The Crisis of the Three Kingdoms, 1637–1642


From the Bowels of the Whore of Babel

The Scottish Prayer Book Rebellion and the Politics of Reformation

It was more like a procession than an invasion. When a large Scottish army passed through Flodden in 1640, their progress was ‘very solemn and sad much after the heavy form showed in funerals’. Trumpeters decked with mourning ribbons led the way, followed by one hundred ministers and, in their midst, the Bible ‘covered with a mourning cover’. Behind the ministers came old men with petitions in their hands along with the military commanders, also wearing black ribbons or ‘some sign of mourning’. Finally came the soldiers, trailing pikes tied with black ribbons, accompanied by drummers ‘beating a sad march such as they say is used in the funerals of officers of war’.1

This was a forceful demonstration about the death of the Bible, a complaint about the fate of the true, scriptural religion in Scotland. The origin of their protest was revulsion at a new Prayer Book, introduced in 1637 and described by the Earl of Montrose as ‘brood of the bowels of the whore of Babel’. ‘[T]he life of the gospel [had been] stolen away by enforcing on the kirk a dead service book’, he said.2 Here was its funeral. In fact the army was not, strictly speaking, the army of the Scots but of the Covenanters, men who had entered a mutual bond before God to defend the true religion. Even at this stage there were Scots who were not Covenanters, and that distinction was to become extremely significant in the coming years – Montrose, for one, was later to abandon this version of the cause and become the champion of armed royalism in Scotland.

This was not the first time that a Scottish army had taken this road, inland from the fortified town of Berwick and crossing the river Tweed, which marks the border between England and Scotland at its eastern end, just south of Coldstream. The last time, in 1513, it had ended in disaster: perhaps 5,000 Scots died, among them the Scottish king, eleven earls, fifteen lords, three bishops and much of the rest of Scotland’s governing class.3 Fear of the arrival of armed Scots in the north had caused centuries of concern in England. Indeed tenants in the Borders had enjoyed unusual freedoms in return for an obligation to offer armed resistance to Scottish incursions, and the prevalence of cross-border cattle raiding had given rise to something like clan society. When James VI of Scotland ascended to the English throne in 1603, the Borders had, in his vision, become middle shires, and the problems had receded somewhat. Nonetheless, armed Scots were not regarded with equanimity in northern England.4

This time, however, they were barely opposed and the march past Flodden was the prelude to a successful occupation of northern England, achieved more or less without a fight. Alexander Leslie’s Covenanting army were faced by 10,000 English troops with more in reserve further south. But this English force was easily discouraged. At Newburn on 28 August, just over a week after they had crossed the border, a short action saw the English routed and on 30 August the Scottish army marched unopposed into Newcastle, one of the nation’s most significant cities.

This, then, was a very peculiar occupation: many Englishmen seem to have felt that the Scots had right on their side, or at least that the English army did not. When they reached Heddon-on-the-Wall, one of the invaders later recalled, ‘old mistress Finnick came out and met us, and burst out and said, “And is it not so, that Jesus Christ will not come to England for reforming abuses, but with an army of 22,000 men at his back?”’5 Certainly English forces, locally and nationally, were half-hearted in their responses. The Scottish party had actively courted, and clearly expected to receive, the sympathy of local people, and they were not disappointed.

England and Scotland were separate kingdoms under the same king – their churches, law, administration and representative institutions remained distinct. Like his father, who had first possessed the two crowns together, Charles governed Scotland from London, but he now hastened north. He intended to ‘contain the Northern Counties at his devotion’, fearing, it was said, that local people might ‘waver’ in their support for him. Opinion there had apparently been ‘empoisoned by the pestilent declaration cast among them’ by the Covenanters.6 In their propaganda campaign of the summer of 1640, in print and in circulating manuscripts, the Covenanters had made it clear that they had no quarrel with England but were forced to take these actions in order to defend their religion and liberties. Some of their papers and publications went further, suggesting that they intended to help England to complete its own Reformation, and that they were an instrument of God’s providence in that respect.7 Charles’s government was palpably anxious about this propaganda effort.8 Without the ‘awe of his Majesty’s presence’ it was feared that local people might ‘easily be tempted to fall to the Scottish party, or at leastwise, to let them pass through them without resistance or opposition’. It even seemed necessary to issue a proclamation that the Covenanters were ‘Rebels and Traitors’. Only a nervous government would have felt it necessary to say so, or to add: ‘so shall all they be deemed and reported that assist or supply them with money or victual, or shall not with all their might oppose and fight against them’.9


Many English soldiers were said to be more sympathetic towards the Scots than to the King’s cause in 1640

These fears about local loyalties were not groundless. The Covenanters had been amazed that Newcastle was surrendered without a fight10 and within a week or so of arriving had made the town defensible, something the townspeople had neglected to do over the previous summer.11 Prior to the crossing of the Tweed there had clearly been contacts with highly placed English politicians and the decision to invade had involved a careful calculation about the effect of crossing onto English soil on English sympathies.12

Although this episode is often described as a Scottish invasion it is better understood as a forceful demonstration of grievances by the Covenanters appealing to potential sympathizers in England. The royal proclamation had tried to obscure that distinction, but this was a religious protest intended to make common cause with fellow travellers in one of Charles’s other kingdoms. It enjoyed some success in that respect and there are persistent suspicions about active collusion. Certainly a willingness to accept that the Covenanters were rebels (rather than, say, loyal petitioners with right on their side) became something of a political litmus test in England.13 Reformation politics did not necessarily respect national borders or dynastic loyalties.

The Covenanting movement arose from attempts to harmonize religious practice in England and Scotland, which eventually raised fundamental issues in Reformation politics. In 1629, at the suggestion of William Laud, then Bishop of London, Charles had considered the introduction of the English Prayer Book into Scotland. The concerns of his Scottish bishops, however, had been sufficiently clear, and sufficiently substantial, to persuade him to back off.14 Scottish practice was more rigorously Calvinist in its doctrine, liturgy and church government, and this purity of practice was defined in part in contrast to the ‘halfly reformed’ English church. Moreover, the influence of bishops and recent trends in Protestant practice in England seemed to threaten the Calvinist inheritance. These threats could be understood as differing facets of ‘popery’, a polemical escalation which made it hard to limit discussion to the specific measures being proposed. Ceremonial tinkering became emblematic of threats to the identity and future of Scottish Protestantism, which in turn raised questions about who should be custodian of that future, and the relations between church and state.

At the heart of the Reformation message was a rejection of the power of individual believers, or of the church acting on their behalf, to affect God’s judgement about who should be saved and who should be damned. Martin Luther had been convinced, like Augustine, of the powerlessness and unworthiness of fallen humanity, and struck by the force of God’s mercy. Good works could not merit this mercy, or affect a sovereign God: instead individual sinners were entirely dependent on God’s mercy and justified (saved) by faith alone. Jean Calvin, a generation later, developed more clearly the predestinarian implications – since some men were saved and some were damned, and since this had nothing to do with their own efforts, it must mean that God had created some men predestined for salvation (the elect). This seemed to imply that He must also have predestined other men for damnation (double predestination), a line of argument which led into dangerous territory. Some theologians, Calvin’s close associate Beza among them, went further and argued that the entire course of human history was foreordained prior to Adam and Eve’s fall in the Garden of Eden. These views (particularly the latter, ‘supralapsarian’ arguments) seemed to their opponents to suggest that God was the author of the sin, both in Eden and in those who were subsequently predestined for damnation. They also raised a question about Christ’s sacrifice on the cross – had that been made to atone for the sins of all, or only of the elect? Because of these dangers many of those with strong predestinarian views were unsure about whether or not the doctrine should be openly preached. Clever theologians, like expensive lawyers, are adept at failing to push arguments too far and there were many respectable positions short of the one adopted by Beza. But predestination was for many Protestants a fundamental – retreat from this doctrine implied a role for free will expressed in works rather than a justification by faith. It thus reopened the door to the corruptions of late-medieval Christianity.15

In defending these views Luther and subsequent reformers took their stand on scripture, the Word, rather than the accumulated tradition and wisdom of the church. This too became central to Reformation argument. It led to an emphasis on the relationship between the individual believer and God, mediated by scripture rather than a priesthood interceding on behalf of the flock, and elevated preaching of the Word at the expense of many forms of shared ritual. Scriptural warrant was found for only two sacraments – baptism and communion. Much of the rest of the ceremonial life of the church gave way to exposition of scripture. Placing the Word at the centre of the religious experience led to a suspicion of potentially distracting ritual or imagery and practices which had previously been regarded as central to worship. What had previously been seen as important for fostering a sense of fellowship or edifying the believer was now often seen as superstitious or idolatrous.16

Emphasis on the Word therefore had implications for forms of public worship, and controversy over matters of faith frequently centred around these visible expressions of religious belief: these questions were of much more widespread and immediate significance to ordinary Christians. They also drove the roots of these theological controversies very deeply into European society. What happened at each moment of each occasion of religious worship in every corner of Europe could provide the focus for a debate which was literally more important than life or death. More than Luther, Calvin and his followers tended towards an austere view of the role of ritual and image in communicating religious truth, placing great emphasis on scripture, expounded by ministers who were expected to be effective preachers.

There were differences of degree and opinion on these matters, which divided not only Protestant from Catholic, but Protestant reformers from one another. Predestination was urged with caution, and although religious practices were tested more stringently against scripture this did not lead to the abandonment of all traditional practices. Importantly, it was possible to defend ‘harmless’ practices which were not specified in scripture, but which were not counter to it. In particular a residual role was reserved for edification – sensitizing the believer to the saving message – which allowed for the preservation of parts of the medieval tradition.

Similarly, respectable reformed opinion was not anti-clerical. Most reformers believed that scripture was not self-explanatory, and needed to be expounded by those with a gift for such exposition. There were good reasons to be careful about pushing the argument against an intercessory priesthood too far – it might entail standing idly by while misinformed brethren with a poor understanding of God’s Word pursued their own damnation. Equally, there were concrete fears about the consequences for this world of allowing misinformed brethren to follow what they mistakenly understood to be their conscience. The Münster Anabaptists who had held property in common or the German peasants who had engaged in social protest during the 1520s were remembered as the exemplars of the dangers of ungoverned spiritual life. The pursuit of reformation often entailed a reduction in the space allowed to clerical authority, therefore, but almost always stopped short of allowing individual believers complete freedom to define their own relationship with God.17 Priest became minister and teacher; the individual believer was by no means left isolated.

At the centre of the Reformation message was the view that individuals were saved (justified) by faith, not works; a greater emphasis on scripture as a guide to the Christian life; and a pared-down sacramental and ceremonial worship focused more clearly on the Word. These issues, although fundamental, were not without ambiguities – over the doctrine of predestination and its implications, over which elements of the received tradition were acceptable, and over which particular practices edified, or were superstitious, idolatrous and distracting. The Reformation was not a completed event but a process and the Protestant faiths were recovered rather than founded: Reformation politics were not driven by a desire to establish a new church but the urgent need to purify the old one. This might mean stripping out of the liturgy, ritual and physical fabric of the church those corruptions which were counter to the true scriptural religion, or removing the vestiges of the papal corruption of the constitution of the church which had allowed errors to flourish. But in Scotland, as everywhere else, the nature of the task and its limits were contested.

Although there was no unambiguous agreement about what a restored church would look like, it did seem clear to many Protestants that the principal enemy of that restoration was the Bishop of Rome. The favoured term of abuse for unwelcome practices was therefore ‘popery’: a term which gave a comforting polemical clarity when debating complex issues. Polemic about the nature of the true church, or of its opponents, was often couched in terms of anti-popery, and the language of anti-popery was used to mark the boundaries of acceptable belief and practice. What popery might mean in any particular context was highly contestable, of course – it was the opposite of truly Christian belief and practice, but if people differed on what true belief and practice were, they automatically identified popery differently too. The Pope, in this view, was the agent of the Antichrist, or even actually the Antichrist – the promoter of practices and beliefs inimical to the salvation of good Christians. The control exercised by the Bishop of Rome over the church was the equivalent of the Babylonish captivity of the Israelites. Complex debates about scriptural justification for particular elements of belief and practice, about the authenticity of the tradition that they represented, or about the effects of political compromise on the promotion of reform, might easily dissolve into shouting matches about popery and the Antichrist.18

This radical simplification could raise the issues to apocalyptic levels since it was often said that these battles corresponded to the battles in the biblical last days: the triumph of reformation over popery would, it was hoped, lead to the reign of Christ and the saints. Obviously, the radicalism, and simplicity, of this rhetoric made the negotiation of a harmonious consensus difficult. The clarity of the polemic was a contrast to the complexity of the identity problem to which it related; the certainties it offered were perhaps comforts in the face of the anxieties generated by that complexity. Popery was an important discourse within Protestantism precisely because the boundary between the purified church and the corrupt Roman Catholic church was both crucial and indistinct.

These arguments about reformation raised questions about how churches should be governed and about the relationship with secular authorities which would protect these churches. On both of these crucial questions, however, the reformers” message was pragmatic, and therefore a little ambiguous. Calvin’s first, and most influential, publication was the Institutes, which was the first statement of Protestant belief to discuss civil government at length. This interest in the relationship between religious and secular authority was a product of the experience of the second generation of religious reformers, who were frequently men forced into exile by the hostility of their own rulers to reform. In exile in Geneva, Calvin oversaw the establishment of a Presbyterian ecclesiastical organization, which was often catering to the needs of an exile community. This stood alongside a secular authority, membership of which was not open to refugees. The refugee experience therefore fostered, in practice and theory, parallel systems of religious and secular government: two kingdoms, in fact. Secular and religious affairs were separated, and placed in the hands of different kinds of authority. Pushed to an extreme position, this might suggest that secular rulers had no role in religious affairs.19Most monarchs were very suspicious of ‘two kingdoms’ theory, for obvious reasons.

Although Calvin had developed an influential argument about the appropriate constitution of the church, and its relationship with civil authority, that was not the essence of the Reformation message, even for Calvin. Calvin had distinguished four functions for the clergy – doctors, ministers, elders and deacons – but these four functions were not associated with any particular form. Doctors ensured the purity of doctrine, ministers preached, elders oversaw discipline and deacons gave an example of Christian charity. All four functions could be identified in scripture, but there was no clear prescription as to how to allocate these disparate functions in actual offices.20 There was no necessary assumption that in following Calvin’s teaching in other political contexts it was necessary to establish Presbyterianism on the Genevan model. The Presbyterian organization of Calvin’s church offered a model for others, but by comparison with the fundamentals – preaching, sacraments, reformation – how the church was governed was of secondary significance, a practical question. Reformation came to different places by various means, resulting in a variety of settlements of this practical question.

Rather than a prescriptive view of how churches should be organized, Calvinists looked for signs that particular churches had the marks of a ‘true church’. Even those who held very strict predestinarian views agreed that it was not possible to be certain about who was a member of the elect and who was damned. This gave rise to a distinction between the visible church of all practising Christians and the invisible church of the elect. Protestants tended to assess visible churches according to the agreed marks of a true church – the signs that members of the invisible church might be present. Naturally enough, there was room for disagreement about what the marks of a true church were, but they always included the preaching of the Word and administration of the sacraments (rightly understood).

Beza and others added discipline to the list – a collective effort to combat sin and teach the true religion. For the very reason that it was not possible to know who was saved and who was damned, it was incumbent on everyone to secure the purification of the visible church, and also of the society around them. Avoiding sin, and abhorring the sins of others, did not secure a place in heaven, but they might be evidence of membership of the invisible church. In alliance with the secular power, the ecclesiastical authorities should put down sin wherever possible: an alliance of magistrate and minister aimed at the eradication of sin transformed a church reformation into a societal one. The discipline of the flock – both in worship and in their everyday lives – was therefore of central concern to the reformers.

It was these fundamentals – Word, sacrament and (for some) discipline – which marked out a true church. If these things were present there was ample room for accommodation to apparently uncongenial forms of ceremony, and no significant school of thought identified a particular form of church government as one of the marks of a true church. It also became common among Calvinists to distinguish between churches which were under the Cross – that is, those which did not enjoy the protection of a godly civil authority – and those which did.21

When Charles proposed changes in Scottish practice emphasizing formality and ceremony in worship he was not necessarily betraying the Reformation message, even if he was denounced by his opponents as popish; and using his authority as monarch to achieve this was not necessarily a betrayal either. Many Protestants might have viewed these ceremonies as harmless and remained confident that the kirk remained a true church under a godly civil authority. But that is clearly not how it seemed in Scotland. That fact owes as much to the history of the Scottish Reformation as to the nature of the changes actually being proposed.

Reformation had come to Scotland by means of a coup against royal authority in 1560. The ‘Lords of the Congregation’, a group of Protestant nobles, led an armed rising against the unpopular French regent, Mary of Guise. Following their success French interest was excluded from Scotland by the Treaty of Edinburgh and a parliament was called which, among other things, legislated for a reformation. John Knox, recently returned from religious exile in Calvin’s Geneva, gave spiritual leadership to the movement and in doing so imported the Calvinist vision of reformation. But the coming of reformation nonetheless involved compromises. The parliament of 1560 had legislated in the light of a confession of faith and a Book of Discipline. According to later legend this was the result of the irresistible pressure for Protestant reformation, but in fact it owed much to opportunism and political chance – the Scottish Reformation was not completed in a single step or according to a blueprint.22

Important practical compromises were made in the interests of domestic peace. The bishops, who after all were not the means by which reformation had arrived, were not allowed to say Mass but they were not compelled to subscribe to the confession of faith either, and neither was anyone else. Some of the bishops joined in the promotion of reform and their efforts were supplemented rather than supplanted by superintendents, appointed to direct the pastoral effort in areas without a sympathetic bishop. These new offices were not really rivals to the episcopal office, therefore, but a means of strengthening its pastoral role where that was perceived to be weak.23 Since the monarch was a devoted Catholic she could not oversee the Reformation in Scotland and as a result a General Assembly was formed modelled on the composition of the Scottish parliament.24 The role of the parish was perpetuated in the kirk sessions, later claimed on dubious authority to have grown out of voluntary Protestant congregations – privy kirks – operating prior to 1560. This version of the history of the Reformation emphasized again the roots of the Reformation among the flock, rather than its debt to the head. If their significance to the origins of the Reformation has been exaggerated or distorted, however, they were certainly of crucial significance to the subsequent development of Scottish Protestantism. Through the sessions the parish remained the fundamental unit of church organization, providing preaching, sacraments and discipline of the flock. It was these institutions which, over time, became the motor of Scottish reformation.25 Finally, weekly exercises took root, meetings where preaching could reach an audience beyond the parish, or reach parishioners not well served with a preaching ministry at home.26 In all, this was a hybrid and pragmatic solution, which supplemented the ancient institutions of the church by giving some of its functions to new bodies, and it developed over time in an organic way.

A second ambiguity, or compromise, was that the legislation setting up these new arrangements was not ratified. When Queen Mary returned from France in August 1561 she issued a proclamation enjoining obedience to ‘public and universally standing practices’ then current. While this did allow for the prosecution of ‘mass mongers’ it did not validate or endow the new church. Only after 1567, when Mary was deposed in favour of her infant son, James VI, was legislation counter to the Reformation rescinded. The provisional nature of the arrangements of the 1560s is also reflected in the fact that in 1573, when the position of Protestantism was clearly established, it was suggested that the General Assembly had served its purpose and the stewardship of the church might now return to the crown.27 It was certainly not the case that the General Assembly was by law the supreme authority in ecclesiastical matters. The founding vision of reformation in Scotland had not given the kirk a clear constitution or an unambiguous relationship to civil authority.

Over the following years there was growing pressure to adopt a Presbyterian model of church government in order to promote reformation, but this met with monarchical resistance. The institutions of the reformed church had been set alongside those of the old church, supplementing rather than supplanting them in order to promote the pastoral work of the reformers. The priority was the promotion of a pastoral ministry – supporting the preaching of the Word, true sacramental worship and discipline. As time passed, however, the institutional compromises of the 1560s came increasingly to be seen as presenting obstacles to that. Old church institutions were deprived of their pastoral role but not of their endowments, whereas the new institutions were given pastoral functions but inadequate endowments.28 Evangelists pushing for the establishment of a more active ministry might easily identify kirk sessions, weekly exercises, superintendents and the General Assembly as their allies; bishops and the monarch, however, were less unambiguously on the side of the saints.

As a result there was a tendency for convinced Calvinists to push for greater institutional security for an independent kirk. This was also associated with a desire to secure the four functions of the clergy in a form more akin to Genevan Presbyterianism, to develop the new institutions established alongside the skeleton of the old church in a Presbyterian direction and to separate their authority from that of the crown. The guiding spirit for this is usually assumed to have been Andrew Melville, former exile in Geneva and close ally of Beza, although there is little direct evidence to show that he did direct these developments. But from the 1570s onwards it was thought that the promotion of reform meant endowing the pastoral ministry at the expense of the remnants of the pre-Reformation church, and making it more answerable to the needs of the flock. This created a pressure to transform the kirk sessions, weekly exercises, superintendents and General Assembly into a fully developed Presbyterian church.29

Melville was certainly influential in the General Assembly which adopted the second Book of Discipline in 1578. This stated that the authority of the kirk flowed directly from God and had no temporal lord, and condemned the office of bishop. Bishops were excluded from the General Assembly and from 1581 membership depended on nomination from the kirk sessions. The political influence of Presbyterians was enhanced during a Catholic scare around 1580, when the dominance of the Earl of Lennox in secular affairs seemed to threaten rapprochement with the Roman church. In 1581 a Negative Confession was drawn up, denouncing popery in general and in a number of particular forms, and Lennox agreed to subscribe, again seeming to confirm that the kirk, not the civil power, was the guardian of the reformed faith.30 It was to become a key text in the Covenanting crisis, a benchmark of shared belief, promoted in the face of an ungodly civil power.

Although the General Assembly could adopt the second Book of Discipline as a programme, it would require crown and Parliament to give it legal force and the assembly certainly could not prevent the continued appointment of bishops by the crown. In 1582 Lennox was overthrown as a result of the Ruthven Raid, in which several prominent Presbyterian nobles, led by William Ruthven, Earl of Gowrie, abducted James VI while he was staying at Ruthven’s castle. The King was kept in captivity for a year and during that time government was in Ruthven’s hands. A series of pro-Presbyterian proclamations followed, but when James was eventually free of the power of the Raiders he quickly revealed a determination to curb Presbyterianism. Legislation the following year (later known as the Black Acts) reasserted episcopal and royal authority. An Act of 1592 recognized the jurisdiction of Presbyterian courts and removed the bishops” jurisdiction, but did not acknowledge that Presbyterian discipline drew its authority directly from God. Neither did it abolish episcopacy, and although the General Assembly was given a statutory authority to assemble every year, the crown could still name the time and place of the meeting.31

James’s hostility to Melville’s views is often attributed to his political rather than strictly theological preferences. Indeed, there were few if any monarchs who would have welcomed Presbyterianism, because it was associated with ‘two kingdoms’ theory. The initial triumph of Protestantism, and the subsequent elaboration of Calvinist reform in Scotland, had come in opposition to a weakened monarch (and, indeed, with the military help of the English). Doctrines stressing a very clear separation of church and state were therefore a particularly worrying threat to monarchical authority in Scotland, where the nobility had plenty of recent ‘form’ in this respect. At a conference in 1596 Melville notoriously told James that he was ‘God’s silly vassal’: His representative in civil affairs but just another member of the kirk. By the late sixteenth century there were two respectable views of the Scottish kirk – one based on ‘two kingdoms’ theory, and associated in particular with Melvillians; and another based on ‘one kingdom’ theory, which emphasized monarchical authority over all the bodies and institutions of the kingdom, including the church.32

James may therefore have had particular reasons for hostility to Presbyterianism, but he was not flying in the face of the reformed tradition in Scotland in seeking to preserve a role for bishops and the crown, and his views were not completely outside the mainstream of Scottish Protestant opinion. In fact, Melville’s outburst in 1596 more or less coincided with a reaction against the very clericalist view of Presbyterianism. Ironically, by emphasizing the separation of kirk and state matters, and arguing that authority in the kirk was a manifestation of divine will, Melville could appear to be raising up the clerical caste once more. Jure divino presbytery – Presbyterian organization justified as by the law of God – might seem little more than the old popery writ large, and was certainly not the only authentic view of authority in the reformed church. James had some support in resisting it. In 1600 ‘parliamentary bishops’ were appointed – they sat in parliament as representatives of the church but did not have any ecclesiastical jurisdiction. Within the kirk, commissioners had been appointed to oversee its discipline, and over the years these positions sometimes went to parliamentary bishops: clearly this pointed towards a revival of modified episcopacy.33

Following his accession to the English throne James also tried to make Scottish and English practice more alike, both in matters of church government and in forms of worship. He successfully manipulated a series of General Assemblies to establish the reality of his power to summon them and to secure meetings more amenable to his views. By 1610 he had intruded bishops first as permanent moderators of kirk sessions and then of synods, and the admission of ministers was made their responsibility rather than that of presbyteries. Estates and consistorial powers were restored. In the same year, normal episcopal succession was restored by the consecration of Scottish bishops, normal except that it was done in Westminster by English hands.34

All this was more offensive to the chattering classes than to the parishioner in the pew, for whom the daily functioning of the kirk was largely unchanged. In any case these constitutional questions were of secondary significance. Changes to forms of worship, however, were far more likely to evoke a reaction in the localities. It was in forms of worship that the signs of a true church were manifest – preaching and sacraments – and it was in worship that ordinary Christians encountered the visible church. In Scotland discipline was often seen as a mark of a true church, and the kirk sessions, which assumed responsibility for discipline, had planted deep roots in the religious and political life of local communities.35 The kirk had deep local roots and it was of course a formal presumption of Reformation thought that the laity should be well-informed. The radical potential of Reformation ideas was not socially restricted and the details of local religious practice were habitually invested with considerable, even apocalyptic, significance. Changing local religious practice ran the risk of arousing principled resistance from the whole Christian congregation. It is not perhaps surprising, therefore, that James met more significant resistance to proposed changes in worship after 1612 than he had to his reforms of church government.

Worship in the kirk had initially used the English Prayer Book of 1549, but this had given way in the early years of the Reformation to a more austere Book of Common Order, although there is some evidence that it was sometimes used alongside the English Book. Dissatisfied with the Book of Common Order, James promoted a new Prayer Book. He was not alone in thinking that the Book needed attention, and it may have been falling out of use through neglect in the early seventeenth century. James’s new Book went through three drafts after having been commissioned at a General Assembly in 1616, the final one closely resembling the English Prayer Book. However, although it was ready for printing in 1619, it was never issued, a reflection of hostility to these changes in the form of worship. In the meantime the Five Articles of Perth (enjoining the observance of the main holy days in the Christian calendar, kneeling at communion, private communion, private baptism and confirmation by bishops) had caused serious difficulty at a General Assembly in 1617. Although they were bullied through an assembly at Perth in 1618 and a parliament in 1621, they were not subsequently enforced, and in securing consent James had promised not to promote any more changes. In the meantime the Prayer Book was dropped.36

By the 1620s Scottish Presbyterianism stood in a rather uneasy tension with the episcopal authority favoured by the crown. Episcopal authority was not particularly welcome, and for sound historical reasons many thought that Scottish Christians could not depend on the crown to promote godliness. But changes in church government were of far less immediate and widespread concern than changes to forms of worship – James had secured some success in turning back the tide of Presbyterianization in the kirk, but had been forced to leave off attempts to change the liturgy. Many Scottish Protestants had by the 1620s developed a pretty austere view of appropriate forms of worship. Unlike many other Protestant churches, for example, it had abandoned the celebration of Christmas. This strand of opinion was again at odds with the preferences of the monarch. A greater emphasis on ceremonial was likely to be seen as a retreat from reformation, particularly if it was associated with the authority of bishops, and there were also plenty of vested interests hostile to the increasing political and administrative power of the bishops. Crucially for the mobilization of the Covenanting movement, the Presbyterian system had deep roots in Scottish society: kirk sessions exercised an often quite effective control over the lives of the local population and integrated local worship into a national church. It was probably parochial self-determination, as much as the precise content of worship, that mattered.37

The Scottish Reformation had left unresolved tensions about both the internal organization of the kirk and its relationship with the secular power of the monarchy. There was a strong but not unchallengeable case that the purity of Scottish religion depended on the independence of the kirk from monarchical and episcopal control. At the same time, in the localities, a Calvinist discipline had developed with a far closer embrace of social life than had been achieved in England.

These big issues in Reformation politics acquired a particular edge in the years following the outbreak of war in Bohemia in 1618. What became the Thirty Years War engulfed much of the Holy Roman Empire, which dominated central Europe, and involved armies from the whole continent. Lands gained for Protestantism in the sixteenth century fell to Catholic forces, and for some publicists this came to represent a battle for the future of the true religion.38 Of course, it was in reality both more and less than this, but the implications of that battle were relevant in every place of worship in Christendom. As Protestant armies fought for the future of the true religion, so creeping popery at home seemed more shocking. Many Scots left to fight these wars in the 1620s and 1630s,39 and the battle on the home front was not neglected.

At the same time Calvinist orthodoxy was challenged by forms of Protestantism which questioned predestinarian theology, and placed a greater emphasis on ritual and edification. These tendencies were denounced as ‘Arminian’, creating an association with a bitterly divisive controversy in the Dutch republic in the early seventeenth century provoked by the anti-predestinarian preaching of Arminius. His followers, who became known as the Remonstrants, rejected double predestination and supralapsarian beliefs on the grounds that they made God the author of sin. But this reopened the possibility that responsibility for damnation lay with the sinner – as if free will, or the actions of humans, might affect the will of God – a question at the heart of the Reformation. It was also overlain with political significance, since the Arminians were associated with those supporting peace with Catholic Spain after nearly fifty years of war, and the abandonment of the southern Netherlands to Catholicism. In 1618 a synod was called at Dort, at which representatives of reformed churches from all over Europe were present. Stern predestinarian views were confirmed as the principal tenets of mature Calvinism, Arminianism was roundly condemned, and the Remonstrants were politically defeated in an associated coup.40

From the later 1620s onwards Charles was associated with changes in the English church which were denounced as Arminian, and this weakened respect for the English church in Scotland, which had in any case been very measured. England’s Reformation had also been marked by pragmatism and compromise. There, as in Scotland, predestinarian thought had been very influential, but Presbyterianism, ‘two kingdoms’ theory and austere views of worship were much less so. The ‘official Reformation’ of the 1530s had been primarily jurisdictional, excluding the authority of the Pope from the affairs of the English church, rather than doctrinal: ‘Catholicism without the Pope’, as its detractors have claimed ever since. Thereafter the Royal Supremacy in the Church was a vehicle for quite different purposes, not just under Henry VIII, whose official policy shifted somewhat, but much more so under his evangelical Protestant son Edward VI and Catholic daughter Mary. It was only with the accession of Elizabeth in 1558 that the Reformation was securely established, particularly if that is taken to imply the widespread acceptance of Protestantism among the English population. Even in the 1590s, as Elizabeth’s death approached, with no heir named, there were fears (or hopes) that the Protestantization of England might falter.41 Sir Cheney Culpeper was not alone in dating the start of the Reformation to Elizabeth’s reign, or in seeing it as unfinished business in the 1640s: writing in 1646 he thought that the imperial Antichrist (the Pope) ‘was (through God’s providence) pulled down 80 years since’, but the ‘spoil [was] divided between the King [sic] and bishops’. Now, in the excitement of the 1640s, he could see hopes for the completion of the process, the full liberation of Christians from such spiritual bondage.42

As Protestantism took firm root under Elizabeth a broad Calvinist consensus around the doctrine of predestination developed which survived into the reign of James I. University doctorates and official policy consistently defended the doctrine, which acted as an ‘ameliorating bond’ among men divided on other issues. In particular, the English Reformation was unusual in leaving the institutions of the medieval church more or less completely intact. Bishops, cathedrals and church courts were preserved as the vehicle for the reformation of the faith, and the only (albeit very notable) casualty of reform was the regular clergy – the monasteries and nunneries had gone, alongside chantries, mainly as an act of asset stripping in order to finance war. Associated with the persistence of the institutions of the medieval church was the survival of traditional forms of worship: for example, the wearing of surplices by the clergy, kneeling at communion and other relatively formal tastes in worship. This ceremonialism was particularly prevalent in cathedrals (and Westminster Abbey) where professional musicians were also employed to help in the edification of the believers.43

Defence of tradition had been an important part of English Protestantism throughout the Elizabethan and Jacobean period, on the grounds that things which were not commanded by scripture might be demanded by the secular authority, so long as they were not actively against scripture. Many Calvinists could live with this without discomfort. Again this relates to the distinction between the visible and invisible church. Since it was not possible to know who was saved or damned it was quite reasonable to focus attention on the visible church of all believers. Such ‘credal’ Calvinists were also relatively reluctant to have predestination emphasized in preaching, fearing that it might encourage despair and sin in those who feared that they were not of the elect. The view that in matters ‘indifferent’ the preferences of the secular authority should be obeyed was most influentially argued by Richard Hooker in his Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity (published in instalments from 1593 onwards). To Hooker the ceremonies of the medieval church were a treasured inheritance, guaranteeing the unbroken succession of Christian community. Where they did not conflict with scripture they had an important positive role in the faith. He was even willing to defend the Church of Rome as a part of the visible church on these grounds. This last step of the argument points to the explosive tensions that might be released if the Calvinist consensus broke: many Protestants would balk at such a claim, given the common identification of the Pope with the Antichrist.44

For some Calvinists, however, it was not enough to admit the doctrine of predestination but to concentrate on the visible church; they felt driven to seek signs of their own election. This view – ‘experimental’ (‘experiential’ might be a better term) Calvinism – was associated with intense personal piety, often very introspective, and a desire to associate with others of a similar mind. This hotter sort of Protestant sought the signs in others of what they felt in themselves, forming networks of fellow travellers with an often critical view of the ceremonies and practices of the church. To such people ceremonialism and the continued existence of bishops and cathedrals might have been intolerable had the Church of England not borne the signs of a true church – the presence of the Word and the sacraments rightly administered. Labelled Puritans by their opponents, they could be driven to separate from the church over particular issues, or more commonly to live in a position of semi-separation, conforming to the Church of England but seeking supplementary spiritual comforts.45

Overall, then, the impact of Calvin on English Protestantism was more clearly felt in terms of theology than in matters of ecclesiastical organization. Predestinarian thought was very influential, but ‘two kingdoms’ theory was much less so. An Elizabethan movement to establish a national Presbyterian system was defeated and by the early seventeenth century those seeking further reformation focused more on invigorating the life of the parish.46 By 1640 Elizabeth was remembered in England as a champion of English Protestantism, successor to Bloody Mary and victor over the Spanish Armada – here was a model monarch for the English to remember. In the survival of medieval institutions and on ceremonial issues too, such as the wearing of vestments, the English embrace of Calvinism was less complete than the Scottish. But, and importantly for the politics of the Prayer Book rebellion, there were many English Calvinists who agreed with the Covenanters about Charles’s religious reforms, although they found themselves able to conform, in some degree, most of the time.

From the late 1620s Charles was closely associated with an influential reaction against even this dilute form of Calvinism, building on a shift of emphasis which had begun in the later years of James I. Prominent positions in the church were taken by men willing to challenge the hold of Calvinism on doctrine and practice. Charles came to embrace this programme and to promote this tendency more systematically. Underlying many of his religious preferences was a concern for order and decency, something that led him to back the authority of bishops and forms of ritual and church decoration that emphasized the holiness of worship. Under the authority of William Laud, initially as Bishop of London and later as Archbishop of Canterbury, and with the evident sympathy of Charles I, the English church became a safe haven for those opposed to predestinarian views and for those with relatively ceremonial tastes in worship. This was an important connection, too: a suspicion of, or hostility to, predestination gave renewed importance to the visible church as a means to salvation. Finally then, associated with this pursuit of beauty, order and decency in the visible church was a greater emphasis on the dignity and authority of the clergy. This ‘Laudian’ or ‘Arminian’ movement was not as unpopular in England as it would have been in Scotland. The danger, though, was that far from edifying believers this emphasis on holiness was a distraction, something that filled the senses, drawing attention away from the Word, and might even become an object of worship in itself.47

If the crown and bishops were not seen as the natural ally of reformation in Scotland, therefore, Charles I, his English church and Archbishop Laud were regarded with particular suspicion. As war between Protestant and Catholic powers broke out in Bohemia there was violent opposition to anti-predestinarian preaching in the Dutch republic. In England the promotion of ceremonialism was the really divisive issue, although it was also true that preaching predestination became more difficult under the government of Charles and William Laud. For informed and concerned Calvinists the danger was the same – that in the very period in which Protestantism was under sustained military assault, it was being weakened from within by the erosion of some of its fundamental theological commitments. Still worse, the Stuarts failed to intervene on the side of the true religion, despite the fact that James’s son-in-law was at the heart of the political crisis that had precipitated the war.

Popery was not necessarily about Catholics since weak Protestants (variously identified) could be popish too. Nonetheless the dangers of popery were (naturally enough) particularly associated with the Pope, and his agents. Especially reviled were the Jesuits, an order founded directly by the papacy in response to the challenge of the Protestant Reformation, and seminary priests trained in order to regain ordinary Christians for Catholicism in Protestant areas. It was unfortunate for Charles that the popishness of his Protestantism could so easily be associated with actual Catholicism at his court. Charles was married to a Catholic – Henrietta Maria – and under her influence his court was open to Catholic influences. From a certain point of view, therefore, the popishness of Laudianism was associated with an actual Catholic influence, which could only have adverse effects on the true religion under the Stuart crown. On past experience, this could become the basis of a conspiracy theory – that actual Catholics could, through the manipulation of weak and corrupt Protestants, subvert the true religion in England.48

To many Scottish Protestants the English court and church seemed to be betraying the Reformation message and the Protestant cause. This confirmed a lesson of history held with increasing conviction in Scotland – the kirk was not securely under a godly civil authority so long as kings, bishops and the English could determine matters of doctrine and liturgy. As the Prayer Book crisis unfolded, it was these very large issues in Reformation politics, about the constitution of the church and its relationship to secular authority, which came to predominate.

Given the stakes we might wonder why Charles introduced these ceremonial changes in Scotland. The answer, in part, is that since the stakes were so high he could not afford not to. Charles’s relatively ceremonial sensibilities were out of tune with mainstream Scottish opinion and it may have been what he saw on his coronation visit to Scotland in 1633 that convinced him of the need to introduce changes to the Scottish Prayer Book. The practice of extempore prayer was particularly offensive to him: he preferred by far the solemnities and order of a set service. In any case, it was in 1634 that his Scottish bishops were invited to consider what changes were necessary to the English book in order to make it acceptable in Scotland. New ecclesiastical canons in January 1636 touched on these Scottish sensitivities about the creeping influence of bishops and of the Church of England. They confirmed the Five Articles of Perth but did not mention the General Assembly, presbyteries or kirk sessions by name. More troubling, or more obviously troubling, they placed restrictions on preaching which were enforced by episcopal licence.49

A willingness to press these sensitive reforms was not simply the product of personal conviction, however. Charles was monarch and head of the church: an important part of his sacred trust as he understood it was care for the salvation of his subjects. There were more practical concerns too. Charles had to govern three kingdoms (since 1541 monarchs of England had also been monarchs in Ireland) and live with three national churches. It was widely acknowledged in Reformation Europe that a people divided from their monarch on matters of religion could not be depended upon as loyal subjects. Monarchs in multiple monarchies faced the additional problem that if religion in their various realms was not uniform then it was an invitation to dissenters in one kingdom to make trouble on the basis of more favourable conditions offered by the same monarch to his or her subjects elsewhere. Like his father, Charles seems to have wanted to make the three churches more like one another, and to achieve that by applying pressure towards a form of worship with which he was more comfortable, but his preferences led him to make changes in all three kingdoms. Charles and Laud were probably pursuing greater conformity rather than uniformity, but it is also clear from their measures in relation to the Channel Islands and Massachusetts and stranger churches (congregations allowed in England to cater to the needs of foreign Protestants) that a common vision was at work: harmonization in fact meant altering the practice of all the churches under his crowns.50

Charles did less than he might have done to allay the fears provoked by these policies. His political style made him particularly unlikely to cope well with dissent, especially when expressed immoderately, and this contributed to his difficulties. He was far less pragmatic than his father in political negotiation and his preference for religious order seems to have been related to a well-developed sense of the dignity of monarchy. The portraits painted by Van Dyke during the mid-1630s were and are the most recognizable images of Charles. The widely disseminated state portrait of 1636, while constrained by convention, conveys the same political image as the more freely composed portraits of the same period.51 It was surely an image he was eager to project. A short man, Charles was habitually portrayed from below in order to enhance his stature, but this also increases the impression of hauteur. He engages the viewer directly but coldly, suggesting perhaps a monarch willing to listen but also one who felt no obligation to agree or to act or persuade. In real life he certainly favoured a political style in which his concern for his subjects was exercised at some distance, and with regal dignity. In the face of turbulent politics in England in the late 1620s Charles had turned away from his people, refusing to resort to print to woo public opinion as his opponents were doing. During the 1630s his court, although open to a range of opinion and a variety of talents, was austere in its regality and concern for order. This was a monarch who strove for the good of his people, not their approval; and those who seemed too eager to court public opinion were disparaged as popular spirits, or seekers after a vain popularity.52


Portraits of Charles I from the 1630s

Since 1603, when James VI had succeeded to the English throne and moved to London, the Scots had grappled with life under an absentee monarch. This became a more serious problem under Charles, who was brought up in England and had not visited Scotland before 1633. He had a poor feel for Scottish affairs, and his personal style accentuated the problem. Notoriously, Charles launched a ‘Revocation’ scheme which aroused deep suspicion. Passed only months after his accession it reclaimed titles to lands sold or granted (alienated) from the crown since 1540. This was a variation on an established practice allowing kings when they came of age to recover lands alienated during their minority. In this case, however, the variations on this more or less clearly established practice all favoured the crown. Charles had not ruled as a minor, for example. There were problems of presentation too: Charles almost certainly intended to impose fines on these alienated lands, rather than to dispossess people, but he did not feel it necessary to offer this reassurance publicly. It was associated with an attempt to recover church lands alienated at the Reformation in order to re-endow the church, but here the vested interests of those who held those lands cut across their commitment to the well-being of the church. The Revocation raised almost no money, as the local commissioners fought trench warfare over the legal technicalities, and without particularly wanting to win. But the political cost in suspicion of the absentee king was significant. It may be that a fair-minded observer would see the problems as lying with Scottish perceptions as much as Charles’s intentions; but it was certainly the case that Charles was regarded with suspicion after this initiative.53

Charles was not just absent and distant in the more political sense – he was anglicized. This, of course, was a related problem and became all too evident on his coronation visit to Scotland – made eight years after his coronation in England. His journey through England lasted as long as his stay in Edinburgh, and his conduct in Scotland was altogether more stately and remote than was comfortable for his Scottish subjects. English manners were sufficiently widespread amongst the Scottish nobility to attract criticism but not so widespread as to secure approval.54 So too the religious ceremonies. Revealingly, however, Charles seems to have taken the absence of open hostility to this ceremonial as evidence that Scotland would stomach pressure to conform more closely to the English liturgy.55

His impatience with dissenting views was also manifest during his coronation visit, when he had received petitions calling for further reformation of one kind or another. A supplication was drawn up for presentation to Parliament concerning a mixture of religious and secular grievances, but was not presented to Charles since he had made it clear that he would disapprove. The following year, James Elphinstone, Lord Balmerino, was found to have a copy in his possession and was arrested for ‘lease-making’, that is, slandering the King or his council. This was perhaps an over-reaction, but even more startling was the sentence of death handed down on Balmerino. Worse still, it was only passed on the casting vote of the foreman of the jury, John Stewart, the Earl of Traquair, a close adviser of the King. Balmerino was pardoned in November 1636 but what was intended to terrify opposition into silence probably had a counter-productive effect: encouraging the thought that if possession of a copy of a supplication was treasonous then only more forceful expressions of dissent would suffice.56

Against the backdrop of these larger concerns, and of the reaction to the new canons of 1636, it is easier to understand the hostility aroused by the new Prayer Book ordered in October that year. This was to be the guide to worship in every parish of the kirk, the standard against which local practice should be held. Tinkering here was of concern to every informed Christian in Scotland, and there were plenty of them. It was indeed based on the English Prayer Book but had been much altered over two years of consultation between Charles, Laud and the Scottish bishops. That, of course, did little to smooth its path in some quarters.57 News that a new book was in preparation alerted the kirk to the imminence of reform without explaining its substance and gave plenty of time to imagine the worst. Many Scots seem to have been convinced of the evils of the book without actually having read it.58 In the months before the introduction of the book an effective campaign of meetings and then demonstrations was organized, which probably drew on contacts between malcontents stretching back for several years. Given the treatment of Balmerino, however, it is not surprising that traces of this organization are hard to find. Nonetheless, in late 1636 discussion was sufficiently public that evidence has survived. When parts of the book were read at a synod in Edinburgh it was said to contain popish errors and by early 1637 concerned parties were calling meetings specifically to discuss the new book. Writing much later, Henry Guthry claimed that a meeting took place in Cowgate, Edinburgh, in April 1637 between two radical ministers, Alexander Henderson and David Dickson, and various Edinburgh ‘matrons’. They had already consulted with Balmerino and the King’s advocate, Sir Thomas Hope, and prior to the meeting in Cowgate secured their approval for opposing the Prayer Book. Public demonstrations (to be led by women) were apparently planned against the first public use of the book and certainly by the early summer of 1637 synods and meetings of ministers were openly discussing it. In June the Scottish Privy Council was forced to threaten punishment for those who had failed to buy the book. The introduction of the book in Edinburgh was advertised a week in advance.59 As it turned out, this seems to have allowed time to co-ordinate protests by the disaffected.

On 23 July at St Giles in Edinburgh a distinguished group of worshippers, including privy councillors, a number of bishops and other dignitaries, joined a large congregation for a service to be held according to the new Prayer Book. As soon as the dean began to read, however, insults were thrown both at him and at the bishop. Some worshippers stood up and threw their stools before leaving the kirk. Women, perhaps including the Edinburgh matrons who had met with Henderson and Dickson, were prominent among the protesters. Although the service continued, there were disturbances outside and the bishop, on leaving the kirk, was stoned and pursued by the crowd. An afternoon service was held according to the new liturgy, apparently without incident, but the Bishop of Edinburgh was again pursued to Holyroodhouse in the Earl of Roxburgh’s coach, stoned all the way, and was said to have soiled himself as he reached safety. The dean, meanwhile, had taken refuge in the steeple. The Tolbooth kirk, which met in the partitioned west end of St Giles, also saw disturbances, and James Fairlie abandoned reading from the book. He too was pursued home by a cursing mob. Meanwhile, Henry Rollock, one of the more enthusiastic supporters of the new book, clearly sensed something was up. At Trinity kirk he was probably in the presence of particularly highly motivated protesters, and he decided not to begin reading until news of the reception in other kirks was in. Having heard about the disturbances elsewhere he made no attempt to use the book.60


The Prayer Book disturbances in Edinburgh

Ultimately, these disagreements touched on an unresolved tension over who was in charge of the Scottish kirk. The new Prayer Book was being promoted not only by Scottish bishops, but from England and by a monarch and his archbishop widely regarded in Scotland as unsound on religion. Many Scots apparently needed little convincing that a new Prayer Book promoted by these bodies, and these people, could only represent a retreat from reformation. For those afraid of Charles I’s policies, both in England and in Scotland, they evoked anxieties about the purity of the faith, about the boundaries of Protestantism and the encroachments of popery. In Scotland this boundary issue focused in particular on the role of bishops and the influence of English practices, and the introduction of the Prayer Book touched on deep fears about the future of reformation. These perceptions, and the heated rhetoric to which they gave rise, provided much of the energy for the subsequent Covenanting movement. But it was also driven by the ways in which Charles himself was perceived. Geographically and by personal style a distant monarch, Charles did little to soothe the feelings of his concerned subjects. When his policies were misunderstood, or evoked unreasonable fears, his instincts were authoritarian. He certainly seems to have felt no need to reassure – to do so would surely flirt with ‘popularity’; and few people have ever thought that Charles was a popular king.

The underlying religious tensions were common to much of Reformation Europe and they created potentially intersecting problems for Charles I. This protest would clearly be of comfort to English and Irish opponents of Laudianism. Other European states had been undone by religious rebellion, and other European monarchs had faced severe problems in governing multiple kingdoms. There were many who might have liked to throw a stool at their clerics, few who did not appreciate the significance of the gesture. John Castle wrote to the Earl of Bridgewater as this crisis unfolded: ‘the theatre for these kingdoms has now for a good while been chiefly placed at Edinburgh and what should be acted there hath been the expectation of all the Princes in Christendom, who are to frame the scene of their own interests accordingly’. It did not look good: ‘They will now behold… that in the last Act, all things are like to go off in perplexity and trouble’.61 There was certainly much more at stake for Charles than what his Scottish subjects did in church.

In the aftermath of the riots the Scottish Privy Council was divided and irresolute. There was little support for the King’s policy, except from the bishops, and even they were unconvinced by his political strategy. The King’s chief adviser in Scotland was the Earl of Traquair, who has suffered badly at the hands of his historians. Having risen to influence as Lord Treasurer as a result of his acumen, he was found wanting in political skill once he came to dominate the Privy Council. He was widely regarded as vain, bullying and so committed to his own advancement as to be untrustworthy both as an ally and as a source of information. In the ensuing crisis it is quite possible to demonstrate his duplicity. Although he had subscribed to the Five Articles of Perth he was no supporter of the King’s policy over the Prayer Book, and had squabbled with the bishops on the council for several years. It seems that he deliberately fed fears about the King’s intentions while exaggerating his own influence with the King, presumably in order to cement his position. Perhaps the most remarkable feature of his reputation was that he was suspected both of popery and also of having instigated the riots in Edinburgh – a singular achievement but not one that bears testimony to his political skills.62

Some people blamed Traquair for the way in which the introduction of the book had been handled. However, at a meeting of the council attended by him and his supporters there was more discussion of the failings of the bishops, a line of analysis which had a much wider resonance, of course. The King’s advisers were clearly feeling pressure from below and a subsequent petitioning campaign maintained the pressure on men who were palpably unwilling to face down the opposition. At the same time, however, the same men were unwilling to state their opinion clearly to Charles, since it was an opinion they were sure he did not want to hear. Their immediate response was to suspend further attempts to introduce the Prayer Book pending Charles’s response to their letter outlining the hostility of its reception. When it came, on 4 August, it was uncompromising, insisting on full implementation and the punishment of offenders. The Privy Council agreed half-hearted measures of suppression but also requested a personal audience with Charles in order to explain the full dimensions of the problem. They renewed their insistence that ministers would face punishment if they did not buy the book, but when this produced further petitions they made it clear that they were only enforcing purchase, not use. This was hardly the crackdown that Charles wanted.63

This pattern persisted over the next three months, as widely spaced and long-awaited meetings of the Privy Council were arranged in anticipation of the King’s replies to their letters. In advance of these meetings, which took place on 20 September, 17 October and 15 November, opponents of the Prayer Book were able to organize petitions and demonstrations at their leisure, so that at each meeting the councillors were clear that they were caught between two more or less immovable forces. As it went on, this petitioning campaign was able to muster impressive displays of solidarity. At the time of the meeting in October a ‘multitude’ gathered at the Tolbooth in Edinburgh, in ‘high mood’, threatening to lynch the council if they denied the crowd’s demand for the appointment of commissioners. On 15 November the meeting of the Privy Council was moved out of Edinburgh to try to relieve some of this pressure, although this effectively conceded the capital city to opponents of the Prayer Book.64

Clearly the management of this difficulty was less than ideal. The Scottish council was divided and there was competition among his councillors for the King’s ear, which centred on getting permission to attend him in person. Traquair was advising compromise both on the liturgy and on the role of the bishops in the process since, by September, many of the petitions were quite openly anti-episcopal in tone. Charles was reluctant to allow his councillors to come south since that would concede to his opponents that he was shaken by the protests, and when Traquair was eventually given permission to go to London it was publicly stated that it was because there was Exchequer business to discuss. Because of this reluctance Charles was in the hands of men locally, and unable to respond quickly to events on the ground. Possible solutions might have been to follow their advice, grant them more power, or put in place men to whom he would grant sufficient authority and whose judgement he would trust. In fact he did none of the above, preferring to put pressure on those on the spot to counter the pressure they were feeling from below.65

Whereas the response of the government was hesitant and slow-footed, the campaign of the opponents of the Prayer Book, now known as the Supplicants, was impressively effective. Little is known about the local history of this campaign and little can be said about how this impressive mobilization was achieved, but it clearly owes much to the Presbyterian organization of the kirk. Behind that lay the growing importance of the Scottish middling sort. The increasing economic power of a middling group of landholders found expression in the kirk sessions.66 Such men had been hostile to the Revocation scheme and a number of economic issues – taxation, monopolies and the proposal for a British fishery that would give English fishermen equal access to Scottish waters.67Crucial too seems to have been the absence of a loyal reaction among the Scottish nobility. It was not until the autumn of 1638 that rivalries among the nobility began to create the possibilities for mobilizing a loyalist response. Here again, the nature of Charles’s government prior to 1637 seems to have been an important reason for the absence of a loyal reaction, particularly concerns about the exclusion of the nobility from political influence and the suspicions surrounding the Revocation.68 Another important factor in the developing solidarity and tactics of this campaign was the importance of ‘bands’ in Scottish politics and Covenant thinking in Scottish Protestantism, both of which offered means for the mobilization of nationwide religious campaigns.69

As the campaign to get Charles to listen escalated, the Supplicants had sought to explain themselves more publicly. In December a ‘historical narration’ was prepared, and when Charles was finally persuaded of the value of talking to Traquair personally, the Supplicants succeeded in getting Traquair to take it with him. In publicizing their cause they were appealing to opinion in England too, and it is clear that they were being kept well-informed about developments in the south by some well-placed sympathizers in the English government. For those whose notion of reformation conflicted with that of Laud and Charles there was a common cause here, in opposition to a common threat to the progress of reform. The Supplicants were quick to realize that they could make this common cause and there were many others in England who can be presumed to have been hesitant about supporting a war against such an influential vision of reformation.70

When the Scottish Privy Council met at Stirling on 20 February 1638 it provoked a further escalation: the transformation of the Supplicants into the Covenanters. Traquair returned from London armed with an uncompromising proclamation from Charles which declared, among other things, that future meetings of the Supplicants would be deemed treasonous. The Supplicants had known something of its contents from their English friends before Traquair published it, and that perhaps allowed them to consider their response. Far from backing down, they raised the stakes, forming a band for mutual support. The petitioning campaign of the Supplicants had been organized informally through the bodies representing the four estates of Scotland, and through the presbyteries. Now a new organization was formed, called the Tables. The four estates were represented as in the Scottish parliament – nobles, barons, burgesses and clergy – but in this case the clerical estate was comprised of ministers and excluded (of course) the bishops. Each of the estates had a Table, and a fifth Table, composed of the nobility and representatives of the other three estates, assumed overall control of the campaign. Much of the energy for this mobilization came from Alexander Henderson, a radical minister and, as we have seen, one of the leading figures in the co-ordination of the protests in Edinburgh in the previous July. Equally prominent was Archibald Johnston of Wariston, a lawyer of intense personal piety and considerable energy.71

A week after the fifth Table acknowledged itself to be head of this movement, the National Covenant was promulgated. It opened by reaffirming the Negative Confession of 1581, the national manifesto prompted by fears of the popish influence of the Earl of Lennox over the crown. It was expressed in terms of opposition to false doctrine and in particular to a number of specific Roman Catholic teachings which were explicitly condemned. Since its initial promulgation, the confession had been reaffirmed in 1590, this time in association with a general band to maintain the true religion thus defined. This Scottish confession had been ‘established and publicly confirmed by sundry Acts of Parliament; and now of a long time hath been openly professed by the King’s Majesty, and whole body of the realm’: there is a fairly plain view of its relationship to royal authority here, albeit one only implicitly stated. A (selective) account of subsequent resolutions by Parliament follows which again serves to establish the historical legitimacy, and legality, of the demands being made. This is followed by a two-fold band between God, king and people, once again on the basis of historical and legal precedent: the first bound subscribers to defend the true religion; the second committed them to ‘maintaining the King’s Majesty, his person and estate’. Of course, from at least one perspective, the need to defend the true religion was currently in conflict with the maintenance of the King’s majesty, but the text does not acknowledge the tension explicitly. Instead it insists, on the basis of past experience, that ‘the true worship of God and the King’s authority being so straitly joined, as that they had the same friends and common enemies, and did stand and fall together’.72

Finally, there is a long oath, arguing that the measures complained of by the Supplicants contravene the Word of God, and ‘are contrary to the articles of the aforesaid confessions, to the intention and meaning of the blessed reformers of religion in this land, to the above-written Acts of Parliament, and do sensibly tend to the re-establishing of the popish religion and tyranny, and to the subversion and ruin of the true reformed religion, and of our liberties, laws and estates’.73 All subscribers became collectively responsible to the utmost of their power, and with their lives, to ‘stand to the defence of our dread Sovereign the King’s Majesty, his person and authority, in the defence and preservation of the aforesaid true religion, liberties and laws of the kingdom’. This explanation was intended to free them from ‘the foul aspersion of rebellion’ since their actions were ‘well warranted’ and arose from an ‘unfeigned desire’ to defend the true religion, the majesty of the King, the peace of the kingdom ‘for the common happiness of ourselves and our posterity’.74 This was not, in short, treason.

While it is clear that obedience was due to a covenanted king, however, the real question was left hanging in the air: the Covenant is silent on the obligations due to the king who is not defending the true religion. Given the campaigning of the previous year, this might seem like a statement of conditional loyalty. The King had been bound to this confession by his coronation oath, and if he was not with the Covenanters, they might seem to be suggesting, then he was in contravention of that oath. The double Covenant placed a not very coded limit on obedience.

In the wider context of the European Reformation this can be read as an example of fairly orthodox resistance theory. Protestants had grappled with the problem of the legitimacy of resistance to earthly powers from very early on because it had quickly become clear that the progress of the Reformation might often be blocked by ungodly kings. Resistance was difficult to justify, though, since St Paul had told Christians to ‘obey the powers that be’. One solution to this problem was to concede the right to resist to lesser magistrates: they too were powers enjoying divine sanction, and so they could lawfully use their office to resist another magistrate who was neglecting his. Another solution was federal theology – that a covenanted people constituted a divinely sanctioned power, which might resist an ungodly ruler.75

In this context the Covenant represents a manifesto for revolution, not in the sense that it called for kingless government, or for the right of any individual to resist an anointed monarch, but because it asserted a corporate intent on the authority of the body of the kirk. Mobilized through a novel institution, the Tables, it made authoritative claims on behalf of the covenanted people about the interpretation of the 1581 confession and subsequent legislation: it appeared, in fact, to make the Tables the custodian of the collective interest.76 In principle, this made the authority of the King conditional, even if the text did not spell out what to do when obligations to godly reformation and kingly authority were in tension. The implication was clear to Charles though, who wrote to Hamilton: ‘so long as this Covenant is in force… I have no more Power in Scotland than as a Duke of Venice; which I will rather die than suffer’.77 But these menaces are present only in the silences – it is also possible to read this as an ambiguous or evasive document, and that was probably a source of its effectiveness. It was possible to commit to this programme without saying out loud that it was a licence to resist an anointed monarch.78

What gave the Covenant its power was widespread acceptance. This owed much to the organizational powers of the presbyteries and Tables, and probably much also to positive commitment to this vision of Scotland’s past. There was also a degree of coercion, however, in that admission to communion was made conditional on subscription.79 Although the Covenant was a religious document, the movement clearly drew on other currents in Scottish society, and almost certainly other sources of discontent. Significant among these other issues was the difficulty many people found in trusting Charles. At the very least, it cannot be explained simply as a response to what the new Prayer Book actually contained or how it had been introduced.

Much as he might have disliked it, Charles faced a nationally effective mobilization based around something like Calvinist ideas of lawful resistance to an ungodly monarch. It was far more than a rebuttal to a potential treason charge and the Scottish Privy Council was clearly surprised by this escalation, something made obvious at meetings on 1 and 3 March. Attempts to enforce use of the book were suspended and the Privy Council agreed that it could do nothing since the firm royal proclamation of 19 February was being widely ignored.80

This finally persuaded the King to take more direct control. Arrangements were made for a visit by James Hamilton, Marquess of Hamilton, the most prominent Scot at Charles’s court. He was a veteran of the Thirty Years War, having led a British force under Gustavus Adolphus in 1631-2. His politics were firmly anti-Spanish and he had good Protestant credentials. But he was not ‘rigid’; that is, he did not pursue policies which were not viable when to pursue them threatened the health of the kingdom. This made him appear to some as pliable and untrustworthy, and he ‘changed sides’ several times in the coming years. In the late 1630s, however, he had influence with the King and yet was free of association with the popish religious policies; in fact he held deeply anti-episcopal views. He also had some credit in Scotland: he had lived abroad for much of his life without ever relinquishing his contacts and political influence there.81 As the King’s commissioner, armed with the trust of his king, he had broader powers to deal with the problems in Scotland although he was still limited in his freedom of action.82

Even now, though, with the stakes very obviously high, it took Hamilton three months to arrive. A Privy Council meeting was arranged for 6 June 1638, by which time the Covenant had gathered signatures widely and in every part of the country except Aberdeen. Hamilton was carrying two proclamations demanding obedience, although one was slightly more conciliatory in that it did not demand surrender of all signed copies of the National Covenant. Moreover, the fact that the King had also begun military preparations suggests that Hamilton was not being sent primarily to listen. The Covenanters clearly had word of this and were also planning firm responses. When Hamilton became aware of these tensions, by the time he had got to Berwick, he wrote to the King advising him to accelerate military preparations.83

When Hamilton stepped off the boat at Leith he must have lost any lingering illusions about the possibility of overawing the Covenanters. Thirty nobles were waiting for him at the end of the sands between Leith and Musselburgh and the gentry were standing in ranks all along the sands for a distance of a mile and a half. At the end of Leith links stood 600 ministers and between Leith and Edinburgh another 20,000 people were said to be waiting.84 If accurate, these estimates reflect an astonishing level of mobilization: there were 105 Scottish nobles in 1641, and between 900 and 1,000 parishes: one third of the nobility were present and up to two thirds of Scottish parishes were physically represented. The total population of Edinburgh and its suburbs was probably between 25,000 and 30,000 at this time.85 It was a demonstration of the whole community – nobility, pastors and people. The political costs of confronting this phalanx of opinion would not be restricted to Scotland, either. On 20 June Hamilton wrote to Charles that he could not see how the King could impose his will in Scotland ‘without the hazarding of your three Crowns’.86

The political situation was now pretty intractable since bullying would not work and Charles would not make concessions, fearing the larger implications of accepting this lay influence over the direction of his church. Even given the intractability of the problem, however, it is difficult to fathom Charles’s tactics: he had made almost no effort to court moderate opinion in Scotland and nor was he careful to win the support of his English subjects. Although he was preparing to use English military and financial resources to resolve this problem he did not formally raise the issue with his English Privy Council until 1 July. This was the correct position in constitutional terms, since the two kingdoms shared a king but not their other governing institutions: Scottish affairs were for the Scottish Privy Council, and there was no formal body with responsibility for British affairs. But the consensus of most modern commentators is that this was stiff-necked as much as it was principled.87 In any case, it clearly left Hamilton with little more room for manoeuvre than had been enjoyed by the reviled Traquair. There is certainly little doubt that Hamilton, on behalf of the King, was seeking to buy time rather than to resolve the conflict.

On 9 September 1638 Charles withdrew the Prayer Book and affirmed the Negative Confession of 1581. These measures would have had more effect had they not come after failed attempts to face down opposition: a temporary suspension in August 1637 would almost certainly have been a more effective response, politically. It seems clear, though, that Charles had already decided on English military intervention. On 21 September, when further conciliatory measures were unveiled at a meeting of the Scottish Privy Council, Charles mentioned in a letter to Hamilton that cannon were being sent north to Hull.88 Nonetheless the concessions were significant: a General Assembly was summoned to meet in Glasgow and, in a shrewd manoeuvre, the ‘King’s Covenant’ was launched as an alternative to the National Covenant. This was based on proclamations affirming the 1581 confession and an anti-Catholic band of 1589. Its potential for cutting the ground from under the feet of the Covenanters was immediately appreciated by some of them, and wrangling followed as to whether it was inherently anti-episcopal (as some Covenanters liked to claim) and whether subsequent measures had been compatible with the 1581 confession. Although it did not succeed, it went further towards disrupting the Covenanters” solidarity than any other measure promoted by Charles.89

When the General Assembly met, the Covenanters were once again successful in mobilizing crowds: there was such a huge press of people around Glasgow Cathedral on the morning of the first meeting that members of the assembly had trouble taking up their places. A week of procedural wrangling was resolved in their favour too and Hamilton, recognizing defeat, walked out of the assembly. Unfortunately his dramatic exit was marred by the fact that the door had been locked behind him and he had to break his way out. The assembly continued to sit and to pass radical measures, all of which were dismissed by the King, who denied the legal powers of the assembly once his commissioner had dissolved it.90

Charles now planned military action for February or March 1639 using, in part, English money and men, but he did not plan to call an English parliament. The campaign against the Covenanters in 1639 therefore went ahead using prerogative powers. But Charles also intended to draw upon the military resources of his other (largely Catholic) kingdom, Ireland. The prospect of a papistical army being used to put down calls for further reformation was clearly an alarming one. In both respects – the reliance on the prerogative rather than Parliament and the use of armed papists – this policy touched on sensitivities in England about the nature of the regime. Certainly, when mobilization came it did not prompt a straightforwardly loyal response. By the time that Leslie crossed the Tweed, the English army had already been faced down once, and a parliament had failed to support the King’s cause.

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