Tag Archives: national covenant

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.



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.


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