Did You Know?
- Covenanters

Covenanters' Flag

The process of "Reformation" of the church in Scotland in the 16th century was driven by two main factors. The first was the corruption within the Roman Catholic church at that time - the wealthy were often able to buy absolution for their sins and misdemeanours, with the money going to the church (or in some cases, the local clerics, some of whom did little to attend to their pastoral duties). There was also a process of rejecting the power of the Church of Rome and adopting instead an organisation where the people had a form of worship where they felt they had a more direct communication with God. Of course, the zealots on both sides considered that they followed the only "true" religion and conflicts continued between the remaining Catholics and the adherents to the reformed church.

The situation was not helped by the continued bias of the monarch towards the Catholic church. King Charles I in particular, preferred to be head of the church, rather than accepting the Presbyterian principles of a self-governing organisation. Charles also pursued his vision of the "Divine Right of Kings", believing that as God had appointed him King, his decisions on all matters were above question.

National Covenant
St Giles
In 1637 King Charles I attempted to introduce an episcopal "Book of Common Prayer" which was seen as an attempt to anglicise Scotland and the church. There was outrage, particularly as there was no prior discussion with the General Assembly, the governing body of the Church of Scotland. In St Giles Cathedral, Jenny Geddes famously hurled her folding-stool at the pulpit screeching "Daur ye say mass in my lug" (Dare you say mass in my ear).

The following year, in February 1638, with high emotion, a new National Covenant was drawn up and thousands crowded into Greyfriar's Churchyard in Edinburgh to sign it. This document drew on an earlier "King's Confession" in 1581 in which a covenant had been drawn up in which both the king and the people swore to maintain the Presbyterian system of church government. While the new document swore loyalty to the monarch, it nevertheless firmly restated the direct relationship between the people and God, with no interference from the king and "all kinds of Papistry". Within months, over 300,000 people had "covenanted" in what a writer of the day described it as "the glorious marriage day of the Kingdom [of Scotland] with God". The adherents were prepared to fight for their religious freedom - and soon were called upon to do so.

Civil War and the Solemn League and Covenant
Charles advocated the suppression of Puritanism in favour of a "high" church with richness and ceremony. But it was not just for religious reasons that the conflict between King Charles I and Parliament broke out. He had dissolved Parliament in 1629 and ruled alone for eleven years. The Puritans and the English parliament eventually rose up against the king. Civil War broke out between the Royalists who supported the king, and the Puritans, led by an astute general, Oliver Cromwell.

The English Parliament sought the support of the Scottish Parliament and army. The Scots agreed - but only after the English had undertaken to reform their church along the lines of that in Scotland. Desperate for their support, the English Parliament agreed and the "Solemn League and Covenant" was signed in 1643.

Initially, the war went in favour of the King, even in Scotland where James Graham of Claverhouse, 1st the Marquess of Montrose, won a number of battles against the Covenanter forces. Montrose had initially signed the Covenant himself, but the excesses of the religious zealots convinced him to support the king instead. But by 1646 King Charles I was forced to surrender - to the Scottish Covenanter army, rather than the English forces. Charles tried to sow dissension between the Scots and the English but he was eventually handed over to the English Parliament. Having achieved their aims, the English ignored the religious element of the deal. Then, much to the horror of many in Scotland, King Charles I was executed in 1649. His loyal supporter in Scotland, the Marquess of Montrose, escaped to Norway but returned to Scotland in 1650. He lost a battle at Carbisdale and was betrayed by MacLeod of Assynt for £25,000 (a huge sum in those days). He was sentenced to death by the Scottish Parliament, without a trial, and was hanged.

King Charles II
King Charles II
Charles II then came to the Scots to appeal to their sense of loyalty to the crown. That support was given only after he had signed the National Covenant. He was crowned "King of Scots" at Scone in 1651 but had to escape to France as Cromwell's forces marched into Scotland. Cromwell's subjugation of the country gave rise to rebellion from those who still supported their "covenanted king".

When King Charles II was restored in 1660, he turned his back on the Covenant he had signed and tried to restore episcopacy and revoked all the legislation passed by the Scottish Parliament from 1640. The Covenanters rebelled and left the established church and resorted to "conventicles" in the countryside, with their ministers preaching in the open air.

Armed rebellion soon followed, especially in the south-west of Scotland and in Ayrshire. Between 1661 and 1688 it is estimated that 18,000 died both in battles and persecution, creating martyrs and lasting bitterness. In 1666 at the Battle of Rullion Green in the Pentland Hills, the King's army, led by Sir Thomas Dalyell, defeated the Covenanters. John Graham of Claverhouse, who later became Viscount Dundee and a supporter of the Jacobite cause, was at the forefront of what became known as the "Killing Time". On June 1, 1679 Claverhouse came across a conventicle of several thousand people at Drumclog. With a fighting force of around 1,500, the Covenanters outnumbered the dragoons by around four to one. But the goverment forces were routed and chased from the field. However, a few weeks later the Duke of Monmouth subdued the Covenanters at Bothwell Bridge. But persecution continued - the last Covenanter to be executed was in February 1688.

Eventually, some degree of order was restored in 1690, with the accession of William of Orange and Queen Mary. Even so, some extreme Covenanters known as "Cameronians", who disliked William of Orange because he had not signed the Covenant, continued to object for a while.

Debate and conflict on religious matters continued to rumble on and came to a head in 1843 with the break up of Church of Scotland and formation of Free Church of Scotland. But that's another story.

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