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Covenanters of the 17th Century

by Norman Turnbull
Turnbull Clan High Shenachie

The Covenanters were a Scottish Presbyterian movement that played an important part in the history of Scotland, and to a lesser extent in that of England and Ireland, during the 17th century. Presbyterian denominations tracing their history to the Covenanters and often incorporating the name continue the ideas and traditions in Scotland and internationally.

They derive their name from the Scots term (covenant) for a band or legal document. There were two important covenants in Scottish history, the National Covenant and the Solemn League and Covenant.

The Solemn League and Covenant was an agreement between the Scottish Covenanters and the leaders of the English Parliamentarians. It was agreed to in 1643, during the first English Civil War.

The Protestant leaders of the embattled English parliament, faced with the threat of Irish Catholic troops joining with the Royalist army, requested the aid of the Scots. The Presbyterian Covenanters promised their aid against the ‘papists’, on condition that the Scottish system of church government was adopted in England. This was acceptable to the majority of the English Long Parliament, as many of them were Presbyterians, while others preferred allying with the Scots to losing the Civil War.

After some haggling, a document called the “Solemn League and Covenant” was drawn up.

covenanter sermon
In 1662, Charles II declared the convenants unlawful. From that time until 1690, Convenanters were persecuted and forced to worship in secrecy. Ruberslaw, in the Borders near Bedrule, became a place of worship. Covenanters would convene near the top of the mountain with members stationed at lookouts to warn if they were being discovered.

The Covenanters are so named because in a series of bands or Covenants they bound themselves to maintain the Presbyterian doctrine and polity as the sole religion of their country. The first “godly band” of the Lords of the Congregation and their followers is dated December 1557; but more important is the covenant of 1581, drawn up by John Craig (moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland) in consequence of the strenuous efforts that the Roman Catholics were making to regain their hold upon Scotland, and called the King’s Confession or National Covenant.

Based on the Confession of Faith of 1560, this document denounced the Pope and the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church in no measured terms. It was adopted by the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland signed by King James VI and his household, and on persons of all ranks and classes, and was again subscribed in 1590 and 1596.

Wars of the Three Kingdoms

In 1637, Scotland was in a state of turmoil. King Charles and William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury, met in an effort to impose a new liturgy on the Scots. The new liturgy had been devised by a panel of Scots Bishops, including Archbishop Spottiswoode of St. Andrews, but a riot against it’s use was orchestrated, in St Giles Cathedral, by Jenny Geddes. Jenny Geddes was a market trader in Edinburgh and it is alleged she threw her stool at the head of the minister in objection to the first public use of the ‘Anglican Book of Common Prayer’ in Scotland.

The act is said to have sparked the riot which led to the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, also including the English Civil War.

The words of Jenny Geddes were as follows.

“De’il gie ye colic. The wame o’ye, fause thief; daur ye say Mass in ma lug?” meaning “ Devil cause you severe pains in your abdomen, false thief; dare you say the Mass in my ear?”

This was the start of a general riot with much of the congregation shouting abuse and throwing Bibles, Stools, Sticks and Stones.

Jenny is described as one of a number of “waiting women” who were paid to arrive early and sit on their folding stools to hold a place for their patrons. The rioters were ejected by officers, summoned by the Provost, but for the rest of the service, the ones that were ejected, hammered on the doors and threw stones at the windows. More serious rioting took place in the streets of Edinburgh and other cities through-out.

In the aftermath of the riots, definitive evidence is hard to come by, and some doubt if Jenny Geddes started the fight or if she even existed, but she remains a part of Edinburgh tradition and has long had a memorial in St Giles. The sculpture, which was added recently, shows a three-legged cuttie-stool, rather than a folding stool.

Around 1787, Robert Burns named his mare after Jenny Geddes and wrote amusingly of this faithful horse.

Jacobitism was the political movement dedicated to the restoration of the Stuart kings to the thrones of England, Scotland, later the Kingdom of Great Britain and the Kingdom of Ireland. The movement took its name from “Jacobus,” the Latin for James.

Jacobitism was a response to the deposing of James II and VII in 1688 when he was replaced by his daughter Mary II jointly with her husband and first cousin William of Orange. The Stuarts lived on the European mainland after that, occasionally attempting to regain the throne with the aid of France and Spain. The primary seats of Jacobitism were Ireland and Scotland, particularly the Scottish Highlands. In England, Jacobitism was strongest in the north, and some support also existed in Wales.

Many embraced Jacobitism because they believed parliamentary interference with monarchical succession to be illegitimate, and many Catholics hoped the Stuarts would end discriminatory penal laws in England and Ireland. Still other people of various allegiances became involved in the military campaigns for all sort of motives. In Scotland the Jacobite cause became entangled in the last throes of the warrior
clan system, and became a lasting romantic memory, especially for the border clans (Border Reivers).


charles stuart
Bonnie Prince Charlie

In November 1743 King Louis XV of France authorised a large scale invasion of southern England in February 1744. Charles Edward Stuart (later known as Bonnie Prince Charlie or the young pretender) who was in exile in Rome with his father ( James Francis ) was invited to accompany the expedition and rushed to France, but a storm destroyed the attempt. The British lodged strong diplomatic objections to the presence of Charles, and France declared war but abandoned ideas of Jacobite risings and gave Charles no more encouragement.

Early in 1744 a small number of Scottish Highland Clan chiefs sent Charles a message that they would rise if he arrived with as few as 3000 French troops, and even against later calculations from his advisors he was determined not to turn back. He secretly borrowed funds, and made preparations with a consortium of privateers. He set out for Scotland in 22nd June 1745 with two ships, but the larger ship with 700 volunteers from the Irish Brigade and supplies of armaments were forced back. Charles landed with (seven men of Moidart ) on the island of Eriskay in the Outer Hebrides on 23rd July 1745, and though Scottish Clans initially showed little enthusiasm Charles went on to lead the Second Jacobite Rising in his fathers name, taking Perth and Edinburgh almost unopposed.

The small Hanovarian Army in Scotland under Sir John Cope chased round the highlands, and eventually encountered Charles near Edinburgh where they were routed by a surprise attack at the Battle of Prestonpans, as celebrated in the Jacobite song “Hey Johnny Cope are ye waking yet?” There was alarm in England, and in London a patriotic song was performed including the defiant verse:

Lord grant that Marshal Wade
Shall by thy mighty aid
Victory bring
May he sedition hush
And like a torrent rush
Rebellious Scots to crush
God save the King.

This song was widely adopted and was to become the National Anthem ( but never since sung with that verse.)

After Charles held court at Holyrood Palace for five weeks he overcame Lord George Murray’s caution by declaring that he had Tory assurances of an English rising and the Jacobite Army set out for England. Under Murray’s command they successfully manoeuvred past government armies to reach Derby on the 4th Dec, only 125 miles from a panicking London, with a resentful Charles barely on speaking terms with his general. By then Charles was advised of progress on the French invasion fleet which was then assembling at Dunkirk, but at his counsel of war his previous lies about assurances were exposed. The Jacobite General Lord George Murray and the counsel of war insisted on returning to join their growing force in Scotland. On 6th December 1745 they withdrew, with Charles Edward Stuart leaving command to Murray. The Jacobites defeated a Hanovarian British Army of superior numbers at the Battle of Falkirk on 17th January 1746 where they suffered a crushing defeat.

Charles fled to France blaming everything on the treachery of his officers and making a dramatic if humiliating escape disguised as Flora MacDonald’s “Lady’s maid.” Cumberland’s forces crushed the rebellion and effectively ended Jacobitism as a serious political force in Britain but at the cost of abandoning the field in Flanders to France.


culloden illustration 460
The Highland attack on the Grenadier Company of Barrell’s King’s Own Royal Regiment” by David Morier; painted in 1746

The Battle of Culloden was the final confrontation of the 1745 Jacobite rising. This battle took place on the 16th April 1746, the battle pitted the Jacobite forces of Charles Edward Stuart against an army commanded by William Augutus, Duke of Cumberland, loyal to the British government. The Jacobite cause to overthrow the reigning House of Hanover and restore the House of Stuart to the British thrown was dealt a decisive defeat at Culloden. Charles Stuart never mounted any further attempts to challenge Hanovarian power in Britain. The conflict was the last pitched battle on British soil, occurring near Inverness in the Scottish Highlands.

Charles Stuart’s army consisted largely of Scottish Highlanders as well as a number of Border scots and a small detachment of Englishmen from Manchester. The Jacobites were supported and supplied by the Kingdom of France and French and Irish units loyal to France were part of the Jacobite Army. The government force was mostly lowlanders and borderers but also included a few highlanders, a significant number of English, a battalion of Ulstermen and a small number of Hessians and Austrians. Meeting on Culloden Moor, the battle was both quick and bloody, taking place within an hour. Following an unsuccessful Highland charge against the government lines, the Jacobites were routed and driven from the field.

Between 1500/2000 Jacobites were killed or wounded in the brief time while government losses were lighter with 50 dead and 259 wounded. The aftermath of the battle and subsequent crackdown on Jacobitism was brutal, earning Cumberland the title “Butcher .” Efforts were taken to further integrate Scotland into the Kingdom of Britain; civil penalties were introduced to weaken Gaelic Culture and attack the Scottish Clan system. Many Scotsmen from the borders fought and died at Culloden such as Douglas’s, Turnbull’s, Elliot’s, Scott’s and Kerr’s. Life for the Border Clans, after Culloden changed completely.Reiving was no longer a way of life. A lot of border people set out to find a better life in the plantations in Ulster.