Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Mitchell, James (d.1678)

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MITCHELL or MITCHEL, JAMES (d. 1678), fanatic, was the son of obscure parents in Midlothian. He graduated at Edinburgh University on 9 July 1656, and at the same time signed the national covenant and the solemn league and covenant. He attached himself to the party of remonstrator presbyterians, and studied popular divinity under David Dickson (1583?-1663) [q. v.] He was refused by the presbytery of Dalkeith on the grounds of insufficiency, and appears to have become ‘a preacher, but no actual minister,’ in or near Edinburgh. In 1661 he was recommended to some ministers in Galloway by Trail, a minister in Edinburgh, as suitable for teaching in a school or as private tutor. He entered the house of the Laird of Dundas as domestic chaplain and tutor to his children, but was dismissed for immoral conduct. Returning to Edinburgh he made the acquaintance of Major John Weir [q. v.], who procured for him the post of chaplain in a ‘fanatical family, the lady whereof was niece to Sir Archibald Johnston’ of Warriston. He quitted this post in November 1666 to join the rising of the covenanters in the west at Ayr. He was in Edinburgh on 28 Nov., when the rebels were defeated at Pentland, but was pronounced guilty of treason in a proclamation of 4 Dec. 1666, and on 1 Oct. 1667 was excluded from the pardon granted to those engaged in the rising. Mitchell effected his escape to Holland, where he joined a cousin, a factor in Rotterdam. After wandering in England and Ireland he returned to Edinburgh in 1668. There he married, and opened a shop for the sale of tobacco and spirits.

Mitchell resolved to revenge himself on James Sharp, archbishop of St. Andrews, for his desertion of the presbyterian cause, and on 11 July 1668 he fired a pistol at him as he sat in his coach in Blackfriars Wynd in Edinburgh. The shot missed the archbishop, but entered the hand of his companion, Andrew Honeyman, bishop of Orkney. Mitchell passed down Niddry's Wynd without opposition, and, despite the reward of five thousand marks offered for his apprehension, quitted the country. He returned to Scotland towards the end of 1673. Early in 1674 he was recognised in the street by the archbishop, whose brother, Sir William Sharp, obtained a confession from him, after the archbishop had pledged himself that no harm should come to him. But he was imprisoned, and at the instigation of Sharp brought before the council on 10 Feb. 1674. He again made a full confession on 12 Feb. on receiving a promise of his life. After further imprisonment in the Tolbooth he was brought before the justiciary court on 2 March 1674 to receive sentence, but he denied that he was guilty, though he was told that he would lose the benefit of the assurance of life if he persisted in his denial. On 6 March the council framed an act in which they declared themselves free of any promise made. On 25 March Mitchell was again brought before the court, but there being no evidence against him beyond the confession, since retracted, the lords of justiciary deserted the diet, with the consent of the lord advocate, Sir John Nisbet [q. v.] Mitchell was returned to the Tolbooth and afterwards removed to the Bass Rock. On 18 Jan. 1677 he again in the presence of a committee of justices, of which Linlithgow [see Livingstone, George third Earl of] was chairman, denied his confession. A further attempt was made on 22 Jan. with the same result, despite a threat of the ‘boots.’ On 24 Jan., in the Parliament House, he was examined under torture as to his connection with the rebellion of 1666 This accusation he also denied, and reminded those present that there were two other James Mitchells in Midlothian. The torture and questioning continued till the prisoner fainted when he was carried back to the Tolbooth.

In December 1677 the council ordered criminal proceedings against him for the attempted assassination of the archbishop. On 7 Jan. the trial commenced; he was ably defended by Sir George Lockhart [q. v.] and John Elies. His former confession was the sole evidence against him. Rothes swore to having seen Mitchell sign his confession, which was countersigned by himself. But both he and the archbishop denied that the promise of life had been given. Mitchell's counsel produced a copy of the Act of Council of 12 March 1674, in which his confession under promise of life was recorded, but a request that the books of the council might be produced was refused. The trial was remarkable for the number of witnesses of high station, and the perjury of Rothes, Halton, and Lauderdale has rarely been paralleled. The following day, 10 Jan., sentence of death was passed, and Mitchell was executed in the Grassmarket of Edinburgh on Friday, 18 Jan. 1678.

Halton was indicted for the perjury on 28 July 1681, the evidence against him being two letters that he had written on 10 and 12 Feb. 1674 to the Earl of Kincardine [see Bruce, Alexander, second Earl], in which he gave an account of Mitchell's confession, ‘upon assurance of his life.’ The letters are printed in Wodrow, ii. 248-9.

Mitchell is described as ‘a lean, hollow-cheeked man, of a truculent countenance’ (Ravillac Redivivus, p. 11). He himself attributed his attempt on Sharp as ‘ane impulse of the spirit of God’ (Kirkton, History of the Church of Scotland, p. 387). His son James, who graduated at the university of Edinburgh on 11 Nov. 1698, was licensed by the presbytery there on 26 July 1704, ordained on 5 April 1710, and became minister of Dunnotar in the same year. He was summoned to appear before the justices of the peace on 24 March 1713 to answer for the exercise of church discipline in the session. He died on 26 June 1734.

[The fullest account of Mitchell's attempt at assassination and trials is given in Wodrow's History of the Sufferings of the Church of Scotland, ed. Burns, ii. 115-17, 248-52, 454-73. A prejudiced account, entitled Ravillac Redivivus, being a Narrative of the late Tryal, was published anonymously in 1678, 4to. It was the work of George Hickes [q. v.], who, as chaplain to Lauderdale, accompanied him to Scotland in May 1677, and was in Edinburgh at the time of Mitchell's trial. Somers's Tracts, viii., contains a reprint of the work with notes (pp. 510-53). A pamphlet entitled ‘The Spirit of Fanaticism exemplified’ is an amplified version of the work, published by Curll in 1710. Stephen's Life of Sharp, pp. 383, 458-61; Omond's Lord Advocates of Scotland, i. 192, 214-15; Sir James Turner's Memoirs (Bannatyne Club), pp. 166, 180; Kirkton's Church of Scotland, pp. 383-8; Burnet's Hist of his own Time, ii. 125-32, 298-9; Cobbett's State Trials, vol. vi. cols. 1207-66; Mackenzie's Memoirs, pp. 326-7; Edinburgh Graduates, pp. 77, 161; Scott's Fasti Eccles. Scot. vol. iii. pt. ii. pp. 861-2.]

B. P.