James Sharp was born at Banff Castle on 4 May 1613 to William and Isabel Lesley Sharp, His father was the factor (property manager) of the Earl of Findlater. He graduated from King's College in Aberdeen with a M.A. in 1637. T.F. Henderson mentions that he may have been expelled from the college in 1638 for refusing to take the covenant oath. He then went to Oxford but returned due to illness, and became a professor of philosophy at St. Leonard's College at the University of St. Andrews. Sharp resigned his professorship to accept an appointment to a parish in Crail, where some parishioners considered him a Presbyterian minister holding Episcopalian principles.
Many Scottish churchmen had become Covenanters, a group of Presbyterians who bound themselves by oath to protect and defend their reformed church from the introduction of bishops and other Episcopalian features. This group had split into two factions, the Resolutioners and the "Protesters", who differed over how much power should be given to the King in the ordering of church affairs. Sharp was regarded as one of the leaders of the kirk, and following the execution of Charles I, Sharp, a skilled negotiator, became prominent as a leader of the moderate wing of the Church of Scotland, the Resolutioners, who supported the proposal that those who had left the covenanting cause should, on professing repentance, be admitted to serve in defence of the country against Oliver Cromwell.
In 1651 Sharp was captured by Parliamentarian forces and imprisoned in the Tower of London until June 1652 when he was permitted to return to Scotland. In 1657 he was sent to London to represent the interests of the Resolutioners. In 1659, Sharp was approached by George Monck who was planning the restoration of the monarchy, which Sharp conditionally supported. After meeting with Monck at Coldstream, Sharp returned to Edinburgh to consult with the leaders of the kirk. In January 1660 he was again sent to London with five other ministers of Edinburgh to represent the views of the Resolutioners. In May, Monck sent him to Breda to brief Charles II regarding both church and state in Scotland.
In August 1660, a few months after the restoration of Charles II Sharp returned to St Andrews and was appointed Royal Chaplain, and took up a post as professor of divinity at the University of St. Andrews. His loyalties shifted from Presbyterianism to Anglicanism. In December 1661, he was appointed Archbishop of St Andrews and primate of Scotland. In the face of Presbyterian resistance, he embarked on a strategy of repressing the principles of the Covenanters he had formerly represented, enforcing policies such as the Act of Supremacy (1669) which gave the King complete authority over the Church.
In Covenanter literature he is portrayed as the arch-enemy. After the Battle of Rullion Green in November 1666 he is reported as having condemned to death eleven prisoners who had surrendered on a promise of mercy, telling them "You were pardoned as soldiers, but you are not acquitted as subjects". He was clearly unpopular. When the celebrated covenanter John Blackadder preached to a large crowd at Kinkell, near St. Andrews, Archbishop Sharp asked the provost to call out the militia to disperse the crowd. The provost said he could not do so, since the militia had joined the worshipers.
In 1668 James Mitchell, a veteran of Rullion Green, failed in his attempt to assassinate the archbishop as his coach passed through Blackfriars' Wynd in Edinburgh. When he was finally caught five years later, he confessed and, after imprisonment on the Bass Rock, was eventually executed in 1678. Mitchell became a Presbyterian folk hero and Sharp became even less popular. In 1679 the archbishop was assassinated on Magus Muir, outside St Andrews, by a band of Covenanters who had in fact been waiting to kill the Sheriff of Cupar when news came to them that Sharp's coach was on the road. After intercepting the coach and shooting the postillion, the nine assassins inflicted multiple fatal sword wounds on Sharp in full view of his daughter.
One of the group, James Russell, gave an account of the encounter in which he related that he had said to Sharp that he "...declared before the Lord that that it was no particular interest, nor yet for any wrong that he had done to him, but because he had betrayed the church as Judas, and had wrung his hands, these 18 or 19 years in the blood of the saints, but especially at Pentland..."
In popular Scottish history Sharp is pictured as a turncoat in league with the Devil.
Sharp was given an elaborate funeral and buried beneath an imposing black and white marble monument in the Holy Trinity Church at St Andrews. However, when the tomb was opened in 1849 it was found to be empty. It has been alleged that the body was removed when the tomb was raided in 1725. It has never been found.
Five Covenanters captured at Bothwell Bridge (Thomas Brown of Edinburgh, James Wood of Newmilns, Andrew Sword of Galloway, John Weddell of New Monklands and John Clyde of Kilbride) were hanged on 25 December 1679 for refusing to divulge information to help identify the perpetrators. Although not directly involved in the murder, they were taken to Magus Muir where they were executed and their bodies hung in chains until the flight of James VII in 1688. A gravestone was erected over their burial place in 1728 and enclosed by a surrounding wall in 1877; the same year that a memorial to Sharp was built. Both are situated about half a mile south of the spot where the murder occurred.A true representation of the rise, progresse and state of the present divisions of the Church of Scotland, (1657)