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"National Covenant" redirects here. For the 1950 petition calling for Scottish home rule, see Scottish Covenant.
An illegal "conventicle"
Digital reproduction of an unidentified blue and white Scots flag, captured at Dunbar 1650 (BM Harl. 1460/5), which probably belonged to Campbell of Lawer's Regiment.

The Covenanters formed an important movement in the religion and politics of Scotland in the 17th century. In religion the movement is most associated with the promotion and development of Presbyterianism as a form of church government favoured by the people, as opposed to Episcopacy, favoured by the Crown. In politics the movement saw important developments in the character and operation of the Scottish Parliament, which began a steady shift away from its medieval origins. The movement as a whole was essentially conservative in tone, but it began a revolution that engulfed Scotland, England and Ireland, the Wars of the Three Kingdoms.

The name derives from biblical bonds or covenants. The National Covenant of 1638 takes as its point of departure earlier documents of the same kind and is chiefly concerned with preserving the Reformation settlement free from crown innovations. Its sister document, the 1643 Solemn League and Covenant, is also concerned with religion, but its chief importance is as a treaty of alliance between the Covenanters in Scotland and the Parliament of England, anxious for help in the increasingly bitter civil war with Charles I.


Congregations and kings

James VI of Scotland (James I of England) was opposed by the Covenanters in his attempt to enforce Episcopalianism on Scotland.

The Covenanters are so named because in a series of bands or covenants they bound themselves to maintain the Protestant Reformation in Scotland. In December 1557, with the Reformers locked in a struggle with the Scottish government headed at the time by Mary of Guise, the Catholic Queen-Regent, a number of lords entered into a formal pact or Covenant pledging that the 'Congregation of Christ' would unite to defend itself against the 'Congregation of Satan'. As a form of combination this was a seminal development, but one which nevertheless took as its point of departure the kind of pacts for mutual defence contained in older bonds of manrent.

Still later, in 1581, James VI, in an attempt to disarm criticisms of the growth of Catholic influence at his court, signed what was to become known as the 'King's Covenant' or the 'Negative Confession'. Based on the Confession of Faith of 1560, it denounced the Pope and the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church in no measured terms. The importance of this document, which had a limited impact at the time, lay in the future, for it was to be incorporated wholesale in the first truly national Covenant of 1638.

Bishops and kings

Andrew Melville led the 'church party' against King James.

The Scottish Reformation in 1560 had raised as many problems as it had settled. The authority of the Pope might have gone, but the exact status and structure of the new church remained uncertain for a considerable time. By the 1580s, two distinct parties had emerged, one favouring Presbyterianism, and the other Episcopacy. Broadly speaking, this can be divided into what, for want of a better term, might be described as the 'church party', headed by Andrew Melville, and the 'court party', headed by the king himself. For Melville, bishops had no authority in scripture, whereas for James, they were essential agents of royal power. Before the Union of the Crowns in 1603, there were occasions when one side prevailed, only to give way to the other, in what gives all the appearance of a political tug-of-war; but in the end, James gained ground as Melville and his allies lost. In the early years of the seventeenth century, he had introduced bishops at both the parliamentary, and then the diocesan level. His triumph was complete, when Melville was banished from Scotland for life.

It should be stressed that this contest had little if anything to do with particular forms of worship in the Scottish Church which remained Calvinist, whether in a Presbyterian or an Episcopalian guise, and different in every way from the High Church Anglicanism increasingly favoured in the post-Elizabethan Church in England. It was when the King tried to move the Scots in this more dangerous direction that the problems started.

James may have succeeded in creating a unified British Crown; his ambition to create a unified British state was defeated at an early stage by the intransigence of both national parliaments. If there was to be no British state, there might at least be a British church, for it was here, in the area of religion, that the royal prerogative was less circumscribed. How was such a model to be defined? For James, the answer was immediate and obvious. In England, the Reformation had been a partial, state directed process, which had allowed the continuation of many older Catholic practices. Above all, the English church was a mirror to the majesty of the crown. English bishops could at times be awkward customers, but nowhere near as awkward as Melville and his associates, whose preaching was on occasions not just impolitic but subversive. Their vestments and ceremonies were much more seemly in every way than the plain Scottish habit. As if on some kind of missionary work, James returned to Scotland for a brief visit in 1617 (the only one he ever made after the Union of the Crowns) and brought with him William Laud, then Dean of Gloucester, to demonstrate to the Scots just how splendid the spectacle of religion could be. He also came north with a related but supplementary task: to introduce a number of innovations, which went beyond the bare issues of church government, with which the crown had hitherto concerned itself.


Even against the wishes of John Spottiswoode, Archbishop of St. Andrews, who argued that the time for innovation was not ripe, James urged on a reluctant northern church five new ceremonies: private baptism, private communion for the sick, kneeling at communion, observance at the principal holy days and confirmation of children. A General Assembly of the Church held at St. Andrews greeted these innovations with so little enthusiasm that the king pointedly urged the ministers to think again, summoning a new Assembly to Perth in 1618. This time he got what he wanted but with no good grace. The so-called Five Articles of Perth were ratified by Parliament in 1621 but only after much arm-twisting. It would not yet be true to say that the monarchy was in a minority of one, but for the first time in many years it was dangerously close to this position.

James had one saving feature: frequently drunk on theory he was always sobered by practice. When the depth of opposition to the Five Articles (especially kneeling at communion) became known, while refusing to backtrack, he made no attempt to ensure that they were uniformly enforced. Established practice, in other words, became a matter of personal choice. From whatever point of view the situation was far from satisfactory, and when James died in March 1625 the pen no longer governed Scotland with its accustomed ease.

James had neither created a unified church nor a unified state; he had simply united disparate political processes in England and Scotland with the added complication of colonial Ireland. More seriously, there was now an undercurrent of opposition to royal policy in both England and Scotland: the English Puritans, silenced within an increasingly Arminian church, but still significant and the Scottish Presbyterian dissidents, arguably given a new lease by the king himself in the foolish introduction of the Five Articles into a church that gave all the signs of accepting Episcopalian government as a permanent state of affairs. James bequeathed to his successor political and religious problems that would have challenged Solomon. Instead of Solomon, Britain got Charles I.


Apart from a few Scots courtiers in London, most of the leading men of the realm had never seen Charles I prior to his coronation in Edinburgh in 1633, eight years after he came to the throne. The suspicions and fears he had aroused by his earlier Act of Revocation, which threatened to rob the nobles of all the church land they had gained since the Reformation, were deepened by the time he had left. He came to Scotland, like his father in 1617, accompanied by William Laud, now Bishop of London and soon to be Archbishop of Canterbury. Services were carried out at both Holyrood and St. Giles' according to the Anglican rite which was in the process of being refined, beautified and improved by Laud and his fellow Arminians. The king clearly intended to set an example; for many it was a simple act of provocation. For Charles the Scottish church offered a poor contrast to its English cousin. He completely failed to understand it was at least a national church, the one means of self-expression left to a country in danger of being submerged by the Anglo-centric policies that had emerged out of the Union of the Crowns. Having threatened the property rights of the landed classes and cast doubts on the teaching of the Scottish church, Charles proceeded to undermine what was left of the political power of the aristocracy; bit by bit they were replaced as the chief power in the land by the bishops.

James Graham, 5th Earl of Montrose, and other Covenanter leaders were excluded from the Scottish Privy Council.

From the mid-1630s Charles was filling vacancies in the Scottish Privy Council, the executive authority in the north, from the panel of bishops. In 1635 John Spottiswoode was appointed Chancellor, the highest political office in the land and the first time a cleric had held the position since well before the Reformation. Many who would have expected a position on the Council were left outside in impotent frustration including James Graham, 5th Earl of Montrose whose father had been a member for over twenty years. Charles, in effect, had created a Privy Council that no longer reflected the balance of power in the land, and one, moreover, that was deeply divided between secular and clerical interests. John Stewart (Earl of Traquair), the Lord Treasurer, was far from pleased with the growing power of the bishops, seeing them as a threat to his own authority. Others, most notably Archibald Campbell, Lord Lorne, acting head of one of the most powerful of the Scottish clans, neither liked nor trusted their clerical colleagues. Things were fine for as long as the Council only had to deal with matters of routine administration; the real problem would come when it was forced to deal with some extraordinary crisis.

James had taken Scotland only part of the way towards a unified British church; Charles decided it was time to push the matter further. With a self-assurance born of a unique kind of arrogance and political blindness, he made no preparation for this fatal step other than to insist that it should be so. In the worst possible circumstances, having alienated virtually all shades of opinion beyond the Episcopal party and not even troubling to consult his own Privy Council, in 1635 he issued a royal warrant authorising a new set of clerical rules—the Book of Canons—to be published the following year. These new rules began by emphasising royal supremacy over the Church of Scotland and, in one of the most remarkable assertions of this supremacy, required the Church to accept a new Liturgy or Service Book sight unseen to replace the Book of Common Order, in use since the Reformation.

Laud's Liturgy

This Service Book was to be known by contemporaries and for centuries afterwards as 'Laud's Liturgy'. In a sense this would seem to be psychologically appropriate, for the simple reason that it expressed a deep sense of national frustration at royal and Anglican arrogance. In reality it was the work of a panel of Scottish bishops, anxious not to offend the sensibilities of the nation in the way that the straightforward use of the English Prayer Book — Laud's own favoured solution — would have done. Spottiswoode and at least some of his colleagues were far more sensitive to Scottish opinion than is often supposed. Even so, the circumstances under which the Service Book was conceived and born could not have been worse, leading to all sorts of exaggerated rumours about its contents. In a mood of fearful expectation the Privy Council managed to delay the first reading of the Book to the summer of 1637 but, on the insistence of the king, finally decreed that it would be read on Sunday 23 July, arguably one of the most fateful days in British history.

On the Sunday in question St. Giles' Cathedral was packed. Among the congregation were many serving women, seated on three-legged stools, keeping places for their mistresses. To show support for the Prayer Book the members of the Privy Council were also present, with some ominous exceptions: Traquair said he had a prior engagement, and Lord Lorne pleaded sickness. When Dean John Hanna appeared carrying a brown leather book the murmuring began. As soon as he started to read, many people, led by the serving women, raised their voices in protest. A stool was allegedly hurled at the unfortunate Hanna by one Jenny Geddes. When David Lindsay, recently appointed Bishop of Edinburgh, tried to quieten the unseemly tumult, he was greeted with a variety of epithets, including one accusation that he was the son of the Devil and a witch.

Like a great wave caused by a rock thrown into a silent pool, the commotion radiated out from Edinburgh across the rest of Scotland. Montrose made the feelings of many of his fellow peers plain when he described the Service Book 'emerging from the bowels of the whore of Babylon'. Robert Baillie, the minister of Kilwinning in Ayrshire, expressed the mood of the nation in more measured terms: '...there was in our land never such ane appearance of a sturr; the whole people thinks Poperie at the man may speak for the king's part, except he would have himself marked for a sacrifice to be killed one day. I think our people possessed with a bloody devill, farr above any thing I could ever have imagined.'

It was perfectly clear that the Privy Council was well aware of the resentment that the reading of the Prayer Book would unleash. In the weeks that followed they were placed in an almost impossible position, caught between the anger of the king and the determination of the opposition, for they were now faced with an opposition just as organised as the Lords of the Congregation had been prior to the Reformation.

Nobleman's Covenant

Petitions hostile to the king's church policy began to arrive in Edinburgh from all parts of Scotland. Many shared a common theme: the innovations in religion had not been approved by either Parliament or the General Assembly. Faced with this depth of opposition the Council, on its own initiative, suspended the reading of the Liturgy and made sustained efforts to open the king's mind to the scale of the crisis. True to character, he refused to listen. By degrees the political temperature increased. It is almost certain that the crisis could have been headed off anytime before the late summer of 1637 by the summoning of an emergency General Assembly, the withdrawal of the Prayer Book, and the cobbling together of some convenient formulae intended to preserve the royal dignity. Charles, however, was not prepared to give way on any of the issues, choosing to make a stand on his own authority and majesty. This was no longer good enough. Before long it was the role of the bishops and the government of the king that were in dispute, not simply the Prayer Book. Charles turned a protest into a rebellion and then a rebellion into a revolution.

An alternative authority was already taking shape. That December the various classes of protestors—nobles, ministers, lairds and burgesses—came together to form an executive council to be known as 'The Tables'. Before long the Tables had authority in the land greater than the Privy Council itself.

The hapless and beleaguered Traquair finally received permission to report directly to the king in the new year. He told Charles with commendable frankness that he must either abandon the liturgy or come to Scotland with an army of 40,000 men — instead of an army the king gave him another proclamation. Still believing after all the turmoil of the previous year that a simple assertion of the royal will was enough to dispel the opposition, Charles took the most fateful step of all. He decided to set matters straight; it was he and not Laud or any other bishop who was responsible for the Service Book. There could be no more pretence about 'evil councillors'. Charles was offering a direct challenge to the Tables, fully expecting them to stand down. Sadly for him they did not.

When the new proclamation was read in Edinburgh on 22 February it was greeted with derision, not reverence. In responding to yet another example of royal blindness, the Tables took one of the most important steps in Scottish history. Answer was to be given to the king in the form of an extended address to be known as the National Covenant. Based on the Negative Confession of 1581, it was also widely known at the time as the 'Nobleman's Covenant', providing some insight into the driving force behind the whole movement.

The task of compiling the document was delegated to Alexander Henderson, the minister of Leuchars in Fife, and a young lawyer by the name of Archibald Johnston of Warriston. Both men went about the task with considerable care. It could not be seen as too radical as there were still many ministers, for example, who were not convinced that Episcopacy was contrary to divine law. At its heart lay one simple yet profoundly revolutionary principle, perhaps not sufficiently recognised at the time: there should be no innovations in church and state that had not first been tested by free Parliaments and General Assemblies. On 28 February the process of signing the new Covenant began at Greyfriars Kirk; it was the death warrant of the Divine Right of Kings. Charles's enemies now acquired a new name: the Covenanters.

In the course of the year that followed, a situation already bad for the king got steadily worse. Following the advice of James, Marquess of Hamilton, he allowed the General Assembly to meet at Glasgow in November, the first since that held at Perth twenty years before. It's not absolutely certain what Hamilton, a man of limited political ability, hoped to achieve by this move, but the outcome was contrary to all expectations. Not only were the bishops—hunted figures rarely appearing in public now—prevented from attending, but the whole affair was so stage-managed that it was packed out with as many elders (many of them armed) as ministers. Hamilton, having lost all control, departed. The Assembly, now technically illegal, continued to meet until 20 December. Its proceedings showed how much more radical feeling had become since the Covenant was first signed in February. All that James and Charles had worked for over the past forty years—the Liturgy, the Canons, the Five Articles of Perth and the Court of High Commission—was swept away. Even more significant, Episcopacy itself was abolished and the bishops condemned and excommunicated one by one. Presbyterianism was declared to be the one true government of the Church of Scotland. This, it must be stressed, was a political as well as an ecclesiastical revolution, for the bishops stood condemned not just as church officials but also as officers of the crown. The historian Leopold von Ranke was later to compare the defiance of the Glasgow Assembly to that moment, a century and a half later, when the French National Assembly resisted the commands of Louis XVI.

Bellum Episcopale


Bellum Episcopale is called "the Bishops' War" in English. After the failure of the Hamilton mission emphasised by the fiasco of the Glasgow Assembly, it was clear that the issues between the king and the Scots could not be solved by any diplomatic process. For Charles war entailed a major risk: he simply did not have the resources to mount a serious military operation. Fresh funds would mean summoning Parliament. However, the king had now ruled England for eleven years in its absence, and the last occasion on which it was summoned was far from satisfactory. The Scots, moreover, were especially adept in keeping one step ahead of the king in the propaganda stakes, determined that any military contest with England should not be seen in the context of ancient national rivalries. Even the very title of the coming conflict was a measure of their success. By the summer of 1639 it was being referred to as the Bellum Episcopale: the Bishops' War. While there may very well have been Englishmen prepared to heed distant trumpets, there were precious few prepared to die for Scottish bishops.

In the First Bishops' War of 1639, the two sides give all the appearance of posturing like barnyard cocks. It concluded with the Pacification of Berwick, a settlement with no settlement, that was little better than a breathing space. The Covenanters agreed to withdraw the decisions of the 'illegal' Glasgow Assembly, but Charles agreed that another should meet in Edinburgh along with a new Parliament. It was obvious to both sides that Edinburgh would simply confirm all the decisions taken at Glasgow.

Charles, however, did have one small success while at Berwick: he won over Montrose, hitherto a leading Covenanter. This was not entirely due to the royal charm. At the time of the Glasgow Assembly Lord Lorne, now the eighth Earl of Argyll, abandoned his place on the royal council and joined the Covenanter rebels. As the leading Scot of his generation he quickly acquired a commanding role, thus displacing men like Montrose. Personal rivalry, as well as political hostility, were to lead to the first serious fracture in the whole movement.

As expected, the Edinburgh Assembly confirmed all the decisions taken at Glasgow the previous winter. But it did even more, uncovering the real causes of the contest with the king. It was no longer a struggle over simple confessional differences or even a question of church government—it was over the nature of political power itself. Not only was Episcopacy abolished but churchmen were declared incapable of holding civil office. What was worse from the king's point of view the appointment of bishops was declared not just to be wrong in practice but contrary to the law of God. Charles had accepted Traquair's argument that Episcopacy might be set aside in Scotland as a temporary expedient. However, to declare it contrary to Scripture meant that its rejection could not be limited by space or time. If Episcopacy was universally unlawful how was it to be maintained in England and Ireland?

The Edinburgh Parliament proved no less radical. The Lords of the Articles, a body which controlled the agenda, was remodelled, giving a much greater say to the lesser gentry and the burgesses and removing direct royal input. As an institution, Parliament began to remodel itself, and in the course of the next few years was to cover ground that had taken centuries for its English cousin. All of the acts of the General Assembly were given the status of law. The Edinburgh Parliament had, in effect, confirmed a revolution; in Scotland, royal power as it was traditionally understood was dead. It was an impossible situation for Charles to accept, even if he were of a mind to do so. He could not rule as an absolute monarch in one corner of his kingdom and a constitutional monarch in another. For England the situation was particularly invidious because of its more advanced tradition of constitutional law. For Charles to summon a new Westminster Parliament at any time before the outbreak of the First Bishops' War would have been a risky enterprise; after the Edinburgh Assembly and Parliament it was a step wrought with suicidal implications.

As Charles made ready for a renewal of the war in the summer of 1640, the Scots made a rapid and decisive movement. Under the command of Alexander Leslie, a professional soldier, an army crossed the border in August, sweeping aside local royal forces at the Battle of Newburn, going on to occupy the port of Newcastle and thus obtaining a stranglehold on London's coal supply. The Second Bishops' War had ended almost as soon as it had begun. Charles was forced to agree to a truce, one of the terms of which provided for the payment of daily expenses for the Scottish army which was to remain in northern England pending the conclusion of a final peace. Charles had no choice but to summon a fresh English Parliament which gathered in Westminster that November. This was to become the Long Parliament of the Civil War which was not to disperse finally until 1653, having gathered the king's head along the way. The crisis that had originated in Scotland helped to spark the Wars of the Three Kingdoms from 1641-1653 which included the English Civil War, the Irish Confederate Wars and a like civil war in Scotland.

Leagues and covenants

In the weeks and months that followed to conclusion of the Second Bishops' War and the summoning of the Long Parliament the Scots watched as England slipped ever deeper into political quicksand. What Charles gained with one hand he inevitably lost with the other. It is sometimes argued that the Covenanters wished to recast the whole of Britain in their own Presbyterian image. It is certainly true that they had been pressing for a full-scale reform in the English church since 1641, though this is not for the reasons usually given. The Scots were as aware as the king that a political and religious settlement in one part of the realm could not be maintained in perfect isolation from another. It was a question, above all, of security.

The first of the Stuart Kingdoms to collapse into civil war was Ireland, where, prompted in part by the anti-Catholic rhetoric of the Covenanters, Irish Catholics launched a rebellion in October. In reaction to Charles I's and Thomas Wentworth's proposal to raise an army manned by Irish Catholics to put down the Covenanter movement in Scotland, the Parliament of Scotland had threatened to invade Ireland in order to achieve "the extirpation of Popery out of Ireland" (according to the interpretation of Richard Bellings, a leading Irish politician). The fear this caused in Ireland unleashed a wave of massacres against English and Scottish Protestant settlers once the rebellion had broken out. In early 1642, the Covenanters sent an army to Ulster to protect the Scottish settlers there from the Irish Catholic rebels who had attacked them after the outbreak of the rebellion. The original intention of the Scottish army was to re-conquer Ireland, but due to logistical and supply problems, it was never in a position to advance far beyond its base in eastern Ulster. The Covenanter force remained in Ireland until the end of the civil wars but was confined to its garrison around Carrickfergus after its defeat by the Irish Catholic Ulster Army at the Battle of Benburb in 1646.

With the outbreak of the English Civil War in 1642, the Scots initially maintained a position of neutrality, but they were much more fearful of the prospects of a victory for the king than a victory for Parliament. When Charles looked close to winning in 1643 the point for intervention had come. By the late summer of that year, the Covenanters in Edinburgh were just as anxious as the Puritans in Westminster for a purely military alliance. However, Parliament believed that its request for aid would have to be sweetened by the promised reform of the Church of England. In furtherance of this the Scots were to be invited to send representatives to an Assembly of Divines to meet at Westminster. This was destined to become the basis of a great misunderstanding. By bringing the question of religious reform together with that of a military alliance, Parliament conjured up a spectre that was to lead to disaster.

The Parliamentary delegation headed by Sir Harry Vane came to Edinburgh on 7 August, making contact with the government and the General Assembly meeting in St. Giles' Cathedral. Vane informed the gathering that Parliament had abolished Episcopacy and invited them to send delegates to the Westminster Assembly, which had been called to help in the reconstruction of the Church of England.

In their mutual urgency to do business, both sides entered into an alliance to be known as the Solemn League and Covenant. Vane, having awakened the possibility of religious uniformity between Scotland and England, made sure that the document, drawn up like that of 1638 by Alexander Henderson, made no definite commitment to a Presbyterian system. The final form of church government in England was left deliberately vague by the insertion, on Vane's insistence, that it would be "according to the word of God and the example of the best reformed churches." England wanted a military alliance; the Scots had been led to believe that they could also have a religious covenant. Here were the seeds of tragedy.

The Scots now believed they were to enter England to impose a religious settlement in their own image, essentially what King Charles had attempted to do so disastrously in 1639 and 1640. But there was no party in England willing to support a Presbyterian settlement, at least in the sense that the Scots understood it. Even so, throughout the remainder of the Civil war up to the invasion of England in 1651, the Scots tried to win one side and then the other over to its aims, becoming ever more divided in the process.

Rebels and causes

An early uprising occurred in the Grampian region of Scotland in the year 1639 when William Keith, 7th Earl Marischal and Montrose led a Covenanter army of 9000 men through the Portlethen Moss over an ancient roadway known as the Causey Mounth.[1][2] to attack Royalists at the Bridge of Dee. This route was by way of Cowie Castle and Muchalls Castle, the latter location becoming an important marshalling point in the later conflict with the Bishops of Aberdeen.

Scots intervention in the war tipped the balance in favour of Parliament, but no sooner had one danger receded than another appeared. The Scots had fought side by side with Oliver Cromwell at the Battle of Marston Moor in July 1644 and made a vital contribution to the victory. Yet Cromwell and his allies were quick to claim a great part of the credit for themselves. This may have been wounding; infinitely worse was the English general's close association with groups of religious radicals, known collectively as the Independents, who held bishops and presbyters in equal contempt. In time, fears about the Independents and the other radical political and religious sects in England were to be of far greater concern than the bishops ever had been.

Troubles, as always, come not as single spies but in battalions. The split between Argyll and Montrose had grown wider over the years. Although maintaining an outward commitment to the National Covenant of 1638, Montrose placed himself at the head of a pro-Royalist rebellion and was shortly afterwards joined by an expeditionary force sent by the Irish Confederate Catholics composed of Catholic Irish troops and Highland clansmen led by Alasdair MacColla. The Royalists had some support, especially among the clans of the western Scottish Highlands and the towns of the north east, but most of the Lowlands remained hostile to them. Montrose's Royalists had their first victory at the battle of Tippermuir in September 1644, not long after the Battle of Marston Moor, thus beginning the a civil war in Scotland. The Covenanters made the strategic error of maintaining the presence of most of their professional soldiers in England, sending army after army of half-trained levies after Montrose with predictable results. After a year of continuous victory, Montrose marched into the Lowlands in August 1645, winning the Battle of Kilsyth and temporary control of Scotland. However, the Royalist forces broke due to internal disagreements between Montrose and MacColla. It was only after General David Leslie returned with the cavalry from England that the illusion ended at Philiphaugh in September.

In England, the Civil War moved steadily in favour of Parliament, especially after the creation of the New Model Army. The Scots army, starved of the funds and support promised in the Solemn League and Covenant, became less and less relevant, making little direct contribution to the final victory over the king. The picture was to change dramatically in the spring of 1646 when Charles surrendered to the Scots laying siege to the royalist stronghold of Newark. The military victory may have been with the New Model Army; the political victory might still be with the Covenanters.

Charles was taken to the main Scots base at Newcastle where he was held for the best part of a year while repeated efforts were made to persuade him to take the Covenants. He remained obdurate. The Scots would have neither the military nor the political victory. With no other recourse the king was finally handed over to the commissioners of Parliament in January 1647 as the Scots made to leave Newcastle for the last time. They received part payment for the service of their army in England, creating the lasting confusion that Charles had been 'sold'. Nevertheless, they came to England as partners in a great crusade—they left as mercenaries.

Engagers and whiggamores

The year 1647 is notable for two things: the growth of political radicalism in England and political counter-radicalism in Scotland. The link between the two was the effective kidnapping of the king by Cornet George Joyce, acting on behalf of Cromwell and the leadership of the New Model Army. Charles was moved closer to London, while political leadership in Scotland moved from Argyll towards Hamilton. It was the beginning of a process that was to split the Covenanter movement right down the middle between the clerical radicals on the one hand and the political moderates on the other.

Hamilton had set himself an impossible task: to secure a deal with Charles that would be in accordance with the principles of the Covenants. What he managed to secure in the end was a military treaty with some religious overtones, much like the Solemn League and Covenant itself. On 26 December, while incarcerated in Carisbrooke Castle on the Isle of Wight, Charles signed a treaty to be known as the Engagement. He would not take the Covenant himself, but he would establish Presbyterianism in England on a three-year trial basis. He also agreed to suppress the Independents and the other sects. In return he was promised an army.

When the full text of the Engagement became known it led to a major division between church and state. Most of the nobility—beyond a small grouping around Argyll—sided with Hamilton, but most of the clergy refused to accept Charles's half-hearted and patently insincere nod towards Presbyterianism. This caused major problems when the Engagers began to recruit an army. Resistance was especially strong in the south west of Scotland, fast emerging as the heartland of the most uncompromising forms of Presbyterianism. Although a rising of militants in Lanarkshire and Ayrshire was defeated at the Battle of Mauchline Muir, the delays and disruption caused forced Hamilton to begin his march into England with an army well under the strength anticipated. In mid-August, the Engagers were cut to pieces by Cromwell at the Battle of Preston.

No sooner had the news of the defeat reached Scotland than the communities of the south west took to arms, advancing on Edinburgh in what gives all the appearance of a carefully co-ordinated plan. Whigg is a Scottish word for a kid's sour milk or whey, a significant part of the diet for the poor in the 1600s. When the Covenanters marched on Edinburgh it become known as the "March of the whiggamores", or "sour milk men". Whiggamore was later shortened to Whig.[3] The Whigs, in all their uncompromising purity, were set to become the essential prop for a new government, headed by Argyll and what was now being referred to as the Kirk Party.

Classes and kings

In early January 1649 the new Covenanter Parliament met in Edinburgh, basking in the glory of the Whiggamore Raid. An Act of Classes was passed, disqualifying the leading Engagers from holding public office. All acts of the previous Parliament were repealed, and it was declared that the rising at Mauchline Muir was 'not only lawful but a zealous and loyal testimony to the truth of the Covenant'. But the assembly was also deeply troubled by developments in London.

After the defeat of the Engagers and other royalist risings in the Second Civil War, the radicals decided to put the king on trial for his life. As a preliminary to this action, the English Presbyterians were purged from the House of Commons. The Committee of Estates, the executive authority of the Scottish Parliament, wrote to London in January urging that no action be taken against the king. Scots commissioners arrived in the English capital, and on three separate occasions denounced the proceedings against Charles. Nothing availed, even a last minute written appeal to Thomas Fairfax, the commander-in-chief of the New Model Army. One Charles left the stage and another entered.

When the news of the king's death reached Edinburgh, his son was immediately proclaimed as Charles II. But the Kirk Party would accept no half-hearted evasions like the Engagement—Charles would come to Scotland as a Covenanted King or he would not come at all. The terms also became harder, with none of the ambiguity of the Solemn League and Covenant. The English—and Irish—Church would be reformed by no other example but Scottish Presbyterianism.

For the young king, an exile in The Hague, these demands were both unreasonable and unlawful. On 29 May 1649 he told the Scottish commissioners in The Hague that he would accept the National Covenant, the Confession of Faith and Presbyterian government in Scotland, but that he would give no assurances about church government in England and Ireland until he consulted with the Parliaments of those countries. While reasonable enough in itself, it was less than his father had promised under the Engagement. Disappointed, the commissioners left for Scotland. Charles remained king, but in name only.

Montrose attempted to renew the war against the Covenanters on his behalf but was defeated in April 1650 at the Battle of Carbisdale. He was executed the following month. In the end, and with no other choice, Charles's entered into fresh negotiations with the Scots which concluded with the Treaty of Breda. He arrived in Scotland in June 1650 having been made to swallow the Covenants whole. If the king was cynical in taking an oath that was clearly contrary to his conscience, the Covenanters were equally cynical in forcing him to do so. Even Alexander Jaffray, a committed member of the Kirk Party, had the sense to recognise this when he noted in his diary:

We did both sinfully entangle and engage the nation ourselves and that poor, young Prince to whom we were sent, making him sign and swear a Covenant which we knew from clear and demonstrable reasons that he hated in his heart.

Scotland of the Covenant

Charles was housed in Falkland Palace with all regal state; he was, however, still king in name only. The pleasures of his Dutch exile, limited as they were, soon faded into memory as he was confronted with the Spartan realities of Covenanted Scotland. According to Clarendon, he was made to observe the Sabbath with more rigour than the Jews. Gilbert Burnet later described the young king's ordeal;

The king wrought himself into as grave a deportment as he could: he heard many prayers and sermons, some of a great length. I remember one fast day there were six sermons preached without intermission. I was there myself, and not a little weary of so tedious a service. The king was not allowed so much as to walk abroad on Sundays: and if at any time there had been any gaiety at court, such as dancing or playing at cards, he was severely reproved for it. This was managed with so much rigour and so little discretion that it contributed not a little to beget in him an aversion to all strictness in religion.

Charles was still only twenty-one years old, and there seems little doubt, as Burnet suggests, that what he learned at this time was not piety and nobility of spirit, but the cynicism and calculation with which he was later to measure all religious policy.

This period, just prior to Cromwell's invasion, is important in one other respect: the grandees like Argyll were steadily losing influence in Parliament to ever more radical voices, the loudest of which was Archibald Johnstone of Warriston, who might with justification be described as the Robespierre of the Scottish Revolution. Soon after Charles landed the English Commonwealth declared war on Scotland. The Covenanters now had to raise a new national army as quickly as possible. Amazingly, even in the midst of this crisis, there was opposition in Parliament to a levy of troops, because it was felt that many would favour the king, and that it would be impossible to ensure that, in a rapid trawl, all men would come up to the required moral standard. The Kirk was also suspicious that so-called 'malignants', more prepared to fight for King and Country than Covenant and King, would slip into the ranks. To push the draft through its supporters were obliged to agree that a new commission for purging of the army be appointed, to include Warriston.

Cromwell crossed the border in July, so this was a time of great anxiety. The newly raised Scottish soldiers, assembled at Leith, were gratified by a morale-boosting visit from Charles. This was too much for Warriston, who feared God, witnessing their enthusiasm, would be jealous. Charles was forced to return to Dunfermline while the commission got to work, virtually under the breath of Cromwell: in a space of three days no fewer than 80 officers and 3000 men were sent home, although Argyll and Leslie did their best to moderate some of the worst excesses of the purgers. On 3 September 1650 Leslie's Godly army was overwhelmed at the Battle of Dunbar. The English were now set to overrun all of southern Scotland, with the royalists entrenched from Stirling northwards.

Protests and resolutions

For Scotland the Battle of Dunbar was to mark the beginning of the end of a period of particularly bleak factionalism. The nation woke up with a hangover, but in a darkly sober mood, perhaps nowhere better expressed than in the diary of John Nicoll; "...befoir this airmy wes routitt, thair wes much business maid anent the purging of the Scottis airmy of malignantis be the space of many days...evin the nycht befoir the feght, our Scottis leaders wer in purging the Scottis airmy, as giff thair haid been no danger."

The mood of realism even made its way into the Kirk itself. With the south under English occupation fresh troops would have to be recruited from the Highlands and the north-east, areas marked for their royalist sympathies. It was absolutely necessary, therefore, that the Act of Classes be repealed. In December 1650, under pressure from the government, the Commission of the General Assembly passed a resolution against the act. The split of 1648 between the clerics and the state was now to be duplicated by a split within the Church itself. Warriston and the purists immediately lodged a written protest against this resolution. The ministers who accepted the resolution were in a clear majority; but the protestors formed an active and troublesome minority. The contest between Resolutioners and Protestors was to cast a long shadow into the future.

The Act of Classes was set aside and a new army raised. Charles was finally crowned at Scone on 1 January 1651, and began to exercise some real power. But the royalists had no better luck than before. Charles was defeated at the Battle of Worcester, escaping back into exile, while Scotland was conquered and subsequently incorporated into the Commonwealth. All prospect of a uniform British church, either Episcopal or Presbyterian, was gone; the monolith of 1638 was dead. With no Parliament to sanction the decisions of the General Assembly, the divisions in the Kirk between the Resolutioner majority and the Protestor minority grew ever more bitter. It was the protestors who kept alive the uncompromising spirit of 1638 and the Whiggamore Raid, refusing to accept the authority of the General Assemblies from 1651 onwards because they were dominated by the moderate majority. When in July 1653 the Protestors and Resolutioners held rival General Assemblies in Edinburgh they were both sent packing by Lieutenant-Colonel Cotterell and a party of English musketeers. It was to be almost forty years before another was to meet.

Restoration and reaction

Not long after the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660 a banner was displayed in Linlithgow with the following inscription;

From covenanters with uplifted hands,

From remonstrators with associate bands,

From such committees as governed this nation,

From kirk commissions and their protestations,

Good Lord deliver us.

This doggerel provides, in summary, what might be described as the key theme in the politics of the whole Restoration period: in 1638 the nobility had embraced the Covenant to rid themselves of troublesome clerical rivals; they had ended with a church far more demanding than the old Episcopacy had ever been. For them the Restoration was also a Reaction against all clerical pretensions, and against the imposition of covenants or resolutions of any kind. Unpleasant past memories and associations were cleansed away in the fashion of the Augean Stables: Argyll and Warriston were executed and both Covenants declared treasonable. Episcopacy was restored, with virtually none of the political pretensions the bishops had enjoyed prior to 1638. The new unwritten Covenant was for noblemen alone.

The counter-revolution of 1661-2 was very much the work of one man, John, Earl of Middleton, Charles' High Commissioner to the Scottish Parliament. It was driven less by the need for a peaceful settlement in the church and much more by personal ambition, liberally seasoned with petty spite. If more time had been taken it might have been possible for Charles to secure the restoration of a modified Episcopacy, with considerable less trouble than Middleton's hurricane was to cause. After all, the Kirk, still bitterly divided between Protestors and Resolutioners, was not able to speak with a unified voice. There were many ministers, moreover, like James Sharp, followers of more conservative schools of thought, who would have accepted the gradual return of bishops. James VI, with far greater skill, had taken time to recreate a broadly acceptable Episcopacy. Middleton used his power and influence, against the advice of John Maitland, Earl of Lauderdale, the Secretary of State for Scotland, not just to control but to humiliate the Presbyterian party.

It should be noted that while diocesan Episcopacy was restored to the form it had before 1638, this was purely an organisational change. The innovations in worship and the liturgy which led to the riots of 1637 were all absent. Charles was careful, moreover, to see that the new bishops, who included James Sharp as Archbishop of St Andrews, were not set up as rivals to the nobility, as they had been in his father's day. Sharp and his colleagues were-for the most part-not figures of any great spiritual authority-this was no Laudian settlement-but little better than glorified civil servants. This was an Erastian solution to the government of the Kirk; and, as such, all the more repugnant to committed Presbyterians.


The Covenanter, Minister Peden, is said to have preached from this natural pulpit in the Linn Glen, Dalry.

Resistance to the new settlement was heavily concentrated in the south-west of Scotland, those very areas that had risen in the Whiggamore Raid. Many of the ministers here vacated their parishes rather than submit to the new Episcopal authorities. Just as the ministers left so too did the congregations, following their old pastors to sermons on the hillside. From small beginnings these field assemblies-or conventicles-were to grow into major problems of public order. In attempting to suppress these gatherings the authorities used the military-though usually in numbers hardly adequate for the task. In November 1666 a small incident in Galloway sparked the first serious Whig rebellion of the Restoration period. After renewing the Covenants at Lanark-and declaring their loyalty to the king-several hundred armed men advanced on Edinburgh in a tragic repetition of the Whiggamore Raid. They were intercepted to the south-west of the city and defeated at the Battle of Rullion Green in the Pentland Hills, causing the whole episode to be labeled as the Pentland Rising.

After an initial period of repression a new policy of leniency began to take shape under the guidance of Lauderdale, who combined the posts of Secretary and High Commissioner, having replaced Middleton some time before. The centre-piece of this was the Indulgence of 1669, which allowed outed ministers back in the church, without having to submit to full Episcopal authority. This was a clever exercise in politics, rather than toleration for its own sake; for it began once again to separate moderate Resolutioners from extreme Protestors, lumped together by Middleton's precipitate actions. When the second great Whig rising came in 1679-once again sparked off by military provocation-the divisions between the two camps did much to aid the government's victory at the Battle of Bothwell Brig.

Lauderdale's actions, depending on his mood and the political pressures he was under, tended to veer between leniency and harshness. At his harshest he threatened dissident ministers with death in the so-called Clanking Act, though none were ever tried or executed. In 1678, angered by the obduracy of the western shires, he invited some very unwelcome guests into the area. The 'Highland Host'-mostly made up of militia units from the north, rather than clansmen as such-stayed for a short time, made off with a large booty in pots and pans, but generally caused more terror than real harm. After it left the conventicles continued much as before. The real decline in the movement only began to set in after the failure at Bothwell Brig.

Society men and the Killing Time

An 1871 painting by John Everett Millais depicting the martyrdom by drowning of the Covanenter Margaret Wilson who was tied to a stake to face the incoming tide in the Solway Firth.

In 1680 James Duke of York came to Edinburgh as High Commissioner to Parliament in place of the ailing Lauderdale. About the same time another man arrived in the kingdom, different in every way imaginable. His name was Richard Cameron. Cameron, who had been ordained as a minister at the Scots church in Rotterdam, was far more extreme than the old style of field preacher like John Welsh and Alexander Peden. These men had always retained some residual respect for the person of the king; but for Cameron there could be no hollow pretence of loyalty to Charles, who was both the "enemy of God and one of the most vile adulterers that ever lived." He lost his right to the throne, Cameron believed, when he caused the Covenants to be burnt; and as for those who placed him there;

I think that never was a generation of more worldly men about an evil deed, than the bringing home that abominable person from Breda, to be again set up in Scotland. They have set up Kings but not for me. The land was not with them in an approving way when they did this.

Cameron's much more politicised-and republican-strain of Presbyterianism was rejected by most of the old field preachers, but he at least managed to attract the support of the veteran Donald Cargill. Never more than a tiny minority within the Scottish Presbyterian community, the Cameronians refused to accept Indulgence or any other form of compromise with the Erastian state.

The authorities first became aware of this new tendency in June 1680 with the discovery of a document to be known as the Queensferry Paper, in which it was proposed that the royal family be set aside and a republic established. This received public confirmation that same season when Cameron and his followers published the Sanquhar Declaration. A manhunt was immediately begun and Cameron, at the head of a small band of armed followers was tracked down and killed on 22 July 1680 at Airds Moss in the valley of the River Ayr. Two years later what was left of his party banded together with like-minded groups, forming the United Correspondence Societies, giving them the alternative name of 'Society Men.'

By the early 1680s the great Covenanter movement, which had embraced all of Scotland in 1638, was reduced to a small group. But the authorities - as is so often the case in these matters - began to magnify the problem out of all proportion. When James Renwick appeared to breathe new life into the dying conventicle movement, the authorities resorted to ever more stringent tests of loyalty in dealing with what was now seen as political sedition rather than religious non-conformity. This was the beginning of the so-called Killing Time, forever associated with men like John Graham of Claverhouse and his victims such as John Brown and Margaret Wilson. It was now possible to shoot anyone on the spot for refusing to say 'God save the king'..

In April 1685 at the first Parliament of James VII, who had succeeded his brother Charles in February, opened in Edinburgh, William, Duke of Queensberry, acting in his capacity as High Commissioner, demanded fresh legislation to destroy the Covenanters. His speech was followed by that of the Earl of Perth, the Chancellor, who delivered a bitter tirade against the Cameronians;

...we have a new sect sprung up among us from the dunghill, the very dreggs of the people who kill by pretended inspiration...whose idoll is that accursed paper the Covenant...These monsters bring a publick reproach upon the nation in the eyes of all our nighbours abroad...they bring reproach upon our religion, and are our great plague.

Parliament went on to confirm Episcopacy as the settled form of church government. It was declared treasonable to take or defend the Covenants and, in a new departure, the death penalty was decreed for all those who attended field assemblies. In response the Cameronians held their own field parliament near Sanquhar the following month, and agreed a Protestation against the accession of James, who was described as a murderer, idolater and subject of Anti-Christ. The Cameronians were now faced with the ultimate nightmare - a Catholic king who was the supreme arbiter in all civil and religious matters, about as far away from the Covenanter ideal as it is possible to imagine.

In the period that followed the accession of James the greatest fear of the authorities was that the Cameronians would make common cause with the rebel Earl of Argyll, which explains why the policy of repression reached such a pitch of intensity. Field executions peaked in the two months of April and May 1685, as Argyll was making his final preparations to return from exile; and it was during this time that most of those were killed whose fate is still recorded in monuments liberally scattered across southern Scotland.

Covenants and freedom

William of Orange was generally rejected as an 'uncovenanted king'.

By the summer the government had almost won the war against the Covenanters. Most people had been forced back into the official church by fines levied for non-attendance and various forms of torture. The irreconcilables - now a small minority - had mostly been decapitated, hanged, shot or transported, or had died from natural causes. After the death of the legendary Alexander Peden in early 1686, only James Renwick and a desperate few remained, running from place to place in search of refuge. The authorities seemingly began to relax, and especially so after the failure of the Argyll Rising. The regular martyrdoms, a feature of the Killing Time, declined sharply, only one field execution being recorded for the whole of 1686. Although there are not many executions in government records during the Killing Time, the actual amount of executions is possibly far greater than it is traditionally said to be. In time it is possible that Scotland would have come to accept Episcopacy as the Covenanter tradition died away. But fate had decreed another course, which was to lead to the end of the dynasty and the re-establishment of Presbyterianism.

Scotland played little or no part in the final crisis of James' reign. In 1689, some of the Society Men offered their services to the new government, and were organised as the Cameronian Regiment; but most continued to reject William of Orange as an 'uncovenanted king'. In June 1690 Parliament passed an act establishing the Presbyterian system of church government, with the Westminster Confession as the basis of its doctrine. All the ministers ejected since 1661 were restored and a General Assembly summoned, the first since 1653. Although Hugh Kennedy, one of the last of the old Protestors, was elected Moderator, the members meekly confirmed the Erastian settlement. No-one spoke for the Covenants. A new national church had been established; for most people that was enough.

There were, of course, dissenters. Bishops continued to exist, unlike the sweep of 1638. Stripped of their political functions and without state support, they still commanded some loyalty, particularly in the lowlands of the north-east. The Cameronian party - which should now be distinguished from the regiment - remained outside the mainstream as the 'True Church of Scotland.' Refusing to take the oath of allegiance to the reigning monarch, they played little part in national life in the years to follow. As late as 1712 they renewed the Covenants at a ceremony in Lanarkshire, finally emerging in 1743, after a series of bewildering splits, as the Reformed Presbyterian Church. In 1876 most of the Reformed Presbyterians in Scotland joined the Free Church of Scotland, leaving a few congregations to carry the idea of the Covenants down to the present day. However, the Reformed Presbyterian Church is still a thriving church in Ireland and North America.

"Old Mortality" & The Covenanter Myth

Robert Burns praised the Covenanters in verse.

Robert Burns, imbued with the traditions of his native Ayrshire, was later to pen his own tribute to the Covenant;

The Solemn League and Covenant

Cost Scotland blood — cost Scotland tears;

But it seal'd Freedom's sacred cause—

If thou'rt slave, indulge thy sneers.

About a century after the Covenanters disappeared into history, they became romanticised during Scottish literature's renaissance during the 18th and 19th centuries into the religious martyrs and upholders of a radical, independent Scottish political tradition, a position which they continue to occupy — to some degree — down to the present time.

A large part of this was due to Robert Paterson - immortalised in Sir Walter Scott's book Old Mortality. Paterson was a stonemason who became obsessed with the tales of the Covenanters after his house was ransacked in 1745 by retreating Highlanders during the Jacobite Rebellion, and abandoned his family in order to pursue a personal fixation with erecting memorials and gravestones to them, sustaining himself by staying in the homes of surviving Covenanters or sympathisers as he travelled, who of course provided him with further tales that fitted with his own belief in the endless virtue of those he saw as "martyrs".

Paterson's wife forced to found a small school in Balmaclellan (in Kirkcudbrightshire) in order to keep her family. Eventually she sent her son to try and bring his father home, but when he finally met his father at Kirkchrist, he was turned away out of hand.

The fateful meeting between Sir Walter Scott and Paterson occurred in Dunnottar Kirkyard in Kincardineshire at an unknown date. Scott fictionalized this encounter in his novel as follows: "An old man was seated upon the monument of the slaughtered presbyterians, and busily employed in deepening with his chisel the letters of the inscription, announcing in scriptural language, the promised blessings of futurity to be the lot of the slain, anathematised the murderers with corresponding violence...To talk of the exploits of the Covenanters was the delight, as to the repair their monuments was the business, of his life"

When Scott had made his fortune, he tried to find Paterson's own grave in order to erect a memorial, but it was left to his publisher to do so after Scott's death, when Paterson's grave was finally located in Bankend of Caerlaverock kirkyard in Dumfriesshire. It was the success of Scott's book that did much to shape public perceptions of the Covenanters as fighting for liberty of religious conscience, suffering torture and execution.

See also



  • Buckroyd, J. Church and State in Scotland, 1660-1681. 1980
  • Cowan, E. J. The Solemn League and Covenant, in Scotland and England, 1286-1815, ed. R. A. Mason, 1987.
  • Cowan, I. B. The Covenanters: a Revision Article'' in The Scottish Historical Review, vol. 28, pp43-54, 1949.
  • Cowan, I. B. The Scottish Covenanters, 1660-1688, 1976
  • Donaldson, G. Scotland from James V to James VII, 1965
  • Fissel, M. C. The Bishops' Wars. Charles I's Campaigns against Scotland, 1638-1640, 1994
  • Hewison, J. K. The Covenanters, 2 vols. 1913.
  • Kiernan, V. G. A Banner with a Strange Device: the Later Covenanters, in History from Below, ed. K. Frantz, 1988.
  • Love, Dane. Scottish Kirkyards, 1989 (Robert Hale Publishers, London).
  • Mathieson, W. L. Politics and Religion: a Study in Scottish History from the Reformation to the Revolution, 2 vols, 1902.
  • Purves, Jock. Fair Sunshine. 1968
  • Scott, Sir Walter. The Tale Of Old Mortality, 1816.
  • Stevenson, D. The Scottish Revolution, 1637-1644, 1973.
  • Terry, C. S. The Pentland Rising and Rullion Green, 1905.
  • Wodrow, R. The History of the Sufferings of the Church of Scotland from the Restoration to the Revolution, reissued as 4 vols., 1828-1830


  1. ^ Archibald Watt, Highways and Byways around Kincardineshire, Stonehaven Heritage Society (1985)
  2. ^ C.Michael Hogan, History of Muchalls Castle, Lumina Press, Aberdeen (2005)
  3. ^ Herman, Arthur (2001). How the Scots invented the Modern World: the true story of how western Europe's poorest nation created our world & everything in it. New York: Crown Pub. pp. 46. ISBN 0-609-60635-2.  

External links

Preceded by
Charles I
as King
De Facto Government of Scotland
Succeeded by
Commonwealth of England

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