Voices and Voicing in the Scottish Revolution, 1637-51

Our next post in ‘The Voices of the People’ symposium (full programme here) is by Laura A.M. Stewart, Senior Lecturer in Early Modern British History at Birkbeck, University of London. As they have done in our previous three posts, issues of power and the authority to speak continue to loom large, but our next two posts show a different aspect of that relationship – highlighting contexts in which the voices of ordinary people in the early modern period could, in albeit heavily circumscribed contexts, be accorded a degree of value and legitimacy.

Laura A.M. Stewart 

In the spring of 1639, Scotland was facing an invading foreign army for the first time in eight decades. During the previous year, thousands of Scottish people had covenanted with one another and with God in defence of religion, kingdom, and king. This event had persuaded the government in London that Scotland was in revolt and needed to be restored to order through the use of force. Scotland and England had been joined together under one ruler since 1603, when King James VI of Scotland had acceded to the English throne on the death of Elizabeth I, but the Covenanters were not seeking liberation from British monarchic rule. Indeed, by seeking to repatriate some of the powers claimed by a London-based monarch, and thereby enable Scottish representative bodies to have a greater say in decision-making, the Covenanters offer parallels with current debates on the Anglo-Scottish union.[1] Unfortunately, the king in question, Charles I (1600-1649), did not believe he needed to be protected against ‘evil counsel’ by his Scottish subjects and he construed their religious covenant – with some justification – as an act of rebellion against his authority. Thankfully, Prime Minister David Cameron does not appear to have consulted the published works of Charles I’s polemicists on the perennial nature of the ‘British problem’.[2] For the second king of Britain, the best way of maintaining ‘one nation’ was to invade Scotland.[3]

In giving ‘mutual defence and assistance’ to one another as war loomed, the men and women of all social ranks who swore the National Covenant vowed never to ‘suffer ourselves to be divided’ and always to put ‘the common happiness’ before personal gain.[4] Historians have tended to think about the Covenant as a text to be read and signed, but many more people encountered it aurally and responded to it with voices rather than pens. My forthcoming book examines the communal swearing ceremonies that greeted the Covenant in parishes throughout the country. In some places, these ceremonies were emotionally charged events, in which entire parish communities gathered together to give voice to their faith. Leading clerics and politicians asserted in print and from the pulpit that the safety of the Scottish nation depended on the unity of its people.[5]

To express disapproval or dissent in such an intense atmosphere was a difficult and potentially dangerous act. In May 1639, the magistrates of the burgh of Dunfermline (about 17 miles north from Edinburgh across the firth of Forth) were busy trying to recruit soldiers for the impending war. A female inhabitant, Margaret Mowtray, expressed her opposition to the levy and was charged by the magistrates with uttering slanderous speeches. We are given some flavour of what she said, but not her actual words: Mowtray was accused of ‘calumniating of the armie that went [to the rendezvous] and for deprecating ane horrible judgment to befall thame’.[6]

Perhaps Mowtray was afraid that the boys and men who were being sent to the borders, some of whom were certainly her neighbours and may have been her kin, would never return home. Perhaps she agreed with those who argued against the Covenanters that it was wrong for subjects to take up arms against their king. We can neither know her motivations nor anything about the all-important context in which Mowtray spoke: where was she, who did she intend to hear her words, and what gestures accompanied them? It was one thing to be overheard complaining against the government whilst in conversation with another person, in the market place or on the way to church; quite another if Mowtray had been standing on the main thoroughfare of the burgh, lambasting the soldiers as they mustered under the burgh’s colours. How Mowtray responded to her accusers also remains unknown. She was fined a relatively modest sum and threatened with an uncomfortable form of public punishment, known as the joggis, if she failed to pay.

Mowtray’s outburst – or the recording of it – appears to have been relatively unusual in civil war Scotland. We would need to uncover many more examples to assess whether Mowtray was in any way representative of popular political opinion on the eve of the wars with Charles I. As a woman, almost certainly of humble origins (she may have been unmarried, since there is no mention of a husband either living or dead), the fact that Mowtray spoke at all is worthy of comment. The act of giving voice, regardless of the words used, was itself a politicized act in a world in which speech was carefully regulated. The sound of voices, as Andy Wood has pointed out, was intimately related to concepts of order – men of property, officeholders, and clerics were entitled to speak; the poor and women were not.[7] When the latter spoke, they were often registering a break with custom or consensus: these voices are recorded as oppositional, offensive, disobedient, defiant. Mowtray was perhaps remarkable, not for the tenor of her views, but the fact that she had broken social and political convention by airing them.

Under certain circumstances, the subversive sound of the lone female voice could be heard as a challenge, not to the social hierarchy itself, but to public men who were failing in their duty. A satirical verse of 1639 uses the figure of the low-born woman to urge the great men of the kingdom to prove themselves ‘a blissing to your natione’ by defending the Covenant, defying the bishops, and standing to ‘Christ, the countries liberty and croune’.[8] The central character, known as ‘Madie’, would have been known to Scottish readers familiar with the political poetry produced during the crisis surrounding the deposition of Queen Mary (1542-1587) in 1567. On one level, the words put into Madie’s mouth demonstrate the social conservatism of the author. It is the great men who will ‘satle this distracted natione’ by using parliament for its intended purpose of protecting the people’s liberties. She has been compelled to take violent action – a reference to the Edinburgh Prayer Book riots of July 1637 – because Scotland’s lords need to be reminded of their responsibilities. This granting of licence to what Natalie Zemon Davis called the ‘unruly woman’ was, of course, a well-known device that ultimately served to reinforce existing ideas about the social hierarchy.[9]

Nonetheless, the pamphlet is noteworthy in that Madie gets to speak first and at length – even if, predictably, her words are but ‘idle tealles’ until the truth of them has been verified through a ‘tryell’ voiced, we may assume, by a man of superior birth. Yet the very fact that Madie is expressing what is presented as a female opinion about politics, politicians, and parliament – ordinarily considered the business of men – hints at the subversive implications of presbyterian views on spiritual equality. Madie has, of course, been permitted to ‘freily tell my mynde’ because she is doing so in defence of true religion. This depiction of a political culture in which religion and politics was being discussed in market places by women of the lowest rank would have struck home for readers in the context of the late 1630s: it was common knowledge that low-born women had been organizers of, as well as participants in, the riots that would ultimately trigger the collapse of Charles I’s government.

The lone voice could be influential: women’s words were capable of galvanizing men into action, as the events of the late 1630s appeared to show. Their potency came from the knowledge that these women represented a larger constituency. Madie speaks here for the commonalty who had, apparently spontaneously, raised their voices against Charles I’s religious policies and were now concerned that ‘our nobles’ would abandon them and sell out ‘the comon causse’. To prevent his happening, ‘countrey and comonweill’ must speak with one voice as a collective body. ‘Voicing’ was a public performance and it implies the giving of consent; the phrase ‘all in ane voice’ is a commonplace of all those sources in which some form of consultative activity is recorded. ‘Voicing’ as a collective arguably gave practical expression to the ideological construction of ‘the people’ as the repository of Scottish sovereignty. ‘The people’ did not have the right to take action as individuals on their own authority, because their power should ordinarily be exercised for them by their magistrates. In certain emergency situations, however, the people were expected, even obligated, to give voice. According to the Covenanter polemicist, Samuel Rutherford (1600-1661), the people were entitled to ‘defend in their way’ the true Protestant religion. By speaking against unjust laws that imperilled the faith, the people possessed the power to render them ‘not Lawes at all’.[10]

Although this passage is ambiguous, it is likely that Rutherford understood the people’s voice as a collective rather than exclusively popular one. This has an important bearing on how we interpret the political crisis that led to the implosion of Charles I’s Scottish government. In response to the introduction of a Prayer Book that many Scots found offensive to their preferred form of worship, riots broke out in Edinburgh. When this carefully choreographed event failed to have the desired effect of persuading Charles to abandon the Book, leading clerics and politicians began organizing petitions against it. The surviving supplications, forty-six in number, aimed to eschew accusations that they were the work of a headless multitude. Many, not surprisingly, were produced by local church courts. Others purported to come from ‘the community’, ‘the parishioners’, or ‘the congregation’. To what extent subordinate groupings were actively involved in drawing up these petitions is difficult to discern. One of the most remarkable of the supplications included the signatures of hundreds of people, many of whom seem to have been of humble origin, and in this respect it clearly presages the 1638 National Covenant.[11]

Although we can argue that this petition, like the Covenant, was representative of the popular voice, it was clearly not the invention or creation of ‘the people’. Indeed, the political impact of the petition comes from its claim to represent the ‘community’ – or, more likely, its public face: male householders. Rich and poor, propertied and propertyless are there, but in strict accordance with social status. Likewise with the Covenant: where the undifferentiated ‘commons’ were positioned behind the noblemen, barons, burgesses, and ministers. A similar situation prevails when we examine the communal swearing ceremonies in which ordinary people from all ranks of society – young and old, men and women – gave voice to their faith. For possibly the first and only time in their lives, ordinary people were being asked to give consent to a particular kind of constitution. The sound of so many voices declaring together as one, in defiance of the political and ecclesiastical establishment, was undoubtedly an extraordinarily powerful and highly effective political performance. But because the people of Scotland were speaking as one, individual responses are largely lost to us.

Mowtray’s fate reminds us that the Covenant had been invented by a governing and clerical elite that would soon be in a position to discipline those who had voiced against it. People who had failed to voice at all also risked trouble: to remain silent when expected to speak came to be interpreted as an act of resistance. This does not mean that we should regard the swearing of the Covenant only as an exercise in social control. Ordinary people proved worryingly capable of interpreting the Covenant for themselves and appropriating it for their own purposes. When the ‘sillie cottars’ who populated the rural parish of Glasford in Lanarkshire descended on their local presbytery to demand the right to elect their minister, they claimed that their actions had been necessitated by their reading of the Covenant. Here we get a glimpse of how the experience of collective voicing could become an empowering one for some of the poorer members of a hierarchical society.[12]

Scotland’s governing structures offered relatively few opportunities for subordinate groupings to voice their opinion. Those who spoke out, like Mowtray, risked punishment and ostracization by governing elites who regarded it as their duty to maintain community harmony above all things. Voicing as a collective was a good idea because it offered safety in numbers. More important was the social composition of the collective. The credible claim to be speaking as a community headed by male householders gave women and the poor the opportunity to join their voices with those who could protect them and counter charges that they were nothing more than a seditious rascality. Although this strategy undoubtedly makes it difficult for historians to hear which voice belongs to whom, understanding the tensions created by the interplay between collective and individual voicing can give us deeper insights into the meaning and significance of political words, gestures, and actions in early modern Scotland.


[1] A poll carried out in December 2014 on behalf of Scotland’s governing party, the Scottish National Party, found that support for maximum devolution (or ‘devo max’), in which Westminster retains sovereignty but cedes self-government to Scotland, is currently at 51 per cent, http://whatscotlandthinks.org/questions/do-you-agree-or-disagree-that-the-scottish-parliament-should-control-all-areas [accessed 01/06/2015]. In the referendum held in September 2014, the vote in favour of full independence was 45 per cent on a turnout of 85 per cent, http://scotlandreferendum.info/ [accessed 01/06/2015].

[2] There is no universally acknowledged definition. The ‘new British history’ that emerged in the 1990s drew attention to the processes of both resistance and assimilation resulting from England’s increasing dominance over the rest of the British Isles. See, for example, John Morrill, ‘Thinking about the New British History’ in David Armitage (ed.), British Political Thought in History, Literature and Theory, 1500-1800 (Cambridge, 2006).

[3] Prime minister’s speech, 8 May 2015, https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/election-2015-prime-ministers-speech [accessed 01/06/2015].

[4] For an accessible version of the 1638 National Covenant, see The Records of the Parliaments of Scotland to 1707, K.M. Brown et al eds (St Andrews, 2007-2015), 1640/6/36 [accessed: 01/06/2015].

[5] Laura A.M. Stewart, Rethinking the Scottish Revolution: Covenanted Scotland, 1637-1651 (Oxford, forthcoming, 2016), ch. 2.

[6] National Archives of Scotland, Burgh of Dunfermline Town Council Minutes, 1638-50, B20/13/1, p.29. The ‘joggis’ was a hinged iron collar which was locked round the offender’s neck with a padlock and was attached by a short chain to a wall or post.

[7] Wood, Andy, ‘The queen is “a goggyll eyed hoore”’: gender and seditious speech in early modern England’ in Nicholas Tyacke, ed., The English Revolution, c.1590-1720: Politics, Religion and Communities (Manchester, 2007), 84.

[8] ‘The kealwyves comoninge or Currant Newes from ye parlaiment housse in Aguste 1639’, A Book of Scotish [Sic] Pasquils, 1568-1715, ed. James Maidment (Edinburgh, 1868), 80-82.

[9] Natalie Zemon Davis, ‘Women on top’ in Society and Culture in Early Modern France: Eight Essays (Stanford, 1975).

[10] Samuel Rutherford, Lex Rex (1644), Qu.XIV.

[11] Register of the Privy Council of Scotland, 2nd series, ed. David Masson, 8 vols (Edinburgh: H.M. General Register House, 1899-1908), vi, 709-715.

[12] Laura A.M. Stewart, ‘Cromwell and the Scots’ in Jane A. Mills, ed., Cromwell’s Legacy (Manchester, 2012), 99.

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6 thoughts on “Voices and Voicing in the Scottish Revolution, 1637-51

  1. This post highlights a really important aspect of the history of ‘the voices of the people’ that I think has surprisingly received little attention in the other pieces for the symposium: the fact that popular voices could actually be seen by contemporaries in a strongly positive light. Laura Sangha’s post hits on some of these issues too, but the Covenanters are a vivid example of the power of ‘vox populi’, even in a pre-democratic society. By signing up thousands of relatively ‘ordinary’ people, the Covenanters were able to claim a mandate that wouldn’t be available to a purely ‘elite’ protest.

    As the post shows very effectively, the ‘voice of the people’ was not truly ‘democratic’ – it organised hierarchically and excluded most non-householders – nor was it universally endorsed by ‘ordinary people, which led to harsh discipline against dissident voices. But, for all that, it was still a valorisation of vox populi, making it quite different from most of the cases discussed by other contributors.

    • Great point Brodie – and the same was true in the sixteenth century rebellions to some extent, where rebels claimed to speak for ‘the commons’ or ‘the commonwealth’: they were claiming a mandate of popular support, possibly even making claims about a form of popular sovereignty. Such claims were not uncontested at that time, of course, but in this period when many political theorists claimed that ordinary people ‘had no voice or authority’ this clearly wasn’t the whole story.

  2. Pingback: History A'la Carte 10-15-15 - Random Bits of Fascination

  3. Pingback: Addressing Authority: Petitions and Supplications in Early Modern Europe | the many-headed monster

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