“Who Are Those Guys?”: The Burning of the Covenants in 1682
In January 1682, the privy council did something strange. They ordered documents to be executed. The documents in question were the Covenants of 1638 and 1643. Curiously, they had been publicly burnt before in 1661, but now they faced being dropped into the flames from the hangman’s hand for a second time…
Why did the council opt to burn ‘so old and buried a legend’ as the Covenants? The answer is that it was not the Covenants which were the problem, but the other documents they decided to burn alongside them, the declarations of the militant Society people.
Just two days before the council ordered the burning, armed Society people had swept into Lanark, attacked the symbols of royal authority on the burgh’s mercat cross and, in imitation of royal proclamations, proclaimed their own declaration from the cross. The Lanark Declaration, as it became known, is arguably the most radical document in Scottish history. For good measure, the Society people had also conducted their own execution of documents by burning Parliament’s Test Act.
Faced with such an extraordinary act of treason, the council must felt it had to respond. The Lanark Declaration had come as a shock, as the authorities had either hunted down and killed the ministerial leadership of the Society people, or driven them into exile. A movement they had considered dead and buried had return in a more radical and leaderless form. The problem for the council was that while they knew who had committed to the outrage at Lanark, the Society people, they did not know the identities of the perpetrators of it. Burning the Societies’ documents was a way to respond, while government forces were sent to Lanark to investigate. It was also a public rejection of the legitimacy of the Societies actions.
The Reverend Law and and Lord Fountainhall recorded the council’s reaction:
‘January 14th, 1682, there is an act of council ordering the Covenant, Sanqhair Declaration, Rugland and Lanerk Declaration, and Cargill’s Covenant, to be burnt at the Mercat-cross of Edinburgh by the hand of the new made hangman, (for the former hangman was executed for murdering a creeple blewgown, supposing to get money off him, covetousness the root of all evil;) and accordingly it was done on the 18th day of that moneth. (Law, Memorialls, 215.)
For 18 January, Lord Fountainhall records, ‘By Act of Privy Counsell, the Solemn League and Covenant, with Cargil’s Covenant, and some other papers, ware this day solemnely brunt at the Mercat Crosse of Edinburgh. The Magistrats being present in ther scarlet robes. Some wondred to see ther policy in reviving the memory of so old and buried a legend as the Solemne League was, (which was brunt in 1661 before;) and set peeple now a-work to buy it, and read it. And for Cargil’s ridiculous Covenant, they had, about a 12 moneth before this, caused print it, tho that was only in contempt of it.’ (Lauder, Historical Notices, I, 346.)
The Lanark Declaration did ‘Ratifie and Approve what hath been done by the Rutherglen and Sanquhair Declarations’ as the basis for the Societies’ constitutional platform. All three declarations were burnt.
As both Law and Fountainhall note, Cargill’s Covenant, aka. The Queensferry Paper, of 1680 was also burnt, even though it had previously been published by the council for public ridicule as the Fanatick’s New Covenant. The Lanark Declaration had not mentioned the Queensferry Peper, probably because the draft text of it which had been seized when Donald Cargill was nearly captured had never been formally approved by the militants.
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