The Committee of Estates, 1640-60

Members of the Parliament of Scotland were traditionally elected from three "estates" or classes: the clergy (bishops), the nobility and lairds, and the burgesses (representatives of the royal burghs). Bishops were excluded when the anti-episcopalian Covenanters gained control of the Scottish government, leading to the Bishops' Wars between England and Scotland.

In June 1640, during an uneasy truce, the Scottish Parliament assembled in defiance of the King's attempts to postpone its sitting. A number of acts were passed that radically altered the constitution of Scotland including the confirmation of the removal of bishops, thus excluding one of the traditional estates from the Scottish Parliament.

A new Committee of Estates was appointed to govern Scotland when Parliament was not in session. It consisted of twelve members from each of the remaining estates: the nobles, lairds and burgesses and an additional three Lords of Session (magistrates). The Committee's primary responsibility was the defence of Scotland, for which it was granted powers to borrow money and to raise taxes. Generals of the army were given the right to attend meetings of the Committee. When convenient, the Committee was split in two, with one half remaining in Edinburgh while the other half accompanied the army on campaign.

The Committee was dominated by Covenanters. It was called again in August 1643 after the Convention of Estates had negotiated an alliance with the English Parliament to intervene against the Royalists in the English Civil War. The Committee remained in power whenever Parliament was not sitting throughout the turbulent 1640s.

During 1647-8, the Scottish government was split by the Engagement with King Charles I, but Engagers were driven from power by the Whiggamore Raid that followed the Scottish defeat at the battle of Preston. With the downfall of the Engagers, the fundamentalist Kirk Party became the dominant political force and governed Scotland as a theocracy from 1648-50. Although Charles II was accepted as the legitimate successor to his father in Scotland, doubts over his sincerity in signing the Covenant caused further divisions on the Committee of Estates and in Parliament. Against the background of Cromwell's invasion of Scotland, Charles manoeuvred to gain influence over the Committee and to reinstate Royalists to positions of power, culminating in the ill-fated march into England and the defeat of the Scots-Royalist army at the battle of Worcester in September 1651.

The Committee of Estates called upon all loyal Scots to unite in resisting the English invaders, but most of its members were arrested by Monck's soldiers at Alyth near Dundee at the end of August 1651. Remaining members were forced to withdraw to Rothesay on the remote Isle of Bute, where the Earl of Loudoun, lord-chancellor of Scotland, called for a Scottish parliament to meet at Finlarig in Perthshire in November 1651. The much-reduced Committee then dissolved itself. Only Loudoun and three other nobles arrived at Finlarig on the designated date, so the parliament never met.

The Committee of Estates did not meet again until August 1660 when it was re-appointed as an interim government for Scotland during the Restoration of Charles II.


S.R. Gardiner, History of the Great Civil War vol iv (London 1894)

David Stevenson, The Scottish Revolution 1637-44 (Newton Abbott 1973)

David Stevenson, Revolution & Counter-Revolution in Scotland 1644-51 (Newton Abbott 1977)

C.V. Wedgwood, The King's Peace (London 1955)