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The National Covenant & Civil War

Charles IThe Solemn League and Covenant
Now brings a smile, now brings a tear.
But sacred freedom, too, was theirs;
If thou ‘rt a slave, indulge thy sneer.

On the Solemn League and Covenant
Robert Burns

Many Scots viewed the Union of the Crowns in 1603 as a disaster. It created the problem of one king ruling over two parliaments. To James VI & I, now holding court in London, the English Parliament was by far the more important of the two houses. He assured the English, ‘the greater would always attract the lesser’, and that Scotland would eventually Anglicise. At the time, his plan for a Union of Great Britain proved unpopular on all sides and it was quietly abandoned; it was his son, Charles I, who continued the plan.

Charles saw himself as the ‘Godly Prince’, the divinely appointed leader of society, who should be obeyed as such. He sought to bring the Scots Kirk into conformity with England by effectively using his Scots bishops to run Scotland for him. The King, however, had touched a raw nerve in the Scottish people - religion was the politics of the 17th century.

The Road to Revolution
Charles alienated two powerful factions in Scottish society through his actions. Firstly, there were the Presbyterians, who believed that Christ, not the King, was the head of the Kirk, and that spiritual power should flow from the Kirk Elders upwards and not from the King down. In his attempts to tamper with religion, Charles gave the Presbyterians political credibility. Secondly, by introducing bishops into government, Charles had weakened the traditional role of the Scots nobility. Disaffected, they drew closer to the Presbyterian radicals.
The crunch came in 1637 when Charles insisted, without consultation, on introducing an English-style prayerbook into Scotland. It incited a revolution - the National Covenant was signed at Greyfriar’s Kirk, Edinburgh, in 1638.

The National Covenant
Greyfriars ChurchThe signing of the National Covenant has been called the biggest event in Scottish history. In essence it was a document, a contract with God, signed by the Nobles, Ministers and thousands of ordinary Scots, who pledged themselves to defend Scotland’s rights by stating what they would and wouldn't agree to in matters of Kirk and state. Drawn up by two of Scotland’s sharpest minds, Archibald Johnston of Wariston and Alexander Henderson, it contained radical demands for changes in Scotland's governance.

The Covenant demanded a free Scottish Parliament and a free General Assembly, which means free from the King’s interference. Specifically, it demanded the abolition of bishops, who had blindly served the King in matters of Kirk and State, and, in effect, it limited the power of the King by inflating the role of Scotland’s nobles and Kirk. The medieval order of divinely appointed Kings was truely over.


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