THE events which immediately followed the tumult in St Giles’ Church are well known to all students and lovers of Scottish history.
A Parliament was summoned by the popular will alone, and it sat down in four “Tables,” as they were called, to discuss the affairs of the country, and to offer a serious remonstrance to the King. The famous Covenant was drawn up, and carried to the Greyfriars’ Churchyard, where it was signed by thousands of people amid a scene of the greatest enthusiasm. The nation and the Church now began to realize their power, and in a kind of fierce emotional transport many opened their veins, and signed that league against Prelacy, Popery, and the Prerogative with their blood.
In 1638 the first Free Assembly held for a generation in Scotland gathered in Glasgow. Here the Bishops were impeached, their Order declared null and void, and several of their number deposed and excommunicated. They had indeed been men of loose and evil lives, and had done much by the scandal of their immoralities to make Episcopacy unpopular with many who knew no other objection to it. We may here note, as a matter more particularly concerning this history, that the first man to give his vote upon these great questions was the minister of Polwarth, Mr Alexander Cass, whose remarks on that occasion are said to have been very pointed and witty, so much so, indeed, as to give great offense to those who bewailed the great changes now on foot.
Lest it should be supposed, however, that the ministers of the Merse were not cut of the same cloth as that of Polwarth, we may here allude to a circumstance very creditable to our county which had happened some five years before. In 1634 the Bishop of Edinburgh wrote to the different presbyteries of his diocese, requiring the ministers to observe carefully the Articles of Perth, and the Canons of the Church, and in particular,to see that they failed not to minister Holy Communion in their congregations on Easter Sunday, nor to prepare their flocks for that occasion by “preaching the Passion” on Good Friday. To this the Presbytery of Duns sent a stout refusal by the pen of their Moderator, Mr David Hume of Greenlaw, who ventured to tell the Bishop that the wrath of God would certainly come upon him if he persisted in urging obedience in matters not commanded in Holy Scripture. Mr David Hume died in the month of April 1637, only a very little before his fearless words were fulfilled to the letter.
The King, who deeply resented the revolt of the Scottish Church and country, came with his army to the Border, and here the forces of the Covenanters met him, making such a warlike appearance “they were 20,000 strong” that without a blow being struck, articles of peace very favourable to their interests were concluded.
General Leslie, who was in command of that force, consented to disband it, but on the condition of a Free General Assembly being summoned to meet, and a free Parliament to sit thereafter for the ratification of the Assembly’s Acts. The Covenanters’ camp had been set on Duns Law, a circumstance which gave rise to the jest that the Scottish Bishops had been deposed, neither by civil, nor by canon law, but by Duns Law. Thus the first appeal to arms in that long constitutional struggle which issued in our modem liberties was made in the cause of the Covenant, and it was the Merse which had the honour of being chosen as the seat of this righteous resistance and signal victory.
The army of Duns Law was, in some ways, the most remarkable that Scotland has ever seen.
The wonderful unity in which the nation here stood to the defense of her civil and ecclesiastical liberties appeared in the number of noblemen then commanding, and of gentlemen who served in the ranks. The officers had their quarters in the Castle of Duns, where a copy of the Covenant is still preserved, bearing the names of many who subscribed it at that time. Lord Cassilis’ troop was quartered in the following year at Choicelee wood, between Langton and Polwarth. They carried with them as their chaplain was none other than the famous preacher, Mr John Livingston.
In his Memoirs, Livingston tells us that having made known from his pulpit at Stranraer that he was appointed to go to the army, a woman in his congregation came to him with eight gold pieces for the good cause, saying that she had kept them as a marriage portion for her daughter; but since God had been pleased to take the child to Himself, He should have her money too, –a touching proof that the country regarded the cause of the Covenant as that of the Lord, and the expedition sent to the Merse as a solemn appeal to the God of Battles.
It was indeed their piety no less than their gentility and culture which distinguished the soldiers of the Covenant. In the camp at Duns Law and Choicelee was heard every night the sound of praise and prayer from the huts and among the guards. Every Sabbath able and devout ministers from many parts of Scotland gathered to the army and drew with them crowds of the neighboring country people. The religious exercises of Cromwell’s Ironsides would seem to have been borrowed hence, and when, in the next generation, the Covenanters were driven to the fields that they might there worship God according to their conscience, those of our shire could make choice of many a place which had been hallowed in that way before.
The success of the Covenanting army was eagerly watched by the leaders of the Parliamentary party in England. The long struggle for constitutional freedom called the Civil War was just commencing; and very shortly the popular party in the south, whose interests were so closely joined with those of our Covenanters, entered into the Solemn League and Covenant with them, a union of hearts which was presently cemented when the Westminster Assembly sat, uniting in its councils both Presbyterians and Puritans together.
As the close of the conflict drew near, the King, hard pressed by the Parliamentary forces, took refuge with the Scottish army, then at Newcastle. This expedition had been sent under the new alliance to help the cause of the Parliament, and Scotland gave a somewhat extreme proof of confidence in her allies by rendering the person of the king to their mercy. This surrender made way for a series of events which ended in a situation of the utmost consequence for the Covenanters.
His Majesty, as is well known, was soon brought to the scaffold at Whitehall, and the royal family passed to their exile abroad. Scotland, however, had always been loyal. It was with little apprehension of the dread event that their army had surrendered the person of the King, and the execution of Charles began a strong reaction there in favor of the monarchy, a new current of feeling which acted strongly upon many of the Covenanters.
An embassy was soon sent to Holland, one of whom was John Livingston, and in their company the young King returned to his native land in 1650. He signed the Covenant in his ship at the mouth of Spey before he was suffered to land, and renewed the same solemn act at his coronation, which took place a few days later. Under this engagement he was now welcomed by the nation as their lawful sovereign. It is easy to see how these events began to open a division between Scotland with her Covenanted King and the Parliamentary party in England.
Thoughts and excerpts taken and adapted from, “The Covenanters of the Merse”
Written by, James Wood Brown