One of the executioners turned to the young Margaret and sneered, “What do you think of her now?” pointing to the other woman who was about to perish by drowning. “I see Christ wrestling there,” she answered. “Do you think we are sufferers? No, it is Christ in us.”
Such was the courage of Margaret Wilson, 18 years of age, as she watched her friend, 63-year-old Margaret MacLachlan, who was just about swallowed by the rising tide at the Solway, an inlet of the Irish Sea. Both women were faithful members of the Covenanters who were accused of treason against the English King,Â “for denying the king’s sovereignty in the church and attending unlawful worship services and meetings in the countryside.” They were sentenced to die by being “tied to palisades fixed in the sand within the tideland, and there to stand until the tidewater overflow you and drown you.” Three women were actually found guilty, but Margaret’s 13-year-old sister Agnes was released after their father paid a fine of a hundred pounds of sterling.
The older Margaret was a poor, grey-haired widow who lived humbly in a small cottage, and was known to her neighbors as a generous and devout Christian woman. She was warned by officers that she must forsake her Covenanter faith, minister and worship, and pledge, “God save the king!” She must worship only in the way that the English church had ordered. But she would not violate her conscience. As she worshiped God one day, soldiers burst in and hauled her off to jail, enduring cold and hunger until the day of her trial.
The young Margaret and sister Agnes were daughters of Gilbert Wilson, a farmer, of Glenvernock in Wigton, Galloway. He had some means as his property was well-stocked with sheep and cattle. Both he and his wife were conformists to the prelacy, so the government could not lay anything against them. Remarkably, their children were, at an early age, not only were well-acquainted with the Christian religion, but sided ardently with the persecuted Covenanters, refusing to attend the worship services of the prelacy. On this account, the father was fined for the rebellion of his children, suffered harassment, deprivation, hardship, and eventually died in poverty. His three children were considered to be outlaws, and were relegated to living in the cold, depraved conditions of moor and mountain.
On a cold winter day, the two sisters sneaked into town to visit friends, and while satisfying their hunger and enjoying a warm fire at a friend’s house, they were betrayed, arrested and thrown into a cold, dark and dank prison for two months before they were sent to their trial on April 13, 1685. Given the chance to recant their faith, they refused and therefore sentenced to death.
Who were these covenanters and what did they believe to incur the terrible wrath of the king?
Religious covenants have a long history in Scotland, starting in the 16th century Protestant Reformation led by John Knox in the late 1550s, when they bound themselves to maintain the Presbyterian doctrine, worship and polity in their country. James VI, King of Scotland, later James I of England and Ireland (1566-1625), tried to impose the Episcopal religion in Scotland, angering the Presbyterians. This was continued by Charles I who appointed the infamous William Laud as Archbishop of Canterbury.
In 1638, Scottish Presbyterians declared in a National Covenant:
[W]e believe with our hearts, confess with our mouths, subscribe with our hands, and constantly affirm before God and the whole world, that this only is the true Christian faith and religion, pleasing God, and bringing salvation to man, which now is by the mercy of God revealed to the world by the preaching of the blessed evangel, and received, believed, and defended by many and sundry notable kirks and realms, but chiefly by the Kirk of Scotland, the King’s Majestyâ€¦ as God’s eternal truth and only ground of our salvationâ€¦
The Covenanters declared their opposition to the “Roman Antichrist” and his erroneous teachings against the Scriptures:
[W]e abhor and detest all contrary religion and doctrine, but chiefly all kind of papistry in general and particular heads, even as they are now damned and confuted by the Word of God and Kirk of Scotland. But in special we detest and refuse the usurped authority of that Roman Antichrist upon the Scriptures of God, upon the Kirk, the civil magistrate, and consciences of men; all his tyrannous laws made upon indifferent things against our Christian liberty; his erroneous doctrine against the sufficiency of the written Word, the perfection of the law, the office of Christ and His blessed evangel; his corrupted doctrine concerning original sin, our natural inability and rebellion to God’s law, our justification by faith only, our imperfect sanctification and obedience to the law…
In 1643, a document called the “Solemn League and Covenant” was signed to preserve the true religion “according to the word of God and the example of the best reformed churches.”Â But after Charles I was defeated and beheaded in 1649, the Covenanters were in turn defeated by Oliver Cromwell’s army in 1651. Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660, and he promptly abrogated all former Covenants enacted in Scotland. Episcopacy was restored, which led to a great period of persecution against the Covenanters. The Covenanters then were forced to meet in secret, illegal “conventicles” in the fields and mountains. This sparked rebellions against the king, which were brutally suppressed with summary executions, torture, stiff fines, and plunder of Covenanter villages.
This period was later named The Killing Time by Scottish historian Robert Wodrow in his The History of the Sufferings of the Church of Scotland from the Restoration to the Revolution (1721-2). Below is Wodrow’s account of the May 11, 1685 execution of the Two Margarets, the Martyrs of Solway:
The two women were brought from Wigton, with a numerous crowd of spectators to so extraordinary an execution. Major Windram with some soldiers guarded them to the place of execution. The old womanâ€™s stake was a good way in beyond the other, and she was first despatched, in order to terrify the other to a compliance with such oaths and conditions as they required. But in vain, for she adhered to her principles with an unshaken steadfastness. When the water was overflowing her fellow-martyr, some about Margaret Wilson asked her, what she thought of the other now struggling with the pangs of death. She answered,
“What do I see but Christ (in one of his members) wrestling there. Think you that we are the sufferers? No, it is Christ in us, for he sends none a warfare upon their own charges.”
When Margaret Wilson was at the stake, she sang the 25th Psalm from verse 7th, downward a good way, and read the 8th chapter to the Romans with a great deal of cheerfulness, and then prayed. While at prayer, the water covered her: but before she was quite dead, they pulled her up, and held her out of the water till she was recovered, and able to speak; and then by major Windramâ€™s orders, she was asked, if she would pray for the king. She answered,
“She wished the salvation of all men, and the damnation of none.”
One deeply affected with the death of the other and her case, said, “Dear Margaret, say God save the king, say God save the king.” She answered in the greatest steadiness and composure,
“God save him, if he will, for it is his salvation I desire.”
Whereupon some of her relations near by, desirous to have her life spared, if possible, called out to major Windram, “Sir, she hath said it, she hath said it.” Whereupon the major came near, and offered her the abjuration, charging her instantly to swear it, otherwise return to the water. Most deliberately she refused, and said,
“I will not, I am one of Christâ€™s children, let me go.” Upon which she was thrust down again into the water, where she finished her course with joy.
Here’s the portion of Psalm 25 from the Scottish Psalter that she sung as the waters rose up to her:
7 My sins and faults of youth
do thou, O Lord, forget:
After thy mercy think on me,
and for thy goodness great.
8 God good and upright is:
the way he’ll sinners show.
9 The meek in judgment he will guide,
and make his path to know.
Young Margaret was allowed to read from her Bible, and she turned to Romans 8:18, “For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.” Then she read through to the end of the chapter before she was completely engulfed by the tide:
38 For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come,Â 39 Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Two Margarets. One Lord, one faith, one baptism, One God and Father of all. They died earnestly contending for this one faith which was once delivered unto the saints. Do you “believe with your hearts, confess with your mouths, subscribe with your hands, and constantly affirm before God and the whole world, that this only is the true Christian faith and religion”?Â Can you articulate this one faith that the two Margarets offered their lives for?
Apples of Gold. “Covenant Ladies,”Â http://www.applesofgold.co.uk/the_two_margarets.htm. Accessed October 2011.
European Institute of Protestant Studies. “Scottish Covenanters.”Â http://www.ianpaisley.org/article.asp?cov_intro.htm. Accessed October 2011.
Hannula, Richard M. Trial and Triumph: Stories from Church History. Moscow, ID: Cannon Press, 1999.
Houghton, S. M. “An Outline of Scottish Covenanter History in the 17th Century.” Reformation Scotland. Accessed October 2011.http://www.reformation-scotland.org.uk/articles/outline-of-covenanter-history.html.