The Covenanters were supporters of the National Covenant, drawn up in February 1638 against the attempt by King Charles I and Archbishop Laud to impose a new liturgy and prayer book upon the Church of Scotland. Several leading noblemen took the opportunity to align themselves with the movement in protest at the King's attempts to weaken the political power of the Scottish aristocracy. Support spread rapidly; the Covenanters became the leading religious and political force in Scotland with their domination of the Glasgow Assembly of 1638, at which they defied the King and abolished episcopacy from the Kirk. During the Assembly, the powerful Earl (later Marquis) of Argyll openly indicated his support for the Covenanter movement for the first time and soon emerged as its most influential leader.
The Covenanters' defiance and their refusal to back down provoked King Charles I into forming an army to march against Scotland. The Covenanters responded by organising an army of their own. Commanded by the veteran Alexander Leslie, the Army of the Covenant was highly motivated with a strong moral and religious code. The English troops raised to oppose it were easily defeated in the Bishops' Wars (1639-40). The King also tried to prevent the Scottish Parliament from meeting, but his plans were thwarted when the Covenanters established the Committee of Estates to govern Scotland when Parliament was not in session.
During the Confederate War that developed out of the Irish Uprising of 1641, Covenanter troops were sent to Ulster to protect Protestant settlers and to extend Scottish territorial interests. Covenanter troops remained in Ulster throughout the bitter 11-year war of attrition that devastated Ireland. Led by Major-General Robert Monro, the Covenanters in Ulster inflicted savage reprisals on the Catholic rebels.
The signing of the Solemn League and Covenant during the English Civil War brought about an alliance between the Covenanters and the English Parliamentarians against King Charles. Representatives of the Covenanters sat on the Committee for Both Kingdoms in London, which directed the allied war-effort, and observers from the Kirk attended the Westminster Assembly, at which reform of the Church of England was debated.
The Covenanter invasion of England began in January 1644. Parliamentarian expectations were high, but Royalist resistance led by the Marquis of Newcastle thwarted the Scottish advance through northern England until the decisive victory of allied Scottish and Parliamentarian armies at Marston Moor in July 1644. English confidence in the Covenanters was further damaged by the campaigns of Montrose in Scotland during 1644-5 when Covenanter regiments were withdrawn from England to deal with Montrose. Scottish political influence in London was adversely affected by the army's lacklustre performance and Covenanter ambitions to impose strict Presbyterianism in England in order to unite the churches of the two nations were frustrated.
After mid-1644, Covenanter leaders began to support the faction in the English Parliament that favoured a negotiated settlement rather than an outright military victory over the Royalists, but peace proposals were firmly rejected by the King at the Uxbridge Treaty in January 1645. Although Covenanter forces were overstretched, with armies fighting in England, Scotland and Ireland, they were left with no option but to continue the war in England. King Charles finally accepted that he had lost the First Civil War in May 1646. Under terms secretly negotiated by the French envoy Jean de Montereul, who hoped to influence a settlement between England and Scotland that was favourable to French interests, King Charles surrendered to the Covenanter army at Newark.
The King intended to cause further division between Parliament and the Scots but after his refusal to accept the terms offered under the Newcastle Propositions, the Scots handed him over to Parliament upon the promise of a £400,000 indemnity in January 1647. Although he was a prisoner of Parliament, Charles contrived to negotiate with the Covenanters, hoping to turn the tables by securing a Royalist-Covenanter alliance against Parliament. However, his refusal to take the Covenant personally alienated the Kirk and leading Covenanters, resulting in the ill-fated Engager invasion of England under the Duke of Hamilton during the Second Civil War. The King's deliberate provocation of a second war led to his trial and execution in January 1649. In the same month, the Scottish Parliament passed the Act of Classes, which excluded supporters of the Engagement from public office. The fundamentalist Kirk Party became the dominant force in the government of Scotland.
Charles II was proclaimed legitimate successor to Charles I in Scotland but the Kirk Party insisted that the new King should accept the Covenant and agree to establish Presbyterian church government in the Three Kingdoms. Charles was obliged to sign the Treaty of Breda in 1650. He took the Covenant upon his arrival in Scotland in June 1650 before being crowned King of Scots at Scone by the Marquis of Argyll in January 1651. However, the Kirk Party's power over the King was weakened following the defeat of the Scottish army at Dunbar in September 1650, after which Engagers and Royalists were re-admitted to the King's council. Hardline Covenanters broke away to form the Remonstrant movement, resulting in a split in the Scottish government that brought about the downfall of the Kirk Party as the Royalists gained ascendancy.
The Royalist-Covenanter alliance was finally terminated by Oliver Cromwell at the battle of Worcester on 3 September 1651. When Charles escaped to France after his defeat at Worcester, he immediately dropped all pretence of Presbyterianism and returned to the Anglican rite.
The events of 1650-1 caused a deep schism within the Kirk and led to its division into the Protester and Resolutioner factions. In July 1653, the Protesters and Resolutioners held rival General Assemblies in Edinburgh, but both were dissolved by order of Major-General Lilburne, the military governor of Scotland. These were the last meetings of the General Assembly for thirty-seven years.
After the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, the National Covenant was repudiated and bishops were re-appointed to govern the Scottish Church. Covenanters who rejected episcopacy and continued to worship at illegal conventicles were persecuted during the reigns of Charles II and his successor James II, notably during the infamous "killing times" of 1680-5.
C.H. Firth, The Last Years of the Protectorate 1656-58 vol. ii, (London 1909)
S.R. Gardiner, History of the Great Civil War vols i and ii, (London 1888-9)
S.R. Gardiner, History of the Commonwealth and Protectorate vol. i, (London 1903)
David Stevenson, The Scottish Revolution 1637-44, (Newton Abbott 1973)
David Stevenson, Revolution & Counter-Revolution in Scotland 1644-51, (Newton Abbott 1977)
Records of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, British History Online
Covenanted Reformed Presbyterian Church Homepage www.truecovenanter.com