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Bishops' Wars

Bishops' Wars

The Bishops' Wars of 1639 and 1640 are generally viewed as the starting point of the 1639–1652 Wars of the Three Kingdoms that ultimately involved the whole of the British Isles. They originated in long-standing disputes over control and governance of the Church of Scotland or kirk that went back to the 1580s. These came to a head in 1637 when Charles I attempted to impose uniform practices between the kirk and the Church of England.

Charles favoured an episcopal system, or rule by bishops, while the majority of Scots advocated a presbyterian system, without bishops. The 1638 National Covenant pledged to oppose these 'innovations' and the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland voted to expel bishops from the kirk. When Charles resorted to force, the Covenanters defeated Royalist forces in Aberdeenshire in 1639, then an English army in 1640, leaving them in control of Scotland.

Bishops' Wars
Part of the Wars of the Three Kingdoms
Scotland, England
ResultScottish Covenanter victory
Scottish Covenanters
Commanders and leaders
  • EnglandCharles I
  • Marquis of Hamilton
  • Viscount Aboyne
  • Marquess of Huntly
  • Lord Banff
  • EnglandLord Conway
  • EnglandThe Earl of Strafford
  • Marquess of Montrose
  • The Earl of Argyll
  • Alexander Leslie
c. 15,000+c. 20,000+
Casualties and losses
c. 300c. 200


James VI claimed his authority as monarch and head of the Church came directly from God, the so-called theory of Divine Right, and not subject to 'interference' by either Parliament or church leaders. He reintroduced episcopacy to the Church of Scotland in 1584 and when he also became King of England in 1603, a unified Church of Scotland and England governed by bishops became the first step in his vision of a centralised, Unionist state.[1] However, while both were nominally Episcopalian, the two were very different in governance and doctrine; Scottish bishops presided over a church largely Presbyterian in structure and were doctrinal Calvinists who viewed many Church of England practices as little better than Catholicism.[2]

Calvinists also believed a 'well-ordered' monarchy was part of God's plan; unlike the English, the vast majority of Scots in the 17th century agreed monarchy was divinely ordered but disagreed on who held ultimate authority in clerical affairs.[3] The Covenanter view was best summarised by Andrew Melville, who reportedly told James in 1598; 'Thair is twa Kings and twa Kingdomes in Scotland... Chryst Jesus the King and this Kingdome the Kirk, whose subject King James the Saxt is.'[4] Royalists tended to be 'traditionalists' in religion and politics but there were many other factors, including nationalist allegiance to the kirk, and individual motives were very complex.[5] Many Covenanters would end up fighting on both sides, such as Montrose.

In 1618, the General Assembly reluctantly approved the Five Articles of Perth; these included forms retained in England but largely abolished in Scotland and were widely resented.[6] When Charles I succeeded his father in 1625, unfamiliarity with Scotland made him even more reliant on the bishops, especially the Archbishop of St Andrews, and prone to sudden decisions. The 1625 Act of Revocation cancelled all grants of land made by the Crown since 1540 without consultation, alienating much of the Scottish nobility and clergy.[7]

While Catholicism itself was now largely confined to parts of the aristocracy and Gaelic-speaking areas in the Highlands and Islands, fear of 'Popery' remained widespread.[8] Many Scots studied at French Huguenot universities, such as Montauban; by the 1620s, the reconciliation between French Catholics and Protestants that had ended the 1562-1598 French Wars of Religion seemed increasingly threatened and led to a series of Huguenot rebellions. Scots also fought in or were affected by the Thirty Years' War, a religious conflict that caused an estimated 8 million deaths and remains one of the most destructive conflicts in human history.[9] Concerns were reinforced by Charles marrying a French Catholic, Henrietta Maria, employing senior Catholic advisors like the Earl of Portland and accepting the first Papal envoy since the Reformation.

Against this background, a new Book of Canons in 1636 replaced John Knox's Book of Discipline and excommunicated anyone who denied the King's supremacy in church matters.[10] When this was followed in 1637 by a new Book of Common Prayer, the result was anger and widespread rioting, said to have been set off with the throwing of a stool by Jenny Geddes during a service in St Giles Cathedral.[11]

The kirk itself seemed under threat and in February 1638, representatives from all sections of Scottish society agreed a National Covenant, pledging resistance to liturgical 'innovations.'[12] Support for the Covenant was widespread except in Aberdeen and Banff, heartland of Royalist and Episcopalian resistance for the next 60 years.[13] The Marquess of Argyll and six members of Charles' Scottish Privy Council backed the Covenant and in December the General Assembly expelled bishops from the kirk, putting it on a full Presbyterian basis.[14]

First Bishops' War (1639)

Charles resorted to military force to assert his authority but refused to obtain funding by recalling Parliament, instead relying on his own resources. The plan consisted of three parts; an English army of 20,000 would advance on Edinburgh from the south, while an amphibious force of 5,000 under the Marquis of Hamilton landed in Aberdeen and linked up with Royalist troops led by the Marquess of Huntly. Lastly, an Irish army under Randal MacDonnell, Earl of Antrim would invade western Scotland and join forces with the MacDonalds and other Royalist clans.[15]

Preparations were hampered by lack of funds and enthusiasm for the war in England, where many were sympathetic to the Covenanter cause. The Irish element never materialised and Huntly's men withdrew when confronted outside Turriff by a Covenanter force under Montrose, who occupied Aberdeen in March, leaving Hamilton nowhere to land. In April, George Ogilvy, Lord Banff assumed command of Royalist forces in Aberdeenshire and temporarily re-occupied Aberdeen after two minor engagements, one at Towie Barclay Castle, where David Prat became the first casualty of the Wars of the Three Kingdoms and the Trot of Turriff.'[16]

The English army mustered at the border town of Berwick-upon-Tweed totalled some 15,000 men but the vast majority were untrained conscripts from the Northern trained bands or militia, many armed only with bows and arrows. A Scottish army of 16,500 men under the experienced veteran Alexander Leslie, camped a few miles away on the other side of the border near Duns.[17] Many on both sides had fought in the European wars but the Scots ensured that a much higher percentage of their officers were veterans, providing a significant advantage over the English.[18]

Charles joined his troops at Berwick on 30 May and issued a proclamation announcing he would not invade Scotland, providing the Covenanter army remained ten miles north of the border. Leslie advanced to Kelso, within the 10 mile limit, but neither side wanted to fight and English morale was low; on 11 June, negotiations began that ended in the Pacification of Berwick on 19 June.[19] Under this, Charles agreed all disputed questions should be referred to another General Assembly or to the Parliament of Scotland.

The only significant engagement of the war took place on 18 June, at the Brig o' Dee south of Aberdeen, between Royalist forces under Viscount Aboyne and Montrose, resulting in a Covenanter victory.[20]


The new General Assembly then re-enacted all the measures passed by the Glasgow Assembly, and the Scottish Parliament went further, abolishing Episcopacy and declaring itself free from Royal control.

Charles, believing that the Scots were intriguing with France and that under these circumstances, the English would be more ready to rally to his standard, once more called an English parliament – after having ruled alone in England for eleven years. In April 1640, the so-called Short Parliament convened but first demanded redress of grievances, the abandonment of the royal claim to levy ship money, and a complete change in the ecclesiastical system. Charles considered these terms unacceptable and dissolved parliament.

Second Bishops' War (1640)

Thomas Wentworth, now the Earl of Strafford, became a leading adviser to the King. He threw himself into Charles’s plans with great energy and left no stone unturned to furnish the new military expedition with supplies and money.

The Scots under Leslie and Montrose crossed the River Tweed, and Charles’ army retreated before them. In a short time, the invaders overran the whole of Northumberland and County Durham (see Battle of Newburn). Charles had to leave the two counties in Scots hands as a pledge for the payment of Scots expenses when he agreed to peace and signed the Treaty of Ripon in October 1640. The impoverished King had to summon another parliament to grant him the supplies which he needed to make that payment; this Long Parliament attacked his Government, impeaching (and eventually executing) his chief supporters, Strafford and Laud. It sat until purged in 1648.

In the hopes of winning Scottish support, Charles went to Scotland in the autumn of 1641 where he gave titles to Leslie and Argyll, and accepted all the decisions of the General Assembly of 1638 and of the Scottish Parliament of 1641, including confirming the right of the Parliament to challenge the actions of his ministers. He had now withdrawn all the causes of the original dispute, but within a year his disputes with the English Parliament would lead to civil war.


The humiliating circumstances of Charles’ defeat in the Bishops' Wars and the diminishment of Royal authority resulted in the 1641 Irish Rebellion, while his refusal to accept Parliament's demands for reform led to the 1642–1646 First English Civil War. Scotland initially stayed neutral but became involved in supporting first their co-religionists in Ireland, then the English Presbyterian faction in Parliament. The Covenanters themselves split into factions; their attempts to restore first Charles, then his son Charles II on the throne of England resulted in the 1648–1649 Second English Civil War and the 1651–1652 Third English Civil War or Anglo-Scottish War.

See also

  • Bishops in the Church of Scotland

  • English Civil War timeline

  • Scotland in the Wars of the Three Kingdoms

  • Wars of the Three Kingdoms


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