“Groningen is a gorgeous town,” Renwick thought to himself as he tried to understand what made the town so likeable. He remembered how Groningen is situated at the junction of two rivers, the Hunse and the As, and how it is traversed by numerous canals which are crossed by eighteen bridges. Renwick looked up and saw how its skyline was dominated by the tallest and most impressive gothic cathedral in Holland, St. Martin’s, with a large and bustling outdoor market-place adjacent, Grote Market. And he had never seen anything like the Poelestraat, just around the corner from Grote Market, lined with restaurants and cafes, each with carefully decorated facades and plenty of outdoor seating.
The sun blazed in a cloudless sky on a crisp and windless afternoon in Groningen. It was the last Friday in April in the spring of 1683, and James Renwick tried to repress a smile as he walked briskly through the grounds of St. Geertruidshofie, the inn on Peperstraat which had been his home since coming to Groningen.
Renwick saw his fellow student John Flint emerge from the entrance to his lodgings and hurry to catch up with him. They both had been sent by the United Societies of Covenanters at the same time to study for ordination.
“Good day, John Flint,” Renwick proclaimed cheerfully. “It’s nice to have you along on this weekend journey to Leewarden.”
“My pleasure, James. Who would miss Sir Robert Hamilton’s invitation to Reverend Brackel’s? Why, I’ve heard that Brackel is that rare man of piety and prosperity, and that a visit to his home at Leewarden is enjoyable both for the beautiful place he’s built and for the delicious food he serves!”
“I don’t think you’ll be disappointed on either account, John,” returned Renwick cordially.
Flint was a young man of twenty-two years of age, immaculately dressed in blue coat and buff trousers, rather short and quite stout, with dark auburn hair and a beard surprisingly thick for his age. His face was oval with even, attractive features, except for his eyes, which were deep-set dots staring out from puffy lids. Renwick often wondered how he could see.
Flint possessed a keen, opinionated mind. He had been with Renwick and Mure at the University of Edinburgh, yet Renwick had never been comfortable around Flint.
“The coach isn’t due for almost thirty minutes, James. We’re in no hurry. Let’s walk down St. Walburgstr past ‘The Old Grey.’”Renwick smiled and assented, and the two were off at a brisk pace.
The simple pleasure of the up-coming trip was not the only reason Renwick was smiling. Later that evening he knew that he was going to see Sir Robert’s sister again, Mistress Jean Hamilton. When he thought about it, Renwick was a little embarrassed at how much Mistress Jean had occupied his mind the last few days. He had met dozens of attractive young women in his life, but none had continued to prompt daydreams of romance the way Jean had.
As the two young men walked down the Sint Walburgstr, Renwick looked over at the garden of the Prinsenhof, where a Renaissance fountain had water spouting from old Triton’s horn and splashing into a large marble bowl. He grabbed Flint’s arm and stopped them both to enjoy the beauty.
A gravel walkway encircling the fountain had paths emerging from it like spokes on a wheel. Nearby, blue irises, purple snapdragons, lemon yellow daffodils, and tulips of various colors were all arranged in the highly-planned French style in various beds surrounded by a neatly trimmed lawn.
“That is first rate work, first rate,” declared Flint, as he surveyed the garden intently.
Then they passed by the open lawn encircled by trees at the back of St. Martin’s Church. They both stopped at the same time, letting their eyes ascend all three hundred and forty-three feet of “The Old Grey,” St. Martin’s tower—the tallest in Holland and always an impressive sight—gazing briefly at each of the five tiers of arches and columns as they raised their heads skyward.
Once the coach arrived, in less than ten minutes the coach drivers had loaded cargo and several sacks of mail. Renwick and Flint were the only passengers to Leewarden that day, and so they settled in, with Flint promptly going to sleep and Renwick finally allowing himself to review his time in Groningen.
“I can’t believe I’ve been in Holland almost five months,” Renwick spoke to himself. As he thought of the last five months, what came to his mind most prominently was Jean Hamilton, with her beautiful features, her raven hair, and piercing blue eyes—but again he expelled the picture from his mind, trying not to allow himself to be so possessed with this young woman.
Renwick looked over at John Flint, who was snoring, with a little trail of saliva tracing down the corner of his chin. Flint could sleep anywhere. Renwick laughed and then looked out the window at the Dutch countryside.
A hole in the road made the coach jolt, and Flint woke up with an “Oh no!” and a glazed look in his eyes. After he came to his senses, small talk between the two soon modulated to Flint’s questioning Renwick about major Covenanters in Holland.
“That always confused me, James. What is the connection between Sir Alexander Gordon, Sir Robert Hamilton, and Reverend Brackel?” Flint had to enunciate distinctly to be understood over the rattle and creeking of the coach.
“First, Gordon and Hamilton are brothers-in-law, Gordon having married Hamilton’s older sister, Lady Janet. And the two men have an interesting connection with our movement,” Renwick answered in a patient but instructive tone.
“You remember, John,” Renwick continued, “how we were so criticized for the 1681 Lanark Declaration, when we disavowed allegiance to Charles the First?”
“Of course, at home and abroad, many thought we had lost our minds. But I still believe firmly that it was the right thing to do…most of the time.”
Renwick playfully looked askance at Flint, assuming the “most of the time” to be a joke.
“Because of serious questions about the Lanark Declaration, Sir Alexander Gordon, my dear Mr. Flint, was sent in early 1682 as commissioner to represent our cause to the Protestant brethren here in Holland. Reverend Brackel, a widower whose only son is in university in Zurich, kindly hosted Gordon at Leewarden, and since that time Brackel has been a generous and invaluable friend to our cause.
“But on a trip back to Scotland six months later,” Renwick continued to explain, “a warrant was issued for Gordon’s arrest—‘sedition’ against the king for giving financial support to an outlawed church—and he became a fugitive. When he was finally arrested late last year, his wife, Lady Janet Hamilton Gordon, was actually allowed to go with him to Bass Prison! And, sadly, there they both remain.”
“And Lady Janet is sister to Sir Robert, you said, right?” Flint questioned.
“Correct, my friend. And Lady Janet and Sir Robert have a younger sister, Mistress Jean Hamilton. Sir Robert Hamilton was already well connected with the Dutch Ministry, and so, to replace Sir Alexander Gordon, the United Societies sent Sir Robert Hamilton here to Holland. Thus, he and his sister, Mistress Jean, have been in residence with Reverend Brackel since late last year, about seven months ago.”
“Ah, now I understand,” replied Flint, pronouncing each word slowly.
“I understand you’ve been to Leewarden more than once, James,” said Flint, changing the subject. “To what do you attribute Sir Robert’s and Rev. Brackel’s obvious interest in you?”
Flint had revealed from previous comments that he was jealous of the attention paid to Renwick by the two prominent men, but Renwick--honestly unaware of his unique gifts—was still unsure of what really prompted Hamilton and Brackel to single him out for special attention.
“You’d have to ask them, Flint. I honestly do not know.”
“Your modesty, Renwick, even if pretended, is impressive,” rejoined Flint, in a tone somewhere between sincerity and mockery. Renwick merely smiled, not quite sure how to respond.
“Did I hear correctly from Brackel,” continued Flint, “that an arrest warrant has now been issued in Scotland for Sir Robert Hamilton?”
“You know about . . .” Renwick stopped himself before he blurted out information about Rathburn’s letter.
Renwick felt his face get warm. He was stunned that Flint knew about the possible arrest of Sir Robert Hamilton. Sir Robert had confessed it to Renwick last week, but he was under the impression that Sir Robert planned on telling no one, especially since he had received the information in a letter from Rathburn, a supposed smuggler turned jailor at the Royalist Midlothian prison in Edinburgh. Rathburn—his only name other than a string of aliases—was now a Covenanter agent gathering information for the United Societies at this important prison, where the coming and going of both Royalists officers and Covenanter prisoners provided a wealth of intelligence about the conflict. Renwick had known about Rathburn for months, but he had no idea how Flint had come to know such sensitive information.
Renwick paused, collected his thoughts, and determined to be very careful about what he said. Sir Robert obviously had conveyed the bad news to Reverend Brackel, but Renwick did not want to say any more about the subject. Flint’s outbursts of jealousy and anger worried Renwick at times, casting doubt as to Flint’s trustworthiness.
“Regretfully, your information about Sir Robert is correct,” proclaimed Renwick, with a slow, deep sigh. “At this point, he is a man without a country, and it is not safe for him to return to Scotland.”
Renwick and Flint paused and stared at one another as they were reminded of the seriousness of their own situations.
“The fate of the arrest warrant could easily await many of us, John,” Renwick soberly declared, “That is, unless you’re ready to join Charles II’s church, my friend.”
Flint only stared back, motionless, expressionless, and then added, slowly, with great conviction, “No, I’ll not join a church ruled by that usurper’s bishops, where they extort tithes to fill the tyrant’s coffers.” And then quietly, almost to himself, “And as for the arrest warrant you speak of, it’s one thing to try to serve it on me; it’s quiet another to take me into custody.”
Renwick hesitated at this point, uncertain whether or not he wanted to discuss again with Flint a subject about which he knew they disagreed—the use of armed force against the king’s soldiers.
Renwick listened to the irritating rumble, jingle, and jolt of the coach, and the monotony of the flat Dutch countryside blurring by the window got the better of him. For whatever reason, he decided to hazard an attempt at convincing Flint that they should avoid military force in this religious conflict.
“My friend, John,” Renwick began slowly, cautiously, “how can we expect to convince the world that our movement is motivated by piety and devotion to God if we take to arms, as if this were just another fight for political independence and power? Would Christ and the disciples have taken such arms against Rome? No.”
By the time Renwick had finished his rhetorical questions, Flint’s breathing had quickened and his anger was becoming more visible. Renwick feared that Flint might lose control, so he remained quiet.
Nothing was said for several moments, and then suddenly Flint erupted with a near viciousness, “If there was ever a just war, this is one! You know what Charles Stuart and his demonic dragoons did to our people after our defeat at the Battle of Bothwell Brig, just four years ago, where my own precious father spilled his blood for our cause!”
Flint paused to catch his breath, now coming in deep draughts, then continued, “They paraded the prisoners to the city gate of Edinburgh as if they were human refuse. Many were tied on their horses with their faces to the animal’s tail. Others were forced to march chained to long, heavy iron bars.
“But, of course, the most inventive displays,” Flint continued with sarcasm and a contorted expression, “was when the heads of some of our fallen soldiers were borne in triumph before their captors—some on pikes and some in sacks bearing the names of the slaughtered on the outside, with the hands of the dismembered saints tied on sticks in the mocking form of praying hands! You, Renwick, would have us hesitate to take the lives of such vermin? I think not. And do not, my friend, ever raise the issue in my presence again,” Flint proclaimed, gesturing away from his chest with a clinched fist.
Simultaneously, Renwick felt his own passions rise, both at the reminder of this grim history and at Flint’s belligerent tone and gestures.
Nothing was said for several minutes, and then Flint scooted over near his window and stared out at the flat Dutch countryside, each young man instinctively knowing that the other was ready for a period of quiet.
This was fine with Renwick, for once he had regained his composure, he nestled into his corner of the coach, crossed his arms on his chest, and eventually drifted into an uneasy sleep.