The First Bishops' War, 1639

Scottish preparations for war began in January 1639. The covenanting lords Argyll, Montrose, Rothes, Balmerino and others met in Edinburgh to co-ordinate strategy. Instructions were issued to Scottish shires to start recruiting troops and training them for war, and an appeal was issued calling upon Protestant Scots serving abroad to return and fight for the Covenant. Among those who responded was the renowned veteran Alexander Leslie, who was appointed commander-in-chief of Covenanter forces.

Meanwhile, King Charles proclaimed his intention of raising an army against the Scots. In April 1639, he summoned his nobles to attend him in arms at York. The King planned an ambitious campaign: he would raise an army of 20,000 men to attack Edinburgh, the Earl of Antrim would invade western Scotland with troops from Ireland while the Marquis of Hamilton would command a naval expedition to land troops behind enemy lines on the east coast. With Royalist clans attacking from the Highlands, it was expected that the Covenanters would be quickly overwhelmed. However, the King's preparations proceeded slowly, hampered by a lack of funds. There was little enthusiasm for the war in England, where most Puritans were sympathetic to the Covenanter cause.

War Breaks Out, Spring 1639

The First Bishops War campaign map
The First Bishops' War, 1639

During March 1639, the Covenanters moved swiftly to secure major ports and strongholds. General Leslie secured Edinburgh Castle without loss after the main gate was blown in with a petard. Lord Rothes seized the King's main arsenal and the Scottish crown jewels at Dalkeith, the port of Dumbarton was captured against the possibility of Royalist reinforcements arriving from Ireland. Support for the King was concentrated in Aberdeenshire, where the Marquis of Huntly rallied his forces at Kintore. In mid-February, however, Huntly withdrew from a potential confrontation with several hundred Covenanters assembled at Turriff. The Earl of Montrose occupied Aberdeen unopposed at the end of March, after which Huntly virtually abandoned his leadership of the Scottish Royalists and allowed himself to be arrested at Edinburgh in April 1639. Sir George Ogilvy of Banff and other Royalist lairds remained in arms in Aberdeenshire. On 14 May, they drove the Covenanters out of Turriff in an action known as the Trot o' Turiff from the speed with which the Covenanters fled from the village. Ogilvy's Royalists briefly occupied Aberdeen and plundered the houses of leading Covenanters, but dispersed when Montrose began concentrating Covenanter forces in the region.

The King rode for York in March 1639 to lead the main English army against the Scots in person. With no standing army to call upon, a special levy of 6,000 foot and 1,000 horse was raised, then another 4,000 troops were recruited by mobilising the trained bands of the northern border counties. King Charles also revived the medieval practice of summoning his nobles to attend him in person, each accompanied by a troop of armed horsemen, which caused further resentment amongst the nobility. Although by June the English army was 18,000 strong, it was mostly made up of raw conscripts. The Earl of Arundel, earl-marshal of England and lord-general of the army, had no previous experience of war. His second-in-command, the Earl of Essex, was demoted in favour of one of the Queen's courtiers, the inexperienced Earl of Holland. Veteran soldiers like Sir Jacob Astley, commander of the infantry, despaired at the English army's lack of training and equipment — many of the northern trained bands were armed with bows and arrows.

While the King marched north from York, the Marquis of Hamilton's fleet sailed from Yarmouth with 5,000 men, most of whom were completely untrained. Hamilton anchored off Leith in the Firth of Forth early in May 1639 but the Covenanters' control of the region made landing impossible. The Marquis of Huntly's younger son Viscount Aboyne went north with some of Hamilton's ships to occupy Aberdeen and lead the Royalist Gordons early in June. From Aberdeen, Aboyne marched to Stonehaven. He intended to advance further south but was driven back by Covenanter forces on 14 June and took up a defensive position at Brig of Dee which guarded the approach to Aberdeen. Montrose mounted an artillery bombardment of Brig of Dee on 18 June. The Royalists were driven from the town the following day.

In mid-May 1639, King Charles issued a proclamation announcing that he would settle all Scottish grievances as soon as order was restored in the kingdom. He would not invade Scotland providing the Covenanter army remained at least ten miles north of the border. The King joined his army camped near Berwick on 30 May. Lord Arundel led a detachment across the border to Duns to issue a proclamation promising to pardon all rebels if they submitted within eight days. In response, the Covenanter army advanced to Kelso, well within the ten-mile limit. The Earl of Holland's cavalry advanced to probe the Scottish position on 3 June. Although the Covenanter army was still undermanned, the professionalism and discipline of its officers overawed Holland, who retreated to Berwick. When General Leslie advanced to Duns, morale in the English camp collapsed amid rumours that the Scottish army overwhelmingly outnumbered the English. The King was unnerved and decided to negotiate with the Covenanters.

The Pacification of Berwick, June 1639

Treaty negotiations opened at Berwick on 11 June 1639. The chief spokesmen for the Scots were Lord Rothes, Johnston of Wariston and Alexander Henderson. They negotiated with King Charles in person. The Covenanters' demands were: that the King would ratify all acts of the Glasgow Assembly including the abolition of episcopacy; that all ecclesiastical matters in Scotland would in future be settled at the General Assembly and all civil matters in Parliament; that all forces sent against Scotland would be recalled; that all "incendiaries" who had caused the troubles should be returned to Scotland for punishment (i.e. the excommunicated bishops who had tried to introduce Laud's reforms).

Although the King apparently conceded that church matters should in future be governed by assemblies, he was adamant in his refusal to ratify the Glasgow Assembly of 1638. The Covenanters were aware that their military position was not as strong as was widely believed and, after a week of legalistic wrangling, they too agreed to modify their position. A treaty was signed on 19 June 1639. The King agreed to authorise a General Assembly of the Kirk at Edinburgh in August, to be followed by a meeting of the Scottish Parliament. Both sides agreed to disband their armies. Other controversial issues were left deliberately vague or as verbal agreements only. The treaty was poorly received in Edinburgh where Covenanters complained that the commissioners had made too many concessions.

During the following weeks, relations between the King and the Covenanter leaders deteriorated further. In an atmosphere of mutual mistrust, King Charles left Berwick and returned to London in July 1639.


Kenyon, J. and Ohlmeyer, J. (editors), The Civil Wars: a military history of England, Scotland and Ireland 1638-1660, (Oxford 1998)

Stuart Reid, Scots Armies of the English Civil Wars (Osprey 1999)

Stuart Reid, Auldearn 1645: the Marquis of Montrose's Scottish campaign (Osprey 2003)

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

C.V. Wedgwood, The King's Peace 1637-41 (London 1955)