In this series we take an in-depth look at objects in the North Lanarkshire museums collections relating to the Covenanters, a radical religious movement of the 1600s that had a massive impact on Scottish history.
The Covenanters’ story has strong ties with Lanarkshire. Within the museum collections there is also a reflection of this in the Covenanting material culture that has survived. These objects tell a story in themselves of this movement and its memory, born of a dramatic time of rebellion and civil war.
So who were the Covenanters? It’s a story of epic scale.
Through the lens of 17th century society, religion was central to the way most people understood the material world, themselves, and how society worked. What might seem simply like theological debates today were strongly held beliefs and often the expression of major social or political splits.
Scotland of the 1600s – as with elsewhere at this time – was not a tolerant multi-faith society either.
The Protestant Reformation of the 1500s happened differently between Scotland and England. Alternating systems of worship and organisation developed in the two countries with numerous beliefs and factions within them.
After the Union of the Crowns in 1603 both King James VI & I and his son, Charles I, had been faced with the dilemma of managing two quite different national Churches in their Kingdoms – the more Presbyterian Church of Scotland and the Anglican Church of England.
When Charles attempted to bring the Scottish Church in line with Anglicanism in 1637, it prompted widespread opposition and even rioting.
Militant Presbyterian opponents took aim at practices they thought ‘idolatrous’ and akin to Roman Catholicism, which they believed had strayed from the true word of God and spiritual salvation.
In 1638 Scottish opponents drafted The National Covenant. While it wasn’t anti-monarchist, it said that faith came from a higher power than the king: God. Misguided Charles needed correcting in his errors.
They saw the Scottish people’s relationship with God as a covenant – a sacred contract, alluding to the Israelites of the Old Testament – that had been renewed through the Protestant Reformation. This was a declaration of rights that even royal authority could not interfere with.
It gave the document its name and consequently to that of its supporters – ‘Covenanters’. Copies were sent out to parishes all over Scotland to be read and signed by all. It was equal parts religious manifesto, legal essay, and agitationary propaganda.
Charles believed – as did other monarchs at the time – that his earthly power came from God, and saw it as an act of treason.
It was the spark which lit a volatile powder keg. The Wars of the Three Kingdoms (civil wars in Scotland, England and Ireland), the overthrow and beheading of Charles I, and the rule of Oliver Cromwell and the Protectorate all followed.
Covenanter governments were in power in Scotland for a time. An alliance with the English Parliamentarians – brokered on The Solemn League and Covenant of 1643, another key ‘manifesto’ in Covenanter beliefs – helped tip the balance of the First English Civil War against the Royalists. One of the largest battles of the war happened at Kilsyth in August 1645.
Increasing disillusionment with the Parliamenterians’ perceived lack of commitment to a Presbyterian state led to bitter factional splits in Scotland. The result was the Scottish Parliament’s bulldozing of Charles II into the unlikely role of a very reluctant covenanted King. It meant civil war between former allies and shambolic defeat, with Scotland under military occupation for nearly a decade.
Charles II was forced into exile. The Covenanter hostage-king experiment was probably not what he had hoped for. He was later noted (by Samuel Pepys no less) to have reflected that “the Scots have dealt very ill with me – very ill.”
Presbyterianism was tolerated until the restoration of the Stuart monarchy in 1660. Charles II attempted to complete the work began by his forebears, no doubt with a bit of a grudge to bear. All religious assemblies or ‘conventicles’ outside of the authority of the Church of England were deemed illegal.
This marked the beginning of an ‘underground’ period of the Covenanter movement. It had lost much of its backing amongst Scottish elites whilst retaining considerable support among the less powerful in the more Presbyterian Lowlands, from urban craft workers to farmers and small landowners. This post-1660 phase helped shape a ‘folk hero’ image of the Covenanters.
A nation divided
In Scotland, opinion was split. There was a mix of support and compliance with the new King. A large minority objected – about a quarter of church ministers refused to accept the changes.
Objects such as this lead button, found near Banton, date to around the Restoration era (1660-1688). Just about discernible on the button face is a lion and a unicorn, heraldic symbols used to represent England and Scotland respectively. This symbol pre-dates the Act of Union in 1707 and in this context refers to the Union of the Crowns of 1603, and more specifically, the reigning Stuart monarchy. It was likely produced and worn to show explicit support for the Stuarts.
Given the context of the period – when allegiances were divided and contentious – one can imagine that such an object could have been worn as a conscious signifier to others of their loyalties in the manner of a political pin badge. Lead was probably chosen instead of a harder-wearing material like brass because of the ease with which it could be shaped to a mould. It could have been made by a relatively unskilled craftsperson, and produced quickly and cheaply. As an inexpensive piece of clothing it is also indicative of more widely popular expressions of support for the Stuarts at this time.
‘The sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God’
Covenanters attempted armed uprisings in 1666 and 1679. Objects such as this steel backsword were preserved because of a Covenanting connection. It was reputedly used at the Battle of Bothwell Bridge in 1679, which resulted in the Covenanter rebels’ heavy defeat to much better trained and organised Government troops. This association with the military and self-defence aspect of the Covenanter movement is key to its character as an object of material culture. It is not simply of interest as a historic weapon, but also as a relic connected with a major event in Covenanting history and martyrdom.
This sword in particular shows many characteristics of a mid-1600s century English-hilted backsword, particularly the round pommel at the end of the handle. By comparison, Scottish swords from this time tend to have a conical or oval pommel instead. The origin of manufacture could be a reflection of the many wars of the 1600s, with vast quantities of arms and armour moving with numerous campaigns and changing hands several times. These wars had also resulted in a greater militarisation of Scottish society, with large swathes of the population having access to an array of different weaponry of varying quality.
The guard is of the ‘mortuary’ style, so-called because it resembles a skeletal rib cage. This was a popular design in the sword-smithing of Britain and Ireland in the mid-1600s.
It has an interesting design of interwoven faces engraved into the steel guard, a style that was also relatively popular at the time.
We do not have a clear maker’s mark, although the scoring on the right hand side of the blade is suggestive of one.
It resembles the Passau Wolf, a mark used by German swordsmiths. German manufacturers were highly regarded and prolific in their output, and their blades often prized objects. Plenty of German weapons ended up in Britain at this time, especially with soldiers from Britain and Ireland fighting on either side of the Thirty Years’ War in Europe. Whether this is a re-hilted and recycled German blade or a British imitator is not clear.
The large amounts of pitting on the blade indicate numerous impurities – not uncommon in hand-worked steel of this age – and it is a bit roughly finished and uneven. It still has a little bit of flex to it.
It was probably carried by a lower ranking officer or foot soldier, and is certainly the kind of sword that would have been carried by Covenanters in 1679 with their jumbled assortment of weapons. The cracked tip has clearly experienced blunt trauma at some point. Was this from being thrust at a soldier’s breastplate, or from being dropped by a clumsy collector?
As with many relics, it has an uncertain provenance. It was donated to Airdrie Museum in the 1890s and appears to have come from the collection of the renowned Scottish arms collector and antiquarian Charles E. Whitelaw.
How he came across the sword is not known. The Bothwell Bridge association presumably originates with the family or individual from whom he acquired it, and was likely an object passed down within a family along with an associated oral tradition.
It may well have been used by a Covenanter at Bothwell Bridge, but with the increasing passage of time and widening gap between inheritor and original event it becomes harder to verify. Although it certainly matches the kind of weapon used at that time, without documented proof it increasingly enters the world of conjecture and ‘reputedly used’.
The ‘Killing Time’
After their defeat at Bothwell Bridge state repression increased. This became known as ‘the Killing Time’ to sympathisers with the Covenanting cause. People assembled with armed protection for conventicles in remote areas, such as fields, moors, and hills for sermons led by ‘field preachers’. They did so at risk of prosecution and physical attack by patrolling soldiers, and extrajudicial killings were sanctioned by law. Retaliations were meted out on government dragoons in intermittent guerrilla attacks.
For Covenanters, these were seen as defensive measures. For the Crown, these were armed rebels that had to be suppressed in order to restore the peace. This would not be resolved until the overthrow of the Stuarts in 1688.
The treatment given to Covenanters and their resistance made them folk heroes and martyrs among many Presbyterian Scots, particularly in the areas where these conventicles were most common such as Lanarkshire and south-west Scotland.
As a way of commemorating this tradition, conventicles have continued to be held by some churches in Lanarkshire on the anniversaries of major Covenanting events, with organisations formed for memorialisation.
Places became associated with Covenanters and were venerated, and later generations memorialised them. Lanarkshire is dotted all over by these. These include the grave near Wishaw of Arthur Inglis, a farmer killed by Government troops the day after the Battle of Bothwell Bridge.
Another is Darmead on the remote wilderness of Auchterhead Muir, a site of conventicles and also host to a Convention of the United Societies (a major association of different Covenanting groups) on 3rd October 1683. One figure who attended this was the noted Covenanting minister James Renwick. If the dates are correct then he was evidently quite busy that day, having preached at Brownrigg near present-day Blackridge before attending the Convention ten miles to the south.
The memorialisation of the Covenanters in Lanarkshire, as elsewhere in Scotland, is one that has had many different interpretations. These are often contradictory and contested, reflecting the beliefs of whatever group has celebrated their memory.
Politics is one such area. The National Covenant inspired in equal measure both the loyalist Ulster Covenant of 1912, which opposed Irish Home Rule, and the 1940s Scottish Covenant, which petitioned for a devolved Scottish parliament.
Just as the Covenanters have been remembered in unionist and loyalist traditions for their staunchly Protestant politics, so too have they been celebrated in the Scottish political left, with everyone from Reform agitators in the 1830s to socialists in the 1920s looking to them as part of a Scottish tradition of anti-establishment radicalism and popular protest.
‘Rebel Religion’ is a 3-part series on objects relating to Covenanters in the North Lanarkshire museum collections. In Part 2 we’ll look at the death shroud of John Whitelaw, ‘the Monklands Martyr’.