The Covenanters form 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 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" is dated December 1557; but more important is the covenant of 1581, drawn up by John Craig 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 enjoined on persons of all ranks and classes, and was again subscribed in 1590 and 1596.

Upheaval and the Wars of the Three Kingdoms

In 1637, Scotland was in a state of turmoil. King Charles I and William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury, met with a reverse in their efforts 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 its use was orchestrated in St. Giles' Cathedral, Edinburgh, ostensibly started by Jenny Geddes. Fearing further measures on the part of the king, it occurred to Archibald Johnston (Lord Warriston) to revive the National Covenant of 1581.

Additional matter intended to suit the document to the special circumstances of the time was added, and the covenant was adopted and signed by a large gathering in the kirkyard of Greyfriars Kirk in Edinburgh, on 28 February 1638, after which copies were sent throughout the country for additional signatures. The subscribers engaged by oath to maintain religion in the state in which it existed in 1580, and to reject all innovations introduced since that time, while professed expressions of loyalty to the king were added. The year 1638 marked an apex of events for the Covenanters, for it was the time of broad confrontations with the established church backed by the monarchy. Confrontations occurred in several parts of Scotland, such as the one with the Bishops of Aberdeen by a high level assembly of Covenanters staging their operations from Muchalls Castle. The General Assembly of 1638 was composed of ardent Covenanters, and in 1640 the covenant was adopted by the Scottish Parliament, and its subscription was required from all citizens. Before this date, the Covenanters were usually referred to as Supplicants, but from about this time the former designation began to prevail. The Covenanters raised an army to resist Charles I's religious reforms, and defeated him in the Bishops Wars. The crisis this caused the Stuart monarchy helped to spark the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, which included the English Civil War, the Scottish Civil War and Irish Confederate Wars.

For the following ten years of civil war in Britain, the Covenanters were the de facto government of Scotland. In 1642, the Covenanters sent an army to Ulster in Ireland to protect the Scottish settlers there from the Irish Catholic rebels who had attacked them after the Irish Rebellion of 1641. The Scottish army remained in Ireland until the end of the civil wars, but was confined to its garrison around Carrickfergus after its defeat at the Battle of Benburb in 1646.

A further Covenanter military intervention began in 1643. The leaders of the English parliament, worsted in the English Civil War, implored the aid of the Scots, which was promised on condition that the Scottish system of church government was adopted in England. After some haggling, a document called the "Solemn League and Covenant" was drawn up. This was practically a treaty between England and Scotland for the preservation of the reformed religion in Scotland, the reformation of religion in England and Ireland "according to the word of God and the example of the best reformed churches" and the extirpation of popery and prelacy. It did not explicitly mention Presbyterianism, and included some ambiguous formulations that left the door open to independence. It was subscribed by many in both kingdoms and also in Ireland, and was approved by the English parliament, and with some slight modifications by the Westminster Assembly of Divines. This agreement meant that the Covenanters sent another army south to England to fight on the Parliamentarian side in the First English Civil War. The Scottish armies in England were instrumental in bringing about the victory of the English Parliament over the King.

In turn, this sparked the outbreak of the Scottish Civil War of 1644–1647, as Scottish Royalist opponents of the Covenanters took up arms against them. Royalism was most common among Scottish Roman Catholics and Episcopalians, who were opposed to the Covenanters' imposition of their religious settlement on the country. The covenanters' enemies, led by James Graham, 1st Marquess of Montrose, were aided by an Irish expeditionary force and Highland clans led by Alasdair MacColla and won a series of victories over hastily raised Covenanter forces in 1644-45. However, the Scottish Royalists were ultimately defeated in September 1645, at the Battle of Philiphaugh, near Selkirk. The disaster at Philiphaugh was largely due to their own disunity and the return of the main Covenanter armies from England. The Scottish Civil War was a bitter episode in Scottish history, exposing the religious divisions between Presbyterians, Episcopalians and Catholics, political divisions between Royalists and Covenanters and cultural divisions between the Highlands and the Lowlands.

The end of the first civil wars in Scotland and England left the Covenanters hopeful that their Solemn League and Covenant would be implemented in the Three Kingdoms. However, Charles I refused to accept it when he surrendered himself to the Scots in 1646. He was taken to Newcastle, where several attempts were made to persuade him to take the Covenants. When this failed, he was handed over to the commissioners of Parliament in early 1647. However, many Covenanters, led by James Hamilton, were suspicious of their English allies' intentions and opened secret negotiations with Charles I. He made important concessions to them in the "Engagement" made with the Scots in December 1647. This was rejected by the militant Covenanters known as the Kirk Party, who wanted the King to endorse their agenda explicitly before an alliance could be reached. A Scottish army invaded England in support of the Engagement, but was routed at the Battle of Preston (1648), leaving the Kirk Party in the ascendant. The Westminster Confession of Faith which had been submitted for ratification in 1646 was in part adopted by act of the English parliament in 1648 as the Articles of Christian Religion, and ratified without amendment by the Scottish parliament in 1649.

The Covenanters' insistence on dictating the future of both Scotland and England eventually led to all-out war with their erstwhile allies, the English Parliament, and to the Scots signing an alliance with Charles II known as the Treaty of Breda (1650). Charles II, before landing in Scotland in June 1650, declared by a solemn oath his approbation of both covenants, and this was renewed on the occasion of his coronation at Scone in the following January.

However, the Covenanters were utterly defeated in the 1650–52 by the forces of the English Parliament under Oliver Cromwell. Scotland was occupied by the New Model Army and the Covenanters were sidelined. From 1638 to 1651 the Covenanters, led by Archibald Campbell, 1st Marquess of Argyll, had been the dominant party in Scotland, directing her policy both at home and abroad. Their power, however, which had been seriously weakened by Cromwell's victory at Dunbar in September 1650, was practically destroyed after the Battle of Worcester and the English occupation of Scotland. Under Cromwell's Commonwealth, Scotland was annexed by England and the General Assembly of the Kirk lost all civil power.

Restoration and the "Killing Time"

Worse was to come for the Covenanters when Charles II was restored nine years later. Firmly seated upon the throne, Charles renounced the covenants, which in 1662 were declared unlawful oaths, and were to be abjured by all persons holding public offices. Argyll himself was executed for treason, episcopacy was restored, James Sharp was appointed Archbishop of St Andrews and Primate of Scotland, the court of high commission was revived, and ministers who refused to recognize the authority of the bishops were expelled from their livings. Archbishop Sharp survived an assassination attempt in 1668 only to be killed by another group of Covenanters in 1679.

Following the restoration of Episcopacy rebel ministers began to preach at secret 'conventicles' in the fields, as a period of persecution began. Oppressive measures against these illegal field assemblies where attendance was made a capital offence[1] led to an outbreak of armed rebellion in 1666, sparked off in Galloway. Advancing from the west towards Edinburgh, a small force of badly armed covenanters was defeated at the Battle of Rullion Green in the Pentland Hills, a location which caused the whole tragic episode to be named – incorrectly – as the Pentland Rising. As well as repression, James issued a series of Letters of Indulgence allowing such "ousted ministers as had lived peaceably and orderly to return to their livings".[2] This succeeded in luring many ministers away from the struggle, but those remaining became more determined. To quell unrest in south west Scotland, the government brought in 9,000 Highland soldiers, an "inhumane and barbarous" "Highland host" quartered on suspected Covenanters, and accused of many atrocities.[1] A further rebellion broke out in 1679, after the unexpected success of a group of covenanters, armed with pitch forks and the like, against government forces led by John Graham of Claverhouse at the battle of Drumclog. For a time the authorities looked in danger of losing control of the south-west of Scotland, as more and more people joined the rebel camp at Bothwell near Glasgow; but only a few weeks after Drumclog the rebels were defeated at the battle of Bothwell Brig. In the weeks before the battle the Covenanters spent more time arguing among themselves than preparing for the inevitable counter-stroke, which did much to contribute towards their downfall. Of 1,200 captured rebels taken to Edinburgh, some 400 were imprisoned in Greyfriars Kirkyard over the winter months.[3]

Inevitably the government behaved harshly at first towards some of those caught in arms. On the initiative of James, Duke of Monmouth, who led the king's army to victory at Bothwell, a more conciliatory policy was followed for a time, though this met with limited success.

Through the period of repression the Covenanters held their convictions with a zeal that persecution only intensified. For them it was a matter of belief. For the government, in contast, the whole conventicle movement was seen as a problem of public order, which they attempted to deal with often using very inadequate resources. However, after the collapse of the 1679 rebellion a more dangerous element entered into the whole equation.

In 1680 a more extreme mood appeared among sections of the Covenanter underground, which found expression in a document known as the Sanquhar Declaration. This was the manifesto of the followers of the Reverend Richard Cameron, soon to be know as the Cameronians. Hitherto, many in the Covenanter underground maintained an outward loyalty to the king, despite their opposition to the religious policy of his government. But the Cameronians took matters to a new height, renouncing their allegiance to Charles and denouncing his brother, James, as a papist. One extreme position inevitably led to another: the government in attempting to stamp out sedition authorized field executions without trial. This was the beginning of what Robert Wodrow later called the Killing Time. Although this period was to become an important part of Covenanter martyrology, it was far less ferocious than the name implies. Cameron himself was killed in a clash with government forces in July 1680, but his followers, now a tiny part of the Covenanter movement, continued to exist up to the "Glorious Revolution" of 1688. When William of Orange summoned a Convention of the Estates which met on 14 March 1689 in Edinburgh to consider whether Scotland should recognise him or James, forces of Cameronians arrived to bolster William's support. In the subsequent Jacobite Rising, the Cameronian Guard helped to defeat the Jacobite Highlanders led by Claverhouse, particularly at the Battle of Dunkeld. Although the Cameronians had helped to defend the Revolution, they were disappointed that their intolerant religious standard was not adopted by the new government. For some of them even William of Orange was an "uncovenanted" King, and a small number of ministers formed the United Societies refusing to recognise the "usurped" established Church of Scotland.[4]

Martyrs and memorials

Though the rebellion had ended and a newfound Presbyterian tolerance for other faiths had been suggested by thanks given for James's Indulgence of 1687, for allowing all "to serve God after their own way and manner",[2] memories were now kept alive by monuments and tombstones at the many martyr graves across the south of Scotland, particularly the south west. "For the word of God and Scotland's work of Reformation. Scotland's heritage comes at a price which invokes our greatest heart felt thanks for the lives sacrificed on the anvil of persecution, when innocent blood stained the heather on our moors and ran down the gutters of our streets with sorrow and sighing beyond contemplation". Tombs are scattered around the moors and monuments were added later, for "If the authorities learnt that a murdered Covenanter had been given a decent burial, their bodies were usually disinterred and buried in places reserved in places for thieves and malcontents. Quite often the corpse was hanged or beheaded first", and burying the body in the Kirkyard could result in another punitive death.[1] In 1707 a monument to the Covenanters' open air prison was erected at Greyfriars Kirkyard in Edinburgh.[3]

The History of the Sufferings of the Church of Scotland from the Restoration to the Revolution by Robert Wodrow, published in 1721-1722, produced a detailed record and denounced the persecution of the Covenanters. This martyrology would be brought forward again when the Church of Scotland seemed to be suffering, as at the Disruption of 1843.[5]

The United Societies continued without preaching, sacraments or government until they were joined by one ordained minister in 1706, then in 1743 the Reformed Presbytery was organised. Covenanters fleeing persecution had set up churches in Ireland and North America and numerous minor denominations were founded, including the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America.[4]

More recently the Covenanters have been portrayed by some historians as an early revolutionary movement, and the Cameronians as founding an internationalist radical left-wing tradition, with the result of a political storm in the Scottish Socialist Party.[6]

From a religious perspective, "The king had been defeated in his attempt to dictate the religion of his subjects; Presbyterianism became the established religion. But it had been equally proved that the subjugation of the State to the Church, the supremacy, political as well as ecclesiastical, of the Kirk, was an impossibility. In this the Covenants had failed."[2] While the exploits and their sufferings of these martyrs in the cause of religious dissent and scripture as the sole "infallible rule of faith and practice" are still remembered, often in a romantic light, their aim of denying the religious freedom they sought for themselves to other denominations still remains in their terms of ministerial and Christian communion which include "An approbation of the faithful contendings of the martyrs of Jesus, especially in Scotland, against Paganism, Popery, Prelacy, Malignancy and Sectarianism".[4]


  • Buckroyd, J. Church and State in Scotland, 1660-1681. 1980
  • Cowan, E. J. The Solemn League and Covenant, in Scotland and England, 1286-1815, ed. R. A. Mason, 1987.
  • Cowan, I. B. The Covenanters: a Revision Article'' in The Scottish Historical Review, vol. 28, pp43-54, 1949.
  • Cowan, I. B. The Scottish Covenanters, 1660-1688, 1976
  • Donaldson, G. Scotland from James V to James VII, 1965
  • Fissel, M. C. The Bishops' Wars. Charles I's Campaigns against Scotland, 1638-1640, 1994
  • Hewison, J. K. The Covenanters, 2 vols. 1913.
  • Kiernan, V. G. A Banner with a Strange Device: the Later Covenanters, in History from Below, ed. K. Frantz, 1988.
  • Mathieson, W. L. Politics and Religon: a Study in Scottish History from the Reformation to the Revolution, 2 vols, 1902.
  • Stevenson, D. The Scottish Revolution, 1637-1644, 1973.
  • Terry, C. S. The Pentland Rising and Rullion Green, 1905.
  • Wodrow, R. The History of the Sufferings of the Church of Scotland from the Restoration to the Revolution, reissued as 4 vols., 1828-1830
  1. ^ a b c The Covenanters, The Fifty Years Struggle 1638-1688
  2. ^ a b c Covenanters The Catholic Encyclopedia
  3. ^ a b Greyfriars Kirkyard, Edinburgh
  4. ^ a b c Who are the Covenanted Reformed Presbyterian Church?
  5. ^ Wodrow, Robert - ScotlandsPeople
Preceded by:
Charles I
as King
De Facto Government of Scotland
Succeeded by:
Commonwealth of England

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