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Shakespeare mentions “covenants drawn between’s” in Cymbeline, and mentions covenants again in Henry VI when the King is negotiating a marriage to Lady Margaret, and then it concept comes up further in both Richard II and and in Taming of the Shrew. Covenants were a key player in the Protestant Reformation that was going on in Shakespeare’s lifetime, but it was also a word that could meant to promise or form a contract. The history of the time period tells us that Swiss Reformed theologian Johannes Oecolampadius (1482–1531) was teaching in the 1520s what would later become known as “the covenant of redemption” A few years later Heinrich Bullinger (1504–75) published the first Protestant book devoted to explaining the covenant of grace, and of course there’s John Calvin, who died the year Shakespeare was born, writing about the covenant of redemption, the covenant of works and the covenant of grace. All of these concepts heavily influenced not only the Church of England, but also The Kirk, the Church of Scotland in defining what it meant to be Protestant. In 1560, The Scottish Parliament designated the kirk as the sole form of religion in Scotland, and adopted the Scots Confession, rejecting Catholic teachings and practices. James VI argued the king was also head of the church, governing through bishops appointed by himself, and in 1603 when he became King of England, he also became head of the Church of England. Eventually Scotland would adopt what’s known as the National Covenant, springing from different perspectives on who held ultimate authority over the church, and this National covenant incorporated the text of another famous covenant that was drafted when Shakespeare was just 17 years old, known as the Negative Confession (1581). Its authors used pieces from the sixteenth-century covenant ideas involving familiar actions and assigned gestures as part of the ritual of what it meant to take a covenant. Our guest this week is an expert on the history of 16th century covenanting and we are delighted to welcome Neil McIntyre to the show to help us unpack the religious history that was finding its’ feet during Shakespeare’s lifetime, as well as to help us understand what Shakespeare would have been referring to or what his audience would have expected to see when they heard and saw the ideas of covenanting appearing in plays like Henry VI and Cymbeline.
Dr Neil McIntyre is a Knowledge Exchange Associate in the College of Arts, Affiliate in Theology & Religious Studies, and former Lecturer in Scottish History at the University of Glasgow. He is the co-editor of Scotland and the Wider World (Boydell, 2022), guest editor of the Scottish Historical Review special issue ‘Covenants and Covenanting’ (2020), and contributor to The National Covenant, 1638–1689, edited by Chris Langley (Boydell, 2020). His most recent publication considers the development and export of ideas on rights of self-defence, resistance, and arm-bearing by Scottish Presbyterians to British North America in New Histories of Gun Rights and Regulation (Oxford, 2023). As a historian he is particularly interested in the role that religion has played in shaping political and legal thought, party politics, and popular political engagement, in both Scotland and beyond.
I’ll be asking Neil McIntyre about:
- In 1560, the Scottish Parliament designated the kirk as the sole form of religion in Scotland, and adopted the Scots Confession, which rejected many Catholic practices. How did this situation go down in England when James VI/I united Scotland and England in 1603. Was there a conflict between the Kirk and the Church of England?
- I understand that taking a covenant is a solemn, formal experience, with defined processes for what was supposed to occur. What are the specific actions, or gestures, involved in taking a covenant?
- In Shakespeare’s Henry VI Part I, Henry VI uses the language of “Covenant” to ask that his emissary, Lord Suffolk, go to France and “Agree to all covenant” as part of the process of getting Lady Margaret to come back and be his queen. Neil, explain what “covenant” means in this context—were covenants part of formal political contracts between countries or is this word being used in the same way as we might use the word “promise” today?
- …and more!
Resources Recommended by Our Guest
Notes here about the recommended resources are directly from our guest, so the “I” in this section is Neil McIntyre.
Jane Dawson, ‘Covenanting in sixteenth-century Scotland’, Scottish Historical Review 99 (2020) issue supplement, 336–48. Jane is Professor Emerita of Reformation History at the University of Edinburgh and very kindly contributed this article to the ‘Covenants and Covenanting’ special issue that I was fortunate to guest edit for the SHR. As a first-stop shop for understanding sixteenth-century covenanting, this is, in my view, a great place to start. Jane also contributed a brilliant essay, ‘Bonding, Religious Allegiance, and Covenanting’, to a collection in honour of the late Jenny Wormald and edited by Steve Boardman and Julian Goodare.
R. Scott Spurlock, ‘Polity, discipline and theology: the importance of the covenant in Scottish Presbyterianism, 1560–c. 1700’, in Church polity and politics in the British Atlantic world, c. 1635–66, ed. Elliot Vernon and Hunter Powell (Manchester, 2020). Scott is Professor of Scottish and Early Modern Christianities at the University of Glasgow. This excellent essay does exactly what it says on the tin: it locates the idea of covenanting at the heart of Scottish Presbyterian ideology and practice from the Reformation to the turn of the eighteenth century. For an Irish perspective, see also his detailed study of the Solemn League and Covenant in Ulster for the ‘Covenants and Covenanting’ special issue.
Ted Vallance, Revolutionary England and the National Covenant (Boydell, 2005). Ted is Professor of History at Roehampton University. As my first two recommended resources are concerned with Scotland, I thought it important to include a third that focuses on England. Ted’s early work traced the development of national covenants and state oaths from the mid-sixteenth to the late-seventeenth century. This book and a series of articles are essential reading for the English context.
Reformations in England and Scotland
In 1560, the Scottish Parliament designated the kirk as the sole form of religion in Scotland, and adopted the Scots Confession, which rejected many Catholic practices. Neil explains that to understand exactly how these decisions influenced things in England, particularly when James I becomes of King of England and Scotland in 1603, you have to first understand the history of the Reformations in England and Scotland.
To be as brief as I can, Henry VIII of England famously breaks from Rome in 1534 and establishes himself as supreme head of the Church of England. However, a ‘reformation’ is not just an event, but a process. It continues under his son, Edward VI, and Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset and Lord Protector, until the young Edward’s death in 1553, when Henry’s daughter, Mary, becomes queen and leads a Catholic Counter-Reformation until her own death in 1558. Mary is succeeded by her half-sister Elizabeth, whose church settlement re-establishes the royal supremacy, restores the Book of Common Prayer as the official liturgy, and produces the Thirty-nine Articles as the doctrinal standards of the Church of England.
From 1534, the Anglo-Scottish boundary becomes a confessional border, leading to a series of attempts by Henry and, later, Somerset, to secure a Protestant British empire by either persuading or coercing the Scots. This policy is picked up again by Elizabeth, whose support of a Protestant Reformation in Scotland is critical to its eventual success. Scotland in the late 1550s is, meanwhile, ruled by Mary of Guise, widow of James V and mother to Mary, Queen of Scots. The campaign for reform is led by a group of nobles known as the Lords of the Congregations and the preacher, spokesperson, and propagandist, John Knox, who had been living in exile in Geneva and later joined with exiled English Protestants at Frankfurt. Legislation is passed by the Scottish Parliament in 1560, but although officially Protestant, the Queen of Scots is deposed in 1567, civil war continues to 1573, and the process of reform takes several decades to work out in practice. Crucially, the Reformation in England had been led by its rulers while in Scotland it had been carried out in defiance of the Crown.
We can now fast forward to 1603, when James VI of Scotland becomes James I of England and Ireland. In brief, James was very keen to unite the separate churches of England and Scotland as part of his wider ambition of achieving uniformity between his kingdoms and ruling as a British emperor, but the circumstances behind the establishment of the national churches and quite different courses of their development made this particularly tricky. There was also limited support on either side of the border to pursue such a project. Particularly zealous or patriotic Protestant Scots believed their church was the ‘best reformed’ in Europe and the English church but half-reformed, while some church leaders in England were deeply concerned with the Presbyterian or ‘puritan’ flavour of the Church of Scotland. So, to answer your question, while there wasn’t open conflict between the churches at the turn of the seventeenth century, their common Protestantism did not provide the foundations for an especially amicable relationship.
Covenants in Religious Law
Covenants were a word used to describe both religious ceremonies as well as legal contracts. Neil cautions against lumping them together as the same thing, but explains that the process holds similar attributes:
I don’t know if I’d say that covenants were synonymous with the term ‘religious law’, but you’re certainly right to say that there was both theological and legal dimensions to them. They were probably associated most famously with Old Testament Israel, where there were numerous examples of corporate or collective covenanting by the Israelites; that is, their entering into tripartite agreements between themselves, God, and their kings, to live and worship according to God’s commands. Returning to the early modern period, a belief developed among both English and Scottish Protestants that their nation, by embracing the Reformation and seeking to establish the so-called ‘true religion’ according to the Word of God, had replaced the Israelites as God’s chosen people. John Knox, for example, argued that once a nation had officially established the ‘true religion’, it was in covenant with God, and thus any backsliding would incur divine wrath. Interestingly, in Scotland, the Lords of the Congregation adapted the medieval practice of ‘banding’ for mutual defense and alliance-building to the ends of Protestant reform and styled such written bands as ‘covenants’, the first of which was signed in 1557 by leading evangelical nobles.
You had asked whether covenants were always taken for religious reasons. While they often were—and I’ll return to these in a moment—it might be worth exploring the various ways the term ‘covenant’ could be understood and deployed. The term derived from the latin foedus and could imply an oath (that is, an oral pact or compact) or a written document that could be signed or subscribed. These were, however, more than simply vows or promises, as they tended to involve other contracting parties, and more than oaths, in the sense that God was not just a witness but often a party to a covenant. There was, then, as we have seen with Knox’s exhortation, major implications for breaking them!
In practice, the term ‘covenant’ could cover a wide range of pactions and agreements or define a wide range of relationships: they could be personal or they could be corporate, involving families, communities, or nations, and they could serve a range of religious, constitutional, political, economic, diplomatic, or military purposes. It was a notoriously slippery concept where, for example, contractual theories of government, national covenants with God, and an individual’s expression of their faith and true belief could be—and often were—conflated. Likewise, covenants could be deployed as, in effect, treaties or contracts, although the latter threw up a theological complication in that it appeared to place conditions or limitations on God’s omnipotence.
I think we can say that, above all, the term was utilised ideologically because it carried both theological and legal weight. The were not to be entered into lightly.
Examining the Use of Covenant Theology
There were some major religious covenants birthed during the Reformation, and there’s a relationship between the concept of “covenanting” and “covenant theology.” Neil explains that we can understand something about covenants when we understand the definitions of the Covenant of Grace and the Covenant of Works.
This is, again, quite a complex question and a topic that has generated an extensive literature as scholars have sought to unpick the relations you describe. As we have seen, the term ‘covenant’ was broad, flexible, and malleable, and, as you’ve suggested, it could refer specifically to what became known as federal or covenant theology. Covenant theology was and is, in essence, a systemisation of the Calvinist doctrine of election; that is, the idea that God has predestined who on Earth shall be saved, who are known as the ‘elect’. It also attempts to provide a framework for understanding the relationship between the Old and New Testaments.
I will try to keep this as concise as I can: The notion of a covenant of works refers to the covenant made between God and Adam in the Garden of Eden. God offered Adam a perfect eternal life provided he did not violate God’s commandments. But as no doubt you and your listeners are aware, Adam does break the covenant, thus condemning all of mankind. In Reformed theology, this episode is known as The Fall, and it underpins the belief that people are born into sin and incapable of faith without the intervention of the Holy Spirit.
The covenant of grace, meanwhile, refers to the promise of salvation to those who have faith in Jesus Christ. In short, Christ fulfils the covenant of works on mankind’s behalf, while an individual, by covenanting with God, thereby proves their election and thus realises the predestined will of God. This personal covenant thus gives tangible expression to that key tenet of the Protestant Reformation—that believers are justified through faith.
Covenant theology was a later sixteenth century theological development and has been associated with Zacharias Ursinus (1534–1583), who is best known as the principal author of the influential Heidelberg Catechism (1563).
In Scotland, although covenantal ideas had been integral to Scottish Reformed thought since the early days of the Reformation, the reception of covenant theology in the strict sense was led by Robert Rollock (1555–1599), Principal of the University of Edinburgh, which was founded in 1583. It is really in the seventeenth century, however, that we see the widespread diffusion and influence of covenant theology in British Protestantism, if I can use that term.
Prominent Theologians and Their Influence
Two of the prominent theologians of this time period instrumental in defining doctrinal covenants for Protestants was Heinrich Bullinger and a bit later, John Calvin. Neil explains their influences on the idea of covenants, and how their works influenced the Westminster Confession of Faith that would be drafted in the late 17th century:
I would begin by saying that I am probably not the person to be asking about Bullinger or Calvin in particular, but I would contend that their direct influence on ideas of covenanting in the seventeenth century was not as profound as might be thought, and their influence might be better framed as indirect. Although English and Scottish Protestants were, by and large, Calvinists in their theology, the term ‘Reformed’ with a capital ‘R’ might be preferable in that it decenters the influence of any one particular theologian and better captures the idea of a tradition that is the product of many hands.
Calvin is, undoubtedly, a broad influence on the Westminster Confession, in that it adopts what are known as the five points of Calvinism: total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and the perseverance of the saints. Some of these ideas I have already discussed in relation to covenant theology.
It is difficult to discuss the Westminster Confession without providing the context of its production. There is—again!—a complex series of events to explain here, but it is worth taking a moment to do so, I think, as it is in this period, the mid-seventeenth century, when we can see clearly that covenanting has become embedded in both Scottish and English religious and political cultures as well as the wider Reformed world, whether in continental Europe or across the Atlantic.
We heard earlier about the Union of Crowns under James VI and I. In 1625 James is succeeded by his son, Charles I, who, within a decade, managed to foment significant political, economic, and religious grievances throughout his kingdoms. In Scotland, protest, rioting, and petitioning in response to his religious policies culminates in the drafting and signing of the National Covenant in 1638.
The National Covenant generated a remarkable mass subscription campaign that involved all classes of society and was a vehicle for both political revolution and a so-called ‘second Reformation’ of the Church of Scotland.
In confronting this situation, Charles had also to contend with disaffection in England. When civil war eventually broke out in 1642, the Scots covenanters offered military assistance to the English parliamentarians in exchange for a presbyterianised Church of England. This alliance was consummated by the Solemn League and Covenant in 1643.
An Assembly of English divines, with Scottish commissioners in attendance, was duly set up to reform the English church. The Assembly was far from united on all aspects of doctrine, worship, discipline, and church government, but, without going into detail, it was this body that eventually produced the Westminster Confession as well as a directory for worship and catechisms. The Confession had a very short shelf life in England, but it was adopted in Scotland in 1647 and re-adopted in 1690, becoming the doctrinal standard of the Church of Scotland and most dissenting presbyterian churches. It remains a key reference point for many Presbyterian churches today.
What is the Negative Confession?
The Negative Confession was an anti-Catholic band signed initially by the young James VI of Scotland and the royal household, but distributed afterwards for nationwide subscription. It was drafted by the household pastor, John Craig, and represented a response to the suspected Catholicism of James’s cousin and advisor, Esmé Stuart, who had a particularly close relationship with—and thus, potential influence over—the king. Thereafter, the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland was required to obtain subscription from all parishioners in the country. As the late Ted Cowan observed, it was first described as a ‘covenant’ in 1586 by the minister of Haddington, James Carmichael. It was ordered by the the king’s Privy Council to be taken again in 1590 in response to fears of missionary incursions by Jesuits and Catholic priests.
Particularly noteworthy was the Confessions’s repudiation of the Pope’s ‘worldlie monarchie and wicked hierarchie’, which was used by Scottish Presbyterians to argue for the rejection and abolition of episcopacy; that is, church government by bishops. While bishops were retained in the Church of England, although certainly not without comment, the question of how the reformed Church of Scotland ought to be governed led to the emergence and evolution of distinct Presbyterian and Episcopalian traditions, which themselves fragmented in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. In Scotland, ecclesiology (that is, ideas regarding the nature and structure of the church) was far more frequently controversial than theology (that is, ideas regarding the nature of God), and the Negative Confession became a key text in that long-running and often heated debate.
As a result, the afterlife of the Negative Confession was arguably more important than its immediate impact in Shakespeare’s lifetime. It provided inspiration for later subscription campaigns, was foundational to the National Covenant that I described earlier—and indeed, incorporated into that document—and became a key part of the narrative developed by Scottish Presbyterians over several generations to assert themselves as in continuity with the Scottish Reformation and upholders of the so-called ‘true’ Church of Scotland.
Actions and Gestures for Taking a Covenant
This is a great question, and, in a Scottish context, one that has attracted a lot of interesting research in recent years by, for example, Karin Bowie, Laura Doak, Paul Goatman, Nathan Hood, Chris Langley, Jamie McDougall, myself, Laura Stewart, Margo Todd, and several others. For England, Ted Vallance and John Walter have written on this extensively.
Your question made mention of ‘defined processes’ that were followed when taking a covenant. While this is true in part, I think it is important to highlight that the extent to which these processes were ‘defined’ is open to debate. In Scotland, local and regional church court records, although revealing procedural patterns, reveal also a significant degree of variation and adaptability across congregations and communities. Indeed, it is worth noting that the National Covenant was not accompanied with strict instructions on how the subscription process was supposed to be conducted. This changed, however, with the Solemn League and Covenant, which was subscribed in 1643 and again in 1648.
Here, explicit instructions were drafted and disseminated through the lower church courts, with attention given to: (i) preparative steps prior to the ceremony; (ii) the symbolism and meaning of the gestures and actions to be performed during the ceremony; and (iii) the words and rhetoric that accompanied them. However, although it is reasonable to argue that a greater level of uniformity was achieved this way, with religious and political leaders seeking to manage the process as far as possible— and thus, control the message being conveyed—there remained plenty of scope for variety, noncompliance, and subversion. For example, Walter Balcanquall, minister of Tranent, would later tell the presbytery of Haddington that, although he had supported the National Covenant as a ‘godly worke’, he did not understand what the Solemn League was. One wonders, then, if his congregation did, either!
This ambiguity aside, one gesture that is common to most public performances of a covenant being taken, whether individually or collectively, was that of ‘uplifted hands’. At a meeting of the General Assembly in 1596, for example, we hear of the clergy raising their hands ‘to testfie their entering in a new league with God’, where the meeting had a revivalist flavour and demonstrated the penetration of the covenant theology that we discussed earlier. At the resubscription of the Solemn League and Covenant in the parish of Ceres in Fife in 1648, meanwhile, we are told that it was ‘solemnlie sworn’ by the minister and ‘all the people men & women standing … [on their] feet swearing w[i]t[h] uplifted hands … & all engadging ymselfs … of all the dewties q[on]tained in the covenant’.
It is worth noting, too, that what makes covenanting in Scotland and Britain so fascinating is that there emerged covenants that were subscribable; in other words, covenanting involved not only oral, aural, and gestural components, but later included tangible written documents, whether personal covenants penned and subscribed in spiritual diaries or the larger-scale corporate practices for the National Covenant and Solemn League and Covenant.
PLACE IMAGE HERE Ask him a question here that I didn’t include previously. He goes for it. Printed works—explosion of print in the mid17th century, and the 1640s particularly, and there are some illustrations of people swearing with uplifted hands (ASK HIM FOR THIS IMAGE). Hands in the air, polemic promotion of covenanting.
Covenants in Shakespeare’s Plays
In Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew, the character Petruchio says “Let specialities be therefore drawn between us, That covenants may be kept on either hand.” Neil, explains the covenanting process being demonstrated here and why Petruchio is talking about covenants being kept on “either hand” :
Very interesting! I think, above all, the scene is demonstrating the contractual nature of the covenanting process and the demands it places on each contracting party.
That covenants may be kept on either hand strongly suggests the mutuality of the arrangement—in other words, that there are obligations being shared by either side—and there is a faint indication of the equality of the arrangement: that it is between parties of equal status with reciprocal responsibilities (although you may be able to correct me on that point).
The plural covenants is also worth highlighting, I think. I might be reading too much into this, but it brings with it the suggestion that, although there are two parties involved, they may not necessarily be observing the same obligations, duties, or responsibilities. A singular covenant would suggest the parties were signing up to the same terms, but the plural makes me wonder whether the terms of the arrangement have been framed specifically for each party: one party is promising to do something, while the other is promising to do something else in return. There is a mutual exchange of obligations, duties, or responsibilities, but these may not necessarily be one-and-the-same.
Turning to the point that covenants were being kept: as we’ve already discussed, this brings with it the implication of the solemnity and longevity of the proposed arrangement, or at least the intention of its longevity. This doesn’t sound like a flash-in-the-pan agreement that was being entered into hastily.
Finally, on the specialities, these sound to me like the terms of a contract. They will structure the relationship that is being formalised by the covenants. And I think that word formalised is important to use here: there may have been a pre-existing but altogether vaguer relationship between the parties—and perhaps this has lead to misunderstandings between them with potentially serious consequences—but this relationship is now being given formality by the drafting and taking of covenants. Covenanting would ensure, in other words, that there is a mutual understanding between the parties of their roles, responsibilities, and their relationship between one another.
Covenant of Marriage in Henry VI
In Shakespeare’s Henry VI Part I, Henry VI uses the language of “Covenant” to ask that his emissary, Lord Suffolk, go to France and “Agree to all covenant” as part of the process of getting Lady Margaret to come back and be his queen. Neil explains what “covenant” means in this context and that covenants were part of formal political contracts between countries.
…you could say that covenant is being used here as a synonym for a treaty or political arrangement. When Henry tells Suffolk to agree to all covenant, he is effectively telling him to agree to all terms of the contract that is being drawn up to make Lady Margaret his queen.
Again, I may be reading too much into this, but it does not appear that Suffolk has been given much of a brief to negotiate. The bald phrase agree to all covenant suggests to me that Henry seems to be prepared to accept any terms that are laid down as part of the process. He has not, at least according to this short quote, articulated any red lines that he might not cross, any terms that he is not prepared to observe, or indeed, provided any of his own terms, although there of course remains the possibility that he trusts Suffolk to know what his interests are without stating them explicitly. In my view, then, we are being given the impression of Henry’s desire to secure the agreement at all costs and close it urgently.
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That’s it for this week! Thank you for listening. I’m Cassidy Cash, and I hope you learn something new about the bard. I’ll see you next time!