Giles Cathedral , Greyfriars Kirk and the National
Sunday, July 23, 1637 at St. Giles Cathedral in the Old
City of Edinburgh a woman by the name of Janet or Jenny
Geddes objected to the use of a new prayer book written
by Scottish Bishops
and largely amended by Archbishop William Laud,
She was the spouse of a well known Presbyterian elder,
John Mein, post master and merchant in Edinburgh who was
himself well known to the Privy Council. Janet or Jenny
Geddes owned a cabbage stall or `booth` alongside the
cathedral wall and was a well known character. It is
said that she threw her small stool at James Hannay, the Dean of the
church. Her stool is on display in the Museum of
Scotland and the spot from which she threw it in
St Giles is marked by a plate in the floor which reads:
Professor J S Blackie wrote "The Song of
Mrs Jenny Geddes"
constant oral tradition affirms that near this spot a
Scotswoman Janet Geddes on 23 July 1637 struck the
first blow in the great struggle for freedom of
conscience which after a conflict of half a century
ended in the establishment of civil and religious
the twenty third of July, in the sixteen thirty seven,
On Sabbath morn from high St Giles, the solemn peal
King Charles had sworn that Scottish men should pray
by printed rule;
He sent a book, but never dreamt of danger from a
With a row-dow yes, I trow! - there`s danger in a
Bishop and the Dean came wi`mickle gravity,
Right smooth and sleek, but lordly pride was lurking
in their e`e;
Their full lawn sleeves were blown and big, like seals
in briny pool;
They bore a book,but little thought they soon should
feel a stool.
With a row-dow yes, I trow! - they`ll feel a four -
legged stool !
Dean he to the altar went, and, wi` a solemn look,
He cast his eyes to heaven, then read the curious
In Jenny`s heart the blood upwelled with bitter
Sudden she started to her legs, and stoutly grasped
the stool !
With a row-dow - at them now ! - firmly grasp
the stool !
when a mountain cat springs upon a rabbit small,
So Jenny on the Dean springs, with gush of holy gall;
Wilt thou say the mass at my lug, thou Popish -
puling fool ?
No ! No ! she said, and at his head she flung the
four - legged stool.
With a row-dow - at them now ! - Jenny flings the
thus a mighty deed was done by Jenny`s valiant
Black Prelacy and Popery she drave from Scottish land;
King Charles he was a shuffling knave, priest Laud
a pedant fool,
But Jenny was a woman wise, who beat them with a stool
With a row-dow yes, I trow! - she conquered by the
Greyfriar's Kirk in Edinburgh is dear to the
memory of the Covenanters
and the Reformation of the Church in Scotland because it
was within the Kirk itself that "The National Covenant"
was first read and signed on Wednesday, February 28,
The National Covenant was drafted by Sir Archibald Johnston of Warriston, who was executed in 1663, and Archibald Henderson . It was in three parts- a reproduction of the Confession of King James I (later King James VI of England) of 1580; a detailed list of the Acts of Parliament which confirmed Presbyterianism and condemned Popery; and, thirdly, a protest about the changes in worship which was an attempt to force episcopal reforms on the nation. The protests were against a ban on extempore prayer, the General Assembly could not meet; the furnishings of churches were specified, and a specific liturgy was ordered to be used. The document itself was described as ` a fair parchment above an elne in squair` (a Scottish ell is 37 inches so it was quite large) and was glowingly referred to as “The Constellation upon the back of Aries.”
Time, and Victorian sentimentality, has added
the embellishment - including a painting by Sir William
Allan c. 1840 - that the Covenant was taken outside for
signature by the common people gathered there, but truth
is that the flat gravestones did not then exist and it
was not taken outside at that time. By the time the proceedings
within the church had been completed it is probable
that it was well into the afternoon and it is dark by
about 4.30pm at this time of year. Rather, the following
day, March 1, 1638, it was taken to the Tailor's Hall in
the Cowgate where burghers and ministers signed and on
subsequent days it was taken to other churches for
signature. Among the signatories at the Canongate in
March 1638 was a James Orr, a bonnet maker, of the
were, however, many copies made which were sent to the
principal towns of Scotland and to Ireland where local
people were able to sign. Some of these still exist such as the parishes of Borgue and Minigaff in Galloway, and perhaps some still linger in Charter Chests undiscovered. But they are exceeding rare and may well have been taken abroad by exiles, or destroyed since they were prime evidence against the signatories. The original is thought to be
that in the Huntley House Museum,
Greyfriars has its own copy in pride of place in the
Kirk Session room.
signing of the Covenant was certainly a momentous
occasion and took place in the centre of the Kirk
alongside the pulpit. A description of the event is
quoted in "The Greyfriars Story - A Celebration", by
Padi Mathieson (1990).
"....after it had been read over publicly and a long
speech had been made by the Lord Loudoun in
commendation thereof, Mr. Alexander Henderson seconded
him with a prayer, and then all fell to swear and
subscribe, some of the nobility leading the way. The
first was John Gordon, Earl of Sutherland, and the
next was Sir Andrew Murray, Lord Balvard, minister at
Ebdy in Fife: two noblemen who, out of zeal to their
profession... thought it a happiness to be amongst the
first subscribers and swearers to the Covenant. All
who were present at Edinburgh at that meeting in the
month of February, subscribed and swore to the
Covenant before they went from thence; and at their
parting, ministers, and noblemen, and gentlemen, who
were well affected to the cause, carried copies
thereof along with them, or caused them to be written
out after their return to their several parishes and
counties of Scotland."
ministers of Greyfriars were active in their resistance
to Episcopacy and many suffered for it. The Kirk itself
was later occupied by Oliver Cromwell's army and saw
many confrontations before it again became the focus of
The reaction of the prelates to the signing of the Covenant is summed up in the words of the elderly Archbishop Spottiswood who was in hiding waiting for an opportunity to slip across the border into England. He said :
All which we have been attempting to build up during the last thirty years is now at once thrown down.
The King wrote (or rather Walter Balcanqual did so for him) most undiplomatically what he thought of the crisis and the Presbyterian party in his Large Declaration , which was published, that the Tables were as ` stables of unruly horses`, and offensively comments:
Now the first dung which from these stables was throwne on the face of Authoritie and Government was that lewd Covenant and seditious Band annexed unto it.
Not all towns subscribed to the Covenant, those who did not were Crail, Inverness, St Andrews and Aberdeen. The Presbyterian stalwarts David Dickson, Alexander Henderson and Andrew Cant were sent with Montrose and other nobles, to persuade Aberdeen to sign the Covenant. But their journey was not fruitful. Because of their refusal to join Aberdeen was congratulated by the King and £100 pounds was provided to ensure royalist pamphlets could continue in print. Some ministers eventually subscribed in 1639 but the granite city was subsequently embroiled in battles during the campaign of the Marquis of Montrose.
National Covenant was not anti-government nor did it refer
to the bishops but King Charles over-reacted and regarded
the `Covenanters` as rebels. An army was assembled
in the North of England but Charles did not get the
support he expected which forced him to relent and allowed
the first General Assembly for 20 years to be convened. A
principal act of the General Assembly which met in
November in Glasgow, was the abolition of the role of the
detested Bishops. Charles rejected the decision and once
again his army was mobilised while the vast majority of
Lowland Scots united behind the Presbyterian cause.
There followed the skirmishes
(they were hardly battles) of the
Martyrs Monument, Greyfriars.