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The First Bishops' War

Updated Sunday 7th January 2001

Not going the King's way: Charles faced a setback in the First Bishops' War

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Charles moved fast to contain the rebels. He urged his supporters in the north-east of Scotland, led by the Gordon clan in Aberdeen, to rise in arms. Far more dangerously, he authorised Randall MacDonnell, Earl of Antrim, to raise an army of 5,000 from among his Irish and Scottish dependants to attack Argyll in his Western Highland strongholds.

Antrim was the chieftan of the Campbells' greatest foes, the MacDonald clan. A favourite of the Court, he was handsome, frivolous and determined to roll back the successes of the Campbells. He was also full of himself and could never hope to realise his grandiose plans. But Charles was unleashing the potential for a full clan war between the Campbells and the MacDonalds. The third element of the battle plan was for his agent in Scotland, the Marquis of Hamilton, to land a force at the Firth of Forth. The King, meanwhile, slowly marched his army up to Berwick via York poised to invade Scotland.

But the Covenanters weren't waiting to be invaded. They suppressed the Gordons, seized Edinburgh and other strategic posts across Scotland, and headed south to meet the King at Berwick. Antrim's project collapsed before it began while Hamilton bottled it - sailing aimlessly up and down the Scottish coast fearful of both Covenanter threat to his lands and his dowdy mother's threat to shoot him if he stepped ashore.

In Berwick, on one side of the river Tweed, were camped the Covenanting forces praying, singing psalms and listening to sermons inspiring the troops to fight for their religion. On the other were Charles's demoralised, dispirited troops riven by factional infighting and with no stomach for the battle. The King's Commander-in-Chief, the Earl of Holland, had already turned and fled from one military engagement.

Only one soldier seemed eager to fight the King's cause. Thomas Windebank, son of the King's Secretary of State, explained how the troops were keeping themselves warm with, 'the hope of rubbing, fubbing and scrubbing those scurvy, filthy, dirty, nasty, lousy, itchy, scabby, shitten, stinking, slovenly, snotty-nosed, logger-headed, foolish, insolent, proud, beggarly, impertinent, absurd, grout-headed, villainous, barbarous, bestial, false, lying, roguish, devilish, long-eared, short-haired, damnable, atheistical, puritanical crew of the Scottish Covenant.' Not something you could get away with now.

Both sides squared up, but before any battle was fought, Charles realised the hopelessness of his position. He agreed to the Covenanter demands and signed the Pacification of Berwick which ended the so-called 'First Bishops' War'.

But that was by no means the end of it. Charles could not have his authority questioned so easily. Almost at once he was planning a fresh offensive against the rebels and, to co-ordinate it, he brought back from Ireland his trusted adviser, the Earl of Strafford.

 

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