ScotWars - Scottish Military History and Re-enactment
Background to the Covenants of 1639 and 1643
In 1633 Charles came to Scotland to be crowned, accompanied by William Laud, his new Archbishop of Canterbury. The Coronation Service was held in St Giles's with candles, crucifix, genuflecting bishops and full Anglican rites. Edinburgh was made a bishopric with St Giles's for Cathedral. Archbishop John Spottiswoode was appointed the King's Chancellor for Scotland. Ministers were advised to wear surplices. The General Assembly had not met since 1618 and presbyteries were now threatened with dissolution. Soon feelings were running high and the word 'Popery' was on men's lips.

It was in this atmosphere that the King and Laud raised the most explosive of all questions, that of the liturgy. They had by now begun to realize that the English Prayer Book, unaltered, could never be acceptable to the Scots and a Commission was accordingly appointed to draw up a Revised Prayer Book for Scotland, its purpose being to take the place of extempore prayer.

The new book was read for the first time in St Giles's on 23 July 1637 amid scenes of violence and disorder which soon developed into a regular riot, in which the female members of the congregation, egged on according to tradition by a certain Jenny Geddes, played a leading part. Before long the resulting disturbances had reached such a pitch that the Privy Council were obliged to shut themselves in Holyroodhouse to escape from the mob, while the Bishop of Brechin, for his part, found it advisable to conduct Divine Service with a pair of loaded pistols laid in front of him in full sight of the congregation. On receiving in London the Privy Council's report of what was happening, the King, who by now had many other no less serious cares and preoccupations and but little time to devote to Scottish affairs, simply sent back instructions that all who had protested against the Prayer Book should be punished and its regular use enforced.

In Edinburgh, meanwhile, opposition to the Prayer Book was becoming daily more formidable and better organized. During the autumn and winter of 1637 a committee was formed in Edinburgh known as the Tables. It included the Earls of Montrose and Rothes, Lord Warriston, an eminent lawyer, some influential ministers, in particular Alexander Henderson of Leuchars, and numerous other notabilities, both clerics and laymen. Known to be in sympathy with them were Lord Lorne, heir to the Earl of Argyll, and Sir Thomas Hope, both Privy Councillors.

But the King, oblivious as usual of the strength and fervour of the opposition he had aroused and as usual out of touch with opinion in Scotland, persisted stubbornly in the course on which he had embarked. To the petitions against the Prayer Book now coming in from all over the country, backed by men of the utmost weight and substance, he responded by sending orders that the petitioners should be dispersed and punished. Finally in February 1638, before leaving for Newmarket to hunt, he issued from London a proclamation, to be read in public in Edinburgh and other cities, summoning the nobles who had resisted the Prayer Book to submit to the King's will and conform.

This brought matters to a head. There were angry demonstrations at the Mercat Cross. The Tables recalled the Lords of Congregation, and on 28 February and the two days that followed several hundred representatives of the nobles, the gentry, the burghs and the clergy flocked to Greyfriars Kirk in Edinburgh to sign a document which had been drawn up by Lord Warriston, Alexander Henderson and others, and which was to be known as the National Covenant. 'The great Marriage Day', Warriston called it, 'of this Nation with God.'

The Covenant was a skilfully drawn~up document, calculated to attract the maximum of support. It incorporated the Negative Confession of I ~8r, which specifically condemned a number of characteristic Catholic doctrines, and also appended a whole catalogue of Acts confirming it. It showed how these had been contravened by the latest 'inovations' and protested against their violation. And it ended with a pledge on the part of the signatories to maintain 'the true religion' and, it may be observed, 'His Majesty's authority'. For the leaders of the movement did not want, at this stage at any rate, to come out openly against the King, but only to convey to all and sundry) the impression that he was badly advised.

Soon mounted messengers were carrying copies of the Covenant all over the Lowlands and thousands of signatures were being collected. The countryside was in a ferment. National feeling was deeply aroused. In the eyes of many the Covenant possessed more than purely theological significance. It was also a defence 'against our poor country being made an English Province'. And so opposition to the Covenant was vigorously discouraged and ministers who refused to read it from the pulpits were in due course deposed.

During the summer of 1638 contact of a kind continued between London and Edinburgh. But Charles suffered, as he was bound to, from being an absentee sovereign and his Commissioner, the Duke of Hamilton, an unpopular figure at the best of times, carried but little weight. Already the Tables had become the de facto government of Scotland.

The King, now thoroughly alarmed, had already told his English Privy Council in) July that he would have to use force. In order to gain time, however, he now agreed to a meeting of the General Assembly in Glasgow. This was called for November 1638, and at once got down to business. The Assembly knew its own mind. All bishops were deposed or excommunicated, the Prayer Book, roundly condemned as 'heathenish, Popish, Jewish and Arminian', was abolished and a Commission set up to investigate abuses. To this the King simply replied that none of the Assembly's decisions were valid because they had been reached in the absence of his Commissioner, who had walked out at an early stage in the proceedings. An open breach was now inevitable.

Meanwhile, in Scotland enthusiasm for the Covenant was growing. In the east this was largely inspired by the young James Graham, fifth Earl of Montrose, whose influence extended through Stirlingshire, southern Perthshire, parts of Angus and even into Aberdeen, where Episcopalianism and resistance to the Covenant were most deep-seated. In the west, the Covenant's chief supporter was Archibald Campbell, eighth Earl of Argyll, the powerful Chief of Clan Campbell, a convinced Calvinist, deeply distrustful of the King.

All that summer arms had been coming into Scotland from abroad and Scottish soldiers serving overseas had been returning to their own country in gryte numbers upone hope of bloodie war'. In Alexander Leslie, the 'old, little, crooked soldier' who had fought against Wallenstein in Germany and eventually succeeded Gustavus Adolphus in command of the Swedish Army, the Covenanters had an outstanding and experienced general. The King, for his part, was in a less favourable position. He had an inefficient administration, no standing army and no general worthy of the name.

In the early summer of 1639, however, Charles, having somehow assembled a poorly trained force of some twenty thousand men, moved to the Border. At Berwick he came face to face with a far better trained, better disciplined and above all better commanded force under Sandy Leslie. Neither side wanted to fight and the First Bishops' War, as it was called, was eventually brought to an end by the so-called Pacification of Berwick, under which the King agreed that all disputed questions should be referred to another General Assembly or to Parliament.

The new General Assembly's first move was at once to re-enact all the measures passed by the Glasgow Assembly. Parliament, when it met, went further still, defying the King and his Commissioner, abolishing episcopacy and ultimately freeing itself from royal control. In particular, steps were taken to ensure that the Committee of Articles, by which the King had long controlled Parliament, should cease to be a mere tool of the Sovereign.

A Second Bishops' War followed speedily. This time the Scots under Leslie and Montrose crossed the border and quickly captured the important English cities of Newcastle and Durham. Once again the King, whose disorderly rabble had melted away before the Scottish onslaught, was obliged to negotiate. For this purpose and also in order to raise funds, he found it necessary to summon his English Parliament, something which, to all intents and purposes, had not been done for more than ten years. It was to prove a fateful step. For the Parliament which at his behest now assembled in Westminster was to be the famous Long Parliament.

By summoning Parliament Charles gave his English enemies the chance for which they had long been waiting. The King's Government at once came under severe attack and his chief supporters, Strafford and Laud, were impeached and in due course executed. Civil war threatened.

It was now the autumn of 1641. In the hope of winning Scottish support Charles came to Scotland, where he distributed a number of titles, making Leslie Earl of Leven and promoting Argyll to Marquess, and as part of a package deal, accepted all the decisions of the General Assembly of 1638 as well as those of the Scottish Parliament of 1641. Finally he formally gave Parliament the right, of which it had long been making full use, to challenge the actions of his ministers.

Events were by now fast reaching a climax and in August 1642 came the news that civil war had actually broken out in England between the King's forces and those of Parliament. The Scots at first held aloof. The principal purpose of the Covenanters was not political but theological. They were concerned to secure the suppression of episcopacy and the establishment of presbytery, not only in Scotland, but in England and Ireland as well. And they were prepared to give their support to whichever party promised them this. They were also far from agreeing amongst themselves.

In the Kirk, meanwhile, extremist tendencies were gaining the upper hand. To read passages from the Bible at funerals 'bred', it was now held, 'debosherie'. To repeat the Lord's Prayer in public was a sign of Popery. To take cognizance of Christmas or Easter was a special abomination. At the same time it began to appear to Montrose and others that the newly created Marquess of Argyll was exploiting the situation to further his personal interests and consolidate his personal power. Montrose, while remaining a Presbyterian and an upholder of the Covenant, accordingly now took his place at the head of the Moderates and with some of his supporters signed a pact at Cumbernauld, reaffirming both his belief in the Covenant and also his loyalty to the King.

In England, meanwhile, one Royalist victory had followed another until, in the summer of 1643, the Parliamentary leaders, facing defeat, decided in their turn to go to Scotland for help. The English Parliament had one considerable inducement to offer the Scottish Covenanters. While on the whole satisfied with the state of religion in Scotland, the latter had the gravest doubts about the religious practices of their English and Irish neighbours. Moreover, although they had deeply resented the King's attempts to bring Scottish religious practice into line with that of England, they saw nothing wrong in seeking to reverse the process. Negotiations were accordingly opened and in the autumn of 1643 an agreement known as the Solemn League and Covenant was signed by representatives of the Scottish Covenanters and of what was left of the English Parliament. Under the terms of this strange document the Covenanters undertook to attack the Royalist forces from the north - this in return for the sum of/ 30,000 a month and an undertaking that there would be 'a reformation of religion in the Kingdoms of England and Ireland in doctrine, worship, discipline and government, according to the Word of God and the examples of the best reformed churches, and that popery and prelacy should be extirpated'. In the eyes of the Scottish signatories there was no necessity further to define the phrase 'the best reformed churches'. It could only mean one thing.

The English now set out to fulfil their part of the bargain by summoning the Westminster Assembly. This was a mixed body of clergy and laymen, including eight Scottish delegates, and was entrusted with the exacting task of establishing uniformity of worship in Scotland, England and Ireland. Ironically enough, this predominantly English body, while leaving but little trace of its deliberations in England or Ireland, was to have a lasting influence on Scottish religious thought and practice. To this day the Westminster Confession of Faith serves as the basis for Presbyterian worship in Scotland. It is also interesting to recall that the original version of the metrical psalms, which have since played so large a part in Scottish life, also came from England, having been produced by the then Provost of Eton, a Cornish Member of Parliament named Francis Rous. For Charles the conclusion of the Solemn League and Covenant meant serious trouble. Early in 1644 a Scottish force of 26,000 men crossed the Tweed under the command of David Leslie, a distant kinsman of Alexander's. And in the following July, largely thanks to Scottish help, the Parliamentary forces, now re-organized under Oliver Cromwell, were able to inflict a heavy defeat on the Royalists at Marston Moor in Yorkshire.

Taken From: A Concise History of Scotland, Fitzroy Maclean, 1981, Thames & Hudson

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