St Giles Cathedral , Greyfriars Kirk and the National Covenant.

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A stool was thrown

On Sunday, July 23, 1637 at St. Giles Cathedral in the Old City of Edinburgh a woman by the name of Janet or Jenny Geddes objected to the use of a new prayer book written by Scottish Bishops and largely amended by Archbishop William Laud,  She was the spouse of a well known Presbyterian elder, John Mein, post master and merchant in Edinburgh who was himself well known to the Privy Council. Janet or Jenny Geddes owned a cabbage stall or `booth` alongside the cathedral wall and was a well known character. It is said that she threw her small stool at James Hannay, the Dean of the church. Her stool is on display in the Museum of Scotland and the spot from which she threw it  in St Giles is marked by a plate in the floor which reads: 

constant oral tradition affirms that near this spot a braveGeddesPlate.jpg (14514 bytes) Scotswoman Janet Geddes on 23 July 1637 struck the first blow in the great struggle for freedom of conscience which after a conflict of half a century ended in the establishment of civil and religious liberty


Professor J S Blackie wrote   "The Song of Mrs Jenny Geddes"

Twas the twenty third of July, in the sixteen thirty seven,
On Sabbath morn from high St Giles, the solemn peal was given;
King Charles had sworn that Scottish men should pray by printed rule;
He sent a book, but never dreamt of danger from a stool.
With a row-dow yes, I trow! - there`s danger in a stool !

The Bishop and the Dean came wi`mickle gravity,
Right smooth and sleek, but lordly pride was lurking in their e`e;
Their full lawn sleeves were blown and big, like seals in briny pool;
They bore a book,but little thought they soon should feel a stool.
With a row-dow yes, I trow! - they`ll feel a four -  legged stool !

The Dean he to the altar went, and, wi` a solemn look,
He cast his eyes to heaven, then read the curious printed  book:
In Jenny`s heart the blood upwelled with bitter anguish full;
Sudden she started to her legs, and stoutly grasped the stool !
With a row-dow  - at them now ! - firmly grasp the stool !

As when a mountain cat springs upon a rabbit small,
So Jenny on the Dean springs, with gush of holy gall;
Wilt thou say the mass at my lug, thou Popish - puling fool ?
No ! No ! she said, and at his head she flung the four - legged stool.
With a row-dow - at them now ! - Jenny flings the stool !

And thus a mighty deed was done  by Jenny`s valiant hand,
Black Prelacy and Popery she drave from Scottish land;
King Charles he was a shuffling knave, priest Laud a pedant fool,
But Jenny was a woman wise, who beat them with a stool !
With a row-dow yes, I trow! - she conquered by the stool !

The ancient Greyfriar's Kirk in Edinburgh is dear to the memory of the Covenanters and the Reformation of the Church in Scotland because it was within the Kirk itself that "The National Covenant" was first read and signed on Wednesday, February 28, 1638.

The National Covenant was drafted by Sir Archibald Johnston of Warriston, who was executed in 1663, and Archibald Henderson . It was in three parts- a reproduction of the Confession of King James I (later King James VI of England) of 1580; a detailed list of the Acts of Parliament which confirmed Presbyterianism and condemned Popery; and, thirdly, a protest about the changes in worship which was an attempt to force episcopal reforms on the nation. The protests were against a ban on extempore prayer, the General Assembly could not meet; the furnishings of churches were specified, and a specific liturgy was ordered to be used. The document itself was described as ` a fair parchment above an elne in squair` (a Scottish ell is 37 inches so it was quite large) and was glowingly referred to as “The Constellation upon the back of Aries.” 

Time, and Victorian sentimentality, has added the embellishment - including a painting by Sir William Allan c. 1840 - that the Covenant was taken outside for signature by the common people gathered there, but truth is that the flat gravestones did not then exist and it was not taken outside at that time. By the time the proceedings within the church had been completed it is probable that it was well into the afternoon and it is dark by about 4.30pm at this time of year. Rather, the following day, March 1, 1638, it was taken to the Tailor's Hall in the Cowgate where burghers and ministers signed and on subsequent days it was taken to other churches for signature. Among the signatories at the Canongate in March 1638 was a James Orr, a bonnet maker, of the Burgh.

There were, however, many copies made which were sent to the principal towns of Scotland and to Ireland where local people were able to sign. Some of these still exist such as the parishes of Borgue and Minigaff in Galloway, and perhaps some still linger in Charter Chests undiscovered. But they are exceeding rare and may well have been taken abroad by exiles, or destroyed since they were prime evidence against the signatories. The original is thought to be that in the Huntley House Museum, The National Covenant in Greyfriars Kirkbut Greyfriars has its own copy in pride of place in the Kirk Session room.  The signing of the Covenant was certainly a momentous occasion and took place in the centre of the Kirk alongside the pulpit. A description of the event is quoted in "The Greyfriars Story - A Celebration", by Padi Mathieson (1990).

"....after it had been read over publicly and a long speech had been made by the Lord Loudoun in commendation thereof, Mr. Alexander Henderson seconded him with a prayer, and then all fell to swear and subscribe, some of the nobility leading the way. The first was John Gordon, Earl of Sutherland, and the next was Sir Andrew Murray, Lord Balvard, minister at Ebdy in Fife: two noblemen who, out of zeal to their profession... thought it a happiness to be amongst the first subscribers and swearers to the Covenant. All who were present at Edinburgh at that meeting in the month of February, subscribed and swore to the Covenant before they went from thence; and at their parting, ministers, and noblemen, and gentlemen, who were well affected to the cause, carried copies thereof along with them, or caused them to be written out after their return to their several parishes and counties of Scotland."

The ministers of Greyfriars were active in their resistance to Episcopacy and many suffered for it. The Kirk itself was later occupied by Oliver Cromwell's army and saw many confrontations before it again became the focus of the Covenanters.

The reaction of the prelates to the signing of the Covenant is summed up in the words of the elderly Archbishop Spottiswood who was in hiding waiting for an opportunity to slip across the border into England. He said :

All which we have been attempting to build up during the last thirty years is now at once thrown down.

The King wrote (or rather Walter Balcanqual did so for him) most undiplomatically what he thought of the crisis and the Presbyterian party in his Large Declaration , which was published, that the Tables were as ` stables of unruly horses`, and offensively comments:

Now the first dung which from these stables was throwne on the face of Authoritie and Government was that lewd Covenant and seditious Band annexed unto it.

Not all towns subscribed to the Covenant, those who did not were Crail, Inverness, St Andrews and Aberdeen. The Presbyterian stalwarts David Dickson, Alexander Henderson and Andrew Cant were sent with Montrose and other nobles, to persuade Aberdeen to sign the Covenant. But their journey was not fruitful. Because of their refusal to join Aberdeen was congratulated by the King and £100 pounds was provided to ensure royalist pamphlets could continue in print. Some ministers eventually subscribed in 1639 but the granite city was subsequently embroiled in battles during the campaign of the Marquis of Montrose.

The National Covenant was not anti-government nor did it refer to the bishops but King Charles over-reacted and regarded the `Covenanters` as rebels.  An army was assembled in the North of England  but Charles did not get the support he expected which forced him to relent and allowed the first General Assembly for 20 years to be convened. A principal act of the General Assembly which met in November in Glasgow, was the abolition of the role of the detested Bishops. Charles rejected the decision and once again his army was mobilised while the vast majority of Lowland Scots united behind the Presbyterian cause. There followed the skirmishes (they were hardly battles) of the Bishops Wars.

The Martyrs Monument, Greyfriars.

Greyfriars Prison

 A Childrens Covenant.

The Covenanter Ships

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