The Kirk Party

Covenanter bannerFollowing the final disbandment of Engager forces in Scotland under the terms of the Treaty of Stirling (September 1648), the fundamentalist Covenanters who had refused to support the compromise Engagement with King Charles became the dominant political force in the government of Scotland. The Kirk Party — sometimes known as "Whigs" after the Whiggamore Raid that had brought down the Engager régime — was dominated by Archibald Campbell, Marquis of Argyll. Initially, the Kirk Party depended upon the support of Oliver Cromwell and the English army that occupied Scotland following the military defeat of the Engagers at the battle of Preston. Cromwell withdrew into England upon reaching agreement with Argyll that Engagers and Royalists would be excluded from public office in Scotland.

The Kirk Party's denouncement of the Engagers was formulated into the Act of Classes, passed by the Scottish Parliament in January 1649. Supporters of the Engagement were classified according to their degree of involvement in the régime and barred from holding public office accordingly: the worst offenders were barred for life, lesser offenders for periods of ten years, five years or one year. The purging of the Engagers resulted in a weakening of the power of the Scottish nobility and a corresponding strengthening of the influence of the burgesses and clergy. Under the Kirk Party, the government of Scotland briefly became a theocracy, characterised by regular purges of officials and soldiers regarded as ungodly or "malignant". The Kirk's desire to stamp out sin and to enforce moral reform, in accordance with the principles of the Covenant, resulted in one of Scotland's periodic "witch-crazes" during 1649-50, in which hundreds of alleged witches were persecuted, with many burned at the stake.

Opinion in Scotland was unanimously hostile to the execution of King Charles I in January 1649, which forced the Kirk Party to abandon its informal alliance with the English Parliament. Charles II was proclaimed King of Scots in February 1649, but the Kirk Party insisted that he should first accept the Covenant and promise to establish Presbyterian church government throughout the Three Kingdoms. Realising that he needed a Scottish army to help him regain the thrones of England and Ireland, Charles was obliged to sign the Treaty of Breda in May 1650. He reluctantly took the Covenant upon his arrival in Scotland the following month.

The Kirk Party struggled to keep Charles under its control by banishing most of his closest advisers and by insisting upon purging the Scottish army of all but strict Covenanters in the weeks before the battle of Dunbar. Up to 80 veteran officers and 3,000 experienced soldiers were judged unfit to serve and were replaced by inexperienced recruits, which contributed to the Scottish defeat at Dunbar and discredited the Kirk Party.

In October 1650, Charles attempted to overthrow the Kirk Party in a plot known as "the Start". The projected coup failed through Charles' last-minute indecision, but the power of the Kirk Party on the Committee of Estates was weakened when moderates realised that they could not break with the King and remain a legitimate government. For the first time since his arrival in Scotland, Charles was allowed to attend meetings of the Committee, and his influence steadily increased. The Kirk Party was further weakened when hardline Covenanters broke away to form the Remonstrant movement and a deep schism opened with the emergence of pro-Royalist "Resolutioners", who were prepared to accept Royalists and former Engagers back into the government of Scotland providing they made public penance for their sins and misdeeds.

The Resolutioners were opposed by Remonstrants and "Protesters", but after Charles was finally crowned King of Scots at Scone by the Marquis of Argyll in January 1651 his power rapidly increased as Royalists and Engagers gained influence over the army, the Committee of Estates and the Scottish Parliament. The Kirk Party was unable to prevent the repeal of the Act of Classes in June 1651, which brought its dominance over the government of Scotland to an end.


S.R. Gardiner, History of the Commonwealth and Protectorate vol. i (London 1903)

Ronald Hutton, The British Republic 1649-60 (Basingstoke 2000)

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