Johnston of Warriston and the National Covenant of 1638

Arms of Warriston

Archibald Johnston, Lord Warriston, was a leading figure in the struggle to maintain the Presbyterian religion against the forces of absolute monarchy and the incursions of English ritual. In Scotland, the people elected the clergy of the Presbyterian church, and these clergy did not always agree with the King. Charles I wanted to rule Scotland with the help of bishops appointed by him, as he did in England. He also tried to impose the English liturgy upon Scotland.

Lord Warriston

As a young lawyer, Archibald Johnston was appointed to advise the Tables, a commission opposing the efforts of Charles I to conform the Scottish church to English practices. When the King ordered the use of a new, English-style service book in Scottish churches, a riot broke out in Edinburgh. The Scottish nation rose up in arms. Johnston conceived and co-authored the National Covenant of 1638, a defensive document which purported to support both Presbyterianism and the King. On February 28, 1638 the leading Scottish nobles gathered at Greyfriars Churchyard, Edinburgh, to sign the National Covenant. Johnston read the document to the assembled crowd. The huge document was then set on a flat rock for signing. The next day, clergy and burgesses came to sign it, and then the National Covenant was distributed to the four corners of Scotland, to be subscribed by all. Some individuals from the south western portion of Scotland are said to have signed the National Covenant in their own blood!

National Covenant

Since Presbyterianism and Charles I's notions of the divine right of kings were fundmentally incompatible, the inevitable result was war. Charles I raised an army to put down the Scots, but the army of the Covenanters defeated it and proceeded to occupy northern England. These events were the spark which ignited the English civil war.

In desperation, Charles I tried reconciliation, and made Archibald Johnston a lord of session, with the title of Lord Warriston taken from the name of Johnston's estate, knighted him, and made him King's Advocate. However, it was too late for reconciliation and the English Parliament soon put the King to death.

When Oliver Cromwell imposed English rule on Scotland, Johnston lost his offices and was reduced to poverty. Having thirteen children, he reluctantly accommodated himself to Cromwell, who appointed him lord clerk register and a commissioner for the administration of justice in Scotland. Johnston also sat in Cromwell's House of Lords.

Upon the Restoration in 1660, Johnston fled to Germany, and then France, where he was apprehended and imprisoned in the Tower of London. He was charged with high treason for having accepted office from Cromwell after having been the King's Advocate, and was publicly executed in Edinbugh in 1663. His head was displayed on the Netherbow Port.

The Will of Archibald Johnston, Lord Warriston, left 100 merks to the parish church of Kirkpatrick-Juxta, in Annandale, near the Town of Moffat, "where my predecessoris' bones lye." Warriston's body is buried at Greyfriars Church, Edinburgh.


Copyright 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999 Jeffrey M. Johnstone
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This page was last updated on January 26, 1999.
Jeffrey M. Johnstone, FSA Scot