Thursday, 22 September 2016

Lessons from the Bishops' War

Britain in 1638 was a powderkeg awaiting a spark. In Scotland King Charles I had, in the teeth of local Presbyterian opinion, decreed that all religion must follow the Book of Common Prayer. This was a high-Anglican pattern book that had been introduced into churches in England.

The spark had a name - Jenny Geddes. A market stall owner in Edinburgh's High Street, the minister in St Giles Kirk had barely begun reading from the new book when she flung a stool at his head, shouting:

"daur ye say Mass in my lug?"

And all hell broke loose.

In an act of fundamental rebellion against the King, Scots refused to accept the new Prayer Book. They signed the National Covenant in their droves. Today this long document makes a turgid read. There is no uplifting take-away phrase from the National Covenant, no 'we hold these truths to be self-evident', no 'liberté, égalité, fraternité', no 'for so long as a hundred of us remain alive', just a rambling furrow of Catholic-bashing. But at the time it was revolutionary, mass printing and widespread literacy enabling the population, for the first time ever, the tools to question their superiors and demand a better, more populist, more Godly rule. Archibald Johnston of Warriston was ecstatic. It was:

"the glorious marriage day of the Kingdom with God."

In the meantime, English Puritans weren't happy either with the pomp, circumstance, and knee-bending to authority that was inherent in Episcopalianism, the halfway-house brand of Protestantism that had been founded in England by Henry VIII and enthusiastically endorsed by royalty ever since. Charles I was a fan of course, and wished to bring Protestantism to new aesthetic heights. Many of Charles' MPs at Westminster opposed his plans, which he dealt with through the simple expedient of dissolving Parliament. As Parliament was the mechanism by which royalty raised money, Charles now had to raise funds by other, exceptionally unpopular means. But with the Scots rebelling, he realised he needed even more money to pay for an army to face them. Reluctantly, he recalled Parliament. They immediately presented him with a list of grievances and refused to fund him until their demands were met. Charles promptly dissolved Parliament again.

However where the English were divided, the Scots were united. Charles raised a motley army of 20,000 unmotivated men to face the Scots. In contrast General Leslie led a Scottish army of 12,000, who had been recalled from the Continent where they had been hardened as mercenaries fighting religious wars against Catholics. The fighting in the Bishops' War was desultory - neither side really wanted to hurt the other - but the result decisive. The Scots occupied Newcastle and issued quixotic demands to the English Parliament.

Because in the aftermath of victory it was clear to Scottish Presbyterians that Scots were the chosen nation, like Israelites in the days of old. As demonstrated by victory in the Bishops' War, it was manifestly God's will that the rest of the world - starting with England - should follow Scotland's lead in making Presbyterianism compulsory. Treaties were made with the English Parliament, who desperately needed the help of the Scottish army against Charles. But the English Parliament had neither the intent nor the ability to seriously enforce Presbyterianism on their countrymen.

In a time of rapidly shifting politics, it is striking that today England is again divided and chaotic over a fundamental issue, whereas Scotland is relatively united and well-led and would, if it could, impose its will on England for its own good. It is a situation where progressive opinion on both sides of the border has a common cause. There are massive opportunities for Scotland to gain from this situation. But it would behoove any Scottish leader to be aware of the risks too. For if we are looking back at history as any kind of guide...

The ultimate result of the events kicked off by Jenny Geddes was the military occupation of Cromwell.

2 comments:

Russell Campbell said...

"Scotland is relatively united and well led." Sorry, but I must disagree with you on that. I suspect that quite a few people in Scotland have the same view as me on this matter.

On another note, I enjoyed reading your history synopsis.

Robert Craig said...

Glad you like the history, I am out and about less these days so there is more of the old stuff to compensate. If I can provide a different angle or dig up something that isn't in mainstream consciousness then I've done what I set out to do.

As for people in Scotland disagreeing with each other, I believe that is fairly normal!