Skip to content

Covenanters and King Charles II


Continuing the series on the history of Scotland in the 17th Century…


The history of the Scottish defeats at the hands of Cromwell at Dunbar (1650) and Worcester (1651) is highly complex and outside the scope of this work.  But the Scottish armies failed, not only because of the impracticability of their programme of battle, (their generals had been replaced by militant Covenanters under the Act of Classes) and because of a widespread resentment among the ruling classes at a religious structure even more rigidly imposed than the hated Episopalianism, but because of the bloodthirstiness of the leaders of the Covenanter faction in charge of the army.

In battle, the Covenanters were fierce in their warfare, and many of the original signatories to the National Covenant were disgusted and alienated by this apparent lust for the blood of their enemies.  In 1645 prisoners taken in battle against the Highland army of Montrose, were butchered to the cry of  ‘Jesus and no quarter’.  (TC Smout, A History of the Scottish People 1560-1830 Fontana Pg 65)

The result of the defeats at Dunbar and Worcester led to ten years of Cromwellian government in Scotland, a period only brought to a close in 1660 when the English army was recalled to London to assist in the restoration of the monarchy. (Again the historic church at Greyfriars was prominent in this period.  At Greyfriars, the English troops occupying Edinburgh were billeted, Cromwell preached to his troops in the Kirkyard, and at Greyfriars the English General, Monck, announced his proposed march to London)


Despite the promising start to his reign at Scone, Charles II soon proved that his conscience was extremely pliable as far as Presbyterianism was concerned.  He no longer depended upon the Presbyterians, and the remarkable unity that had prevailed in 1638 was gone.   In 1660 following his return from France and the restoration of the monarchy, Charles attempted yet again to impose episcopacy upon Scotland.

Here we must exercise some caution.  The classical histories of the Covenanters will portray Charles rightly as the traitor and turncoat, who commenced the persecution of Presbyterians, and during whose reign the first covenanting martyr died.

Secular historians add a sense of balance to this.   Although Charles would have nothing to do with a General Assembly, and although he did reintroduce the bishops to the churches, he did so within a Presbyterian context of Kirk Sessions, Presbytery and Synod, and he decreed tolerance for the puritan forms of service that persisted in Scotland.  In so doing, some secular historians argue, Charles may have believed that he was imposing a measure of tolerance and compromise on a church and a race, for who even the saying of the Lord’s Prayer had once been regarded as a Popish, dangerous and ungodly liturgy. (TC Smout    Op. Cit.  Pg 64)

For the Scots however, Charles’ compromise was unacceptable, and the flames of antagonism were fanned further when a clampdown on Covenanters was ordered to ensure that the legislation was adhered to.  New laws meant that attendance at unauthorised religious meetings was forbidden, that persons signing the covenants were to be guilty of high treason, and that anyone asked to swear an oath of allegiance to the king, must do so, and in so doing must acknowledge his supremacy in all spiritual and temporal matters.  The Bishops were returned to the Kirk, and there was certainly no room for compromise on that issue.


To be continued…

From → Covenanters, History

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: