The Stuart kingdoms in the seventeenth century: awkward neighbours

Published in Early Modern History (1500–1700), Issue 2 (Summer 2003), Reviews, Volume 11

Allan I. MacInnes and Jane Ohlmeyer (eds).
(Dublin, Four Courts Press, 2002, E55.)
ISBN 1851825320

‘British’ history tends to come in books of essays. The notion that the kingdoms of England, Ireland and Scotland (and Wales) interacted to various degrees might seem obvious, but the tendency to look at relationships between the two islands and their peoples as some kind of ‘British problem’ is problematic in itself. Firstly, Ireland isn’t Britain. Secondly, books of essays are no substitute for more intensive studies, and many such essays emphasise big ideas, perhaps to the exclusion of the evidence. While it was often accused of an excessive concentration on England at the expense of Scotland and Ireland (especially when written by English historians), ‘British’ history often seemed too neat, too tidy, and too ready to seek pat answers. If there was a ‘British problem’, what exactly was it?
Instead of setting up a vexing ‘problem’ to defy solution and keep themselves in business, the editors here have a quite different perspective. Their agenda is not set by a fruitless search for tidy answers but by the lack of them. A wider, international perspective is emphasised, in which the ambiguity, differences and alleged paradox (‘awkwardness’) that were previously supposed to be the problem become the essence of the world being studied. For many of the authors, England becomes the problem for Ireland and Scotland—the ‘British problem’ is deftly turned around and instead we get the ‘awkward’ neighbour; why shouldn’t we? It’s a mixed bag, as these books can be, but within it there is some genuinely original and valuable work.
Despite their strong connections, the three Stuart kingdoms never operated as a single coherent unit. A major strength here is the wider perspectives brought to bear on events in Ireland and Britain. Steven G. Ellis takes this up with a thoughtful piece on English state-building in Britain and Ireland before 1603, extending the range of his previous work to include France: England did start off as part of an Anglo-Norman empire. While thoughtful, the incorporation of Wales, Ireland and Scotland into a neat framework seems slightly too convenient, and he resorts to the traditional untested formulae of ‘British’ history. Perhaps Ireland did indeed suffer from ‘problems of multiple monarchy’ (p. 48), but what were they? In a subsequent piece on the union of Poland and Lithuania, Edward Opalinski offers a fascinating implicit comparison with a minimum of jargon. There was a wider world out there, and England’s efforts to bind her dominions closer were by no means unique. Perhaps, as Conrad Russell suggests here, ‘British’ history is best seen as a method most relevant to the interactions of high politics; religious and economic history are obvious areas of difference between the kingdoms. In examining those kingdoms an insular perspective can easily be misleading; a particular strength of this collection is that it casts its net towards Europe. In two of the best pieces in the book, Steve Murdoch sketches out the influence of Scandinavia on the bishops’ war in Scotland and Tadhg Ó hAnnrachain that of French and papal diplomacy upon the Confederate Catholics of Ireland. King Christian IV of Denmark-Norway saw an opportunity to profit at the expense of his nephew Charles I by exploiting Charles’s war against the Covenanters, while the divisive interventions of the French and the papacy in Confederate politics became critical to the fatal disunity that beset the organisation and that weakened it before Cromwell in 1649.
These pieces may relate to events, but a number of essays here also deal with perceptions. Paul McGinnis and Arthur Williamson offer a slant on English national identity, dominated and shaped by an awareness of wider religious struggle with Spain; Edmund Spenser in this light was thinking far beyond the borders of Munster. An overheated reading of Macbeth by Claire McEachern wastes a good opportunity, but gives way to two skilful dissections of ‘British’ identity in the 1640s and 1650s by James Scott Wheeler and Sarah Barber respectively. The New Model Army and the Commonwealth were fundamentally English institutions, and knew that they were, but those involved in them displayed a broader awareness of Ireland and Scotland. Prejudice had a role here; naturally it was hostility to what was emerging in Ireland and Scotland that allowed the Commonwealth to strike pre-emptively, and to legitimise it afterwards. Ireland encompassed Papists and Royalists, but by 1649 all were simply enemies for Cromwell. Yet the hostility could vary, for the Cromwellian treatment of Scotland was nowhere near as brutal as that meted out to the Irish; similarity in religion, and the memory of resistance to the Stuarts, tempered things a little for the Scots. Empathy could occasionally exist on a ‘British’ level.
Each kingdom readily incorporated different levels of shared experience. John McCafferty’s version of plantation Ulster is an ethnic, religious and political melting-pot that had readily swallowed up the allegedly troublesome Presbyterian Scots. The religious nature of this particular frontier venture ensured that the Church of Ireland was in a position to incorporate slightly hotter Scottish Protestants, who remained happy enough until the imposition of the ‘Black Oath’ in 1638;  Thomas Wentworth’s desire to ensure that the Scottish covenant stayed put became the real catalyst for difficulties among the planters.
The interaction between the two islands, in the seventeenth century as at any other time, was a reality of life, geography and livelihood, but the forms it took were exacerbated by the massive disruption of war and revolution to resonate within the higher echelons of politics. This applied to each kingdom in differing ways. When in 1688–91 Protestants in all three kingdoms sought to ensure the permanent ejection of James II and his dynasty, they grappled for vastly different (and contradictory) justifications of their actions, and for vastly different reasons, but—perhaps inadvertently—they shared the same purpose: the removal of James and his policies. But as Tim Harris rightly points out in his essay, that shared purpose did not amount to a ‘British’ version of the Glorious Revolution. Each kingdom had its own. Finally, John Young’s study of a progressive reform tradition in the Scottish parliament prior to 1707, grappling with royal power as exercised from London, aptly suggests that the ‘British problem’ in Scotland had far more to do with its southern neighbour than itself.
More could be written in these books about society and the economy. But despite its loosely focused nature this is a genuinely original collection, and most of the pieces are excellent; there is an overdue shift here from the sweeping statement to more tightly focused research, and it is well worth a look. Many of the essays, and especially the forthright introduction, offer valuable correctives to a historical trend that increasingly seems redundant; ‘awkwardness’ goes a long way, and each kingdom gets a look in on its own terms, instead of being invoked as merely a curious adjunct to England. There was a wider world out there, and it didn’t always speak English. If there was ever really a problem with the shared history of the Stuart kingdoms, it might be the fact that so much of it is still unwritten.
John Gibney

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