Dalry 1666- the Birth of Radical Punk?
Dalry 1666- the Birth of Radical Punk?
Without context, history becomes part of mythology. Taking a past event, polishing away all traces of context and then holding it up as a mirror to the present is not history. It is an exercise in idiocy.
As an example of the ‘Idiotic Interpretation of History’, it is difficult to beat an article by Chris Bambery recently published in a Scottish newspaper- ‘A caliphate… for Calvinists : Were Presbyterian fundamentalists the Daesh of Scotland ?’
Among its many crimes against history, the article manages to equate the 1666 uprising of the Dalry (Galloway) Covenanters with events in Syria today. This is beyond ridiculous. It is simply impossible to understand the Scottish Covenanters of the seventeenth century without locating their struggle with the wider context of the sixteenth century political and economic struggles which followed the Reformation.
What follows is a brief outline of how the Reformation shaped the Covenanters political resistance to the Stuart state. Then by taking a Bambery style approach to the Covenanters the conclusion is that the birth of radical punk occurred in Dalry in 1666 rather than in Thatcher’s Britain in the 1980s as previously thought.
While the Reformation began as an attempt by Martin Luther to reform the Christian church of his time, by challenging the authority of the church, Luther was also challenging the structure of political and economic power as it existed at the time. The feudal system of the time resembled a pyramid with kings at the top, but above the kings was the God from whom the kings supposedly derived their right to rule. The church added an extra level to this by placing the Pope in Rome above kings in the feudal hierarchy.
The Reformation had the effect of flattening the religious version of the feudal pyramid, in theory making a king, queen, archbishop or pope equal with the humblest commoner in the eyes of God.
In England, the Reformation came in handy for Henry VIII in his attempt to father a male heir. Henry wanted his marriage to Catherine of Aragon annulled so he could marry Anne Boleyn, but he needed Pope Clement VII to agree. Clement refused so Henry got the English parliament to pass an Act of Supremacy in 1534 which made him ‘supreme head on earth of the Church of England’. This allowed him to marry Anne Boleyn and also transferred all the lands and wealth of the English church to its new supreme head.
England’s great rival France, however, remained loyal to the un-reformed church, as did Scotland. Henry wanted his nephew James V to break with Rome and France by pushing through a similar reformation of the Scottish church, but James refused. After James’ death in 1542, Henry then had the bright idea of marrying his infant son Edward to James’ infant daughter Mary. Instead Mary married Francis, the heir to the French throne in 1558. Francis became king of France in 1559 but died in 1560. Mary then returned to Scotland to rule as a Catholic rather then Protestant queen.
As result of this mix of politics and religion, the Scottish Reformation did not follow the same path as the English Reformation. It was a bottom-up, or rather a middle-up rather than a top-down process. It became the focus for a political struggle between Crown and Parliament and an economic struggle in which landowners tried to get their hands on church lands.
If James V had taken his uncle’s advice and made himself supreme head on earth of the Church of Scotland in the 1530s, the conflict which gave birth to the Covenanters a hundred years later might never have happened.
Because so many Scottish kings and queens had spent their childhoods more or less as hostages to different noble families, it had become a tradition that between the ages of 21 and 25 a king or queen of Scots could revoke any grants of lands made when they were minors. Charles I became king in March 1625 and would reach the age of 25 in November that year. To avoid going to the English parliament for money, Charles came up with a cunning plan- he as Kings of Scots would pass an Act of Revocation, but one backdated to the death of James V in 1542.
By a stroke of his royal pen, all the Crown lands in Scotland- including former Church lands and the teinds, a tenth share of the produce of the lands- disposed of since 1542 would revert to Charles. His plan seems to have been to then re-grant them, for a fee, to their current owners, but this was not made clear at the time. Instead, by this demonstration of his absolute power, Charles infuriated the most powerful land owners in Scotland and the Church of Scotland. The landowners were outraged by the prospect of losing huge tracts of ‘their’ land and the Church was convinced that Charles would use the teind money to pay the salaries of bishops rather than parish ministers and parish school teachers.
As it turned out, Charles was unable to enforce the Revocation Act. But fatally for him, by managing to unite Scottish landowners and the Scottish church in opposition to his rule, expressed in the National Covenant of 1638, Charles laid the ground for the Bishops Wars of 1639 and 1640 which in turn led to what is sometimes still called the English Civil War, but is more correctly described as the War of the Three Kingdoms.
The National Covenant of 1638 was followed by the Solemn League and Covenant of 1643. This was in effect a treaty between the English Parliament and Scotland for the preservation of the reformed religion in Scotland and the reformation of religion in England along Calvinist ad Presbyterian lines.
Sadly for Charles, God turned out to be a parliamentarian and Charles I was executed on 30 January 1649. After he had faithfully promised to uphold the Solemn League and Covenant, Charles II was proclaimed King of Scots at Scone in 1651. But then in September 1651, Oliver Cromwell defeated the English and Scots Royalist armies at the battle of Worcester and Charles had to wait until 1660 before he was restored to the English and Scottish thrones.
One of the first acts of the Parliament of Scotland after Charles II was safely established in London was to summon the Reverend Samuel Rutherford to appear before it on a charge of High Treason. Rutherford’s crime was to have written a book called Lex Rex- the Law of the Prince, published in London in 1644.
Here I will throw in a snippet of movie history. Between 1627 and 1638, Rutherford was minister of Anwoth parish in the Kirkcubrightshire and remains of his church feature in the classic horror film the Wicker Man.
Lex Rex is a complex and deeply learned text, drawing on aspects of classical philosophy as well as theology. Remarkably for a Calvinist Presbyterian, Rutherford even quoted approvingly from Jesuit sources in developing his argument. So what was Rutherford’s argument? It is that although God in his wisdom, acting through natural law, requires that people, ‘being reasonable creatures united in society’ should have a system of government, the exact form such a government takes is not specified by God so may be a republic rather than a kingdom. If the form of government is a kingdom, the people limit the power of their king measuring out ‘by ounce weights, so much royal power, and no more and no less.’ Royal power measured out in this way is also conditional and the people ‘may take back to themselves what they gave out‘ if the king breaks his agreement or covenant with the people by becoming tyrannical.
For Charles II and his new regime, the philosophical and theological complexities of ‘Lex Rex’ were irrelevant, all that mattered was that Rutherford’s book provided a justification for the rebellion which led to the death of Charles I. Only Rutherford’s natural death in March 1660 saved him from the likely fate of public execution for High Treason.
Most Scots were quite happy to see the back of Oliver Cromwell
who had imposed a republican union of parliaments on Scotland. If Charles II had let sleeping dogs lie, the revival of the Covenants would probably not have occurred.
Unfortunately, Charles thought it would be a good idea to bring back the bishops. All ministers who been selected by their congregations since 1649 then had to be approved by the relevant bishop. In the Diocese of Glasgow and Galloway, 270 ministers refused to do so. To encourage compliance, in 1663 it was announced that any minister lacking his bishop’s approval would be removed from his parish. As a result, by 1666, 34 out of 37 ministers in the Synod of Galloway had been forced out from their parishes.
The outed ministers retained the loyalty of their parishioners however. Boycotting the parish churches, the people gathered in private houses and in the open air to hear their former minsters preach. These conventicles were then banned, but the people continued to attend. Fines were imposed on anyone attending a conventicle but the people refused to pay.
To enforce the law and disrupt the conventicles in Kirkcudbrightshire, in March 1666, Sir James Turner and 160 foot soldiers were dispatched to the county. Turner was supposed to have used the fines to line his own pockets and his troops, quartered on suspected conventiclers, acted so roughly the bishop of Galloway was moved to appeal for leniency.
Turner ignored the bishop and continued to milk actual or alleged conventiclers for fines until a few brave souls in St Hon’s Town of Dalry fought back in November 1666.
But was the uprising which began in Dalry and continued on and off for the next 22 years a religious or a political struggle? Hector MacPherson who studied the Covenanters religious and ethical thought was in no doubt.
The persecution of the later Covenanters was essentially a political persecution. It is a profound mistake to contend that the struggle was a religious one or even an ecclesiastical one in its essence. The Government did not wage it out of a disinterested zeal for Episcopalian form of Church government… Charles II and his Scottish advisers, who had in their day been Covenanters from political motives, cared little or nothing for Church government. But the Episcopal form was useful to them, because it is essentially bureaucratic, because the royal headship was easily grafted on to it, and because bishops- a few men appointed by the Crown and dependent on the royal favour- were much more easily managed than annual assemblies, in which every clergyman and elder had an equal vote.
In other words religion, as it had been for Henry VIII, was simply a tool to be used for political ends. The varieties of religious belief were ideologies to be enforced where they supported the Stuart state and suppressed where they opposed it.
In their political struggle against Stuart Absolutism,- the ‘divine right of kings to rule’ advocated by James VI and I- the Covenanters’ Calvinist ideology became an advantage to them. Ulike Lutherism, which relied on princes to carry through its ecclesiastical revolution, the ‘Reformed Church’ first established by Huldrych Zwingli in Zurich and then by John Calvin in Geneva was from its beginning in rebellion against both the Roman Catholic hierarchy and the Absolutist State. Zwingli was the citizen not of a monarchy but a small Swiss republic and Calvin a convert to a church in full opposition to the State- the Huguenot church in France.
This cultural heritage of resistance to State power sustained the Covenanters of the later seventeenth century in their 28 year long rebellion. As fugitives under sentence of death if captured, the rhetorical vehemence of their many ‘declarations’ are violent and extreme examples of this heritage. The apocalyptical Biblical quotes Chris Bambery used from James Renwick’s speech on the scaffold seem to confirm his argument that the Covenanters were violent religious extremists.
In contrast, here is the same James Renwick describing his lying on the open moor lands ‘when others were sleeping’ after a conventicle in 1685-
when the curtains of heaven have been drawn, when the quietness of all things, in the silent watches of the night, has brought to my mind the duty of admiring the deep, silent, and inexpressible ocean of joy and wonder, wherein the whole family of the higher house are everlastingly drowned, each star leading me out to wonder what He must be who is the Star of Jacob, the bright and morning Star, who maketh all his own to shine as stars in the firmament.
Even Richard Cameron, who declared war on Charles II and his brother James in June 1680 and was killed in July 1680 for so doing, saw in nature a divine revelation.
When you look to the moon and stars, to the rivers and brooks, do you see the hand of God in them? When you look to the very corn ridges, do you see the hand of God in them and every pile of grass?
Driven into the hills and moors of the Southern Uplands of Scotland by state persecution, the Covenanters’ rigid Bible based Calvinism began to soften and mutate into an agnostic or even atheist ‘natural theology’. Finding the divine in nature is more usually associated with eighteenth century romantics like William Wordsworth and twentieth century hippies than the Islamic/ religious fundamentalists Chris Bambery equates the Covenanters with.
On the other hand, unlike their contemporaries the Quakers, the Covenanters were not pacifists. They had muskets and knew how to use them. If the peace loving Quakers were proto-hippies, the Covenanters were proto-punks.
In his article Chris Bambery extracts the 1666 uprising of the Dalry Covenanters from its historical context and presents those involved as equivalent to the Daesh in Syria. In fact, what began in Dalry was not the beginnings of a Calvinist caliphate, but the first stirrings of a radical punk culture of resistance. The seeds sown in 1666 briefly flourished but then lay dormant in the dustbin of history until they flowered again in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain in the 1980s.