Blurring the lines of the two kingdoms: kirk and council in Scotland, 1689-1708

By Robbie Tree

As the British Cabinet continues to run rough shod over its responsibilities, we hear grumblings over the effectiveness of our leaders and the legitimacy of central government intervention into the daily lives of the populace. These issues were relevant to early modern Scots as well, in terms of the government of both church and state.

The theory of two kingdoms was one of the great threads running through the early modern period. The demarcated distinctions between temporal and spiritual government were advanced by the likes of Andrew Melville (1545-1622) to assert church autonomy and challenge monarchical intervention in religion. But what about the influence and interference of the state, beyond the monarchy, on the church? A close working relationship between the Presbyterian Church of Scotland and the Scottish Parliament has been viewed as central to the maintenance of the Williamite Revolution settlement of 1688-91 and the ultimate agreement to the articles of parliamentary union in 1706-7.1 Less well researched are the religious functions and policies of the Scottish Privy Council, an institution which dealt with everyday government and was made up of officers of state, politicians, noblemen, military officers, and lawyers who advised the monarchy and implemented policy. Prior to the revolution there had been clerical representation on the council, but this was disbanded.

The reintroduction of a Presbyterian kirk in 1690 overturned the Restoration Episcopate which had been established since 1661. Importantly, Presbyterianism was not instituted until 7 June 1690 when the Confession of Faith was also ratified. Thereafter the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland met from mid-October into November, for the first time since 1653.

How could a church with no official governmental structure, finances, or indeed ministers function in this moment? In April and May 1689 (prior to the commission of the Scottish Privy Council and thus its sitting), the Scottish Parliament deprived twenty-one parish ministers of their charges. Between July and November, it was the Privy Council which administered deprivations in the form of libel cases against Episcopalian ministers. I have counted a total of 177 such clerical deprivations between July and November 1689, including ‘helpers’ who held clerical positions and administered divine service in parish kirks.2

Since the Reformation Parliament of 1560, there had been a few concerted campaigns against nonconformist ministers, but 1689 was the most sustained and rapid. A conservative estimate of 49 depositions between 1560 and 1638 has been posited.3 Between the National Covenant of 1638 and Cromwellian occupation in 1651, there were between 222 and 236 ministerial depositions.4 The final period of depositions prior to the revolution of 1688-91 was during the Restoration when, after 1660, there were over 250 ministers removed from their charge due to their refusal to obey the Episcopalian settlement.5

Though these numbers are overall much larger than the 177 depositions in 1689, they occurred over a longer period rather than the space of a few months in 1689. Compounding this further is that between two and three hundred ministers were harassed out of their charges in the southwest of Scotland in the winter of 1688 and the early months of 1689.6 This was largely carried out by a radical Presbyterian sect called the United Societies, who were amongst the most vociferous opponents of the Restoration settlement and its indulgences. Interestingly, in the three south western Synods (Galloway, Dumfries, and Glasgow and Ayr) of the Church of Scotland, only ten ministers were deposed by the Privy Council, with none removed from the Synod of Galloway. Although these ‘rabblings’ were in direct contravention of parliamentary legislation ratified in 1685, the council turned a blind eye and did not investigate any of them.

Figure 1. ‘The petitione of Mr John Webster minister at Fetterose’. NRS PC12/17, box 10 (1706).

Not all of those ministers investigated were ultimately removed from their charges. Twenty-two ministers were absolved upon investigation by the council. Ten of these men (c. 45%) had openly prayed for James VII and II, two of whom drank to the erstwhile king’s health. Six Presbyterian ministers, whom had been removed during the Restoration, were also restored to their charges. All of those investigated by the council were in contravention of a proclamation enacted by the Convention of Estates (later parliament) on 13 April 1689 which forced parish ministers to openly declare for the new king and queen, William and Mary, in their kirks and to pray for their longevity. Numerous other grievances were cited in these libel cases such as failing to collect money for French and Irish Protestants, or not correctly observing fasts and thanksgivings. Only four ministers in total were recorded as drinking to the forfeited king’s health.

What is clear from these libel cases is that there were often many intersecting local, national, religious, and political issues at play. For instance, Robert Young was deposed from his charge in Kippen, Stirlingshire and was accused by parishioners of drunkenness, taking the poor’s money and illicit selling of goods, to the detriment of his congregation. Ultimately however, the council found him guilty purely for failure to adhere to the proclamation of 13 April and he was duly deprived. William Eason, the minister at Auchtergaven in Perthshire was found not only to have prayed for King James but also colluded with the Jacobite commander John Graham of Claverhouse, Viscount Dundee in addition to failing in his primary duties by closing the kirk doors in time of service, consulting a witch, and slandering another minister by declaring he was lesser than a ‘popish man’!

Other than removing ministers and punishing recusancy, the Scottish Privy Council operated in a similar manner to church courts. For instance, it provided alimentary assistance to late ministers’ families in lieu of stipends and financial investment for the printing of scripture in Gaelic. The council even initiated collections for building a Protestant church in Königsberg (now Kaliningrad) and authorised similar collections in parishes to help prisoners of war held by the Turks in Algiers in the 1690s. Interestingly, the council also provided poor relief to parishioners whose primary means of aid (the parish kirk) had been removed due to the depositions. Also, many church stipends were appropriated for secular means, such as to build bridges or schools (figure 3). Crucially, the council also gave civil sanction to the church’s calls for fasts and thanksgivings, which became a point of contention when the council unilaterally declared a fast in 1707.7

There is a great deal more work to be done on this topic. The Scottish Privy Council Project’s free online database will aid future scholars and will, along with other digital humanities projects such as Mapping the Scottish Reformation, contribute to a greater understanding of both ministerial lives and careers as well as the state’s involvement in ecclesiastical government from parish level upwards. One of the most striking aspects of this work so far is the extensive reach of the Privy Council into people’s daily religious lives, in this case operating as another form of church court outside of the kirk’s administrative structure. Hence, the council’s role in religion was imperative to the kirk and was at times pro-active, suggesting more blurred demarcations than the binary distinctions of temporal and spiritual realms of government which the two kingdoms theory allows for.

Figure 2. ‘Act Anent the vaccand stipend of Leckropt’. NRS PC2/24, f. 379v. 13 March 1694.

Robbie Tree is a double graduate of the University of Glasgow and currently a PhD candidate at the University of Stirling where he is researching politics, religion, and the Scottish Privy Council from 1689-1708 as part of the Leverhulme Trust funded Scottish Privy Council Project at the universities of Stirling and Dundee.


[i] Jeffrey Stephen, Defending the Revolution: The Church of Scotland 1689-1716 (Farnham: Ashgate, 2013); Jeffrey Stephen, Scottish Presbyterians and the Act of Union 1707 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007); Ann Shukman, Bishops and Covenanters: The Church in Scotland, 1688-91 (Edinburgh: John Donald, 2012).

[ii] T. N. Clarke, ‘The Scottish Episcopalians, 1688-1720’, unpublished PhD thesis(University of Edinburgh, 1987). Clarke counts 172 ministerial deprivations in 1689; The Register of the Privy Council of Scotland, ser. 3 vols. 13-16 (1685-91).

[iii] J. K. Hewison, The Covenanters, vol. I (Glasgow, 1913), p. 496.

[iv] Andrew Lind maintains the lower number of depositions (222) to be correct, in ‘Royalism, Resistance and the Scottish Clergy, c. 1638-41’, in Chris R. Langley (ed.), The National Covenant in Scotland, 1638-1689 (Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer, 2020), p. 127; David Stevenson believes the number of deposed clergy to be as high as 236 in ‘Deposition of Ministers in the Church of Scotland, 1638-1651’, Church History, 44:3 (Sept. 1975), p. 324.

[v] Alasdair Raffe, The Culture of Controversy: Religious Arguments in Scotland, 1660-1714 (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2012), p. 33.

[vi] Alasdair Raffe, Scotland in Revolution, 1685-1690 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2018), p. 116; Tim Harris, Revolution: The Great Crisis of the British Monarchy, 1685-1720 (London: Allen Lane, 2006), p. 378.

[vii] Alasdair Raffe, ‘Presbyterianism, Secularization and Scottish Politics After the Revolution of 1688-1690’, The Historical Journal, 53:2 (June 2010), pp. 317-337.


Cover Image. ‘The Privy Council of a King’ by Thomas Rowlandson (1815) © The Met Museum.

Figure 1. ‘The petitione of Mr John Webster minister at Fetterose’. NRS PC12/17, box 10 (1706). Author’s own image, not to be reproduced without permission.

Figure 2. ‘Act Anent the vaccand stipend of Leckropt’. NRS PC2/24, f. 379v. 13 March 1694. Author’s own image, not to be reproduced without permission.

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