IN this two parter, we will be looking in particular at the National Covenant of 1637 and the Solemn League and Covenant of 1643, and how the signing of these documents led to a long episode in Scottish history which still resonates today – the time of the Covenanters.

There have been many covenants and bonds in Scotland’s history, including the Scottish Covenant that was signed by more than two million people in the 1940s and 1950s and which called for a home rule Scottish Parliament. Many people now see that covenant as the real start of the contemporary drive for independence that did not end with the 2014 referendum.

The peak time for covenants in Scottish history was the 16th and 17th centuries, and given the nature of those times you may not be surprised to learn that they were nearly all about religion.

There were other bonds – a covenant is a glorified bond, a promissory letter usually sworn on oath which in those days was a process that was taken very seriously – which involved just a few individuals but which were hugely important to Scottish history. For example, the bond signed by the Earls of Bothwell and Huntly and others at Craigmillar Castle in 1566 directly led to the murder of Henry Darnley, the consort of Mary Queen of Scots. The ramifications of that bond are with us to this day as they shaped the British monarchy’s line of descent from then on through Mary and Darnley’s son James VI and I.

It was about the same time that the first major covenant to do with religion was signed by adherents to the relatively new faith of Presbyterianism. The Reformation of 1560 is often portrayed as a revolution which totally changed Scotland overnight. It was not so, however, as it built up over several decades until the momentous events of 1560 after which numerous Catholics still stuck to their faith and were not prepared to give up easily.

Prior to the Reformation, in 1557 a group of aristocrats had signed the first known “Protestant”’ – they were not yet called by that name – covenant which was against the marriage of Mary to the Dauphin of France. In effect this “First Band” was saying there should be no Catholic marriage for the young Queen so that the Reformers could flourish. The wording was clear – they would fight for the “blessed work of God and his Congregation against the Congregation of Satan”, ie the Catholic Church. It failed in its immediate aim, but the Dauphin died shortly after becoming King Francis II and Mary returned home only after becoming a widow so that the “First Band’s” signatories never had to fight for their cause.

Ten years on from that first covenant, the Church of Scotland and the Scottish Parliament were working together to see off all the threats to the new faith. A covenant, known as the Articles of 1567, was signed by around 80 leading Presbyterians. In the political turmoil surrounding Mary’s enforced abdication and her son’s ascent to the throne, the Articles were a key element in ensuring that Presbyterianism kept its very strong grip on the upper classes. Those who signed it undertook to resist Roman Catholicism and embrace Presbyterianism as the one true faith. It’s wording left no doubt as to their intentions to keep James Vl on the throne and bring him up “in the fear of God” – the young king was famously educated by that fierce Presbyterian intellectual George Buchanan, who was not averse to a touch of corporal punishment on the royal behind.

That education was most probably why, in 1581, the teenaged James signed the so-called King’s Confession or Negative Confession. Written for him by a Kirk minister, James Craig, it is nothing less than a declaration of Protestantism in the strongest terms: “In special, we detest and refuse the usurped authority of that Roman Antichrist upon the scriptures of God, upon the Kirk, the civil magistrate, and consciences of men; all his tyrannous laws made upon indifferent things against our Christian liberty; his erroneous doctrine against the sufficiency of the written word, the perfection of the law, the office of Christ, and his blessed evangel; his corrupted doctrine concerning original sin, our natural inability and rebellion to God’s law, our justification by faith only, our imperfect sanctification and obedience to the law; the nature, number, and use of the holy sacraments; his five bastard sacraments, with all his rites, ceremonies, and false doctrine, added to the ministration of the true sacraments without the word of God…” And so on.

James signed it and so did thousands of men across the country – women had no status in these things back then.

That confession was to prove vital in the long run. As he grew older, James differed from the Kirk and he frequently attempted to bring back a whole hierarchy of bishops and archbishops, personally appointing bishops to various sees, a policy that found him at loggerheads with the Presbyterian clergy and many aristocrats who did not want to go back to the days of corrupt bishops holding vast estates and riches instead of them.

When James gained the English crown in 1603 he was faced with a dilemma because he was now the head of the Church of England which differed considerably from the Presbyterian Kirk in many ways but which shared one essential belief – they both hated Catholicism and wanted to impose their version of Christianity on the entire nation on pain of death for those who did not comply.

James kept trying to make the Kirk more like the Church of England, especially with his appointed bishops, and it was that policy, plus James’s belief in the divine right of kings, which caused fatal trouble for James’s son and successor, Charles I. He inherited his father’s beliefs and policies and along with senior figures in the Church of England, he set about trying to reform the reformed Church of Scotland and make it more Anglican in nature, so much so that his coronation as King of Scots in Edinburgh in 1633 used a Church of England-type liturgy.

Matters came to a head in 1637 when Charles, who was already facing revolt from the English parliament, made what we can only call a massive strategic error, one that would help change the face of the entire British isles.

With the aid of the Archbishop of Canterbury William Laud, the Machiavellian clergyman who effectively ruled the church of England on Charles’s behalf, the King decreed that a new liturgy should be introduced in the Kirk which the Presbyterians immediately damned as being far too papist in character.

It was called: “The BOOKE OF Common Prayer AND Administration Of The Sacraments: And other parts of divine Service for the use of the CHURCH OF SCOTLAND.”

Fearing the return of Catholicism, once again powerful members of the aristocracy as well as members of the merchant classes came together with senior clerics from the Kirk and the idea was floated of a new National Covenant which history would judge as the most important of them all.

It was presaged by an incident on July 23, 1637, which is part of Presbyterian folklore when the minister of St Giles Kirk, Dean Hanna, began to read from the new liturgy. A woman in the congregation stood up, grabbed her stool on which she sat to hear the sermons and threw it at the minister, shouting: “Daur ye say mass in ma lag.”

Her name, allegedly, was Jenny Geddes – there’s no definite proof of her identity – and the ensuing riot left St Giles in a mess and engulfed the city of Edinburgh.

Charles I was now on a collision course with the Kirk, and, it should be said, the vast majority of the people of Scotland. He rejected the entreaties made on behalf of the Kirk and so in February, 1638, a host of leading Presbyterians gathered in the graveyard of Greyfriars Kirk in Edinburgh and began to sign the new national covenant.

This time there was to be no doubt – bishops were to be banned from the Kirk and only the essentials of the Presbyterian faith would be allowed. The wording is instructive. The first part is almost a copy of the King’s Confession of 1581 and much of the rest of it is taken up by an effusive statement of loyalty to the King, presumably to stave off his anger and royal revenge. It stated: “We declare before God that we have no intention nor desire to attempt anything that may turn to the dishonour of God, or to the diminution of the King’s greatness and authority; but, on the contrary, we promise and swear, that we shall, to the uttermost of our power, with our means and lives, stand to the defence of our dread sovereign the King’s Majesty, his person and authority, in the defence and preservation of the foresaid true religion, liberties, and laws of the kingdom.”

Written by two intellectuals, the lawyer Archibald Johnston of Wariston and the theologian Alexander Henderson, it also contained the demand for a Scottish Parliament and a General Assembly that would be free from the King’s interference.

Those who signed it on that first day included earls, knights, ministers, burgesses, and merchants, but the list was soon extended to commoners.

Copies were sent all over Scotland for the people to sign, with public mass signings very much the norm – thanks to the John Knox rule of a “school in every parish” many more men were able to properly sign their name. Women were still barred, it should be said, but a few did sign it and many thousands of women solemnly swore to abide by it.

Thanks to the estimable Rosemary Goring whose brilliant Scotland: The Autobiography tells Scottish history in the words of those were there, we know exactly what one of these signings was like and how extensive they were. Rosemary found and modified into modern English the account of John Livingstone – later a prominent Kirk minister – about the day he signed the National Covenant: “I was present at Lanark and several other parishes when on a Sabbath day after the forenoon sermon, the Covenant was read and sworn … I never saw such motions from the Spirit of God, all the people generally and most willingly concurring where I have seen above a thousand persons, all at once, lifting up their hands, and the tears falling down from their eyes.”

The National Covenant of 1638 was a stunning gesture of defiance and declaration of independence against the King, and its implications for the Stuart monarchy were long lasting, not least because it was a genuine mass movement – some 300,000 people signed it.

Charles no longer ruled the rod in Scotland, and civil war was on the way. Next week we shall see how the Covenanters battled for their faith.