Showing posts with label covenanters. Show all posts
Showing posts with label covenanters. Show all posts

Monday, May 28, 2012

The Scottish Taleban - The Covenanters

Over 18,000 and possibly as many as 30,000 Presbyterian Covenanters gave their lives for their beliefs during the seventeenth century.

Were the Covenanters essentially Protestant theocrats? Or were the Covenanters really democrats challenging an absolutist regime?  Presbyterian beliefs meant an opposition to the King`s claim of supremacy in church matters, although they acknowledged his supremacy in civil matters. Yet to safeguard their religious rights  required a clerical  influence on the civil government. Covenanters stood up to the powers of the Crown but never, at any point in time, challenged the Crown's right to rule. The best known events of the Covenanters tend to be the National Covenant (1638), the Solemn League and Covenant (1643) and the horrors of "The Killing Time" (1684-5).

Religion and politics have been interwoven throughout Scottish history. There was the Calvinist Reformation where John Knox was able to bend much of Scotland to his will and controlled Parliament. From the signing of the Scottish National Covenant of 1638 to the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660 there was movement to make Scotland a theocratic state. These dissenters were the staunch supporters of Presbyterianism, the radicals of their day, who strictly followed the rules of John Calvin, John Knox and latterly Andrew Melville. It was their desire for a theocratic government and rejection of the king`s claimed supremacy of the church that branded them as zealots and a threat. On Sunday, July 23, 1637 at St. Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh a woman by the name Jenny Geddes objected to the use of a new prayer book written by Scottish Bishops. Jenny Geddes owned a cabbage stall alongside the cathedral wall and was a well known character. It is said that she threw her small stool at James Hannay, the Dean of the church. With all big events they are often sparked by the trivial. The National Covenant was drafted by Sir Archibald Johnstone of Warriston, (who was executed in 1663), and Archibald Henderson. It was in three parts - a reproduction of the Confession of King James VI ( James I of England) of 1580; a detailed list of the Acts of Parliament which confirmed Presbyterianism and condemned Popery; and, thirdly, a protest about the changes in worship which was an attempt to force episcopal reforms on the nation. King Charles over-reacted and regarded the Covenanters as rebels. Not all towns subscribed to the Covenant, those who did not were Crail, Inverness, St Andrews and Aberdeen.

The Kirk was the focus for the Presbyterians in which the senior members of a congregation were elected the Elders. They and the minister held great sway through the "Kirk Session" - the local church court. It was through the workings and authority of this court that the day-to-day life of the congregation was overseen. The Kirk Session was responsible at local level for matters of conscience and religion which in practice ranged across practically everything. Their role extended to dealing with excesses and behaviour of all kinds, whether drink or style of dress, fornication or lewdness, oppression of the poor by over-taxation or deception in buying and selling. The local nature of a punishment, both the publicity and enforcement locally, meant that action was swift and a response usually certain. In some cases there were burgesses and lairds involved as elders, and some whose sons entered the ministry and their involvement enabled an early attack on moral delinquents, absentees from church and disrespectful behaviour. Support for discipline was obtained from a variety of sources including local nobility, lairds and by obtaining an injunction from the Privy Council to impose fines direct. The most common civil penalty imposed by the Kirk Sessions was the fine. In some places this was according to a set table, in others there was the quite enlightened approach to fines according to the estate of the offender (proportionality as we call it today). Non-payment of fines could result in imprisonment or being locked in the "jugs" - a lockable metal collar attached to a wall by a length of chain, for the duration of the sermon. The penalty for adultery was to stand dressed in sackcloth, bare headed and bare feet at the kirk door;  then sit on the stool of repentance in front of the congregation for perhaps six months or longer. Sometimes the punishment included fines and whipping. Few resisted as under a law of 1581 the adulterer who refused the kirk`s punishment could be put to death. Fornication and lewd behaviour, prostitution etc. was often punished by the men forced to make public penance and the women by ducking in Stool of Repentance or "Cutty Stool", into the foulest water available and banishment from the town. Misbehaviour in the countryside was often not detected until pregnancy was obvious when much effort was put into identifying the father and compelling marriage. In the period 1574 to 1612 Puritanism and the zealous Presbyterianism of Andrew Melville gained a foothold that punished a wide range of alleged excesses. This included attacks on Christmas and traditional holidays such as Midsummer Eve. Pilgrimages, dancing, carol singing , merrymaking at weddings, and wakes; and failing to work on Christmas Day,  were all subject of condemnation. In 1579 a law was passed banning Sunday travel, recreation and drinking.

A second and more intense phase of Puritanism appeared after 1638 when the much of  the country was imbued with fervour following the National Covenant. From about 1639 - 1650 the people felt the pain and anquish of war with thousands of the men killed in battles during the campaign of the Marquis of Montrose (1644-5) and the English Civil Wars. The inevitable consequence was an large increase in the demands on the Kirk Sessions for help by the widowed and orphaned. The Puritan vigour  was subsequently endorsed by Oliver Cromwell when he subjugated Scotland during his republican rule. In 1656 the ultimate law was passed that forbade frequenting taverns, dance, listening to profane music, washing, brewing ale or baking bread, to travel or conducting any business on a Sunday. This, for example, led to punishment of children for playing on a Sunday, and a public warning about carrying water, sweeping the house or clearing ashes from the fire place. In Glasgow there were paid spies to report lapses by the congregation.

The Presbyterian system also substituted for the "welfare state" and sought to help for "the deserving poor" - the victims of old age and misfortune, the sick, the elderly the widow and the fatherless child, but was strongly opposed to helping the idle and the beggars. There was already a system of education and three universities in Scotland before the Presbyterians kirk was established, but this was available to those who could afford it, or depended on ministers who also acted as schoolmaster in the Parish. In 1616 an act was passed commanding that every parish should have a school, if circumstances allowed. It was 1646 before laws made the land owners liable to pay for them. Schoolteachers and readers were required to be licensed by the Presbytery. In the 17th century school started at the age of five and meant to continue for five years before the child might pass to a higher school or university depending on ability. The peasant child though might leave by age eight to help the family by work, particularly during the harvest. The school day often started at 6.00 am in summer and lasted between eight and twelve hours with breaks of an hour for breakfast and lunch. The teaching varied with the ability of the school master but always focused on "godliness and good manners". Everyone learned to read and write and many schools taught Latin to the more able student. In the burgh schools they taught arithmetic. Compulsory attendance at church was common and the children would be required to discuss the sermon and its meaning on the Monday. Famous for its Colleges and doctors of medicine from early times, by 1780 Scotland had developed an educational system in advance of anything in Europe at the time -  with consequent impact on its culture and the important ability to help maximise the talents of its people.

Members of the Parliament of Scotland were traditionally elected from three "estates" or classes: the clergy (bishops), the nobility and lairds, and the burgesses (representatives of the royal burghs). Bishops were excluded when the anti-episcopalian Covenanters gained control of the Scottish government, leading to the Bishops' Wars. The Bishops Wars were almost non-events with little real fighting at national level, but was an excuse for feuding between local families in the north east and west of Scotland.

In June 1640, during an uneasy truce, the Scottish Parliament assembled in defiance of the King's attempts to postpone its sitting. A number of acts were passed that radically altered the constitution of Scotland including the confirmation of the removal of bishops, thus excluding one of the traditional estates from the Scottish Parliament. A new Committee of Estates was appointed to govern Scotland when Parliament was not in session. It consisted of twelve members from each of the remaining estates: the nobles, lairds and burgesses and an additional three Lords of Session (magistrates). The Committee's primary responsibility was the defence of Scotland, for which it was granted powers to borrow money and to raise taxes. Generals of the army were given the right to attend meetings of the Committee. When convenient, the Committee was split in two, with one half remaining in Edinburgh while the other half accompanied the army on campaign.

The Committee was dominated by Covenanters. It was called again in August 1643 after the Convention of Estates had negotiated an alliance with the English Parliament to intervene against the Royalists in the English Civil War. The Committee remained in power whenever Parliament was not sitting throughout the turbulent 1640s. The fundamentalist Kirk Party became the dominant political force and governed Scotland as a theocracy from 1648-50, characterised by regular purges of officials and soldiers regarded as ungodly or "malignant". The Kirk's desire to stamp out sin and to enforce moral reform, in accordance with the principles of the Covenant, resulted in one of Scotland's periodic "witch-crazes" during 1649-50, in which hundreds of alleged witches were persecuted, with many burned at the stake.

Charles II was proclaimed King of Scots in February 1649, but the Kirk Party insisted that he should first accept the Covenant and promise to establish Presbyterian church government throughout the Three Kingdoms. Realising that he needed a Scottish army to help him regain the thrones of England and Ireland, Charles was obliged to sign the Treaty of Breda in May 1650 and reluctantly took the Covenant upon his arrival in Scotland the following month. The Kirk Party struggled to keep Charles under its control by banishing most of his closest advisers and by insisting upon purging the Scottish army of all but strict Covenanters in the weeks before the battle of Dunbar. Up to 80 veteran officers and 3,000 experienced soldiers were judged unfit to serve and were replaced by inexperienced recruits, which contributed to the Scottish defeat at Dunbar and discredited the Kirk Party. The Kirk Party was further weakened when hardline Covenanters broke away to form the Remonstrant movement.

 Free from all associations with the malignant King, the Western Association regarded itself as the true guardian of the Covenant. The Association was supported by Archibald Johnston of Warriston and fundamentalist ministers led by James Guthrie and Patrick Gillespie. On 2 October, the Association issued a Remonstrance addressed to the Committee of Estates in which the defeat at Dunbar was blamed upon those who had negotiated the Treaty of Breda without first obtaining evidence that Charles had truly repented. A second Remonstrance was issued from Dumfries on 17 October in which the Remonstrants disassociated themselves from the King's war with the English until he had proven himself worthy of their support. Despite general sympathy and a tacit recognition that it contained much truth, the Remonstrance was finally rejected on the grounds that it was likely to cause further divisions among the Covenanters.

On 14 December 1650, the Commission of the Kirk decreed that it was Parliament's duty to employ all lawful means to defend Scotland against the English invaders, which opened the way for the re-admission of Royalists and Engagers into the army once they had undergone suitable penance. Pro-Royalists were known as "Resolutioners" because they supported the resolutions of 14 December. They were opposed by "Protesters", a group which was led by Remonstrants but included many who had not supported the original Remonstrance. The Protesters continued to object to the relaxation of the strictures against malignants but the Royalists rapidly gained influence in the military and civil administration of Scotland after the coronation of Charles II culminating in the the fall of the Kirk Party.

The events of 1650-1 caused a deep schism within the Kirk. The radical Remonstrants and Protesters believed that the compromises made to accommodate Charles II had irrevocably corrupted the Kirk. They broke away from the majority Resolutioners to hold conventicles, or prayer-meetings, outside the normal worship of the Kirk. The Protesters refused to accept the authority of General Assemblies from 1651 onwards because they were dominated by the corrupted Resolutioner majority. In July 1653, the Protesters and Resolutioners held rival General Assemblies in Edinburgh, but both were dissolved by order of Major-General Lilburne, the military governor of Scotland. These were the last meetings of the General Assembly for thirty-seven years. During the Protectorate Cromwell's toleration and encouragement of the Independent sects was bitterly opposed by Scottish Presbyterians and undermined his hopes of reuniting the fractured Kirk.

The Restoration of Charles II in 1660  was greeted with some euphoria among the general populace who had endured over twenty years of almost constant war. But it was short lived. Charles turned upon the Kirk and its leaders who had given him such a tough time in 1650 - 1651 when he had tried to take up his throne following the execution of his father (Charles I). At his Restoration he took his revenge, executing the Marquis of Argyll, James Guthrie and, later, Archibald Johnstone, Lord Warriston. He next caused legislation to abolish all that Presbytery had achieved and restored episcopacy along with compulsory attendance at the approved church on pain of heavy fines for non attendance. In 1666, originating in Galloway, advancing from the west towards Edinburgh, a small force of badly armed Covenanters was defeated at the Battle of Rullion Green in the Pentland Hills.

From about 1670 the country was under military rule as Charles intensified the persecution of the people and prompted the "Killing Time" of 1684-5. To quell unrest in south-west Scotland some 3,000 Lowland militia and 6,000 Highlanders (the 'Highland Host') were billeted in the Covenanting shires. The Highlanders were responsible for many atrocities, robbery and rape, pillage and plunder. Covenanters were  flushed out and hunted down as never before and the common soldier was empowered to take life at will of any suspect without a requirement of a trial. Usually it was done without any evidence and often as the result of the suspicions of an over-zealous town official or minister. Brutality in these days defied the imagination and the persecution had no mercy on man, woman or child, irrespective of circumstances. A Covenanter once caught by the King's troops was shot on the spot. These policies provoked armed rebellions in 1666 and 1679, which were quickly suppressed at the defeats of militant Covenanters in battles of Drumclog and Bothwell Brig. Following the Battle of Bothwell Brig some 1200 prisoners were taken and incarcerated in a make-shift prison next to the Greyfriars Kirk in Edinburgh, many died of suffocation. Of these prisoners, 257 erstwhile ringleaders and ministers were sentenced to be transported to the West Indies or Virginia as white slaves. The vessel set sail on November 27, 1679, but struck rocks off Orkney and was wrecked. It is said that the captain was a heartless and cruel man and despite the pleas of the frightened prisoners he ordered the hatches to be chained. Thus it was on December 10, 1679, that 211 Covenanters went to a watery grave. A mere 49 Covenanters survived the wreck only to be transported later.

Cameronian was a name given to a section of the Scottish Covenanters who followed the teachings of Richard Cameron, and who were composed principally of those who signed the Sanquhar Declaration in 1680, disavowing allegiance to Charles II and the government of Scotland, in the name of "true Protestant and Presbyterian interest", opposition to government interference in religious affairs, and anti-Catholicism, refusing to take the oaths of allegiance to an uncovenanted ruler, or to exercise any civil function. Known also as "Society Men", "Sanquharians," and "Hillmen", they became a separate church after the religious settlement of 1690, taking the official title of Reformed Presbyterians in 1743. Dissatisfied with the moderate character of the religious settlement of 1690 they wished to restore the ecclesiastical order which had existed between 1638 and 1649. Cameron was killed and his head and hands were severed from his body and taken to Edinburgh where they were shown to his father who was already imprisoned in the town’s tolbooth. After being paraded through the main street behind Cameron's head displayed aloft on the end of a pole. Cameron’s head and hands were then affixed to the Netherbow Port for public display. The Cameronians saw themselves as early Christian martyrs by holding steadfastly to their beliefs in the face of torture and death. It was from these rebellious religious militants that the famous Cameronian Rifles regiment was formed, not the family clan Cameron, and it was why each new recruit to the regiment was issued a bible .

Some historians have tried to portray the Covenanters as an early revolutionary movement. The Covenanters are regarded by some as freedom fighters who bravely opposed attempts by the English crown to destroy the Scottish religion, culture and identity and it is has also claimed that those Protestant rebels were sidelined in Scots' history. The king had indeed been defeated in his attempt to dictate the religion of his subjects, but it was, nevertheless, the Covenanter's intention to deny the religious freedom they sought for themselves to all others. Being Episcopalian wasn't good enough; to be Catholic was unforgivable. Inspired by the theocratic spirit, the bigoted creed of the Covenanters sought to create a fundamentalist Scotland. In many ways, they can be seen as a sort of the tartan Taleban, our very own Scottish ayatollahs, who would have turned Scotland into a theocratic state, communities controlled by the church. In that respect, they do not deserve our sympathy.