Covenanters Arise! Part I

The death of Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of the Commonwealth on 3 September 1658 left England leaderless; his successor, son and heir, Richard Cromwell, was a much lesser man than his father. Oliver was a big act to follow and it soon became clear that Richard was not up to the responsibilities he had inherited. As a result the army tightened its grip on the country to the point of ignoring parliament, itself dominated by militant republicans like Sir Arthur Hesilrige who with his filibustering coterie blocked every attempt by the legislature to enact laws. Eventually, Richard Cromwell decided to dispense with parliament which he dismissed on 22 April 1659. Thereafter, the army was in complete control, a situation that deeply dismayed General George Monck to the point of distrust and even abhorrence. Monck, now Governor of Scotland, made his base at Coldstream, the township in the Borders from which his own elite regiment of foot guards took its name.

Monck was determined to reinstate parliament and so he began his famous march south on 2 January 1660 with an army of 4,000; at least he enjoyed the support of his old and trusted friend, Major General Thomas Morgan, his subordinate during the Highland campaign of 1655. In taking this action, Monck had sought the approval of the Speaker of the House of Commons, William Lenthall, who informed him that the Rump parliament had returned to power1 and that Monck would be welcome in London with his small army. It had become clear to Monck that the only alternative to the Cromwellian Republicans was the restoration of Charles II. To this end, he began to make preparations to smooth a path for the King’s return. However, he first had to make England secure; his support for parliament earned him the appointment of Commander in Chief of the armed forces in England, Scotland and Ireland; Monck was also made a member of the Council of State, a General at sea, with the manor and Palace of Hampton Court settled on him and £20,000 for his public services. On 22 March 1660, Monck declared for Charles II, to which parliament acceded; Monck personally greeted the King at Dover. The Restoration of Charles II would turn out to be one of the most pitiful and dismal chapters in Scotland’s history.

On Charles’s return, exactly a century had passed since Scotland had rejected Roman Catholicism for Presbyterianism. During the period 1561 to 1649, two of the three Stuart monarchs who had challenged the new religious form of worship had not only lost their thrones but their lives – Mary, Queen of Scots and Charles I. However, Scottish people entertained hopes that lessons had been learned from these traumatic tragedies and welcomed the return of Charles in 1660. For his part, from the outset of his reign (1660 – 1685), Charles’s attitude was unequivocal; he would make no compromise with the Covenanters on the matter of episcopacy. This policy was hardly reflected in his choice of appointments to the Privy Council, the executive arm of the Scottish parliament. Charles was acutely aware that many of the officers of state had been and continued to be unreconstructed supporters of the National Covenant. The Royalist William, 9th Earl of Glencairn who raised the Royal Standard for Charles during the Cromwellian Commonwealth period was appointed Chancellor of Scotland; John, 6th Earl of Rothes, who had been one of the leaders of the revolt against Charles I, was made President of the Privy Council, a position of considerable power; and John, 2nd Earl and Duke of Lauderdale, champion of the Covenant, was made Secretary to the Privy Council. Charles’s intentions were obvious; it was his way of mollifying the strong Presbyterian following among the nobility, if not the common people. However, Charles intended to stamp his authority on Scotland one way or another through his instruments and representatives, the Episcopalian bishops. Charles acted precipitously, implementing his policy towards the hard line Covenanters in the most direct way.

On 8 July 1660, the Covenanter Archibald Campbell, 1st Marquis of Argyll who had travelled to London to seek an audience with the King was arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London. At the same time, a Royal Warrant was issued for the apprehension of Archibald Johnston of Wariston, one of the co-authors of the National Covenant in 1638; Wariston was obliged to seek refuge in France where he remained in exile for the next three years. The Kirk of Scotland split into two factions. The majority party became known as the Resolutioners who somewhat unrealistically hoped that Charles, having sworn to uphold the National Covenant and the Solemn League and Covenant in 1650, would favour them. The minority party, known as the Protesters, had distrusted Charles from day one; the Protesters felt justified in their opposition when on 24 August 1660 on the instructions of the King, the Committee of Estates of the Scottish parliament (which had thus far not met in session) issued a proclamation banning ‘all unlawful meetings … without His Majesty’s special authority’.

This proclamation alarmed Resolutioners and Protesters alike until on 3 September the Resolutioners received a letter from the King which calmed some but made others uneasy: ‘We do also resolve to protect and preserve the Covenant of the Church of Scotland, as it is settled by law, without violation.’ Of course what Charles failed to state was that the episcopacy introduced by his grandfather James VI and I the rule of the bishops would continue. Bishops were the King’s representatives in Scotland; any disobedience shown to a bishop was considered insubordination to the monarch. The Resolutioners had to swallow their pride; the Protesters were even more determined to resist the King. On 1 January 1661, the Scottish parliament convened after an interval of nine years, Cromwell having dissolved it in 1652. The man chosen to represent Charles II was John Middleton, now elevated to Earl of Middleton, the former Covenanter who had supported Charles at Worcester in 1651 and again in the Highland Rising of 1654 when he had been defeated at Dalnaspidal by Thomas Morgan, Monck’s able subordinate. Middleton’s parliament passed no fewer than 393 legislative measures – acts which included the issue of copper coins for the benefit of the poor and stringent penalties on those who profaned the Sabbath by swearing and drinking excessively. These were minor matters; what Middleton’s obsequious parliament imposed on the people of Scotland was an affirmation of Charles II’s right to appoint officers of State, the right to summon and dissolve parliaments at will and make war and peace as he saw fit. Charles was declared the supreme governor and sole arbiter over all persons and causes in Scotland. Charles was, in effect, made a dictator. Worse still, Middleton’s parliament voted Charles an annual grant of £40,000 sterling (£480,000 Scots, a massive sum for a relatively poor nation) which was both unwelcome and unnecessary.

That year, the over-mighty Marquis of Argyll, staunch supporter of the Covenant, while lacking the respect of both Resolutioners and Protesters, gained some esteem in the closing moments of his life. Sent from the Tower of London to Edinburgh’s Tolbooth, Argyll was led out to face execution on 27 May 1661. That day, Argyll made some restitution for his lack of moral and physical courage. As he went to his beheading at the Maiden (an early form of the guillotine), his last words were reputedly thus:

I could die as a Roman [Catholic] but choose to die as a Christian.’

What was important about Charles’s proclamation that the Church of Scotland would continue as it had been settled by law meant the continuation of the episcopacy imposed by his grandfather and confirmed by his father. The Scottish parliament of 1661 re-affirmed this law, although the Members quarrelled with each other, Middleton heading one faction, Lauderdale the other. Two acts sponsored by Middleton were aimed at discrediting Lauderdale. In one of the measures it was made compulsory for every person holding an office of State to declare that the two Covenants were unlawful, even seditious. Lauderdale continued his support for these, cynically announcing that he would sign a cartload of such oaths to that effect so long as he remained in office. The second of Middleton’s measures backfired on its sponsor; his Bill of Indemnity proposed that twelve persons in the Privy Council should be declared incapable of holding office, the twelve to be determined by a ballot of parliament. Middleton had Lauderdale in mind, no doubt conducting a scurrilous campaign against him and cajoling parliament to include him. A clumsy manoeuvre, when Middleton’s Bill of Indemnity reached Charles in London to receive the royal assent, Lauderdale had already informed the King of Middleton’s absurdity and enormity; Charles agreed with Lauderdale and, in 1663, Middleton was dismissed from his position. Charles believed he was master of his northern kingdom – well almost; there were troublemakers in the wings, biding their time to challenge his authority. These men were diehard Covenanters.

As government intentions towards the Covenanters in the early years of the Restoration became increasingly clear, a substantial minority felt they had been cheated of the right to worship in the way Charles II had promised. To those men and women, the Marquis of Argyll and others were seen as martyrs to the cause. Matters grew worse when in 1663, bishops took up the offices they had abandoned in the previous decade in Scotland; this led to a mass exodus of Covenanter ministers who began to hold their services not in churches but in barns and the open air; these meetings were known as Conventicles and were declared illegal gatherings. In 1663 the scale of Conventicles had increased to such an extent that the government felt compelled to pass laws imposing fines on people who failed to attend worship in their parish churches. Under normal local arrangements these fines should have been levied and collected by the church heritors, the ennobled landowners, gentlemen farmers and property owners who contributed to the upkeep and running of churches; however, they too were subject to a rising scale of fines according to their means. Many landowners were sympathetic towards the nonconformists who applied a new name to these laws; they became known as the Bishops’ Drag-Net.

In 1638 practically the entire nation had supported the National Covenant but by 1663 only a minority of nobles and commoners subscribed to it, the majority of the landowning class opting to serve the King and thereby fatten their purses through royal pensions – a particularly lucrative source of income – as well as developing their commercial interests through royal patronage and increasing their political power. About two-thirds of the Scottish clergy had reneged on their support for the Covenant for much the same reasons. Another blow to the nonconformists came in 1663 with the blatant kidnapping of Archibald Johnston of Wariston in France by Charles’s agents. Seen as a dangerous incendiary Wariston, now a sick man rapidly losing his faculties, was brought back to Scotland to stand a form of trial. An uncompromising opponent of Charles I and Charles II as well as his own people, Wariston hated the Engagers who had supported Charles I in 1646, as we saw in the previous chapter. The sick man was found guilty of treason, even if he was never formally charged with that offence; his continuing existence was seen as a threat to the principles enshrined in the Restoration, so he suffered the same fate as Argyll, the only difference being that Argyll, a noble, was beheaded, whereas Wariston faced the gallows, as befitted a commoner. It is not clear whether Wariston’s passing was universally mourned but his death was seen as martyrdom by the nonconformists.

Although some of the disaffected clergy continued to hold services in their churches, the seat of unrest was at its hottest in south-west Scotland – Dumfries, Galloway and Kirkcudbright. By 1666 armed rebellion was not far away. Repressive measures by the Privy Council in Edinburgh against the nonconformist recusants increased which had the effect of building up a head of steam among the faithful. Among the military commanders who enforced the government’s edicts was Sir James Turner; thrice between March and November 1666 Turner marched his forces into the south-west, levying fines as well as billeting his troops in the homes of the dissenters at their expense. During his third foray, Turner was lodging in Dumfries when a party of Galloway dissidents made him their prisoner on 15 November. The men were desperate although they had no wish to shed Turner’s blood; certainly, they had no plans to mount a rebellion but having gone this far they could hardly turn back. On their return to Galloway, the dissidents apparently paused at the market cross of Dumfries to drink the King’s health!

News of Turner’s capture reached Charles in London and those nobles in Scotland who were loyal to him declared they would not allow this insult to the King to go unpunished. Among these was General Thomas ‘Tam’ Dalziel (Dalyell) of the Binns, scion of a West Lothian gentry family. Dalyell was a Royalist through and through; he had vowed never to trim his beard after the execution of Charles I, had fought for Charles II at Worcester in 1651, then served in the Polish wars of the Russian Tsar Alexei I, which earned him the title The Muscovite Beast. General Tam is also remembered for raising a cut-glass regiment, the Royal North British Dragoons in 1681, the first dragoon regiment in the British Army. The regiment was also known as the Scots Greys – not because they rode grey horses (which they did) but because they wore Russian field-grey greatcoats, a fact confirmed by Kathleen, Dowager Lady Dalyell of the Binns in the 1970s.

The Turner incident – no more than a protest against military oppression – was seen by officialdom as nothing short of outright rebellion. On 21 November a proclamation denouncing the uprising was issued; it made no mention of clemency for any who might choose to surrender. The leaders of the ‘rebellion’ appealed for support from their brethren; the result was disappointingly poor although by 22 November the dissidents had managed to cobble together an army of sorts numbering 3,000. The motley band was commanded by an experienced soldier, Colonel James Wallace of Achens, near Troon, Ayrshire who had served in the foot guards in the parliamentary army during the English Civil War. At Lanark the poorly armed Covenanters took the desperate decision to march on Edinburgh to present their grievances to anyone who would listen to them.

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