Alexander Shields – Embroiderers’ Hall, London – SFH004

Alexander Shields – Embroiderers’ Hall, London – SFH004

What does the building of a multi-national asset management company near St Paul’s Cathedral in the financial district of London have to do with Scotland’s Forgotten History?   Matthew Vogan explains more in this week’s episode of the SFH podcast.

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Welcome to Scotland’s Forgotten History. On this episode we are in the very heart of the old City of London not far from St Paul’s Cathedral. It’s the historic and modern financial centre. In fact I’m standing outside the building of a multinational asset management company. What does all this have to do with Scotland’s Forgotten History? A lot more than you would realize. Our first clue is a plaque here which records that it was once the site of the Embroiderers Hall. This “small but very handsome building” (as it was described) was rebuilt after the Great Fire of London in 1666 but destroyed during the Blitz in 1940. It wasn’t just the broiderers that used it, a secret congregation (many of whom were probably Scots) met here during the 1680s.


In 1684 one young Scot, Alexander Shields became the regular preacher to this congregation. He also served as a scribe to the famous Puritan theologian John Owen. Shields was wanted by the government in Scotland as a rebel, presumably for attending illegal worship services. 


In January 1685 Shields was on his way to preach here as usual at the hall in Gutter Lane. As he walked along he says he received ‘a strong impression, with irresistible violence suggested to me which I endeavoured to check and divert as an idle vain thought, that I should be a prisoner that day’.


Shields was preaching on the stairs so as to be heard by the congregation who were in the two rooms on either side. The text for his sermon was Genesis 49:21, ‘Naphtali is a hind let loose: he giveth goodly words’. His subject was ‘the excellency of the blessing of liberty, the extent of Christian liberty, the preferableness of spiritual liberty beyond temporal freedom’. Nothing could have been more appropriate, but Shields reflected later that it was ‘a subject that I was very unfit to speak on, and therefore the Lord saw it good to interrupt me and send me to school to learn it better since’. He was to be brought by experience to value greatly ‘the excellency of that more lovely liberty of the spirit’.


The congregation had two men on watch for soldiers, and an alarm was given, but the city marshal gained access quietly. He interrupted the meeting with a drawn sword and commanded them to surrender in the king’s name. Shields replied, ‘What king do you mean? By whose authority do you disturb the peaceable ordinances of Jesus Christ? – Sir, you dishonour your king in making him an enemy to the worship of God’. The marshal dismissed this objection saying that he had ‘other business to do than to stand up pratting with him’. The congregation made their escape but Shields was arrested in the attempt together with a few others. They were brought before the Lord Mayor with whom Shields had a vigorous exchange of words. The charge against Shields was that of being assembled to disturb the peace of the kingdom under pretext of the exercise of religion, after another manner than according to the liturgy of the Church of England.


Shields defended himself ably against the invective of his prosecutors during his examination. He was detained in the horrible conditions of Newgate prison for some weeks; and eventually the decision was made, following the death of Charles II, to send Shields and the other prisoners to Scotland. When he was being led away towards the river Thames with his fellow- prisoners, a woman accompanying them addressed the watching crowd: ‘This is for being at a Protestant meeting; take heed to yourselves, good people. Ye see what times we live in.’


Well out of that sermon, the arrest and imprisonment grew a vital and important book. It was written in prison and it is called A Hind Let Loose referring to the words of the sermon preached. It is a stalwart defence of true civil and religious liberty from Scripture. As Shields puts it, he is speaking about a hind let loose from the yoke of Tyrannical slaverie. And as we’ve seen before, it directly influenced the Glorious Revolution which sought in large measure to overturn the tyranny of the Stuarts.


We don’t have a recorded of the sermon preached here. We can how conclude with an attractive echo from the preface to the treatise. “such hinds, so let loose, they make it their work, to give goodly words, for the worth and honour and Royalties of their Princely Master, and for the precious Liberties wherewith he hath endowed and entrusted his Spouse and Children, and to keep the goodly words of his patience”. We need more than ever for such hinds to be let loose.

Alexander Shields – Tolbooth, Edinburgh – SFH001

Alexander Shields – Tolbooth, Edinburgh – SFH001

What do a jail break, a heart, a history book and a revolution have in common? Take five minutes to find out more about the significance of the role of Alexander Shields towards the end of Scotland’s Forgotten History. 

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Podcasts are usually studio-based discussions or broadcasts but, in this series, we want to go on location in the way that we did with our free online video series also called Scotland’s Forgotten History. If you haven’t seen the videos, head on over to and enjoy.

Well today, I’m in Parliament Square, Edinburgh outside St Giles on the Royal Mile. If you’re looking carefully at the pavement just next to the high street you can see a motif amongst the cobbles. It’s in the shape of a heart. In fact it’s called the heart of Midlothian. This marks the spot of a building called the Tolbooth. This was a prison whose inside walls enclosed many of those connected with Scotland’s Forgotten History.

In 1686, the preacher Alexander Shields languished here after spending time on the Bass Rock. After 14 months in the Tolbooth an escape plan was effected. In October 1686 Shields walked out of its doors disguised in women’s clothes. The government were enraged and they described Shields as ‘a person of most dangerous principles, a trumpet of sedition and rebellion’, and ‘a rebellious field preacher debauched unto ill principles and practices.’

After months of field preaching, Shields secretly traveled to Holland. The purpose was to publish a book that he had (in part) been able to write during his captivity. The book is called ‘A Hind Let Loose’. The subtitle shows that it is in part a history book. It is ‘A Historical Representation of the Testimonies of the Church of Scotland, for Christ in all its Periods’. Shields covers 7 periods of history from the early Celtic Church through the Middle ages and Reformation to the period that we call Scotland’s Forgotten History. It is interesting because he writes at the end of the period and is able to survey the way in which events have developed. He wants to show that the principles for which they were now suffering were only a development of the same principles that had been at stake in former ages. Things that “are now condemned, as new… notions, have been transmitted from age to age, from the beginning even to this present time, through all the Periods of this Church”.

Shields was saying that Scotland had forgotten its history and the reasons why the Church had suffered and faced conflict in the past. By forgetting these principles it forfeited the practical lessons to be learned from the history. On several occasions Shields refers to the sufferings or sufferers of this time as “never to be forgotten”. And yet we have largely forgotten the principles for which they suffered. In many cases we have also forgotten the sufferings and sufferers.

It is a powerful book by any account. So powerful that the copies imported into Scotland were destroyed by the government. But William of Orange was to see a copy in Holland and it influenced him to want to put an end to the persecution within the space of 12 months. For now I’ll leave you with a quote from Shields that challenges us to make use of what we learn from the history we have considered.

“We are much obliged to our worthy ancestors: and shall none be the better of us? If we have no precedent or example, let us be good ones to them who come after us”.