Aikenhead & the Long Cold Winter

Margaret Catchpole (1762-1819)

Margaret Catchpole (1762-1819)

The address is on Thomas Aikenhead, a twenty-year-old Unitarian martyr. But before I get to him, let's talk about the weather - namely, how much colder Britain used to be. In 1845, the Reverend Richard Cobbold published his book on Margaret Catchpole, the famous Ipswich horse thief, prison breaker, and adventurer, but before she was any of those things, she worked for the Cobbolds as a cook and carer for their children, including the Reverend Richard Cobbold himself when he was a boy. I bring this book up for one simple reason: it recounts an ordinary 18th Century winter’s day in Ipswich, in which Margaret Catchpole takes the Cobbold children to Christchurch park wrapped up in their “cloaks and muffs” to go and see the ice skaters. It reads… “Many in the busy town of Ipswich left their labours and their cares for a few hours’ recreation; fair ladies ventured to lean upon a brother’s or a lover’s arm and try the slippery ice.”

The ice in question, the ice rink, was the Christchurch pond, with its fence running around the perimeter. Although in Cobbold’s book it is described quite differently from how it is today, described as having steep turfed sides, and of course no fence, (this is well before the days of health and safety). Back then, at the turn of the 18th Century, it being cold enough that you could skate outside on ponds or rivers in winter was the norm. In the 17th Century there are even accounts of people ice-skating on the River Thames in London. All this cold weather was the result of what is called ‘The Little Ice Age’, which ran from the 16th to the 19th Century. During this period, snowfall was much heavier than any records before or since indicate, with snow laying on ground for many months longer than it does today. All this bad weather actually had some quite severe cultural repercussions. I’ve mentioned before how mood states can dramatically affect an individual’s decision making process; I illustrated this before with the example of judges being more likely to find a defendant guilty, just before lunch. And those are some real-world serious consequences of a rumbling stomach. And you can imagine just how far that must extend - the damage rippling out from a bad mood - it must be immeasurably more destructive than we know. Well, when it comes to ‘The Little Ice Age’, we’re of course not talking about just an individual, but an entire content in a bad mood. Take, for example the European witchcraft trials. There appears to be a direct correlation between temperature drops, and the number of witchcraft trials taking place in any given year. Scapegoating and bad weather seem to go hand in hand, and that brings us to this morning’s story, about Thomas Aikenhead.

The coldest point of ‘The Little Ice Age’ were the years between 1695 and 1702, and nowhere was it colder in the British Isles than in Scotland. It's during this period in 1696 that the Aikenhead saga unfolded. Here where the crops were failing, there was famine, and the Scottish population was miserable, a group of boys passed together through the streets of Edinburgh, students of the university. Upon passing a parish church, the precocious Thomas Aikenhead proclaimed to his friends, that he wished he was visiting the place that Ezra did, that place that he called hell, so that he could warm himself there instead of shivering here in Edinburgh. An irreverent joke that would not be out of place today, but in the 17th Century it was a rather shocking attitude for anyone to have towards sacred matters. This reference to Ezra’s vision of hell is also an obscure one. Although there is a Book of Ezra in the Old Testament, you won’t find any referenced to hell in there. Instead it is a reference to another text attributed to Ezra, that does not appear in the Bible. It’s an apocryphal text, in which Ezra has a vision in which he is shown by angels’, heaven, and then shown hell. Aikenhead’s reference to this text attests to his good use of the university library, where he revelled, in particular, in reading all manner of heretical and atheistic texts, such as the work of Descartes, Spinoza, and Hobbes, texts which would ultimately lead to his undoing.

What I think Aikenhead represents above all else is an unquenchable curiosity, a desire to seek and explore matters of interest, matters of faith and religion, as it should be, without fear of consequence, without repercussions upon us of either a cultural or legal nature. In other words he sought to live the change he wanted to see in the World. He sought to live in a world of religious freedom. And this ideal, I think, is enshrined in what it means to be a Unitarian, to be a seeker, and therefore not to conform to any imposed belief systems, any creeds, which is far easier said than done. A belief in religious freedom can itself bizarrely turn into its own kind of dogmatism, in which individuals just meet to commend and celebrate the principles of religious freedom and religious inquiry, without actually doing any inquiry. Affirm their identity as seekers, without actually doing any seeking. It’s a danger, because in essence it makes one just as much of a dogmatist as anyone else. But in some ways it's worse, because it’s a form of dogmatism that by its nature is unable to recognise itself as being dogmatic.

Thomas Aikenhead and his friends met regularly in Edinburgh’s coffee houses and her pubs to discuss all manner of radical ideas. No doubt they would have followed closely in the news the unfolding story of John Frazer, a local book-keeper. He was charged under blasphemy laws with maintaining the opinion that ‘there was no god to whom men owed… worship and obedience so much talked of, and more to the point that the beliefs in established religion were made to frighten folks and to keep them in order’.

Tollbooth in Edinburgh, where Thomas Aikenhead was imprisoned and wrote his last letter

Tollbooth in Edinburgh, where Thomas Aikenhead was imprisoned and wrote his last letter

Frazer’s legal defence was that he was not expressing his own views, but rather explaining the opinions of the English deist Charles Blount, (whose unorthodox views Adam read a small portion of). He owned a copy of the book, ‘The Oracle of Reason’. Despite this defence, and despite fellow Christians coming to champion his character, and despite his repentance, he was nonetheless sentenced to four months, to be served in sackcloth in Edinburgh’s prison, and this was over the winter period. There is no record of what became of him; if he was a man of weak constitution he may have never recovered from this, but it was actually regarded at the time as a very lenient sentence, because the Blasphemy Act of 1661 stated that railing upon, cursing or denying God carried the death penalty.

Thomas Aikenhead, however, despite the cautionary tale Frazer’s case might have served as, was far more brazen in the opinions that he expressed amongst his friends. He would say, concerning theology, “It’s all invented nonsense you know. Take Jesus, you don’t actually believe he was a miracle worker do you? They’re all tricks, and the best part is, his fisherman friends, they actually believed it! What blockheads they must have been. And don’t get me started on this doctrine of the Trinity, you know it’s not even in the Bible, not even once…” To put it mildly, Thomas Aikenhead was not the most tactful of individuals.

And for whatever reason, perhaps a fear of being punished by association, one of Aikenhead’s so-called friends, as we use to say at school, “dobbed him in”, and he was charged under the Blasphemy Act. As soon as the prosecution made clear that they would be seeking the death penalty, the rest of Aikenhead’s friends closed ranks, and all claimed that Thomas Aikenhead was a man who scoffed and cursed God.

Although now, in light of what happened, we can champion Aikenhead as a martyr for religious liberty, it was certainly not a legacy that he sought for himself. He had no desire to be a martyr for a liberal religious cause. He had no desire to die. He really didn’t care that much. Upon imprisonment he immediately wrote a letter, renouncing all the things he had said, but the prosecution, and the Church of Scotland, were having none of it. They wanted an example to be made of him; they wanted to warn a nation overflowing with profanity of the consequences of being un-Godly. When the inevitability of Aikenhead’s death became clear to him, he made a final statement… He said, ‘It is natural for us human beings to have a desire to find the truth, to seek it out as we might find hidden treasure.’ He was hung on the 8th January 1697. He was the last person in Britain to be executed for blasphemy. The spot in Edinburgh is marked, the old gallows with a raised stone platform, and an inscription running around the outside which reads… “Many Martyrs and Covenanters died for the Protestant Faith on this spot.”

Mr Thomas Aikenhead did not call himself a Unitarian; The British Unitarian Association would not come into existence for another Century. But, his inability to put the big questions down, and his willingness to disregard Church authority, and his thirst for truth that went beyond a consideration of consequences, all amount to a figure I cannot help but admire. He pointed to a better world in which ideas, however brilliant or foolish, can be explored and tested, without fear of consequences. Out of his foolishness, his bolshiness, and his creative character, I think he points to a better world. A world in which friends can gather around some drinks and share in truly open fellowship, share in a passion for life. Be foolish, speak nonsense, explore new ideas, dare to be different, and all the while be accepted and loved for who you are. To my mind, that’s the goal, that’s what the human spirit longs for - for true community, for The Kingdom of God, for the Kingdom of Heaven. It’s my hope and prayer, that we can all grasp and share in this vision together, and even model it for a world so divided by ignorance and animosity. Help us stay true to the way of love, and model what Thomas Aikenhead expressed, that natural desire of humanity to seek after truth in a shameless fashion, to seek for it like we seek hidden treasure, to give everything for it in pursuit of the pearl of great price. Let Thy Kingdom come. Let us be a beacon of love to a hurting, and unheard world. Let us embody an expression of the way we hope the world to become. Being the change we want to see, an example of when people come together, and share their lives in love and service.


Lewis Connolly