Monday, July 22, 2013

They seek him here, they seek him there - the life of a religious rebel

by Anna Belfrage

Recently – well, for the last three years or so – much of my time has been spent with a slight man with sparse hair, beautiful grey eyes and a voice that can reduce a congregation to tears – or have his followers on their feet, roaring like lions. Not that I have any idea if Alexander Peden matches the above description, but that is how I see this charismatic 17th century minister – a man who became a legend during his lifetime.

“Legend?” you might ask, scratching your head in an attempt to bring forth some sort of information about this Alexander person. Yes, legend – but not far beyond the borders of his native Ayrshire, which might explain why the majority of us have never heard of Prophet Peden. You may, however, have seen his mask, a little thing on display at the National Museum of Scotland. In this disguise, Alexander Peden flitted over the Scottish moors like some sort of religious Zorro, even if he never showed any inclination to mark his victims/foes with a flamboyant Z.

A Peden's mask (D. Monniaux)
Alexander Peden was a stubborn, brave man of God – a man of God as per the Scottish Kirk, not as per the Anglican Church, even if Peden couldn’t care less what the Anglican worthies might have thought of him.  Had not Charles II been restored, Alexander Peden would probably have lived out his life as a capable minister in his small living in New Luce, Galloway. As it was, with the restoration came a number of changes that would drive Alexander – or Sandy, as those of us close to him prefer to call him – into rebellion.

Some background: Charles II seems to have been a reasonable man in matters of faith – I suppose he learnt the hard way that religious contention could lead to nasty repercussions and death. I’d hazard he lived in constant awareness of the fact that his father – an anointed king – had been executed, and while Charles I’s faith was never cited as a reason for his execution, it must have struck his son that had only Charles I handled the religious conflicts that sparked the Civil War better, things might have ended very differently.

Whatever the case, Charles II was prepared to be conciliatory in most matters – but he held no great love for the powerful Scottish Kirk. Charles II’s closest advisors were Anglicans and after years of penurious exile they saw an opportunity to get their own back.

In 1662 a set of laws commonly known as the Clarendon Code were passed through Parliament. As per these laws, it became illegal to hold religious meetings outside the Anglican Church, it was mandatory to recognise the king as the head of the Church, and all able-bodied men were called to take the Oath of Abjuration, whereby they were required to disavow themselves from any previous oaths in conflict with the new laws. With this legislation in place the time was ripe to grind the Scottish Kirk into submission.

Someone seems to have forgotten about the Scots and their independent – and stubborn – streak. The Scottish Kirk was not an institution to be brushed aside as inconsequential and so the recently restored king had a new religious conflict on his hands – this time mercifully contained to parts of his northern kingdom, but still.

The ministers of the Scottish Kirk who refused to recognise the king as the head of their church were evicted from their livings in 1663. This more or less meant all ministers, Alexander Peden being one of them. Their congregations were urged to attend the Anglican services instead, but rather than flocking to hear the word of God from the king’s chosen representatives, the people of Ayrshire – and elsewhere – chose to follow their ministers out into the wilderness, breaking the law by attending unlawful Conventicle meetings, further breaking the law by having the evicted ministers christen their babies and bless their marriages.

Sandy Peden already had a reputation as a gifted preacher. In the present circumstances, his fame grew exponentially and wherever he preached, Sandy told his flock to never turn their back on the true Kirk, to never kowtow to the Anglican Church, papist whore that it was.

For doing this, and for further heinous acts such as baptising children (many children -- on one occasion he baptised close to thirty babies) and wedding young couples, Sandy was formally outlawed in 1667, with a hefty price set on his head. Over the coming years, an intricate manhunt played out over the Ayrshire moors and beyond. The English soldiers chased; Sandy ran, aided and abetted by his countrymen and women.

Scottish Moor by E Morison Wimpersey
I imagine Sandy Peden dashing off over the moor, his threadbare cloak standing like a billowing sail around him. In my head, the moor is an orgy of flowering heather, here and there dotted with stands of bright yellow gorse, the air permeated by its nutty scent. In reality, poor Sandy squelched through mud and freezing water, ducked down to hide behind a stand of stunted trees, his forearm pressed to his mouth to muffle his constant cough – a consequence of far too many nights sleeping under the bare skies.

For over a decade, Alexander Peden led the English soldiers in a merry dance over the rugged landscapes of his native Ayrshire. In his wake sprung stories of divine intervention, describing how God would help his favourite minister by creating timely fogs into which he could disappear (Given that this is Scotland, it would seem God was doing a lot of fogging well before Sandy and long after him as well).

And then there were all of Sandy’s prophesies, the most well-known of these being when he officiated at the wedding of John Brown to Isabel Weir in 1682. According to legend, Sandy took the bride aside after the ceremony and told her she should keep linen by her side to make her new husband a winding sheet, as John was to die shortly. I’m not quite sure this shows much sense for timing, but Sandy was sadly proved right; in 1685, James Brown was shot dead at his home by John Graham of Claverhouse (Bluidy Clavers as he was known in Ayrshire) this for refusing to take the Oath of Abjuration – and for having a number of illegal weapons in his house.

In 1673 Alexander Peden was arrested – betrayed, some say – and after several years on Bass Rock he was set aboard a ship in 1678 to be deported to the colonies. When the boatload of deportees landed in London, there to be transferred to another vessel, Sandy Peden succeeded in convincing the captain of this new ship that to deport him and his companions would not please God, and so they were left behind on the docks. Sandy and his Merry Ministers walked all the way back to Scotland, receiving a lot of help along the way.

The remaining years of his life, Sandy spent in Scotland and in Ireland, always running, always hiding. And he continued to baptise children and officiate at weddings (as demonstrated above when he wed John Brown and Isabel). In 1686 he was staying on his brother’s farm when he died – in bed, as he had prophesised.

Upon hearing Alexander Peden was dead, English troops chose to disinter him, having the intention of hanging the dead man from the Cumnock gallows. The local powers that were interceded, worried that this might cause an uproar among the people of Ayrshire. Instead, Sandy Peden was reburied by the gallows – in itself an insult.

Many years later, a monument was erected over Sandy’s final resting place. Personally, I think he wouldn’t be all that impressed; Sandy never wanted a monument – all he wanted was the freedom to praise God according to his beliefs.


Alexander Peden plays a central role in my recently released third instalment of The Graham Saga, The Prodigal Son. Previous titles in the series are A Rip in the Veil and Like Chaff in the Wind. Set in the 17th century, the books tell the story of Matthew and Alex, two people who should never have met – not when she was born three hundred years after him.


  1. Interesting post! Shared.

  2. Great post...fascinating man. Will Tweet and Share.

  3. Interesting, I have shared.

  4. Such an interesting story! Thank you!


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.