On 28 February 1638, a large group gathered in the kirkyard of Greyfriars Kirk in Edinburgh to rally against English influence and protect their faith. This group was made up of Scottish Presbyterians intent on preventing King Charles I and his government from dictating how they worshiped. Together they signed a document known as the ‘National Covenant’ which was then sent around the country to be signed by their fellow Presbyterians. Those who singed came to be known as the Covenanters and their symbolic act of defiance would have tragic consequences that sent shock-waves through Scotland, England and Ireland.

The names of these brave individuals are recorded in the recently released Scottish Covenanters 1679-1688. This fascinating document contains over 81,000 transcripts listing the details of those who signed the document, created using sources held by The National Archives and the National Library of Scotland. Transcripts include the Covenanter’s name, county, a description (often their occupation or relatives) and place. Transcripts also include the original document’s source and archive reference.

At the time the movement began, Scotland was in a state of turmoil. King Charles I and William Laud, the Archbishop of Canterbury, had just attempted to impose a liturgy on the Scots by forcefully introducing the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. This new liturgy was very similar to that of the Church of England and had not been approved by the Scottish National General Assembly. It was violently rejected by the Scots and Charles declared that any opposition would be considered treason. Many Scottish Ministers walked out of their churches in protest.

Title page of the Book of Common Prayer

The new liturgy had been devised by a panel of Scottish bishops, including Archbishop Spottiswoode of St. Andrews and its arrival caused a riot in St Giles' Cathedral, Edinburgh. The riot was triggered by a market trader named Jenny Geddes who allegedly who threw her stool at the Cathedral’s Dean, causing a tumult that spilled out into the streets and eventually other cities. This simple act of protest has been claimed by many to have sparked the Wars of the Three Kingdoms.

Engraving of one of the numerous riots triggered by the introduction of the Anglican Common Book of Prayer

Fearing further measures on the part of the King, a Scottish Lord named Archibald Johnston (Lord Warriston) decided to revive an earlier petition known as the Negative Confession that had originally been drafted in 1581 to resist the influence of Roman Catholics on the young king James VI. With the help of Scottish theologian Alexander Henderson, Archibald revised the document to suit the times and had it finalized in early 1638.

Those who singed pledged and an oath to maintain religion in the form that it existed in 1580, and to reject all innovations introduced since that time, while also professing loyalty to the King. This led to broad confrontations with the established church in several parts of Scotland.

The Covenant publicised in England

The General Assembly of 1638 was composed of ardent Covenanters. In 1640 the Covenant was adopted by the Scottish parliament and its subscription was made a requirement for all citizens. The Covenanters then raised an army to resist Charles I's religious reforms and eventually defeated him in the Bishops' Wars. This severely weakened the Stuart monarchy and helped set the stage for the English Civil War, the Scottish Civil War and Irish Confederate Wars.

When the Civil War broke out in England in 1642 the Covenanters allied themselves with Oliver Cromwell.  However, many Covenanters were suspicious of their English allies' intentions and began secret negotiations with the King. Charles made important concessions in an agreement known as the "Engagement" and the Covenanters sent an army to invaded England. The army was routed at the Battle of Preston and the Covenanters' insistence on dictating the future of both Scotland and England eventually led to all-out war with the English Parliament. The Covenanters then forged an alliance with Charles II known as the Treaty of Breda, but were seriously weakened by Cromwell's victory at Dunbar in September 1650. They were practically destroyed following the Battle of Worcester and the English occupied Lowland Scotland and forced the country into a temporary union, stripping the General Assembly of the Kirk lost all civil power.

Cromwell at Dunbar

Worse was to come when Charles II was restored in 1660. He completely disregarded his earlier promises, renounced the Covenanters and executed the leader, Archibald Campbell, 1st Marquess of Argyll. Between 1660 and 1688, covenanters were hunted down, tortured and executed.  18,000 Scots who would not compromise their beliefs suffered during this dark period of Scottish History which is now remembered as ‘The Killing Times’. Presbyterian ministers were forced to preach at conventicles, secret open air meetings in secluded parts of the countryside and faced certain death if they were caught. Those who were not executed were be imprisoned or could be banished to the American colonies.

The names of those who were not attending the established Episcopalian Church were given to the Royalists. They were heavily fined, questioned and even tortured. Battles between the covenanters and the Royalists occurred at Rullion Green 1666, Drumclog 1679 and Bothwell Brig. They were fighting not only for their religious freedom, but also for their lives and their freedom of speech. After the Battle of Bothwell Brig, 1,400 covenanters survived and were imprisoned at Greyfriars Kirk. Many of whom died of suffocation, starvation or exposure.