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date: 27 November 2021

Kirk partyfree

(act. 1648–1651)

Kirk partyfree

(act. 1648–1651)
  • John R. Young

Kirk party (act. 1648–1651), was the radical regime that took power in Scotland in the aftermath of the defeat by Oliver Cromwell's forces of the engagement army, led by James Hamilton, first duke of Hamilton, at the battle of Preston on 17 August 1648.

The engagement: advocates and opponents

The kirk party's origin can be traced to the opposition of the general assembly of the Church of Scotland to the engagement (1648) and to the emergence of a radical, anti-engager minority during the Scottish parliamentary session of 1648. The engagement treaty had been signed on 26 December 1647 by Charles I, William Hamilton, first earl of Lanark (Hamilton's younger brother), John Campbell, first earl of Loudoun, and John Maitland, second earl of Lauderdale in response to the Scottish parliament's decision of 16 January 1647 to hand over the king to the jurisdiction of the English parliament in the aftermath of the first civil war in England, and the king's escape from Hampton Court to Carisbrooke Castle, where he met the Scottish negotiators. In terms of Scottish parliamentary factionalism this marked a defeat for the radical faction led by Archibald Campbell, first marquis of Argyll, and indicated a wider conservative stance of the Scottish aristocracy towards the defence of the king.

The engagement treaty sought to defend and restore Charles I's authority, the king receiving Scottish military aid in return for concessions. Charles agreed to confirm the solemn league and covenant in the English parliament, but neither he nor his subjects were obliged to subscribe it. Presbyterian church government was to be confirmed, but only for a trial period of three years, before a final settlement involving the king, the English parliament, and an assembly of divines. Independents, heretics, and schismatics were to be suppressed. Furthermore, Charles promised to ratify the proceedings of the first triennial parliament in Scotland (1644–7), and to pay the debts owed to Scotland by the English parliament. The treaty also sought to redefine the nature of the existing Anglo-Scottish dynastic union. The Hamilton faction rejected the confessional confederation outlined in the solemn league and covenant of 1643 in favour of an incorporating union. If these concessions were accepted by Charles, then Scotland would bring the king to London to secure a personal treaty with the English parliament. If this was not granted peacefully, then a Scottish army would be sent into England to defend the king and his authority, restore him to his government, and preserve religion.

The duke of Hamilton's faction was dominant in the 1648 session of the second triennial parliament (1648–51), opponents of the engagement treaty being then in the minority. The key figures in this parliamentary opposition were the marquess of Argyll and Sir Archibald Johnston of Wariston. Robert Baillie identified nine of the fifty-six nobles present as opposed to the engagement. In addition to Argyll these included John Elphinstone, second Lord Balmerino, Robert Balfour, second Lord Balfour of Burleigh, John Kennedy, sixth earl of Cassillis, Alexander Montgomery, sixth earl of Eglinton, and William Kerr, third earl of Lothian. Baillie, a Church of Scotland minister also opposed to the engagement, further noted that more than half of the barons and half the burgesses supported the engagement, and that in parliament 'none did speak but Argyle and Warriston, sometimes Cassillis and Balmerinoch' (Letters and Journals of Robert Baillie, 3.35). Presbyterian ministers who subsequently participated in the kirk party regime had also voiced opposition to the engagement earlier in 1648. Samuel Rutherford, for example, played an important role in the commission for the public affairs of the kirk (commonly known as the commission of the kirk) in orchestrating a campaign against the engagement. In March 1648 Rutherford presented parliament with a declaration from the kirk against the engagement that followed a similar condemnation by another minister and adherent of the kirk party, Patrick Gillespie.

Preparations for a military invasion of England, to be led by Hamilton, were made during the 1648 parliamentary session. However, the invasion itself was poorly organized and unco-ordinated and engagement forces were easily defeated by Cromwell at the battle of Preston. It was Hamilton's defeat in August 1648 that led to the foundation of the kirk party, which drew support from the whiggamore raid, an armed attack on Edinburgh against the engagers, emanating from the west and south-west of the country in late August and early September. Ayrshire, Clydesdale, and Galloway were the three main regions opposed to the engagement and several thousand men marched on Edinburgh. The raid may have been a spontaneous uprising of western radicals lower down the social scale, but the whiggamores were joined by the western nobles Cassillis, Eglinton, Loudoun, Alexander, and Alexander Leslie, first earl of Leven, as well as the army officer David Leslie. The whiggamores faced armed resistance from engager forces and were defeated at Stirling on 12 September. But faced with Cromwell's entry into Scotland on the 21st, and the desire to avoid civil war in Scotland, an agreement between the engagers and the whiggamores was struck in the treaty of Stirling of 27 September. Engager forces were to disband and in return engagers who accepted the treaty would not be injured in life, estate, title or freedom. The Stirling treaty therefore marked the end of the engagement.

Kirk party in control, 1648–50

The main period of the kirk party's existence was from September 1648 until the battle of Dunbar on 3 September 1650. The kirk party regime established itself in September 1648 among the radical minority membership of the committee of estates that had been formed in the 1648 parliamentary session, in collaboration with the commission of the kirk. The committee of estates—which sat as an executive or provisional government between parliamentary sessions or between parliaments—was the most important parliamentary committee that operated under the covenanters, having been first established in the parliamentary session of June 1640. On 22 September the committee displayed its anti-engager credentials by banning all engagers from holding office and from participating in parliamentary elections.

In early October the marquess of Argyll played a critical role in negotiating with Cromwell to secure support for the new regime. Between 4 and 7 October Cromwell and a delegation of English army officers were in Edinburgh where they were entertained by the committee of estates (including Argyll, Burleigh, Cassillis, Leven, and Wariston). A delegation from the commission of the kirk, comprising David Dickson, Robert Blair, and James Guthrie, visited Cromwell on 5 October and thanked him for the brotherly assistance given to them by the godly people of England. On 5 October, in correspondence with the committee of estates, Cromwell demanded the exclusion of engagers from public office. Adherents of the kirk party combined this continuing opposition to the engagers with a strongly anti-aristocratic outlook. As a result the Scottish nobility witnessed a loss of power and influence during the regime: only sixteen nobles, for example, were present in the second session of the second triennial parliament from 4 January to 16 March 1649, a reduction of forty compared to the 1648 session. The figures for the shires and burghs (whose members were strongly supportive of the kirk regime) were forty-six and fifty-one respectively in the 1649 session.

The policy of purging of engagers from public offices continued in the 1649 session. Speeches by Argyll, in which he promised a 'brecking of the malignants teith', and by Wariston, who vowed to 'breck ther jawes' (Historical Works of Sir James Balfour, 3.377), provided the background to the 1649 Act of Classes, introduced on 23 January to implement promises made to Cromwell by the committee of estates. The 1649 legislation was modelled on an act of 1646 that had been introduced to punish (predominantly through fines) three classes, or categories, of people involved in the Montrose rebellion of 1644–5. The 1649 act identified four classes. The first was aimed at leading political and military promoters of the engagement, as well as those involved in the Montrose rebellion. Those found guilty under the first class were barred from holding public office or participating in public affairs. Lesser categories of offender were to receive reduced punishments: exclusion from public office for at least ten years (second class), five years or less (third class), and exclusion for one year (fourth class). Unlike the act of 1646, that of 1649 did not include the penalty of execution.

Further purging of the executive and the judiciary duly took place, with Cassillis replacing William Cunningham, eighth earl of Glencairn, as justice-general. The purging of lesser offices was devolved to Wariston (together with the committee of estates) who also oversaw the implementation of the Act of Classes after the end of the parliamentary session. The ArgyllWariston political relationship is crucial for understanding the internal politics of the covenanting movement. Wariston was closely aligned with Argyll and it was Argyll's influence that ensured that Wariston was elected for Argyllshire in 1648. Wariston was at the heart of the kirk party regime and it is unsurprising that—along with such other committed radicals as Sir James Hope of Hopetoun, Hugh Kennedy (d. after 1660), Robert Barclay (d. 1681), and George Porterfield (d. 1674), the parliamentary burgesses for Ayr, Irvine, and Glasgow respectively—he was a member of the 1650 parliamentary session committee for witch-hunting. Such activities drew on the kirk party's close association with the promotion of godly rule. This resulted in an unprecedented level of social and moral legislation, including that concerning witch-hunting of 1649–50.

Negotiations with Charles II

The kirk party's response to the execution of Charles I was to proclaim his son Charles II as king of Great Britain, France, and Ireland on 5 February 1649. He was, however, to be a covenanted king of three covenanted kingdoms. The kirk party was committed to a covenanted monarchy on a British basis, Charles II being required to take the 1638 national covenant and the 1643 solemn league and covenant before he could be king. Notwithstanding these demands, the kirk party's decision to proclaim Charles as king reasserted the Stuarts' international identity within the wider context of a confederal union. According to a contemporary commentator it was also due to 'the great Influence and Authority of the Marquis of Argyle upon the members both of Church and State' (Hamilton of Kinkell, Memoirs of Scots Affairs, fols. 67–8). Not only did the proclamation threaten the strategic security of the Cromwellian regime—resulting in Cromwell's military invasion of Scotland in summer 1650—but it also led to ideological divisions within the kirk party over the king's position. For the more radical elements Cromwell's subsequent military success in Scotland—especially at the battle of Dunbar on 3 September 1650—was evidence of God's wrath against a sinful nation, and of the need for further purging to please God and so secure victory with a more godly army.

Diplomatic commissioners had first been dispatched by the kirk party to negotiate with Charles in Holland in 1649. The original intention was to send the Scottish commissioners then in London—namely Lothian, Sir John Cheisly of Cresswell, and William Glendoning (d. 1650), parliamentary burgess for Kirkcudbright in south-west Scotland—but they had been arrested in England as a result of their protest against the execution of Charles I, and their demand that Charles II should be accepted as king. They were later released, but in the meantime the kirk party selected new commissioners. It was intended that Balmerino should lead the diplomatic commission, but he died in February 1649 and was replaced by Cassillis. Cassillis, Alexander Brodie of that ilk, George Winram of Liberton, and Alexander Jaffray, represented parliament on the diplomatic commission. The church was represented by Cassillis and Liberton, and by three ministers, James Wood, Robert Blair, and Robert Baillie. The commissioners first met Charles at The Hague on 27 March 1649 but by 19 May, Charles having responded to their demands, the negotiations had failed and the commissioners returned to Scotland in June. Argyll was in favour of new negotiations, however, and a second delegation was sent to Charles at Breda in March 1650. Divisions existed among the kirk party delegation. Lothian, Liberton, and Sir John Smith (d. after 1677), parliamentary burgess for Edinburgh, supported Argyll's policy of making concessions to Charles if necessary, whereas Cassillis, Brodie, and Jaffray adhered to a no-compromise stance over Charles's taking the covenants and disowning his treaty with the Irish. The last three commissioners had been chosen by the church to represent them again, along with John Livingstone, James Wood, and George Hutcheson. A deal was eventually struck in the treaty of Breda and the king pragmatically took the covenants at Speymouth on 23 June 1650.

Resistance to the resulting Cromwellian invasion of Scotland in the summer of 1650 was undermined by military purges in pursuit of a godly army. Parliament had passed a specific Act for Purging the Army on 22 June 1649 'to the effect that none be suffered to bide in the Army who are of a profane, Maligant & Scandalous carriage' (APS, 7/2, 446–7) and a subcommittee of the committee of estates for this purpose was also in operation in January 1650. Argyll and David Wemyss, second earl of Wemyss, were the only two noblemen included in the thirteen-man committee, which was again dominated by the gentry.

Divisions and collapse, 1650–51

The kirk party's emerging ideological divisions came to the fore in the western remonstrance of October 1650. The work of Patrick Gillespie, and approved by Wariston and James Guthrie, the remonstrance stated that support for Charles II should be rejected until he provided evidence of genuine repentance for his sins. The remonstrance was not sanctioned by any nobleman, but it did have the support of western lairds like Sir Hugh Campbell of Cessnock and Sir George Maxwell of Nether Pollock. Divisions came to a head with the issuing on 14 December of the public resolutions by the commission of the kirk; these led to fundamental and long-term division within the church between two clerical factions, the protesters and resolutioners. The public resolutions stated that it was parliament's responsibility to employ all lawful means to defend Scotland. This eventually opened the way for the readmission of royalists and engagers into the armed forces. Protesters, on the other hand, opposed this outcome. Patrick Gillespie, James Guthrie, George Hutcheson, and John Livingstone belonged to the protester faction, as did Wariston. They had strong support in the west and south-west of the country, whereas the resolutioners' strength was in the north and east. Robert Blair and David Dickson were important resolutioner ministers.

Charles II's coronation took place at Scone in Perthshire on 1 January 1651. The coronation sermon was given by Robert Douglas—the leading resolutioner minister and moderator of the commission of the kirk—who harangued the king over his personal sins and those of his father, grandfather, and other members of the royal family. It was Argyll, as leader of the kirk party regime, who placed the crown on Charles's head. According to Alexander Hamilton of Kinkell, Argyll's execution on 27 July 1661, following the Restoration, was due to his role at the coronation: 'it was the Marquis of Argyles part that day to put the Crown on the Kings head, who had acted the chieff part in bringing him home and how he was rewarded for that service by that same King, the Histories of these times make plain; for he took his head from his Shoulders for putting the Crown on his' (Hamilton of Kinkell, Memoirs of Scots Affairs, fols. 301–2). Argyll's execution, together with those of Guthrie in June 1661 and Wariston in July 1663, were symbolic of punishment for the covenanting period in Scotland.

The necessity of national unity in the face of the Cromwellian penetration of Scotland eventually resulted, on 2 June 1651, in the repeal of the 1646 and 1649 Acts of Classes in order to strengthen the armed forces capable of fighting against Cromwell, and so also allow royalists and former engagers to return to political and civil office. However, with the Scots' abortive military invasion of England in 1651, led by Charles II, and with defeat at Worcester on 3 September 1651, the covenanting revolution that had commenced in Scotland in 1637 ended with defeat and a military conquest by Cromwell secured by late 1651. The kirk party regime must shoulder a good deal of responsibility for that failure and conquest, and revenge would later be taken at the Restoration settlement.


  • A. Hamilton of Kinkell, ‘Memoirs of Scots affairs after the death of Charles I to the Restoration’, U. Edin. L., Dc.5.44
  • The historical works of Sir James Balfour, ed. J. Haig, 4 vols. (1824–5)
  • The letters and journals of Robert Baillie, ed. D. Laing, 3 vols. (1841–2)
  • A. I. Macinnes, The British revolution, 1629–1660 (2005)
  • A. F. Mitchell and J. Christie, eds., The records of the commissions of the general assemblies of the Church of Scotland, 3 vols., Scottish History Society, 11, 25, 58 (1892–1909)
  • A. Peterkin, ed., Records of the Kirk of Scotland (1838)
  • D. Stevenson, Revolution and counter-revolution in Scotland, 1644–1651, rev. edn (2003)
  • M. D. Young, ed., The parliaments of Scotland: burgh and shire commissioners, 2 vols. (1992–3)
  • J. R. Young, ‘Scottish covenanting radicalism, the commission of the kirk and the establishment of the parliamentary radical regime of 1648–9’, Records of the Scottish Church History Society, 25 (1995), 342–75
  • J. R. Young, The Scottish parliament, 1639–1661: a political and constitutional analysis (1996)
  • J. R. Young, ‘The Scottish parliament and the war for the three kingdoms, 1639–51’, Parliaments, Estates and Representation, 21 (2001), 103–23
  • J. R. Young, ‘The covenanters and the Scottish parliament, 1639–51: the rule of the godly and the second Scottish reformation’, Enforcing reformation in Ireland and Scotland, 1550–1700, ed. E. A. Boran and C. Gribben (2006)
  • J. R. Young, ‘The Scottish parliament and witch-hunting in Scotland under the covenanters’, Parliaments, Estates and Representation, 26 (2006), 53–66
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, 12 vols. in 13 (1814–75)