A Covenanter is any of the Scottish Presbyterians who at various crises during the 17th century subscribed to bonds or covenants, notably to the National Covenant of 1638 and to the Solemn League and Covenant of 1643. But to understand the power of the covenant, it is necessary to grasp the complex religious and political history of Scotland and the remainder of the British Isles in the 17th century.
The Initial Religious Ferment - the Reformation
The beginnings lay in the twenty years of Reformation of the Church in Scotland between 1537 and 1557 that saw the firm establishment of the Calvinist Church of Scotland (the Presbyterians). There were still Roman Catholic communities, especially in the Islands and West Highlands, and a significant minority who preferred an Episcopalian Church governed by bishops. This change in Scotland was focused on the King's Confession of Faith (later to be revived as the National Covenant) and by the Act of Settlement of 1560.
Two decades of confusion followed during the attempted Counter-Reformation by Roman Catholic supporters of Mary, Queen of Scots. Mary was forced to abdicate in 1567 after three disastrous marriages and some turbulent politics and military adventures. Mary was effectively succeeded by her infant son and was captured and imprisoned by Queen Elizabeth I of England. Mary was eventually executed on 8 February 1587 at Fotheringay Castle, by order of Queen Elizabeth, on a false charge of treason against the English throne.
Scotland was then governed by four disputatious Regents during the childhood of King James VI. James succeeded to the English throne on Elizabeth's death on 26 March 1603. King James VI and I, as he became after being crowned King of England in London, envisaged a union of Scotland and England, a political change that was not to be achieved until another century passed. The later years of the reign of King James VI and I saw both gradual revelation of his personal adherence to the Roman Catholic church and his more overt support for the reintroduction of the Episcopalian Church in Scotland. His persecutions of the English Puritans and the Scottish Presbyterians were to create more pressures during the reign of his son, King Charles I of Scotland and England who succeeded in 1625.
Presbyterian Revolution - The National Covenant of 1638
King Charles I claimed to be King of Great Britain without being crowned in Scotland. He also continued support of the Episcopalian Churches in Scotland and England and maintained ever closer relations with Roman Catholic allies in Europe. King Charles I was equally uncompromising in his dealings with the Scottish, as well as the English, Parliaments. In dealing with William Laud, the Archbishop of Canterbury, King Charles proposed that the Episcopacy be re-introduced in Scotland. The Scottish opposition to this was both general and intense leading the production of the National Covenant by The Scottish Parliament and Kirk.
The National Covenant was a solemn agreement inaugurated by Scottish churchmen on 28 February 1638, in the Greyfriars' churchyard, Edinburgh. The National Covenant was composed of the King's Confession of 1581, additional statements by Alexander Henderson (a leader in the Church of Scotland), and an oath. The covenant reaffirmed reformed faith and Presbyterian discipline and denounced the attempted changes, but it also urged loyalty to the monarch. In an astonishing "avalanche", the National Covenant was rapidly distributed throughout Scotland and signed by people of all classes. By years-end, 95% of the Scottish people had bound themselves to the Covenant.
The National Covenant required its adherents to "uphold and to defend the true religion" and to oppose all "innovations on the purity and liberty of the gospel". This led to the first of the Civil Wars of the Three Kingdoms, the so-called Scottish Civil War, otherwise known as the Bishop's Wars.
Bishops' Wars of 1639 and 1640
In the Bishops' Wars of 1639 and 1640, the first of the Civil Wars of the Three Kingdoms, the Scots fought to maintain their religious liberty. The financial difficulties into which these wars brought the crown led to the next of the civil wars - the First English Civil War. Subsequently, by the Solemn League and Covenant, the Scots pledged their assistance to the parliamentarian party in England on the condition that the Anglican Church would be reformed.
The Scottish Parliament seized the royal fortresses and stores, made an alliance with France and sent an army under General Alexander Leslie across the English border early in 1640. The Scots were well prepared; the country was filled with old soldiers who had served Germany in the Thirty Years War. These veterans served as the nucleus for the untrained levies. General Leslie seized Newcastle. King Charles responded by calling his fourth, the so-called Short, English Parliament in Westminster that he dismissed after three weeks.
King Charles I, having failed to regain power in Scotland, then made a truce with the Scots and called the fifth, or Long, English Parliament which met on 30 November 1640. In 1641, the English Parliament, which was packed with anti-monarchists and libertarians (who generally became the Puritan Party), presented the King with the 'Grand Remonstrance' which recited all of the acts of tyranny and misgovernment of the previous sixteen years. King Charles attempted to arrest five of the members of Parliament but failed. On 10 January 1642 he left London, never to return, save as a prisoner. The division between the English Parliament and King set in train the two English Civil Wars.
The Solemn League and Covenant of 1643
The Solemn League and Covenant of 1643 was an agreement between the English and Scots by which the Scots agreed to support the English Parliamentarians in their disputes with the Royalists and both countries pledged to work for a civil and religious union of England, Scotland, and Ireland under a presbyterian-parliamentary system. It was accepted by the Church of Scotland on 17 August 1643 and by the English Parliament and the Westminster Assembly on 25 September 1643.
Written by Alexander Henderson, the Covenant of 1643 was considered primarily a civil agreement by the English Parliamentarians, who needed military allies, but the Scots considered it a guarantee of their religious system. It was signed throughout England and Scotland. The Covenanter army thereafter supported Parliament in the First English Civil War. In January 1644 the Scots again sent an army to England and then received King Charles I's surrender in 1646. However, when Oliver Cromwell and the Independents gained control of England, they had little sympathy for the Presbyterians and ignored the covenant.
Montrose's Venture 1644 - 1645
Montrose, who had refused to have any part in the Solemn League, accepted the King's commission as Lieutenant General, commanding the royalist Army in Scotland. After defeat at Marston Moor on 2 July 1644, he returned to Scotland in disguise and raised a small force including some 1,000 wild Irishmen and Islemen commanded by Alistair MacDonald. Montrose led his small force to victory in six battles against the odds and carried fire and sword into Argyll and the lands of the Campbells in Dec 1644.
On 2 Feb 1645 Montrose defeated the Covenanters at Inverlochy. In Scotland each county and burgh ordered to raise and maintain a number of foot soldiers, according to population, to serve as militia with the population of Scotland estimated at 420,000. On 9 May Montrose won a victory at Auldearn, near Nairn. In England on 14 June King Charles was defeated at the Battle of Naseby. On 2 July Montrose defeated the Covenanters again at Alford..
But just when the Lowlands lay before him, Montrose was defeated by Leslie at the Battle of Philliphaugh on 13 September. But the Covenanter victory was stained by a horrible massacre of royalist prisoners, echoing that which occurred after the Battle of Naseby. (Montrose was finally executed in 1650). The Second English Civil War ended with the impeachment and trial of King Charles by the illegally convened English Parliament in early 1649. King Charles I was subsequently executed in Whitehall on 30 January 1649.
The Third English Civil War 1651 - 1652
Immediately after the illegal execution of King Charles I, the Scottish Parliament proclaimed his son, King Charles II as monarch. The new King surprisingly accepted this offer, which was conditional upon his recognition of Presbyterianism. Arriving from his exile in The Hague, Netherlands, off Garmouth-on-Spey, he signed both Covenants on 23 June 1649. King Charles II was then crowned King of Scotland at Scone on 1 January 1651.
The "Lord Protector" Cromwell could not accept this, and in July 1651 he crossed the Border with 16,000 men, mainly veterans, and a fleet sailed up the east coast. After some early Scottish successes, the leadership of the Scottish army became disrupted by the appointment of inexperienced ministers, rather than seasoned military men. Cromwell seized a tactical advantage at the Battle of Dunbar and inflicted major casualties on the previously victorious Scots Army. In victory after the so-called "Dunbar Drove", Cromwell showed no mercy. The few able Scottish survivors of the battle were forced to march to imprisonment in England, smany in Durham Cathedral. Some of those who survived this were sentenced to exile as indentured servants in the 'Plantations' of Ulster, the West Indies and the Americas.
King Charles II then led his Royalist armies in an attempt to regain power in England. This failed with defeat at the Battle of Worcester where Highlanders, following the Royalist cause into England, fell in significant numbers. The Highlander's homelands became forfeit to the victorious Roundhead supporters; their families refugees. King Charles had a long and exiting journey into exile in France and the Netherlands.
Although the future King Charles II signed the covenant, along with the National Covenant (of 1638), in 1650 and 1651, neither Cromwell's Commonwealth nor King Charles II, after the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, actually honoured the covenants, and they were never renewed.
The Usurpation (Commonwealth and Protectorate) 1649 - 1660
The English Parliament under Cromwell attempted to treat Scotland as a mere province with Cromwell acting as "Lord Protector". Cromwell strived to create a Union between the nations during the 'Barebones Parliament' (which contained only five Scots members out of 140). During the eight years of Cromwell's Protectorate rule over Scotland, there were many attempts to anglicise Scottish practices in both religion and the law. The parliamentary military under General Monck eliminated any remaining Scottish military opposition. Conversely, for most the period was one of comparative calm and prosperity in Scotland.
The Commonwealth and Protectorate broke up as an institution after the death of Oliver Cromwell and the succession of his son Thomas as Lord Protector. The restoration of the English and Scottish Crown in 1660 came as relief to most Scots because they were Royalists at heart and hoped to be permitted to practice their own form of Presbyterianism that emphasised the direct responsibility of every individual to his Maker.
Restoration and the Covenanters 1660 - 1689
King Charles II has sworn at his coronation in Scotland in 1st January 1651 to uphold the Solemn League and Covenant and to establish a Presbyterian Government, the crown having been placed on his head by the Marquis of Argyll. Yet, little more than a year after his restoration to the throne, Charles had Argyll executed at the Cross of Edinburgh because Argyll strictly adhered to Presbyterianism.
King Charles II, known to his English subjects as "the Merry Monarch", was wont to say that Presbyterianism was no religion for a gentleman and he made great efforts to restore the episcopacy in Scotland. Charles quickly developed had a vindictive attitude both to his former enemies and to the Presbyterians in Scotland who had been his allies. In England, the Act of Uniformity of 1662, the Conventicle Act of 1664 and the Five Mile Act of 1665 were concerted efforts to persecute those Protestants who failed to accede to the 49 Articles and the Book of Common Prayer.
In Scotland, the Act of Proclamation of 1662 banished from their manses and parishes all ministers who lacked an episcopal licence. The result was that on 1 November 1662, over 400 ministers came out of their churches and manses. This was followed by the Act of Fines of 1663, designed to punish those revolting clergy. The enforcement of those fines was placed under military control, using the newly formed standing British Army.
All legal sanctions of Presbyterianism were removed, episcopacy was reestablished, and covenants were denounced as unlawful oaths. For 25 years the Covenanters suffered brutal persecution, and three rebellions (1666, 1679, 1685) were cruelly suppressed.
"The Killing Times"
The collection of those fines led to the first military rising of the Covenanters, at St John's Town of Dalry in Galloway on 12 November 1666. A small party of armed Covenanters overpowered some troopers under the command of Sir James Turner who were torturing a Covenanter who would not pay his fine. The Covenanters then marched from Dumfries to Lanark, increasing to some 2,000 in number. At Rullion Green, they encountered the superior forces of the Crown under General Dalziel. Some 1,000 Covenanters who determined to go forward at all costs were disastrously defeated. Over 100 prisoners were taken, to be afterwards executed, after various degrees of torture, at appointed spots all over the country. Other prisoners were subsequently transported as indentured labour to the Americas.
The persecution of the outed clergy and Covenanters, and anyone providing them shelter or support, continued along with heavy fines. By 1677, landowners and masters were required to sign bonds for all persons residing on their land. Their landowners refused to accept this impossible undertaking. The Government loosed upon the south-west, and Ayrshire in particular, the Highland Host - a body of 6,000 Highlanders and 3,000 Lowland militia who lived in free quarters while they extracted the bonds and looted the country. The simmering uprising led to the assassination of Archbishop Sharp, the symbol of the episcopacy and the persecutor of many Covenanters, at Magus Moor near St Andrews on 3rd May 1679.
Following the assassination, a company of Covenanting extremists held a Conventicle in Avondale, Lanarkshire on 25th May. They prepared a public manifesto, ratified at public meetings and published at Rutherglen on 29th May - a date deliberately chosen as the unpopular public holiday for the King's birthday. General John Graham of Claverhouse ("Bloody Clavers" - later Viscount Dundee and "Bonnie Dundee") attempted an attack on the Covenanters at a great Conventicle at Drumclog, Lanarkshire on Sunday 1st June, but was repulsed. This was one of the Covenanter's few military victories.
Three weeks later at Bothwell Brig, the 5,000 strong Covenanter Army was disastrously defeated by a Royal force under Monmouth; 400 being left dead on the field; and 1,500 carried away as prisoners to Edinburgh. There they were confined in the open for five months in Greyfriars Kirkyard. Two ministers were hanged, some other prisoners were executed at Magus Moor. [The names of all Covenanter martyrs are recorded on the National Covenant Memorial in Greyfriars Kirkyard.] 400 prisoners who took a bond not to rise in arms again were released. The remainder were sentenced to be transported to Barbados, but their ship sank off the Orkneys with 200 of the captives battened below hatches.
Monmouth, who was considered by the King as too kindly and lenient, was replaced by James, Duke of York (later King James VII and II). The strict Covenanters, reduced in numbers but not in spirit, continued to resist with increased fervour. Led by the minister Andrew Cargill and by Richard Cameron, a St Andrews graduate, they were known as "the Society men" or the Cameronians.
[The British Army regiment which bore that name - The Cameronians (Scottish Rifles) - for nearly 300 years, were nicknamed "the Covenanters"; they took their rifles to the Kirk and posted sentries outside. Faced with amalgamation with another regiment, the Cameronians went into suspended animation in 1968, resolved to return should Scotland or the Covenant ever have need of them.]
On 22nd June 1680, the first anniversary of the dark day of Bothwell Brig, the Cameronians assembled at the Market Cross at Sanquhar, Dumfries and published a Declaration for the deposing of the Stuart King Charles II. Cameron was killed at Airsmoss in Ayrshire a few weeks later. But the Society People continued to harry the authorities.
The period of the Restored Monarchy in Scotland was a period of marked economic and political development. Yet the continued persecution of dissidents drove men to lands abroad where thought was considered more free. A small Quaker-Scottish colony was established in East New Jersey in the 1660s and in 1684; a Presbyterian settlement in Stuart's Town in South Carolina.
The "Glorious Revolution" 1688
James VII and II was proclaimed King of Scots on 10 February 1685, but he omitted to take the Scottish Coronation oath to defend the Protestant religion. The Indemnity which he published to celebrate his accession omitted all of his Covenanting enemies. By 1688, the King's open support of the Mass and promotion of Roman Catholics to power and office confirmed the worst fears of the English and Scots Protestants. The birth of a Prince of Wales in June 1680 [Prince James Francis Edward Stuart - the 'Old Pretender'] convinced the English magnates that James's policy and support for Rome would survive his death.
A group of English peers and politicians therefore invited William of Orange, the husband of Mary Stuart, daughter of King James VII and II and next in line of succession, to take the English and Scottish Crowns. The battles of the "Glorious Revolution" included the Battle of Killiecrankie where "Bonny Dundee" was killed commanding the western clans against the Williamite army. The Revolution ended in King James' final defeat at the Battle of the Boyne in Ireland, achieving what the Covenanters and other dissidents had striven to achieve - the firm establishment of a Protestant Crown for Great Britain. James Stewart and his family fled to France, where amongst other things they changed the spelling of their name to Stuart.
The Revolution Settlement, including the Treaty of Limerick, by which William of Orange became King de jure as well as de facto, was not universally welcome in Scotland. Opposition came from various quarters. The Jacobites, seeking the return of James Stuart, were still active; the Episcopalians resented the establishment of the Presbytery; the Cameronians were outraged by the disregard of the Covenant; and disappointed politicians united themselves in the 'Country Party'.
After the "Glorious" Revolution of 1688, an ecclesiastical settlement reestablished Presbyterian church government in Scotland, but did not renew the covenants.