The origins of the wars of the three kingdoms
The origins of the wars of the three kingdoms

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The origins of the wars of the three kingdoms

3.5 Scotland, the prayer book and the bishops’ wars

James VI had managed to make himself the most powerful king of Scotland since Robert the Bruce. He replaced the medieval idea of personal monarchy with the divine right of kings and bought the acquiescence of his more powerful subjects with grants of former church lands. James's accession to the English throne in 1603 did not diminish his power in Scotland, but Charles, succeeding to the throne in 1625, cared little for his northern kingdom and left its government to other bodies: the Privy Council in Edinburgh, comprising prominent laymen and lawyers and Scottish bishops (whose ecclesiastical powers were much less than those of English bishops); royal officials and judges; and the unicameral Scottish parliament (see Figure 2). Parliament met for the first time in Charles's reign when he visited the country in 1633 for his coronation. He had already ruffled feathers in 1625 when, to improve church revenues, he had attempted to recover church lands granted to laymen, chiefly members of the Scottish nobility. In 1632, he commissioned a new building to provide a permanent home for the Scottish parliament and for the court of session (Figure 2). The following year (1633) he visited Scotland for his coronation and insisted that the English Book of Common Prayer be used instead of the Book of Common Order used in Scotland since the Reformation. He also asked the Scottish bishops to draw up a new liturgy based on that used in England.

Figure 2
James Gordon of Rothiemay/F. de Wit, The Parliament House, Edinburgh (designed by Sir James Murray of Killaberton), c. 1646, engraving. Photo: Reproduced courtesy of RCAHMS.
Figure 2 James Gordon of Rothiemay/F. de Wit, The Parliament House, Edinburgh (designed by Sir James Murray of Killaberton), c. 1646, engraving. Photo: Reproduced courtesy of the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical of Scotland

Charles's desire, supported by Archbishop Laud, to impose greater religious uniformity between England and Scotland was prefigured in his father's attempts to give bishops in the Church of Scotland greater powers (there were no claims to apostolic succession as there were in England – bishops were seen as senior royal officials). The measure embodying this, the Five Articles of Perth (1618), required that the congregation receive the sacraments kneeling (we have already seen that this was a contentious matter in England), and was met with great opposition. A minister wrote in 1619 ‘every honest minister in all our east parts will rather leave their ministry or they yield one jot to the bishops’ (Foster, 1975, p. 187). And the governing body of the Church of Scotland, the General Assembly of the Kirk, was given no opportunity to comment. In 1636, new church canons were published incorporating the Five Articles of Perth as well as elements of the English canons of 1604 and requiring the use of the liturgy still being composed by the Scottish bishops.

This new liturgy, published in 1637, was an amalgam of Scottish and English practice and was prefaced with a royal proclamation commanding its use. It provided for the communion table to be set altar-wise with its back to the east wall; the universal Scottish practice had been for communicants to sit on forms around the communion table and for communion to be administered no more than once a year after considerable preparation of fasting, sermons and examination of communicants. At its first major public airing, at St Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh on 23 July 1637, a riot broke out (see Figure 3). This was described by Henry Guthrie, a Church of Scotland minister:

No sooner was the service begun, but a multitude of wives and serving women in the several churches, rose in a tumultuous way, and having prefaced awhile with despiteful [contemptuous] exclamations, threw the stools they sat on at the preachers and thereafter invaded them more nearly, and strove to pull them from their pulpits, whereby they had much ado to escape their hands, and retire to their houses. And for the bishop (against whom their wrath was most bent) the magistrates found difficulty enough to rescue him.

(Fyfe, 1928, p. 137)
Figure 3
Figure 3 Jenny Geddes’ Stool, St Giles, 1882, engraving, from James Grant, Cassell's Old and New Edinburgh, vol. 1 London, Cassell, Petter, Galpin & Co., 1882, p. 146. Geddes, a poor market woman, allegedly initiated the stool throwing in St Giles's cathedral, but the first reference to her participation dates from 1670

More significant was the large number of petitions against the new liturgy and against ‘the pride and avarice of the prelates seeking to overrule the whole kingdom’ (Donaldson, 1978, p. 311). There followed a period of riots and disturbances in Edinburgh interspersed with royal proclamations against the petitioners, while the Scottish Privy Council tried to maintain order despite popular demands for the removal of bishops from the council. In November 1637, the petitioners elected their own delegates and forced the Privy Council to recognise them as a body with whom to negotiate.

Box 7 Archibald Johnston of Wariston

Archibald Johnston of Wariston (1611–1663) was lawyer, clerk of the General Assembly of 1638, a leading Covenanter and judge. He rejected the Engagement between the Scots and the king of 1647 and reluctantly accepted office during the Cromwellian occupation of Scotland in the 1650s. After the restoration of Charles II in 1660, he was sentenced to death and hanged for his part in the opposition to the king.

Meanwhile, Alexander Henderson and Archibald Johnston of Wariston, respectively a minister and lawyer, drew up a National Covenant stating that changes in the church required the approval of the General Assembly of the Kirk and parliament, and could not simply be decreed by the king; it said nothing about what innovations were acceptable. In February 1638, residents of Edinburgh signed it; it was then circulated to every burgh and parish for subscription and note was taken of anyone who refused to sign. In response, the king appointed the Marquis of Hamilton to negotiate with the Covenanters but only to allow a General Assembly of the Kirk and a meeting of parliament if the Covenant was repudiated. By this time most nobles and lawyers had signed the Covenant and had already started to make military preparations. In September 1638, the king agreed to revoke the new prayer book and canons and to call a General Assembly in Glasgow in November 1638, the first to meet since 1618. The General Assembly pronounced on both the prayer book and the canons.

Activity 6 (optional)

Timing: 0 hours 15 minutes

Read ‘The National Covenant, 1638’, and ‘Acts of the General Assembly at Glasgow, 1638’ (from the Rachel Gibbons book referred to in the Introduction to this course). What differences do you notice between the two document extracts?


The extract from the Covenant is concerned with securing as wide agreement as ‘possible that ecclesiastical innovations must be approved by ‘free assemblies’ and parliaments. Note the profession of obedience to religion and the desire not to diminish the king's authority. The General Assembly, by contrast, not only condemned the innovations and those who promulgated them [‘pretended prelates’ refers to the bishops; ‘pretended’ here means so-called rather than false], but threatened penalties against anyone using the new prayer book, so abhorrent were the doctrines it contained. It asserted the supreme jurisdiction of the General Assembly over any changes in the Church of Scotland and simply abolished bishops.

The radical steps taken by the General Assembly led to the Marquis of Hamilton, the king's commissioner, trying to dissolve the meeting, but defiantly it sat on. Meanwhile, the Covenanters, who now included a number of aristocrats who had served in continental armies fighting the Thirty Years War, carried on arming. In March 1639, the king set forth for Scotland with an ill-equipped and poorly disciplined army, with the promise of troops to be sent from Ireland by Wentworth. Those Scots who had rallied to him (some of the Scottish nobility and many Highlanders, for example), rather than joining the Covenanters, had more success than the English forces, but not enough to prevent the English from being turned back at Berwick-on-Tweed by the Covenanting army under General Alexander Leslie. The agreement made at Berwick to end this First Bishops’ War (more of a truce than a peace treaty since there had been no military engagement) required both sides to disband their armies while the king undertook to come to Scotland for meetings of parliament and the General Assembly of the Kirk.

Box 8 Alexander Leslie

Alexander Leslie (?1580–1661) had served with English forces in the Netherlands and as marshal in the Swedish forces in Germany. Returning to Scotland in August 1638, he led the Covenanting army in the First and Second Bishops' Wars, and the Scots army that joined the parliamentary forces in 1644. When the Scots declared for the king in 1647, Leslie (now Lord Leven) was relieved of his command. He reluctantly led a Scots army against Cromwell and was defeated at Dunbar (1650). He was held prisoner for a time in London, but was released and spent the rest of the Interregnum at home in Fife.

It soon became apparent that neither side was sincere. The Covenanters did not disband their army and Charles insisted on the inclusion of bishops in the forthcoming General Assembly. In August 1639, despite the fact that the king had returned to London, a new General Assembly met in Edinburgh, re-enacted the acts of the Glasgow Assembly and declared bishops not merely to be contrary to the laws of the church, but contrary to the law of God (a direct challenge to the king who appointed them). The parliament that met in Edinburgh later in the month confirmed the General Assembly's acts and, when the king ordered its prorogation, argued that it could not be prorogued without its own consent. It did, however, cease meeting and appointed representatives to carry on business until it should next meet.

The king was taken up with matters in England while the Covenanters mustered their forces and, in August 1640, the Scots army crossed the River Tweed and headed towards Newcastle. The English army was commanded by the Earl of Northumberland, Lord High Admiral of England, a man with little naval expertise let alone the military experience of the Scots Thirty Years War veterans. Violent scenes took place between his mutinous troops and English civilians. The English forces were routed at Newburn, while citizens of nearby Newcastle (who had already displayed their opposition to the king's policies) welcomed the Scots army. Even the citizens of London greeted the Scots’ victory with joy. The king's forces in Scotland proved unable to defend Edinburgh, and in October 1640 negotiations between king and Covenanters opened in Ripon, Yorkshire. The settlement they agreed required the king to pay the Scots army £850 a day as long as it remained on English soil, a sum which Charles certainly could not find from his ordinary revenues.

Activity 7

Think now about these events in the light of our themes: state formation and beliefs and ideologies. It has been suggested that Scotland could not claim to be a fully fledged state, but the actions of the Scots suggest that they regarded themselves as sovereign over such matters as the control of the church. Were ideas about the state driving religious changes or was religion the motive for demands about secular power?

Spend just a few minutes on this exercise.


It is very hard to say which came first. Charles felt entitled to govern the Scottish church without either the intervention of the ecclesiastical power (the General Assembly) or the secular power (the Scottish parliament). For many Scots, however, especially the most ardent supporters of the Covenant, the idea of the church being governed by a secular power was abhorrent (hence the declaration that bishops, appointed by the king, were against the law of God). For them, the proper government of the church was through the Presbyterian parish assemblies representing the sum of believers. But this was not a democratic ideology, it was a theocratic one.


Apart from the difficulty of disentangling religious and secular motivations, we might want to ask whether the First and Second Bishops’ Wars could be construed as wars of self-determination. They were certainly inspired by a violent reaction against the imposition of English religious innovations. The Scots then limited the king's power by statute, placing him under the law. So the National Covenant is sometimes regarded as a nationalist declaration, for the movement it inspired was not solely religious.


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