The First Presbytery, the Covenant in Ulster and the Death of Sir James Hamilton
Sir James Hamilton was now an old man; he was living at Killyleagh Castle and had been through three marriages, with one son. However he was still in good health apart from some trouble with gout and kidney stones - The Hamilton Manuscripts say that he spent a lot of time each day in his house-gown. His old adversary Sir Hugh Montgomery had died in 1636, and Hamilton tried the following year to eclipse Montgomery’s Donaghadee as Ulster’s main port by building the Custom House and Tower House on the sea front of his own port of Bangor. The Tower House is now the Tourist Information Centre for North Down Borough Council.
1642 - The Army of the Covenant
In 1642 the 2,500 strong Army of the Covenant had arrived at Carrickfergus under the command of Major General Robert Monro. King Charles 1 was opposed to the Army going to Ulster at all, but Parliament forced his hand. The Hamilton Manuscripts say that Hamilton had “...lived to see the war of Ireland, and by his wisdom and power of his tenants, and the interest he had at Court, was very successful for the preservation of Ulster from the power of the enemy, as he was very charitable to distress'd people that came in great numbers from the upper countrys...”
The effects of the 1641 Massacre were everywhere to be seen - once again County Antrim had been devastated by warfare, but thanks to the regiments raised by Hamilton and 2nd Viscount Montgomery, the damage to County Down had been limited. The Scotch Army “...found much of the country wholly desolate, except some parts of the County of Down, where there had been two regiments formed by Lords Clandeboye and Ards... but generally in the country, through the county of Antrim, all was waste...” Adair p 90
A Presbyterian minister was appointed to each regiment in the Scotch Army, and on 10th June 1642, the first Ulster Presbytery was established at Carrickfergus, made up of five of these ministers and four ruling elders.They were soon joined by the chaplain to Hamilton’s regiment (John Drysdale) and the chaplain to 2nd Viscount Montgomery’s regiment (James Baty). A sculpture in Carrickfergus town centre commemorates this event, as does the magnificent “Carrickfergus Window” in Church House, Belfast.
The reaction among the Ulster-Scots people to the new Presbytery, and their new Scottish defenders, was spectacular. There was a flood of applications for elderships from all over County Antrim (Ballymena, Antrim, Cairncastle, Templepatrick, Carrickfergus, Larne and Belfast) and County Down (from Ballywalter, Portaferry, Newtownards, Donaghadee, Killyleagh, Comber, Holywood and Bangor). The demand was impossible to meet, so in July 1642 the Ulster Presbytery wrote to the General Assembly in Scotland to appeal for help. Help came quickly, in the form of two very familiar individuals, both of whom were old colleagues of Sir James Hamilton.
1642 - The Triumphant Return of Rev Robert Blair and Rev James Hamilton
Both military and spiritual help came across the water from Scotland. On 4th August 1642, General Alexander Leslie arrived with 7,500 soldiers. Then, in September 1642, the General Assembly in Scotland sent Rev Robert Blair (formerly minister of Bangor) and Rev James Hamilton (formerly minister of Ballywalter, Sir James Hamilton’s namesake and nephew) back
to Ulster. At this time Blair was Minister of St Andrews and Hamilton was Minister of Dumfries.
Having been driven out by the Bishops just six years previously (after the failure of the Eagle Wing) Rev Robert Blair and Rev James Hamilton had a deep knowledge of the Ulster-Scots and their experience, because they had stood shoulder-to-shoulder with these people in the early years of the Settlement. In fact, at least one historian of the period has said that it was Rev Robert Blair who was in fact the real leader of the Ulster-Scots. Blair and Hamilton were soon joined by Rev Hugh Henderson of Dalry, Ayrshire, Rev William Adair of Ayr and Rev John Weir of Dalserf, Lanarkshire.
These ministers issued a call for public repentance to those people who had taken The Black Oath - to conforming clergy and congregations alike. Rev Blair oversaw these repentances in Bangor, Donaghadee and Killyleagh, assisted by Rev Hamilton. A national day of fasting was then held across Ulster on Sunday November 27th 1642.
As Adair writes “...Thus these two ministers, Blair and Hamilton, who had a while before been deposed from their ministry by the bishops, are now employed as the instruments for first planting ministers in the country according to the purity of the Gospel - who were also useful in the army’s Presbytery, and were the beginning of a settled ministry in the country...” p98
1642 - The English Civil War
Back in London, relations between King Charles 1 and Parliament were deteriorating rapidly. He had dismissed the Parliament back in 1629 and ruled without them, but he needed their permission to raise an army to fight the Covenanters. Having been out of office for 11 years, Parliament got its revenge by recalling the King’s advisor, that great enemy of the Ulster-Scots, the Earl of Strafford, from Ireland. Parliament accused Strafford of treason and had him executed in May 1641 (illustration below) - they also executed Strafford’s great ally Archbishop Laud in 1645 - and also of course, King Charles I in 1649. These three most powerful opponents of the Ulster-Scots would each meet a grisly end.
In November 1641 Parliament demanded that the King’s powers be reduced - in retaliation King Charles burst into the Houses of Parliament with 400 soldiers to arrest five leading MPs. However the MPs had been tipped off and had gone into hiding.
In Scotland, the wars against the Covenanters had been costly. King Charles was running out of money and he needed to raise funds, but Parliament refused his request for more money. The Covenanter Army then advanced south from Scotland and occupied much of Northern England. The situation was serious, and on January 1642 King Charles left London. Both the Parliament and the King then raised their own armies - the Parliamentarians and the Royalists - sowing the seeds of the English Civil War.
The Death of the 2nd Viscount Montgomery
The 2nd Viscount Ards (also called Sir Hugh Montgomery) had, along with Hamilton and under great pressure from the King, betrayed the Ulster-Scots and Presbyterian cause in 1640 by accepting The Black Oath and by opposing Scotland’s National Covenant, probably for fear of losing their estates. However the 2nd Viscount died suddenly on 15th November 1642. His widow, the renowned “Presbyterian Jean”, perhaps got her own back on her husband when she later married the Covenanter hero
and the leader of the Army of the Covenant, Major General Robert Monro.
The 3rd Viscount Montgomery
The 3rd Viscount Montgomery, also called Sir Hugh, was a young man of around 18 when his father died. He suffered from a strange wound which left a large open cavity in the left side of his chest, in which his heart could be seen and even touched. He was an expert fencer, musician and horseman; when he took over the command of his father’s regiment he would play trumpet, drums and bagpipes for the soldiers. He later became the first Earl of Mount Alexander near Comber, County Down.
The Death of Sir James Hamilton
Then, early the following year, on 24th January 1643, Sir James Hamilton, the First Viscount Clandeboye and Founding Father of the Ulster-Scots, died aged 84. His death and burial have three things in common with Sir Hugh Montgomery’s - Hamilton was buried inside a church he had rebuilt from ruins (Bangor Abbey, rebuilt in 1617); to which he had brought a Scottish minister of Presbyterian leanings (Rev Robert Blair in 1623); and without any gravestone or memorial.
(Gifford Savage, of the Friends of Bangor Abbey, recently showed me an old archive photograph of what is more than likely James Hamilton’s coffin and tomb within the foundations of Bangor Abbey building. Sadly the tomb is no longer accessible to the public)
No information about Hamilton’s funeral service is given in The Hamilton Manuscripts, but his rivalry with Montgomery lived on - in his will Sir James Hamilton threatened to disinherit any of his descendants who should marry a Montgomery!
1643 - Scotland’s Solemn League and Covenant
On 25th September 1643, the Covenanters in Scotland formally allied themselves with the Parliamentary forces of England in a document known as the Solemn League and Covenant. From the spring of 1644, the Covenant was administered right across Ulster, from the east coast of County Down and Antrim to Ballyshannon and Ramelton in Donegal, overseen by Rev James Hamilton.
Against all the odds, the Ulster-Scots had succeeded - in forming their settlement in Ulster, their communities and a new church.
From their arrival at Donaghadee in May 1606, to the death of Sir James Hamilton in 1643, the Ulster-Scots had come through five decades of great opportunity and yet enormous turmoil. The success of the settlement in east Ulster provided “...the bridgehead through which the Scots were to come into Ulster for the rest of the century...”.* So ends the story of the Hamilton & Montgomery Settlement - and so begins the epic story of the Ulster-Scots!
*from ATQ Stewart The Narrow Ground, page 38 - 39
There are many chapters of history which connect to the story of the Hamilton & Montgomery Settlement:
- the Nine Years War
- the Union of the Crowns
- the Flight of the Earls
- the Jamestown Settlement, Virginia
- the Plantation of (the west of) Ulster
- the arrival of the Presbyterians
- the Nova Scotia Settlement
- the Revivals at Stewarton, Sixmilewater and Shotts
- the Eagle Wing
- Scotland’s National Covenant
- the 1641 Massacre
- the Laggan Army
- Scotland’s Solemn League and Covenant
I hope that this series of articles has interested you enough to now find out more about these stories, and more importantly to understand our own Ulster-Scots history and heritage much better. For too long we have forgotten our own story; we should be proud to learn it - and to share it with others.
My thanks are due to a great number of people for their help and support in putting this series of articles together - to the Board and staff of the Agency for their support throughout the year, Dr John McCavitt, Dr Philip Robinson, Dr William Roulston, Dr Lawrence Holden, Rev Dr Joseph Thompson, Anne Smyth and to the various Councils and organisations who have helped me to tell the story during 2006.
Above all I would like to thank today’s Montgomery and Rowan-Hamilton families, who live at Greyabbey Estate and Killyleagh Castle respectively. They have been a great help and encouragement to me as I have tried to tell the story of their families.
In particular, I would like to thank Bill Montgomery, who has constantly reminded me that the power of the Hamilton & Montgomery Settlement story is as much about the achievements of those first pioneering “ordinary” Ulster-Scots settlers, as it is about the vision, ambition and legacy of our two Founding Fathers.
(This article was originally published in The Ulster-Scot, December 2006)