Making the Union: Covenanter Movement for British Religious and Royal Unification

A Force For Good reminds the Scottish nationalist marchers of the benefits of the Union, on Union Street in Glasgow, at the corner with Argyle Street, which is named after the 3rd Duke of Argyll, who was the great-grandson of Archibald Campbell, the 1st Marquess of Argyll and Covenanter who is mentioned below. (Pic: AFFG 11-1-20).

The Scottish Covenanters of the 1600s stand out as a movement for British Unionism many years before the Union of the Parliaments on 1 May 1707. Today, the dominance of Scottish nationalist imagery and stories in the popular culture has ignored this element of Scottish and British history.

This is part 2 of our series on the British Civil War – written by John Provan who has an MA (Hons) in History. Our series emphasises the British Isles-wide nature of the conflict. We look at the extent to which shared concerns and violent events found Scots and English together on the same sides; and we examine the extent to which this was to create a shared sense of British national purpose and identity.

A Force For Good is recalling to memory this rich unionist heritage, emphasising that unionist thought has deep roots within Scotland that predate the emergence of unionist thought in England, and reminding us that political Union was a Scottish idea before it was an English one.

This article was originally published on our Legacy Site in 2015.

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.

THE UNIONISM OF THE COVENANTERS Some Scottish nationalists mistakenly imagine that Scotland has been the unwilling victim of an 'aggressive, imperialist and dominating' southern neighbour. For them, unionism is regarded as an English innovation, forced upon the Scots as part of some kind of Anglicising agenda.

These mis-perceptions fit the nationalist narrative, but they are divorced from reality.

If you are a modern Scot, the chances are your forefathers 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 persuade an 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 known for the fight to preserve their civil and religious liberties as they understood them. What is less well known 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.

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

CONFEDERAL UNION in the SOLEMN LEAGUE AND COVENANT 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. 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 the unionist principles of the Covenanters were based on more than political pragmatism, as some would suggest. Indeed, they were 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!

FROM CONFEDERAL TO FULL UNION 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.