Gateway to the Classics: Scotland's Story by Henrietta Elizabeth Marshall
Scotland's Story by  Henrietta Elizabeth Marshall

Charles I.—The King and the Covenant

As long as James vi. was King of Scotland only, he was guided and ruled a great deal by his nobles. But when he went to England, he found the people there ready to flatter him and to make much of him, and he soon became very proud and haughty, and tried to do exactly as he liked.

James had never cared for the Presbyterian Church, as the Church of Scotland was called, and when he went to England, he joined himself to the Episcopalian or English Church. Presbyterianism was no religion for a gentleman, he said. And all the rest of his life he tried to force the Scottish people to do as he had done, but they refused.

James only came back to Scotland once, after he became King of England. When he died, he was succeeded by his son Charles. Charles had been on the throne eight years before he visited Scotland. When he did come, however, the people welcomed him with joy, and he was crowned at Edinburgh with great pomp and ceremony.

But Charles was grave, unsmiling, and cold, such a King as the Scots had never had, so their gladness soon died away.

Immediately after his coronation a Parliament was held. Charles forced this Parliament to do as he wished, so that it was said that of the thirty-one acts passed, there were not three but were hurtful to the liberty of the people. And for the first time in all Scottish history, the King and his Parliament quarrelled.

Charles went back to England, and soon afterwards, with the help of the Archbishop of Canterbury, who was called Laud, he made a new Prayer Book which, he said, all the Scottish churches must use. This Prayer Book was even more like the Roman Catholic Mass Book than the English Prayer Book, so that the people were full of fear and indignation. The King, they thought, was going to force them to be Roman Catholics again.

It was announced that the new Prayer Book would be used on 23rd July. All over the country, people crowded to the churches. They were quivering with anger and excitement; their freedom and religion seemed both to be in danger. For this was an act of tyranny. It was done by the order of the King and the English bishops, without consulting either the Scottish people or Parliament.

To the church of St. Giles in Edinburgh came bishops, judges, magistrates, and gentlemen, besides great numbers of the common people. The Dean entered, wearing a white surplice instead of the plain black gown which the Scottish ministers usually wore. He opened the new Prayer Book, which was large and full of pictures. That alone, to the stern Scottish Presbyterians, who hated all pictures and images, was a sin.

The Dean began to read, but hardly had he uttered a few words, when an old woman called Jenny Geddes, who sat near the pulpit, sprang up. "Thou false thief," she cried, "wilt thou say Mass at my ear?" and with that she flung the stool, upon which she had been sitting, at the Dean's head.

In a moment, all was confusion. People rushed at the Dean and tore his white surplice from his shoulders. They beat him and ill treated him till he fled for his life.

The Bishop of Edinburgh got up into the pulpit and tried to speak to the people. They would not listen. "A pope, a pope," they cried, "pull him down, stone him."

Soldiers were at last sent for, and the church was cleared. The doors were locked and bolted, and the service was read to the few who were in favour of it, while the crowd without yelled and groaned, battered at the door, and threw stones at the windows.

For a month after this, there was no service of any kind held in the churches. Neither the new nor the old Prayer Book was allowed to be used. The churches stood desolate and empty. But the people had no thought of giving in. They begged Charles to take away the hated Prayer Book. But he would not.

Then the people rose as one man to resist. They drew up a paper called the National Covenant, in which they bound themselves to fight for their freedom of conscience. That is, for freedom to believe, and to do what they felt to be right in matters of religion.

On the first day of March 1638 a.d. in Greyfriars churchyard in Edinburgh, the National Covenant was first signed. The paper was spread out upon a flat gravestone, and noble after noble wrote his name. After them, came ministers, gentlemen, tradesmen, and people of all ranks, high and low. Never was there such excitement. Many wept as they wrote their names. Others cut themselves and signed in their own blood. Afterwards, noblemen and gentlemen carried copies of the Covenant with them all over the country, till thousands of names were added to the list.

The Covenanters, as these Protestants were now called, sent a letter to King Charles. They called it their Great Supplication. Supplication means humble prayer. It was sent back to them with the seal unbroken. The King had refused even to read it.

It was to be war then! The whole country was ready for it. In every town and village the rattle of fire arms and the tramp of men was heard, as the people gathered and drilled for the defence of their religion.

At last a great army was encamped upon a hill called Dunse Law. Their leader was Sir Alexander Leslie, a little, old, crooked soldier, with the heart of a giant and the courage of a lion. The sides of the hill were covered with wooden huts and with tents. Before the tent of each captain fluttered a banner, with the rampant lion of Scotland, and the motto, "For Christ's Crown and Covenant."

But after all, there was no fighting. At the last moment Charles gave way. He promised the Covenanters the freedom they asked, and they sent their soldiers to their homes again.

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