The Covenanters

Part One: The Covenanters, Who Were They?
By Brian Orr Have a question? Click Here to go to Brian's own Discussion Board!

Covenanters Caught at Prayer, click for larger Image The history and the changes that occurred in Scotland - and subsequently in Ireland - through the 17th and 18th centuries are highly charged by one word: Covenanters. So who were they and why were they so influential?

It is easy to say that they were the Presbyterians who signed the National Covenant to uphold the Presbyterian religion in 1638. Presbyterians also signed the Solemn League and Covenant of 1643. But their role in history isn't as simple as that.

The Covenanter's stand for political and religous liberty led to almost a century of persecution and their widespread migration to Ireland and the American colonies. Their struggles brought an end to 500 years of French (Catholic) influence in Scotland and contributed to a close alliance with England. And their refusal to acquiesce in the face of overwhelming odds eventually led to the union of the thrones of Scotland and England in 1603 and over time, the invitation to the Protestant William of Orange to take the throne in 1690. This move ultimately led to the political Act of Union in 1707 between Scotland and England.

Not Just Another Religion

A Covenanters Wedding, click for larger image It is important to understand that Presbyterianism is not just another religion. A Presbyter was an elder, a senior member of the congregation, in the early Christian Church. The name is also used for priest. In the Presbyterian denomination he is a member of the Presbytery which is an official court of the district composed of pastors and elders. Therein lies the clue and fundamental issue to understand when Covenanter is mentioned: Presbyterianism is a way of life. It recognises the government of each church by its elders with the churches associated in local presbyteries; represented in provincial synods and in a National Assembly which was the highest court of appeal. The rule by Bishops was an absolute anathema to Presbyterians because it clashed with their religous beliefs and interfered with their freedom to manage their own affairs and that of their congregation.

The story begins with the decline of the monasteries as they became less concerned with spiritual matters and more with the economics of land tenure and the material benefits the rents and tithes provided. The office of Bishop was frequently filled by political appointees from whom the monks, friars and nuns took their lead. It did not help matters that even the King took advantage of the system to ensure that illegitimate children were cared for by such appointments - James I of Scotland for example had his 11 year-old son created Archbishop of St Andrews, securing for him the incomes that flowed to the post. The real needs of the populace at large was for true, local, pastoral care which the state was so patently not delivering.

John Calvin

John Knox, Click for larger image It was primarily the influence of John Calvin (1509-1564) a French theologian and his great moral reformation in Europe, especially in Geneva, that drove the changes pursued by John Knox in Scotland. The central theme of Calvin's beliefs was that of predestination - everything that happens is the will of God. Calvin believed in the concept of eternal salvation and with it eternal damnation, but he also encouraged improved organisation and education. Even though it was a harsh creed, its logic had enormous influence in Europe and, later, the emerging America. As a sign of its popularity, it was accepted by the Hugenots as well as the Puritans in both England and America.

John Knox

The banner of reformation in Scotland was taken up by John Knox (1515-1572), who after a colourful early life (he was a galley slave for a while) brought Calvinist beliefs to Scotland in 1558. Knox was soon a leading light and a zealous politician who made a treaty with Queen Elizabeth I of England that gained for himself and his friends the direction of their affairs. Knox was undoubtedly intolerant and a fanatic but he had a powerful influence in moulding the religous and educational life of Scotland.

Andrew Melville

Statue of Andrew Melville at Valley Cemetery, Stirling, click for larger image After Knox's death the mantle of reform fell upon Andrew Melville (1545-1622). Melville held more stringent views and he proposed a new system of church courts and synods. Underpinning this was the continued demand that all the episcopalian Church of Scotland properties, tithes and lands should be handed over. The Crown response in 1584 was to reaffirm the King as head of the church and the Bishops as the tool of its management. There was some relaxation in 1592 with return of presbyteries and suspension of the role of the Bishops. But in 1610 the administrative role of the bishop was reintroduced with more generous provision of funds for the church in the parish.

Melville and his supporters continued to preach and circulate manuscripts and books illegally and gathering the support and admiration of the working people. It was the accession of Charles I in 1625 that was a catalyst for yet more change and Civil War. Charles particularly threatened to take back the the churches' rights to property and tithes which greatly alarmed every landholder in Scotland. Charles was also a stubborn and extravagant man under the influence of his wife, Henrietta Maria, a French-Catholic princess. Worse still, two of his ministers were the Earl of Strafford, who persecuted the Scots in Ulster, and Archbishop Laud who in 1637 sought to impose on the Scots a new prayer book and the reintroduction of the mass and other Catholic practices. Laud's decision to go ahead with reforms were both the cause and pretext for revolt.

The National Covenant

Copy of the Covenant in the Greyfriars Kirk Session Room, Click for larger imageIn 1638 at Greyfriars Kirk, in Edinburgh, representatives of the Scottish peoples gathered to sign a "National Covenant". The document was important for several reasons:

  • it restated the struggle against "popery";
  • it declared their resistance to change in worship not previously approved by free assemblies and parliament, and;
  • it pledged the signatories to defend their religion against all comers.

The National Covenant was not anti-government nor did it refer to the bishops but King Charles over-reacted and regarded them as rebels. Charles assembled an army but relented and allowed the first General Assembly for 20 years to be convened at which time the Assembly abolished the Bishops. Charles rejected the decision and once again the army was mobilised while the vast majority of Scots united behind the Presbyterian cause.

In 1640 the Covenanting army under Alexander Leslie marched into northern England and occupied the city of Newcastle in Northumberlandplan. Charles I desperately sought to retain his throne, calling, dismissing and recalling Parliment several times. In 1641 Parliament presented Charles with a "Grand Remonstrance" which listed the acts of oppression and tyranny for which he had been responsible in the past sixteen years. He attempted to arrest some Members of Parliament but failed and in January 1642 he left London.

For the full text of the National Covenant, click HERE.

Solemn League and Covenant

Battle of Drumclog, click for larger image In 1643, in return for a promise to give military help to English rebels, the Covenanters entered into a "Solemn League and Covenant " with the English Parliamentarians which would have given a uniform Presbyterian religion in both England and Scotland. This was adopted for the Kirk in Scotland but not in England.

At last it seemed to the Covenanters that their goal was in sight but joy was relatively short lived as there were further bloody battles at Marston Moor (1644) and Naseby (1645) before King Charles I was finally defeated.

After the King's execution in 1649, the Scots immediately proclaimed his son, Charles II, King of Scotland conditional upon him accepting Presbyterianism and the Covenants, which he signed in June 1649. This was unacceptable to Oliver Cromwell and there followed a bloody battle at Dunbar where he showed no mercy, exiling survivors to Plantations in America and Ireland. From then until 1660 the Covenanters were again suppressed.

For the full text of the Solemn League and Covenant, click HERE.

Charles' Revenge

Charles II, click for larger image The return of Charles II from exile in 1660 began a period of revenge on the Presbyterians in England, as he endorsed the restoration of episcopacy and the use of the Common Book of Prayer. The summoning of a new Parliament in 1661 saw within days a resolution (17 May 1661 ) that the Covenant shoiuld be publicly burned and a Bill that declared the "Solemn League and Covenant" illegal (30 May 1661).

In Scotland the Act of Uniformity 1662 was mirrored by an Act of Proclamation in 1662 which banished all ministers who did not have a bishop's licence. Over 300 ministers were ejected from their manses. There were also fines imposed and collected by military force which led to more bloodshed. The Covenanters were defeated in a skirmish at Rullion Green near Edinburgh and over a 100 prisoners taken and executed as an example to others.

By 1670 the land was under military rule with troops (the Highland Host) billetted among the people. In 1679 Archbishop Sharp was assassinated and the Covenanters had modest military success against General John Graham of Claverhouse in June 1679. But the Covenanter army of over 5000 soldiers was defeated at Bothwell Brig by Monmouth with 400 left dead and 1500 prisoners taken. Two ministers were hung and others executed. Some 200 were sentenced to transportation to the West Indies but their ship sank in bad weather and all were drowned.

Effects of Persecution

The Bullet Proof Coat worn by John Claverhouse, click for larger imageThe effect of persecution was reflected in substantial migration of Scots to Ulster intending to settle there if land was available. It was estimated that about 30,000 went to Ulster between 1660 and 1690 and the numbers increased following bad harvests with an estimated 10,000 in 1692 alone. These migrants mostly entered Ulster via Londonderry and settled in the west of the province. Ironically the Scottish administration noted their concern at the exodus fearing that some heritours (landlords) would be left without tenants.

Despite defeats and severe penalties the Covenanters continued to resist led by such ministers as such ministers as Andrew Melville, Donald Cargill and Richard Cameron, known as "Society Men" and also "The Cameronians". Cameron was killed in the summer of 1680 but not before publishing a Declaration at Sanquhar calling for the removal of Charles II. The strongest and most extreme forms of Covenanting were to be found in Ayrshire and the south west in Dumfries and Galloway where dissenting ministers had substantial congregations. Their resistance took the form of guerilla tactics and attendance at open air meerings or conventicles. They were harried by the government suspicious of treason, and by heavy handed military and judicial reprisals, especially after 1681.

It was no better for them when James II took the throne in 1685. James' open support for the mass and appointments of Catholics to positions of power confirmed the worst fears of the Protestants. Before too long, other forces led to the call for William of Orange to take the Crown, and the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 finally assured the Protestant succession in Britain - and with it tolerance of Presbyterianism.

Meet the Author, Brian Orr, Researcher with The Guild of One Name Studies

Back to The Covenanters, Main Page

Part One: The Covenanters: Who Were They?
Part Two : The Kirk and its Impact on the People
Part Three : Tales of the Covenanters
Part Four : What's in a Name?
Part Five : The Sanquhar Declaration
Part Six : Covenanter Ships: The Eaglewing, The Crown and Henry & Francis
Part Seven : Female Covenanters: Execution by Drowning
Part Eight : Covenanter Prisons: Bass Rock and Dunnattor Castle
Part Nine : Greyfriars Kirk and the National Covenant
Part Ten : Battle of Rullion Green
Part Eleven : Rev. James Renwick, Martyr
Part Twelve : Presbyterians in Ireland
Part Thirteen: The Final Word on the Solway Martyrs
Part Fourteen: The Margaret Wilson Statue
Part Fifteen: After the National Covenant

Covenanters Time Line
Research Links

Thursday, December 26th, 2019

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