James Buchanan was US President from 1857-1861. He is often considered one of the worst presidents of the US, with his presidency leading up to the US Civil War. Here, Ian Craig takes a look at Buchanan’s presidency. He starts by arguing that, in spite of his Democratic Party generally favoring slavery, what are often seen as pro-slavery actions during the Bleeding Kansas crisis (1854-1861), actually led to Kansas becoming an anti-slavery state.

1859 portrait of President James Buchanan. Painting by George Peter Alexander Healy.

1859 portrait of President James Buchanan. Painting by George Peter Alexander Healy.

Of all the presidents in the history of the United States, none have been as ridiculed as the man who became the fifteenth president on March 4, 1857. Having secured the Democratic nomination in 1856, James Buchanan had little trouble defeating the Republican Party’s first candidate John C. Frémont and former president Millard Fillmore. At the time of his election, Buchanan was the nation’s most qualified person to hold the office of chief executive. Having been a lawyer, state legislature, U.S. representative, U.S. Senator, minister to both Russia and Great Britain, and Secretary of State, Buchanan remains one of the only presidents in U.S. history to have an extensive public service background.  The question then remains is, why he is considered the worst president in history and why is he blamed for the Civil War? These questions will be answered over a series of articles sequencing key events in Buchanan’s presidency.


Kansas-Nebraska Act

In his last message to Congress on January 8, 1861, Buchanan stated that, “I shall carry to my grave the consciousness that I at least meant well for my country.”[1]Since that time, over one hundred and fifty years have past since he left office and the Civil War concluded. However, his legacy remains plagued by the questions posed above.  To really understand the actions taken by Buchanan leading up to the outbreak of Civil War, one must look into the political climate of the time as well as the personal beliefs that shaped Buchanan’s governing style.

One particular event that would have a direct impact of Buchanan once he became president was the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854.  This allowed for Kansas and Nebraska to create governments and decide for themselves the slavery question while also repealing the Missouri Compromise of 1820.  Pro-slavery settlers from neighboring Missouri crossed the border illegally into Kansas, heavily influencing the election of a pro-slavery government in Kansas. This led to violence in the territory as both pro-slavery and anti-slavery groups fought for control.  It also led to the creation of two governments, one at Lecompton (pro-slavery) and one at Topeka (anti-slavery).  This series of events later became known as “Bleeding Kansas” for the violence and death that occurred.  Even the United States Senate was not spared from the violence. In 1856, Senator Charles Sumner was beaten over the head with a cane by Congressman Preston Brooks on the floor of the Senate.  Sumner had called out a relative of Brooks regarding the slavery issue offending his honor. Lecompton was also recognized as the legitimate government despite hostilities.


Dealing with Bleeding Kansas

Upon assuming office, Buchanan had to deal with the crisis in Kansas left to him by his predecessor Franklin Pierce.  Pierce had signed the Kansas-Nebraska Act believing that territories were “perfectly free to form and regulate their institutions in their own way.”[2]However, Pierce would come to favor the pro-slavery legislation over that of the anti-slavery actions.  James Buchanan’s views of the Kansas-Nebraska Act were not favorable. He wrote that “Congress which had commenced so auspiciously, by repealing the Missouri Compromise…reopened the floodgates of sectional strife.”[3]The governing style of James Buchanan was one based on that of a diplomat.  Having an extensive background as a negotiator, he used his prior experience in his many diplomatic and legislative roles as chief executive.  He also heavily relied on his days as a lawyer and his knowledge of constitutional law to formulate his opinions.  This is how he dealt with the crisis in Kansas.

As president, Buchanan believed that he did not have the authority to interfere in the elections which took place in Kansas despite the fraud that had occurred there.  He wrote that “it was far from my intention to interfere with the decision of the people of Kansas wither for or against slavery.”[4]Essentially, Buchanan felt that the people of Kansas could settle the matter themselves without government intervention. Despite his intentions, Buchanan took military action in sending federal troops to Kansas in 1857 to secure the legitimacy of a state constitution without fraud or violence.  His justification for this was that it was his duty to protect the recognized government and the people’s wishes as President of the United States.  Buchanan recalls, “under these circumstances, what was my duty? Was it not to sustain this government (in Lecompton)? To protect us from the violence of lawless men, who were determined to ruin or rule? It was for this purpose, and this alone, that I ordered a military force to Kansas.”[5]

In doing this, Buchanan was criticized for appearing to support the pro-slavery party in creating a slave state.  This, however, was not the case as he attempted to perform his duties in executing the laws and by preserving and protecting the Constitution.  He states in a broad question to such people, “would you have desired that I abandoned the Territorial Government, sanctioned as it had been by Congress, to illegal violence…this would, indeed have been to violate my oath of office.”[6]Standing firm on his beliefs, Buchanan was convinced that his action would help to support a positive and legal result at the next election.  To him, it was still up to the people to decide on the manner.


1858 Kansas Election

In early 1858, a new election was held to elect state officials based on the passage of the constitution in November.  This election for governor, lieutenant governor, and other officials, resulted in the election of several members of the anti-slavery Topeka Convention.  The balance of power shifted towards them and they were more determined to vote in the creation of a constitution with some aspects of the Lecompton Constitution.  James Buchanan took this as a victory because he had wished that the anti-slavery party would take part in the elections.  Buchanan, writing in the third person, states that “it had been his constant effort from the beginning to induce the Anti-Slavery party to vote.  Now that this had been accomplished, he knew that all revolutionary troubles in Kansas would speedily terminate.  A resort of the ballot box, instead of force, was the most effectual means of restoring peace and tranquility.”[7]Buchanan, keeping to his constitutional beliefs, used force only to enforce the rights of the people to vote under the Constitution. Essentially, Buchanan gave the anti-slavery party the tools to vote in a free and fair election without fear of violence.  It only took them a while to take him up on his efforts before they would vote in the government.  James Buchanan recognized that they were in effect the majority of the population and in accordance with the law, it was up to them to decide the slavery question.  

On February 2, 1858, James Buchanan gave a message to Congress regarding the constitution of Kansas.  The newly elected government (with a large majority of anti-slavery supporters) had sent the Lecompton Constitution (with slavery elements) to the president for Congressional approval.  In Buchanan’s message he stated that “slavery can therefore never be prohibited in Kansas except by means of a constitutional provision, and in no manner can this be obtained so promptly.”[8]Although this may be interpreted as pro-slavery, to Buchanan it was not, because the people of Kansas had elected their leaders and had submitted a constitution in forming a state legally.  It was his duty to ensure that their wishes were carried out. He warns that, “should Congress reject the constitution…no man can foretell the consequences.”[9]In Buchanan’s eyes, the admittance of Kansas into the Union in a timely manner would “restore peace and quiet to the whole country.”[10]  In closing his message to Congress, he admits that he had been forced to act in Kansas on behalf of the people to ensure fair elections and opportunities for both sides. He states of the matter, “I have been obliged in some degree to interfere with the expedition in order to keep down rebellion in Kansas.”[11]


Buchanan and the Constitution

Although Congress would reject the Lecompton Constitution due to the slavery elements, James Buchanan could not interfere as it was not in the powers of the executive granted in the Constitution.  In 1861, Kansas became a free state. In looking at the situation in Kansas, James Buchanan’s actions were in accordance with the Constitution and his role as chief executive.  Since the Lecompton government was established by Congress it was the legal government in Buchanan’s eyes.  He recognized that voter fraud and violent intimidation had elected pro-slavery delegates that did not speak for the majority of Kansas.  It was for this reason that he urged them to have new elections which were fair.  When that advice fell on deaf ears, he sent federal troops to defend the rights of the people at the ballot box.  This action was taken as his support of the pro-slavery election results.  However, it gave the anti-slavery party the ability to vote in unbiased elections which would lead to their control of the government.  In the words of James Buchanan, “I have thus performed my duty on this important question, under a deep sense of responsibility to God and my country.”[12]


What do you think of James Buchanan’s actions during Bleeding Kansas?

[1]Irving Sloan, James Buchanan: 1791-1868, (New York: Oceana Publishers, 1968): 84.

[2]Michael F. Holt, Franklin Pierce, (New York: Times Books, 2010): 77. 

[3]James Buchanan, Mr. Buchanan’s Administration on the Eve of Rebellion, (Scituate: Digital Scanning Inc, 1866/2009): 13. 

[4]Sloan, 35. 

[5]Buchanan, 18. 

[6]Buchanan, 18. 

[7]Buchanan, 24. 

[8]Sloan, 47. 

[9]Sloan, 47. 

[10]Sloan, 48. 

[11]Sloan, 49. 

[12]Buchanan, 26.

The Jacobite Risings were a stormy period from the late 17th century to the first half of the 18th century in Britain. They involved many plots and battles between those who wanted Britain to remain ruled by Protestants and those who wanted the Stuart Catholics to return to the British throne. Here, Jamil Bakhtawar explains the origins of the risings.

Government forces at the 1689 Battle of Dunkeld.

Government forces at the 1689 Battle of Dunkeld.

The word ‘Jacobite’ stems from Jacobus, the Latin version of James. The Jacobites were a group in the late 17th and 18th centuries, who believed that the Catholic James VII of Scotland (James II of England) and his Stuart descendants should be restored to the throne of Scotland and England. The political importance of the Jacobite movement extended from 1688 until at least the 1750s.


The internal strife

The mid seventeenth century had seen the British Isles engulfed in a series of internal conflicts called the Wars of the Three Kingdoms. Religion was a significant factor with both Scottish and English factions’ strong resistance towards Catholicism. The wars ended with Oliver Cromwell taking charge, but Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660. When he died without a legitimate heir, he was followed by his Catholic brother James II.

The king’s initial promises to defend the existing government in church and state reassured many of those worried by his personal faith. James was well off financially, with significant tax revenue. The manipulation of borough charters in the last years of Charles II’s reign ensured that James’ first parliament was dominated by loyal Tories. Initial support for the king ebbed away as it became clear that he wished to secure not only freedom of worship for Catholics, but also the removal of the Test Acts so that Catholics could occupy public office. James also started to establish some laws and regulations that were lenient towards Catholicism. The test case of Godden vs. Hales (1686) established James’ right to suspend the provisions of the Test Acts, thereby allowing the king to appoint a number of Catholic peers to his Privy Council. In April 1687, James issued a declaration of indulgence that suspended penal laws against Catholics and granted toleration to some Protestant dissenters.

These measures were met with immense opposition. The Protestants began questioning James’ legitimacy to hold the Crown and feared a Catholic takeover.


Rebellion and revolution

Two factors moved James II’s opponents to urge William, the Prince of Orange (the Stadtholder in the Dutch Republic), to intervene militarily. Firstly, after years of trying, James’ Catholic second wife finally became pregnant. The birth of a healthy male heir, James Edward Stuart (the Old Pretender), on 10 June 1688, dashed hopes that the Crown would soon pass to James’ protestant daughter Mary. Secondly, William’s co-conspirators believed that the parliament James planned to summon in the autumn would repeal the Test Acts.

Faced with a potential enduring Catholic dynasty, in 1688 many senior English magnates invited William of Orange to invade and overthrow the Catholic King. William landed with his army on November 5, 1688 at Brixham, southwest England which started a popular uprising against the king. The widely unpopular James was then deposed by the Protestant-leaning parliament in the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and forced into exile. William and his wife Mary (the Protestant daughter of James II) jointly assumed the throne and put Britain back into Protestant rule.

Whilst Protestant England embraced the new monarchy, the reaction in Scotland was mixed. Although Scotland supported King William, amongst both Protestant and Catholic circles there was reluctance to displace the Stuart dynasty which had ruled Scotland for over 300 years.


The Jacobites and their rebellions

John Graham, the Viscount of Dundee, was a strong supporter of James II. In 1689 he defied Parliament, marched out of Edinburgh with his followers, and began gathering Jacobites to rebel against the Protestant Crown. From mid-April 1689 until the summer, Graham was gathering clansmen. By summer James was in Ireland, promising reinforcements to John Graham; but all that arrived was a troop of three hundred poorly armed and badly disciplined Irish men. Graham felt that if his Highlanders were to be kept together at all, a blow must be struck. He found his opportunity at the pass of Killiecrankie on July 27, 1689. The Highlanders burst upon the regular soldiers with one irresistible charge and scattered them in a total rout; but a bullet killed the Viscount as he was dashing forward at the head of the small troop of the Jacobite cavalry. The victory itself was complete, but the Viscount’s fall made it entirely useless. At the Battle of Dunkeld in August 1689, the Jacobites were defeated by government forces and the military danger in Scotland was effectively at an end. Even if Graham hadn’t been slain, he couldn’t have done anything more than maintaining a state of alarm and unrest, unless he had received stronger reinforcements.

In 1696 the revival of Jacobite hopes was signaled by an assassination plot. The French, who were at war with Britain, suddenly saw an advantage to be gained from an alliance with the Jacobites. They would land the new Jacobite heir, James III 'The Old Pretender', in his ancestral kingdom and start a rebellion. For the French it was an excellent opportunity to invade Protestant England and as for the Jacobites, they could put Britain back under Stuart rule and defeat all opposition.  A legitimate Jacobite design was formed for an invasion of England by French troops. The young Duke of Berwick, an illegitimate son of James, was sent over secretly to agree measures with the English Jacobites. The plot fell through because the French required an English Jacobite rising as a preliminary step to the actual invasion. However, it then emerges that there was an unauthorized plan for the assassination of King William when hunting at Richmond. This was the plan of one of the Jacobite agents, Sir George Barclay. Some of the conspirators were arrested while William carefully abstained from pushing inquiries. Only those who were palpably connected with the plan of assassination were punished; the mere fact that many suspected persons were allowed to go free caused them to be viewed with suspicion by their fellow conspirators. After the detection of the plot, neither a rising nor an invasion was possible.

It is evident that ever since the removal of King James in the Glorious Revolution, there were various devious plots and plans devised by the former King and his supporters in order to restore Catholicism back to the British thrown. However, those plans, and battles became tiring and it seemed as if the supporters of Protestantism were on the winning side.


The Jacobite recognition

On William of Orange’s death in 1702, Anne succeeded him. The passing of the Acts of Union by both the English and Scottish Parliaments led to the creation of the United Kingdom of Great Britain on May 1, 1707. The Parliament of the United Kingdom met for the first time in October 1707.

Tensions were high in places following the 1707 Union, which was not fully supported across the country. To make matters worse, George I became King of Britain in 1714. He was a German from Hanover who could not speak English and managed to alienate many people, hence making some people more willing to try to return a Stuart to the throne.

The Earl of Mar had initially been an enthusiastic supporter of George I, but after being publicly snubbed by the new King, Mar decided to back a different horse. In March of 1715 James III ‘the Old Pretender’ petitioned the Pope for money and military aid for a Jacobite uprising to capitalize on this tension. The plan was for two Jacobite uprisings to happen in England. Once the British Army had rushed north to deal with a diversionary uprising, the main uprising in the south of England would start. However, matters soon got complicated. In August, the Earl of Mar returned to his estate in Scotland after failing to convince King George that he was not a Jacobite sympathizer. There he held a council of war with leading Jacobites apparently unaware of James’ plans. On September 6, Mar and other local Jacobites raised the standard at Braemar and caught everyone by surprise. The timing of Mars’ rising was fatal to James’ plans. It pulled parts of the British Army north before the planned diversionary rising. Mars’ Jacobites took Inverness, attempted to take Edinburgh and then headed south to catch up with English Jacobites in northern England. All the action had led to the Jacobites in southwest England being arrested by the government which effectively halted the plans for a main rising in the south.

The Jacobite cause was down but certainly wasn’t eliminated. By 1715, Jacobite actions were steadily becoming stronger, but it would be many decades until they reached their peak. 


Part 2 is available here and part 3 here.

Now, let us know what you think below.

Just how did the United States of America gain its independence? It’s a story familiar to some of us, and George Levrier-Jones is going to tell the story in his own informed, concise way.

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The Boston Massacre, Alonzo Chappel, 1878

The Boston Massacre, Alonzo Chappel, 1878

This revolution had it all. A yearning desire for liberty, great battles, constantly shifting sands, a result which left the world in a very different place. It also happened at a time when the world was going through a new stage of globalization and so set the tone for what was to happen in the revolutionary and colonial late 18th and 19th centuries.

And in this episode we set the scene to the war by telling you about 18th century America, the French and Indian War, and those major events that happened in the years before the American Revolutionary War or the American War of Independence broke out. The Boston Massacre, the Boston Tea Party, and the Continental Congress were just a few of these events…

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Take care,

George Levrier-Jones


email: info@itshistorypodcasts.com

web: www.itshistorypodcasts.com

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How familiar are you with the Tudors? In this article, Jennifer Johnstone introduces us to some of the key events and people in the period including bloody religious change, kings and queens, and King Henry VIII’s six wives.


Everyone is familiar with the Tudors. Or at least, most people know about Henry VIII, and his six wives: Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves, Catherine Howard, and finally Catherine Parr, alongside another one of England’s longest serving monarchs: Elizabeth I. The first Tudor royal was King Henry VII (1485-1509), then his son, Henry VIII (1509-1547), then to the boy King Edward VI (1553), briefly Lady Jane Grey sat on the throne in 1553, to be ursurped by Mary I, sometimes referred to as ‘Bloody Mary’ (1553-1558), and finally, the last of the Tudor monarchs was Elizabeth I (1558-1603). In the television program The Tudors, Catherine of Aragon describes Anne Boleyn as ‘the scandal of Christendom’; however, it seems like an accurate description of the Tudors themselves, as they divided a country religiously, broke with Rome, and reformed England in a way that changed the country forever.

King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn

King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn

Family divisions

The Tudors did not only divide the country of England religiously, between Catholic and Protestant, but they were divisive amongst themselves too. They were a family of intense division.

One of the divisions in the Tudor court came from the contentious relationship Mary I had with Anne Boleyn. It is said that they hated each other, and even tried to kill one another. The Imperial Ambassador of the time, Eustace Chapuys, claimed that Anne tried to poison Mary. But there is a lac k of evidence to suggest that Chapuys’ claim is true. Chapuys wasn’t an impartial figure in the Tudor court; he is said to have supported Lady Mary and her mother Catherine of Aragon. But it is also claimed that Anne said to her brother George that, “she would consider putting Mary to death if the King ever left her as Regent while he was away in France.” Perhaps there is some truth to the claim that Anne thought that it would have been easier on her if Mary was out of the equation, but to accuse her of murder without strong evidence, doesn’t give us an accurate picture of what Anne really thought of Mary.

So, what did Mary think of Anne? Well, Mary seems to have resented the new Queen. And that she even rejoiced when Anne did not and could not produce a son for Henry. Mary seemed to blame Anne for her parents’ divorce, and the ill treatment by her father towards her. It’s possible that Anne could have been partly to blame for Henry’s mistreatment towards Mary, but Henry stripped Mary of being a princess of his own accord; she was in favor one minute and banished the next minute from court. Henry also had the notion that a son was more important to the Tudor’s future; seeing Mary as inferior in this way must have affected her psychologically too. Indeed, Mary later became a bitter, resentful, and brutal Queen.


Henry VII

The divisions which were rife throughout the Tudor period can be seen from the dawn of the Tudor period as Henry VII came to power in a divided country. The country was at civil war when Henry VII defeated King Richard III in battle. The civil war was called the 'The War of the Roses', a battle between two families, the White Rose of York and the Red Rose of Lancaster (the Tudor Rose), hence the name 'Roses'.

Henry VII is know for his ruthless taxes on the populace. With the money taken from these taxes, Henry VII was able to leave a fortune to his son Henry VIII. Henry VII also reformed laws, and the powers of the King. All told, although Henry VII came to power with a bang, nothing terribly noteworthy happened in his reign, hence why some regard Henry VII as an unmemorable ruler. But, we do not have that problem with his son.


Henry VIII

Henry VIII succeeded his father to the throne on April 21, 1509, and his coronation took place on June 24, 1509. He is well known for forming the Church of England at the expense of the Catholic Church. This was partly because the Pope would not grant Henry an annulment on his first marriage, to enable him to marry again. The establishment of his own church gave Henry the chance to marry a total of six times. Interestingly, his marriage with Anne of Cleaves lasted only six months, but he remained friends with Anne for the duration of their lives. Catherine Parr had understandable reservations about becoming Henry's Queen - who of us would want to marry a King who easily tired of his wives, and was prepared to chop off their heads? They say the only one that Henry really loved was Jane Seymour. Perhaps this was because she gave him the son that he desperately wanted.

But Henry seemingly had several other sons, albeit ‘bastard’ (illegitimate) ones. They were Henry FitzRoy, Thomas Stukley, and Richard Edwards. Considering that Henry VIII had many affairs, and the social stigma that surrounded 'bastard' children, there were very likely more children of Henry's too. Of his three sons, only one was recognized by Henry VIII. The rest were not. In short though, Henry VIII can be seen as a self-serving King, particularly during the Reformation.


The Reformation

The Reformation brought scandal to Christendom across Europe. But was the English Reformation about political and religious rule for Henry? Or was it just about Henry VIII seeking to remarry?

The answer is a mixture of both.

The Lutheran Reformation, which began in 1517, was focused on challenging clerical power and educating the public about the bible, including encouraging them to read the bible in English. Another factor were the resented taxes imposed by the Catholic Church on the people of England. The Catholic Church had a lot more power over countries in those days; Cardinals were the politicians of their day. Cardinal Wolsey would be a perfect example; he had a lot of power in Henry VIII’s day.

Usually in history it's a collection of elements that spur these political breaks, so it would be naïve of us to think that the break with Rome was just an issue of Henry wanting to remarry.


Anne Boleyn

Anne Boleyn is often seen as one of the main driving forces of the English Reformation; this is indeed true. Her faith in Protestantism was strong. She adhered to the Lutheran doctrine, a point that one of Anne's Boleyn's biographers argues. In her book on Anne Boleyn Joanna Denny argues that Anne was a passionate reformer. She writes: “Her views were evangelical, many would say Lutheran. She read the bible daily, and believed that everyone should be able to read the bible in a language they understand.” Therefore, it can be seen that Anne, as well as Henry, were both in favor of bringing the Reformation to England. However, they were not alone; there were plenty of powerful figures in the Tudor court that supported the English Reformation, such as Thomas Boleyn and Thomas Cromwell.

So, a country that Henry VII united, was divided again by the Reformation, into two main religious ‘ideologies’: Catholicism and Protestantism. After Henry's VIII’s reign, Mary I burnt Protestants at the stake, while after her Elizabeth I burnt Catholics at the stake.

But to end, let us consider Henry VIII’s own words:

''Alas, how can the poor souls live in concord when you preachers sow amongst them your sermons of debate and discord... here will see these divisions extinct, and these enormities corrected.''


You can find out more about the Tudors as part of our English Civil War blog post series. Read the first article in the series by clicking here.

In the final in the English Civil War series of articles, Myra King looks at how the English Civil War progressed, finally leading to King Charles I being put on trial by Oliver Cromwell’s government.

In this series on the English Civil War, we have previously considered the Divine Right of Kings, and Henry VIII and bloody religious change, how the Gunpowder Plot may have been a Protestant-led conspiracy, and Scotland and the lead up to the English Civil War.



“I desire you would use all your skill to paint my picture truly like me... Warts and everything,”


These were the words of Puritan leader Oliver Cromwell. This inspired the saying, “Warts and All,” meaning taking the bad with the good. Which, when looking at Cromwell, that is exactly what you have to do. Despite having no military and political training he was quickly promoted to one of the principal commanders of the Parliamentary army. He had the support of most of those in the towns and cities, while nobility and landowners backed King Charles I.

Each side gathered more supporters and more hatred until eventually tensions rose too high and complaints were too grievous.

In August 1642, in the town of Nottingham, war was declared against the King who had, one too many times, raised his royal standard and declared his intent to rule England however he saw fit.

Cromwell at the Battle of Naseby, 1645. By Charles Landseer.

Cromwell at the Battle of Naseby, 1645. By Charles Landseer.


There were only three major battles in the English Civil War: Edge Hill (1642), Marston Moor (1644) and Naseby (1645).

The battle of Edge Hill has the interesting ability to claim no victor. Both sides cried that they were winners but neither really won. The following year saw many more small engagements; the Cavaliers won more often than not. But these battles were not big enough to dent the Parliamentarian army nor make any hedge way to winning the war.

Although it did give Dr William Harvey the ability to camp on the battlefields and study the anatomy of the dead. It is thanks to the fallen soldiers and the brave doctor that we know that blood circulates through the body in a continuous loop. It was at the second major battle, Marston Moor, that the tide began to turn against the King. The Cavalier army had set up camp on a field just west of York. With only an hour left of sunlight, Prince Rupert and the rest of the dukes, settled down to dinner and expected to hunker down for the night once it was done. To them, it seemed preposterous that the Parliamentarians would attack them with the dark night so imminent. This decision proved Royalist stupidity or it showed that Parliamentarians did not practice gentlemanly war.

Either way, before the aristocracy was done with their leg of lamb, the Parliamentarians attacked. The unprepared Cavaliers were slaughtered where they stood. This was the first true victory for the Parliamentarian Roundheads.

Charles had officially lost the north of England.

But the fatal blow came in June 1645 when Cromwell desecrated any hope of victory for the Royalists. They were beaten and broken at the battle of Naseby.

They did not recover and the entire cause was lost.

Charles, ever the sneak, decided to surrender himself to the Scottish rather than Parliament. He was banking on the shaky alliance between Cromwell and the Scots collapsing under this new deceit. He did not bank on the idea that the Scottish were just as sneaky. They simply sold Charles to Parliament for £400,000 in January 1647.

Although, that brought its own problems. What on earth was parliament supposed to do with a defeated king?

Luckily for them, King Charles paved the road to doom all on his own.



The song “Rule Britannia” was performed for the first time on August 1, 1740, one hundred years after Charles’s defeat. But the chorus of this patriotic song might as well have been written as the wretched king walked the land.

“Rule Britannia!

Britannia rule the waves!

Britons never, never, never shall be slaves!”


The English had had enough.

They were done with their tyrant kings who seemed to serve only themselves. The first Civil War had proved how quickly and effectively the people would take up arms against the king.

They would no longer be slaves!

But in November 1647, Charles escaped from Carisbrooke Castle on the Isle of Wight. He ran back to the Scots and begged them for an army. This led to the second Civil War. Unfortunately for Charlie, he was easily defeated.

One has to wonder why this was. Were the Scots purposely leading him to his downfall or were they simply just not all that interested in winning, since this would mean continual war with the English? Or was it a simple case of the angry English having so much firepower that the mighty Scots were no match?

Whatever it was, the result was that Charles, now twice defeated, had proved that he could not be trusted. He was tried at Westminster Hall in January 1649. He was found guilty of the crime of “traitorously and maliciously” levying war against Parliament and the people.



He was executed on January 30, 1649. A king finally cut down for his crimes against England.

It was, of course, the most controversial trial of the century. There were no laws for the trial of a monarch. The English had to bring in a Dutch lawyer who based his work on ancient Roman law. This law stated that a military body (i.e. Parliament) could legally overthrow a tyrant (now you know why so many Roman emperors met their end at the hands of the Praetorian Guard!).

During the trial, Charles refused to recognize the legality of the court. He also refused to take off his hat as a sign of respect to the judges. We assume that he was aiming for an air of royal pride. In reality, all it did was confirm to the judges that Charles was arrogant and dangerous. He was executed on a cold Tuesday afternoon. He had been allowed a last walk through St. James’ Park with his dog. His last meal was a paltry slice of bread and glass of wine. His executioner refused the job at the last moment. And so did his replacement. And his replacement. And also his replacement. And then his replacement. Eventually someone was found and offered £100 for the job. A hefty salary, almost one hundred times the original payment. At 2pm, Charles was led to the block. He wore two shirts as he didn’t want the cold to make him shiver and have that misconstrued as fear.

Once he was dead, spectators stole his blood in superstitious belief of its healing qualities.

On February 6, 1649, the monarchy of England - something that had existed since just after the Roman period - was abolished.

The Civil War was not so much a war as it was a revolution. The beaten masses rose up as one against their tyrannical leader. Some would say that Charles was simply replaced by another tyrant as Oliver Cromwell became Lord Protector. Although the Puritan Cromwell abolished Christmas, sport and theatre, he was an extremely popular leader within his own time. He ruled England well and took it from strength to strength. Unfortunately he never had the foresight to lay down a constitution so that his ideas of government, which served the country well, were preserved. These ideas went to the grave with him. Without their Lord Protector, England was simply lost.

Although they had fought a war in order to abolish the monarchy, within years of Cromwell’s death, England invited the royal family back.

Charles’s eldest son, Charles II, became king under one condition: Parliament had the most say in every decision.


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Slimy Stuarts by Terry Deary





British History by Miles Kelly

AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones

In the latest in the English Civil War series of articles, Myra King looks at how a change imposed by King Charles I and the strength of Scotland put Charles in a position so weak that it would lead to war.

In this series on the English Civil War, we have previously considered the Divine Right of Kings, and Henry VIII and bloody religious change, and how the Gunpowder Plot may have been a Protestant-led conspiracy.



On July 23, 1637 Jenny Geddes threw a chair at a church minister’s head and started the English Civil War.

Edinburgh Minister Dean Hannay condemned himself by attempting to read the new English Prayer Book. This not only angered the congregation but instigated flying furniture. Jenny Geddes screamed, “Villain, dost thou say mass at my lug?” She then continued to curse him with colic and threw the three legged stool she was sitting on. This act started a riot and more chairs were soon thrown. Riots spread so quickly throughout Edinburgh that ministers were forced to arm themselves before service. In one church, the minister actually pointed a gun to his congregation while reciting the Lord’s Prayer. It was the only thing that kept his head from connecting with a chair.

King Charles I by Anthony van Dyck. 1636.

King Charles I by Anthony van Dyck. 1636.

Flying furniture, riots and guns may seem a complete over-reaction to a simple prayer book but it was, in fact, quite small compared to what that prayer book stood for. Throughout England, the spread of Protestantism meant only one thing - bloodshed! Torture, murder, mass genocide and other horrific crimes filled the land simply because the monarch decided on a different strand of Christianity. But England had always been conquered and plagued by whatever faction was strongest. Romans, Vikings, Saxons, Angles and Normans had all arrived and changed whatever they felt like - this almost always being religion and how the country was run. The monarchs were simply children of their culture.

This was not the case in Scotland however. The Picts, natives of the area we now know as Scotland, were not the people to tangle with. After England fell to the Romans, the Legions marched into Pict territory, expecting to conquer it. They came, they saw, but they most certainly did not conquer. Rather, they got slaughtered. That was the Roman introduction to Scotland. And it did not go much smoother for anybody else. The Scottish were a formidable enemy. When King James I inherited the English throne, he took the tumultuous Stuart Dynasty down to London and for the first time in centuries kept Scotland and England in a peaceful, productive truce. But the decades of peace did not soften the Bonnie Scots. When King Charles I began his campaign to bring religious change to Scotland after he ascended the throne in 1625, he expected that change would be as easy as it had been in England in prior years. He was to be in for a surprise.



The Scottish knew the history of English religious genocide and they refused to go the same way. And so, when the prayer book entered their churches, the Scottish rose up as one to stop the start of a genocide. Charles I, although King of the Scots, could not control them from London and so declared war on his own people. Unfortunately he could not raise the funds or an adequate army within England. Charles, like his father, believed that he could run his kingdoms without Parliament and so didn’t call Parliamentary sessions. This meant that he could not get funding or command the armies that he needed. The men he could rally were poorly trained, under fed and improperly attired. The Scottish army was the complete opposite. There were a few minor battles between the English and the Scottish, but neither side really wanted to fight, and finally Charles agreed to a general assembly to discuss disputed topics. Without Charles’s permission, however, Scotland abolished his religion and declared itself free from royal control. Charles was furious and immediately brought back Parliament in order to raise funds for a real army and a real war.

This government, known as the ‘Short Parliament’, refused to do Charles’s bidding until he sorted out their grievances. He refused and dismissed the Parliament after only a few weeks. While Charlie was battling his government, the Scottish army crossed the River Tweed into England. The English army retreated, leaving the whole of Northumberland and County Durham, regions in the far north of England, to the Scots.

Have you noticed the strangest part of all of this? Charles was king of England, and so had to pay for the English army. But Charles was also King of Scotland, and so had to pay for the Scottish army too. This man was such an incompetent leader that he was literally paying to go to war with himself. This only gets worse with his decision to leave the two English counties in Scottish hands in order to pay the Scottish off for attacking the two counties. Up to his eyeballs in debt, Charlie reconvened Parliament in order to raise the funds he could not obtain. This government, known as the ‘Long Parliament’, attacked Charles’s advisers and actually executed his chief supporters. This showed the king that the English Parliament was most certainly not his friend. Luckily for him though, he had another government that he could turn to. And so he went up to Scotland in 1641 to give titles to the two Scottish leaders who invaded England. Interestingly, he gave them titles for fighting against him. This action won him favor with the Scottish but he was in no way their beloved king; in fact they made sure that Charlie boy accepted every one of their decisions without complaint. He was their king in name only.

This did not agree with a man who believed in ‘The Divine Rights of Kings’ and he took his frustrations out on the English. One hundred years before, Charles would have been able to do as he pleased. But too much abuse of power from his predecessors, coupled with the knowledge that the Scottish controlled their King’s strings, had made the English strong.

And just like Jenny Geddes, they were about to throw a chair.


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Slimy Stuarts by Terry Deary





British History by Miles Kelly


In this series on the English Civil War, Myra King follows up on her articles about the Divine Right of Kings, and Henry VIII and bloody religious change, by telling us about the Gunpowder Plot. Was it really carried out by Guy Fawkes or was there a conspiracy led by somebody who thought that King James I was too tolerant towards Catholics?


“Remember, remember the fifth of November, the gunfire treason and plot. I see no reason why the gunfire treason should ever be forgot,”


I do.

On November 5, 1605, Guy Fawkes and his twelve co-conspirators put the final nail in the Catholic coffin. Their idea had been to use thirty-six barrels of gunpowder to blow the British Parliament sky high. Their plan was to kill the king, kidnap his nine-year-old daughter, force her into Catholicism, and crown her their dummy queen. The king, James I, had caused great disappointment in the tiny Catholic community by refusing to reinstate the old denomination. Under James I’s predecessor, Elizabeth I, Catholics had lived safely enough but had been fined for practicing their illegal religion. James had abolished these fines, creating a more tolerant kingdom. But juggling all the different strands of Christianity eventually became too much for the king and he abandoned his tolerant attitude. Catholics, as well as Puritans, were to be fined for practicing anything but Protestantism. They were now also banned from obtaining degrees, holding certain jobs, and sitting in parliament. Sure, they were the minority, and if they really wanted, Catholics could practice in secret, but there would always be troublemakers. Thirteen to be exact.

A depiction of plotter Guy Fawkes from "Guy Fawkes - The Fifth of November a Prelude in One Act." The play was performed in 1793 at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, London.

A depiction of plotter Guy Fawkes from "Guy Fawkes - The Fifth of November a Prelude in One Act." The play was performed in 1793 at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, London.


According to legend, the plotters rented a house next to parliament and carried thirty-six barrels of gunpowder down to the cellar where the explosives expert, Guy Fawkes, was waiting to light the fuse and send the building to that great fireworks display on the other side. But as luck would have it, the cellar was searched the night before and our pyrotechnist was found. He was tortured and confessed the whole plot. He and his cohorts were then executed.

That is the famous version of the story. Many modern historians believe it to be far more sinister than that though.

Firstly, let us go back to James’s predecessor, Elizabeth. The Tudor lady wasn’t necessarily queenly material. In fact she had a foul temper and very bad manners. But something she did have was the knowledge to put others in charge of areas she knew nothing about. One such man was Robert Cecil, her chief advisor. Cecil was a brilliant politician (but not in the utterly-useless-but-hides-it-well way); he knew how to run a kingdom like a well-oiled machine. England was the envy of Europe under his (er, Elizabeth’s) reign.

Cecil had the grave misfortune of outliving Elizabeth though, and this meant that he had to mold himself to the new king. Unlike Lizzie, James had always been heir to a throne, therefore always groomed for a life of leadership. As an already ruling king of Scotland, James arrived with no need for advisers either. Cecil had to retreat to the shadows, but James’s tolerant attitude to Catholics was more than Cecil could bear. Unlike the new king, Cecil knew of the violent religious history of England and he knew that it was just a matter of time before all hell broke loose in the kingdom. Religious freedom could not be allowed, as the extremists would always take it too far. And Guy Fawkes proved Cecil’s fear.


The information surrounding the gunpowder plot does not add up however. How would known Catholics have been able to rent a house right next to parliament? That was illegal. How would they have even gotten the barrels of gunpowder into parliament? Surely they couldn't have just walked in. CCTV didn't exist yet but the idea of having no security at parliament is absolutely ridiculous. Not to mention, from where did they get this gunpowder? The only people to sell gunpowder would have been the government. Why would the government have sold thirty-six barrels of gunpowder to known Catholics? Unless the government - most notably William Cecil - wanted these Catholics to have gunpowder. It was no secret that King James was terrified for his safety. As the only heir of Mary, Queen of Scots, he had seen his fair share of death threats and even a kidnapping. So what would happen if somebody decided to use that fear against him? Could Cecil have orchestrated the entire plot in order to demonstrate how dangerous and untrustworthy Catholics were? Could he have hired the thirteen men, given them the idea of the plot and the gunpowder, and then simply waited for the end result? Cecil was no longer in charge, so if he wanted something done, he would have to find another way to do it. It is at least very suspicious that Cecil constantly talked about the danger of Catholicism, ‘miraculously’ the king was almost killed by Catholics, and suddenly Cecil’s word was law... Could he have staged it all?



The most damning of all the evidence is, I think, the ‘Monteagle Letter.’ One of the plotters, Francis Tresham, was a cousin with a man named Lord Monteagle. On October 26 a mysterious stranger came through the night bringing a letter to the Lord’s home. A letter with a very dark message. It was a warning to Monteagle that under no circumstances was he to go to Parliament on November 5. It simply, and without embarrassment, stated that parliament would receive a blow and all present would be killed. This letter was personally addressed to Monteagle but instead of reading it in private as protocol dictated, he had his servant read it out loud. Why was this done? And how, oh how, did Monteagle just magically have a letter delivered by a servant who could actually read? That alone is a bit of magic as this was a time when only the wealthy could read. Was the “servant” put in place to read aloud so that Monteagle had a witness? Does this mean Monteagle knew what the letter contained? Well, it is rather interesting when you take Monteagle’s next action on board... The Lord then took the letter straight to (surprise, surprise) William Cecil. Why him? Cecil then ordered a search of parliament and, low and behold, Guy Fawkes was found.

Tresham appears with more conspiracy later in the plot. Technically it is his fault the co-conspirators were caught. But while Guy Fawkes and the rest of the plotters were tortured to reveal information and then hanged, drawn and quartered, Tresham was simply locked in the Tower of London. Why? He was also locked in the cell by himself and was later found dead. Official records state he was poisoned. Who had poisoned him and why? Tresham obviously had vital information that spared him the wrack and the noose, but ultimately cost him his life. Was that information the damning truth of the so-called gunpowder plot?

Whether you believe the gunpowder plot was an inside job or you believe it truly was just another act of religious hatred, the fact still remains that this plot showed the scary depth of religious hatred and lack of love for the monarch. The gunpowder plot was just one more step closer to a war against the king and all who stood for him.


We continue our story of the English Civil War and problems with King Charles I here.


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In this article, Chris Marsh continues his tale of the Wars of the Three Kingdoms in Scotland, and concludes with the legendary Battle of Inverlochy.


At the end of the last post, we left Montrose and Alasdair and their small army marching away from Inverary in mid-January 1645. A force of some 3,000 men, they were laden with booty and the principal township of the lands of Clan Campbell sat a smoking ruin behind them.

This small Royalist army, fighting to secure Scotland for King Charles I, had won two of the six victories that they were ultimately to secure, but the circumstances in which they now found themselves could scarcely be less favorable. They were deep in the hostile territory of Argyll in the depths of winter. The Marquis of Argyll, Chief of Clan Campbell and de facto head of Scotland’s covenanting government was assembling strong forces to attack them and avenge this assault on his home territory and, equally importantly, his personal political status.

Additionally, but probably unbeknownst to Montrose, General William Baillie had been newly appointed as the commander in chief of the government forces. An old soldier of Gustavus Adolphus and veteran of Marston Moor, Baillie was his own man and did not hesitate in refusing to take instructions from Argyll when they met to discuss the pursuit of the Royalist army. Although he did transfer to the Earl’s command some 1,100 of his regular troops, Baillie now sat in Perth with a sizeable force thus constituting a significant but unknown threat to the eastern flank of Montrose’s route north.

The Old Inverlochy Castle, with Ben Nevis in the background. Source: DJ Macpherson, from geograph.org.uk. 2008.

The Old Inverlochy Castle, with Ben Nevis in the background. Source: DJ Macpherson, from geograph.org.uk. 2008.

The whole campaign, this famous Year of Victories, is often presented as a random perambulation of epic marches over snow-bound mountain passes punctuated by spectacular military victories with perhaps insufficient effort taken to understand the aims and purpose of the King’s Captain-General.

And it is at this point that we might more closely examine the situation in which he found himself and the options that were open to him, all seen within the context of what it was he was trying to achieve.

In England, the King’s army under Prince Rupert had suffered a heavy defeat at Marston Moor the previous summer but was still in the field and final victory remained possible. Ultimately the field actions which would determine the winner in the struggle between the King and his parliaments would be fought in the southern Kingdom. Montrose, therefore, had to first win Scotland for his King then take his army south to join with Rupert and defeat the army of the English Parliament. Only then could Charles be restored to the unified throne.



All of this was still a long way off. The immediate task facing Montrose was to defeat conclusively the various armies of the Scottish covenanting parliament.  As he marched his army north from Argyll negotiating the comb-fretted difficulties of the landscape of the west highland coast where the land was punctuated by deep sea lochs and boats were a scarcity, he would have been considering how best to achieve this goal.

Within a week they had made it to Inverlochy in the friendly territory of Lochaber where, as they rested, they were joined by further reinforcements as various clan chiefs, pushed off the fence of vacillation by the outcome of the remarkable attack on Inveraray now, rallied to the King’s standard.

However, much of Scotland was still hostile territory for the King’s army. In the far north at Inverness, the Earl of Seaforth, Clan Chief of the MacKenzies, who like many powerful men in Scotland had for long avoided full commitment to either cause had recently declared against the King. It was likely that he would soon be heading south down the Great Glen at the head of another sizeable force, bent on the destruction of Montrose’s command. By now Montrose would be aware of Baillie’s army positioned to the east in Perth and confirmation was also received that the Earl of Argyll approached from the south with the remainder of his Clan Campbell’s soldiery as well as the 1,100 hundred men supplied by Baillie.

Positioned thus between three hostile forces, each of which matched or exceeded his own in size, he probably determined that the best course of action was to seek out Clan Gordon in the north east. The Gordons were second only in size and martial strength to the Campbells. And alone among the highland clans they had a measurable element of mounted men at their disposal. The Marquis of Huntly, Chief of Clan Gordon, had hitherto declined to declare support for his beleaguered monarch. Partly through resentment that Montrose had been given the royal commission in the first place, a rank which diminished his own of Lieutenancy of the North, and partly also due to previous disagreements between the two men during the Bishops Wars half a dozen years previously.

Nonetheless, in Montrose’s eyes, despite his victories at the Battles of Tippermuir and Justice Mills and the recent outstanding success in sacking Inverary, the struggle in Scotland now required the input of the Gordons if it were to be ultimately successful. And it was this challenge of persuading Huntly to throw in his lot with his King which would have pre-occupied Montrose’s mind as he led his army up the Great Glen where they overnighted at Kilcumin (now Fort Augustus) on the evening of January 31.



Events, however, were about to overtake him and his plans for sweet-talking the Marquis of Huntly would have to be shelved forthwith. Firstly a messenger arrived at their camp confirming that the Earl of Seaforth had assembled some five thousand men, Mackenzies and Frasers mostly but also two regiments of regular soldiery. Presently, some thirty miles away, they were about to march directly down the Great Glen to engage him. As he weighed up the implications of this news another messenger arrived. He had been sent north from Lochaber by the Chief of the Camerons of Lochiel and advised that the Earl of Argyll had arrived at Inverlochy, thirty odd miles to the south, with over three thousand men and was on the point of heading up the Great Glen to find and engage Montrose.

So what now for the King’s Captain-General? A numerically superior force approached from the north, with another heading up from the south similar in size to his own and hell-bent on revenge. Baillie’s army blocked the route east, and to the west there was only the winter-gripped barrenness of the highland seaboard.

Negotiations with Huntly and the work of increasing the size of the King’s army would now have to wait as the fate of the royalist army, with it, the King’s cause in Scotland, and perhaps throughout the three kingdoms, was now threatened with disastrous defeat.

Stood around the campfire on that winter’s evening, Montrose, Alasdair MacColla and the principal clan chiefs now discussed their options. Seaforth’s force was perhaps twice their size, but the caliber of much of that they knew to be questionable. But Argyll’s assembly of Clan Campbell’s finest fighting stock, notwithstanding the losses suffered in the attack on Inverary, was a different matter altogether and included the 1,100 regulars handed over by Baillie. And even if Montrose were to engage and defeat Seaforth, Argyll’s men would still need to be faced in turn. Furthermore it was clear that as this force had made their way north they had taken time to burn and pillage through the territory of any believed to be in sympathy with Montrose. Men who stood with him now were moved to protect their own lands.

Thus the decision as to their next move made itself. Once victorious over Argyll they could then march to Gordon country, with a greater likelihood of success in persuading them to join forces.



However, to simply turn about and head back down the glen to attack Argyll was to invite defeat. It would require a different approach if their unlikely record of success was to be maintained. And so in the dark of the following morning, Friday January 31, Montrose and his army of three thousand men embarked on that legendary flank march which has been deemed one of the great exploits of arms in the history of the British Isles. With the Great Glen carving a gash from south east to north west, they disappeared south east up the rocky course of the little River Tarff and disappeared into the mountains.

Over the next thirty-six hours they covered over thirty miles in weather as unkind as the Scottish winter can deliver, as Argyll and Seaforth’s scouts combed the Great Glen fruitlessly. Late on the Saturday evening they crossed over the northern buttress of Ben Nevis’ long slope and looked down upon the dark mass of Inverlochy Castle with the many camp fires of Clan Campbell dotted around it. The surprise was complete. Montrose, who had been confirmed at Loch Ness not two days before, now stood at the head of his army ready to attack them.

Argyll himself, recently injured in a horse fall and with little stomach for pitched battle, conferred full authority on his kinsman Duncan Auchenbreck, who he had, to be truthful, recalled from Ireland specifically to lead this army. And the Chief of Clan Campbell was rowed out to his waiting galley which sat at anchor safely out on Lich Linnhie.

Both armies lined up in battle order and waited out the remainder of the freezing night. As soon as there was deemed to be enough light to fight by, Alasdair, at Montrose’s direction led the two flanks of Irishmen forward. When they were close to the enemy they fired their muskets, then followed up with sword and dirk. In just a few minutes the enemy flanks were in disarray and the center quickly followed suit with many of the regular troops fleeing the field. At this point Montrose took the royalist center forward and completed the rout.

Inverlochy was to be one of the bloodiest battles fought on Scottish soil, and as is so often the case in such circumstances, the majority of the slaughter was carried out on a terrified and defeated rabble as they fled the field. About 1,800 men of Argyll’s force met their end, some as far away as ten miles from the battlefield.

This success following so close on from the triumph of the raid on Inveraray would have been more than Montrose could have hoped for just two months previously. In the immediate aftermath of the fight he wrote a comprehensive dispatch to his King detailing the recent successes and anticipating, not without some cause, ultimate victory.


This article was written by Chris Marsh, who blogs at www.bonniedundee1689.wordpress.com.


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In this brilliant article, David C. Weinczok looks at an often unknown 14th century declaration in Scotland – and how it has influenced some of the most important revolutions in history as well as the modern world itself.


The evolution of Western political thought has been driven and accompanied by a pantheon of great works, documents not only of theory but of praxis that help to steer, redirect, or indeed even rebuild the ship of state. Beginning, perhaps, with Plato’s Republic, we can trace this pantheon through various points of political, and therefore historical, development and upheaval: Machiavelli’s The Prince and oft-neglected Discourses, Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract and John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government being among the best known and most influential of them. Documents veering further from the realm of theory and grounded more firmly in concrete political incidences, such as the Magna Carta or the Declaration of Independence of the United States, are nonetheless heavily influenced by the philosophical environments in which they were conceived. There is one constant and notable absence from this assemblage, however, that deserves a restoration in the democratic consciousness – Scotland’s Declaration of Arbroath, written as a fervent assertion of national sovereignty and, most significantly, of the reciprocal relationship between rulers and the people.

Robert Bruce, King of Scots, kills Sir Henry de Bohun in the Battle of Bannockburn, 1314. From a Chronicle of England: 55 BC - 1485 AD. Published 1864. 

Robert Bruce, King of Scots, kills Sir Henry de Bohun in the Battle of Bannockburn, 1314. From a Chronicle of England: 55 BC - 1485 AD. Published 1864. 

Plea of a nation

The Declaration of Arbroath was one part of a diplomatic package of appeal sent by the Scots to Pope John XXII, whose court was in Avignon. Robert Bruce, King of Scots (1306-1329), had been excommunicated in 1319 after the Scots had broken a Papal truce by recapturing Berwick-upon-Tweed from the English the year before. This and other hostile actions against the northern shires of England were part of a concerted effort to bring the English king, Edward II, to the negotiating table concerning Scotland’s status as an independent nation, an effort which had so far been for naught. Bruce himself was summoned to appear before the pope in May 1320, but instead sent the Declaration alongside a personal letter stressing the longstanding relationship between the Papacy and Scotland, its ‘special daughter.’ The Declaration was signed by 49 Scots nobles in addition to Bruce himself, including Walter Steward, progenitor of the Stewart line of Scottish and later British kings, as well as the infamous James ‘the Black’ Douglas, the scourge of northern England.

Largely forgotten following its publication, the Declaration of Arbroath was only rediscovered in the 17th century, and it was not until the 19th and 20th centuries that it “acquired the status of a surrogate Scottish constitution” (Lynch, 111). In approximately 1,200 words the Declaration reinforced for its audience the mythological foundation of Scotland, its desperation in the face of relentless attempts towards its subjugation, and its right to be recognized once again as a nation of its own as it had been from the 9th century until 1296.  It came at a delicate time – Scotland was reeling from the exhaustion of the Wars of Independence, which saw it struggling against not only the might of England but from internecine rivalries and civil war.

Many modern Scots know by heart the most famous passage from the Declaration:

 …for as long as one hundred of us remain alive, we will never consent to subject ourselves to the English.


However, the passage that deserves international attention, and which earns the Declaration of Arbroath a place among the great documents in the evolution of political thought, immediately follows the defiant words above:

But after all, if this prince [King Robert] shall leave those principles which he hath so nobly pursued, and consent that we or our kingdom be subjected to the king or people of England, we will immediately endeavor to expel him as our enemy, and as the subverter of both his own and our rights, and will choose another king who will defend our liberties.


Robert Bruce, Scotland’s hero-king and champion of the Wars of Independence, put his name to a document declaring in no uncertain terms that he would be driven out just the same as the English if he betrayed his nation’s cause. How could such a thing be possible in the fourteenth century, an age of the Divine Right of Kings and absolute monarchy?


The Scottish Wars of Independence: Setting the stage for a social contract

The Scottish Wars of Independence were essential to the political and intellectual environment from which the Declaration of Arbroath would emerge. In 1286 the Scottish king, Alexander III, fell to his death during a terrible storm and so triggered a crisis of succession. The English king, Edward I, a respected Machiavellian monarch of the highest order, was brought in to arbitrate the dispute between the Scottish families vying for the crown. His choice was John Balliol, who proved to be an ineffectual leader hopelessly caught between the irreconcilable demands of Edward and the Scottish nobility and clergy. In 1296 Balliol bit the hand that fed him by forging what would become known as the ‘Auld Alliance’ with France, enraging Edward and resulting in Balliol being ceremonially stripped of his royal regalia and the Scottish throne itself. Edward had enough of puppetry – no longer willing to rule by proxy, he set himself upon the course for conquest.

So began eighteen years of English military occupation of Scotland, beginning with the horrendous sack of Berwick, then a part of Scotland, in which most of the city’s 15,000 inhabitants were put to the sword, and ending with Robert Bruce’s resounding victory over the English army under Edward II at Bannockburn. Before Bruce’s controversial coronation in 1306 (the controversy being due to his murder of his main rival to the throne, John Comyn, at the high altar of Greyfriars Kirk in Dumfries only weeks before), many Scots still thought of Balliol as the rightful king of Scotland despite his political failings. In 1302 William Lamberton, Bishop of St Andrews, sought a legal justification for renouncing Balliol in favor of a more assertive king. He found the crux of his argument in the teachings of Duns Scotus, a philosopher-theologian, whom he met with in Paris. Scotus argued that:

The real root of royal authority…had nothing to do with inheritance. A king whose power was legitimate was king because his people granted him their consent, and if that consent were to be withdrawn for any reason then the man was king no more. (Oliver, 126-127)


A king (or queen) was therefore not one thanks to any ‘right’ attained through wealth, title or divine assent, but because of their service to their people and community. The failure of Balliol to act as a steward for Scotland’s best interests, combined with the disasters that befell Scotland during the Wars of Independence, gave Duns Scotus’ conception of a custodian-king a great deal of appeal. It helped, of course, that there was one ready made in the person of Robert Bruce.

For the Scots, one of the consequences of the Wars of Independence was an emergent sense of a single political community and national identity. The publication of several works in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries amounting to an ‘official’ history of Scotland, including John Barbour’s Brus and Walter Bower’s Scotichronicon, helped to instill a hitherto unprecedented level of Scottish self-awareness (Lynch, 112-113). This self-awareness came alongside vigilance, not only against external enemies but internal ones as well. Scots had learned the hard way that the national interest, that being the wellbeing of the people, must be preserved against the constant threat of the waywardness and ambitions of those chosen to rule.


The legacy of Arbroath

This notion of kingship would largely recede during the reign of the Stewart kings of Scotland (and later Britain), which, especially during the reigns of James IV, V and VI, entrenched absolute monarchy back into the depths of the Scottish political mindset. One would not be remiss in asking, then, to what extent the Declaration of Arbroath changed the political scene at all, given its fall into obscurity very shortly after its reception at the Papal court. There remained, however, a telling difference between Scottish kings and other European monarchs throughout the Medieval period, one that harkened back to the kingly ideal put forward by Duns Scotus. The King of Scots, until the Union of Crowns in 1603, was precisely that – the King of Scots, rather than the King of Scotland. It was a subtle difference, but in an age dominated by kings who asserted their authority over the very earth upon which their nations were built, it is one that warrants further attention.

The Declaration of Arbroath would influence the minds and pens of those men and women who set their hearts to the work of democracy in the modern age. For instance, as many as one third of the signatories to the American Declaration of Independence were Scotsmen or of Scottish descent. Thomas Jefferson, who claimed Robert Bruce as an ancestor, was undoubtedly affected by the Declaration of Arbroath due to his education at the college of William and Mary under the Scotsman William Small, who Jefferson would describe as being “as a father” to him (Caledonian Mercury, 2011). More fundamentally, though, the Declaration of Arbroath was a deep chink in the armor of any system that sustained itself through the self-interested actions of the individual(s) in charge. Hence its sentiments, whether consciously or not, would emerge again and again in struggles such as the French and American Revolutions, as well as in the general popularization of accountable political structures that would ultimately be expressed through the spread of democratic governance.

In such ways has the Declaration of Arbroath, a letter from a king to a pope at the height of the Medieval world, shaped the modern one. In so doing, it has surely earned a place among the standard works to be studied by learners of politics, history, ideas and power. 


Now, read on! Here is an article about intrigue in 15th century England – The Princes in the Tower.

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Works Cited

Caledonian Mercury. ‘The Scottish influence on the US Declaration of Independence, from Arbroath to the Enlightenment.’ Feb. 2011. Web.  http://caledonianmercury.com/2011/02/10/the-scottish-influence-on-the-us-declaration-of-independence-from-arbroath-to-the-enlightenment/0013857

Caroline Erskine, Alan R MacDonald & Michael Penman (Eds.). ‘Scotland: The Making and Unmaking of the Nations c.1100-1707.’ Dundee University Press in association with The Open University in Scotland: Dundee, UK. 2007.

Lynch, Michael. ‘Scotland: A New History.’ Pimlico: London, UK. 1992.

Neil Oliver. ‘A History of Scotland.’ Phoenix: London, UK. 2010.


In this article, Myra King follows up on her article about the Divine Right of Kings, by telling us about religious conflict in Henry VIII’s England. As we will see, this conflict would continue to simmer beneath the surface well into the 1600s; indeed, it would be a major factor in the English Civil War.


Once upon a time in a land far, far away, a regal king met the woman of his dreams. He instantly knew he had to marry her and make her his Queen. The only problem with this plan… He was already married.

When Henry VIII came across Anne Boleyn, he was already in his fourteenth year of marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Divorce was the only option. Unfortunately the pope refused to grant him one. After nearly seven years of fighting the Vatican, Henry got his Tudor breeches in a twist and decided to break away from the Roman Catholic Church. He established the Church of England, making himself the leader and instated the newly formed denomination, Protestantism. This was no simple decision as Catholicism had been the official religion of England since the Romans had brought it over one thousand years earlier. The people of England had had their faith ripped out from underneath them and they had no way to fight it. Henry’s decision to break with Rome did not end at the peaceful renaming of churches. Henry introduced an act called “The Reformation” and that was far from peaceful. Thomas Cromwell and Henry’s goons ransacked over eight hundred monasteries, literally stripping them of everything from their lead roofs, to their golden candlesticks and valuable books. The lucky monks were thrown into the street. The rest were executed for refusing to comply. The reformation brought in a ton of gold for Henry and a ton of misery for everyone else. Many of those who revolted against this act were murdered. Not only the rebellious men, but their wives and even small children were left swinging from ropes.

A strange fruit left to rot in the fields. 

King Henry VIII of England by Lucas Horenbout (c. 1526)

King Henry VIII of England by Lucas Horenbout (c. 1526)

It wasn’t only the peasants who met their untimely deaths in the reformation. Several of Henry’s own politicians were sent for the chop. Not to mention the fact that women were subjected to torture on the rack. An act unheard of before the tyrant Henry and his church.

There was nothing peaceful about this religious change. Many suffered at the newborn hands of the Church of England. This was the start of the religious wars that would plague the country for over a century. The people of England now became the unfortunate pawns in this genocide. And they had no way to fight back.



In 1547, Henry finally succumbed to whatever ailment had killed him (it is heavily debated), leaving his nine-year-old son, Edward VI, as king. Edward, having been born and bred a Protestant, kept the kingdom as his father had left it. But Edward was a sickly boy and at the tender age of fifteen he was dead and buried. This left his elder sister, Mary I, as queen. Mary’s bloodlust and stupidity is almost stomach turning. Her first act as queen was to undo the reformation and return England to the Vatican. Bad idea. By this point, the Church of England was the only religion the young English knew. They had been schooled by Henry and Edward to read the bible, now Mary burned them for it. They had been taught that prayers were private, and the vanity and abuse of the Catholic Church were not their god’s doing. Mary burned them for questioning the Vatican. Mary’s second mistake was to marry her cousin, Philip of Spain. He was a money and power hungry Catholic who was anything but popular among the English. Mary had been warned by her government that marriage to Philip would be political suicide. But she did not heed their warning. And so, Philip brought his hand in marriage as well as his need to conquer an unconquerable land – France.

England owned one town in France, Calais, a town close to England on the French coast. Philip wanted more. Mary’s government begged her not to go to war with the French. England was in trouble, you see; it had done nothing but rain during Mary’s reign. The crops were ruined. There would be no food for the following year. England needed her money in order to buy food from the French. They couldn’t use that money for war. Mary would not listen though. England not only lost the war with France, but also Calais – a town that could have produced food for them.



In Mary’s five short years as Queen she undid the horror that her father had done; all Henry VIII’s crimes against his people had been for nothing. She burned every Protestant she could find in a land completely Protestant. She married an unpopular fool and sent her army to their deaths to do his bidding. She lost French territory. She did nothing as her country flooded and starved to death. She earned herself the nickname “Bloody Mary” and is known as the most useless monarch England has ever had. All in the name of religion. Once again, the English people were the wretched victims of a monarch’s unholy obsession with their own religious ideas. More than three hundred Protestants were burned at the stake so that she could purge the country of the religion her father had killed nearly fifty-seven thousand people to introduce.

Mary died childless in 1558, leaving her half-sister as queen. Elizabeth quickly changed the country back to Protestantism. And the only people who needed to fear the stake were the corrupt Catholic priests. No one mourned for them; no one mourned the loss of Catholicism. Her memory lives on as one of the greatest leaders in English history; she has no connection to religious genocide. Her father and sister live in infamy as atrocious monarchs hated by the people. And besides their laughable marriages, all they are known for is the suffering their religious beliefs caused. Could it be a coincidence that one is adored while the other two are abhorred?

Elizabeth died childless in 1603 and left the throne to her cousin’s son, the king of Scotland – James VI of Scotland. England’s first fear was that the Catholic king would bring his dreaded religion to England and that there would be a repeat of Mary’s or Henry’s reign. Luckily James had some smarts and left his religion in Edinburgh castle. He became James I of England and brought with him, not one, but two sons. This officially ended the Tudor dynasty and the fears of succession that Henry’s questionable virility and his childless children brought to the table. James walked a fine line though. He believed in the Divine Right of Kings that meant he answered to no one but his god. He believed it was his right to do and say whatever he wanted. The English soon got a tad sick of this behavior. He must have known the dangerous dance he was partaking in. After two cruel monarchs who hid behind the thin guise of religion to commit their atrocities, religion was now top of the suspicion list. Every pro-Catholic move James made, he put his life on the line. Equally, every anti-Catholic move he made he put himself and his family in danger.

If James wasn’t aware of the danger he was in, the Gunpowder plot definitely showed him.

I don’t think James I ever failed to remember the 5th of November.

And that's for next time...


The next article in the series is on King James I and a conspiracy related to the Gunpowder Plot. Click here to read it!


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