Conquest and Union: Fashioning a British State 1485-1725 Steven G. Ellis and Sarah Barber (eds.) (Longman, hb £36, pb £14.99) ISBN 0-5822-0964-1, 0-5822-0963-3

Published in Early Modern History (1500–1700), Issue 1 (Spring 1997), Reviews, Volume 5

It is hardly more than twenty years since John Pocock first called for the creation of the ‘unknown subject’ (as he called it) of British History. Although the concept has not yet managed to penetrate to book shops (where shelves labelled ‘British History’ tend to be occupied by old-fashioned ‘popular’ histories of England). It is already attracting criticism, and it would probably be unfair to say that this is simply because the critics find it disturbing. True, English historians tend to see British history as merely English history with Scotland and Ireland brought in as factors which from time to time had an impact on English affairs, but surely this represents such a dramatic revision of their traditional standpoint that it should be wholeheartedly welcomed: should we not rejoice that the sinner has begun attending service, even if he has not yet declared his conversion? Irish historians, for the most part, tiptoe warily round a concept which comes perilously close to the old-fashioned Southern Unionist view of Ireland as a fourth British nation, and—like the revived interest in Jacobitism—poses a threat to the ideology on which our state is founded. This leaves the Scots and the Welsh, but Wales, while retaining its distinct cultural identity, hardly possesses a separate political history after 1534, and indeed very little in the preceding century. The Welsh contribution, therefore, is largely medieval. The Scots, who after all have a good claim to have created the idea of Britain in its modern sense, have perhaps come closest to realising Pocock’s ideal, but this may be merely one aspect of the explosion of activity in Scottish historiography over the past two decades.
As befits a discipline whose subject is a composite monarchy, books on British history have tended to be collections of essays. Collections of essays are notoriously difficult to review: one can never do justice to every contributor, and those whose names do not appear in the review will take it as a personal affront. (Some reviewers of course solve the problem by ignoring all contributors and use the review to sound off their own views!) Ciarán Brady compares Elizabethan policy in Wales and in Ireland, concluding that the methods which succeeded in Wales failed in Ireland, but in doing so perhaps lays too little emphasis on the essential differences between the two countries, both in their political systems and in the methods used to implement government policies. The centralised English system could be imposed without much difficulty in Wales because by 1530 local lordship, with the single exception of that of the earls of Worcester in Gwent, had in fact ceased to exist. Ireland, in contrast, was a land of autonomous lordships whose rulers had until recently exercised ‘imperial jurisdiction’ in their areas (and still did so in the remote parts) and would lose their jurisdictions under the English system. And even the region under direct English control, the Pale, was an amorphous area, for the most part without definite frontiers, whose problems could not be dealt with in isolation from those of the surrounding autonomous districts into which it shaded off and between which there was a constant osmosis not only of migrants (including spouses) but of power structures and institutions. The undefined fringes of the Pale constituted a sort of physical equivalent of the political position of the great houses of Kildare and Ormond, straddling the worlds of English government and Gaelic lordship. In this, incidentally, ‘English Ireland’—in spite of Steven Ellis’s valiant efforts to draw analogies—differed profoundly from the pre-1603 Anglo-Scottish border, a sharply-defined line crossed only by fugitives and reavers, and where any attempt at cultural osmosis—such as intermarriage—was cut short (often on the gallows) by a rigorously enforced law of ‘March treason’. And on the matter of implementation, surely the vital feature of Tudor policies in Wales was that their execution was entrusted to native Welshmen. In Ireland, on the other hand, the period saw an increasing exclusion of the Palesmen in favour of the ever more numerous New English officials and soldiers, a development which went hand-in-hand with the repressive methods exemplified by martial law. One could say that to the Tudors Wales was in essence an internal problem, Ireland an external one. And by the time Ireland had been geographically internalised by the completion of the conquest in 1603, religious divergence had produced a new intellectual externalisation of the Irish.
This divergence is the subject of essays by Jane Dawson and Micheal MacCraith. Dawson deals with the emergence of what was in essence a single Reformation movement covering England and Scotland, which—even if the two countries subsequently diverged in religious attitudes and institutions—created a common attachment to Protestantism which was to be the most powerful force leading to Union, especially as an incidental side-effect was the destruction of Scots as a distinct literary language. In spite of this, as Keith Brown shows in his contribution, Anglicisation was rare among the seventeenth-century Scottish nobility. Ireland, in contrast to the other nations, was enlisted in the cause of the Counter-Reformation, and MacCraith sets out how Gaelic scholar-clerics such as Micheal Ó Cléirigh sought to create a new sense of nationality based on attachment to faith (Counter-Reformation Catholicism) and fatherland (Ireland) which would unify Gall and Gaedheal, a ‘nationalism’ which nevertheless did not reject the composite monarchy.
This religious divergence ensured that the Irish, seen as part of the outside enemy (Catholicism) could not be accepted on an equal footing by the other nations, that as Toby Barnard puts it in his essay , Ireland became ‘Bohemia to England’s Austria and Scotland’s Hungary within the composite monarchy’. In the crisis of the 1640s there could therefore be no sympathy among the English and Scottish oppositions for their Irish equivalents, although to modern eyes—and as a Confederate apologist like Patrick Darcy pointed out—their aims were theoretically the same, the restraint of the executive by constitutional government. As Sarah Barber shows in her study of English revolutionary attitudes to Scotland and Ireland, only a few extreme republicans such as Henry Marten were prepared to accept this and admit that the Irish might have a case, a view which contrasts with their detestation of the Scots. (Both views are consistent with the essential secularism of their outlook, rare in their age.) This externalisation of the Irish in English and Scottish eyes had the ironical result that, although Tyrconnell’s Irish policy in the 1680s was essentially a conservative one, as had been that of the Confederates in the 1640s (in each case one of restoring power to the traditional local elites) such Irish aims were seen as revolutionary and threatening by the Protestant elites of the other two kingdoms. (Barnard’s three pages on Tyrconnell is surely one of the most elegant pieces of historical revisionism ever penned, and a delight to read.)
Like most of the other ‘British History’ collections, this is a book well worth buying and reading. I must however draw attention to two strange statements. On p.227, a footnote says that ‘by 1700, the Scots [peers] constituted less than ten per cent of the total number of peers in Britain’. Yet    The Present State of Great Britain, a directory issued in 1707 just after the Union, lists 166 English peers (and six peeresses in their own right) and 156 Scottish: nearer forty-eight per cent rather  than ten percent. The number of Scottish peers could hardly have increased so dramatically in the seven intervening years: in any case the relatively large number of Scottish peers, not much less than that of English, was much commented on at the time. And (p.178) surely the term ‘an Cobhernandori’, the title of a Scots Gaelic poem (preserved by oral transmission) is simply—as seems obvious at first glance—a corrupt phonetic rendering of the word ‘covenanter’ (a sense which would fit the context perfectly) rather than a phrase meaning ‘help for the Tories’? To reject the obvious explanation requires strong justification.

Kenneth Nicholls


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