Popular memory of the Scottish Covenanters, to the extent they are remembered at all, tends to feature them as either intolerant, violent religious fanatics, or focuses on their persecution during the ‘Killing Times’ and places them into a romantic tradition of downtrodden Scottish rebels. Heirs to Wallace and Bruce, perhaps, and precursors to the Jacobites, though their beliefs and political aims could hardly have been more different to those seeking to empower a Catholic Stuart monarch.
There are degrees of truth to these views. Yet in the world of academia, there has been something of a reappraisal of the Covenanters, and the ‘National Covenant’ for which they are named, in recent years. Historians have emphasised that the political movement which defeated Charles I’s efforts to impose an unwanted prayer book on Scotland, and swept a Covenanter regime into power in the process, had some unique and interesting features which make it more worthy of study than many had assumed.
While the Covenanters did not embrace ‘popular’ or ‘democratic’ politics as we would understand them today, their movement created a space for political participation by the general populace that had not been seen in Scotland before. The Covenanters drew their political authority from public displays of popular will- the National Covenant was publicly signed across the kingdom not only by nobles, but by common men and women who until that point had no mechanism to participate in politics in such a way.
My book The National Covenant and the Solemn League and Covenant 1660-1696 seeks to build on this reappraisal by investigating the legacy of the Covenanters beyond the context, as Scottish rebels, to which they are usually confined, by exploring their legacy in England beyond the Restoration in 1660.
The Solemn League and Covenant, agreed between the Covenanters and the English Parliamentarians in 1643, entangled the Covenanter revolution with the English Civil War, and led to many English people signing the Covenant, and theoretically, endorsing the religious reformation that was the Covenanter’s price for supporting the English militarily.
Traditionally, views on the importance of the Solemn League and Covenant have been largely limited to its role in facilitating the alliance of Scottish and English armies which decisively defeated the Royalists at the Battle of Marston Moor. After this point, the Solemn League and Covenant is seen as a failure, as the alliance disintegrated, and factions of Covenanters ended up supporting the royalists in the second and third civil wars. In 1662, all ministers who remained loyal to the Covenant were ejected from the Church, and seemingly, its irrelevance to all but a handful of fanatical rebels was secured.
However, my book argues that the legacy of the Covenants in England was more significant than this. People who had signed the Solemn League and Covenant sincerely wrestled with the question of how to reconcile their solemn oath with their loyalty to the king. Many feared that the Covenant and what it represented would return, either directly, or in some new form. And some, such as those who sought to exclude the future King James II and VII from the throne, turned to the idea of a ‘Protestant Association’; a means of uniting themselves in service to a political cause that bore many similarities to the National Covenant and the Solemn League and Covenant.
While the Covenanter dream of a presbyterian reformation in all three kingdoms was not realised, the form and function of their Covenants, I argue, was appropriated in service to a broader, more pluralistic, civic conception of ‘Protestantism’ not as a specific pattern of ecclesiology, but a civil religion defined by loyalty to a monarchy limited by law, and a rejection of what its proponents saw as the Catholic tyranny of James II and VII.
The National Covenant and the Solemn League and Covenant 1660-1696analyses discourse in the Restoration period around topics such as church government, toleration, monarchical power and the right to resistance, to chart the influence of the form of the Covenants, and the ideas which accompanied them. It contains analysis of debates around the Restoration church settlement such as those between John Gauden and Zachary Crofton which would be of interest to any early modern religious historian. It discusses the role of the Solemn League and Covenant and the French Holy League in propaganda surrounding the Exclusion Crisis, and brings to light fascinating forgeries such as the ‘Papist’s Bloody Oath of Secrecy’. Above all it seeks to contribute another small piece to the puzzle of understanding the origins of the British constitution, and its entanglement with ideas of ‘Protestant liberty’, which would define much of British and indeed, world history, in the century that follows this period.
This guest post was written by James Walters who holds a PhD from the University of Hull.