…when the King was restored; but it is necessary for the right understanding of these times that we should know something of the struggles that preceded them. Therefore, we shall consider briefly the earlier history of the Covenants, and trace the rise of that party and cause which was afterwards called to endure so much, and was crowned at last with so glorious a victory.
James had inherited a nervous and timid disposition from the shocking circumstances which surrounded his birth. He is said to have shuddered whenever he saw a drawn sword, and in these days swords were so commonly carried and so lightly drawn that the King could hardly fail to live in a constant state of apprehension. A braver and sounder spirit would have met steel with steel.
Such an appeal to arms, however, was quite foreign to James’ nature, and, like all weak men, he found his refuge in cunning in “king craft” as he called it, –in which he sought, like a skilful rope-dancer with his pole, to balance one party in the State against another so that he should himself remain master of them all. To his nobles he held out the bribe of the Church lands, and by constantly creating new “Lords of Erection,” as the men were called who accepted these estates and revenues, he ruled supreme in their councils. The Church he subdued by even more subtle means; for he dreaded her power, and knew well that any but the most cautious policy would here be thrown away.
James desired in fact to govern the Church by restoring the order of Bishops, and in 1610 he judged the time ripe for the open prosecution of his design. The Assembly was accordingly summoned to meet at Glasglow, and Archbishop Spottiswoode, (We are concerned with the history of this Churchman, since his policy was one of the causes ‘though he intended nothing so little,’ which led to the first rise of the Covenants in Scotland) who proved perfectly pliable to the royal purpose, and was already appointed titular Archbishop of the see in that city, came down from Court to preside over its deliberations. Money was freely employed to secure the assent of the clergy to the royal will, the constitution of the Church was corruptly voted to be henceforth Episcopal, and Bishops were now the order of the day in Scotland.
The next reign matters went somewhat differently, the temper of the new King being narrow and fanatical, and quite without that subtlety which had stood his father in such good stead in his conflicts with the Church. But unfortunately for his designs, the King had found in England a new counselor on whose advice he was more apt to rely. This was Laud, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who, in concert with the younger race of the Scottish Bishops, constantly pressed Charles to complete his father’s work by reducing the Church of his northern kingdom to an exact conformity with that of England. At last their influence prevailed over the more moderate counsels of Spottiswoode.
Laud received a commission entirely to his mind: he was ordered to prepare a Liturgy for the Church of Scotland on the model of the English Prayer Book, and being then in terms of close correspondence with the Papal Court (they say that Flood the Jesuit, had constant access to him, and was ever well received at Lambeth), he sent a copy of his book thither that he might compliment the Cardinals by enquiring their, opinion of his work. These princes of the Church seem to have entertained a higher opinion of Laud’s erudition and devotion than of his policy. Interestingly, the Sacred College gave signal proof of their shrewd comprehension of the situation when, in answer to the over-zealous Primate, they wrote, saying, “that they liked well that the Scots should be trained in a form of prayer and service, but, considering the temper of that people, they feared the book would breed some stir and unquietness if imposed there.”
This, then, is the setting of the historic scene in the High Church of Edinburgh when Dean Hannay opened his book and began the Collect for the day. It is easy to misunderstand the tumult which arose upon the utterance of this quiet and even beautiful prayer; but those who think that this disturbance strange forget the great constitutional question which was then in keen debate. For what rang through the church that day was a loud popular protest, not against the use of a form of prayer “for Scotland had been more or less accustomed to some Book of Common Order ever since the days of the Reformation” nor even the suspected Popery of Laud’s Liturgy (though we must confess this notion went far with the commonalty), but rather against the abuse of the royal prerogative.
Over against St Giles’ Church, on the north side of the High Street, stood the Archbishop’s town house: a lofty and magnificent pile of building,distinguished by the great balcony of wrought brass which adorned the first story. Hence, on that eventful day, might Spottiswoode have watched, had he cared to do so, the crowds that streamed into the church as service time drew near. He could not, however, regard the scene without apprehension, knowing the temper of the nation, and able to forecast only too well the issue of this unwise experiment against which he had made it his business to warn the King very earnestly. All his pains had been thrown away, and Spottiswoode, the traditions of whose life forbade him to think of breaking with his master, found himself in a cruel position indeed, being forced to appear at the head of a movement which he dreaded and disliked.
The rough Scottish tongue of the old herb-woman suddenly crying, “Dost thou say mass at my lug?” cleared the air of these mists as speedily and surely as her famous stool, and the tumult that followed swept the Dean and his assistants from the desk. Standing up very quietly in his place, Spottiswoode faced awhile the angry storm in which all his hopes were wrecked and all his fears realised. Few will refuse him in the moment of so supreme a trial, the tribute of a certain admiration and even sympathy, considering the courage and self-command he now displayed, “ordering the Provost to have the church cleared, and thereafter taking coach without a word for his country house at Gilmerton, where it is said a great collation had been ordered to celebrate the day. But surely his supper that night was garnished with bitter herbs; for the hour of the royal reckless experiment had indeed struck, and its issue was in the Scotland of the Second Reformation, the Scotland of the Covenants. What wonder if Spottiswoode, fleeing to England as he shortly did, should have uttered in rage and despair the memorable words, “Now all that we have been doing these thirty years is cast down at once.”
Thoughts and excerpts taken and adapted from, “The Covenanters of the Merse”
Written by, James Wood Brown