It was in summertime when all good things are supposed to happen.
With the birds singing and the flowers blooming, it is usually a time for rejoicing. This day was June 22 to be precise. Summertime had arrived, though in Scotland those who lived further south felt it was never summertime there. The year was 1679 and the day marked a tragic defeat for committed Christians in that country.
To understand the significance of the event, let’s go back in history 41 years to the year 1638 and before. In 1603 James VI of Scotland became James I of England, uniting the crowns of both countries. The attempt to force the two countries into one brought major problems—even by this king who had authorised the translation and printing of the “authorised” Bible. Charles I, his son, became king after him. Like all the Stuart kings, he believed in “divine right”—that God had appointed him to rule. Charles tried to form a unified church by making the Scottish bishops do things his way.
The Presbyterians were outraged.
They believed unquestionably that Jesus Christ was the head of the church. As the power of the bishops increased, that of the Scottish nobility was lessened. Many of the princes now stood behind the Presbyterian church.
Charles I pressed the issue too far in 1637 when he ordered the use of the English-style prayer book throughout Scotland without any consultation.
This brought revolution to a head and the National Covenant of Scotland was signed at Greyfriars Kirk in Edinburgh in 1638, as well as in many other places. This was seen as a milestone in Scottish history. The Covenant was an agreement—a contract—between the Scottish nation and God. It was signed by Scottish lords, by ministers of the church and by thousands of ordinary Scots. It was religious as well as political.
While acknowledging allegiance to God as paramount, it demanded a free Scottish assembly—without the bishops who appeared as lackeys of the king.
Momentous events followed—the beheading of Charles I in 1649; the defeat of Scotland by Cromwell and his forces, and more. Few in Scotland opposed the Restoration of Charles II in 1660—particularly when he agreed to support the National Covenant of 1638.
But Charles quickly reneged on his promises to the Scottish church and people. His troops were put at the disposal of the bishops to enforce uniformity. Many Scottish ministers refused to swear allegiance to the king’s bishops and were either expelled or left their churches and pulpits. They began to hold conventicles—religious meetings— in the glens, the moors and other isolated places.
This rebellion was met by increased force to ensure coercion. The king’s forces were routed in a small skirmish at Drumclog when the Presbyterian soldiers advanced singing Psalm 76. Reinforcements poured in for the Presbyterians from all over southern Scotland.
The king’s forces were also reinforced with soldiers from London.
The soldiers of the Scottish cause together with the many volunteers— often armed with pitchforks—gath ered near Glasgow on the banks of the Clyde River at Bothwell Bridge, near the suburb of Hamilton today. Here the ministers and others from scattered glens began to discuss the issues. Moderate voices were overwhelmed by those who declared the Lord was on their side and He had shown His hand on their behalf. Those who wished to discuss peace terms were overruled.
While these discussions were proceeding, the armed might of the king was being assembled with canon on the opposite bank of the river until more than 15,000 troops faced the motley band committed to the Covenant and to God.
The thousands of Presbyterians had a stronger defensible position, but they were divided on what they should do and how they should do it. Ministers long exiled into the crags and nooks of the mountains harangued the crowds. Who was a true Covenanter? Those who had existed in the mountains or those who stayed swearing allegiance to the bishops? All were willing to die for their cause.
A group of 300 brave Scots held the bridge for three hours until ammunition was exhausted. They called for more and for reinforcements but none came.
The army moved relentlessly across the bridge and the canon blasted a withering fire leaving 400 dead on the battlefield. Twelve hundred were captured and marched in triumph as prisoners to Edinburgh. There they were herded like cattle into an open enclosure in the south-west corner of Greyfriars’ churchyard.
What irony! This was the same place where some 40 years earlier their parents and grandparents had signed the National Covenant— some with their blood. Without shelter in the cold and rain, the numbers decreased until by November only 257 remained of the 1200.
These weary, sick and discouraged prisoners were moved to Leith and forced into the hold of a ship designed for just 100 persons.
While sailing to the West Indies, the ship was wrecked in the Orkneys. While some 60 were saved, the rest perished.
Graves at Scarvating mark their resting place.
What can we learn from Bothwell Bridge? Can this tragic story tell us how we should think and act in more modern times? These six points (see list) are some lessons we should never forget.
Yes, there are things to die for—and to live for. There are truths that should instruct how we should live. But remember that Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace, shows us how to deal with friends and enemies alike. Let us respect the rights of others as we exercise our rights.