First Bishops’ War

Consisting of little more than skirmishing, the First Bishops’ War was a failed attempt by King Charles I to subdue Scotland, which had exploded into rebellion in the face of religious changes imposed by the king. The cost of the war forced Charles to call a Parliament, ending eleven years of Personal Rule and precipitating the English Civil Wars.

Summary of Event

There were two causes of the First Bishops’ War. First, although Charles I Charles I (king of England);Scots and had assumed the thrones of both England and Scotland when his father, James I, died in 1625, Charles in fact had little understanding of his northern kingdom, which he had left when he was only two years old. The other, more immediate cause of the war was Charles’s determination, as Supreme Head of the Church of England Church of England , to institute uniformity of worship in both of his kingdoms. This determination caused him to impose a new liturgy in Scotland in 1637. [kw]First Bishops’ War (Mar.-June, 1639)
[kw]Bishops’ War, First (Mar.-June, 1639)
Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Mar.-June, 1639: First Bishops’ War[1310]
Government and politics;Mar.-June, 1639: First Bishops’ War[1310]
Religion and theology;Mar.-June, 1639: First Bishops’ War[1310]
England;Mar.-June, 1639: First Bishops’ War[1310]
Scotland;Mar.-June, 1639: First Bishops’ War[1310]
Bishops’ War, First (1639)[Bishops War, First (1639)]

The Church of Scotland Kirk of Scotland , known as the Kirk, was staunchly Calvinist, with a plain and unadorned Sunday service that consisted mainly of a sermon and a few prayers composed by the minister himself. In Anglican services, by contrast, the minister was required to follow the Book of Common Prayer, with its prayers, creeds, confession, Bible reading, hymns, and canticles. This left little time for a sermon, even if a minister was licensed to preach, which most were not, and it left little room even in the prayers for the minister’s personal faith to shape the service.

The lack of preaching was a cause of complaint by England’s strict Calvinists, the Puritans Puritanism;Church of England and ; they objected as well to the increasing use of ceremony and ritual in English church services under the religious policies pursued by Charles and his archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud Laud, William . For English Puritans, the services of the Kirk of Scotland were far superior to those of England, and the Scots certainly believed their church services represented a “truer” and “purer” religion than did England’. Moreover, Charles was a strong proponent of episcopacy Episcopacy , a system of church governance in which the bishops held all authority: He saw an episcopal church as the religious equivalent of a strong or even absolute monarchy. On the other hand, Charles believed that Presbyterianism Presbyterianism , a more democratic system of church governance favored in Scotland, smacked of the constitutionally limited monarchy that he fought so hard to prevent Parliament from instituting.

Despite the traditions and wishes of his Scottish subjects, Charles insisted that a version of the English liturgy be used throughout Scotland. This Scottish Prayer Book Scottish Prayer Book , as it was known, was even more ceremonial and ritualistic, and closer to the Roman Catholic mass, than its English counterpart. As he prepared to impose this new liturgy in Scotland, Charles made it clear that no other forms of service would be tolerated and that there would be no more extemporaneous prayers or preaching without a license. To the Scots, this seemed like nothing less than an attempt to bring Catholicism to Scotland, and when the new Scottish Prayer Book was first used, at Saint Giles’ Cathedral in Edinburgh on July 23, 1637, the result was a riot.

Charles had done many of the same things in Scotland that were causing unrest in England: He placed bishops in government office, threatened property rights, and generally acted without consultation or consent of religious, aristocratic, or legislative authorities. The Scottish Prayer Book, though, was the last straw. The riots in Edinburgh continued, and by the fall of 1637, royal authority in the Scottish capital was at an end. The rebels began to set up an alternative government, which culminated in the signing of the National Covenant National Covenant (1638) in February, 1638. While this document claimed that its signers were still loyal to Charles, it denounced his religious innovations and pledged the Covenanters’ Covenanters determination to maintain “true religion.” The powerful leader of the Campbell clan, Archibald Campbell, Campbell, Archibald (1607-1661) eighth earl of Argyll, quickly emerged as a leader of the Covenanters. By the fall of 1638, not just Edinburgh but all of Scotland was essentially under the Covenanters’ control.

Charles sent his chief Scottish adviser, James Hamilton, Hamilton, James third marquis of Hamilton, to negotiate with the Covenanters but with little hope of success. If he could do nothing else, though, Hamilton was instructed to stall for time as, during the winter of 1638-1639, Charles began to arrange for a military force to subdue his rebellious northern kingdom. The Covenanters also made military preparations, raising an army commanded by Scotland’s greatest soldier, Alexander Leslie, Leslie, Alexander later the first earl of Leven. By the spring of 1639, the Covenanters’ army numbered some twenty thousand men, most of whom were veterans of continental wars, and it had secured every important military site north of the border, including Edinburgh Castle.

Charles, on the other hand, was severely limited in what military might he could muster, because he was determined not to call Parliament, which had not met in England since he dissolved it in 1629. Only Parliament could grant the king the necessary taxes to raise and equip an army; without Parliament, Charles’s resources were extremely limited. Although the king had, barely, been able to keep royal finances afloat, there was simply no money in the treasury for an army, so Charles exercised his feudal right to summon his nobles to meet him with armed troops, while also directing the lords lieutenant of the northern counties to mobilize the local militias. The king also appealed to Englishmen, in particular the city of London, for voluntary monetary aid. In March, 1639, Charles arrived in York to head up his royal army, which by June, 1639, numbered some eighteen thousand men.

Compared to the Covenanters, however, the English army was a motley, ill-equipped, undertrained affair. The truth was that most Englishmen had no desire to fight the Scots, who at this point were making no move to invade England itself. In fact, sympathy for the Covenanters ran high among the English, especially those who were alienated by Charles’s fiscal, political, and religious policies at home. Indeed, the very fact that Charles would prepare for war without summoning a Parliament—something unprecedented since the thirteenth century—drove home to many Englishmen the nature of the king’s royal absolutism. Thus, the English nobility either stayed away or showed up with unsavory and unprepared recruits. The militia—the so-called trained bands—were in fact very poorly trained, inadequately armed, and completely unprepared to fight. No voluntary donations to the enterprise were forthcoming from the city of London, either, or from anywhere else in England.

As the royal army moved north, desertion became rampant. It was clear even to the king that his army had neither the ability nor the will to fight the Scots. After some unsuccessful skirmishing, Charles consented to the Pacification of Berwick Berwick, Pacification of (1639) on June 19, 1639; both sides agreed to disarm, and Charles promised to summon the Scottish parliament and the General Assembly of the Kirk to settle the matters in dispute between himself and his Scottish subjects. Although the Pacification of Berwick ended the First Bishops’ War, however, neither side saw it as ending the overall conflict.


The First Bishops’ War exposed the underlying weakness of Charles’s seemingly secure reign, and it showed as well the depth of the discontent in England with his rule. The king’s inability to command his northern kingdom, his failure to bring it to heel, was both humiliating and ominous. The military campaign, besides being embarrassing, had left Charles bankrupt. The king would have no option now but to call a Parliament.

Although the First Bishops’ War had left Charles politically weakened, however, the king was determined neither to abandon his policies nor to concede any of his principles, either to the Scots or to his own people. In the aftermath of the First Bishops’ War, Charles did change his advisers, but in that process he eliminated the more moderate voices and enhanced the roles of the extreme Royalists William Laud and Thomas Wentworth, Wentworth, Thomas first earl of Strafford. The latter was the author of the policy of “Thorough,” whereby royal authority was severely exercised over all levels of English government by means of a scrupulous and strict enforcement of the law combined with effective supervision of local and regional governments.

Moreover, as Charles was forced to call Parliament, the ensuing elections provided a forum in which the discontent growing over the last eleven years could finally be discussed. Issues became clearer, and the extent to which grievances with Charles’s regime were national, not merely local, became apparent. This situation, combined with Charles’s intransigence, did not bode well for relations between the king and the Parliament that assembled in April of 1640. Civil war was nearly at hand.

Further Reading

  • Donald, Peter. An Uncounselled King: Charles I and the Scottish Troubles, 1637-1641. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990. Focuses on the immediate causes of the First Bishops’ War.
  • Fissel, Mark Charles. The Bishops’ Wars: Charles I’s Campaigns Against Scotland, 1638-1640. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994. Chronicles the progress of the war itself.
  • Lee, Maurice. The Road to Revolution: Scotland Under Charles I, 1625-37. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1985. Focuses on the Scottish background of the events that led to the First Bishops’ War.
  • Woolrych, Austin. Britain in Revolution, 1625-1660. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. Authoritative study of the period of Charles I’s reign; important for understanding the context and result of the First Bishops’ War.
  • Wormald, Jenny. “One King, Two Kingdoms.” In Uniting the Kingdom: The Making of British History, edited by Alexander Grant and Keith J. Stringer. New York: Routledge, 1995. Examines the problem of a “dual monarchy” that helped lead to conflict.

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