The Last Laugh: Scotland’s 17th Century

Once again, I have been googling things like “graduate interview questions” and how to prepare for an interview in x sector. They haven’t changed much, but a refresher always helps.

Some of the wildcard ones always amuse me, like “what superpower would you have?”

The one that gets my imagination going, though, is the “hypothetical dinner party” scenario.

For a couple of years now, one guest’s seat at the table has been assured: James VI and I.

James VI and I (1567-1625)

At the end of last month, my “General Knowledge” video series got to the 17th century and with it, the so-called Jacobean era to kick things off.

In 1603, having ruled in Scotland since infancy, James was crowned king of England. Well, he would have been had there not been a plague in London that year.

James had a vision of a “sea-walled” kingdom i.e. Great Britain, an amalgam of two nations into one, under a single church, government and other institutions. The English Parliament objected, so this never happened.

While his obsession with witches and publication of Daemonologie led to the infamous North Berwick witch trials of the 1590s, James was comparatively enlightened in his handling of religious matters on accepting the English crown. He successfully played off puritan and Anglican interests by making them collaborate on a new translation of the scripture: the King James Bible.

His reign was comparatively peaceful too. He made it his priority to end the war with the Spanish and was only drawn into European conflict tangentially through his daughter’s marriage to Frederick V of the Palatinate, the so-called “Winter King” of Bohemia (1619-20). James policy in Ireland, however, was a dismal failure despite his intentions of assimilating the Irish into the wider fold of the British Isles as one of his Three Kingdoms (excluding the historical claim on France). Instead, he ended up creating an Anglo-Scottish Protestant landowning elite versus an Irish Catholic tenant class in what has come to be known as the Plantations.

Of course, James also patronised Shakespeare’s King’s Men, who dramatized issues of justice and morality; unity and division; and natural right in his Jacobean plays.

I’d had some awareness of James VI and I from primary school as a sort of footnote to the Mary Queen of Scots story, presented rather as the “last laugh” in the psychodrama between her and her cousin Elizabeth I. By contrast, the Thirty Years’ War was something I first came across at university, specifically in Leipzig when I attended mammoth lectures on the subject on Friday mornings with loads of retirees who, it seems, had nothing better to do. (In all seriousness, though, I do admire that lifelong learning appears to be more of a thing there.)

It was a conflict that was, in the long term, caused by the Peace of Augsburg’s (1555) failure to recognise Calvinism as a legitimate religion and, in the short term, the crisis in Bohemia following the election of Ferdinand II, future Holy Roman Emperor, to the throne in 1617. Fast forward 12 years and a regional rebellion had turned into an international insurgency with Sweden intervening to defend Lutheranism in Northern Germany against a Catholic Kaiser and making it all the way to Munich. France then waded in on the side of the Calvinist Dutch Republic in a dynastic struggle against the Habsburgs over the Spanish Netherlands (modern-day Belgium). It was all sorted out in negotiations at Münster and Osnabrück, known collectively as the Peace of Westphalia. The war had left eight million civilians dead and counts only below the Second World War in terms of human disasters for Germany and its cultural impact can be seen in plays by Friedrich Schiller and Bertolt Brecht’s Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder.

Meanwhile, the British Isles were having a civil war, or civil wars, more accurately. The period is often portrayed simplistically as parliamentarians vs. royalists or roundheads vs. cavaliers if you prefer, but in reality, it was much more complicated and involved parties from all three kingdoms of Scotland, England and Ireland. At root, however, it was about Charles I and his dealings with parliament or rather, his refusal to deal with them unless absolutely necessary. In Scotland he tried to introduce the Book of Common Prayer which the Kirk objected to, sparking the Bishops’ Wars of 1639-40. Ireland had an ostensibly pro-royalist rebellion in 1641, attempting to expel the Anglo-Scottish Protestant elites and invade Scotland’s west coast.

Having failed to get parliament to raise an army to put down the rebels, Charles mustered his own force with the support of the nobility. At the same time, parliament organised an army independent of the crown. The king responded by marching to Westminster to arrest five MPs, but they had been tipped off and the House was empty – this was the start of the First English Civil War (1642-6).

After royalist gains in the initial stages of the war, the Scottish Covenanters helped defeat the cavaliers at Marston Moor in 1644. Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army then routed the royalists at Naseby the following year and in 1646 Charles handed himself over to the Scots at Newark-on-Trent.

While Cromwell was negotiating a post-war settlement with the Levellers at Putney, one faction of the Covenanters known as the Engagers had made a pact with Charles to invade England on the promise that he would restructure the Church of England along Presbyterian lines within three years of regaining power. This failed; the Engagers were defeated in 1648 and Charles I was brought to trial and executed in January of 1649.

When researching Cromwell and his supporters I was struck by how many experts on the topic were so keen to stress that he was “un-British”. That the republic was a historical aberration and the Commonwealth simply an “interregnum” – the phone was on hold.

I doubt that anyone in the 17th century thought of themselves as “British”, apart from a very few intellectual oddballs perhaps including James VI and I. Shakespeare, although he wrote of the “sceptred isle” put forth a vision of an assimilated Britain, Ireland and France under English hegemony in Henry V at the turn of the century. King Lear’s ancient precedent for Britishness was really only a concession to James’s idiosyncrasies and he reaffirmed his commitment to England as the saviour in Macbeth a couple of years later.

Similarly paradoxical is the memory of the Glorious Revolution and Bill of Rights, seen as symbols of liberty and the “British way of life” when in truth they all they assured was that the political class was expanded from a one-per cent nobility to a two-per cent gentry. True, toleration was granted, as long as you were Protestant and Jews were invited to return, but so were the foundations of hundreds of years of sectarian fighting in Ireland with the Orange Men and the Battle of the Boyne.

The 17th century was full of “interesting times” better read about than lived through in any case.

About alasdairflett

German & English Literature graduate. From Orkney. Interested in alternative and indie music, language, writing and politics.
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