The National Covenant was signed on the 28th of February, 1638.
The signing of the National Covenant has been called the “biggest event” in Scottish history; bigger even than the Treaty of Union. In essence the 'Covenant' was a contract with their god, signed by the nobles, gentry, burgesses, clergymen and, indeed, thousands of ordinary Scots, who pledged themselves to defend Scotland’s rights by stating what they would and wouldn't agree to in matters of kirk and state. It’s important to realise that religion figured large in the daily lives of everyone in the 17th Century. That meant every living soul, be (s)he commoner or clergy, (ig)noble or royale. It’s certain that being able to worship in one manner or another assumed far greater importance for even the ordinary citizen in those days than we can today give credit. The Covenant expressly forbade
“idolatry and superstition” – well, they were right about that, but the latter still persists.
The signing of the National Covenant took place at Greyfriars' Kirkyard in Edinburgh, on the last day of February, 1638 and, in the process, kicked off the Fifty Years' Struggle (1638-1688). It should be remembered for a very long time. William Topaz McGonagall didn't write a poem about it, but Robert Burns made a passable attempt at describing it's impact as in this excerpt:
“The Solemn League and Covenant
Now brings a smile, now brings a tear.
But sacred freedom, too, was theirs;
If thou 'rt a slave, indulge thy sneer
On the Solemn League and Covenant.”
Charles I was to blame and we all know he eventually paid the ultimate price for his folly. Ye Jacobites a' should think again about the wrongs imposed upon Scotland's folk by Charlie's descendants. Ye can laud 'Bonnie Dundee' to the heavens, but the actions of your Archbishop Laud and his king, which led to the persecution of your fellow Scots by 'Bluidy Clavers', cannae be praised. Jamie Saxt began the process by insisting on the 'divine right of kings', a belief he drummed into his son; fatally for the wean who grew up to lose his heid, just like his grandmother. Charlie saw himself as the ‘Godly Prince’, the divinely appointed leader of society, but in his attempts to tamper with religion, he alienated two powerful factions in Scotland.
Firstly, there were the Presbyterians, who believed that Jesus Christ, not the King, was the head of the Kirk. Charles played into their hands by demanding the adoption of Episcopacy and governance of the Kirk by bishops. Secondly, Charles also weakened the traditional role of the Scots nobility, by having his Scots bishops heavily involved in Parliament, a process initiated by his dad and which meant they were effectively running Scotland on his behalf. This led to the nobles becoming disaffected and drawing closer to the Presbyterian radicals.
The crunch came in 1637, when Charles insisted, without consultation, on introducing the 'Book of Common Prayer', that ‘blak popish superstitious service booke’, into the Scottish church service. That 'Booke', intended to replace John Knox's Book of Discipline, had a subtitle, which was '[for the] Administration of the Sacraments and other parts of Divine Service for the use of the Church Of Scotland’ and it had been devised by the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud. When, on 23rd July, 1637, the new liturgy, which many Scots believed to be more Catholic than Protestant, hence the invective, was ordered to be read in the Church of St. Giles in Edinburgh, it effectively incited a revolution. Tradition has it that when the new service was read on what became known as 'The Stoneyfeild Saboth Day', one worshipper, Jenny Geddes, stood up and threw her stool at the Dean's head shouting out “Wha daur say mass in ma lug.” James Hanna's congregation erupted and the service had to be abandoned.
Directly or indirectly, those events led to the emergence of the National Covenant. Sponsored by the Lords Loudoun, Rothes, Balmerino and Lindsay, the 'Covenant' was drawn up by the clergyman, Alexander Henderson, and the lawyer, Archibald Johnston of Warriston (Wariston). Based upon the Confession of Faith signed by, believe it or not, James VI, in 1581, the 'Covenant' called for adherence to doctrines already enshrined by Acts of Parliament and for a rejection of untried “innovations” in religion. Although it emphasised Scotland's loyalty to the King, the Covenant also implied that any moves towards Catholicism or its emulation, would not be tolerated. In addition, the Covenant demanded a free Scottish Parliament and a free General Assembly. Specifically, it demanded the abolition of bishops, who had served the King in matters of kirk and state and, in effect, it limited the power of the King by inflating the role of Scotland’s nobles and kirk. The medieval order of divinely appointed Kings was almost over.
Backed by the nobility and gentry, this was essentially an anti-papist declaration and 60,000 common folk gathered to sign the documents, which had been placed on public display in Greyfriars' Kirk. Other copies were taken throughout the country for further signatures, bringing the Scottish Kirk into direct conflict with the the King and the rule of law. It caught the public mood of the country and others copied the example to become 'Covenanters'. As support grew, the meaning changed to become a byword for political and religious freedom. Charles I considered it treason and overreacted in predictably draconian fashion. Incidentally, an earlier Graham, the then Earl (later 1st Marquis/Marquess) of Montrose, who, in a somewhat contradictory manner, later became Charles' champion in Scotland, also became active in the revolt against Laud’s prayer book. Montrose signed the National Covenant, in the February of 1638, but contrary to popular opinion, he was not the first to sign. Montrose did, however, play a part in the document's construction.
In 1643, during the English Civil War, the objectives of the Covenant were incorporated into the Solemn League and Covenant, which secured a military alliance between the English Parliament and the Scottish Covenanters against the Royalists. This alliance was instrumental in bringing about the defeat of the King's cause in the First Civil War. However, it was to be short-lived as Cromwell died in 1658 and in May, 1660, Charles' son, Charles II was fully restored to the throne. He soon passed an act, which enforced the people to recognise him as the supreme authority in matters both civil and ecclesiastical. The Church of Scotland rejected this and was thrown into the furnace of persecution for twenty eight long years, until 1688.