This book provides a new framework for understanding the complex period of political and religious disruption in Scotland from 1637 to 1651. For decades, scholars have relied on David Stevenson’s high-political account of the period. I would not suggest that you discard your copies of Stevenson’s The Scottish Revolution 1637–44 (1973) and Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Scotland, 1644–1651 (1977) just yet, but Laura Stewart has provided a convincing thematic reappraisal of the period updated to sit comfortably within current historiography. Stewart’s analysis is refreshingly cosmopolitan. She engages meaningfully with historiographies from English, Irish and Continental European contexts. Scholars of these other regions’ histories too often neglect Scottish history because it can appear parochial. But, as Stewart’s volume affirms time and again, they would do well to attend to her conclusions. The book is divided into two sections—‘The Making of Covenanted Scotland’ and ‘Covenanted Scotland’—comprising three chapters each, alongside a lengthy introduction and conclusion. Stewart’s analysis develops from an understanding of politics as a ‘dynamic and inherently unstable process in which different social groups negotiate the inequalities of power relations’. Through the Prayer Book crisis, new groups, hitherto silent, were drawn into dialogue about power and authority, and those elites in power were forced to justify a ‘more expansive, and coercive state’. The Covenanted state may have failed by 1651, but not before its elite had permanently transformed early modern Scottish political culture. There is clearly a lot of material to cover and, at points, the balance between exposition and argument is off kilter—too many words are spent rehearsing historiography or too few words used to explain an important historical event. The first half of the monograph establishes the changes that the Covenanting regime ushered into Scotland and the novel power relations that emerged throughout Scottish society following the Prayer Book Riots. Chapter One demonstrates that protests, rioting and the circulation of print and manuscript broadsides intentionally engaged a wide cross-section of society. In Chapter Two, Stewart argues that subtle local variances in the act of swearing the National Covenant suggested that communities accorded different meanings to the Covenant. The following chapter dissects the Covenanters’ propaganda, which effectively married a ‘Presbyterianised version of Scotland’s past’ with dominant representations of the traditional socio-political order. Having established the outlines of the Covenanters’ public relations strategy, the last three chapters discuss ‘Covenanted Scotland’. Stewart is at her strongest in Chapter Four, describing the ways in which warfare strengthened fiscal links in the ‘Covenanted State’ between centre and locality, engaging a wider cross-section of minor landed elites, and providing a further means for such groups to reinforce their status. Stewart pushes this argument further in Chapter Five, arguing that local powerbrokers were able to further their own interests by justifying such endeavours in language borrowed from Covenanted propaganda. Finally, Stewart explores the Covenanted State’s collapse after the defeat of the so-called ‘Royalist Engagement’ of 1648. The agreement itself fractured alliances between clerics and nobility, but the debates that emerged were conducted ‘from within the Covenanted constitution’. There was no proliferation of political and religious beliefs in Scotland, nor were there uncontrolled debates about the way that Scotland ought to be governed. Profound debates about the common good in the Covenanted state ended up weakening its very structures and, ultimately, giving rise to ideal conditions for Oliver Cromwell to invade. This is an outstanding work which provides a novel view of a tumultuous period of Scottish history desperately in need of revision. As with any wide-ranging work, however, portions of the argument are underdeveloped. Stewart, for instance, frequently refers to Covenanted Scotland as a ‘confessional state’, but there is little engagement with the myriad fault lines in belief and practice that emerged among congregations. She claims that the Covenant made ‘the legitimacy of political and constitutional principles conditional on adherence to … the practices and forms upheld by puritan Calvinists’ without explaining what exactly these practices and forms were (they were neither uniform nor singular, nor may they be referred to as ‘puritan’ without some justification). In Chapter Six, Stewart confusingly refers to Scottish supporters of the Engagement as ‘parliamentarians’ – a decision that further muddies the waters dealing with a supremely complex year in British politics. After Chapter Three, we are left with an understanding of Covenanting political thought conceived by one writer, Samuel Rutherford. In effect, the arguments presented here add nothing significantly new to previous scholarship on Covenanting political thought; although Stewart does suggest that it is best to interpret Rutherford’s political writings as defending a strict, hierarchical status quo. No other Covenanter may have written a tract on politics as detailed as Lex Rex (1644), but this alone should provide cause for reflection. Perhaps Scots were more concerned to discuss the nature of Presbyterian church government, the Scripturally warranted relationships between Kirk session, presbytery and synod, or the freedom of individual ministers to determine a local platform for worship? At the outset, Stewart sets for herself the goal of recovering the voices of ordinary Scots. In this regard, she falls short of her aims by consigning discussion of religious belief, the Kirk and its courts to the periphery. Far more could have been said about the tapestry of local reactions to the National Covenant and the apparatus of the Covenanted state had she given more space to the wealth of evidence in kirk session, presbytery and synod records. She includes numerous shelfmarks in her bibliography, but only a scattering of examples (often from printed editions alone) may be found in her footnotes. There are many points at which Stewart gestures to the relevance of sermons in shaping opinion in localities, but there is no discussion of the enormous number of manuscript sermons and listeners’ notes illustrative of these views and which have never before been studied. Stewart is careful to highlight the difficulties of recovering the opinions of ordinary Scots during this period and, moreover, a key tenet of her argument is that the traditional power-brokers of Scottish society retained effective control over public opinion. Nevertheless, it is puzzling that she did not make more extensive use of some of the best and, in this reviewer’s opinion, most variable evidence about public opinion. Local nuances in belief, preserved in these records, influenced the ways in which ordinary Scots reacted to, and interacted with, the text of the National Covenant. The candour of my objections should not belie the fact that this work will be essential reading for decades to come. In three hundred pages, Stewart has presented a compelling case for looking at the Covenanted state in bold new light. © Oxford University Press 2018. All rights reserved. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
The English Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Apr 10, 2018
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