Tag Archives: Charles I

30th January: The Executions of Charles I and Oliver Cromwell

On Tuesday 30th January 1649, Charles Stuart, 11th monarch of the House of Stuart, 2nd incumbent of the unified throne was marched from St James’ Palace to Whitehall to be publicly beheaded. His forbears had sat on the throne of Scotland for 261 years and now it was to end. In the snow, in a foreign land, in front of a silent mob.

Charles I heads for his execution

Charles I heads for his execution

Twelve years later, on Wednesday 30th January 1661, the disinterred body of Oliver Cromwell, which had lain in its grave for over two years, was taken from the Red Lion Inn in Holborn along with that of Henry Ireton, another of the regicides, to Tyburn where it was publicly hanged in chains. No public pronouncement of death being deemed necessary as the corpse had been such for some time.

After hanging there for some hours his body was taken down and the head struck unceremoniously from the rest of it whence it was placed high on a wooden stake for all to see.

Cromwell's corpse is hanged (with his fellow regicides Bradshaw and Ireton)

Cromwell’s corpse is hanged (with his fellow regicides Bradshaw and Ireton)

Cromwell: a man who had come close to being crowned himself and who was deemed then and since to represent the quintessentialness of British values to have his body treated in a manner so contemptuous that even now, three and a half centuries later we have no idea, and less concern, as to the location of said head.

Cromwell's severed head, as pictured in 1700. It's present whereabouts are unknown

Cromwell’s severed head, as pictured in 1700. It’s present whereabouts are unknown

As Cromwell’s corpse swung in the winter breeze, there was to be no dwelling on the manner in which events had unfolded. When he had died, the first time, he was at the height of his powers as Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of the Three Kingdoms. His position backed up by his New Model Army, an extremely effective military force of his own creation. Nonetheless, it was remarkable the extent to which the fortunes of his interests had deteriorated so much in such a short space of time.

For Charles Stuart, however, there was plenty of time for him to consider the vicissitudes of his life. By January 1649 he had been held prisoner for nearly three years. First by the Scots Covenanting Army in Newcastle, upon whose mercy he had thrown himself when he had exhausted all other options following the defeat of his army in the Civil War. And then when the Scots handed him over to the vengeful Parliamentarians he was held under house arrest in a number of different locations whilst said Parliamentarians made up their mind as to what to do with him.

During this time his prospects were not entirely grim with the Scots rising in arms once more, this time to seek his freedom. But these hopes were to be dashed as Cromwell and his New Model destroyed this army at the Battle of Preston. And as negotiations wound tediously on over the months it was only near the end when Parliament sought to indict him for treason that he would have had some idea that matters might end with his death.

Charles I at his trial. Parliament had sacked his barber and he would let no-one near him with a razor.

Charles I at his trial. Parliament had sacked his barber and he would let no-one near him with a razor.

Like the citizenry of England, the Scots were not averse to brutally assassinating their anointed monarch when the need arose. As when James I was done to death in the basement of Blackfriars Monastery in 1437. Or when James III died at the hands of a mysterious assassin in the immediate aftermath of the Battle of Sauchieburn in 1488.

Edward II of England’s grizzly end by means of a hot poker testifies to the enthusiasm with which such matters were conducted south of the border, albeit this happened after his abdication. However, we have the cases of Henry VI and the Princes in the Tower as eloquent evidence of due process in that part of the world.

However, in the long and colourful history of the Kingdom of Scotland there had never been efforts made to prosecute then execute a monarch. In England, however, not only was there a proud tradition of executing reigning monarchs, such as Lady Jane Grey in 1554. They had also taken it upon themselves to execute other peoples’ monarchs. The utterly reprehensible fashion in which Her Grace, Mary Queen of Scots was held prisoner for some nineteen years before a shameless show trial found her guilty of treason against a monarch of whom she was not a subject and condemned her to death, stands in clear testimony to the barbaric manner in which such matters have been conducted there over the centuries.

Mary, Queen of Scots at her execution in 1587.

Mary, Queen of Scots at her execution in 1587.

In January 1649, the first effort of the Rump Commons to raise the treason indictment against King Charles was immediately thrown out as unlawful by the three Chief Justices of the Common Law Courts of England. And so, in the high-handed manner in which this august body conducts its business, the Rump Commons unconstitutionally declared itself capable of legislating alone.

It then created a bill for the King’s trial and passed it as an act without royal assent. By this stage even the incorrigible optimism of Charles Stuart would have begun to give way to a more realistic assessment of the way the wind was blowing.

Charles had a firm and unaltered view of his God-anointed position. It was largely this firmness of purpose expressed as a wholesale refusal to compromise with any and all which had brought him into conflict with his Parliaments and his citizenry and which, arguably, had brought about the ruinous collapse in the fortunes of himself and those of the noble House of whom he was but the latest progeny.

So we can be reasonably sure that he did not entertain himself in his final hours with thoughts of what might have been done, by himself or by others, in the years gone by, to avoid this disastrous outcome.

Perhaps he might have handled his dealings regarding religious worship less high-handedly. The manner in which the he imposed his chosen form of worship on the people of Scotland led directly to the Signing of the National Covenant and thus to years of needless bloodshed which would continue long after his death.

The National Covenant is signed in 1638. The bloodshed of the Covenant Wars would soon follow.

The National Covenant is signed in 1638. The bloodshed of the Covenant Wars would soon follow.

Perhaps, he might have recognized the fundamental split that had occurred with his English Parliament and returned to the land of his fathers to re-establish the separate Kingdom of Scotland. Perhaps, in 1603, his father before him, James VI/I, might have given more thoughtful consideration to the offer of the joint crown in the first place. And instead of haring across the border at the first opportunity never once to return on the twenty-two years of his remaining life, he might have considered the possible downside of the arrangement. He might have pondered how a political arrangement with a single monarch presiding over two nations with separate sovereign Parliaments and with clear and historically proven diverse interests could ever possibly work.

No such thoughts occurred to either man. Nor indeed to those who came after. Charles’ son, Charles II, restored to the throne when the whole Cromwellian nonsense crumbled to dust after the man’s death, had too many other distractions to entertain him than taking action to provide long-term political stability.

And his brother, James II, had little enough time during his reckless reign to consider what could be done before jumping into the boat and heading for France, despite the entreaties of those who had the interests of him, his Ancient House and the people of Scotland at heart.

It was James’ reckless abandonment of his responsibilities that directly gave rise to another 57 years of bloodshed and sacrifice in the Jacobite Risings.

So perhaps there was a clear inevitability about the manner of his death. The mistakes, however, were not all his.

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28th August 1640, the Battle of Newburn Ford

Newburn was the only battle fought during the Second Bishops War, an even more obscure campaign then the First Bishops War.

It was one of those unusual occasions when a Scottish army marched south, conducted itself in commendable martial fashion against an admittedly ill-led, ill-prepared English opposition and won the day handsomely. Its worth looking at just on the basis of this rarity alone.

Of itself the battle had a profound impact, playing a key role in the prolonged deterioration of the relationship between Charles I and his English Parliament which led to the regicide of said monarch and all the unfortunate train of events which then ensued; the war of the Three Kingdoms, the Cromwellian Interregnum, the Restoration, James II’s disasterous reign, William’s usurpation, the Jacobite Risings, the Union of the Crowns and so on ad infinitum.

This war, as with its predecessor, arose from the belief amongst Covenanting Scots that the aforementioned Covenant could only be defended on the field of battle and so a sizeable Scottish Army, of some 20,000 infantry and 3, 000 horse, headed south in mid August in order to pursue the resolution of their grievances with King Charles’ military representatives. An army assembled by the unconstitutional authority of a Parliament which convened itself without the constitutionally essential Royal Commissioner and in the face of the King’s direct instruction for proroguement, declaring the King’s consent to be tacit. It was the same fiction by which the Long Parliament would be subsequently convened at Westminster

 

Command of this army was given to Alexander Leslie, one of the foremost military commanders in Scottish and Swedish history. Leslie’s force marched south and was led in person across the Tweed at Coldstream by the Great Montrose, over the very ford that Walter Scott has Marmion riding on the eve of Flodden.

Alexander Leslie

King Charles, meanwhile, struggled to field a presentable force and was compelled to call the Short Parliament that he might raise the necessary supplies for it. Sadly, for this noble monarch, his persuasive efforts, as was so often the case, proved fruitless and he dissolved this august body of men.

Charles I, King of both the victors and the vanquished at Newburn Ford.

Charles I, King of both the victors and the vanquished at Newburn Ford.

The English army was commanded by Edward, Lord Conway. This would prove to be the only occasion that the good lord was entrusted to command men in battle, during his brief military career.

As Leslie’s army approached Newcastle’s unfortified flank from the north, Conway drew up his force at Newburn Ford to prevent his enemy crossing the river. There was, to be fair, little else he could do as the Scots Army greatly outnumbered his and the quality of men under his command led a great deal to be desired, according to various contemporary accounts.

Leslie’s army was on higher ground and well blessed with cannon which it used to shell the English into an early and full-scale retreat from the river bank. The following morning the city of Newcastle meekly surrendered.

Leslie's Scottish Army crosses Newburn Ford having blown the English soldiery out of their positions and into full-scale retreat

Leslie’s Scottish Army crosses Newburn Ford having blown the English soldiery out of their positions and into full-scale retreat

The battle had no small significance to the constitutional future of both kingdoms and was won in an afternoon with only sixty dead on the losing side and around a dozen from the victors.

The Covenanting Army then proceeded to occupy Newcastle, thus controlling the supply of coal to London and Charles was compelled to agree the raising of a levy from the surrounding district to maintain the occupying force in victuals.

 

The ramifications of Leslie’s victory went far beyond the mere financial and the dizzy descent into the War of the Three Kindoms gathered apace.

 

27 March 1625 James VI/I Dies, Charles Succeeds, Disaster Ensues.

James died after a protracted period of illness and the crown was handed on, without demur, to his and heir Charles, his fourth child and only surviving son.

James has been much criticized as a monarch and as a person but the facts remain that his 57 year reign as monarch of Scotland was the longest of any of his 42 odd predecessors and also the most peaceful, on a per year basis.

From the Battle of Langside in 1568 when his mother’s final attempt to hold onto the Scottish throne was decisively defeated, to the opening salvo of the First Bishops War in 1639, when his son’s cack-handed attempts to enforce contentious forms of religious worship upon his unwilling subjects led to open civil war in his homeland, there were no major military engagements fought anywhere Scotland, beyond long-standing, local disputes.

So in 1639 when disenchanted Scotsmen felt compelled to pick up weapons to oppose King Charles in there were none alive who had previously wielded such, other than those who had gained experience in distant foreign wars.

When you consider the turmoil of previous reigns and the turbulent bloodshed that the next seventy years would see throughout the three kingdoms, this is an achievement of some note.

And it is the comparison between the smooth handling of his reign, both north and south of the border versus the many and manifest failings of Charles that James’ abilities as a monarch stand most markedly.

The widely held historical view of James is not complimentary. Infamously described as ‘the wisest fool in Christendom’, as having a tongue too big for his mouth and ‘preferring the company of men’ he stands pilloried as ugly, homosexual and unable to competently discharge his responsibilities as head of state.

It makes you wonder to what extent each of us has our view of a particular period of history shaped by the images available. There are many portraits of James throughout his reign and he is represented in an attractive manner in none of them. From his earliest portrayal with his mother, dressed in apparel strangely matching hers, through the many depictions during his reign where undue emphasis might seem to put on his less appealing physical features.

A not untypical, less than heroic portrait of James VI/I

A not untypical, less than heroic portrait of James VI/I

It all compares poorly to the extensive glamorous and heroic portraiture of Charles I generated throughout his reign by his court painter, Anthony van Dyck. Perhaps this was simply Charles’ good fortune.

A typical Van Dyck heroic  portrait of Charles I

A typical Van Dyck heroic portrait of Charles I

 

Similarly who is not familiar, even subconsciously, with Alec Guiness’ depiction of the troubled Charles in the 1970 film Cromwell. Whereas James’ only depiction in cinematic drama is limited to the occasional TV mini series.

Alec Guiness as the troubled monarch, Charles I

Alec Guiness as the troubled monarch, Charles I

Whatever James’ shortcomings as a monarch it is unarguable that he presided over predominantly peaceful times. This is testified to by the cultural flourishings seen during his reign; the development of drama with Shakespeare and Bacon and their like and the publishing of the eponymous King James Bible to name but two.

Shakespeare flourished under the peaceful reign of James

Shakespeare flourished under the peaceful reign of James

Whereas under Charles we see turmoil, political schism, civil war waged separately and together throughout the three kingdoms under his charge. In Scotland his unshakeable belief in the rectitude of his view regarding divine worship led to the drafting and the signing of the National Covenant, its subsequent supercession by the Solemn League and Covenant, the then inevitable Covenant Wars and thence to that infamous period in Scottish history still referred to as the Killing Time. A gross misrepresentation of the facts which is so widely held to be true even to this day that men are driven to blog about it!

James was the first incumbent of the unified throne: the first head of state of two kingdoms which had been at war for a great deal of the previous millennium to one degree or another. A daunting prospect for even the most gifted of his forebears yet he managed to run the thing calmly and peacefully. When Charles succeeded in 1625 the whole operation had been up and running smoothly for 22 years but before he was done he had lost wars with both his Parliaments and met his end on the executioners block with his charge in ruins around him.

If Charles was to prove a less capable monarch how did they compare as men? To what extent did the value the efforts and service of those around them? Perhaps in James’ case the peaceful nature of the times meant there were no challenges to him in this area. Men rose and fell in his favour, such as the Earl of Carr and his replacement by the Duke of Buckingham. However, to lose the King’s favour in these times resulted only in loss of status and financial opportunities.

With Charles the opportunities to behave weakly in the treatment of those who served him led to such unfortunates being flung under the proverbial bus: with bothThomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford and Archbishop Laud beheaded as a direct result of their service to their king. Montrose’s remarkable efforts in Scotland during the 1644-45 campaign to defeat the forces of the Scottish Parliament and restore Charles to his throne met with little acknowledgement and he too met his end through execution.

 

The Earl of Strafford and Archbishop Laud: flung under the bus by Charles their king.

The Earl of Strafford and Archbishop Laud: flung under the bus by Charles their king.

On balance then, however you judge the wisdom of James taking up the position of the first monarch on the unified throne, he made a far better job of it than his generally higher-rated offspring.

Perhaps, gentle reader, you have a view you would like to share.

 

2nd February 1645, The Battle of Inverlochy: Montrose’s Finest Hour

By the end of January 1645 King Charles I had been at war with both of his parliaments for over two years and so far his fortunes had been mixed. In England it wasn’t going so well. His army, under the command of his nephew, Prince Rupert of the Rhine, had fought two major engagements against the forces of the English Parliament. The first at Edgehill in the autumn of 1642 had been inconclusive. However, in June 1644, Rupert’s army had been heavily defeated at Marston Moor and prospects for overall victory had dimmed as a consequence.

Prince Rupert of the Rhine, nephew of Charles I, defeated at the Battle of Marston Moor, June 1644.

Prince Rupert of the Rhine, nephew of Charles I, defeated at the Battle of Marston Moor, June 1644.

In Scotland it was a different story. There, his Captain-General, James Graham the Marques of Montrose had contrived to pull together an army of around 4000 men to serve his king’s interests. This comprised Scottish highlanders and a sizeable body of Irish warriors under the command of Alasdair McColla. How Montrose had persuaded the clans of the central highlands to fight on the same side for the first times since the Battle of Harlaw in 1411, and combined them with a similar size force of Irish whom they had set to destroy in the first place is a further remarkable story.

The Great Montrose

The Great Montrose

With himself and McColla at their head this little army had fought and destroyed two armies sent against them by the Scottish Parliament, at Tippermuir in August 1644 and then at Justice Mills (Aberdeen) in the November following. Despite this success their position was still vulnerable as Parliament had still further military resources at their disposal and was preparing these to inflict comprehensive defeat on the Royalist army.

With the bleak Scottish winter drawing in Montrose’s options were limited. It was the custom of the time for such bodies of armed men to seek winter quarters and await the arrival of springtime when campaigning could be resumed. And this was the expectation of his enemies. This was an unattractive option for Montrose as it would have meant his army dissolving to return to their homes and he would then have had to start recruiting afresh some months later.

The principal leader of the covenanting Government was Archibald Campbell, Marquess of Argyll and chieftain of Clan Campbell, the largest of the highland clans which had been engaged in an ambitious programme of expansion for some generations, to the cost of those clans whose land bordered Argyll’s.

Our Archibald's grandfather, also Archibald. 8th Earl and 1st Marquess of Argyll. In black-cowled Geneva Minister manifestation

Our Archibald’s grandfather, also Archibald. 8th Earl and 1st Marquess of Argyll. In black-cowled Geneva Minister manifestation

In a daring manoeuver which was to become his trademark, Montrose then led his men across Scotland and through the narrow snow-covered passes into Argyll and shortly before Christmas 1644 he attacked the town of Inverary, the principal settlement and port and the location of Argyll’s own castle. Argyll fled in his galley as Montrose and McColla’s men put all enemy combatants to the sword and then holed up in the town for another three weeks consuming the rich bounty of food and drink that they found there.

On 22nd January Montrose evacuated Inverary in the expectation that Argyll would be assembling fresh  forces with which to pursue them. A force of some 3000 men they were laden with booty and the principal township of the lands of Clan Campbell sat a smoking ruin behind them.

They were still deep in the hostile territory of Argyll in the depths of winter. And Argyll himself was assembling strong forces to attack them and avenge this assault on his home territory and, equally importantly, his personal political status.

Additionally, but probably unbeknownst to Montrose, General William Baillie had been newly appointed as the commander-in-chief of the government forces. An old soldier of Gustavus Adolphus and veteran of Marston Moor, Baillie was his own man and did not hesitate in refusing to take instructions from Argyll when they met to discuss the pursuit of the Royalist army. Although he did transfer to the Marques’s command some 1100 of his regular troops. Baillie now sat in Perth with a sizeable force thus constituting a significant but unknown threat to the eastern flank of Montrose’s route north.

General William Baillie, whose force blocked Motrose's route east

General William Baillie, whose force blocked Montrose’s possible escape route to the east.

The immediate task facing Montrose was to conclusively defeat the remaining military forces of the Scottish covenanting parliament. As he marched his army north from Argyll negotiating the comb-frettted difficulties of the landscape of the west highland coast where the land was punctuated by deep sea lochs and boats were a scarcity, he would have been considering how best to achieve this goal.

Within a week they had made it to Inverlochy in the friendly territory of Lochaber where, as they rested, they were joined by further reinforcements as various clan chiefs, pushed off the fence of vacillation by the outcome of the remarkable attack on Inveraray now rallied to the King’s standard.

However, much of Scotland was still hostile territory for the King’s army. In the far north at Inverness the Earl of Seaforth, Clan Chief of the MacKenzies, who like many powerful men in Scotland had for long avoided full commitment to either cause had recently declared against the King. It was likely that he would soon be heading south down the Great Glen at the head of another sizeable force, bent on the destruction of Montrose’s command. By now Montrose would be aware of Baillie’s army positioned to the east in Perth and confirmation was also received that the Earl of Argyll approached from the south with the remainder of his Clan Campbell’s soldiery as well as the 1100 hundred men supplied by Baillie.

Positioned thusly between three hostile forces, each of which matched or exceeded his own in size, he probably determined that the best course of action was to seek out Clan Gordon in the north-east. The Gordons were second only in size and martial strength to the Campbells. And alone among the highland clans they had a measurable element of mounted men at their disposal. The Marquis of Huntly, Chief of Clan Gordon, had hitherto declined to declare support for his beleaguered monarch. Partly though resentment that Montrose had been given the royal commission in the first place; a rank which diminished his own of Lieutenancy of the north, and partly also due to previous disagreements between the two men during the Bishops Wars half a dozen years previously.

Nonetheless, in Montrose’s eyes, despite his victories at the Battles of Tippermuir and Justice Mills and the recent outstanding success in sacking Inverary, the struggle in Scotland now required the input of the Gordons if it were to be ultimately successful. And it was this challenge of persuading Huntly to throw in his lot with his King which would have pre-occupied Montrose’s mind as he led his army up the Great Glen where they overnighted at Kilcumin (now Fort Augustus) on the evening of 30 January.

Events, however, were about to overtake him and his plans for sweetalking the Marquis of Huntly would have to be shelved. Firstly a messenger arrived at their camp confirming that the Earl of Seaforth had assembled some five thousand men, Mackenzies and Frasers mostly but also two regiments of regular soldiery. They were currently some thirty milesto the north and about to march directly down the Great Glen to engage him. As Montrose weighed up the implications of this news another messenger arrived. He had been sent north from Lochaber by Locheil, Chief of Clan Cameron, and advised that the Earl of Argyll had arrived at Inverlochy, thirty odd miles to the south with over three thousand men and was on the point of heading up the Great Glen to find and engage Montrose.

So what now for the King’s Captain-General? A numerically superior force approached from the north, with another heading up from the south similar in size to his own and hell-bent on revenge, with Baillie’s army blocking the route east and to the west only the winter-gripped barrenness of the highland seaboard.

Negotiations with Huntly and the work of increasing the size of the King’s army would now have to wait as the fate of said army and, with it, the King’s cause in Scotland, and perhaps throughout the three kingdoms, was now threatened with disastrous defeat.

Stood around the campfire on that winter’s evening Montrose, Alasdair MacColla and the clan chiefs now discussed their options. Seaforth’s force was perhaps twice their size but the calibre of much of that they knew to be questionable. But Argyll’s assembly of Clan Campbell’s finest fighting stock, notwithstanding the losses suffered in the attack on Inverary, was a different matter altogether and included the 1100 regulars handed over by Baillie. And even if Montrose were to engage and defeat Seaforth, Argyll’s men would still need to be faced in turn. Furthermore it was clear that as this force had made their way north they had taken time to burn and pillage through the territory of any believed to be in sympathy with Montrose. Men who stood with him now and were moved to protect their own lands.

Thus the decision as to their next move made itself. Once victorious over Argyll they could then march to Gordon country and with a greater likelihood of success in persuading them to join forces.

However, to simply turn about and head back down the glen to attack Argyll was to invite defeat. It would require a different approach if their unlikely record of success was to be maintained. And so in the dark of the following morning, Friday 31 January, Montrose and his army of three thousand men embarked on that legendary flank march which has been deemed one of the great exploits of arms in the history of the British Isles. With the Great Glen carving a gash from south-west to north-east, they disappeared south-east up the rocky course of the little River Tarff and disappeared into the mountains.
Over the next thirty six hours they covered over thirty miles in weather as unkind as the Scottish winter can deliver, as Argyll and Seaforth’s scouts combed the Great Glen fruitlessly. Late on the Saturday evening they crossed over the northern buttress of Ben Nevis’ long slope and looked down upon the dark mass of Inverlochy Castle with the many camp fires of Clan Campbell dotted around it. The surprise was complete. Montrose, who had been confirmed at Loch Ness not two days before now stood at the head of his army ready to attack the assembled mass of the Sons of Diarmid.

Inverlochy Castle, around which Argyll's army was camped prior to the battle.

Inverlochy Castle, around which Argyll’s army was camped prior to the battle.

Argyll himself, recently injured in a horsefall and with little stomach for pitched battle, conferred full authority on his kinsman Duncan Auchenbreck, who he had, to be fair, recalled from Ireland specifically to lead this army. And the Chief of Clan Campbell was, one again,rowed out to his waiting galley which sat at anchor safely out on Lich Linnhie.

And so, on 2nd February, Candlemas Day, both armies lined up in battle order and waited out the remainder of the freezing night. As soon as there was deemed to be enough light to fight by, Alasdair, at Montrose’s direction led the two flanks of Irishmen forward. When they were close to the enemy they fired their muskets then followed up with sword and dirk. In just a few minutes the enemy flanks were in disarray and the centre quickly followed suit with many of the regular troops fleeing the field. At this point Montrose took the royalist centre forward and completed the rout.

Inverlochy was to be one of the bloodiest battles fought on Scottish soil and as is so often the case in such circumstances the majority of the slaughter was carried out on a terrified and defeated rabble as they fled the field. Some 1800 men of Argyll’s force met their end, some as far away as ten miles from the battlefield.

In terms of deaths per combatants involved, Inverlocht was one of the bloodiest battles fought in Scottish history.

In terms of deaths per combatants involved, Inverlochy was one of the bloodiest battles fought in Scottish history.

 

This success following so close on from the triumph of the raid on Iveraray would have been more than Montrose could have hoped for just two months previously. In the immediate aftermath of the fight he wrote a comprehensive despatch to his King detailing the recent successes and anticipating, not without some cause, ultimate victory.

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

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

January 24th 1679 – Charles II dissolves the Cavalier Parliament

On this day in 1679 Charles II dissolved the seemingly interminable Cavalier Parliament. This had opened almost 18 years previously in May 1661 but still sat for less time than Charles I’s Long Parliament of 1640 – 1660.

The first act of this august body was to pass the Sedition Act which declared the Solemn League and Covenant null and void and ordered it be publicly burned. 17 years too late in the mind of many, as by then the damage was done. The Solemn League, signed in 1643, was an agreement between the Scottish Covenanters and the English Parliament by which the Scots agreed to provide military aid to the English against their mutual, lawful king, in exchange for their agreement to ensure the extirpation of papacy and prelacy and, ultimately and bizarrely, the imposition of the full weight of dogmatic Presbyterianism on the people of England.

the solemn league

   Solemn League and Covenant – publicly repudiated and burned by order of the Cavalier Parliament

Unsurprisingly there was a host of other legislation passed during this epic sitting and much repealing of legislation passed during the twenty years of the Long Parliament, so rigidly opposed to Charles I. Although at one point Parliament had to adjourn to Oxford to conduct its business due to the Great Fire.

great fire of london                                Great Fire of London – Cavalier Parliament moved to Oxford

This included the Militia Act which placed the command of the armed forces wholly and clearly under the King’s authority. Also the Indemnity and Oblivion Act which pardoned all involved in the regicide of Charles I in 1649 with the exception of those directly involved. Who was to be included on this list was the subject of rancorous debate for some two months as names were added to the original list of seven miscreants and others taken off. John Milton, of Paradise Lost fame, walked free.

John Milton

John Milton – pardoned for his part in Charles I’s regicide

Ultimately only thirteen individuals were executed for this heinousness. Although nineteen were imprisoned for life and a further three, already dead by the time of Charles II’s restoration, had their bodies desecrated.

Also repealed was the Bishops’ Exclusion Act of 1642 which permitted the aforementioned Bishops to resume their temporal positions from which they had been heaved so unceremoniously by the previous regime. And the first licensing of hackney carriages took place.

hackney-coach-1680

Hackney cabs – first licensed by the Cavalier Parliament

However, after this promising start relations between the king and his parliament deteriorated. Prejudice against the King’s brother, the Duke of York and future King James II and VII, led to a raft of provocative legislation; requiring the taking of oaths renouncing papal authority, imposing the requirement of parliamentary consent to royal marriages and the threat of charges of high treason against the Duke of York led to a difficult and confrontational atmosphere reminiscent of the situation prevailing under Charles I twenty years earlier.

Ultimately the king’s disastrous foreign intriguing over the Dutch French war, with his foreign secretary Lord Danby, during which it was decided that marrying the Duke of York’s daughter, Mary, to William of Orange would be helpful and constructive step to ensuring the future prosperity of the Stuart monarchy, led to a situation of deep and mutual distrust which was tipped over the edge by the hysterical nonsense of the Popish Plot and Charles was forced to agree the parliament’s dissolution.

 

 

 

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