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The Signing of the National Covenant in Greyfriars Churchyard

The Scottish Covenanters vs a Skye terrier: who would win?

Anybody on the Edinburgh tourist trail will eventually end up in Greyfriars Kirkyard. The kirk itself was founded on the site of a Franciscan monastery in the early years of the seventeenth century. But it is the kirkyard that was the site of a critical episode in Scottish history later in that same century. The visitor arriving through the main gate from Candlemaker Row will see a board stating that here, among the graves of the illustrious dead, ‘THE NATIONAL COVENANT WAS ADOPTED AND SIGNED 28TH FEBRUARY 1638’. The key couldn’t be much lower but it was this event that made Greyfriars Kirkyard a sacred site of Scottish religious politics.

Covenanters memorial

The National Covenant was created to oppose the reforms of the Church of Scotland proposed by King Charles I. It was intended to safeguard the Protestant Reformation in Scotland and to repudiate any form of royal control over the nation’s church. It is one of the foundational documents of modern Scottish nationalism. Some of those present on that February day even signed in blood. Other copies were signed by thousands of people all over Scotland. Some of those did so, it has to said, under duress and there were many who refused. None of that detracts from the Covenant’s significance.

Greyfriars Bobby

So there it is, the special meaning of Greyfriars Kirkyard in Scottish history. And that, you might think, is why the tourists flock here. But you would be wrong, reader. For close by that modest statement on a modest board, on the ground in front of the Kirk’s east end, is a small statue of a small dog and a red granite headstone inscribed with his name. These are the grave and memorial of the Skye terrier known to history as Greyfriars Bobby.

Bobby, so the traditional story goes, watched over the grave of his master John Gray for fourteen years until his death, after which he was interred close by Gray. Though there have been many doubts about the veracity of the story over the years, it has now passed into legend. As an index of his potency, Greyfriars Bobby has two statues. As well as the one in the kirkyard there is another out on the George IV bridge. So in answer to the question at the head of this post, when it comes to fame, esteem, and global bragging rights, the Skye terrier has wiped the floor with the Covenanters.

Greyfriars Bobby

Is this another example of the Disneyfication of the past? Certainly. But even without the benign phantom of Greyfriars Bobby hovering over the kirkyard, how many visitors, be they natives of Edinburgh or tourists, would know why the Covenanters made their stand and what was at stake? Actual history, as opposed to the Braveheart version of it, is mostly absent from nationalist discourse and the officially-santioned Scottish self-image.

It’s worth noting that the threat to Greyfriars Bobby’s eminence is now coming from another direction altogether. The kirkyard is a popular stop on the city’s Harry Potter tours. Apparently, JK Rowling got some of her character names from the gravestones. Greyfriars Bobby faced down those tough Covenanters. Can he do the same against a boy wizard?

[Image of William Brassey Hole’s painting The Signing of the National Covenant in Greyfriars Churchyard courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.]

From a Leith bus stop

The execution is poor, I grant you, but I was intrigued by these graffiti bookending a Leith bus stop. Don Juan, the Libertine of Sorts, at one end and Barnet Boy, a martyr of unrequited love at the other. The two extremes, the libertine and the romantic. Are there two persons recorded here, or two facets of the same person? They have similar hats, after all. And the libertine and the romantic cohabit within many of us. Though the relationship between the personas may be more asynchronous. Barnet Boy became Don Juan in reaction to the disappointments of love. Or the Libertine of Sorts fell in love with one he couldn’t have. Such drama at a bus stop.

Watts memorial

To the common hero

Under the heading of ‘ANOTHER JUBILEE SUGGESTION’ a letter from the painter and sculptor George Frederic Watts was published in the Times on 5 September 1887. Watts wrote:

Sir,—Among other ways of commemorating this 50th year of Her Majesty’s reign, it would surely be of national interest to collect a complete record of the stories of heroism in every-day life.
The character of a nation as a people of great deeds is one, it appears to me, that should never be lost sight of. It must surely be a matter of regret when names worthy to be remembered and stories stimulating and instructive are allowed to be forgotten.
The roll would be a long one, but I would cite as an example the name of Alice Ayres, the maid of all work at an oilmonger’s in Gravel-Lane, in April 1885, who lost her life in saving those of her master’s children.
The facts, in case your readers have forgotten them, were shortly these :—Roused by the cries of “Fire” and the heat of the fiercely advancing flames the girl is seen at the window of an upper storey, and the crowd, holding up some clothes to break her fall, entreat her to jump down at once for her life. Instead she goes back and reappears dragging a feather bed after her, which, with great difficulty, she pushes through the window. The bed caught and stretched, the girl is again at the window, a child of three in her arms, which with great care and skill she throws safely upon the mattress. Twice again with still older children she repeats the heroic feat. When her turn comes jump, suffocated or too exhausted by her efforts, she cannot save herself. She jumps, but too feebly, falls upon the pavement, and is carried insensible to St. Thomas’s Hospital, where she dies.
It is not too much to say that the history of Her Majesty’s reign would gain a lustre were the nation to erect a monument, say, here in London, to record the names of these likely to be forgotten heroes. I cannot but believe a general response would be made to such a suggestion, and intelligent consideration and artistic power might combine to make London richer by a work that is beautiful, and our nation richer by a record that is infinitely honourable.
The material prosperity of a nation is not an abiding possession; the deeds of its people are.
Yours faithfully,
Little Holland-house, Kensington, W.

At the time he wrote this letter Watts was one of the most famous artists in the world, greatly admired for his portraits and symbolist paintings, and yet, as far as I can tell, his proposal gained little or no support. In the end, Watts funded and organized the monument himself, and thirteen years after he’d written to the Times, the Memorial to Heroic Self-Sacrifice was erected in a corner of Postman’s Park in the City of London.

Watts memorial

At first sight, from a distance, the memorial looks distinctly unheroic. Designed by Ernest George, the wooden loggia with tiled roof looks more park shelter than pantheon. The form is all the more surprising given that back in the1850s Watts had written several essays advocating large-scale murals on public buildings, seeing them as a means of ‘awakening a national sense of Art’ and of ‘developing these qualities which would place British artists by the side of British poets, and form a great national school’. Watts himself produce several frescoes, including one of St George for the new Palace of Westminster.

Why no great fresco to commemorate the heroes of self-sacrifice? Perhaps Watts was unable to find a suitable site or perhaps, now in his eighties and in poor health, he simply lacked the energy for such an undertaking. In any case closer up, the simple workaday form of the monument comes to seem more appropriate to its subjects. The courageous acts recorded on the tablets, manufactured by William De Morgan and by Doulton of Lambeth, are those of ordinary people, working-class people, people whose lives would have carried on, obscure and unremarked, if not for these extraordinary acts.

Sarah Smith Watts memorial

Something about the concept of heroism seems to have changed in the nineteenth century. Traditional heroes — Achilles, Alexander, Boudicca, Joan of Arc, Richard the Lionheart, El Cid, Lord Nelson — achieved their heroic status in combat, demonstrating not just courage and resilience but the will to kill and triumph over their enemies. I know nothing about the history of this idea but it seems to me that heroism was democratized in the nineteenth century. One example of this is the institution in 1824 of the gold and silver medals of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. Saving lives, rather than taking them, became an attribute of the hero.

Watts’ Memorial to Heroic Self-Sacrifice is above all a tribute to the heroism of ordinary folk. Here are maids and sewage workers, gas fitters and stationers’ clerks, signalmen and labourers, as well as the more obvious policeman, firemen, and doctors. Here is Sarah Smith, pantomime artiste at the Prince’s Theatre, who ‘died of terrible injuries received when attempting in her inflammable dress to extinguish the flames which had enveloped her companion.’ And here is Ernest Benning, compositor, who was ‘upset from a boat one dark night off Pimlico Pier [and] grasped an oar with one hand supporting a woman with the other but sank as she was rescued’.

Ernest Benning Watts memorial

The nineteenth century may have democratized heroism, but our own century has debased the concept to the point of absurdity. Extraordinary deeds, extraordinary courage, are no longer required. Simply doing one’s job is apparently heroic. There are Classroom Heroes and NHS Heroes. Voluntary work also counts as heroism, with the acclamation of Litter Heroes and Community Heroes. Heroes are no longer exceptional human beings. They’re no different to you and me and no better really. Aren’t we all heroes for simply making it through the daily grind? Equality trumps excellence, as it always does in our screwy culture.

[The images for the tablets for Sarah Smith and Ernest Benning are courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.]

Putney debates linocut by Clare Melinsky

Grandees and Levellers

It is a curious fact that the most important debate in English political history took place not in the House of Commons but in the fifteenth-century parish church of St Mary in Putney. There, on 28 October 1647, and for the next two weeks, a group of about forty men met in informal conclave, and proceeded to invent modern politics.

(A History of the English People – Paul Johnson)

The meeting of the General Council of the New Model Army that began on 28 October 1647 took place the year after the Royalist armies had been routed in the field and four months after Charles I had been arrested and imprisoned. This army, established by Parliament, led by Sir Thomas Fairfax and Oliver Cromwell, was the new power in the land, a political as well as a military force.

The Army’s senior staff, known as the Grandees, were still hoping and groping for a settlement with Charles I that would protect the privileges of Parliament and the liberties of the landowners. In the summer of 1647, the Grandees had produced a document known as the Heads of Proposals, which set out their negotiating position. The document proposed that the king would be restored, though with circumscribed powers, parliamentary constituencies would be reorganized, the power of the bishops would be reduced, and that Parliament would control the appointment of state officials. The franchise would remain as it was, limited to property owners, that’s to say, landowners.

But Parliament, by creating a new kind of military force — politically motivated, politically aware — had not reckoned that the rank-and-file might have their own ideas about the new England that was to be created. A group of army radicals, later dubbed Levellers, produced their own document, The Case of the Armie Truly Stated, which called for the abolition of the Monarchy and the House of Lords, with sovereignty invested wholly in the House of Commons. The document also proposed that the franchise be extended to men who did not hold property and for certain natural rights, such as freedom of conscience and equality before the law, to be enshrined in the new constitution. These proposals were too extreme for the Grandees, for the existing House of Commons, and even for many in the army. But together, the Heads of Proposals and The Case of the Armie Truly Stated set the framework for the meeting at Putney.

St Marys church Putney

Putney at that time was a small village by the Thames, a few miles outside London, and the place where the New Model Army was headquartered. Though the General Council meeting began at St Mary’s, it soon moved to the lodgings of Thomas Grosvenor, the Army’s Quartermaster General of Foot. That house, wherever it stood, has long since vanished and so St Mary’s is now remembered, somewhat inaccurately, as the venue of the Putney debates.

I say, ‘now remembered’, but the Putney debates remain little-known, given their significance. Even at the time, few knew of them outside of the participants and their allies within the army. Newspaper reports of the time were brief and heavily censored. This very English battle of ideas was soon forgotten, drowned out by the great dramas of the Civil War centred on the actual battle field, the court room, and the scaffold. Forgotten until 1890, when a transcript of the council meeting, made by William Clarke, secretary to the General Council, was found in a cupboard at Worcester College, Oxford. How it got there, no-one knows, but it was a record of the debates, albeit a very incomplete one, and modern historians began to realize the significance of that fortnight.

The leading representatives of the Grandees at Putney were Lieutenant-General Oliver Cromwell and Commissary-General Henry Ireton. Prominent figures on the radical side included Colonel Thomas Rainborowe and Colonel Edward Sexby. It was Rainborowe who made what is now best-known speech from the debates, arguing for universal male suffrage:

Really I think that the poorest he that is in England has a life to live as the greatest he; and therefore truly, sir, I think it’s clear that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not at all bound in a strict sense to that government that he has not had a voice to put himself under.

But Rainborowe was in a minority, even on his own side. The consensus among the radicals was to extend the franchise to every free adult man in the country but thereby exclude apprentices, servants, and alms-takes. This was still too much for the Grandees. A matter of great concern to all the participants was the question of what God’s wishes on the matter might be. Though each day began with a prayer meeting, participants remained divided on the matter. Some believed that the success of the New Model Army made it clear that God was against Charles I in particular and the monarchy in general. Others still regarded the king as divinely appointed, though in severe error, and thought that a compromise could be reached with him to safeguard English liberties. Cromwell, notably, was undecided as to the Divine will in relation to the king. Ireton was adamant that an extension of the franchise to those outside the class of property owners would result in anarchy. The property-less, in his view, had no genuine stake in the nation, could up sticks whenever they pleased — ‘heere to day and gone to morrow’ — and might even vote for laws that could lead to the confiscation of property.

Putney debates plaque

When the General Council meeting broke up on 8 November, no conclusions had been reached. It was Ireton who decided it was time end the debates and send the soldiers back to their regiments, concerned at the divisions within the General Council and their implications for Army discipline. Three days later, the king escaped from detention at Hampton Court and fled to Southampton, effectively ending the Grandees’ hopes of a compromise with him. Cromwell moved against the radicals in the Army by organizing three mass meetings of the regiments at which each soldier was ordered to sign a declaration of loyalty to Sir Thomas Fairfax, the commander-in-chief. A mutiny by the radicals at one of these meetings, at Corkbush Field in Hertfordshire, was put down and the three ringleaders executed on the spot. The Grandees were back in charge and the New Model Army was ready for the next phase of the civil war.

As noted above, the record of the Putney Debates that has survived is incomplete and many days of the discussions are unknown. But what does survive is impressive and oddly humbling. The overriding impression is one of serious politics played out in a serious time, conducted by serious men, gravely aware of their responsibilities. What a contrast with the posturing, emoting party hacks who comprise most of our current political class. It strikes me too, not for the time, how small a space the English Civil War (and more broadly, the War of the Three Kingdoms) occupies in our national imagination, compared to say, the Tudors or World War Two. Given the extraordinary events, the personalities, the stakes, that puzzles me greatly.

[Image credit: The linocut illustration of the Putney debates is by Clare Melinsky © Clare Melinsky.]