THE COVENANTERS were Scottish Presbyterians who signed the National Covenant in 1638 to confirm their opposition to the interference by the Stuart kings in the affairs of the Church of Scotland.
Charles I and II harboured the belief of the Divine Right of the Monarch. Not only did they believe that God wished them to be the infallible rulers of their kingdom - they also believed that they were the spiritual heads of the Church of Scotland. This latter belief could not be accepted by the Scots. No man, not even a king, could be spiritual head of their church. Only Jesus Christ could be spiritual head of a Christian church.
This was the nub of the entire Covenanting struggle. The Scots were, and would have been, loyal to the Stuart dynasty but for that one sticking point, and from 28 February 1638, when the NATIONAL COVENANT was first signed in Greyfriars Church, followed by copies throughout Scotland, until the Glorious Revolution - when Prince William of Orange made a bloodless invasion of Great Britain in 1688 - a great deal of suffering, torture, imprisonment, transportation and executions would ensue. This period of Scottish history became known as 'the Fifty Years' Struggle'
The Covenant had been prepared by Alexander Henderson and Archibald Johnston, with revisions by others. It was signed by thousands in the church, after which it was removed to the kirkyard where many more signatures were added.
There followed a period of very severe repression. Ministers with Covenanting sympathies were "outed" from their churches by the authorities, and had to leave their parishes. Many continued to preach at "conventicles" in the open air or in barns and houses. This became an offence punishable by death. Citizens who did not attend their local churches (which were now in the charge of Episcopalian "curates") could be heavily fined, and such offenders were regarded as rebels, who could be questioned, even under torture. They could be asked to take various oaths, which not only declared loyalty to the king, but also to accept his as head of the church. Failure to take such an oath could result in summary execution by the muskets of the dragoons, who were scouring the districts looking for rebels.
The persecutions became more frequent and cruel on the Restoration of Charles II in 1660. As time went on more and more ordinary folk became involved, and skirmishes and battles took place against Government troops.
At the Battle of Bothwell Bridge, which took place on 22 June 1679, over 1200 prisoners were brought to Edinburgh, of which around 400 were held in Greyfriars Churchyard, in a spot now known as the COVENANTERS' PRISON. They were kept their under guard for five winter months, with little more than four ounces of bread and water, and little shelter, before either being executed, transported abroad as slaves, or else were given their liberty on signing oaths of allegiance to the king. Many Covenanters died in the prison and were buried in Greyfriars kirkyard, in the spot traditionally reserved for criminals.
The original memorial commemorating the Covenanters was erected in 1706 by James Currie, who had suffered for the cause. The Town Council of Edinburgh had given him permission to erect a memorial with the proviso that 'there be no inscription to be put upon the tomb but the sixth chapter of Revelation, verses 9, 10, and 11.' When the present memorial was erected in 1771 by the mason Charles Fairnington, the original Bible was incorporated.