Scottish Origins of British Unionism: The Covenanters' Movement for Religious and Royal Unification

A Covenanters' flag at Drumclog Memorial Kirk

Bookmark and Share

A Force For Good presents the seventh in our chronological 7-part series entitled, "The Scottish Origins of British Unionism", written by John Provan, who has an MA (Hons) in History.

He finds that back in the day and age when religion was politics, the Scottish Covenanters stand out as a movement for British Unionism.

Some background information: This article covers events between the establishment of the National Covenant in 1638 and Oliver Cromwell's "Ordinance for uniting Scotland into one Commonwealth with England" in 1654.

During this time, Charles I was executed on 30 January 1649 and England became a republic. On 5 February 1649, the Covenanter Parliament of Scotland proclaimed Charles II "King of Great Britain, France and Ireland", but refused to allow him to enter Scotland unless he accepted their Presbyterian terms.

Charles II formally accepted the Solemn League and Covenant of 1643, and was crowned King of Scotland on 1 January 1651. On 3 September 1651, at the Battle of Worcester, Charles's Royalist and predominantly Scottish forces were to suffer defeat at the hands of Oliver Cromwell and his Parliamentarians. This resulted in Charles's exile and the period under Oliver Cromwell and his son Richard – known as 'the Commonwealth'.

The Commonwealth lasted until the restoration of the monarchy on 29 May 1660, and Charles II was crowned King of England, Scotland and Ireland on 23 April 1661.

Picture: A Covenanters' flag at Drumclog Memorial Kirk, from

Posted on this site on 2 October 2015.

The commonly-held narrative portrays Scotland throughout its history as the unwilling victim of an aggressive, imperialist and dominating southern neighbour. Unionism is regarded as a distinctly English innovation, forced upon the Scots as part of an Anglicising agenda, something touted only by the 'London Scot' elites of David Hume's day, or the Tories of more recent times.

These perceptions are, as so often proves to be the case, greatly divorced from reality. If you are a modern Scot, the chances are your forefathers once fought and died not just to defend a union with England, but to actively forge one. Indeed, there was a time when the people of Scotland sought to coerce a much more ambivalent England into a union of the two kingdoms. And they did so under the Saltire, as part of a movement known as the Covenanters.

The Covenanters are already known for the fight to preserve their civil and religious liberties as they understood them. What is less well known about them is that they were ardent unionists, and that this unionism was central to their political and religious beliefs – something that is evident in the very foundational documents of the movement.

Along with the National Covenant of 1638, the Solemn League and Covenant of 1643 laid out a framework of Covenanting principles. While the National Covenant had been a purely Scottish affair, the Solemn League and Covenant was an agreement signed between the Scottish Covenanters and the English Parliamentarians, who had joined cause to fight against the Royalist forces of Charles I.

In the Solemn League and Covenant, the Covenanters called for a confederal union between Scotland and England, demanding that representatives of the English parliament work in a cross-kingdom body to bring about a closer union of the two kingdoms. The document states that:

The Assembly having recommended unto a Committee appointed by them to join with the Committee of the Honourable Convention of Estates, and the Commissioners of the Honourable Houses of the Parliament of England, for bringing the kingdoms to a more near conjunction and union…

And whereas the happiness of a blessed peace between these kingdoms, denied in former times to our progenitors, is, by the good providence of GOD, granted unto us, and hath been lately concluded and settled by both Parliaments; we shall, each one of us, according to our place and interest, endeavour that they may remain conjoined in a firm peace and union to all posterity; and that justice may be done upon the wilful opposers thereof, in manner expressed in the precedent article.

Far from opposing the unionist policies of the Stuart monarchs (who were themselves Scots reigning in England), the Covenanters sought to expand upon them to bring about a much broader union.

Historian Alan Macinnes notes that "The organic discourse of imperial monarchy was replaced contractually, not so much by aristocratic republicanism as by covenanted confederalism". 1

Various political bodies were set up at a Britain-wide level in order to achieve this, as representatives from the two kingdoms worked together to foster closer ties between them. The most notable of these was the Committee of Both Kingdoms, which the Covenanting leadership hoped to function as a "co-ordinating confederal council". 2

The significance of the Solemn League and Covenant is difficult to over-emphasise; in many ways it could be regarded as the first attempt at creating a British constitution.

Macinnes notes that "The Scottish position...was to affect the Solemn League and Covenant as a written constitution for Britain in the same way as the National Covenant had served for Scotland". 3

Indeed, he speaks of the document as "the single most important diplomatic transaction between the regal union of 1603 and the parliamentary union of 1707". 4

It is of considerable significance to our concepts of Scottish and British nationhood, that the most important document of this century would be one of Scots calling for a union with England!

The concept of confederal union reflected the concentric British identities of the Covenanters, and was rooted in the fact that political and civic life existed not just at the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh, but also at the Royal Court in London, as well as at a more local level.

This phenomenon was personified by Archibald Campbell, 1st Marquess of Argyll (March 1607 – 27 May 1661) who would come to be the figurehead within the later Covenanting movement. Macinnes notes of Argyll that he was at once "a clan chief, Scottish magnate and British statesman". 5

For the Covenanters, their vision of union was rooted in very deep existing loyalties to the concept of Britishness. It comes as no surprise then, that one Covenanting tract of the time, in 1640, should appeal to:

A ground of many hopes, that the two Nations so long, and so far divided before, are in our time straitly joyned, not only by naturall union in one Iland, but also spirituall in one Religion, civill under one Head, morall in the mutall interchange of so many duties of love: And domestical, by marriages and allyances. 6

Such emotive language shows that for the Covenanters, their unionist principles were based on much more than political pragmatism, as some would suggest. Indeed, they were in fact rooted in a shared sense of nationhood with their English brethren, who they regarded as fellow subjects, as brothers in Christ, and as brothers in arms against their common enemies. What a contrast to the mainstream unionism of today, which neglects such a rich heritage in favour of cold economics!

The above evidence demonstrates that the early Scottish Covenanters strived to bring about a confederal union between Scotland and England, long before the Union of 1707 came into being.

However, the Covenanters came to embrace the concept of a much more complete union; indeed, a union even more complete than that which exists today. For example, while the Act of Union of 1707 guarantees the independence of the Church of Scotland from that of England, the Covenanters strived to create a single, national British church. For them, union would have to be complete to be enduring.

The Covenanters desire for a union was so great, that even when their Royalist rivals were all but defeated, they were prepared to make peace with Charles I and turn against their Parliamentarian allies in order to bring about a closer union.

Historian David Stevenson observes that, "They had tried to add to union of the crowns other forms of union; religious union, military union, and ties between the two parliaments. When this had failed they had turned rather desperately to the king for help in achieving closer union." 7

The extent of their unionist vision cannot be overstated. Stevenson goes on to note that "at times they talked of complete union, of abolishing all distinctions (even of name) between the two countries". 8

Ironically, given the image of Scottish victimhood that Scottish nationalists tend to project, the Covenanters in many ways had to try to bully the English into accepting a union.

This issue had in fact been one of the primary strains in the relationship between the Scottish Covenanters and their English Parliamentarian allies. Although the English were by no means inherently opposed to the concept of union (Cromwell did of course bring one about in 1654, short-lived though it was), they did have concerns that the Scottish Presbyterians might not be tolerant of the many Protestant sects that existed in England at the time, including Baptists, Quakers, Congregationalists and various others.

Given this, in the earlier stages of the conflict, the Parliamentarians were more interested in a military alliance than the Covenanters desire for political union. 9

One of the greatest concerns of the Covenanters was that the Parliamentarians might not oblige their commitments to bring about a union, which had been set out in the 1643 Solemn League and Covenant. Indeed, the Covenanters were very vocal in voicing their displeasure when they felt that their calls for union were being ignored. When the English Parliament produced alternative proposals to those set out in the Solemn League and Covenant and its corollary agreements, the Scottish commissioners protested that:

we cannot but observe, that the most materiall Additions, Omission, and Alterations...betwixt these and the [Treaty of Uxbridge 1645] Propositions formerly agreed upon doe trench upon the joynt Interests of both Kingdomes, and tending to the lewsing of the Bonds, and weaking of the Sinewes, of our happy Union 10

It is evident then, that long before the Union of 1707, the issue of union (or perhaps more correctly, 'British unification') was very much a Scottish project. Clearly, this does not sit well with the nationalist myth of a Scottish nation oppressed under political union by a domineering neighbour.

While the Covenanter vision of union matured as the conflict wore on, the Covenanting movement itself came to be split in two as political divisions tore it apart.

This resulted in two major parties forming: on the one hand, there were the more moderate Engagers; on the other, the more radical Kirk Party. Their primary source of conflict was over whether or not they should seek to negotiate with Charles I. Interestingly, however, they were unanimous in their support for a full union with England.

The Engagement of 26 December 1647 was the foundational document of the Engagers as a faction, from which they took their name. As they lay out their principal goals, they are firm and resolute in their demands for a full, incorporating union between the two kingdoms:

His Majesty, according to the intention of his father, shall endeavour a complete union of the kingdoms, so as they may be one under His Majesty and his posterity; and, if that cannot be speedily effected, that all liberties, privileges, concerning commerce, traffic, and manufactories peculiar to the subjects of either nation, shall be common to the subjects of both kingdoms without distinction... 11

If only Scotland's unionists of today could be so bold!

The more radical counterparts of the Engagers were no less enthusiastic in calling for a complete union with their English brethren. Archibald Campbell, 1st Marquess of Argyll, came to be leader of the radical Kirk Party within the Covenanting movement. As a well-known Covenanting hero and Chief of Clan Campbell, he was by no means an English patsy.

On the contrary, he was in many ways the stereotypical Scot – fiery in his temperament, austere in his living, uncompromising in his religion, and a Highland chief to boot. Yet for all this, he regarded the Scots and the English as one, and made some very emotive pleas for a full union between the two kingdoms. When he feared that the English Parliamentarians would not honour their role in bringing about a union, he said (sometime in the 1640s):

lett us hould fast that Union which is soe happily established betwixt us; and lett nothing make us againe Two, who are in soe many Wayes One; all of one Language, in One Island, all under One King, One in Religion, yea, One in Covenant; so that in Effect we differ in nothing but in Name. 12

Such comments dispel any myths about union being a result of cold, political pragmatism; on the contrary, political union was regarded as the natural extension of existing ties for two peoples who were already united in so many other ways.

These comments of Argyll (and the unionism of the Covenanters in general), also destroy the nationalist myth that Scotland was an unwilling partner in union.

The history of the Covenanting movement is another example that the union was very much a Scottish project before it was an English one, and its Royalist nature stands in stark contrast to the idea of a secular republic espoused by some of the Scottish nationalists of our present day.

1. Macinnes, A., 'Regal Union for Britain, 1603-38', p.53 in The New British History, Founding a Modern State 1603-1715, ed. By G. Burgess (I.B. Tauris, 1999).

2. Macinnes, A., The British Revolution, 1629-1660, p.162 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005).

3. Ibid, p.159.

4. Macinnes, A., 'The Scottish Constitution, 1638-51: The Rise and Fall of Oligarchic Centralism', p.123-4 in The Scottish National Covenant in its British Context, ed. By J. Morrill (Edinburgh University Press, 1990).

5. Macinnes, The British Revolution, p.126.

6. 'A True Representation of the Proceedings of the Kingdome of Scotland since the late Pacification by the Estates of the Kingdome, p.166 (published Edinburgh, 1640) in R. A. Mason, Scotland and England, 1286-1815, (John Donald Publishers Ltd, 1987).

7. Stevenson, D., Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Scotland, 1644-1651 (Royal Historical Society, 1977), p.220.

8. Ibid, p.221.

9. Stevenson, D., 'The early Covenanters and the Federal Union of Britain', p. 171 in R.A. Mason, op cit.

10. Ibid, p.174.

11. You can read the "The Engagement between the King and the Scots" here:

12. Stevenson, D., op cit, p.175.

Scottish Origins of British Unionism
Part 1: John Mair's History of Greater Britain
Part 2: David Hume's The Union of the British Isles
Part 3: John Elder's Highland Unionism
Part 4: John Knox's Unionism of Monarchy and Faith
Part 5: John Russell's Happy and Blessed Union
Part 6: Thomas Craig's Vision of Complete and Perfect Union

If you like what we say, please support us by signing-up to receive our free regular Update email - which will keep you informed of new articles and relevant pro-UK information - by entering your details in the 'Subscribe' box at the top right of this page. You can find out more about Alistair at the About Alistair McConnachie page. And here is a link to Alistair McConnachie's Google Profile.

Bookmark and Share