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Making the Union: British Civil War 1638-1660

Many Scottish nationalists take a very "reductionist" view of the British Union. They reduce it to one event – the Union of the Parliaments on 1 May 1707 – and they try to explain that away with an incorrect myth about alleged dodgy payments! They choose to ignore entirely the contribution of the events and social circumstances of the decades and centuries leading up to political Union.

In this short series of historical articles about the British Civil War – written by John Provan who has an MA (Hons) in History – we emphasise the British Isles-wide nature of concerns, as we look at the often violent events in the mid to late 1600s, which joined Scots and English together on the same sides, and which were creating a shared sense of British national purpose and identity.

Pic: A Force For Good at our 1st May Great British Union Day Celebration in George Square in 2021.

It is said that nations are often born through shared struggle and there can be few better examples of this than the conflict which engulfed the British Isles in the mid-Seventeenth Century. Despite coming from different kingdoms with their own parliaments and customs, Scots and English fought side by side on all the sides – Scottish and English Royalists, and Scottish Covenanters and English Parliamentarians.

There was an awareness at the time that this was a shared struggle.

For example, leading Covenanter statesman Alexander Henderson remarked of his English allies that they "by their speeches, complaints, and grievances parallel to ours, did justify the Cause which we defend", before concluding that "both Nations must now stand or fall together". [1]


Both kingdoms had shared a single monarch since the Scotsman James VI succeeded to the throne of England in 1603, while retaining their distinct parliaments and crowns. Although they coexisted peacefully for a number of years, by 1638 a combination of dynastic, religious and political disputes had caused a descent into civil war. Unrest in Scotland turned into a fully-fledged invasion of northern England by the Covenanter rebels at the Battle of Newburn (28 August 1640).

Soon, all Britain would be engulfed in conflict as Scottish and English Royalists joined forces against the Scottish Covenanters and their English Parliamentarian allies; far from being a conflict between Scotland and England, this was very much a British Civil War.

Historians are only now beginning to appreciate the depth of the British context to the events of the period. In the past, Whig interpretations focused purely on the idea of an 'English Revolution', where the revolt against Charles I was just a small part of England's march towards political freedom. In this view, Scotland was ancillary.

Later materialist interpretations focused on longer-term socio-economic trends in England, while failing to appreciate similar developments in Scotland.

More recently, the trend towards revisionism, and of focusing on short-term factors in historical events, has led to the idea that the instability of governing three kingdoms meant that the Covenanter uprising against Charles triggered an otherwise unnecessary, and far from inevitable war in England.

It is only in more modern studies by Alan Macinnes and John Young that the depth of the British context, and in particular long-term socio-economic trends in both Scotland and England, have been explored; Sharon Adams provides a more localised study of the south-west Covenanting heartlands in these respects. [2]

Such works lay the foundation for understanding what was very much a British context to the events of the period – a fact that can be seen from the very beginnings of the conflict. THE REVOLT AGAINST CHARLES I

Limits to the power of monarchical authority had been long established in Scottish thought by figures such as John Mair, John Knox, George Buchanan and even the Declaration of Arbroath. This belief in constitutional monarchy led to the Covenanters strongly asserting their liberties in the 1643 Solemn League and Covenant, as they swore to:

"...preserve the rights and privileges of the Parliaments, and the liberties of the kingdoms; and to preserve and defend the King's Majesty's person and authority, in the preservation and defence of the true religion and liberties of the kingdoms". [3]

The English shared many of these values, and wished to preserve the political liberties which were rooted in their ancient Anglo-Saxon constitution. There was a widespread belief that the English had originally elected their kings through the 'Witenagemot', a sort of proto-parliament which was lost after the Battle of Hastings in 1066, whereafter the English were subject to the 'Norman yoke' of feudal law and overbearing monarchs.

Later constitutional documents like the Magna Carta had supposedly reinstated some of these lost ancient rights, and it is this tradition which John Milton had in mind when he spoke of:

"...our Ancestors who were not ignorant of what rights either Nature or ancient Constitution had endowed them..." [4]

Accordingly, just like his Scottish opponents, the English opponents regarded Charles as a usurper for taking away the rightful authority of democratic institutions and placing it in the hands of the crown.

The Scottish Covenanter scholar Samuel Rutherford asked in his work 'Lex Rex': "Now what are kings but vassals to the state, who, if they turn tyrants, fall from their right?" The historian Glenn Burgess has noted that "There is no doubt that much of what appeared in that bulky work could have been written by a [English] Parliamentarian". [5]

These common concerns would be central in uniting the Scottish Covenanters and the English Parliamentarians in their revolt against Charles; yet political issues were only one aspect of the conflict.

Grievances with the religious policies of the Stuart kings were also shared by elements of Scots and English. In overwhelmingly Presbyterian Scotland, Charles' attempts to take away the right of congregations to appoint their ministers, and put royally-appointed bishops in their place was seen as a serious threat to the liberties gained in the Reformation. One 'Protestation of the Generall Assembly of the Church of Scotland' stated that they took:

" heart the many and great innovations and corruptions lately by the Prelates and their adherents intruded into the doctrine, worship, and discipline of this Church". [6]

There was concern that Charles was attempting to undo the Reformation, and to conform Scotland to the Episcopal model of the Church of England with its strict hierarchy of priests and bishops. There was a fear that such measures were merely a stepping stone to smooth a return to Roman Catholicism, and such worries were shared by the English Puritans.

Like the Scottish Presbyterians, they held to the Reformed branch of Protestant thought, and feared that Charles was attempting to bring the Church of England into increasing conformity with the Church of Rome. Hugh Pym captured the paranoia that was sweeping England in the face of Charles' religious reforms in one speech given to parliament:

"There is a design to alter Law and Religion: the parties that affect this, are Papists...they are not only bound to maintain their religion, but also to extirpate all others". [7]

There was undoubtedly a religious aspect to the political divide, with contemporary Richard Baxter noting that "the generality of the people that were then called Puritans...adhered to the Parliament". [8]

Just as in England, where Episcopalians generally supported Charles while the more radically Protestant Puritans rose up in revolt, so too in Scotland did the Episcopalians of the north-east and the Catholics of the Highlands back Charles, while the fiercely Presbyterian Lowlands took up arms against him.

Ideological allegiances had now firmly taken precedence over the old Anglo-Scottish divide.

Of course, there were still issues that were particular to each kingdom. Most notably, 'absentee kingship' was a frequent charge levelled against Charles by the Scottish Covenanters, who were concerned that he was neglecting his native kingdom as he ruled from his London throne. This may explain why outright revolt was to break out in Scotland before it reached England.

But as the conflict wore on, it became increasingly clear that both Scots and English were looking to find British solutions to what were fundamentally British problems.


This conflagration of political and religious protest meant that the core fault lines within the Covenanter-Parliamentarian alliance weren't so much about the old national divides, as they were between those seeking a moderate political settlement, and those who advocated for a much more radical Protestant revolution.

Historian Walter Makey notes the ideological conflict between the "conservative constitutionalist" and the "millenarian zealot" within the Covenanting movement. Such a distinction could rightly be observed amongst their English brethren. [9]

Indeed, while popular historiography tends to emphasise the Scottish dominance of affairs from 1639-1645, and the English dominance thereafter, it is perhaps more accurate to speak of a cross-kingdom conservative alliance dominating from 1639-1645, before the radicals in both the Covenanting and Parliamentarian camps rose to dominance in the latter stages of the conflict – a sort of revolution with a revolution.

Certainly, the early Covenanting movement was highly conservative in its tone, as can be seen from the relatively reserved language displayed in the National Covenant of 1638. Even when rising up in revolt against Charles, the Covenanters proclaimed in their foundational document that:

"...we shall to the uttermost of our power, with our means and lives stand to the defence of our dread sovereign the King's Majesty."

It is a little-known, yet telling fact, that the National Covenant was actually originally known as the 'Nobleman's Covenant'. [10] Indeed traditional historiography has often focused on the role of the economic conditions of the Seventeenth Century in undermining the historic power of the nobility, and thus viewing their rebellion as a reactionary response to this. Comparisons have even been drawn between the National Covenant and the Magna Carta of 1215; it is true that both were largely organised by nobles to protect their power from growing monarchical authority.

A very similar picture can be seen in the early English Parliamentarian movement. Historian Brian Manning goes so far as to call the original uprising of Parliament an "aristocratic coup d'etat". [11]

The English Parliaments 'Grand Remonstrance of 1641' – which could be said to represent a culmination of many protests and petitions from the previous years – mimicked the conservative tone of early Covenanting petitions. Rather than presenting itself as a revolutionary document, it appealed to political tradition to accuse Charles of bringing in "innovations" in government that had no place in the political system. It accused Charles of having "a malicious and pernicious design of subverting fundamental laws and principles of government"– more reactionary than revolutionary in tone.

These moderates which dominated the political scene in the early years of the British Civil War – the "conservative constitutionalists" identified by Makey – would soon come to be eclipsed by the much more radical and populist "millenarian zealots". In Scotland, the Covenanting movement became split between the moderate Engagers and the radical Kirk Party.

In England, the Parliamentarians became split between the moderate Parliament faction, and the much more radicalised New Model Army headed by Oliver Cromwell.

Alliances were formed across, rather than between the two kingdoms of Scotland and England, as the various factions within both sought to secure their advantage in a pan-Britannic settlement.

These divisions were largely cemented by the late 1640s, by which time the moderates in both the Covenanting and Parliamentarian movements had become eclipsed by their more radical counterparts.

Brian Manning notes that by 1648, almost all of the upper gentry had become excluded from the English Parliament. [12] Despite having originally dominated its ranks, they had gradually been replaced by what contemporary Richard Baxter identified as the 'middling sort' – the rising middle-class of artisans, merchants and burghers who sought a more thorough democratic revolution.

This process was most evident in Cromwell's New Model Army, which had become a power in its own right willing to challenge even Parliament itself. Its ranks were filled by ordinary people. This gave its demographics a marked contrast to the Parliament. It would eclipse parliament as the main vehicle for radicalism within England during the Civil War.

While this class aspect to developments in England is well appreciated, its study has often been neglected in Scotland. Yet the Whiggamore Raid of 1648 led to an ousting of the conservative Engager-led government in Edinburgh, and its replacement by the much more radical Kirk Party; a development styled by one historian as "the Bolshevik action of the Covenanter party". [13]

Sharon Adams has shed much light on how this came to pass in Scotland – the unique social and agricultural arrangements of Scotland's well-known Covenanting heartland in the south-west had fostered a growing class of smaller landowners, artisans and moderately wealthy tenants who eclipsed the upper gentry in parliament and the Kirk.

Although Scotland lagged behind England in economic development, she notes of the Whiggamore Raid that it was "possibly the only time when it could be said that events in Scotland mirrored the social upheaval and unrest which was a factor in English political life in the 1640's". [14]

Similarly, John Young talks of the emergence of a "Scottish commons" – a pioneering middle-class which was able to oust the gentry who had previously dominated the Covenanting movement. [15]


Arguably for the first time in history, there had been truly popular revolutions within Britain, and they occurred almost simultaneously as the Kirk Party and the New Model Army seized power in Scotland and England respectively.

It was Cromwell's defeat of the more conservative Covenanters at the Battle of Preston that paved the way for the Whiggamore Raid when the radical Kirk Party seized power in Scotland. They were quick to form an alliance with Cromwell's New Model Army after talks between Cromwell and Covenanting leader Archibald Campbell were held at Edinburgh.

Their alliance held strong for several years as they continued to battle both Royalists and the more moderate elements within their respective camps. However, the strains of constant warfare and of imposing a revolutionary and increasingly puritanical regime took its toll.

The Kirk Party was forced to admit an increasing number of the more conservative Engagers into government, and ultimately entered into negotiations with their sworn enemy King Charles II (his father had been executed by the English Parliament under Cromwell's orders in 1649). This ended their alliance with Cromwell, who defeated them at the Battle of Dunbar (3 September 1650).

Cromwell would go on to win the Battle of Worcester against Scots and English Royalists (3 September 1651) and annex Scotland into his new republican Commonwealth – the first time in history that both kingdoms had been joined together in an incorporating union.

The sympathy of the radical south-west to the Cromwellian regime was noted by the English themselves, with General Lilburne remarking that "The people in the west... would bee the most confiding people in this Nation". [16]

Cromwell's attempts to enforce religious tolerance in Scotland also bore the most fruit in the south-west, where groups like the 'Scottish Sectarians' were able to take root. [17]

Although the term 'sectarianism' in our day generally denotes prejudice, in the past, its meaning was very much the opposite – it entailed a belief in the right of independent churches or 'sects' (Baptists, Quakers and such) to worship freely without being forced to submit to an established state church.

This might have been the beginning of a staunchly Protestant, republican Britain; but it was not meant to be.

The incessant infighting amongst the English Parliamentarians between the New Model Army and Parliament itself had rendered both ineffective – the former stripped of funds and supplies, the latter devoid of any force to uphold its laws.

Scotland was no more stable, and continued to be racked by constant Royalist uprisings from the Catholic Highlands and the Episcopalian north-east.

Charles II, the new heir to the throne after the execution of his father, issued the Declaration of Breda in April 1660, announcing his plans to return to the throne from continental exile. Cromwell's republic had been left to his rather less able son after his death two years previously, and was peacefully dissolved as both the Scottish and English parliaments agreed to reinstate the monarchy under Charles.

Neither the Scottish Covenanters nor the English Parliamentarians secured the settlement that they desired, yet their goals of religious liberty and political freedom would ultimately be achieved. After the Restoration of 1660, the Stuart monarchs were never able to fully recover the power they had held over the Parliaments of England and Scotland.

It was due to the British Civil War that the Glorious Revolution of 1688 was possible. As a direct consequence of this, Scotland issued its Claim of Right in 1689, while in the same year the Bill of Rights was proclaimed in England – both pivotal documents in Britain's constitutional history and central to its democratic development.

It is clear that long before the Union of 1707, Scotland and England had a deep and shared history. That two kingdoms could be considered part of a single Civil War is indicative of how intertwined was their fate.

Today, in some cases, a narrative of "English bullying" and "Scottish victimhood", rooted in the mythology of figures like Wallace and the Young Pretender, continues to dominate perceptions of historic Anglo-Scottish relations.

Yet the British Civil War was a time of revolt, revolution, counter-revolution, regicide and restoration; a dramatic period which has the potential to rival any other in terms of heroism and romanticised appeal.

British democracy – and the continuation and maintenance of its constitutional monarchy – is a direct legacy of those Scots and English, and others throughout the British Isles, who were willing to fight and die side by side on all the sides in this conflict. Let us not forget this shared British heritage.


[1] A. Henderson, The Intentions of the Army of the Kingdome of Scotland (1640), pp.6-7.

[2] A. Macinnes, Charles I and the Making of the Covenanting Movement, 1625-1641 (Edinburgh: John Donald Publishers Ltd, 1991); J.R. Young, 'The Scottish Parliament and the Covenanting Revolution: The Emergence of a Scottish Commons' in Celtic Dimensions of the British Civil Wars, ed. by J.R. Young (Edinburgh: John Donald Publishers Ltd, 1997); S. Adams, 'The Making of the Radical South-West: Charles I and His Scottish Kingdom, 1625-1649' in Celtic Dimensions of the British Civil Wars, ed. by J.R. Young (Edinburgh: John Donald Publishers Ltd, 1997).

[3] 'The Solemn League and Covenant' (1643), in Light in the North, The Story of the Scottish Covenanters, ed. by J.D. Douglas (Exeter: The Paternoster Press, 1964), p.207.

[4] J. Milton, 'The Tenure of Kings' (1649), in The Puritan Revolution, A Documentary History, ed. by S.E. Prall (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1969), p.39.

[5] G. Burgess, British Political Thought, 1500-1660 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), p.190.

[6] 'The Protestation of the Generall Assembly of the Church of Scotland, & Made in the High Kirk, and at the Market Crosse of Glasgow' (1638), in A Large Declaration, ed. by W. Balcanquhall (London: 1639), p.295.

[7] J. Pym 'Master Pym's Speech in Parliament, 1640 (1640), in The Puritan Revolution: A Documentary History, ed. by S.E. Prall (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1968), p.42.

[8] A. Anderson, The Civil Wars, 1640-9 (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1995), p.66.

[9] W. Makey, The Church of the Covenant, 1637-1561 (Edinburgh: John Donald Publishers Ltd, 1979), p.59.

[10] D. Stevenson, The Covenanters, the National Covenant, and Scotland (Edinburgh: The Saltire Society, 1988), p.33.

[11] B. Manning, Aristocrats, Plebeians and Revolution in England 1640-1660 (London: Pluto Press, 1996), p.25.

[12] B. Manning, 1649: The Crisis of the English Revolution (London: Bookmarks, 1992), p.64.

[13] R.C. Paterson, A Land Afflicted, Scotland and the Covenanter Wars, 1638-1690 (Edinburgh: John Donald Publishers Ltd, 1998), p.169.

[14] S. Adams, 'The Making of the Radical South-West: Charles I and His Scottish Kingdom, 1625-1649', in Celtic Dimensions of the British Civil Wars, ed. by J.R. Young (Edinburgh: John Donald Publishers Ltd, 1997), p.56.

[15] J.R. Young, 'The Scottish Parliament and the Covenanting Revolution: The Emergence of a Scottish Commons', in Celtic Dimensions of the British Civil Wars, ed. by J.R. Young (Edinburgh: John Donald Publishers Ltd, 1997), p.163.

[16] V.G. Kiernan, 'A Banner with a Strange Device: The Later Covenanters' in Covenant, Charter, and Party, Traditions of Revolt and Protest in Modern Scottish History, ed. by T. Brotherstone (Aberdeen: Aberdeen University Press, 1989), p.40.

[17] R.S. Spurlock, Cromwell and Scotland, Conquest and Religion, 1650-1660 (Edinburgh: John Donald, 2007), p.111.


Part 1: British Civil War 1638-1660



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