Remembering the National Covenant in Scotland

This new collection examines contemporary responses to the famously ambiguous and frequently divisive National Covenant of 1638. Here editor Chris Langley gives us an insight into the range and depth of those splits and divisions.

Image author’s own

Most tourists visiting Edinburgh will set foot inside St Giles Cathedral, on the Royal Mile. As visitors file into the church from the west-end door, they are watched by statues of prominent figures from Scotland’s ecclesiastical history, including William Forbes, the seventeenth-century bishop of Edinburgh and, to his left, his intellectual opponent, Alexander Henderson. Visitors to the cathedral have to scramble just off the nave, around several rows of stacked chairs, to a dimly-lit part of the interior to come to face to face with the the document over which Forbes, Henderson, and so many of their contemporaries, disagreed: the National Covenant.

The stark contrast between the prominent place of Forbes and Henderson on the facade of the cathedral with the perfunctory presentation of the National Covenant inside the building reflects the continuing challenge of dealing with the memory of the ‘Covenanting’ period in Scotland’s history. The document promised to protect Scottish religion from impurities and cited a raft of legislation to support its opposition to the ecclesiastical policies of Charles I. The document had a huge impact over the next half century: it led to radical Church reform; a conflict that pitted the Covenanters against Charles I; an uneasy alliance with Parliamentarians south of the Border in England; the breakdown of that alliance; a clampdown on vice and ill-discipline in parishes; an invasion led by Oliver Cromwell; a decade of foreign occupation by English soldiers; and an irrevocable split within the Church between hardliners and moderates. At the Restoration of monarchy in 1660, the Covenanters faced new royal policies that sought to curb the more zealous among them, and bring the more moderate of them into the established Church. Later in the century, radicals citing the Covenant would again fight against royal soldiers in a period known as ‘the Killing Times’. Such a tumultuous half century is more difficult to explain than the relative ease of simply moving such a contentious document from view.

The prominent and godly lawyer, Archibald Johnston of Wariston signed the National Covenant for the first time in the parish of Currie, to the west of Edinburgh, in March 1638. Wariston, who helped draw up the document, was sure what it meant:

‘in the tuinkling of ane eye their fell sutch ane extraordinarie influence of Gods Sprit upon the whol congregation, melting thair frozen hearts, waltering thair dry cheeks, chainging thair very countenances, as it was a wonder to seie so visible, sensible, momentaneal a chainge upon al, man and woman, lasse and ladde, pastor and people’

People started to fall to their knees and cry. There were similar scenes elsewhere: Congregations of people dropping to their knees, weeping uncontrollably. Rumours quickly spread of a young woman in Edinburgh who was seeing divine visions and speaking of the good that would come from the National Covenant. At the General Assembly that met at the end of 1638 – the most senior ecclesiastical assembly in the land – members emphasised the need for moderation and decorum until, at one key moment in proceedings, they fell to their knees crying, hands raised to the heavens. The National Covenant was politically powerful, but it could also be a deeply personal document that drove a highly active form of piety.

Other onlookers were not so sure. From the relative safety of Aberdeen, a number of University theologians argued that the National Covenant bastardised the Scottish Reformation. But even these men, known as ‘the Aberdeen Doctors’, were hardly united in their condemnation of all parts of the document. Professors and faculty from other universities in Scotland divided in similar ways. The burgesses of Glasgow were unsure how to respond. Even ministers of the Church of Scotland divided, with some preaching against the National Covenant in their pulpits, out in their parishes, or wherever they could get a hearing.

The National Covenant in Scotland, 1638-1689 traces the ways Scottish communities responded to, understood, and remembered the National Covenant. The volume’s essays trace the process of swearing and subscribing the document, how identities could be fashioned as a result, and, finally, how those later in the century remembered, repackaged or repurposed what the document meant to them. In each of these sections, the volume’s essays show how diverse Covenanting could be in early modern Scotland, the widespread nature of political and religious engagement through the Scottish population, and how seemingly political actions could have an impact on the way people understood themselves and those around them. Seeing the National Covenant, dusty in the corner of the nave of St Giles, Edinburgh, or the proximity of Bishop Forbes and Alexander Henderson on the cathedral’s façade, we are reminded that the process of remembering continues to this day.

Image author’s own

This guest post was written by Dr Chris R. Langley, Senior Lecturer in Early Modern History at Newman University, Birmingham.

The National Covenant in Scotland, 1638-1689
Edited by Chris R. Langley
9781783275304, Hardback, £48.75 or $84.50