On this day, February 28th, in 1637, in the kirkyard of Greyfriars in Edinburgh, the National Covenant, one of the most important documents in Scottish history, received its first signatures. It marked the start of the Scottish Revolution, and one of the most tumultuous times in the history of the British Isles.
Upon the death of Queen Elizabeth I in 1603 King James of Scotland also became king of England, thus creating the United Kingdom. Whilst James was always careful to balance his two realms, his son and inheritor, Charles I, payed far less attention to his Scottish subjects. In an attempt to increase the unity between the two kingdoms, Charles embarked on a campaign to force the Scots, who were overwhelmingly Presbyterian Protestants, to adopt the Episcopalian Protestant Church of England.
Charles believed he had a divine right to change the Scottish religion and this sparked outrage, since the country had been fiercely Presbyterian since the Reformation in 1560. The situation culminated in the signing of the National Covenant in Edinburgh in 1637. It asserted the independence of Scottish religion and laws. Those who signed it became known as “Covenanters” and copies were distributed across the kingdom. Importantly, and unlike the famed Declaration of Arbroath, it was not only signed by the nobility but received the support of ten of thousands of the common people of Scotland too.
The final spark for revolution came that summer, when a peasant girl named Jenny Geddes flung her stool at one of Charles’s bishops in the cathedral in Edinburgh. A riot began, and soon the whole country was up in arms against Charles. A single blow by a low-born woman had started the most tumultuous century in British history.
Two brief wars, named the Bishop’s Wars, followed, as Charles tired to tame his northern subjects. Both ended miserably for the king, partly because the Scots were so determined, partly because the English, plenty of whom were also Presbyterians, didn’t want to fight their northern coreligionists.
The loss of the Bishop’s Wars showed the rest of Britain that Charles could be overcome. There was a Catholic rising in Ireland in 1641 (which the Scots and English united to suppress), and a year later the English Parliament finally went to war with the king, beginning the first of three English Civil Wars. The Scots were natural allies of the English Parliament, and Scottish Covenanter armies were soon marching south to join the war against the Charles in England.
After the Restoration in 1660 Charles’s son, Charles II, began a program of revenge against the Covenanters. Whilst the rest of Britain basked in the splendour of the “Merry Monarch” thousands of Covenanters were executed or deported in what became known north of the border as the “Killing Times.” One Covenanter martyr was a seventeen year old named Margaret Wilson. She refused to renounce her beliefs, and was tied to a stake in the Solway Firth, where she was left to die, singing the Psalms as she drowned.
Two Covenanter risings were crushed by Charles II. It wasn’t until after his death that the tide would once again, finally, turn in the Covenanters favour.
In 1688 Charles’s brother, James II, had a son. This incensed the rest of Britain became James was a Catholic, and his son’s godfather was the Pope himself. United by their determination to avid another Catholic succession, Presbyterians and Episcopalians put aside their differences and invited the husband of James’s daughter, the Protestant William Prince of Orange, to take the throne from James. This he duly did in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. William III ended the persecution of the Covenanters, and finally accepted Presbyterianism as the state religion of Scotland. To this day the official church of the nation, the Church of Scotland, is Presbyterian whilst the Church of England remains Episcopalian.
The influence of the Scottish Covenanters runs like a blue thread through the events in Britain between 1637 and the final defeat of the Stuarts at Culloden in 1746, binding together events like the English Civil Wars, the Restoration, the Glorious Revolution and the Acts of Union. Given that, it’s surprising how few Scots are aware of the massive importance of this period, not only in Scottish history but in British and, indeed, glorbal terms.