Last time I left you with the news that Charles I, in the spirit of flexibility and responsiveness to the needs of his Scottish subjects, had decided to charge ahead with perfecting the Kirk in his royal image, complete with Canons and a prayer book, and in 1637 the prayer books were on the way north to be delivered to a duly obedient and grateful people. In his absence though things had not stayed still, because the people of Scotland were worried.
It was not just the behaviour of their king at parliament in 1633 and the subsequent mood music coming north thereafter about religion, though those were the big things; it was also the news coming out of Ireland, which of course we need to include if we are to be telling a story of three kingdoms. Now Scotland had links of course in Ireland; there were traditional links between the MacDonalds of the western Isles and O’Donnells of northern Ireland; and now of course there were close links with the plantations of Ulster, with the extensive settlements espoused by James VI. Now as far as Charles was concerned, the idea of uniformity very much extended to Ireland just as much as England and Scotland; and his tool to achieve this in Ireland was Viscount Thomas Wentworth, whom he appointed as viceroy in 1632. Wentworth was an uncompromising sort of man and a royalist through and through; and he set out to bring Ireland firmly to heel. This included the traditional animus against Catholicism; and he pursued the catholic hierarchy to prevent them operating effectively. But he also wanted to make Ireland pay for itself; and so advanced new plantation schemes in Connacht that he reckoned would land £5,000 of income a year. In his pursuit of money he went after Protestants as well as Catholics, so I suppose maybe we should credit Wentworth with a balanced approach – or more like having a chip on both shoulders.
Wentworth was a thorough going supporter also of Archbishop Laud’s religious policies, and was determined to see Laud’s views implemented in Ireland. He went as far as to grab back old church land from protestants to enrich Charles’ imperial church – a sort of Revocation Plus. In this regard, his ire fell particularly on the Scottish Presbyterians in Ulster who he considered to be outrageous and insubordinate fanatics, and he laboured hard to stop presbyterian ministers from receiving church livings. So, while we’ve got Scots fearing for their religion and land rights, and English worrying about tyrannical personal rule and a Laudian takeover of religion, we also have an Ireland where, remarkably and actually with enormous talent, Wentworth had succeeded in uniting the range of disparate and normally irreconcilable elements of Irish society against the king. Banzai.
The news about events in Ireland filtered back to Scotland; some of the news was brought by Scottish preachers persecuted in Ireland who returned to their homeland. Prewarned, Ministers opposed to the idea of the prayer book and canons started to organise themselves well before they actually arrived; and there is some evidence that the meetings in Scotland were not only carried out secretly and furtively at home, but also assumed an international dimension, making contact with similar minded discontents in England, and trying to rustle up support there; in February 1637, one Eleazer Borthwick, a Scot based in London came back to Scotland to report back on feelings down south. Now, it’s not clear by any means that at this early stage that proto covenanters were thinking about an archipelago wide religious movement; but ties and bonds were formed early, from which such fruit would grow.
As the prayer book became available its existence did not make all the trouble and strife melt away; indeed not. In fact the Scottish prayer book, developed by the Bishops of Scotland, was considered even worse than the English Book of Common prayer, if such a thing were possible, leaving out some specific statements against the real presence. Also the preface made it painfully clear what the king intended
The churches…under the protection of one sovereign prince the same ought to be endeavoured
So the finest of churches, the kirk, was to be rolled into that popish English mess then! More grist to the mill of the concept that if there was to be one church throughout the three kingdoms, it should be a proper, Presbyterian model.
Now the Privy Council in Scotland hasn’t generally had a good press for its handling of the whole situation, but to be honest Traquair and the council, and indeed the bishops, were between the rock of their king and the hard place of the more radical of the kirk; they had little desire to introduce the prayer book, but Charles was adamant and unyielding. It might be noted that the obvious approach surely would have been to have the new liturgy discussed and agreed through the General Assembly of the kirk to try and gain some support and legitimacy; such a thing never seems to have been contemplated by Charles, who was reasonably convinced the legitimacy of his actions required no confirmation.
It has to be said that the PC was itself not well united; Traqhuair was a difficult, arrogant leader of the Council, and not fond of the Bishops; Traquair probably wouldn’t be too upset to see the Bishops get it in the neck, and maybe he could ride back into town and get all the credit for sorting everything out. However, reluctantly, the PC agreed to go ahead; and then in a boob of major proportion they gave the world to understand in advance that the new Prayer Book would be used at St Giles Kirk for the first time on 23rd July.
Well, if you are planning a coup I think telling everyone when you’re going to drug the guards and take over the throne room is probably not the best idea; it gives your opponents a nice opportunity to prepare the counter moves. And that’s what happens here. Plans were made in secret, furrowed brows, maps, instructions, conversations sotte voce in dark corners behind hairy and indeed hairless hands. So when the day dawned, things were ready.
So, there we are then in St Giles kirk, the place packed to the rafters, on 23rd July 1637. A great many grandees were there – members of the PC, Bishops, archbishops, even Uncle Tom Cobbly was there. Oddly Traquahir was not, which was odd. Many of the ordinary folk brought along vital equipment in the days before the nice shiny Victorian pews, little folding chairs on which to perch their tired bums and rest their legs all the better to be able to soak up the wisdom of the preachers, which in those days took some time to impart. Anyway, all was in place, and the Dean went to read the collects from the source of all perfection, the Scottish Book of Common Prayer. As he did, a market trader named after Robert Burnes horse, Jenny Geddes rose and yelled out
De’il gie you colic, the wame o’ ye, fause thief; daur ye say Mass in my lug?
I hope you are all impressed with Davie’s Ayrshire version of 17th century Edinburgh Scots. As she said this, a creeple stool, or folding stool, was winging its way towards the Dean. What Burns’ horse was trying to express was that
- She hoped the Devil would give the Dean a tummy ache
- She expressed a firmly held belief that the collect was actually part of a Catholic mass
- She was passing the Dean this stool so that he could sit down and stop offending her ears.
Obviously, I have Jenny and Burns’ horse the wrong way round. Burns of course called his mare Jenny Geddes, and as a ‘ yald, poutherie Girran for a’ that; and has a stomach like Willie Stalker’s meere that wad hae digested tumbler-wheels’. Make of that what you will. Also the actual existence of Jenny is possibly apocryphal.
However several things were very real. The fury of the congregations was orchestrated but undoubtedly genuine. There was a great commotion
All the commone people, especially the women, started shouting, cursing and clapping their hands crying out woe, woe they are bringing in Poperie among us
The Bishops and Archbishops tried to quiet the crowd to no avail; there were people rapping at the church doors and windows, as the bishops left they were surrounded by an angry chanting crowd. Elsewhere at other church services, the prayer book received the same furious response. By 29th July, on the Bishops’ advice, the Privy Council bowed to the will of the people and suspended the use of the prayer book.
Well, the Prayer Book riots were planned and well executed. They were almost completely free of deaths and serious injury – though I’m sure if you were the Earl of Roxburgh whose carriage was pelted with stones or you were a bishop you’d have been pretty scared. But although royal apologists blamed the ‘meaner sort’ this was not a spontaneous outburst in search of revolution. It was also very much lead by women; many of whom were described as matrons, a term strongly implying respectability. The reason for all of this was that this was indeed not a revolution; it was a warning shot. Protesters were very careful to blame the bishops for their woes, not the king.
The absence of violence speaks to a few themes of the Scottish revolution; it was well organised; it managed to achieve a degree of uniformity quite quickly, as print and social networks brought a wide range of people into agreement with the protests against royal proclamations. It is a theme that will continue, into the extraordinary success of the Covenanters, over 4 years, in establishing a state with a strong degree of legitimacy.
At this early stage then, and for many months following, a monarch with an ounce of sense would take the opportunity to look for compromise – if not to abandon the whole project. Some of the Bishops for example had already given Ministers a holiday from using the Prayer Book for a few months to give them time to consider it carefully. The Privy Council, though knew their man; and so much so that they were very reluctant to give their royal master the full story and extent of resistance; there’s a sort of finger pointing exercise, where the laymen accused the Bishops of messing it all up; they gave every impression of being more worried about the king’s response than the actual riots. Either way, they waited anxiously for fresh orders from the king, hoping against hope that he would find a way out of this impasse. The letters and instructions from the king – would they be emollient?
Well actually no. It has been a moment of great distress to me over the last few years to see the appearance of the much over used phrase, to double down, which rarely means a good thing, like ‘She doubled down on her charity donations’ for example. I can say with confidence that had social media been a thing in 1637, there would have been fury that Charles proceeded to double down. Those protesting must be arrested; the PC must support the bishops unreservedly. The prayer book must be used.
There starts a period in the latter half of 1637 and into 1638 of petitioning. In September a gathering of over 180 ministers and 20 lay lords gathered to prepare petitions; the lay leaders of the movement like the Earl of Rothes, the Earl of Sutherland, the lords Lindsay and Loudon were all there. By November, our fresh-faced Earl of Montrose was among them. The petitioners were highly aware of meeting of the Council, and when it was due to meet, people gathered. When nobles with known influence with the king were seen in public like the Duke of Lennox, petitioners crowded round. They even managed to persuade Traqhair to help smooth the edges off some of the petitions and the way they were presented, which – as the kings leader of the council – Traquair really ought not to have been doing. There were hundreds of local petitions handed in. Without doubt, the petitioners could be accused also of doubling down.
The resistance by this time was spreading throughout the lowlands; one petition had burgesses representing 36 of the royal burghs, with 30 peers and 280 Lairds; there were angry riots in Edinburgh, though when things got violent the nobles and Lairds tended to withdraw.
Near the end of the year there was something of a lull; the king continued to try and rule by the pen through the Privy Council, but the Council was coming apart at the seams; they moved to Linlithgow to try and escape the barracking, but the number of councillors bothering to attend was falling, to the point where sometimes a quorum could not be reached. Meanwhile the supplicants and petitioners elected Commissioners to work up and present petitions; the idea of electing commissioners would be influential later on, as the revolutionary government came into existence; the committees thus formed began to be known as Tables, using the term maybe to avoid suggesting at this stage that they were in any way a rival to the king’s Council. Compromise, peace, accommodation were still the order of the day. Members of the Council sought to use any levers they could to persuade some compromise or at least detailed instructions from the king with some chance of implementation; Traquair wrote to the Marquess of Hamilton, the man closest to the king in Westminster, begging for his intervention. Still the king remained obdurate, still he ordered no surrender, no backing down. In fact, he even managed to up the stakes, tripling down if you will. On 19th February 1638 he issued a proclamation saying that he personally had overseen and approved the prayer book; and declared that those who opposed it would be treated as traitors. Just to demonstrate that he had no idea what he was up against he also promised that all those who now dispersed and went home to obedience would all be pardoned; in this he no doubt thought he was being generous. All the supplicants heard was speak to the hand; and they heard the king personally associate himself with the Prayer Book; there was no route now where the king’s good name could be protected and the Bishops blamed – Charles had made this personal.
In this impasse, a new move seemed to be required. Covenants, or Bands, bonds, were a long established part of the Scottish political tradition; at random, I might mention the Earl of Bothwell’s band in the time of Mary, or the band of the protestant lords that opposed her. They were not necessarily a revolutionary thing at all, simply a way of making a personal or public commitment or solemn association; so significantly King James VI himself had made a bond called the King’s Confession or the negative Confession in 1581. The occasion was the fuss about James’ favourite Esme Stuart, strongly suspected of Catholicism despite his conversion. So a cleric by the name of John Craig helped James draw up a statement that declared his duty and commitment to defend the reformed faith, negative confession because it defined what the reformed church was against – Catholicism – rather than a statement of its beliefs. But this wasn’t a simple proclamation – it was signed by most of James’ peers, and approved by the General Assembly of the Kirk – this was a public and shared document. It will be significant again, in a minute or two.
The whole process we have been through – of petitioning against royal proclamation had a similar impact of bringing communities together in opposition to the king. In this, James’ Five Articles of Perth of 1618 were critical, and specifically the requirement to kneel at communion; even the very many people who had no objection to Bishops simply could not think of a good reason why everyone should suddenly be required to adopt a practice which was associated with Catholicism, for which there seemed no other argument. By this time, the practice of the kirk’s services were very well established, very uniform and accepted and embedded for over a generation. There was very little like the fractiousness of debate about practice that occurred in England. So, simple as it sounds to the modern ear, this idea of kneeling provided a convenient hook on which to carry the wider argument.
The petitioning process was not just something that occurred in the capital; it came from Presbyteries all around the lowlands. Many of the petitions used the language of the community, language the burghs of course were already well accustomed to using. Usually they were signed by the elites of the Presbyteries – lairds, often though not always, ministers; but in the odd example the number of signatories went much deeper into the community; so, a petition from Kirkcudbright contained hundreds of signatories. To give you a flavour the petition stated that its purpose was firstly
For the glorie of Jesus Christ and preservatioun of the trew religion
And then, in the silver medal position underneath
For the honnour of King Chairles and preservatioun of this his ancient and native kingdome
It also attacked the canons of 1636 as well as the prayer book, and then laid the blame for all the trouble squarely at the door of the bishops who had wronged the king by giving him such horribly rotten advice. 
The word covenant appeared for the first time in a petition on 17th October 1637, in a major supplication signed by half the peers of the realm, 26 of them, and 500 lairds – a massive show of support. The petition demanded that they not be forced to break their covenant with God.
So right from the start, the Scottish Revolution was widely shaped across lowland communities. In Response, the government generally used proclamation – though interestingly, less vigorously than you might think. So, a herald would tip up and read out the proclamation at the Mercat cross of the Burghs for example, and then printed copies were circulated. It’s a much less inclusive approach; and in addition it seems the royal opponents had inside information about what was on its way – and they were able to prepare petitioning in response. Nor was the royal message very attractive; it was simply look, I’m king, I am right, and you have no justification for refusing to do exactly what I say. What was there for his supporters to get hold of and shout about, this is why we should support king Charlie? There was no room, apparently, for compromise or discussion.
In the face of the King’s continued refusal to consider their grievances, the Earl of Rothes led the petitioners in calling lairds and peers to Edinburgh to discuss the next move; and on 23rd February 1638 a committee of Peers, lairds, and Burgesses decided that what was needed here was a traditional bond to tie them together in a union to continue the struggle against the king. Now, it’s easy to over-estimate the idea that the covenant was simply the continuation of an existing tradition, Despite the history of bonds, in all the supplications and petitions so far, the emphasis had not been on a covenant, which word had very rarely appeared; it had been in the name of the lawful and formal institutions of state, the General Assembly and Parliament. Indeed, despite the king’s Confession of 1581, James had since decided that this covenanting thing which involved a wider social involvement was really very dangerous; so in 1606 he’d demanded a much more straightforward oath of allegiance, simply giving an acknowledgement of the king’s supremacy and a renunciation of all foreign jurisdictions. So what happened next was genuinely radical, and innovative rather than just another bond or petition.
The idea they struck on was to renew the old covenant, the King’s Confession of 1581, suitably amended and brought up to date. Traquair was aware of what was afoot, and beat a path to the Tables, the committee leading the discussion; and so there was the odd sight of the King’s representative as a supplicant before the Tables, begging them to submit to the king’s will. But no one trusted Traquair – he was marked as the king’s tool.
The Drafters of the resulting document were Johnston of Wariston and Alexander Henderson, as overseen by the Earl of Rothes and the Lords Loudon and Balmerino, and was quick work, completed on an auspicious day, 28th February, where 326 years later a future podcaster would be born.
The National Covenant drew heavily on the King’s Confession, and strove hard to be clear that it was in no way revolutionary – good lord what a thought! It referred to previous acts of parliament, it was after all merely a revival of a document the king himself had produced. It was also carefully pitched in order to keep everyone on board – so although it was crystal clear that the writers of the Covenant were opposed to the episcopy, as incompatible with the Presbyterian ideal idea of the parity of ministers, Bishops were nowhere mentioned as to be abolished. Also, the purpose of the Covenant was explicitly to protect the power of the king; although first, it was to protect the true religion, and resist all innovations, and re-affirmed the King’s Confession’s abhorrence of ‘all kinds of Papistry’. There is a lot of very, very specific rejection of a bloke called the Anti Christ, for example.
But, nonetheless, it was revolutionary. First of all, it was to be signed by all members of the community; though in practice that largely excluded women. The Covenant included
Noblemen, Barons, gentlemen, burgesses, ministers and commons
After promising that they should defend the power of the king, they also swore not only to maintain their covenant with God, but to each other:
Also to the mutual defence and assistance every one of us another in maintaining the true cause of religion and his majesty’s Authority
Charles and his senior adviser in London, the Marquess of Hamilton, were not fooled for a minute into thinking that this was anything other than a revolutionary document – although maybe I’m guilty of hyperbole here, since it’s been described by historians as a constitutional document rather than a revolutionary one. But Charles certainly was outraged. He was convinced that the Covenanters were nothing more than rebels; he muttered that he would have no more power than the doge of Venice unless he brought them to heel. Partly because this was forced on him, partly because it rejected his authority to impose a religious settlement and liturgy in his realms; but also because at its heart the covenant had a critical conflict; what happened if the king and true religion were in conflict? Also, whereas previous oaths and confessions had been initiated within the king’s circle and councillors, this was specifically not done with his or indeed the General Assembly and Parliament’s approval. The Covenant clearly had implications outside Scotland; if the king of Scots was required to be limited in this way, then what about his desire to impose a single religious settlement across all his dominions?
A deeper consequence of the covenant though, came about in the way it was communicated, rolled out and implemented. The start was a major public ceremony in the glare of publicity in Edinburgh at Greyfriars Kirk on 28th February. The assembled crowd were addressed and the covenant read out, the peers then arrived, to be followed by the Lairds – there was to be no social revolution here, all in proper order. The next day, over 300 ministers and burgesses signed it, and over the next few days commoners of Edinburgh joined them. The covenant was agreed to be sent out to every parish, to be signed by all admitted to the sacrament there. A copy was sent to the king, and commissioners appointed to await the response of the king. It is to be hoped they were wearing sturdy leather underpants.
And so there is then this extraordinary process whereby the Covenant was introduced into every parish in the land – and to be signed by most of them. This was by and large a religious process; the covenant was signed or sworn to, in the centre of the community, the parish church; and Laura Stewart makes the point that ‘The social power of the Covenant emanated from its association with practices and rituals through which people understood themselves as a religious community’ – it was placed at the heart of the communities and rituals that formed the core of community life. The covenant was often introduced through preaching; some of those, invited the congregation to examine their own behaviour, and judge it against the Covenant, so as to improve themselves – this was not, at least outwardly, an act of political revolution, but a religious and community commitment.
The ceremonies often included everyone in the community, though actual signature of the covenant remained men. But in the burgh of Ayr, for example, the Covenant was taken by
‘men wemen and all baithe young and old’
In Burntisland, it was taken by ‘the haill people, men women and childrin’ standing side-by-side with their hands upheld.
This was an incredibly powerful process; and as the Covenanters moved from a protest movement to form a government, the process re-inforced their legitimacy. The wrding of the covenant looks very alien to us now in this more secular age, especially the anti Catholicism stuff, but the process still has great modern resonance and relevance. Through the process the elites asked for, and were given, the support of their social inferiors, who would not normally have expected to be involved in such a process. The level of communication and popular engagement was exceptional, with printed versions of the covenant available not only in every parish but in many peoples’ homes. And yet through it all, the social order was maintained; signatories were mainly men, and led by the social elites; the swearings by the wider population were very much on the instructions of the ministers and social superiors. The focus on moral and religious compliance and probity identified the Covenanters with the proper order, rather than radicalism or revolution. It leant the Covenanters legitimacy, as well as engagement.
Well that’s all very well and lovely, but it’s also important not to get too carried away. There were significant exceptions, from the minor to the significant. Many ministers objected and refused to sign; so in Burntisland for example, the whole process was complicated by the refusal of the minister to sign, although the signings went ahead. In areas of strongly royalist support such as the North around Aberdeen, where the Marquess of Huntly and the Gordons led resistance, or Episcopalian strongholds, where many parishes didn’t sign at all. And the takeup in the Highlands and Western Isles was patchy indeed or non existent north of Argyll. These areas of resistance support the notion that compromise was possible; that had only Charles listened to Hamilton and Traqhuair earlier, many even in the lowlands were perfectly content with episcopal government, or would be happy with a reformed version of it; if only the prayer book had been withdrawn, and maybe aspects of the Five Articles and the Canons of 1636.
Well, Charles called Traqhuair down to London to find out what was going on and how to respond. The Covenanters insisted he take with him a letter which was pretty uncompromising – not only were all these innovations to be withdrawn, but everything had to be approved by General Assemblies and Parliament, and there had to be some sort of commitment that the same innovations wouldn’t simply be re-presented some other time.
Now along with Traquhair went one Archibald Campbell, Lord Lorne, a man in probably his mid 30s. Lorne was the heir to the huge Campbell possessions in the highlands, son to the earl of Argyll, and future inheritor of the patrimony of the Campbell. That patrimony included the long and continuing rivalry with a hatred of the inheritors of the old Lordship of the Isles, the MacDonalds. Since the Daunting of the Isles in the late 15th century and the multiple rebellions and suppressions of the Macdonalds in the 16th century, the Campbells had become the greatest supporter of central rule in the highlands. They were also staunch supporters of the Reformation, unlike some other areas of the highlands, where education and administration of the kirk had been slower and less certain; although it’s very important not to simply equate highlands with Catholicism, but for sure the reformation was far less complete.
Lorne had had a difficult upbringing. His father had renounced protestantism, married a Catholic, and bestowed some of his landed possessions on a son by his second marriage; and then taken up residence in Spain and then England. Despite pretty comprehensively running away from his responsibilities and leaving his son firmly in a box entitled ‘the Lurch’, Lorne’s Dad was firmly convinced his son was short of filial gratitude and duty. He sounds like a difficult man. And some of the suspicion associated with his father had tarred Lorne to; but in 1628 he was admitted to the privy council, and to this point had remained loyal to the king. But it was pretty clear that his sympathy lay with the Covenanters – he despised the Bishops and hated the king’s religious policies. But it is hard for a Campbell to change his spots; and through the 1620s and 1630s Lorne had by hook and by crook continued to extend the power of the Campbells in the Western Islands, exploiting feudal fights of lordship and buying up debts to reduce clans such as the MacDonalds of Sleat and the MacLeans of Duart to his control. He’d also nixed an attempt by the MacDonald’s traditional friends, the O’Donnell earls of Antrim, of get hold of Campbell lordships. This is good traditional highland and Island stuff; but it earned the Campbells yet more hatred, which would come home to roost – and that, my friends is a plot spoiler. Broadly speaking, also, most of the clans opposed to the Campbells were opposed to the Covenanters, which would also come home to roost, and that my friends is another plot spoiler. Although they are quite opaque I’d say.
Anyway, Lorne might well have been considered by Charles to be a sensible replacement for Traqhuair, and indeed had a long session with him, where it seems Lorne rather laid it on the line. But maybe Lorne’s dodgy parental background warned him off. In the event, Charles sent the Marquess of Hamilton back to Scotland, much against his preferences, to see what could be done to re-establish royal control. With him, he sent two royal proclamations between which he could choose; both of them said nothing new – basically offering vague concessions which could easily be abandoned, in return for the submission of the Covenanters to the king’s obedience. Hamilton would come to present these as the King’s Covenant, a rival Covenant, with fresh subscriptions and signatures to follow – and in September 22 privy Councillors including Lorne signed it.
At the same time a bunch of Scottish lords who had been in England reappeared in Scotland; this did not pass without notice; the Covenanters figured Charles had sent them back to access their networks and establish some royal support and control once more. And d’you know what? The Covenanters suspicions were almost certainly quite right.
While Charles talked out of one side of his mouth, he prepared for war out of the other; and his explorations did not fill Lorne with confidence; one of them lay in plans from the McDonnell Earls of Antrim to attack Scotland through the Campbell lands. It’s just one example of Charles’ double dealing that would lead to chaos. Lorne, now to be called Argyle as his father died in November 1638, prepared for war against the king he was supposedly representing.
Hamilton’s job was to manage the political situation, armed only with the King’s alternative Covenant and frankly feeble proclamations, and return the king to his full panoply of power. The forum for Hamilton’s re-imposition of control would be the traditional institutions of governance – such as the General Assembly, to which in June 1638, Charles had reluctantly acquiesced. It was to be a humdinger.
 Stewart, L Rethinking the Scottish Revolution p68