Category Archives: Covenanters

22 June 1679, The Battle of Bothwell Bridge

On the anniversary of this key military encounter I re-post an updated version of last year’s piece……

In a previous post we looked at the Battle of Drumclog where on 1st June 1679, a small government force under Bonnie Dundee’s command was attacked and routed by a larger, irregular force of Covenanters.

Emboldened by this outstanding success the Covenanters moved to capitalise on it. While in Edinburgh, the Privy Council initiated counter measures designed to quell the rebellion before it got completely out of hand. All of this would lead to a second and decisive military encounter some three weeks later and 20 odd miles further north on 22 June at the Battle of Bothwell Bridge.

Battle of Bothwell Bridge monument

Battle of Bothwell Bridge monument

In the immediate aftermath of his defeat at Drumclog, Dundee had written a full report to his commander, the Earl of Linlithgow, Major General of his Majesty’s forces in Scotland expressing his opinion that “This may be counted the beginning of the rebellion”. And so this would seem to be the case with the sudden appearance of covenanting sympathies in many hitherto seemingly law-abiding citizens.

3rd Earl of Linlithgow, Claverhouse's commander

3rd Earl of Linlithgow, Claverhouse’s commander

While many of those to the fore of the Covenanting force could be deemed to be determined, ruthless and experienced, none of them were generals. And the military command initially fell upon Robert Hamilton who, as was so often the case in these troubled times, would feature in a prominent role on both pro and anti Stuart divide, having fought for the Stuarts in the defeats at Cromwell’s hands at Dunbar (1650) and Worcester (1651) and would eventually flee to Holland in the aftermath of the failure of the Monmouth Rising (1685) the purpose of which was to remove James VII and II from the throne, replacing him with Charles II’s illegitemate but acceptably Protestant offspring, the Duke of Monmouth.

As soon as they had abandoned their pursuit of Dundee’s defeated force after Drumclog, the Covenant Army resolved, under Hamilton’s leadership, to “continue and abide together in arms”. They understood well that it was only a matter of time before the Government would move against them, in force. On the afternoon of their victory they marched the fifteen miles to Hamilton (the village not the man) where they camped. Glasgow, where Dundee and his remaining troops stood to arms with the Government garrison under the command of Lord George Ross of Hawkhead, was only 10 miles distant.

In the wee, small hours of the following morning the post boy galloped through the dark, Edinburgh streets bearing Ross’ despatch to Linlithgow announcing the defeat at Drumclog and his intention to barricade the streets of Glasgow in the face of the advancing covenanting host. Within an hour the Privy Council were gathered and plans laid to assemble the scattered Government troops from Fife and Dumfries for the Earl of Linlithgow to lead westwards against the rebels on 4th June.

17th century Glasgow, where the Covenanting rebels attacked Claverhouse and Ross

17th century Glasgow, where the Covenanting rebels attacked Claverhouse and Ross

At sunrise on 2nd June the rebel force approached Glasgow and at 11 am made a rash and ill-judged assault on the barricades at the bottom of High Street and the Gallowgate. The troops of Ross and Claverhouse fired on them from behind these and within a short time their assailants withdrew leaving many wounded lying in the street and at least seven dead. They rallied a mile to the east of the town where the setback of their repulse now gave rise to the splits and schisms long-threatened in a mob where each man and woman considered themselves to be a party of one.

If they possessed ‘leaders of integrity and followers with a singleness of purpose’ then this army of Covenanters might have been forged into a force as strong as any led by Cromwell. However, with fully two thirds of them deemed by themselves to be preachers, with the vanity and unwillingness to subvert to the greater good often prevalent in the species, it was a hopeless cause. Even with strong leadership it would have been an almost impossible task but the leadership of this rebel force was inept to a degree rarely seen before or since in our little corner part of the world.

The total number of different shades of religious opinion amongst them would have been impossible to determine but in broad terms they were split into two factions. These being the Moderates (which was purely a relevant term) led by John Welsh of Irongray, a great grandson of John Knox. And the Honest Party, led by the previously mentioned Robert Hamilton, who had no aspirations to moderation when it came to matters religious amd political. And a considerable surprise it would have been, no doubt, for the redoubtable Mr Welsh to find himself for once outstripped in his fanaticism.

John Welsh, leader of one of the Covenant factions at Bothwell Bridge

John Welsh, leader of one of the Covenant factions at Bothwell Bridge

Having checked the forward movement of the rebels, Linlithgow now amended his initial plan of concentrating his forces in Glasgow and decided instead to carry out this assembling of his forces at Stirling. A strange choice explained only by timidity on his part and one which left both Glasgow and Edinburgh vulnerable to subsequent advance by the still intact rebel force. And if they were to repeat their manouevre of the Pentland Rising of 1666 then there might yet be an undesired outcome to this revolt.

Thus Ross and Dundee were ordered to withdraw from Glasgow towards Stirling, doing so on 3rd June while Linlithgow advanced from Edinburgh. Their forces joined at Bonnybridge on the 5th. This combined force now numbered 1800 men; horse, dragoons (mounted infantry) and foot. A despatch was then received from the magistrates of Glasgow reporting that the Covenanters, now some 7000 strong, were camped in the vicinity of Bothwell Bridge, near Hamilton.

Bothwell Bridge, scene of the eponymous battle

Bothwell Bridge, scene of the eponymous battle

Linlithgow advanced once more, reaching Kirkintilloch at midday on 6th June. A reconnaissance party reported that the rebels had now occupied Glasgow and after due consideration and consultation with his officers, Linlithgow decided that the disparity in size of the two armies was such that he risked disaster by attacking and was duly recalled to Edinburgh by the Privy Council. Drumclog was only 5 days old and the rebellion was now entirely out of hand.

Still more of the disaffected rallied to the Covenant banner and the rebel force continued to grow in size, and to their collective misfortune, to grow also in disparity of strongly-held opinion. There now ensued fully two weeks of internecine bickering over religious intricacies. On 8th June a ‘very great convention’ was held in Rutherglen where a resolution was determined by the Honest Party to remain aloof from Welsh and his moderates. They met again the following day where both sides of the debate agreed on the necessity of issuing a unified, public declaration of their aims. Yet neither could accept the other’s drafting of this. On 10th June there was a ‘very hot disputation, particularly concerning the indulgence’ which is to say who was to be forgiven for previous political / religious transgressions and who was not. Again no resolution was determined. And so it continued. Each passing day brought further discussion and yet more disagreement as the differences between the disparate viewpoints became emphasised and that which drew them together became drowned in the din.

But now the King, his majesty Charles II, became stirred into action by the reports of rebellion from the north. He decided to appoint his illegitimate son, James, Duke of Monmouth as commander-in-chief of his forces in Scotland. Monmouth’s orders were issued on 11th June and he disembarked in Edinburgh on 19th June.

James, Duke of Monmouth. commander of the Government army at Bothwell Bridge

James, Duke of Monmouth. commander of the Government army at Bothwell Bridge

He brought only two troops of horse from England to supplement the Scottish Government’s now concentrated army which he rendezvoused with at Blackburn, West Lothian on 19th June, assuming overall command of a combined force of some 5000 men.

If this army force was small in numbers it was strong in leadership. Monmouth had extensive campaigning experience in Flanders. The 3 principal dragoon officers were seasoned and experienced men. Claverhouse and the Earls of Home and Airlie commanded their own separate troops and with Montrose (not The Montrose, note) leading the Life Guards there was no shortage of skill, experience and, crucially, military discipline.

On 20th June Monmouth was at Muirhead and on the evening of 21 June he was advancing on Bothwell Bridge and the larger Covenanting Army. How had things gone with them in the meantime? Not well. The advance of the Government Army had merely accentuated the acute divisions in their camp. On 16th, 17th and 18th, camped on Shawhead Moor, their leadership, such as it was, continued to meet in acrimonious debate. Hamilton’s Moderates had proposed a Day of Humiliation which Welsh’s Honest men had protested. With the whole gathering deep in confusion they had recrossed Bothwell Bridge on 18th June and encamped on Hamilton Moor.

The wrangling continued through the 19th, and on 20th June they were joined by reinforcements from Galloway. These were favourers of the Indulgence and thus natural allies of Welsh’s party. They submitted a written statement of their desires to Hamilton who promptly, and unsurprisingly, rejected it.

Late in the evening of 21 June, just hours before the battle would commence, the two factions met in their final council of war. One desired to purge the army of undesirables while the other refused to fight under the officers which had been selected prior to the arrival of the Galloway men which had given the moderates numerical superiority in the argument. After heated discussion Hamilton and his people withdrew. The Moderates sat down to frame a petition to Monmouth but once again agreement over the content proved impossible. And in a few short hours this host of pious men, leaderless, unprepared and distracted would blunder into battle.

The surviving comments from among their number give us an insight into the shortcomings of their situation;……..”We were not concerned with an enemy as if there were none within 100 miles of us”………………..”There were none went through the army to see if we wanted powder or ball”……”A little before day we saw the enemy kindling their matches a great way off”…………
At about 3 am in the morning of 22 June the advance guard of Monmouth’s army closed on one end of the bridge. The rebels formed into two bodies with one holding their end of the bridge and the other drawn up a mile or so to the rear, while the single piece of cannon they possessed was dragged down to command the approach to the bridge. This piece and its gunner would be the star of the show for the discomfited rebels.

An exchange of pistol fire began across the water as Monmouth came to the front line. The two rebel factions, faced now with the imminent destruction of their host, had managed to thrash together a parley with which they could both live and now this representation was made to Monmouth, who could do little but entertain it. So hostilities ceased temporarily.

Their submission though was merely a list of their grievances and a request that they might meet with Monmouth to discuss the matters. The erstwhile Duke sent back that he could not enter into any discussions with rebels until they lay down their arms. He did not bother to await their reply before recommencing preparations for his assault and ordered the deployment of his own cannon to command the bridge. A second parley was sent out from the Covenant lines desiring to be told the nature of any terms that he might have brought from England. Monmouth sent them packing and duly ordered his cannon to open fire.

And this provided the first surprise of the day as the lone Covenant gun, manned by a stalwart whose name posterity has not preserved but was their one true hero if the day, drove the government artillerymen from their pieces. However, after their initial discomfiture they returned to their pieces and under the cover of their fire a storming party of dragoons led by the splendidly named Major Theophilus Oglethorpe, stormed and forced the bridge.

Oglethorp's dragoons storm the bridge

Oglethorp’s dragoons storm the bridge

Under instruction not to advance any further than the other end of said bridge, they became carried away by the heat of the moment and advanced up the hill towards the main body of the enemy. Who, perceiving the small numbers of the force approaching them, moved down the hill and drove them into the houses at that end of the bridge.

In response 300 foot, under the command of Lord Livingstone’s son, were sent across the bridge and they, in turn, drove the Covenanters back on their main body. Monmouth himself now came forward over the bridge with his own troop and together with those already over, formed up to face the rebels ‘but two carabines shot apart’.

A haphazard and leaderless effort, but an effort nonetheless, was made by the rebels in an attempt to rescue the day. An assault was made on a body of Atholl Highlanders on Monmouth’s right, as the commander sought to form his second line. A brief cannonade forced them back in confusion with the Covenanting horse among them driven headlong from the field. Seconds later the foot joined the stampede and the rout began.

Oglethorp and Claverhouse were ordered to pursue with Monmouth following with the foot. At about ten o’clock that morning a messenger was despatched to Edinburgh bearing news of the victory.

And so the rule of law was once again imposed in all areas of the nation. The defeat at Drumclog could now be placed in proper perspective as a one-off thrown up by the particular circumstances of the day. And appropriate, measured action could now be taken against those who had initiated rebellion against King and lawful Government.

The bubble which had been blown at Rutherglen two months previously had now burst spectacularly with the rout at Bothwell. Monmouth was able to lead his men through the country across which the rebels had so recently roamed at will and confirmed the conclusion that all signs of rebellion were extinguished. On June 25th the local militia were dismissed, their function fulfilled. And on the 26th Monmouth returned to Edinburgh for the grateful thanks of the Privy Council, receiving the Freedom of the City in a large gold box. By 29th June he was on his way back to London.

Controversy, inevitably abounds as we look back on the whole episode, particularly in relation to two of the day’s participants; the Duke of Monmouth, commander-in-chief of the Government force and a lowly commander of horse troops, John Graham of Claverhouse.

Within 6 years Monmouth was dead: tried and executed for treason following his defeat at the Battle of Sedgemoor as he attempted to overthrow his uncle, King James VII and II, and seize the British throne for himself. From this vantage point many re-assess his behaviour at, and after Bothwell Bridge and seek to find indications, through his clemency towards the rebels, of his future treasonous actions.

As far as Claverhouse is concerned there has been as much opprobrium heaped upon him by future historians over his actions at Bothwell Bridge as there is at any other occasion in his career. The attempt to redress which is the driving force for this blog.

Much of this abuse is due to Sir Walter Scott’s depiction of the events of Bothwell Bridge in his novel,Old Mortality, which was published in 1816, nearly 140 years after the events took place. Scott gives Claverhouse a degree of prominence which far outweighs his actual involvement on the day and  also bestows upon him an aura of rapacious cruelty and vengefulness for which there is no basis. However, to be fair to Scott, he could have had little idea of the extent to which his work would outlive and outgrow him to the degree that it has. As Charles Terry, briefly and eloquently puts it, sober history competes unequally with romance.

Scott, author of Old Mortality

Scott, author of Old Mortality

Scott portrays Claverhouse as a colonel at the battle, promoted to General in the aftermath, whereas he was but a plain captain of horse, on the day and for some time afterwards. He and General Tam Dalziel, who was not in fact present at the battle having refused to serve under Monmouth, are credited by Scott with the ruthless pursuit of the fleeing rebels, in flagrant disobedience of Monmouth’s orders, rapaciously slaughtering the vanquished enemy.

Doubtless the emotion generated by his defeat at Drumclog would have been strong. The extensive source material relating to the battle itself and its immediate aftermath make passing mention only of his leading the cavalry on the right once Monmouth was over the bridge and reference to the capture ‘with his own two hands’ of two Covenant battle standards. Once again tradition becomes crystallized into fact in the face of a total absence of evidence. But it was ever thus.

29 May 1679, The Rutherglen Declaration

This was a minor event of primarily symbolic importance. It was sandwiched between other happenings of considerably greater import. These being the cold-blooded murder of Archbishop Sharp on Magus Moor on 3 May by a handful of Covenanter lairds and the comprehensive defeat of assembled Covenanters at the Battle of Bothwell Bridge on 22 June.

By the spring of 1679 the enthusiasm of those committed to the Covenant increased by a degree as more and younger people were drawn to the cause and as the voice of the more extreme veterans of the movement, men such as Donald Cargill, an inveterate enemy of compromise, moved to the fore.

Claverhouse had been sent “to the west” some months before, in command of a newly raised troop of government horse in order to assist in the process of keeping the peace. He had then been promoted to Sheriff-depute for Dumfries and Annandale in reflection of the poor fist that was being made of the peace-keeping process by the local, heritable sheriffs who were, by and large, entirely sympathetic with the lawless if not fully involved in the law-breaking process themselves.

The elements for escalation were now in place but the spark that set the kindling ablaze didn’t happen down on the south-west as might have been expected but many miles to the east in Fife.

The murder of Archbishop Sharp, was, now as then, utterly indefensible. A prelate, a holder of one of the major offices of the state, ambushed in broad daylight by a gang of thugs who then hacked him to death while one of them held his daughter back to prevent her interference in the deed and that she might better bear witness to the hideous death inflicted on her father.

The brutal murder of Archbishop Sharp, in front of his daughter

The brutal murder of Archbishop Sharp, in front of his daughter

Even by the standards of the time it was shocking. Although there were many prepared to defend it and even now, two hundred and thirty odd years later there are those who would view it as not unreasonable. Having carried out the deed, the culprits immediately mounted their horses and fled south-west in the hope that they might conceal themselves in the heartland of their support.

In the immediate aftermath there were a number among the extremists who saw this event as a sign, as a justification for the escalation of further extreme action. Amongst their number was the 29-year-old Robert Hamilton who saw the need to carry out some further public demonstration of their cause in order to rally the faithful and to further wave an angry fist in the direction of the Privy Council.

They waited a short time until 29 May, the birthday of the King, Charles II, when public celebrations, bonfires and suchlike, were happening in the monarch’s honour. Hamilton and his 80 odd mounted support initially planned on carrying out their demonstration in Glasgow but on hearing of the presence there of Government troops, took the more cautious option of Rutherglen. There they dramatically extinguished such bonfires that had been lit in the King’s honour then created their own and on to these tossed copies of the various pieces of recent Government legislation and Royal Proclamations that they deemed to be offensive to honest Covenanting folk. Then they fixed their Declaration to the Market Cross, a reiteration of there endless, baseless complaints, the content of which does not seem to have survived the passage of time. And having made their point, they once again, in time-honoured fashion, fled the scene.

So once more, as with the Pentland Rising, thirteen years previously, extreme and brutal action carried out by hot heads was then fanned by the even more extremist covenant clergy into some indication of divinely inspired justification for full-scale rebellion and before you knew it there were a mob of heavily armed men and women fully assembled and ready to take whatever action was determined to be in the best interests of their cause. And once more, in a holy mob where each individual was essentially a party of one, collective agreement as to unity of purpose was impossible.

News reached Claverhouse in Falkirk that same evening concerning the events in Rutherglen and he immediately moved his troops to take the necessary action. Two days later at Drumclog, while searching for an illegal conventicle he ran headlong into some 200 heavily armed covenanters and his force was defeated and driven from the field.

The Battle of Drumclog, 1st June 1679

The Battle of Drumclog, 1st June 1679

With that the full weight of the forces of law and order were brought to bear and on 22 June at the Battle of Bothwell Bridge order was finally restored.

The Battle of Bithwell Bridge, 22 June 1679. The end of the rebellion.

The Battle of Bothwell Bridge, 22 June 1679. The end of the rebellion.

28th November 1666, The Battle of Rullion Green and the End of the Pentland Rising

When the National Covenant was drawn up in 1638 virtually the whole nation of Scotland queued up to append their signature (below Montrose’s) to this historic document. By the time the Solemn League and Covenant was drafted in 1643, the tone had become more extreme and the appendants fewer.

The National Covenant (1638)

The National Covenant (1638)

By 1660, when Charles II was restored to his throne, signaling the end of that most miserable of periods known as the Cromwellian Interregnum, most Scots had had their fill of covenants, particularly amongst the political leadership, the nobility. And only the hard core remnant in the south west of the country held to the now extremist viewpoint.

During the 25 years between Charles ll’s restoration and his death in 1685, hard core factions in Lanarkshire, Ayrshire and Galloway maintained the pot of febrile fanaticism in a boiling condition. Despite the efforts of the authorities to maintain law and order, lawlessness whilst quelled, was never fully eliminated. With conventicles,open air gatherings presided over by kirk ministers where often hysterical behaviour masqueraded as divine worship , the principal mechanism for coordinating community-wide disregard for the law.

Periodically during this quarter century, the enthusiasm of these factions peaked and armed insurrection then ensued. For the most part these efforts displayed common characteristics leading inevitably to disasterous failure: lack of weapons, lack of leadership, lack of a coherent plan, an absence of common agreement as to the specific nature of their divine mission and a grievous failure to ignore minute stratifications of doctrinal disagreement on the eve of battle in order to present a united front to their enemy.

On the one occasion when their ducks fortuitously lined up in a row, at the Battle of Drumclog in 1679, they were able to combine the element of surprise, a local advantage in numbers and favourable terrain, to achieve limited, localised military success. However, this merely encouraged yet more of the unruly to harness their fortunes to a wagon which subsequently careered madly to destruction.

Drumclog stands alone as a covenanting military success during this period, and is balanced out by a litany of failure; the Battles of Bothwell Bridge (June 1679), Airds Moss (1680), and earliest of all, Rullion Green (1666).

Indeed if some of the basic lessons from this initial, sweeping defeat had been absorbed then the future calamities might have been avoided. However, it was not part of the philosophical approach of covenanters to look dispassionately on their failures in order that learnings might be taken from them, since this might too closely require some admission that the chosen sons and daughters of Jacob were mistaken in their analysis or intent. So each subsequent rising saw efforts renewed to re-invent the wheel from its most basic level.

Let us look, specifically then at the train of events that culminated in the Battle of Rullion Green.

After Charles ll’s restoration to the throne in 1660, the various mechanisms of Cromwellian rule were dismantled and things largely returned to they way they were before his father’s disagreements with both his parliaments led to full scale civil war in 1642. In 1663 bishops were re-installed as an estate of the Scottish Parliament, much to the disgruntlement of covenanting folk who held no truck with those appointed to intercede between good Presbyterians and their god.

Charles ll, restored to the throne in 1660

Charles ll, restored to the throne in 1660

Soon, the scale of illegal field conventicles was such that the Government felt compelled to take action, passing legislation to fine any and all who failed to attend worship, as it was intended, in their own parish church. Rather than administer this process through the local land-owners, who were often overtly sympathetic, they brought in external support in the shape of Sir James Turner, whose troops were required to be supported in he area. In the face of this escalation of government action against non-conformers, the extent of field conventicles did not diminish.

Sir James Turner, appointed by the Privy Council to impose order in the south west

Sir James Turner, appointed by the Privy Council to impose order in the south west

 

Things did not improve and further forays by Turner were carried out in the spring of 1666. Shortly thereafter, the Government took the decision to establish a standing army in Scotland. A combined infantry and cavalry force of some 3000 men, with the command given to General Thomas Dalyell, a veteran of the Battle of Worcester (1651) and subsequently the Polish Wars under the Russian Tsar, Alexei l.

 

General Thomas Dalyell, commander of the Government army at Rullion Green

General Thomas Dalyell, commander of the Government army at Rullion Green

The decisive flashpoint occurred on 15 November 1666 when a number of Dumfries-shire lairds with their tenants, who had been involved in a minor confrontation with troopers two days previously decided to strike at Turner before he took any further action.

They surprised him in his pyjamas and took him prisoner. Finding themselves, even at this early stage in the proceedings, without a plan, they paused. Once word of their imprudence was out, however, the full mechanism of government reaction began to move apace. The Privy Council immediately took the appropriate steps to quell what they perceived to be a full-scale rebellion. Tam Dalyell was instructed to march his available force to Glasgow while Stirling bridge and various Forth ferry crossings were guarded to prevent any southward movement of covenant sympathisers.

Turner’s captors were in a difficult position. They perceived of their action as being simply a loyal protest against military oppression. Their options were now to disband and await arrest or move to extend their act into full-scale rebellion. On 21st November, an official proclamation was issued which denounced their action and made no mention of any indemnity for those surrendering. And so they moved for escalation. Their appeals for support fell largely on deaf ears but by close of play on the 22nd they had pulled together a force of over 600 men and command was given to Colonel James Wallace. A soldier not entirely without experience having served as a captain in the Marquis of Argyll’s covenanting army during the Bishop’s War in 1640 and subsequently in Ulster.

Colonel James Wallace, commander of the insurgents at Rullion Green

Colonel James Wallace, commander of the insurgents at Rullion Green

Turning to face their perceived oppressor this uncertain body of men began to march towards Edinburgh, hoping to pick up reinforcements on the way. Trudging through the cold, wet, short days they held a council of war at Douglas in Lanarkshire. Loud voices were raised in favour of abandoning their enterprise. However, as was often the case when the extremists met to discuss issues, more fanatical tones held sway. Surely the very sudden and unexpected nature of this mission was, in itself, a sign from God. A purpose was proclaimed – the restoration of the Covenants. With the redoubtable Reverend John Welsh of Irongray present in their midst, anything less would have been the surprise. And renewed somewhat in their vigour, they continued to squelch their way towards the Capital.

Most onlookers, even those who sympathised with their cause, viewed the whole escapade as hopeless and remained indoors. During the next dismal, rain-swept night in Bathgate, around half of them straggled away.

The following day, what was left of them, probably 900 in number, reached Colinton, from where they could see Edinburgh Castle. An emissary from the Duke of Hamilton approached them and pleaded for their surrender. Colonel Wallace, who could recognise a doomed project when he saw one but could not be accused of lacking optimism, sent messages to Hamilton and Dalyell indicating that he and his men were willing to discuss terms of surrender.

The reply duly received from the Privy Council advised them simply to lay down their arms “that they might petition for mercy”. Things were beginning to look pretty bleak indeed for these sodden souls and they began to withdraw whence they came, along the eastern flank of the Pentland Hills, while Dalyell continued to close in on them.

On the 28th they paused again, at Rullion Green to regroup and prepare a fresh parley. Dalyell though had had enough and immediately attacked. The few covenanting horsemen made something of an issue of the fight on their part of the field but Wallace’s infantry, exhausted, ill-armed, ill-prepared, ill-led, so much like their compadres at Bothwell Bridge, succumbed quickly to the musket fire of their regular opponents. The covenanting army dissolved into a terrified rabble and fled in all directions leaving some fifty dead and the same number prisoner. Wallace and Welsh escaped the field, and justice, escaping in the end to Holland to swell the ranks of the disaffected already encamped there. And it was from here some 23 years later that their ultimate salvation would come

The graves and monument at Rullion Green today

The graves and monument at Rullion Green today

Retribution for the prisoners was reflective of the times: balanced but harsh in the end. The Privy Council accorded them the not insignificant legal services of Sir George Lockhart and Sir George Mackenzie, two of the foremost advocates of the day. Mackenzie pleaded for clemency on the basis that they had been offered quarter on the field of battle. A claim supported by Dalyell himself. However, it was determined that the accused had not been involved in a just war but rather an act of sedition and so the accepted rules relating to war did not apply.

Their right arms, which had been raised to support the Covenant at the outset of the rising, were cut off and sent to Lanark for display. A further 30 supporters were hanged in the ensuing days in Glasgow and some 50 odd transported to Barbados. Extensive finings and forfeitures were also carried out.

An unhappy episode in Scotland’s history. However, worth placing in some context. Although ministers were drawn towards it at an early stage, its Covenanting label was only adopted by the rebellion after it had begun. Furthermore the initial spark behind it all was simply long-standing resentment against government fines and the associated aggressive methods used by government forces to enforce these and to obtain quarters and victuals for themselves.

And while the stoking of the flames of hatred by Presbyterian ministers at conventicles led directly to this unhappy finale, as it did indeed at Bothwell Bridge, there was as has been pointed out “a genuine feeling of grievance, a real wish to preserve important things, seen to be under threat. Something precious and pure, personal as well as communal, was perceived within the rites of the Presbyterian Kirk”.

Sadly, for us all, the preciousness and pureness were always drowned out by the hatred and the fanaticism.

The inscription on the monument at Rullion Green

The inscription on the monument at Rullion Green

Airds Moss and the Death of Richard Cameron

On 22nd June 1680 at the point where Ayrshire meets Lanarkshire, was fought the Battle of Airds Moss where Richard Cameron, known to posterity as the Lion of the Covenant, met his death.

Memorial at Airds Moss

Memorial at Airds Moss

It was, even by the standards of the time, an obscure encounter with little impact on the prevailing political situation. Involving as it did, on the one hand well-armed, well trained and capably led troops in the service of the Scottish Privy Council. And on the other enthusiastic, committed but badly led zealots with little or no experience of warfare.

The only real significance of the event was the death of the aforementioned Cameron. Born in 1648, the very same year as John Graham of Claverhouse and, coincidentally, the same year as a number of other Scots who were to feature prominently in the drama of Scottish politics towards the end of the century; including James Dalrymple, duly to become Viscount Stair and James Drummond, who as the 4th Earl of Perth would be imprisoned in the immediate aftermath of the Glorious Revolution and die in exile at the Jacobite court of St Germain.

Richard Cameron, born in this particular year to gentle farming folk in Falkland in Fife, went up to St Andrews University aged 14 and after his graduation secured employment back in Falkland as the parish school teacher. However, in his early twenties he seems to have encountered the fiery rhetoric of John Welsh and fallen under the spell of this most intolerant of covenanting preachers. Young Richard came out as a covenanter and in 1676 was duly given license to preach. And despite legislation against conventicles being firmly in place young Cameron, despatched to Annandale, began his prominent field preaching career.

Falkland, Fife. Birthplace of Richard Cameron

Falkland, Fife. Birthplace of Richard Cameron

He was, it should be said, particularly intolerant of the Indulged Clergy, which is to say those ministers who had been forgiven their previous rebellious transgressions by the Scottish Parliament in return for oath-taking and acceptance to a degree of conformity.

While the Reverend Welsh, would in no sense be mistaken for a tolerant individual, he was keen to not provoke a complete split with his former colleagues, in the interest of the forward movement of the movement as a whole.

Young Richard was not troubled by such niceties as short term sinking of differences in order that long term gains might be made by the majority, and proceeded to denounce the aforementioned Indulged at every opportunity.

This hostility was by no means all one way and in 1679, under much pressure from the said Indulged Clergy, Richard Cameron shipped out to Holland where he was duly ordained a minister in the Church of Scotland. While in exile he missed all the drama of the murder of Archbishop Sharp and the Battles of Drumclog and Bothwell Bridge which followed on from this outrage.

He returned to these shores shortly thereafter only to find, to his apoplexy, that a Third Indulgence had been granted and in turn accepted by the General Assembly.

Joining forces with Donald Cargill, another product from the Rotterdam school of intolerance, and the infamous David Hackston of Rathillet, wanted still as the ringleader of the murderous assassins who had perpetrated the foul assassination on Magus Moor, they rode into Sanquhar on 22 June, the anniversary of the defeat at Bothwell Bridge the previous year. Amid appropriate ceremony and psalm singing they nailed their manifesto to the market cross. This document denounced Charles Stuart as ‘a tyrant and usurper’ and promised righteous judgment on a whole list of shortcomings that they believed to characterize those they opposed.

Richard Cameron conducting an illegal conventicle

Richard Cameron conducting an illegal conventicle

With a government bounty of 5000 merks to anyone who brought him in ‘dead or alive’ Cameron and his handful of followers took to the hills, keeping on the move and sleeping rough. On 22 July they were taken by surprise at Airds Moss by a troop of Government horse under the command of Bruce of Earlshall. With some 20 horsemen and 40 foot they were outnumbered by around two to one, conceding also all those traditional elements which determined the outcome of such encounters; discipline, military experience and sound leadership.

Cameron was killed in the action and Hackston taken prisoner being led subsequently back to Edinburgh where he was executed and his body parts displayed in a manner fully compliant with the customs of the times.

The Mercat Cross, Edinburgh. Where David Hackston of Rathillet was executed for his part in the murder of Archbishop Sharp

The Mercat Cross, Edinburgh. Where David Hackston of Rathillet was executed for his part in the murder of Archbishop Sharp

The Battle of Bothwell Bridge, 22 June 1679

In the last post we looked at the Battle of Drumclog where on 1st June 1679, a small government force under Bonnie Dundee’s command was attacked and routed by a larger, irregular force of Covenanters.

Emboldened by this outstanding success the Covenanters moved to capitalise on it. While in Edinburgh, the Privy Council initiated counter measures designed to quell the rebellion before it got completely out of hand. All of this would lead to a second and decisive military encounter some three weeks later and 20 odd miles further north on 22 June at the Battle of Bothwell Bridge.

Battle of Bothwell Bridge monument

Battle of Bothwell Bridge monument

In the immediate aftermath of his defeat at Drumclog, Dundee had written a full report to his commander, the Earl of Linlithgow, Major General of his Majesty’s forces in Scotland expressing his opinion that “This may be counted the beginning of the rebellion”. And so it would seem to be the case with the sudden appearance of covenanting sympathies in many hitherto seemingly law-abiding citizens.

3rd Earl of Linlithgow, Claverhouse's commander

3rd Earl of Linlithgow, Claverhouse’s commander

While many of those to the fore of the Covenanting force could be deemed to be determined, ruthless and experienced, none of them were generals. And the military command initially fell upon Robert Hamilton who, as was so often the case in these troubled times, would feature in a prominent role on both pro and anti Stuart divide, having fought for the Stuarts in the defeats at Cromwell’s hands at Dunbar (1650) and Worcester (1651) and would eventually flee to Holland in the aftermath of the failure of the Monmouth Rising (1685) the purpose of which was to remove James VII and II from the throne.

As soon as they had abandoned their pursuit of Dundee’s defeated force after Drumclog, the Covenant Army resolved, under Hamilton’s leadership, to “continue and abide together in arms”. They understood well that it was only a matter of time before the Government would move against them, in force. On the afternoon of their victory they marched the fifteen miles to Hamilton (the village not the man) where they camped. Glasgow, where Dundee and his remaining troops stood to arms with the Government garrison under the command of Lord George Ross of Hawkhead, was only 10 miles distant.

In the wee, small hours of the following morning the post boy galloped through the dark, Edinburgh streets bearing Ross’ despatch to Linlithgow announcing the defeat at Drumclog and his intention to barricade the streets of Glasgow in the face of the advancing covenanting host. Within an hour the Privy Council were gathered and plans laid to assemble the scattered Government troops from Fife and Dumfries for the Earl of Linlithgow to lead westwards against the rebels on 4th June.

17th century Glasgow, where the Covenanting rebels attacked Claverhouse and Ross

17th century Glasgow, where the Covenanting rebels attacked Claverhouse and Ross

At sunrise on 2nd June the rebel force approached Glasgow and at 11 am made a rash and ill-judged assault on the barricades at the bottom of High Street and the Gallowgate. The troops of Ross and Claverhouse fired on them from behind these and within a short time their assailants withdrew leaving many wounded lying in the street and at least seven dead. They rallied a mile to the east of the town where the setback of their repulse now gave rise to the splits and schisms long-threatened in a mob where each man and woman considered themselves to be a party of one.

If they possessed ‘leaders of integrity and followers with a singleness of purpose’ then this army of Covenanters might have been forged into a force as strong as any led by Cromwell. However, with fully two thirds of them deemed by themselves to be preachers, with the vanity and unwillingness to subvert to the greater good often prevalent in the species, it was a hopeless cause. Even with strong leadership it would have been an almost impossible task but the leadership of this rebel force was inept to a degree rarely seen before or since in our little corner part of the world.

The total number of different shades of religious opinion amongst them would have been impossible to determine but in broad terms they were split into two factions. These being the Moderates (which was purely a relevant term) led by John Welsh of Irongray, a great grandson of John Knox. And the Honest Party, led by the previously mentioned Robert Hamilton, who had no moderation in anything. And a considerable surprise it would have been, no doubt, for the redoubtable Mr Welsh to find himself for once outstripped in his fanaticism.

John Welsh, leader of one of the Covenant factions at Bothwell Bridge

John Welsh, leader of one of the Covenant factions at Bothwell Bridge

Having checked the forward movement of the rebels Linlithgow now amended his initial plan of concentrating his forces in Glasgow and decided instead to carry out this concentration of his forces at Stirling. A strange choice explained only by timidity on his part and one which left both Glasgow and Edinburgh vulnerable to subsequent advance by the still intact rebel force. And if they were to repeat their manouevre of the Pentland Rising of 1666 then there might yet be an undesired outcome to this revolt.

Thus Ross and Dundee were ordered to withdraw from Glasgow towards Stirling, doing so on 3rd June while Linlithgow advanced from Edinburgh. Their forces joined at Bonnybridge on the 5th. This combined force now numbered 1800 men; horse, dragoons (mounted infantry) and foot. A despatch was then received from the magistrates of Glasgow reporting that the Covenanters, now some 7000 strong, were camped in the vicinity of Bothwell Bridge, near Hamilton.

Bothwell Bridge, scene of the eponymous battle

Bothwell Bridge, scene of the eponymous battle

Linlithgow advanced once more, reaching Kirkintilloch at midday on 6th June. A reconnaissance party reported that the rebels had now occupied Glasgow and after due consideration and consultation with his officers, Linlithgow decided that the disparity in size of the two armies was such that he risked disaster by attacking and was duly recalled to Edinburgh by the Privy Council. Drumclog was only 5 days old and the rebellion was now entirely out of hand.

Still more of the disaffected rallied to the Covenant banner and the rebel force continued to grow in size, and to their collective misfortune, to grow also in disparity of strongly-held opinion. There now ensued fully two weeks of internecine bickering over religious intricacies. On 8th June a ‘very great convention’ was held in Rutherglen where a resolution was determined by the Honest Party to remain aloof from Welsh and his moderates. They met again the following day where both sides of the debate agreed on the necessity of issuing a unified, public declaration of their aims. Yet neither could accept the other’s drafting of this. On 10th June there was a ‘very hot disputation, particularly concerning the indulgence’ which is to say who was to be forgiven for previous political / religious transgressions and who was not. Again no resolution was determined. And so it continued. Each passing day brought further discussion and yet more disagreement as the differences between the disparate viewpoints became emphasised and that which drew them together became drowned in the din.

But now the King, his majesty Charles II, became stirred into action by the reports of rebellion from the north. He decided to appoint his illegitimate son, James, Duke of Monmouth as commander-in-chief of his forces in Scotland. Monmouth’s orders were issued on 11th June and he disembarked in Edinburgh on 19th June.

James, Duke of Monmouth. commander of the Government army at Bothwell Bridge

James, Duke of Monmouth. commander of the Government army at Bothwell Bridge

He brought only two troops of horse from England to supplement the Scottish Government’s now concentrated army which he rendezvoused with at Blackburn, West Lothian on 19th June, assuming overall command of a combined force of some 5000 men.

If this army force was small in numbers it was strong in leadership. Monmouth had extensive campaigning experience in Flanders. The 3 principal dragoon officers were seasoned and experienced men. Claverhouse and the Earls of Home and Airlie commanded their own separate troops and with Montrose (not The Montrose) leading the Life Guards there was no shortage of skill, experience and, crucially, military discipline.

On 20th June Monmouth was at Muirhead and on the evening of 21 June he was advancing on Bothwell Bridge and the larger Covenanting Army. How had things gone with them in the meantime? Not well. The advance of the Government Army had merely accentuated the acute divisions in their camp. On 16th, 17th and 18th, camped on Shawhead Moor, their leadership, such as it was, continued to meet in acrimonious debate. Hamilton’s Moderates had proposed a Day of Humiliation which Welsh’s Honest men had protested. With the whole gathering deep in confusion they had recrossed Bothwell Bridge on 18th June and encamped on Hamilton Moor.

The wrangling continued through the 19th, and on 20th June they were joined by reinforcements from Galloway. These were favourers of the Indulgence and thus natural allies of Welsh’s party. They submitted a written statement of their desires to Hamilton who promptly, and unsurprisingly, rejected it.

Late in the evening of 21 June, just hours before the battle would commence, the two factions met in their final council of war. One desired to purge the army of undesirables while the other refused to fight under the officers which had been selected prior to the arrival of the Galloway men which had given the moderates numerical superiority in the argument. After heated discussion Hamilton and his people withdrew. The Moderates sat down to frame a petition to Monmouth but once again agreement over the content proved impossible. And in a few short hours this host of pious men, leaderless, unprepared and distracted would blunder into battle.

The surviving comments from among their number cast illumination on their situation;……..”We were not concerned with an enemy as if there were none within 100 miles of us”………………..”There were none went through the army to see if we wanted powder or ball”……”A little before day we saw the enemy kindling their matches a great way off”…………
At about 3 am in the morning of 22 June the advance guard of Monmouth’s army closed on one end of the bridge. The rebels formed into two bodies with one holding their end of the bridge and the other drawn up a mile or so to the rear, while the single piece of cannon they possessed was dragged down to command the approach to the bridge. This piece and its gunner would be the star of the show for the discomfited rebels.

An exchange of pistol fire began across the water as Monmouth came to the front line. The two rebel factions, faced now with the imminent destruction of their host, had managed to thrash together a parley with which they could both live and now this representation was made to Monmouth, who could do little but entertain it. So hostilities ceased temporarily.

Their submission though was merely a list of their grievances and a request that they might meet with Monmouth to discuss the matters. The erstwhile Duke sent back that he could not enter into any discussions with rebels until they lay down their arms. He did not bother to await their reply before recommencing preparations for his assault and ordered the deployment of his own cannon to command the bridge. A second parley was sent out from the Covenant lines desiring to be told the nature of any terms that he might have brought from England. Monmouth sent them packing and duly ordered his cannon to open fire.

And this provided the first surprise of the day as the lone Covenant gun,
manned by a stalwart who’s name posterity has not preserved but was their one true hero if the day, drove the government artillerymen from their pieces. However, after their initial discomfiture they returned to their pieces and under the cover of their fire a storming party of dragoons led by the splendidly named Major Theophilus Oglethorpe, stormed and forced the bridge.

Oglethorp's dragoons storm the bridge

Oglethorp’s dragoons storm the bridge

Under instruction not to advance any further than the other end of said bridge, they became carried away by the heat of the moment and advanced up the hill towards the main body of the enemy. Who, perceiving their small numbers, moved down the hill and drove them into the houses at that end of the bridge.

In response 300 foot, under the command of Lord Livingstone’s son, were sent across the bridge and they, in turn, drove the Covenanters back on their main body. Monmouth himself now came forward over the bridge with his own troop and together with those already over, formed up to face the rebels ‘but two carabines shot apart’.

A haphazard and leaderless effort, but an effort nonetheless, was made by the rebels in an attempt to rescue the day. An assault was made on a body of Atholl Highlanders on Monmouth’s right, as the commander sought to form his second line. A brief cannonade forced them back in confusion with the Covenanting horse among them driven headlong from the field. Seconds later the foot joined the stampede and the rout began.

Oglethorp and Claverhouse were ordered to pursue with Monmouth following with the foot. At about ten o’clock that morning a messenger was despatched to Edinburgh bearing news of the victory.

And so the rule of law was once again imposed in all areas of the nation. The defeat at Drumclog could now be placed in proper perspective as a one-off thrown up by the particular circumstances of the day. And appropriate, measured action could now be taken against those who had initiated rebellion against King and lawful Government.

The bubble which had been blown at Rutherglen two months previously had now burst spectacularly with the rout at Bothwell. Monmouth was able to lead his men through the country across which the rebels had so recently roamed at will and confirmed the conclusion that all signs of rebellion were extinguished. On June 25th the local militia were dismissed, their function fulfilled. And on the 26th Monmouth returned to Edinburgh for the grateful thanks of the Privy Council, receiving the Freedom of the City in a large gold box. By 29th June he was on his way back to London.

Controversy, inevitably abounds as we look back on the whole episode, particularly in relation to two of the day’s participants; the Duke of Monmouth, commander-in-chief of the Government force and a lowly commander of horse troops, John Graham of Claverhouse.

Within 6 years Monmouth was dead: tried and executed for treason following his defeat at the Battle of Sedgemoor as he attempted to overthrow his uncle, King James VII and II, and seize the British throne for himself. From this vantage point many re-assess his behaviour at, and after Bothwell Bridge and seek to find indications, through his clemency towards the rebels, of his future treasonous actions.

As far as Claverhouse is concerned there has been as much opprobrium heaped upon him by future historians over his actions at Bothwell Bridge as there is at any other occasion in his career. The attempt to redress which is the driving force for this blog.

Much of this abuse is due to Sir Walter Scott’s depiction of the events of Bothwell Bridge in his novel,Old Mortality, which was published in 1816, nearly 140 years after the events took place. Scott gives Claverhouse a degree of prominence which far outweighs his actual involvement on the day and  also bestows upon him an aura of rapacious cruelty and vengefulness for which there is no basis. However, to be fair to Scott, he could have had little idea of the extent to which his work would outlive and outgrow him to the degree that it has. As Charles Terry, briefly and eloquently puts it, sober history competes unequally with romance.

Scott, author of Old Mortality

Scott, author of Old Mortality

Scott portrays Claverhouse as a colonel at the battle, promoted to General in the aftermath, whereas he was but a plain captain of horse, on the day and for some time afterwards. He and General Tam Dalziel, who was not in fact present at the battle having refused to serve under Monmouth, are credited by Scott with the ruthless pursuit of the fleeing rebels, in flagrant disobedience of Monmouth’s orders, rapaciously slaughtering the vanquished enemy.

Doubtless the emotion generated by his defeat at Drumclog would have been strong. The extensive source material relating to the battle itself and its immediate aftermath make passing mention only of his leading the cavalry on the right once Monmouth was over the bridge and reference to the capture ‘with his own two hands’ of two Covenant battle standards. Once again tradition becomes crystallized into fact in the face of a total absence of evidence. But it was ever thus.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Battle of Drumclog, 1st June 1679

Let’s break away from the summer campaign of 1689 which will end at Killiecrankie and look at an earlier episode in Dundee’s military career.

The Battle of Drumclog

The Battle of Drumclog

In June 1679 the Battle of Drumclog was fought near Loudon Hill in Ayrshire between a government force under his command and a mob of covenanters who were able to surprise him. It might be considered that with the wildness of the times and prevailing circumstances Drumclog was inevitable, but the seeds for this clash were sewn a month before with the nefarious deed carried out on Magus Moor on 3rd May.

On this day a stagecoach bearing Archbishop Sharp and his daughter Isabel, was crossing the moor heading for St Andrews when nine covenanter horsemen fell in behind it in pursuit.

James Sharp was a prominent and controversial figure of the time. As Primate of all Scotland he had been at the forefront of the major events in Scotland for the previous two decades. Captured and imprisoned by Cromwell’s forces in 1650 he had been involved with General Monck in the negotiations for the restoration of Charles II in 1660. Subsequently appointed as Archbishop of St Andrews and to the Privy Council, he then engaged in what was seen by many to be the instigation of the suppression of covenanting principles. And his involvement in the imposition of the death penalty on prisoners captured after the Battle of Rullion Green in 1666, made him, in the eyes of most covenanters, a sworn enemy of their cause.

James Sharp 1618 - 1679, Archbishop of St Andrews

James Sharp 1618 – 1679, Archbishop of St Andrews

And now the opportunity had arisen for them to take their vengeance. As the coach increased speed to escape, one of the archbishop’s mounted servants dropped back in an effort to fend off the pursuers and was immediately cut down with a sword blow. Within minutes the coach was brought to a stop and the archbishop ordered out. Eight of the men crowded round the now-kneeling prelate and laid about him with their swords while his daughter, restrained in the coach, looked on in horror.

The Murder of Archbishop Sharp

The Murder of Archbishop Sharp

Several heavy sword blows to the head ended the business. The archbishop’s efforts to block the blows leaving his hands shredded. Abandoning the lifeless body the covenanting gang plundered the baggage removing what documents they found before riding off leaving the archbishop’s daughter to tend her father’s body.

This murder, a savage and shocking event, even by the standards of the time, was to have profound implications, with the Privy Council subsequently using it to justify the imposition of suppressive measures against those who held to the Covenant.

But all this was yet to follow. In the immediate aftermath of the Archbishop’s assassination the first task of the authorities was to identify, capture and bring to justice, those who had been responsible for the deed.

Fleeing the scene of their crime the assassins rode west to Dunblane then south west to safe haven with their own kind. Among these, there were some more vituperous in their beliefs, that saw this event as a heaven sent opportunity to initiate further, escalated action against the repressive hand of the state. One of the more vocal among these was Robert Hamilton who duly organized a public demonstration of covenanting zeal. On 29 May, the King’s Birthday, he led a band into the burgh of Rutherglen where celebratory bonfires had been lit. Dousing these they then ceremoniously burnt copies of recent repressive legislation then fixed their declaration to the market cross.

News of the events at Rutherglen reached John Graham of Claverhouse in Falkirk late in the afternoon of the 29th May. By the 30th he was in Glasgow and early the next morning he left there hot on Hamilton’s trail. Sweeping through the township of Hamilton he apprehended three of the participants in the Rutherglen display including the renegade preacher John King. He was able to establish that there was a large conventicle planned for the following day, Sunday 1st June, in the vicinity of Loudon Hill. Early that morning he rode forth, took breakfast at Strathaven thence on to Loudon Hill some six miles distant.

The ground where the battle was fought

The ground where the battle was fought

As Claverhouse and his troop breasted the hill at Drumclog they saw arrayed in full battle order some half a mile distant a sizeable gathering of rebels. These had already been made aware of the approach of the government troops and non-combatants had fallen back to the rear with the remainder prepared for action.

Claverhouse’s force faced considerable adverse odds. Eye witness accounts number his force at 120 men of whom half were mounted. The covenant opposition was in the order of two thousand, albeit inexperienced amateurs, if enthusiastic. This Graham had experience of the battlefields of 17th century Europe, although this encounter was of a different nature entirely, and now he had to bring his experience and judgment to bear. He sent forward a parley to give the rebels the opportunity to surrender and avoid bloodshed. This was peremptorily rejected.

And then the rebel force attacked. They launched themselves through the small bog that lay between the two forces and engaged the government troops. Their armament was mostly pitchforks so only by closing fast could they hope to win the day. The first attack was held at bay but their second was delivered with sufficient vigour to break through the government line. 30 troopers were killed and the rest fled or claimed quarter. Claverhouse’s mount, speared with a pitchfork in the first moments of the battle, galloped madly from the field. By the time he had returned it was too late to do anything but gather the fleeing remnants of his men and lead them to safety.

On reaching Glasgow, Claverhouse penned an unvarnished and objective dispatch to the Earl of Linlithgow. There were neither excuses nor fault-finding as it explained the failure.

It was a comprehensive and disastrous defeat for Claverhouse’s command. This covenant victory ignited the smouldering embers of rebellion in south west Scotland. The victorious covenanters moved to base themselves in Hamilton and their numbers swelled over the ensuing days.

The Inscription on the Monument at Drumclog

The Inscription on the Monument at Drumclog

 

The Signing of the National Covenant – Let the Bloodshed Begin

On this day in 1638 the National Covenant was signed in Greyfriars Kirkyard, Edinburgh.

(c) City of Edinburgh Council; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

The Signing of the National Covenant

It was not the first such covenant to be drawn up and publicly signed in Presbyterian Scotland. Nor, sadly would it be the last. However, it was the most significant and its effects more far reaching and profound than any of those previously penned.

In the fifty one years that were to pass from this momentous day until William’s usurpation of James VII & II in 1689, this document would lead directly to the violent death of more Scots than the Great War of 1914 – 18.

concept originally inspired by the Old Testament covenants between the Israelites and their god, the covenant idea had been reinforced in the reformist teachings of Luther and Calvin in the 15th century.This National Covenant drew from the first covenant penned by the Lords of Congregation in 1557, in response to their outrage at the proposed marriage of the young Mary, Queen of Scots to the future King of France. It also leaned heavily on the Negative Confession of Faith signed by James VI in 1581.

Penned by two men, Archibald Johnston, a lawyer, and Alexander Henderson, a Presbyterian minister, it was both a brilliant concept and an inspired piece of writing and it was entirely unprecedented in European history.

Archibald_Johnston_of_Wariston

Archibald Johnston, co-author of the National Covenant

The sequence of events that led to its creation began in 1603 when James VI of Scotland became also King of England and Ireland on the death of Elizabeth. Scotland and the Scots were now in a new and confusing relationship, neither bound politically with England nor an entirely separate state. James, much to his credit, held it all together for 22 years until his death in 1625. However, under his son, Charles I, the wheels began to come off the bus of royal rule. By 1637 England and Ireland were in complete turmoil and the Scots, in simple terms, launched a revolution.
Chas I

Charles I

Charles was hell bent on having a unified form of religious observance throughout his three kingdoms and this would not be Calvinist in nature. In Scotland in 1636 he issued a new set of rules for worship: the Canons and Constitutions Eclesiasticall, which drew heavily on the Church of England’s rule-book of 1604. Historically any fundamental changes to the nature of worship in Scotland had been thrashed out and handed down by the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. Charles, however, enthusiastically sought to bend the Presbyterian towards the Anglican, and imposed these changes by simple royal prerogative.

In the same arbitrary manner a new Common Prayer Book was issued on 23 July 1637. The king was playing fast and loose with one thing that meant a great deal to the common people of Scotland – how they worshipped their god. Public outrage grew.

On the day many ministers simply ignored the command to use the new prayer book. When the Bishop of Brechin placed it on his lectern before his glowering congregation it was flanked ostentatiously with two loaded pistols. In St Giles Cathedral, when the minister began to read from it Jenny Geddes famously picked up her stool and threw it at him.

Jenny GeddesJenny Geddes hurls her stool at the minister in St Giles

And so the crisis developed. Support for the King’s changes was thin on the ground at all levels of society and opposition was loud, vehement and growing apace. In January 1638 the Scottish Privy Council, the executive agency of Royal Government, was compelled to meet in Stirling, such was the level of civil disturbance in Edinburgh.

The protesters then took a major step when they set up a parallel authority to the Council, known as the ‘Tables’. This had representation from each of the four estates of the kingdom; nobles, gentry, burgesses and clergy. It did not, however, have any constitutional authority whatsoever. But it became the focus of the protests of the nation.

It was this demand for meaningful protest and effective action that led directly to the National Covenant being drafted by Johnston and Henderson. On 27th February this first draft was read to a gathering of nobles and ministers and some tinkering carried out. The following afternoon after a religious ceremony in Greyfriars it was solemnly displayed and duly signed by the nobility, the lesser barons and the gentry.

National CovenantL_tcm4-564497

The National Covenant itself

Prominent on this document even now, over 370 years later, is the bold and clear signature of Montrose. James Graham, 5th Earl, soon to be 1st Marquis. One of the first to pen his signature in protest at the King’s high-handedness, he would be Charles I’s Captain-General in the war that ripped across Scotland six years later. But we’ll deal with that in another post.

[ montroseThe Marquis of Montrose, among the first signatories

By 2nd March there were multiple copies circulating throughout the kingdom as the common people queued up for hours to make their mark on the rebellious parchment.

The brilliance of the document itself and its utilisation as a tool to bring about change can be seen in a number of ways. Firstly it coalesced a national feeling of agitation which was initially undirected. It also effectively formed a platform to license further action. Carefully phrased it would cause upset to no-one of a protestant persuasion regardless of their position on its extensive spectrum. For although Henderson and Johnston were vehemently opposed to the very idea of Bishops, since the purest Presbyterian faith required only the minister between each honest soul and his god, no mention of bishops was made in the text. Thus it would not alienate any of an Episcopalian persuasion, who in turn, were signing in protest at what they saw as the king’s attack on the authority of their Bishops.

Additionally, the National Covenant involved all signatories on an equal basis, regardless of their rank in society, and it demanded unequivocal commitment from each of them. Furthermore, by referring to the Negative Confession of 1581 and various other subsequent Acts of Parliament it highlights that all Scots were in law and duty bound to maintain “God’s true religion” ie Presbyterianism and that said religion was joined with the King’s authority. Thus ingeniously linking loyalty to the king with, but subordinate to, loyalty to the Kirk. There was further emphasis to clarify that loyalty to the king was dependent on “blessed and loyal conjunction” with the true religion.

Implicit in this wording was the notion that any king who tampers with the ‘true religion’ must be resisted. This justification for armed resistance against the monarch made the National Covenant a rebellious document. However, the clear implication that an individual could set his private conscience against his obligations to the King and the State made it revolutionary. And so all signatories who had hitherto merely been supplicants to the King now had a new name…..Covenanters.

Covenanter_flag,_Royal_Scottish_Museum

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