display | more...

The Covenanters were Scottish Presbyterians who signed various oaths and covenants to protect their church from English episcopacy in the 17th century. They became entangled in the English Civil War, and fought in the Wars of the Covenant between 1639 and 1651. Following the Restoration of Charles II, however, episcopacy was re-established in Scotland, and the Covenanters were brutally persecuted.

The struggle begins

In July, 1637, riots broke out in St Giles' Cathedral in Edinburgh, when the Book of Common Prayer was read out for the first time. Scots Presbyterians viewed this book, which had been backed by King Charles I, as being an attempt to introduce English "popish" practices into the Scottish church.

A "National Covenant" was drawn up in February 1638 and signed by leading nobles and gentry. This called for defence of the country's king and church, but was also an indication of Scottish resentment of government economic policies, the role of bishops in government, and the refusal to tolerate dissent. A General Assembly of the Church of Scotland was held in Glasgow in November, which abolished episcopal trappings such as bishops and the liturgy.

The Bishops' Wars

In 1639 and 1640 the king tried to organise armed resistance against the Scots, but was hampered by lack of financial backing from his nobles and financiers, and was forced to sign a peace treaty.

August, 1640, saw a split in the ranks of the Covenanters. The earl of Montrose signed the Cumbernauld Bond which backed the aims of the National Covenant, but not those of some of its leaders. Montrose objected to proposals that Scotland should be divided north and south of the Forth, the north going to the earl of Argyll and the south to the marquis of Hamilton.

The Scots were to win the so-called Bishop's War, however, with victory over the English later that August at Newburn. They also marched on Newcastle and Charles was forced to surrender the town and six northern counties to the Covenanters.

1641 saw Charles recognise the demands of the Covenant, shortly before rebellion broke out in Ulster and civil war broke out in England. Scottish covenanting troops were used against the Irish rebels.

The Solemn League and Covenant

By 1643, both the royalists and the parliamentarians in the civil war wanted the Scots on their side. The Scots parliament was led by the pro-war Archibald Campbell, marquis of Argyll, who negotiated an alliance with the English parliament, known as "the Solemn League and Covenant". The Scots promised their support for the parliamentary cause, but only in exchange for the promise of a Presbyterian church throughout Britain, a point grudgingly conceded by the English. The alliance was to prove a valuable asset, with the Scots helping the "Ironsides" to defeat the royalists at Marston Moor in July, 1644. September of that year saw a reversal of covenanter fortunes, however, as royalist troops led by James Graham, marquis of Montrose, sacked the city of Aberdeen.

As the Anglican church underwent Presbyterian reforms to strong objections and Charles' English forces suffered further defeats in 1645, Montrose had further victories in Scotland against the Covenanters. The Covenanters rallied, however, winning a crucial victory at Philiphaugh.

May, 1646, saw Charles flee north into the hands of the Scots, who tried to persuade the king to accept Prebyterianism and Calvinism. Parliament abolished bishops in general and the Archbishop of Canterbury in particular in this year, and the Scots grew unpopular for their continuing occupation of the north of England.

Charles returns to England

Charles' refusal to accept Presbyterianism led the Scots to give him back to the English, and he was greeted by cheering crowds as he headed south in February, 1647. By December, though, Charles had made a radical U-turn, signing a secret "engagement" with the Scots promising to confirm the Solemn League and Covenant in Parliament in return for Scotland's military support.

The Covenanters were to be defeated at Preston in August, 1648, however, leaving Charles without support. The so-called "engager government" collapsed in September, as disaffected Covenanters took control in Edinburgh.

In January, 1649, Cromwell's parliament condemned the king to death, and he was beheaded for treason, an act of regicide unparallelled in British history. The Scots were aghast that a Scottish king could be killed without their being consulted, and promised to support the king's son, also Charles, provided he in turn supported the Covenanter's aims.

The royalist James Graham, marquis of Montrose, was captured in the highlands in April 1650, and executed in Edinburgh in May. Dunbar in Lothian was the scene of a major defeat for the Covenanters in September, with 4,000 killed, and 10,000 captured. Charles II himself was to flee to France in October the following year.

Oliver Cromwell was installed as Lord Protector in December 1653, and the English won another victory over the Scots at Dalnaspidal on Tayside in July, 1654. The Scots then lay low until the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, when control of Scotland returned to a committee of estates.


Despite the Scottish parliament's return, this did not guarantee continued support for the Covenanters. In March, 1661, the parliament rescinded all acts passed since 1633, including all legislation relating to the Covenant. Archibald Campbell, marquis of Argyll and a leading Covenanter, was executed in May, 1661.

About a thousand Presbyterian rebels in south-west Scotland were routed by dragoons in November, 1666, and 80 were taken to Edinburgh to the gallows. Antipathy against episcopal rule was still in evidence in July, 1668, when the bishop of Orkney was wounded by a gunshot while boarding a coach - the archbishop of St Andrews accompanying him had a lucky escape.

James Sharp, the archbishop of St Andrews, was not so lucky in May, 1679, when his coach was fired on and stopped. He was dragged from the coach and hacked to death by nine Covenanters armed with swords. Sharp had tried to present the Presbyterian position to Charles II in 1661, but changed sides and accepted the episcopal position of archbishop instead, angering the Covenanters.

In June, 1679, Covenanters took control of Glasgow after defeating John Graham of Claverhouse at Drumclog in Ayrshire. They failed to attract support, however, and James, duke of Monmouth and illegitimate son of Charles II, used a force of 10,000 to defeat the 4,000 Covenanters at Bothwell Brig near Glasgow.

The final attempt to enforce the covenanting agenda was a rebellion by Archibald Campbell, earl of Argyll, in June, 1685. His attempt failed when the loyalist marquis of Atholl trapped him with the aid of English warships. The covenanting cause seems to have died out with Campbell's defeat.

The Oxford Companion to Scottish History, ed. Michael Lynch, Oxford University Press, 2001
Chronicle of Britain, Chronicle Communications Ltd, 1992
Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc, 1994-2000

Cov"e*nant*er (k?v"?-n?nt-?r), n.


One who makes a covenant.

2. Eccl. Hist.

One who subscribed and defended the "Solemn League and Covenant." See Covenant.


© Webster 1913.

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.