, archbishop of St Andrews, at Dairsie in September 1625. He was moved to St Andrews in April 1626, becoming minister of the second charge there, and by October 1634, when he was made a member of the Scottish court of high commission, he had become a DD.

After most of the inhabitants of St Andrews signed the national covenant in defiance of King Charles I, in April 1638, Wishart, who supported episcopacy, fled to England for safety, joining Archbishop Spottiswood and other exiles in Morpeth and then Newcastle. In December 1638 his parish complained to the general assembly in Glasgow about his desertion, seeking his return and acknowledgement of the assembly’s authority, but since his life and doctrine were not impugned, he was not deposed. However, he had no intention of returning, and was subsequently deposed by the presbytery of St Andrews, a verdict confirmed by the general assembly in August 1639.

In October 1639 Wishart was appointed to a lectureship in Newcastle upon Tyne on the orders of the king, in violation of the rights of the corporation, and in place of a puritan lecturer. Wishart fled in July 1640 when the army of the covenanters approached the town, and returned only after it withdrew in September 1641. He then came under attack from local puritans, who organized a petition against him, and was found guilty by the House of Commons committee on scandalous ministers ‘of common haunting of Inns and Taverns, and of Drunkenness’. The Commons thereupon resolved in June 1642 that he was unfit to hold the lectureship (JHC, 2.632). Given the bitterness of sectarian strife on the eve of the English civil war the charges against Wishart may well have been no more than mud-slinging, and in the early stages of the war, with Newcastle in royalist hands, his position was secure. When the covenanters intervened in the English civil war to support parliament and again besieged Newcastle Wishart remained in the town and was captured when the Scottish army stormed it on 19 October 1644. He was imprisoned in the tolbooth of Edinburgh, and in January 1645, on his petition, the Scottish parliament agreed to provide maintenance for himself, his wife, and his five children while he remained a prisoner. He was among the royalist prisoners freed in August 1645 after the battle of Kilsyth, the culminating victory in the campaign against the covenanters of the royalist James Graham, marquess of Montrose. The two men had known each other when Montrose had been a student in St Andrews in the years after 1627, and, on joining Montrose at Bothwell, Wishart was made his chaplain and secretary. Almost immediately Montrose was defeated at the battle of Philiphaugh (13 September), but Wishart remained with him throughout his attempts to rebuild a royalist army, finally retreating with him to Norway in September 1646.

Wishart then compiled a history of his 1644–6 campaigns in Scotland, J[acobi] G[raemi] de rebus auspreiis … sub imperio … Jacobi Montisrosarum marchionis, published in the Netherlands in 1647, with a dedication dated 1 October to Charles, prince of Wales. The author punningly disguised himself by ascribing the work to A[gricola] S[ophocardio]—‘Wise Heart’. It was quickly followed by a second edition, printed in Paris under a licence granted in the name of the king of France in January 1648, and an English translation appeared in the same year. But though the book was highly effective in spreading the fame of Montrose across Europe, presenting him as the dauntless hero of an epic tale of loyal service, it proved controversial among royalists. Wishart’s devotion to Montrose had led him to claim that Britain’s civil wars could have been avoided if his advice, as opposed to that of other Scottish royalists, had been taken. To Wishart any royalist who opposed Montrose (and there were many) was a traitor. Made aware of the divisive nature of the book, Prince Charles wrote to Montrose on 5 March 1648 that while he was happy that the marquess’s deeds should be made known to the world, the author of the book made allegations about ‘severall persons of Quality whereby they are respectively charged with many crimes of a high nature’. The prince ‘cannot in justice afford our Patronage to accusations which render persons of honour infamous before they be heard’ and he ordered that the book be suppressed and no further publication be made of it. He charged Montrose with doing this as the author was ‘a person altogether unknown to us’ (Wishart, Memoirs, 7). It may be doubted that Montrose made much effort to suppress Wishart’s account of his heroic deeds, and the prince’s opposition to the book was probably short-lived. When Charles had ordered its suppression the main hope of the Scottish royalists had been the duke of Hamilton, one of those Wishart had denounced, but in September 1648 Cromwell destroyed Hamilton’s Scottish army at the battle of Preston and captured the duke. Placating his supporters by suppressing Wishart was no longer a priority.

By April 1649 Wishart was employed as the chaplain of a Scottish regiment in Dutch service, and he preached before the future Charles II in the same month, his championing of Montrose now bringing him credit in the exiled court. However, his choice as preacher was probably a political gesture. Commissioners from the Scottish covenanters were negotiating with the prince, and having Montrose’s former chaplain preach emphasised the prince’s threat that if the Scots did not reach agreement with him, he would return to support for Montrose’s demands that civil war be renewed. The commissioners’ furious complaints about the prince hearing a preacher that they had excommunicated were ignored.

Wishart took no part in Montrose’s campaign of 1650, which led to the marquess’s execution. The fact that he was hanged with a copy of Wishart’s book round his neck is an indication of the hatred with which the covenanters viewed it. Wishart now wrote a second part to his work, completing the story of Montrose’s deeds, but after Montrose’s death and the collapse of the royalist cause throughout Britain the brief bubble of European interest in Montrose burst. The Latin text remained unpublished until 1893, though an English translation appeared in 1720. Wishart was minister to a Scottish congregation at Schiedam in 1650, but nothing is known of his life for the rest of the decade.

On the Restoration in 1660 Wishart returned to Newcastle, and in September was appointed lecturer at St Andrew’s Church, and acted for a time as vicar. In 1661 payments were offered from stipends of vacant parishes to Scottish episcopalian ministers who had suffered for their beliefs, and Wishart petitioned that he had suffered ‘as earlie, as much, as long, as constantlie and patiently, as any of his statione’ (APS, 7, appx, 59). In April the Scottish parliament granted him £300 sterling. With the restoration of episcopacy in Scotland he returned to his native land, being appointed bishop of Edinburgh on 18 January 1662 and consecrated on 3 June. Though he took his seat in parliament he took little part in political affairs and the controversies over the treatment of presbyterian dissidents. In a synod in October 1662 he preached on the text ‘Lat your moderation be knawn to all men: the Lord is at hand’, and showed his intention of acting in accordance with this by having each presbytery appoint ministers to prepare his business for future synods, ‘Bot all this did not pleis the pepill, for thair wes much haitrent [hatred] of the bischops’ (J. Nicoll, Diary, 1836, 381). He is said to have shown special sympathy for prisoners after his own experiences in Edinburgh tolbooth in 1644–5, sending food from his table to them. On 1 July 1671, knowing he was dying, he made his will, leaving £500 Scots to the poor of Holyrood parish (where he lived). He died on 26 July and was buried in Holyrood Abbey on the 29th.

The presbyterian historian Robert Wodrow accused Wishart of ‘profane swearing, even on the streets of Edinburgh’, of being ‘a known drunkard’, and of being the author of ‘lascivious poems’ (History of the Sufferings of the Church of Scotland, 1828, 1.236). The charge of drinking may be based on the 1642 puritan complaints against him, but that of writing unseemly poetry seems to be due to confusion. William Wishart, minister of South Leith, was deposed by the covenanters in 1639 (as was George), being charged with being the author of a notorious obscene poem, and Wodrow seems to have conflated the two men.

Apart from hostile slanders and routinely laudatory epitaphs on his death no contemporaries commented on Wishart’s character or career except ‘S. G. M.’, evidently Sir George Mackenzie of Rosehaugh, who wrote of him in terms of paradoxes: ‘he was the best churchman when he was throwen out of the church, the best subject, when he was declared traitor, and the best countryman when he was railed upon, as its barbarous enemy’ (S. G. M., fols. 77v–78v). As a bishop he desired simply to be esteemed a minister, striving to be higher only in devotion, richer only in virtue. His life shows him as a man prepared to suffer for his beliefs, staunch in his loyalty to the Stuarts and his commitment to Montrose. His life of Montrose is a historical source of great importance. Much of his evidence is hearsay but, especially when it concerns the 1644–7 campaigns, it was gathered from men who had taken part in the events described. It well served its original purpose as propaganda, and well serves the historian who allows for its fervent rhetoric and distortions in the service of its hero.

Biography © David Stevenson

Sources   DNB · G. Wishart, The memoirs of James, marquis of Montrose, 1639–1650, ed. and trans. A. D. Murdoch and H. F. M. Simpson (1893) · R. Howell, Newcastle upon Tyne and the puritan revolution: a study of the civil war in north England (1967) · C. Rogers, ed., Life of George Wishart, the Scottish martyr … and a genealogical history of the family of Wishart (1876) · G. Wishart, ‘Sermons, 1644’, NL Scot., MS 3545 · S. G. M. [G. Mackenzie], ‘The character of George, bishop of Edinburgh’, NL Scot., MS 6504, fols. 77v–78v