Scottish history in the 16th and 17th centuries presents many instances of covenants, or "bands," binding the signers to common action. The first specifically religious "band" was that signed in December 1557 by the nobles of the Reformation party, the Lords of the Congregation. Another "band," known as "the King's Confession," occasioned by a hysterical antipopery scare, was signed in 1581. The latter covenant was destined to become important in Scottish history because, in the widespread opposition stirred up against Charles I's effort in 1637 to impose a new liturgy on Scotland without the consent of Parliament or General Assembly, one of the leaders of the Presbyterian party proposed the revival of the "band" of 1581, with additions. This document, full of irrelevant but highly inflammatory phrases, was signed by a large number in the Greyfriars Kirkyard in Edinburgh, Feb. 28, 1638.
The document was known as the National Covenant; and its supporters, the Covenanters. Presbyterian elements in the Kirk gained control of the General Assembly held in Glasgow in November 1638, and episcopacy was abolished, despite the opposition of the royalist Duke of Hamilton. The Crown's attempt to suppress the Covenanters failed at Berwick, and Charles I agreed to withdraw the new service book and also to ratify the decision of the Assembly to be held on Aug. 12, 1639. This Assembly confirmed the abolition of episcopacy, and the Parliament, led by Argyll (Aug. 31, 1639), curtailed royal authority in Scotland. The Covenanter leaders decided to invade England in an effort to force the king to accept their demands (1640). They captured Newcastle, and Charles called a parliament that, as the famous Long Parliament, was to be the focal point of the great struggle against his rule in England.
The Covenanters and the English Parliamentarians eventually formed an antiroyalist alliance on the basis of the Solemn League and Covenant, signed on Aug. 17, 1743, which was to safeguard the "reformed religion in the Church of Scotland" and promote "the reformation of religion in the Kingdoms of England and Ireland according to the example of the best reformed churches." It was to the army of the Scots Covenanters that Charles I surrendered in May 1646, and on his refusal to subscribe to the Solemn League and Covenant, he was handed over to the commissioners of the English Parliament. Charles later sought to come to terms with the Covenanters by signing the "Engagement" (Dec. 26, 1647), but the subsequent Scottish intervention was rendered worthless by Cromwell's defeat of the Scottish army at Preston in 1648.
After the execution of Charles I, his less scrupulous son, Charles II, accommodated the Scots Covenanter leaders by accepting the Solemn League and Covenant; this availed him little, however, because the power of the Covenanters was largely destroyed by Cromwell's victory at Dunbar (1650). The ascendancy of the Covenanters was a time of great hardship for the Catholic minority in Scotland; the rigor of the penal laws was tightened and, in 1640, reinforced by complete economic boycott. In Scotland the advent of the Cromwellian regime was welcomed as a merciful release by Catholics. The restoration of King Charles II in 1660 was followed by the revocation of all acts passed since 1640 in favor of presbyteri anism; the Solemn League and Covenant was abrogated; patronage and episcopacy were restored.
These measures were accepted peacefully by the majority of Scotsmen. Fanatical Covenanters, however, held out in parts of southwest Scotland, and for a quarter of a century there was intermittent rebellion and repression by the government. Even when the Revolution Settlement of 1689 restored Presbyterian government in the national church, some extremists refused to conform on the ground that the covenants of 1638 and 1643 had not been renewed. The successors of this intransigent group still exist as the small Cameronian Church in Scotland to this day (see cameronians).
Bibliography: j. k. hewison, The Covenanters, 2 v. (Glasgow 1908). d. h. fleming, The Story of the Scottish Covenants (Edinburgh 1904). a. m. mackenzie, The Passing of the Stewarts (New York 1937). g. d. henderson, Religious Life in Seventeenth Century Scotland (Cambridge, Eng. 1937). f. l. cross, Oxford Dictionary of the Catholic Church, 350.
Covenanters (kəvənăn´tərz), in Scottish history, groups of Presbyterians bound by oath to sustain each other in the defense of their religion. The first formal Covenant was signed in 1557, signaling the beginning of the Protestant effort to seize power in Scotland. It was renewed thereafter at times of crisis, most notably in the 17th cent. The National Covenant of 1638 aimed to unite the Scots in opposition to the episcopal innovations of King Charles I and William Laud, especially the adaptation for Scottish use of the English Book of Common Prayer. The Covenanters successfully resisted the king's armies in the Bishops' Wars (1639–40). In the English civil war they supported the parliamentary party only after the English Parliament had accepted (1643) the Solemn League and Covenant, which provided for the eventual establishment of a Presbyterian state church in England and Ireland as well as in Scotland. After the first civil war, however, the Independents in the English army secured control of affairs and prevented implementation of the Covenant. The Scots, therefore, concluded the agreement known as the
with Charles I, by which the king agreed to establish Presbyterianism in England if restored to the throne. As a result, the Covenanters fought for Charles I in the second civil war (1648) and, after his execution (1649), they fought for Charles II, who also subscribed (1650) to the Solemn League and Covenant. They were subdued, however, by Oliver Cromwell's conquest of Scotland (1650–51). After the Restoration (1660), Charles II resumed his father's effort to impose episcopacy in Scotland. The Covenanters were subjected to alternate attempts to conciliate them and to hunt them down. The result was a series of new compacts of resistance among them and new attempts to suppress them. A rebellion in 1679, which culminated in a rout at Bothwell Bridge, was met with harsh repression, as was the resistance of Richard Cameron and his followers, who issued the Sanquhar Declaration in 1680. The troubles ended with the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which restored the Presbyterian Church in Scotland.
See study by J. D. Douglas (1964).
Revd Dr William M. Marshall