Academic

The National Covenant and the Covenanter’s Prison: Religion and Edinburgh  

Written by Amy Hendrie. Edinburgh's historical significance has often been tied with its religious significance. Amy Hendrie investigates one of the darker periods of this history in one of Edinburgh's most famous sites: Greyfriars Kirkyard.

Edinburgh is famous for its religious significance and its role in shaping national politics. Epitomized by St Giles Cathedral on the Royal Mile, Edinburgh’s churches have seen some of the most radical and important religious upheavals in the country’s history. The signing of the National Covenant in 1638 in Greyfriars Kirkyard is representative of the fight for Scottish autonomy over religion and its legacy can be spotted throughout the city, though specifically in Greyfriars Kirkyard, which was the location of the notorious covenanter’s prison in 1679.  

The signing of the National Covenant is known to some as the most significant event in Scottish history. It highlighted the dissatisfaction over the 1603 Union of the Crowns and brought to the fore tensions over the placement of religion within the state. Presbyterian Scots considered Christ to be the head of the Church as opposed to the monarch – King Charles I at this time – a sentiment emphasised by Elizabeth I. Indeed, Charles conceived of himself as a ‘Godly Prince’ and, as such, he was the divinely appointed leader of the land. In addition to this, Charles made some dramatic changes to religious practices, angering Scottish Presbyterians. For example, he introduced bishops into government, which devalued the role of Scottish nobles, thus leaving powerful Scots feeling threatened. More crucially, Charles planned to implement an English-style prayer book into Scotland. These actions fundamentally undermined Scottish power over their religious practices, and this would not be accepted.  

In response to Charles’ actions, a National Covenant was drawn up, largely by Archibald Johnston of Wariston and Alexander Henderson. Supported by Scottish nobles, ministers, and thousands of ordinary citizens, the National Covenant pledged to defend the true religion against these interventions. A copy of the National Covenant is now in St Giles Cathedral, where it is available to visit. It states, ‘we shall, to the uttermost of out power, with our means and lives, stand to the defence of our dread Sovereign the King’s Majesty, his person and authority, in the defence and preservation of the foresaid true religion’. While the Covenant clearly pledges allegiance and loyalty to Charles, it marks a significant stand for Scottish authority over their ‘true’ religion. Demonstrated here is a cry for some autonomy and a clear dissatisfaction with the Crown, even with the Union of the Crowns over thirty years prior. Such a declaration from the Scots sparked the Bishop’s Wars in 1639, when Charles marched troops into Scotland.  

A smaller, though perhaps bloodier, consequence of the National Covenant was the establishment of the Covenanter’s Prison, located in a field adjacent to Greyfriars Kirkyard in 1679 and held over one thousand supporters of the National Covenant. Manned famously by Sir George Mackenzie, a Lord Advocate, the prison saw extreme violence, starvation, and maltreatment. For four months, these men were held without shelter, and were given only 4 ounces of bread each day. Some died in these conditions, while others were executed. Only a few were freed after signing a bond of loyalty to the crown. Then, in November of 1679, the remaining 257 men were sent to the colonies. However, on the way to colonial America, their ship was wrecked in the Orkney Islands, leaving only 48 survivors – the only 48 out of 1000 who survived the Covenanter’s Prison. Now a part of the Kirkyard, the site of the prison is memorialised via a small plaque detailing the gruesome experiences of the Covenanters at the hands of those like George Mackenzie, who is buried nearby.  

Interestingly, while the history of the National Covenant is remembered as being influential in Scotland’s development and national character, the memory of some individual actors is not taken so seriously.  Sir George Mackenzie, known also as Bloody Mackenzie, has become a tourist attraction in Edinburgh. Numerous haunted walking tours feature Mackenzie as a notorious poltergeist famous for terrorizing those who may disturb his sleep. I myself discuss him on my Harry Potter walking tour, as he was the inspiration for Hogwarts’ naughtiest poltergeist, Peeves. Mackenzie’s actions seem trivialised in this way, as if his torture and execution of the covenanters serve as a spooky story, rather than a reminder of the struggle for Scottish autonomy.  

Despite this, the legacy of the National Covenant remains significant. In Edinburgh especially it is remembered as one of the most important moments in Scottish history as it marked a rebellion against English rule and policy. The theme of discontent and dissatisfaction with English sovereignty will be central to Scottish history after 1638; this moment of anger is in no way unique. However, both the signing of the National Covenant and English responses to Covenanters remain a defining moment in the history of both England and Scotland.  

Written by Amy Hendrie  

Bibliography  

Church of Scotland, ‘The National Covenant of the Kirk of Scotland: and, the Solemn and Covenant of the three Kingdoms’ Edinburgh, 1660. 

Greyfriars Kirk, ‘The National Covenant’ accessed October 19, 2021. https://greyfriarskirk.com/history/the-national-covenant/

Reformation History, ‘The National Covenant (1638)’ accessed October 19, 2021  https://reformationhistory.org/nationalcovenant.html

Scottish Covenanter Memorials Association, ‘Covenanter’s Prison, Greyfriars Churchyard’ accessed October 19, 2021  https://web.archive.org/web/20151023042533/http://www.covenanter.org.uk/Prison/

Scottish Covenanter Memorials Association, ‘National Covenant’ accessed October 19, 2020. http://www.covenanter.org.uk/national_covenant.html 

The Scottish History Society, ‘The National Covenant, 1637-60’ accessed October 19, 2021.

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