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, and 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].