The Covenanting Wars 'The Killing Time'

The Covenanters were ardent supporters of the Presbyterian Church, their faith being based on the teachings of John Calvin and John Knox. Their name comes from the National Covenant of 1638, an oath to resist the attempts by Charles I to introduce a new Prayer Book in Scotland. It was an opposition that would eventually lead to 18,000 of them losing their lives in a bloody struggle and the Presbyterian Church becoming the official religion of Scotland.

The Church had remained through most of the Middle Ages the central focus of people's lives. Not only promoting the Christian faith, it also supported the poor and punished wrongdoers. By the start of the fifteenth century however it had become corrupt, taking bribes to cover up misdeeds or to confer powerful ecclesiastical positions upon members of already powerful families.

These abuses deepened until Martin Luther, a German Augustinian monk, nailed a 'Protest' to the church door in Wittenberg in 1517. This was the start of the Protestant movement which rapidly spread across Europe and would in 1560 be declared the official religion of Scotland. Its main aims were to return the Church to its core values, to distance it from the greed and degradation that it had become known for and to allow ordinary people to read the Bible and attend services in their own language rather than in Latin. Within Scotland there was still tremendous resistance from some quarters towards the new religion. People started taking sides; Mary of Guise, the Scottish regent, along with her supporters were Catholic and still held true to the 'Auld Alliance' and looked towards France for support. The Protestants reluctantly tried to counter this by allying themselves with Scotland's 'Auld Enemy' - England - and seeking the support of Henry VIII who had no love for the Pope.

Enter John Knox, a Protestant preacher. John Knox became a skilled speaker, promoting the reformation doctrines of the new faith. He had studied in Geneva under the French reformer John Calvin and offered a church administered by courts instead of being ruled by often corrupt Bishops. He became a focus for Protestants and viciously defended their beliefs against Mary Queen of Scots who tried to enforce her Catholic faith in Scotland when she returned from France in 1561. What followed were several troubled periods as religious differences were contested between the monarchy and its people until 1610, when Presbyterian rule was brought to an end by James VI. James had inherited both the Crown of Scotland and that of England and established Episcopacy as the religion across both countries. James, 'The Wisest Fool in Christendom', was yet clever enough not to enforce this too strictly and for a time people were able to worship, more or less, whatever way they liked

James VI died in 1625 and his son, Charles I, did not have the tact of his father nor did he understand the Scottish people, having grown up in England. Charles tried to rigidly enforce the change to Episcopacy and promoted many Catholics to positions of high status. The Scots people now feared a return to the abuses of the Catholic Church and in 1638 the King's attempt to introduce a new Prayer Book was the last straw. Many Scots, rich and poor, gathered in Greyfriars Kirkyard in Edinburgh to sign a 'National Covenant' and to swear to 'Defend the true religion and recover the purity and liberty of the Gospel'. These 'Covenanters' gathered strength and a few months later at a General Assembly in Glasgow, they deposed the Bishops appointed by the crown and swept away Episcopacy.

The Scottish Covenanters, in 1643, also signed the 'Solemn League and Covenant', promising to send an army into England to aid the Parliamentary forces against the King. The Parliament, for their part in the bargain, promised to establish the Presbyterian Church, not only in Scotland, but throughout England and Ireland as well. It was the Scottish army which Charles I surrendered to and which was ultimately responsible for handing him over to Cromwell, who had him executed. Cromwell's Parliament did not keep their promise to the Covenanters, who were later to defy him by restoring the late King's heir, Charles II, to the throne.

Despite this, Charles II also had no intention of observing the Covenant. He removed the right of Scottish congregations to appoint their own ministers and restored the hated Bishops. Many ministers (most of whom were from south-west Scotland), rather than give in, chose to leave their parishes and assume the role of outlaws, preaching where they could and holding illegal meetings called 'conventicles', in the hills under constant threat of fines and attack by Government Dragoons. This caused them to take up arms in defiance and resulted in some of the bloodiest events in Scottish history; it came to be referred to as 'The Killing Time'.

In 1665 General Thomas Dalziel of Binns was despatched by the King to suppress the unrest in south-west Scotland and he did so with breathtaking brutality. He based himself for a while at Dean Castle and the area suffered several atrocities. In 1666, thirty Covenanters were hanged and hundreds more were deported to Barbados to work as slave labour on the sugar plantations. The brutal 'pacification' of the Covenanters continued, but in 1679 they still managed to win a victory over Government forces at Drumclog, near Loudoun Hill, and hold Glasgow for a few days before being completely defeated at the Battle of Bothwell Brig by the Duke of Monmouth. Several men captured at Bothwell Brig were held for a while in the dungeon at Dean Castle before being deported; their ship sank drowning all but one of them. Also captured after the battle was John Nisbet of Loudoun; after his arrest he was put on trial in Kilmarnock and sentenced to death. Instead of executing him in Edinburgh, it was decided to hang him in front of the local townspeople as an example. As always, this type of spectacle which was meant to sap the will out of would-be rebels had the opposite effect. He was buried in the Laigh Kirkyard, but his body was dug up and moved to the criminals' graveyard at Gallows Knowe. It was removed the same night by furious locals, who reburied it in its original grave in the Laigh Kirkyard, leaving the grave under armed guard in case the authorities tried to move it again. Their resistance continued. In 1680, another local man, Richard Cameron, defied Charles by delivering a proclamation in Sanquhar, Dumfriesshire - declaring war on the King. He was killed by a division of Dragoons at a skirmish at Airds Moss, near Cumnock.

James VII, brother of Charles II who succeeded him in 1685, declared this continued opposition to the Church and attending conventicles treasonable. Another Covenanter uprising led by the Earl of Argyll failed completely. Things changed, however, in 1688 with the arrival of the Protestant William III (William of Orange) in Britain. His army forced James II to flee the country; he restored the Presbyterian Church and ended the persecution of the Scottish rebels. One of the Scottish regiments which fought for William III was the Cameronians who had taken their name from the fallen Covenanter hero, Richard Cameron.

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