Battles of the Covenanters - a background note.

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The Scots Worthies by John Howie of Lochgoin (1775)  has many references to the battles and skirmishes throughout the 17th century although a goodly proportion are but passing references that an individual was there. He gives more detail of the confrontations that have passed into Covenanter lore - Mauchline Moor (1648), Rullion Green (1666), Drumclog (1679), Bothwell Brig (1679), and Ayrsmoss (1680). There are separate pages for these actions, but first a resume of the politics which lay behind the Covenanter resistance.

The big picture.

The 17th century was a time of great conflict and tension both within and without all three kingdoms of England, Ireland and Scotland. After 1603 there was but one King for all three kingdoms but, importantly, they were not joined politically. The situation therefore was of successive absolute monarchs  (James VI/I, Charles I, [ Cromwell ] Charles II and James VI) trying to impose their will on separate kingdoms, each with their own particular internal issues, and separate legislation. Moreover, all three kingdoms had religious issues that brought personal conflict with the King. It was also necessary to keep a watchful eye on Europe where war with Spain, France and Holland was an on - off affair throughout the century. Europe itself was bound up in the Thirty Years War (1618-1648). It is difficult to conceive of a more complex century for politics than this.

In Ireland there was a honeymoon period for non conformists until about 1630 . The resurgence of persecution of the Presbyterians from 1633 was led by Thomas Wentworth, later Earl of Strafford, and the adoption of the `uniformity` policies that Archbishop Laud was imposing on the Scottish church. Contention also increased between the indigenous peoples and the English and Scottish settlers of the Plantation of Ulster who had taken ownership of seized lands. From this rose the ugly head of religious discrimination and rebellion - the Irish Killing Times of 1641. The response by a Scottish army was inevitable, in which was joined some English forces. Not much later Cromwell imposed a bloody peace which provided a few years breathing space before persecution of the Presbyterians began again with the Restoration of Charles II in 1660. 

In the second half of the century the Catholics obtained a degree of tolerance - probably because Charles II was covertly turning to the Church of Rome. He also began to change the tenor of his politics and was negotiating with France who paid him some 200,000 a year. When James II (ruled 1685-1688) came to the throne the Catholic fortunes changed greatly and by 1688 they were dominant in the Army, the law, and civil administration. Protestant power was greatly weakened, and this contention along with the very real fear of a return to Popery ( and a Catholic succession thereafter), led to King William and Mary, the Protestant daughter of James II,  being invited to take the English throne. William III later landed in Ireland with his troops and settled matters (for a while) at the battle of the Boyne on 1 July 1690.


In England a Scottish King, James VI, became James I of England, on the death of Elizabeth I in 1603. He was a new boy yet to be broken in by the English courtiers and unaccustomed to the international politics, yet thoroughly enjoying the riches and splendour of the English Court. There was also religious division with the Puritans and other non conformists pressing for freedom of worship.  In 1629 Charles I started his Personal Rule and in 1633 appointed two arch persecutors - William Laud as Archbishop of Canterbury and Thomas Wentworth as Lord Deputy of Ireland. Laud in particular sought to restore the splendour of the Church (`the beauty of holiness`) that seemed to many to be a return to Popery. So the scene was set for the Bishops Wars 1639-1640, Rebellion in Ireland 1641, the Civil War in 1642 and the republican Commonwealth under Cromwell. After Cromwell came the Restoration of Charles II 1660; the iniquitous "Clarendon Code "   that bore down on English non conformists, the Great Plague of London in 1665, the Fire of London 1666; and ongoing squabbles with France Spain and Holland. Finally there arose the `Glorious Revolution` in 1688 when King James II was deposed and William and Mary asked to take the throne.


In Scotland there was always present  the machinations of the King and the prelates. The introduction of Laud`s Liturgy sparked Jenny Geddes to throw her stool at the Dean of St Giles Church when he began to use the new Prayer Book. The consequence of this policy of religious uniformity was the National Covenant of 1638. In 1643 the Solemn League and Covenant created an alliance with the English Parliamentarians and involved Scotland in the English Civil War against the King. A period of attrition in 1644-5 between royalist forces under the Marquis of Montrose (who had deserted the Covenanters) saw thousands of Covenanters killed and the end of serious armed resistance in set piece battles. Machinations by the nobles led to the Engagement and war this time against Cromwell -  a big mistake. However, the Second Reformation was pressing ahead, reaching its purest state in 1649 - 1650 when the strict Covenanters held power and a clerical government ruled. But this too ended when Cromwell took Scotland.

Valiant though they were, the Scottish army that faced Cromwell at Dunbar were divided among themselves and purged of many good soldiers. Even so they outnumbered the literally sickly soldiers of the New Model Army but were tactically outsmarted by Cromwell. The English Civil War ended with the death of Charles I in 1649 and a later Scottish rising in support of Charles II was ended at Worcester in 1651. The subsequent Restoration of Charles II in 1660, saw greatly increased persecution of nonconformists in all three kingdoms. The later Covenanters` battles of Rullion Green,  and Drumclog were more in the form of skirmishes. When it finally mattered at Bothwell Brig they were again racked by internal dispute and faced by a larger, better trained and armed, royalist force that destroyed them. The indiscriminate slaughter of non conformist Covenanters reached a peak in the  Killing Time of 1684-5. Meanwhile the English Parliament intervened with its ruler, rejected the Catholic James II and invited William and Mary to take the throne. In this the Scots concurred and finally gained an established Presbyterian Church of Scotland, confirmed in 1690. But for the Covenanters, known also as the Society people, the Settlement was unsatisfactory and unacceptable; they remained outside the church and went on to establish the Reformed Presbytery in 1743.


In summary therefore, there was much conflict with the only certainties being that each country successfully meddled in each others affairs to no particular advantage. And, as if they needed it, each country suffered from bouts of plague and famine to the great cost of their populations. In many cases the marching and countermarching of troops living in makeshift and unsanitary conditions help spread disease and illness, while the levies for military service took the farmers from the land at the expense of the uncultivated and unharvested crops. In short, there was a senseless waste of men and materials because of the stubbornness  and arrogance of the ` supremist` Stuart kings, and the greed of their minions.

Estimates of the numbers vary greatly but possibly as many as 30,000 Presbyterians died for their beliefs in one way or another

Mauchline Moor 12 June 1648

Rullion Green 28 November 1666

Drumclog  1 June 1679

Bothwell Brig 22 June 1679

Ayrs Moss 22 July 1680

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