AS promised, today and next week I am going to write about a very important element of Scotland’s history, one that is much misunderstood but which surfaced in spectacular fashion in the days after the death of the Queen – the Claim of Right, and particularly the Claim made in 1689.

The original Claim of Right was a declaration that the leaders of Scotland made to William, the Prince of Orange, and his wife Mary just after they were voted the Crown and became King and Queen of Scotland. By the time that offer was made in April 1689, the couple were already William III and Mary II of England, having been awarded that title on February 13, 1689, by a convention of the leading English political figures and aristocrats – there could be no Parliament as King James VII and II had been declared as abdicating his throne, and only the monarch can authorise a Parliament.

So why has the Claim of Right been so much discussed in recent days? To the millions who watched the ceremony of King Charles III’s formal accession in place of his late mother, there was one part of the proceedings that perhaps was baffling.

No sooner had his kingship been formally approved by the Accession Council than Charles took an oath to uphold the “security” of the Church of Scotland “in prosecution of the Claim of Right”. I suspect a great many viewers were unaware that a “Claim of Right” even existed, and if you watched BBC News in later days, you would have missed the reference as they mostly edited out the bits referring to Scotland.

The National: King Charles III signs an oath to uphold the security of the Church in Scotland during the Accession Council at St James's Palace, LondonKing Charles III signs an oath to uphold the security of the Church in Scotland during the Accession Council at St James's Palace, London (Image: unknown)

So for those who missed what he said, here are two excerpts from Charles’s speech made on the morning of Saturday, September 10 at St James’s Palace in London. I consider them to be a piece of history for our times.

This first part is worth quoting because it shows Charles III has a very good grasp of the constitutional responsibilities which he now has.

“I am deeply aware of this great inheritance and of the duties and heavy responsibilities of sovereignty which have now passed to me. In taking up these responsibilities, I shall strive to follow the inspiring example I have been set in upholding constitutional government and to seek the peace, harmony and prosperity of the peoples of these islands and of the Commonwealth realms and territories throughout the world.

“In this purpose, I know that I shall be upheld by the affection and loyalty of the peoples whose sovereign I have been called upon to be and that in the discharge of these duties, I will be guided by the counsel of their elected parliaments. In all this, I am profoundly encouraged by the constant support of my beloved wife.”

Then came the formal oath anent the kirk, and I am quoting it in full in case you missed it: “I understand that the law requires that I should, at my accession to the Crown, take and subscribe the oath relating to the security of the Church of Scotland. I am ready to do so at this first opportunity.

“I, Charles III by the grace of God of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of my other realms and territories King, defender of the faith, do faithfully promise and swear that I shall inviolably maintain and preserve the settlement of the true Protestant religion as established by the laws made in Scotland in prosecution of the Claim of Right and particularly by an Act intituled ‘An Act for securing the Protestant religion and Presbyterian Church Government’ and by the acts passed in the Parliament of both kingdoms for Union of the two kingdoms, together with the Government, worship, discipline, rights and privileges of the Church of Scotland. So help me God.”

It’s really quite remarkable that in accordance with tradition and indeed legislation dating back to the Stuart dynasty, the first action of the new monarch was to make a promise that can be sourced to the Scottish belief that a monarch can only rule by consent of the people.

The oath contains solemn words replete with meaning, uttered by a man who has a deep faith in God and is head of the Church of England – though not the Church of Scotland.

As I shall show, that religious element is the crucial ingredient in the Claim of Right of 1689. For the avoidance of doubt, I will be concentrating on that piece of history and not on subsequent Claims such as that made at the time of the Disruption of the Church of Scotland in 1843 and the brilliant 1988 Claim of Right for Scotland, which gave us the Scottish Constitutional Convention and sowed the seeds for devolution.

The importance of the original Claim of Right is that it became enshrined in the constitutional settlement that followed the so-called Glorious or Bloodless Revolution, which started in 1688 and brought William and Mary to the throne. It was not glorious, but a somewhat shabby deal and certainly not bloodless as the dead and maimed at Killiecrankie and the Boyne would testify.

By any objective view, William and Mary usurped the throne of James VII and II – Mary was unhappy at doing so but acted in her words to save “church and state” – albeit at the invitation of English nobles.

There is some evidence that Scottish aristocrats and politicians had an inkling of what was being prepared in England due to their connections in London, but no one in England officially told the Scots about the revolution they were planning, which was all about keeping Protestantism as the state religion and holding back the Catholic advances James VII and II was actively encouraging. It is difficult to conclude other than that William and Mary got the Crowns of Scotland and England mostly because they were Protestants, though for most of her life, Mary had been the heir presumptive, she being the elder daughter of James VII and II.

She famously wept when she was married as a teenage bride to William, her first cousin – a consanguineous marriage that would not have been allowed in many countries.

It was the arrival and Catholic baptism of a son, James Francis Edward, later known as the Old Pretender, for James and his Queen Consort Mary of Modena that sealed their fate as monarchs in June 1688.

At the request of a group of anti-Catholic powerbrokers, William mounted a small invasion, the army and navy went over to him, and he took control of England and Wales.

After James and Mary of Modena fled to the continent, they were deemed to have abdicated by the English Convention, a form of Parliament, which duly offered William and Mary the joint Crown of England and Ireland, but only after they had accepted the Declaration of Right made by the Convention, usually referred to as the Bill of Rights which sets out the limits of the monarchy.

READ MORE: The story of how a Scottish earl founded a new Scotland in Canada

William was not too happy to have controls set upon his power, but he had been involved in a decades-long powerplay against Louis XIV of France and needed the resources of England and Scotland to aid him in his conflict with the Sun King.

THIS deal left the leadership of Scotland in a huge quandary. Leading Covenanters wanted nothing to do with monarchs, Protestant or not, but a deputation of about 30 peers and 80 other leading “gentlemen” went to London to meet the new king and queen. They agreed to write to James VII and William to seek their views on what should happen.

In March 1689, with William and Mary set for their English coronation the following month, a Convention of the Estates was summoned to Edinburgh, the membership being almost the same as the Scottish Parliament but not needing the monarch to approve its meeting – there was no king or queen regnant in Scotland at that time.

The third Duke of Hamilton was William’s commissioner to the Convention, but his appointment was only narrowly accepted, as the Convention was clearly split between the party loyal to James – the Jacobites – and the Williamites.

It was at this point that two letters were read out to the Convention, arguably two of the most important letters in Scottish history. One was from King William III of England, the other was from James VII and II.

The letter by James was composed when he was at sea, possibly in bad weather, heading for Ireland from France. It was basically a threatening missive full of empty promises about safeguarding the Protestant religion but with an undercurrent suggesting James would just do what he had done before – bringing back Catholicism and asserting his divine right to rule.

Let me quote a crucial paragraph from James’s letter: “You will neither suffer yourselves to be cajoled nor frightened into action misbecoming true-hearted Scotsman and that to support the honour of your nation you will contemn [sic] the base example of disloyal men and eternise your names by a loyalty suitable to the many professions you have made to us. In doing so whereof you will choose the safest part since thereby you will avoid the danger you must need undergo.”

If James thought he could appeal to patriotism and self-interest, he was badly wrong. William’s letter was much more conciliatory, as the great historian Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800-59) wrote in his magisterial History of England: “As the new King of England could not be at Edinburgh during the sitting of the Scottish Convention, a letter from him to the Estates was prepared with great skill. In this document, he professed warm attachment to the Protestant religion but gave no opinion touching those questions about which Protestants were divided.

“He had observed, he said, with great satisfaction that many of the Scottish nobility and gentry with whom he had conferred in London were inclined to a union of the two British kingdoms. He was sensible about how much such a union would conduce to the happiness of both, and he would do all in his power towards the accomplishing of so good a work.”

Note that last sentence. William’s desire for a Union incorporating Scotland and England was met with much more approval in Scotland than in England, and the idea soon lapsed.

William’s letter turned the meeting his way. The Convention of the Estates continued to discuss matters but emotions were running high, and one attendee, John Graham of Claverhouse, Viscount Dundee, could see the way things were going.

Loyal to James, he famously left Edinburgh as described in the song Bonnie Dundee: “Tae the lairds o’ convention ’twas Claverhouse spoke, E’er the King’s Crown go down there are crowns to be broke, So each cavalier who loves honour and me, Let him follow the bonnets o’ Bonnie Dundee.”

After more debate, on April 4, 1689, the Convention voted, with just five disagreeing that James VII had forfeited his right to the Crown of Scotland on various grounds but emphasising the damage he had done to the Presbyterian religion.

One week later, the Convention formally offered the Scottish Crown to William and Mary and their election was proclaimed at the Mercat Cross in Edinburgh – just as Charles III’s accession was announced there last week.

The Convention then drew up the Claim of Right which must always be considered alongside the Articles of Grievance which they also sent to William and Mary.

Find out next week what they contained and what happened afterwards.