IN considering the National Covenant of 1638, it is vital to know that Scottish Presbyterians really did consider it to be a contract with God, just like the Old Testament covenants between God and the biblical Israelites. That concept of religious belief transcending human law was what gave the signatories their passionate, indeed at times fanatical, commitment to defying the monarch of the day, Charles Stuart, the first of that name to rule both Scotland and England.

If his father, James VI and I, was famously the “wisest fool in Christendom”, Charles I was just plain stubborn, obstinate and often stupid. His firm belief in the divine right of kings now brought him into direct conflict with the Covenanters, as those who had signed the National Covenant of 1638 soon became known.

The issue was simple: Charles believed he was head of the Church of England and that his royal prerogative extended to, among other things, his right to appoint bishops in Scotland, and that that power should be acknowledged by the Kirk. The Covenanters had been very careful to state their loyalty to the monarch, but they were not prepared to back down on their demands that the Church of Scotland be inviolable.

Remember what they signed up to: “Now subscribed in the year 1638, by us noblemen, barons, gentlemen, burgesses, ministers, and commons under subscribing; together with our resolution and promises for the causes after specified, to maintain the said true religion, and the King’s Majesty, according to the confession aforesaid, and Acts of Parliament; the tenure whereof here followeth. We all, and every one of us underwritten, do protest, that after long and due examination of our own consciences in matters of true and false religion, we are now thoroughly resolved of the truth, by the word and spirit of God; and therefore we believe with our hearts, confess with our mouths, subscribe with our hands, and constantly affirm before God and the whole world, that this only is the true Christian faith and religion, pleasing God, and bringing salvation to man.”

The Kirk’s true belief was that Presbyterianism was the legitimate form of Christianity and that Jesus Christ was the head of the Church and no King could intervene. The call for a free Scottish Parliament was almost an afterthought.

Not surprisingly, Charles saw things differently – “I will rather die than yield to these impertinent and damnable demands” he said – and there’s no doubt that his long-term aim was to suppress the Covenanters. Firstly, he would try persuasion, however, and so he sent the Marquis of Hamilton north as his Commissioner and decreed he would allow the Kirk to have a General Assembly later in that fateful year. All the while Charles was trying to gather an army, but he could not do that without the approval of the Parliament in Westminster and its members had no appetite for a war with the Scots – indeed more than a few of them openly sympathised with the Covenanters.

Charles even brought out his own Covenant – it was laughed at across Scotland – before the General Assembly gathered in Glasgow Cathedral on November 21, 1638. It was the first assembly for 20 years, and would prove utterly momentous.

There was an immediate row over who was in charge, and eventually the Marquis of Hamilton tried to dissolve the assembly, which the Covenanters had stacked with their members. He was voted out and the assembly proceeded to excommunicate eight bishops and declared that all previous Acts of the Assemblies held between 1606 and 1618 were null and void.

Hamilton tried to get the Privy Council of Scotland to disown the assembly, but even there among the supposed party of the King he found opposition – the Earl of Argyll, chief of Clan Campbell, declared for the Covenant and many nobles flocked to his side.

One who did so at first was the Marquis of Montrose, who will be accorded two columns of his own in the months ahead as he is simply one of the most fascinating characters in Scottish history. Suffice to say that Montrose started off as a Covenanter but ended up as a supporter of King Charles and we will examine that process and his life in detail.

The Assembly had effectively declared itself to be in control of Scotland and in rebellion against the King, and at first, Charles was seemingly powerless to resist. During the time he was negotiating down south to raise an army, the Covenanters raised their own army, putting Alexander Leslie in charge as Lord General of the Army of the Covenant.

Leslie had served under Gustavus Adolphus in the Swedish army and won great renown as a commander, reaching the rank of Field Marshal. His prowess as an officer was displayed when he brought back many battle-hardened officers and troops from the Scottish mercenary forces on the continent and within weeks he had a standing army of 20,000 regulars ready for battle. He also took Edinburgh Castle from the King’s troops and invested in Dumbarton Castle against possible invasion from the west.

By the early spring of 1639, armed conflict seemed inevitable and Charles came north only to find a much superior force – in terms of experience and probably numbers, too – waiting to fight under the Covenanting banner.

The King tried and failed to mount a simultaneous naval invasion and also to bring an army over from Ireland, but it was all to no avail. As soon as he reached Berwick-upon-Tweed, Charles surveyed his own conscript army and realised he was looking at defeat.

The only real fighting in what became known as the First Bishops’ War were skirmishes between the forces of the King’s northern ally, the Marquis of Huntly, and the Covenanting army then led by Montrose.

Huntly surrendered after his forces, under his son Viscount Aboyne, were scattered at the Brig O’Dee and Aberdeen swiftly switched from being royalist to Covenanter.

Charles knew he had to buy time so he proclaimed that he would settle Scotland’s grievances as soon as he had restored order. Leslie and the Covenanters stood their ground near the Border and eventually, after a week of negotiation on June 19, 1639, Charles signed a treaty known as the Pacification of Berwick. He conceded the rights of a free parliament and free church, and authorised a General Assembly and a meeting of Scottish Parliament. That meeting eventually ratified the National Covenant, making it the law of Scotland.

The following year saw the Second Bishops’ War, and this time there was a serious battle. The Committee of Estates had been installed to run the country, and with Leslie adamant that his army was superior, they authorised the invasion of England. Leslie marched south, defeated Charles’s untrained army of conscripts at the Battle of Newburn, and then occupied Newcastle after the northern division of the royal army fled rather than face the superior Scots.

Charles still had the bulk of his army at York, but the Council of Peers knew they would be no match for Leslie’s force and urged Charles to make peace, which he did with the Treaty of Ripon, signed on October 14, 1640. Quite unbelievably, it not only gave the Scottish army the occupation of Newcastle and Durham but also an indemnity of £850 per day to keep the Scots in food and drink.

The King went south to suffer the humiliation of the Long Parliament that would lead to the English Civil War, more accurately known as the English part of the War of the Three Kingdoms. He had no option but to sign a further treaty, the Treaty of London on August 10, 1941, in which he gave the Covenanters nearly all that they wanted – plus £300,000 in war reparations – except for making Presbyterianism the official religion of England, Wales and Ireland.

The Covenanters had won a huge victory, and Charles came to Scotland saying that he would settle their religion and liberty. He tried to curry favour with the Covenanters by making Leslie the Earl of Leven and promoting the Earl of Argyll to marquis, but it did not work. People simply did not trust the unwisest fool.

The following year saw England descend into civil war, the reasons for which would take a book to explain. Suffice to say that the humiliation of Charles by the Covenanters was the wellspring for the revolt of the Westminster Parliament which saw Charles raise his standard at Nottingham on August 22, 1642. It should be remembered that he was taking action against Parliament, not the other way round.

The war went well at first for Charles and his royalist forces, but the turning point came with the signing of the Solemn League and Covenant of 1643. This Covenant was entirely different from the National Covenant of 1638 as it was in effect a treaty between the Covenanters who had taken control of Scotland and the Parliament of England.

There had been a rebellion by Catholics in Ireland in 1641, and in 1643 there was real fear that Irish Catholics could join the royalist army en masse. There were many Puritans in the English Parliament and they could see the virtue of an anti-Catholic treaty with the Scots. Thus the Solemn League and Covenant of 1643 came about.

Again, it was a religious document, effectively saying that England, Wales and Ireland would adopt Presbyterianism, though the wording was sufficiently vague on that score. It started with the usual declaration about maintaining the “honour and happiness of the King’s majesty” and then went into detail about the need for church reform in the three kingdoms.

Probably very few Scots have read it but its fifth article is worth a read:

“And whereas the happiness of a blessed peace between these kingdoms, denied in former times to our progenitors, is by the good providence of God granted to us, and hath been lately concluded and settled by both Parliaments: we shall each one of us, according to our places and interest, endeavour that they may remain conjoined in a firm peace and union to all posterity, and that justice may be done upon the wilful opposers thereof, in manner expressed in the precedent articles.”

To those who say that Scotland and England could not live in “a firm peace and union” yet remain separate countries, just show them that couple of paragraphs ...

The Solemn League and Covenant changed our islands for ever. From being a fairly equal conflict, the English Civil War suddenly became Parliament’s to lose. For in early 1644, in keeping with the Solemn League and Covenant’s agreement, the Earl of Leven came south with the standing army of Scotland. At Marston Moor, the Covenanters fought alongside Oliver Cromwell’s Ironsides and the royalist army was scattered.

The war was turning and the Covenanters had made the vital contribution. In the seven years from 1637 to 1644, the Covenanters had not only taken control of Scotland but had helped the English Parliament to start the process of changing the three kingdoms for ever.

Writing a century and a half later, Robert Burns summed up the Covenanters succinctly in verse:

The Solemn League and Covenant
Now brings a smile, now brings a tear.
But sacred freedom, too, was theirs;
If thou ’rt a slave, indulge thy sneer.

  • Next week we will look at what happened to the Covenanters later in the 17th century. It is a story that must stand on its own, as we shall see.