Solemn League and Covenant

views updated May 29 2018

Solemn League and Covenant

The Solemn League and Covenant was drawn up in Edinburgh by commissioners for the Scottish Covenanters and English parliamentarians in the late summer of 1643. The treaty was of fundamental military, religious, and constitutional significance for Ireland as well as Scotland and England. In the first place, the Covenanters, already victorious in Scotland, were committed to help the parliamentarians defeat the royalist cause in England and, by extension, provide potential support for Charles I in Ireland. In the second place, Presbyterianism was to be imposed as the religious establishment throughout the three kingdoms. Thus, not only episcopacy but also independent sects and, above all, Roman Catholicism, which was associated with the forces of the Antichrist, were to be swept aside. In the third place, confessional solidarity within the three kingdoms was to be underscored by the replacement of regal union, operational under the Stuart dynasty since 1603, by confederal union. The Solemn League and Covenant did result in a victory over the royalist forces in England, but it also led to an intensification of civil war in both Scotland and Ireland. This treaty of confessional confederation instigated what became the Wars for the Three Kingdoms, in which Oliver Cromwell emerged triumphant and both Scotland and Ireland were reduced to satellite states under the English republic by 1651.

The Scots provided the main ideological input for the Solemn League and Covenant, a compact based on the National Covenant of 1638, in which the Scots had justified their revolution against Charles I. There were two imperatives to which all signatories were committed. In religious terms a Presbyterian reformation was to be achieved by joining the covenant of works to that of grace for national as well as individual salvation. In constitutional terms the right to resist the Crown became a mandatory one to export revolution throughout the three kingdoms. Furthermore, the most radical aspect of the National Covenant was reiterated almost verbatim in the Solemn League and Covenant, notably in the oath of allegiance and mutual association, which upheld the corporate right of the people to resist a lawful king who threatened to become tyrannical. Monarchy limited by parliaments was non-negotiable. This concept of a coactive power, which the Scots had borrowed from the French and Dutch advocates of the right of resistance in the late sixteenth century, was maintained by the radical mainstream of the Covenanting movement throughout the 1640s.

Supported militarily and materially by Sweden, the Covenanters had created a centralized state to enforce ideological, military, and financial commitment within Scotland and to seize the political initiative throughout the three kingdoms. Having decisively won the Bishops' Wars of 1639 to 1640, the Covenanting movement insisted upon English parliamentary participation in the peace negotiations, which were eventually brought to a conclusion by the Treaty of London in August 1641. In the interim Scottish commissioners were invited by the English Long Parliament to instigate the prosecution of the lord-deputy of Ireland, Thomas Wentworth, earl of Strafford.

Ever since the first sustained appeal to British public opinion in the prelude to the Bishops' Wars, the Covenanting leadership had aimed to secure a lasting alliance by a defensive and offensive league—that is, by a confederation (not a union) between Scotland and England. These negotiations were overtaken by the outbreak of the Irish rebellion in October 1641. The return from Ireland of planters and settlers in the wake of the rebellion there in 1641 had given a British resonance to Covenanting ideology. The refugees' presence was a continuous reminder of the Catholic threat not only from Ireland but also from the Counter-Reformation in continental Europe. The Covenanting leadership was not prepared to accept Charles I's invitation to protect the plantations without the consent of the English parliament. Fears of a "popish plot," reputedly organized by the hapless Randal MacDonnell, marquis of Antrim, to bring armed assistance from Ireland to the royalist cause throughout Britain, confirmed public opinion in favor of a federative treaty between the Scottish Covenanters and English parliamentarians in 1643. Ostensibly intending to supply the Scottish army in Ireland and to review the arrears of financial reparations due under the Treaty of London, the Covenanting radicals summoned a convention of "estates" which cemented a formal alliance for armed cooperation between the Scottish estates and the English parliament on 26 August. Ireland was included within the remit of the Solemn League and Covenant only at English insistence. The Scots were reluctant to accord equal standing to a satellite kingdom whose dominant religion was manifest from the confederation which the Irish Catholics had established at Kilkenny in July 1642.

Despite the initial success of armed intervention in England, British confessional confederation was beset by difficulties. Internal divisions in the parliamentary forces between the Presbyterians and the Independents were compounded by tensions between the parliamentarians and Covenanters. These tensions in turn were aggravated by the hostility generated in the north of England by Scottish occupation. In Ireland the endeavors of the Scottish army to break out of Ulster were ended by the forces of the Catholic Confederation at Dundalk in June 1646. The British influence of the Covenanting movement had been further weakened by the outbreak of debilitating civil war at home. James Graham, marquis of Montrose, ran a brilliant guerrilla campaign for the royalists in 1644 to 1645, assisted by Alasdair MacColla and forces from Ulster sponsored by the Catholic Confederation. Although their cause was crushed by 1647, the intensity of their campaigning had obliged contingents of the Covenanting army to withdraw from England. The transfer of Charles I from the custody of Covenanters to the English parliament in January of that year had revived the movement's conservative element. Under the terms of an "Engagement" that came into force in 1648, Charles I was not obliged to subscribe to the covenants or to impose Presbyterianism on England for more than a trial period of three years. This effective rescinding of the coactive power over monarchy conceded that the Covenanters had lost the political initiative within Britain. Armed intervention in renewed English civil war in the summer of 1648 ended disastrously at Preston and enabled the radicals to stage a successful revolt with support from Oliver Cromwell.

News of the execution of Charles I on 30 January 1649 sundered this collaboration of the Covenanting radicals with Cromwell. Their immediate proclamation of Charles II as king of Great Britain and Ireland reasserted the supranational identity of the house of Stuart. Charles II's subscription to the National Covenant and the Solemn League prior to his coronation on 1 January 1651 underscored the old element of confessional confederation, but also provoked the occupation of Scotland by English forces. With Cromwellian armies triumphant in all three kingdoms, enforced union was marked first by the Commonwealth and then the Protectorate of England, Scotland, and Ireland. This deliberate avoidance of a "Great Britain" was an emphatic rejection of both the Stuart dynasty and confederal union through covenanting. The Restoration of 1660 produced constitutional settlements that publicly abrogated covenanting, which a militant minority maintained as a movement of protest, but no longer of power, in Ulster as well as Scotland. Covenanting has retained a residual appeal for those intent on asserting Scottish independence of, and Ulster autonomy from, Anglican supremacy.

SEE ALSO Calvinist Influences in Early Modern Ireland; Cromwellian Conquest; Puritan Sectaries; Rebellion of 1641


Cowan, Edward J. "The Solemn League and Covenant." In Scotland and England, 1286–1815, edited by Roger A. Mason. 1987.

Dickinson, William C., and Gordon Donaldson, eds. A Source Book of Scottish History. Vol. 3. 1961.

Macinnes, Allan I. "Covenanting Ideology in Seventeenth-Century Scotland." In Political Thought in Seventeenth-Century Ireland: Kingdom or Colony, edited by Jane H. Ohlmeyer. 2000.

Morrill, John. "The Britishness of the English Revolution, 1640–1660." In Three Nations—A Common History? England, Scotland, Ireland, and British History, c. 1600–1920, edited by R. G. Asch. 1993.

Pocock, John. "The Atlantic Archipelago and the War of the Three Kingdoms." In The British Problem, c. 1534–1707, edited by Brendan Bradshaw and John Morrill. 1996.

Stevenson, David. "The Early Covenanters and the Federal Union of Britain." In Scotland and England, 1286–1815, edited by Roger A. Mason. 1987.

Young, John R. "The Scottish Parliament and European Diplomacy, 1641–1647: The Palatinate, The Dutch Republic and Sweden." In Scotland and the Thirty Years' War, 1618–1648, edited by Steve Murdoch. 2001.

Allan I. Macinnes

Solemn League and Covenant

views updated May 18 2018

Solemn League and Covenant

SOLEMN LEAGUE AND COVENANT. The Boston Committee of Correspondence, headed by Samuel Adams, sent a circular letter to Massachusetts towns dated 8 June 1774, in which it asked all adults "to suspend all commercial intercourse" with Britain from 31 August until the Boston Port Act (by which Britain had closed the port of Boston for all shipping) was repealed. To emphasize the seriousness of the matter, and in an appeal to memories of the religious covenants to which the first settlers had subscribed, the committee dubbed its request a "solemn league and covenant," and threatened to publish the names of those people who did not comply, whom it termed "protesters." Merchants throughout Massachusetts objected to the committee's request, because they could not stop the shipment of goods from their British suppliers in time to meet the deadline and would thus be stuck with merchandise they could not sell. The request failed to garner widespread support, forcing Adams and the Boston radicals to defer the issues of nonimportation and nonconsumption to the Continental Congress, which was scheduled to meet at Philadelphia in September 1774.

SEE ALSO Adams, Samuel.


Knollenberg, Bernard. Growth of the American Revolution, 1766–1775. Indianapolis, Ind.: Liberty Fund, 2002.

                             revised by Harold E. Selesky

Solemn League and Covenant

views updated Jun 11 2018

Solemn League and Covenant. An agreement between the Long Parliament and the Scots brought about by the failure of Parliament's war against the king. Adopted by the Scots Estates on 17 August 1643 and sworn by members of the House of Commons on 25 September, the covenant promised to reform religion in England and Ireland on presbyterian lines. In return, the Scots undertook to invade England with an army of 20,000. The Scots kept the bargain, which turned the tide of the Civil War against the king. But Parliament's half-heartedness in adopting presbyterianism prompted the Scots to transfer their support to the king in 1648 when he recognized the validity of the covenant as a voluntary engagement. Charles II was also required to swear the covenant when he was crowned king of Scotland in 1650.

Ian Gentles

Solemn League and Covenant

views updated May 29 2018

Solemn League and Covenant (September 1643) Agreement between the Long Parliament and the Scots during the English Civil War. In return for Parliament's promise to reorganize the established Church on a Presbyterian basis, the Scots agreed to raise an army in the North of England against Charles I. The Scottish help led directly to the Parliamentary victory over the Royalists at Marston Moor.

Solemn League and Covenant

views updated May 14 2018

Solemn League and Covenant an agreement made in 1643 between the English Parliament and the Scottish Covenanters during the English Civil War, by which the Scots would provide military aid in return for the establishment of a Presbyterian system in England, Scotland, and Ireland.

Solemn League and Covenant

views updated May 21 2018

Solemn League and Covenant (in defence of Scottish Presbyterianism): see COVENANTERS.