Front Page Titles (by Subject) V.: The Covenant. - The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates
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V.: The Covenant. - John Milton, The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates 
The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates, edited with Introduction and Notes by William Talbot Allison (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1911).
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It was useless, he held, for the Presbyterians to defend their former actions by appealing to a certain clause in the Covenant. But to understand Milton’s contemptuous reference to the ‘fine clause’ of the ‘riddling Covenant,’ it is necessary to pause for a moment to consider this bone of contention among all parties in the last year of Charles’ reign. The Solemn League and Covenant of August, 1643, was based upon the Scottish National Covenant of 1638, which in its turn had been imported from France. A religious pact between England and Scotland, it was not only a league between two kingdoms to defend their civil liberties, but paved the way for uniformity in church matters, for the abolition of episcopacy, and the establishment of Presbyterianism in England. On its acceptance by the English parliament, copies of the document were signed at Westminster,1 and in nearly all the parishes of England and Scotland. The text of the Covenant2 was easy to understand, but it contained one clause which was afterwards to be interpreted according as a man turned to the support of king or parliament. This offending clause read as follows:—‘We shall with the same sincerity, reality and constancy, in our several vocations, endeavour with our estates and lives mutually to preserve the rights and privileges of the Parliaments, and the liberties of the Kingdoms, and to preserve and defend the King’s Majesty’s person and authority, in the preservation and defence of the true Religion and Liberties of the Kingdoms; that the world may bear witness with our consciences of our loyalty, and that we have no thoughts or intentions to diminish his Majesty’s just power and greatness.’1 In the first Sion House tract the Presbyterian ministers accused Cromwell’s party of esteeming the Covenant (referring of course to the above clause) no more than ‘an almanack out of date.’ In their second protestation they held that ‘the taking away the life of the King, in the present way of Trial is, not only not agreeable to any word of God, the principles of the Protestant Religion (never yet stained with the least drop of bloud of a King) or the fundamental constitution and government of this Kingdom, but, contrary to them, as also to the Oath of Allegiance, the Protestation of May 5, 1641, and the Solemn League and Covenant: from all, or any of which Engagements, we know not any power on earth, able to absolve us or others.’ The ambiguous clause of the Covenant follows, and the citizens are exhorted to hold to it rather than to commit the sin of perjury, and so draw upon themselves and the kingdom the blood of their sovereign.2 Prynne also quotes the ‘fine clause’ and thus continues: ‘This Covenant you have all taken yourselves (some of you often)3 and imposed it on all three Kingdomes: And will it not stare in your faces your consciences, and engage God himselfe, and all three Kingdomes, as one man against you, if you should proceed to depose the King, destroy his person or disinherit his posterity? yea, bring certaine ruine upon you and yours as the greatest Covenant breakers, and most perjured Creatures under Heaven.’1 Again he says: ‘Consider that Scotland and Ireland are joynt tenants, at least wise tenants in Common with us in the King, as their lawfull Soveraigne and King, as well as ours: and that the Scots delivered and left his person to our Commissioners at Newcastle, upon this expresse condition: That no violence should be offered to his Person, etc., according to the Covenant.’2 The Presbyterians supported their constant quotation of this clause by trying to prove from Scripture that oaths, trusts, and covenants were broken only by sinful men. Yet, however dogmatic the divines and Prynne were on this question, others construed the loyal clause in quite a different sense. John Price reflects this difference of opinion. ‘The Presbyterian,’ he observes, ‘pleads Covenant-engaging conformity (as they urge) with the Church of Scotland: The Parliamenteer pleads Covenant, engaging to preserve the rights and priviledges of Parliament: The Royalist pleads Covenant, engaging to preserve and defend the Kings Majesties Person and Authority: The Armists plead Covenant, engaging to preserve the liberties of the Kingdome, etc. So that you have made the Covenant a meere contradictious thing, like unto one of the Diabolicall Oracles of the Heathens, speaking nothing certaine but ambiguities.’3 Another critic, this time a textual expert, complains that the Presbyterians make ‘a stop at Authority,’ ‘And thus our English sentences are read with Scotch comma’s and periods, and the Covenant made to speak what it never meant, and Covenanters to undertake absolutely what they promise but conditionally, by the Scotch Artificers, who make it a nose of wax.’1 That Milton was fully justified in heaping contempt upon the Presbyterians for using Scotch commas and periods in their cavilous reading of the ‘unnecessariest clause’ (6. 1; 33. 1; 33. 27; 35. 19; 36. 9; 36. 16), we have it on the evidence of Whitelocke that the Scotch themselves had changed their minds as to its meaning. In Dec., 1645, the Parliament of Scotland voted ‘that the clause in the covenant, for the defence of the king’s person, is to be understood in defence and safety of the kingdom.’2 Yet in the very next month they made a declaration to the English Parliament that the king was to remain prisoner with ‘safety to his person.’3 On July 27, 1647, the Assembly of the Kirk of Scotland ordered a public fast, for the danger to religion and reformation by sectaries in England, ‘and that the Covenant may be kept.’4 In August, 1647, when Fairfax moved on London, and the Independents gained the upper hand in parliament, Whitelocke mentions the increased emphasis with which the pulpits in Scotland urged ‘the necessity of that kingdom to maintain the ends of the covenant against all violation.’5 After this brief review of the controversy, the plain reader will agree that Milton’s many criticisms of the riddling Covenant were well founded.6
[1 ]The event is described by Neale, Hist. of the Puritans 1. 466, See also Whitelocke, Memor. 1. 202.
[2 ]For a full text of the Covenant see Rushworth, Hist. Coll. 5. 478, 479.
[1 ]A Serious and Faithf. Repres. etc., p. 7.
[2 ]A Vindication of the Ministers of the Gospel . . . with a short Exhortation to their People to keep close to their Covenant-Ingagement pp. 5 ff.
[3 ]Besides the national pledge, there were local voluntary covenants, by which groups of individuals bound themselves to sustain the parliamentary cause and to be faithful to one another. See Mem. of Col. Hutchinson, p. 143.
[1 ]A Briefe Memento, p. 8.
[2 ]A Briefe Memento, p. 13. The clause is quoted in full on p. 89. See also his Speech delivered in the House of Commons, Dec. 4, 1648, pp. 17, 18, for a furious attack upon the Covenant-breakers.
[3 ]Clerico-Classicum, p. 27.
[1 ]The Jovial Tinker of England, p. 7.
[2 ]Whitelocke, Memor. 2. 99.
[3 ]Ibid. 2. 108.
[4 ]Ibid. 2. 183.
[5 ]Ibid. 2. 194.
[6 ]For other references to the Covenant in Milton’s prose, see Observ. Art. Peace (Bohn 2. 197), Eikon (1. 488, 390), First Def. (1. 193).