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Montrose and the Covenant

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Montrose and The Covenant

Those who know of James Graham, 1st Marquis of Montrose may fall into two camps.

Those ardent supporters who see him as an icon of Scotland, a military genius, a romantic charismatic leader and loyal servant to his king and country; and the others who see him as one born “with a silver spoon”, selfish and politically naive but more than these a man who was a coward and a turncoat who changed his allegiance born out of pragmatism and self-gain.

This short paper looks at the character of Montrose and attempts to put into context his supposed volte-face from being a supporter of the Covenant and the Covenanters to become the King’s Captain General in Scotland.

The Graham family had been loyal supporters of the Scottish Crown for generations. They supported Wallace and Bruce during the Wars of Independence and there was always committed support for the Stuart dynasty. The Earldom of Montrose was created in 1503 and the 3rd Earl was Earl Viceroy of Scotland in 1603 when James moved his Court to London. The 4th Earl – James Graham’s father – was President of the Privy Council. Hence, James Graham was born of an established and influential noble family with a remit and responsibility for Scottish political life.

James was born in October, 1612. Between 1626-1628 he attended St Andrew’s University where he won the Silver Arrow for Archery – that prestigious award previously claimed by the Earl of Argyll but, more importantly, he began to properly establish his literary education – in particular, the essays and writings of the Greeks – and he would commence his poetry compositions.

In 1629 he married Magdalene Carnegie but in 1633, after the births of two sons, he did his “European Tour” until 1636. He returned to England in 1636 and was presented to Charles 1st – a chilly event, apparently.

In the 16th century the Reformation had swept away the authority of the pre-reformation Catholic Church. That new Scottish Presbyterian Kirk had been conceived as a democratic reaction to the hierarchical Catholic body. In theory, it replaced the authority of the Pope with the authority of the Bible. In practice, it became as powerful a vehicle for oppression and abuse as its predecessor. Whoever controlled the Kirk controlled the minds of the Scottish people.

The doctrine of the Divine Right of Kings was theoretically compatible with a Kirk whose sole authority was the Bible since King and Bible were agents of the same God. In practice, the way was open for the usual opportunists to seek power for themselves.

When Montrose returned in 1636 the New English Prayer Book had been introduced, there was grossly heavy taxation and many Scottish nobles had ” emigrated ” to England and the London Court. Judges had been removed from the Privy Council and replaced by Bishops. Montrose – as part of his heritage – believed that good and bad Kings might come and go but the monarchy remained a divine institution. On the other hand, if any King chose to exercise his power badly it was the duty of his loyal servants to point out the errors of his ways.

In November 1637, Montrose was elected to The Tables, a committee of 16 – the Four Estates – representing the Scottish nobility, commoners, Kirk clergy and Burgesses to monitor the King and his council

The National Covenant

Montrose was one of the first people to sign the Covenant in Edinburgh in 1638 and to understand a little of Montrose’s actions then and subsequently a closer inspection of the Covenant is warranted. One must recall that the wording of the Covenant was inspired by highly intelligent ministers and lawyers but then, as now, legal documents may be profound but not necessarily transparent.

The three main parts of the Covenant were:

  1. Repetition of the first Covenant against popery (1580)
  2. Lengthy reiteration of all the acts of Parliament passed at and since the Reformation in favour of the Reformed Church
  3. A pledge to defend the true religion against all innovations “already introduced” and all corruptions of public government “till they be tried and allowed in the Assemblies and in Parliaments”

The most important clause stated:
” … We declare before God and men that we have no intention nor desire to attempt anything that may turn to the dishonour of God, or to the diminution of the King’s greatness or authority. But on the contrary we promise and swear that we shall, to the utmost of our power … 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, liberties, and laws of the kingdom: as also to the mutual defence and assistance, everyone of us in the same cause of maintaining the true religion, and His Majesty’s authority … against all sorts of persons whatsoever … so that whatsoever shall be done to the least of us for that cause shall be taken to be done to all in general and to every one of us in particular. Neither do we fear the foul aspersion of rebellion … seeing what we do … ariseth from an unfeigned desire to maintain the true worship of God, the Majesty of the King, and the peace of the Kingdom.”

Concerns about the Covenant

Buchan said of the Covenant that it was – ” a candid and straight forward document, temperately expressed and accurately directed to the grievances which it was designed to remedy”. However, the last section is capable of various interpretations; Whilst promising to defend the King’s authority, the phrase – ” in the defence and preservation of the foresaid true religion ” – could be taken to mean that the promise was valid only if the King espoused Presbyterianism or, in effect, signed the Covenant.

In the clause that binds signatories to mutual defence – ” against all sorts of persons whatsoever” – could include the King. Similarly, the Covenanters could conclude later that the military alliance with the Puritans and the invasion of England were justified by their – “unfeigned desire to maintain the true worship of God, the Majesty of the King and the peace of the Kingdom”

To the outbreak of war

In 1639 Scotland began to fragment into Civil War and Montrose was a leader of the Covenanting troops. There is no doubt that the Covenanters had an ambivalent attitude to Montrose; they were suspicious of his sworn allegiance to the King and his criticism of the extremism of some Covenanters but they used him for his military skills although the latter were at a relatively early stage of experience.

By 1641, the power of the Scottish Parliament had increased significantly. Charles was a distant and arrogant king and the power of the Parliament lay with Argyll and Henderson, that puissant combination of experienced politician and fanatical minister. The country and the nobles were divided between the revolutionary camp and those who favored reform and reason.

In 1643 The Solemn League and Covenant was signed pledging support by the Scottish Parliament to the English Puritans. That treaty was a step too far for Montrose as he saw it as a direct rejection and confrontation of his Sovereign beleaguered in the Civil War. Eventually, and far too late, Charles recognised Montrose and the latter was raised to be Captain General in Scotland.

So there was James Graham, lst Marquis of Montrose. A man of complexities and mixed emotions, intellectual conflict and political and moral integrity. He had had a noble upbringing, huge political expectations and, probably, aspirations. His maxim – “To win or lose it all”: his battle standard- “nil medium”. He was a great Cavalier poet, a brilliant military strategist and he showed unbelievable loyalty and integrity in contrast to his political naiveté.

In 1644 he shed his Covenanter support and led the Royalist army in Scotland during the Annus Mirabilis.

The Remonstrance

In 1645, following the battle of Kilsyth, Montrose was deeply affected and probably troubled by the vitriolic criticisms of the Covenanters. Turncoat, traitor, defiler, butcher, they called him and the glory of his military victories were paled by their attacks.

Montrose offered his Remonstrance in which he confirmed his allegiance to the Covenant; he re-iterated his concerns about the extremism of the Covenanting ministers and that he was totally opposed to the signing of the Solemn League and Covenant.

He fought for the King “for the middle way of our reformed religion; for a strong central government maintaining the King’s honour and greatness: for a political system which granted liberty to the subject”.

He had not rebelled against the Covenant but fought, he argued, to preserve its original ideals. Indeed, he remained a Presbyterian all his life. He denied he was an enemy of religion by using the Catholic Irish in the Civil War. Indeed, the Covenanters had used catholic Irish troops in Ireland. But, most importantly. he was not a traitor:

“Traitors we are not, to God, nor King, nor Country. Not to God because we stand or fall, by God’s assistance, for the reformed religion … Traitors to the King we are not for we go about His Majesty’s expedition according to his express mandate … Traitors to our country we are not but we endeavour the liberties thereof. .. And as for shedding of blood – we would by all means shun the same: neither ever did we shed the blood of any but of such as were sent forth by them to shed our blood, and to take our lives, whose blood we shed in our defence.”

Max Hastings comments — The Remonstrance … “was a proclamation entirely characteristic of Montrose: decent, honest, moderate, reasonable.” and again: “Victory on the battlefield is easily won compared with that in the closet and the conference chamber.”

Montrose was an idealist not a politician. He had fixed his eye on an organisation of Church and State which had no reality in 17th century Scotland. He gravely underestimated the power of the ministers and that power was as much temporal as spiritual.

In the Remonstrance Montrose defended his ideal. Charles should be King, to rule constitutionally over a free people and an apolitical presbytery. The clergy were to renounce their political pretensions and content themselves with fulfilling their spiritual duties. The nobility were to put aside individual ambition and support the royal authority – constitutionally defined. As an ideal it had great force and in a sense Montrose proved it so. As a political concept it was profound and generations ahead of its time. But in 17th century Scotland it was as hopeless as it was honourable.

“The ideals of Montrose are in the warp and the woof of the constitutional fabric of today”


References and bibliography:

  1. Max Hastings – Montrose: The King’s Champion (1977)
  2. John Buchan – Montrose (1928)
  3. Ronald Williams – Montrose – Cavalier in Mourning (1975)
  4. Robin Bell – Civil Warrior (2002)
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