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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, 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.



The Regicide of Charles I

On this day in 1649 the king was executed by order of the English Parliament, having been handed over to them by the Army of the Scottish Parliament, in return for some £100, 000.

Chas I 2                                                   Charles I of Scotland and England

This was the third time in Scotland’s long and illustrious history that the anointed monarch had met their death under an English blade. At least in the case of James IV it was on the battlefield. Whereas with Mary, as with Charles now, it was done on the executioner’s block. An outcome disguised, however thinly, as the lawful conclusion of the just implementation of due legal process.

Execution of Chas 1 on his way

  Charles is led to his execution

In May 1646 Charles had surrendered himself to the Scots’ Army which was besieging Newark. Since the destruction of the Royalist army at the Battle of Naseby the previous year, which had tipped the military balance decisively in Parliament’s favour, Charles had been holed up in the besieged city Of Oxford. He had escaped from there in April, with no real idea of what course of action to take. Eventually he had thrown himself on the tender mercies of the Covenanting Army, in the absence of any real alternative as the remaining military options in Scotland and in Ireland were without any prospect of success. The memorable Year of Victories campaign led by Bonnie Dundee’s kinsman, the Marquis of Montrose, having finally run out of steam at Philiphaugh the previous November.

montrose                            The Marquis of Montrose. Charles’ Captain General in Scotland

Charles Stuart’s belief was probably that the Scots would see him first and foremost as King of Scots and succour him. And that their religious convictions would be subservient to this greater loyalty. The Covenanters, for their part, assumed that he had come to them in recognition that taking the Covenant was the only option now open to him and so he was prepared to sign up. In this both parties were deeply mistaken. The Covenanting leadership nevertheless bent with a will to the task of persuading their king of the merits of their beliefs and he was solemnly preached at many times a day for the next few months by such fine examples of tolerance and broad outlook as Alexander Henderson.

Alexander Henderson                                                         Alexander Henderson

But Charles Stuart had not come to the ruin of; his dynasty, the prospects of his native land or the hopes of his loyal subjects by even considering the possibility of compromise of his divine right to rule or the abandonment of his pursuit of what he felt was in his own interests. And so the months of his captivity passed with no progress on either side.

The English Parliament worked steadily towards their own clearly understood goals which were to see the king handed over to them and the Scottish Army return whence it came, so that it might pose no further threat to their security and cease to be a continuing drain on their finances in supporting it in position.

If his nine months of captivity by the Scots had seemed a tortured and unending period of non progress, the next two years would better that. Once in the hands of the English Parliament he was held in various locations as the relationship between Parliament and the New Model Army dissolved in rancorous recrimination and sectarian disagreement.

Charles sought to capitalise on these differences, unsuccessfully. There was an abortive escape attempt and he managed to sign a secret treaty with those Covenanted Scots who were prepared to see him restored to the throne of Scotland as long as Presbyterianism was then imposed on his English subjects for the next three years.

This treaty, the Engagement of ill-renown, led to a full scale invasion of England by another Scottish Army under the Duke of Hamilton., which was crushed at Preston by Cromwell’s notable cross Pennine flank attack.

Battle of Preston

The First Battle of Preston (1648). The Scottish Army is crushed by Cromwell.

By December 1648 the English Parliament was happy to continue negotiations with the king probably for ever. Cromwell, however, strengthened by his recent military success against the Scots, organised the arrest of those members of Parliament who were unsupportive of the New Model Army. The Rump Parliament was formed by the remainder and thus an effective military coup d’état was carried out.

Charles was duly tried for treason against his English Parliament. Subjecting the monarch to a criminal trial had never been attempted before, neither in England nor in Scotland. The Chief Justices of the three common law courts of England each considered such an indictment as unlawful. The Rump Parliament declared itself capable of legislating alone on the issue and promptly passed the necessary act declaring royal assent unnecessary. After three days the process was concluded and the guilty verdict handed down.

trial of Charles I

The Trial of Charles I

And so at 2 pm on 30th January the king was publicly beheaded in Whitehall. In a departure from the established custom of the times where the severed head (and limbs) of executed traitors were publicly displayed for many years, pour encourager les autres, Charles head was sewn back onto his body and the corpse promptly embalmed.

Cromwell_before_the_Coffin_of_Charles_I                                      Oliver Cromwell inspects the corpse of Charles I

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