Dr Palliser’s The Age of Elizabeth is the latest volume in a series which seeks to relate English and British economic and social history from the Anglo-Saxons to the Welfare State. Its initial and terminal dates as given in the title appear to follow a publisher’s or general editor’s dictum under which successive volumes will start to cover the precise date on which a previous author closed his account. Hence the ‘age of Elizabeth’ appears to begin from 1547 with the reign of Edward VI. Such concessions to historical ‘tidiness’ (or are they concessions to the continuing draw of Elizabeth’s name?) are small matters. The author does not allow himself to be too closely confined by artificial boundary posts.
The debate about the date when society became ‘modern’ will not be resolved by Dr Palliser’s judicious survey of the age. He recognises the many primitive features of that society: persecution of so-called witches increased; royal and ministerial encouragement was given to alchemical fantasies; astrologers and soothsayers flourished; religious intolerance hardly abated. Politically, too, the tide of parliamentary government did not run ever-widening towards a Whig horizon – occasionally it flowed the other way: ‘no 16th-century parliament dared impeach a royal minister, or insist on nominating the royal council, but parliaments had done both in the 15th century and were to do so again in the 17th.’ Indeed, although the role of her ten Parliaments should not be dismissed, the House sat for only about a hundred and forty weeks during the 45 years of Elizabeth’s reign. Economically, progress was patchy. Terrible famine years occurred near the end of the period, although these were partly due to disastrous weather; patents and monopolies granted by the Queen’s prerogative brought dubious benefits, perhaps at best the introduction of foreign skills; an inadequate taxation system favoured the well-to-do and starved the royal and public purse.
And yet there are plenty of signs in the age of Elizabeth of substantial changes, pointers to England’s later rise to commercial and industrial prominence. As Dr Palliser says:
Politically, a state which had been reduced almost to a pawn in the Habsburg-Valois struggle in the 1550s recovered sufficiently to threaten Philip II, the most powerful ruler in Western Europe. Culturally, a land once considered backward and even barbarous by Italians became famous for its music, drama and literature. By the end of the century English actors were touring Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands and English was influential throughout Northern Europe. Industrially, too, there was progress, even if Nef’s ‘industrial revolution’ is too strong an expression. Mining output grew considerably and manufactures like armaments and the New Draperies, taught to Englishmen by immigrants in the mid-16th century, were within fifty years being widely exported instead of imported.
Many portents of such future trends are discussed by Dr Palliser: the rise of London to the rank of a world capital, legislation for social relief, the beginnings of oceanic exploration and colonisation (almost neglected in an earlier age when the Spaniards and Portuguese were carving up the globe between them), the founding of English trading settlements and overseas trading companies, an open door to political and religious refugees who happily brought with them new skills and entrepreneurial enterprise, improvements in the use of the land, a widening distribution of political power and influence, the growth of a consumer economy and a remarkable surge in population.
Not that ‘Anglocentrism’ is carried too far in Dr Palliser’s survey. We are rightly warned against exaggerating the degree of European importance and progress achieved by England by 1603. The great cities of Italy, Germany and the Netherlands were still the commercial centres of the Continent; the beginnings of factory production, sometimes described as peculiar to England with the rise of the putting-out system, flourished in that form in Germany and were spreading throughout the Mediterranean region. Germany, the Bohemian lands and a few other areas were still the largest and most advanced centres of mining and metallurgy and English miners and metalworkers relied heavily on German and to a lesser extent French technology and personnel. National strength among the European states, which continued to be thought of largely in terms of respective manpower, also showed England’s comparative inferiority. In population, England was greatly outnumbered (as it was to be for centuries) by some of its neighbours: in the case of France by around four times, in the case of Germany by nearly as much. But population size did not necessarily correlate with political and economic power. Germany and Italy were weakened by their political fragmentation, France was racked by civil wars in the second half of the 16th century, and a small power, the United Provinces, the rebel states of the northern Netherlands, developed, from the later part of the century, a highly urbanised, literate and commercial society which was the wonder of Europe. He goes on to show how with the benefit of hindsight one can recognise England’s advantages (mostly political and social rather than economic), which were to give it a crucial lead over the Dutch as well as the French.
It had for long enjoyed a strong central government, a flexible social structure and a relatively light burden of state taxation ... No social group enjoyed a de jure exemption from taxation, as did some Continental aristocracies, and the tax system was relatively equitable. Despite under-assessments, the rich paid most of the direct taxation, and the poor none at all. Englishmen suffered almost none of the indirect taxation of necessities common elsewhere.
The consequence was a broad diffusion of prosperity, which is not to deny the existence at times of deprivation and want among the not inconsiderable numbers of the very poor. There have been efforts, not very successful, to measure the general standard of living of different classes. These efforts are examined by Dr Palliser, who found that the ‘almost continuous inflation ... vitiates any comparisons of prices and incomes over time,’ and that ‘although society contained extremes of wealth and property, it was not one in which a tiny number of enormously wealthy men dominated a mass of paupers.’ Such a widespread ‘diffusion’ of the wealth of the nation, if the extremes are excluded, is attested by many contemporary witnesses, among them foreign travellers. If William Harrison, from whose Description of England of 1587 much in this book is drawn, can be believed, one visiting Spaniard thought that the cottagers of England enjoyed a diet unparalleled in Spain or France – the equal of that of a monarch. A member of Philip’s entourage in the 1550s, he expressed his wonder at the contrast between their ‘homely’ abodes and their ‘large diet’: ‘these English have their houses made of sticks and dirt but they fare commonly so well as the king.’ This was possibly a traveller’s tale swelled by English patriotism, but in good times it contained some truth, and that it could be uttered and believed in its day is itself significant.
Dr Palliser shows that one reason for low taxation was England’s good fortune in being at peace for over half the period under review, although he ascribes too little damage to the war with Spain. Other benefits flowed from a distracted Continent. War and religious persecution encouraged a migration of skilled craftsmen, professionals of various kinds, entrepreneurs and artists, who, it is generally agreed, played an important part in the improvement of English industry, commerce and culture. There is less agreement among historians that the substantial population growth during Elizabeth’s reign (perhaps as much as 35 per cent) was economically beneficial. In weighing up the different views, Palliser inclines to an optimistic interpretation of the later 16th century as a period when population did not outstrip resources and the total production of agricultural, industrial and consumer goods rose considerably, although there is no evidence to tell us whether production and consumption per capita rose or fell. But it is plain that the home market expanded, exports grew, and the balance of trade appears to have been favourable for most of Elizabeth’s reign: the large amounts of Spanish bullion arriving at the Mint and the substantial increase in the money supply point conclusively in that direction. Dr Palliser concludes that a ‘combination of relatively broadly spread prosperity, and only a small proportion of the population wholly dependent on wages, limited the degree of impoverishment’. Even allowing for those hardest hit, the distressed smallholders and the landless labourers, the story here is not one of unrelieved depression. Forced by rising prices ‘to run faster to stay in the same place’, many men or their wives and children took up additional employments to increase the family income, especially the making of consumer goods: the new or enlarged manufactures such as stockings, nails, pins, starch, soap and beer are themselves evidence of a large home demand.
The author examines the rapid growth of population as the key to an understanding of the many changes of the period. That section, and those dealing with the price inflation and with agriculture and rural change, are the best in the book, with their lucid explanations and discussions of the work of recent historians. The cultural and social element of his survey is less satisfactory, and the effort promised by the general editor of the series to ‘relate economic history to social history’ does not really succeed. It could hardly do so given the fairly brief treatment of such matters. Perhaps also because of the large range of subjects and the condensing of many views, a few judgments apparently derived from secondary authorities should be revised in a second edition. In London there were nothing like as many as 160 gilds (probably a confusion with an early list of ‘trades’ much cited in the later literature), the Common Council at the end of the century numbered 210, not 196 men, and a foreign traveller’s surprised supposition in 1585 that the absence of London walls meant that access to the city was open to anyone day and night did not mean, as Dr Palliser presumes, that the gates were not locked or guarded at dusk. In the chapter on wealth and poverty there are a few generalised repetitions of views which recent research has challenged. In his unqualified tribute to Miss Leonard’s work of 1900 (‘still unsuperseded’), he does not mention that she seriously underestimated the rating system, as numerous articles on the early 17th century have pointed out; and it is somewhat anachronistic of him to say that the Poor Law statutes until 1572 ‘recognised only the impotent poor and the vagabonds, blandly assuming that all able-bodied persons could find work if they tried’ (my italics). An ‘on your bike’ philosophy was not part of 16th-century (or earlier) mentality. All men below the gentry were required to work at some gainful employment – to be ‘in service’, as it was known; there is also some confusion, and a contradiction which is not cleared up, in Dr Palliser’s support for W.K. Jordan’s ‘general points’, which he thinks remain ‘valid’, that rates were levied on a large scale ‘only in periods of acute local distress’ and that ‘private giving was much more significant’ than public relief. Dr Palliser concedes earlier that Professor Jordan exaggerated the degree of charity relief. It ought also to have been mentioned that, in London at least, municipal support for the poor was not insignificant.
After the Armada by Professor R.B. Wernham is a study of the seven war-laden years that followed the scattering of the Spanish invasion fleets of 1588. Technically well produced, with ten clear maps and a good index, it is primarily an account of English policies and operations on the Continent in what was seen by Queen Elizabeth and her advisers (but not by all of her subjects) as a struggle for the survival of England as an independent Protestant nation. Professor Wernham has provided a careful and lucid narrative history of the conduct of the war and of English policy, drawn in part from the Foreign series of the English State Papers, two volumes of which he edited following his earlier book, Before the Armada (1966). He makes no bones about having written it as ‘it may have appeared’ to the English government at the time ‘rather than from some stratospheric international point of view’. Even so, he cannot resist, as most of us cannot resist, some later parallels in this struggle of a small state, comparatively weak in wealth and manpower and coupled with uncertain and hesitant allies, against a great power. ‘It was,’ he writes, ‘a war of the same kind as those that England was later to wage against Louis XIV and Napoleon I, against Kaiser Wilhelm II and Adolf Hitler. It involved the whole of Western Europe as well as, indeed more than, the Atlantic and the Caribbean.’ One hesitates about accepting parallels with ‘wars of the same kind’. England’s later wars, when she owned and defended an empire herself, were different. But there is indeed one guiding principle that runs through all: the need, well understood by Elizabeth and her ministers, to preserve a balance of military and diplomatic power on the Continent and to prevent the establishment of a preponderance of hostile forces on the opposite side of the North Sea and the Channel or across the Irish Sea.
Elizabethan England and Spain had come into conflict because that balance of power – with its attendant threat to the safety of the seas and to England herself – had tilted in Spain’s favour. Throughout the 16th century English independence had depended largely on three factors: her own growing sea power and her ability to control the surrounding seas, the weakening of Irish and Scottish enmity, and the maintenance of some sort of balance between Spain and France, the two great monarchies and military powers of the Continent, both knowing that if one attacked England the other would come to her defence. For most of the first two-thirds of the century, the greatest danger came from France, a close ally of Scotland, rather than from Spain, master of the Netherlands, which was then the principal market of the English overseas trade. With the accession of Elizabeth, the traditional picture changed. England’s final break with Rome brought uncertainty. Could either Catholic power come to her aid? They might even join forces, some thought, to impose Papal authority – and the still considerable numbers of Catholic Englishmen, not to speak of the Irish and many Scots, might not be averse to such a change.
But apart from religion, the Spanish danger had a physical reality and nearness in the last third of the century – with the arrival of Spain’s main field army in the Netherlands in 1567. Professor Wernham sets the mise-en-scène very clearly and in doing so qualifies the simplistic view of a Spain bent on the conquest and conversion of England.
This northwards shift of the centre of gravity of Spanish military power was the result of Philip II’s determination to crush rebellion and heresy among his Low Country subjects rather than of any hostile purpose towards England. Nevertheless, it brought the finest army in Christendom, and a zealously Catholic army at that, to within a score or so of miles of the Kentish coast ... It produced in Protestant English minds a growing suspicion about Spanish purposes. It stimulated accordingly a growing, if cautious and none too trustful friendship between England and France and an unofficial but nonetheless considerable encouragement from both countries to the Netherlands rebels ... Moreover, the [revolt] and Spain’s efforts to crush it went far to ruin what had been much the most important market for England’s overseas trade. English sailors and merchants in their search for alternative ‘vents’ ... came into conflict with Spanish authority and ... claims to monopoly ... Anglo-Spanish religious differences exacerbated, and were exacerbated by, these maritime and commercial clashes, though by themselves neither maritime and commercial disputes nor religious differences would have brought the two countries to war.
The war, never officially declared, came soon after the collapse of the French monarchy in the spring of 1585 and the outbreak of the last and longest of that country’s religious wars. The Catholic League had become the subsidised ally of Philip II; the French monarchy, unable to continue to play any independent part in international affairs, could no longer act as a counterpoise to Spanish power. Philip’s army in the Netherlands was free to crush the rebels without fear of French intervention. Moreover, the main strength of the Catholic League lay in northern and eastern France. Thus the entire coast from Brest to Emden might fall to Spain or her satellites. England’s naval power could not hope to crush all the possible invasion routes from such a long and menacing frontier, while on land Elizabeth lacked the ‘manpower to compete with the King of Spain who controlled the finest army in the Old World and the seemingly inexhaustible gold and silver of the New’.
It was the Dutch revolt which gave hope that the triumph of Spain could be averted and Spanish domination of Western Europe prevented. In August 1585, Elizabeth took the Dutch under her protection and promised to send forces to aid them. She may have cautiously hoped, the author thinks, that this was ‘merely another way of increasing pressure upon Philip II to restore his Netherlands provinces to the home-ruling and ungarrisoned status they had enjoyed under Charles V and to grant them some measure of religious toleration’. But Philip regarded Elizabeth’s support for the Dutch as a war-like act and his direct response was to launch the Armada. England’s naval victory in 1588 was followed in the same year by a successful defence of Bergen-op-Zoom, largely by English troops, against the formidable Duke of Parma, who was prevented from winning a decisive advantage against the Dutch. Fortune seemed to be favouring the opponents of Spain but this was a war in which the more ambitious offensive plans of the English nearly always failed, sometimes because of the blunders and disobedience of the commanders, sometimes because of the Crown’s limited resources. One of the most striking examples described by Professor Wernham was the naval expedition led by Sir John Norris and Sir Francis Drake in 1589. If they had obeyed the Queen’s instructions and sailed to Santander and San Sebastian, he believes they would probably have been able to destroy the battered half of the Armada which was sheltering and re-equipping in those waters. Then, having destroyed the King of Spain’s ships, Elizabeth had instructed, they were to sail to the Azores, ‘thereby to intercept the convoys of the treasure that doth yearly pass that way to and from the West and East Indies’. But Norris and Drake had no intention of obeying the Queen’s orders for the destruction of the remnant of the Armada.
As was common in naval expeditions of the time, they, with others, and not the government, were the main financial backers. Although she had finally given some two and a half times her invited contribution, Elizabeth was still a minority shareholder and ‘adventurer’ in the enterprise, contributing just under half of the £100,000 which the ill-fated expedition cost. Instead of destroying the surviving ships of the Armada, Norris and Drake had sailed for Coruna, had attempted in vain to take Lisbon, and had failed to spark off a revolt which would have enthroned the Portuguese Pretender. Finally, crippled in manpower, they had reached the Azores. They had succeeded, not in capturing the treasure ships, but at least in delaying their arrival in Spain. It was probably the one gain, since it was said to have caused a mutiny in Parma’s army over lack of pay. Professor Wernham considers that if the Queen had been obeyed, the consequences would have been of enormous importance: England would have been free from any fear of Spanish invasion for the rest of the war, the vital transatlantic traffic and the supply of treasure would have been at England’s mercy, Philip would not have been able to rebuild his navy, to pay his armies or subsidise his allies, and, since this was a war in which neutrals and enemies traded with each other and were preyed upon by Elizabethan privateers, England would not have needed to annoy her Baltic and Scandinavian neighbours and her Dutch allies by hindering their seaborne trade with Spain and Portugal. Indeed, he thinks, ‘there might well have been no threat of a Spanish domination of Western Europe to draw England into Continental conflicts’ if only the commanders had obeyed orders. Hindsight is a notorious hazard in the replaying of old war games, and these claims seem too large for one of the intriguing ‘if onlys’ of history – for there was no certainty of success in the plan to destroy what was left of the Armada and to seize the treasure ships. The author is on surer ground when he points out that Elizabeth’s inability to control her naval commanders when they were over the horizon was ‘due to the limited nature of her financial resources, which compelled her to entrust what she intended as a war-winning operation to a joint-stock enterprise that sought profit as much as, or more than victory’.
But it was the continental war and not the war at sea which is rightly the centrepiece of this account. It was a struggle for the control of the French Crown and the storm centre of the war was in northern France. In April 1589, the French King Henry III, who had had the Catholic League’s leaders assassinated, joined forces with Henry of Navarre and the Huguenots in bringing down the forces of the League. But Henry III was himself assassinated in July and Henry of Navarre ascended the throne as Henry IV. The threat to Spain’s main army, caught between the French and the Dutch, was intense, and caused Spain to change policy: Philip abandoned his initiative against the Dutch and intervened openly against the French, moving his troops from the Netherlands in 1590 to rescue Paris and again in 1592 to save Rouen, and even aspiring to acquire the throne of France for himself or his daughter. English involvement in men and money was at its peak, the country was the main battlefield of the war, and victory for Spain’s enemies seemed far off.
By the early summer of 1593 it was clear that Henry IV could not hope to rescue his war-weary and partly devastated kingdom by force of arms, either with his native French or with Protestant German, Dutch and English soldiers. His not unexpected conversion to Rome brought a truce with the Catholic League and an agreement that all foreign troops should leave the country or at least be withdrawn into garrisons, although Henry continued to appeal to the Queen for aid. Elizabeth and her ministers hesitated about bringing out English troops, first from Normandy and then from Brittany, but in the end decided on a complete withdrawal. In February 1595, the last English troops left. For the first time in almost four years there was not a single English soldier in the Queen’s pay on French soil: this symbolised England’s withdrawal from involvement in French affairs. By then, the crucial phase of the struggle for Western Europe was virtually over. Philip’s attempt to control France, which had depended on the now all but destroyed French Catholic League, had failed. The struggle had become largely a national war between France and Spain, closer in type to later conflicts of fairly equally matched sovereign states, fought mainly on France’s northeastern frontier. In the Netherlands, too, Spain had finally lost its hold on the vital north-eastern frontier. The Dutch held most of the territory up to the German borders and there likewise the war was fought out on the frontiers.
Thus a new phase in the war was initiated. France was beginning to re-emerge as a counterforce to Spanish power. The balance between the two great military monarchies, familiar to and relied upon by Tudor England, was coming into being again, and although in the next few years the course of the land war favoured the Spaniards a little, Spain had to recognise that it could not achieve the mastery of Western Europe. Elizabeth began to withdraw from the continental war – trying unsuccessfully to collect from the French and the Dutch the unpaid bills for her heavy financial losses and vainly endeavouring to have her loans repaid. England’s undeclared war with Spain went on briefly beyond her reign. However, except for a limited force retained in the Netherlands and an expedition to France between 1596 and 1598 when the Spaniards captured Calais, it was largely a war fought upon the seas. The biggest exception was in Ireland, where at a great cost the rebels and their Spanish companions were crushed at Kinsale in 1601. By then, both England and Spain had tired of the exhausting conflict and one of the first acts of Elizabeth’s successor James was to end the 19 years of hostilities with the peace treaty of 1604.
Professor Wernham discusses England’s war effort and what it had cost her in human and material resources and in domestic harmony. The Crown’s financial limitations severely restricted the ability of the government to operate militarily as it would have wished. The failure to carry out the Queen’s instructions in 1589 to destroy the remnants of the Armada has been mentioned. In 1591, the failure of a plan to seize Spain’s homeward-bound fleets at the Azores was largely due to the lack of English ships: the post-Armada strains on Elizabeth’s finances were too great. These financial constraints helped to prevent the formation of a ‘grand alliance’ which would have included England, France, the Dutch, the Danes, and the German and Italian princes and cities. The German Protestant princes, who had not forgotten their religious conflicts, were in any event reluctant to jeopardise the peace of the Holy Roman Empire, and Elizabeth lacked the means to tempt them out of their neutrality. The author reminds us that Elizabeth, ‘the not over-wealthy ruler of a small half-island of limited resources and manpower, found herself cast in the role of paymaster and in effect co-ordinator of an alliance of no less poor and weak states fighting the mightiest and wealthiest monarchy in Christendom’.
That role, and the eventual triumph over Spanish expansion, placed heavy burdens on the English people and on its apparatus of government. In just over five years, from September 1589, nearly twenty thousand troops were sent to France, well over seven thousand to the Netherlands and nineteen thousand to Portugal. Maurice Kiffin, the treasurer-at-war’s deputy in Normandy, reported that in less than three years eleven thousand ‘had been consumed’ there, less than one-tenth of them ‘fallen in fight’. In addition, several thousand sailors had served in the Queen’s ships and in the great number of privateering vessels; their sufferings from disease were very often even greater than those among the land soldiers. In all, losses of men and the removal of men from labour represented a considerable sacrifice for a nation whose population was about four million.
The strains on government also took their toll, but one of a different order. Almost all those sent overseas had to be selected and collected, armed and clothed by the counties and towns from which they were repeatedly drawn: for the country as a whole, there were ten major ‘call-ups’ for France alone in the five years from 1589. The task added to the burdens of the country gentry and nobility, who had to organise the levies and find much of the equipment, now much more expensive than of old as musket, caliver and pike replaced bows and arrows or bills. Little of the arms and armour was brought back: the necessary replenishment of the county armouries meant that additional county rates were often imposed. The increasing demands for money, time and energy, falling mainly on what the author calls ‘the more substantial people, the most administratively significant and politically conscious’ sections of the nation, bred a diminishing zeal and a growing inefficiency in selecting and equipping the military levies. The response to the central government’s financial demands was similar. Professor Wernham estimates that the Queen’s expenses over the war, including loans never repaid for the six and a half years of its duration, totalled about £1.1 million, more than half of her ordinary income during that time. Crash measures such as the sale of crown lands in 1589-1590 brought in less than one year’s war expenditure. Privy seal loans (fairly promptly repaid) could not fill the gap. Extra taxation had to be imposed. There was opposition from MPs and from others, but Elizabeth demanded and got from Parliament a double subsidy with some additional taxes in 1589 and a treble subsidy in 1593. The last constituted a remarkable breach of a convention over money grants, and something of a constitutional affront to the Commons, for it was initiated by the Lords. One MP, Sir Henry Unton, ambassador in France only a few months earlier, declared that they must have regard to the people and estates they represented, and the Commons somewhat reluctantly agreed to the subsidy being collected over four years. Elizabeth’s control should not be minimised. Another Parliament four years later voted her a further triple subsidy, and in 1601 her last Parliament granted her four more subsidies. Nonetheless, the relationship between Crown and Parliament was changing, becoming, as Professor Wernham says, ‘a little more abrasive’. Moreover, times were hard. The middle 1590s were a period of ruined harvests, of poor trade caused by the war, and of widespread plague – also in part a consequence of the war. The high hopes of a quick victory after the defeat of the Armada had been constantly dashed, and replaced by war-weariness and a sense of frustration.
Professor Wernham sees in this mood of the nation the main reason for a ‘cooling of relations between court and people, between central government and the mostly unpaid but increasingly busied and burdened local authorities’. Inevitably, and often unfairly, the government was blamed for its lack of success. Criticism of its policies and strategies was spreading ‘beyond men close to the centre of power such as Essex and Raleigh’. Elizabeth remained widely popular and the Privy Council retained its authority, but a new attitude was emerging, and in the House of Commons one can hear a note which would sound more stridently under the Stuart kings.
The late Professor Garrett Mattingly’s classic The Defeat of the Spanish Armada, first published in 1959, has now been reissued in what is misleadingly called a ‘second edition’. Actually it is the old edition embellished with a collection of 75 illustrations, some in colour but with no indication of any of their sources. It is good to have this universally applauded book in one’s’ hands again. When it first appeared, the late Sir John Neale called it ‘a rare and wonderful work’ and Sir John Plumb described it as ‘faultless’. This reviewer can only second their acclaim.
The age of Elizabeth and the personality of the virgin Queen continue to attract attention, to provide chroniclers with good copy, and to fascinate readers, as they have done ever since her day. The latest book on the Queen by Carolly Erickson gives us Gloriana down to her pock marks. If its motivation was not quite, as the blurb claims, ‘to electrify the senses’ of the reader, it was certainly the author’s ambition to produce a colourful biography of the Queen in her long unhappy apprenticeship and in the triumphant years of her court. She has succeeded dashingly. It is a skilful performance, drawn largely from contemporary records, although there is little attempt to analyse and use such records critically. The palace background, the perfumes ‘masking the stench of the close stools of the royal residences, the psychological insights, the ambassadors’ reports, the scandal and the gossip, even the unspoken thoughts of the dramatis personae – there is chapter and verse for most of this kind of thing, and for those who want a biography which reads like a historical novel written with verve and distinction this is the book, perhaps the book of the film not yet made.
The essays presented in The Renaissance and Reformation in Scotland express appreciation of Professor Gordon Donaldson. The collection covers a wide range of subjects including such diverse topics as the changing status and function of the early Scottish notary (J. Durkan), the financing of the royal household in the early 16th century (A.L. Murray) and the history of patronage and the church in Scotland both before (I.B. Cowan) and after (J. Kirk) the Reformation. The literary and cultural implications of the Scottish Renaissance are discussed in two contributions: one (D. Hay) deals with Italian influences, the other (D. Shaw) with the remarkable extent and quality of the library of the Bishop of Orkney. There is an examination (M.B.H. Sanderson) of the social status of 205 Edinburgh merchants between 1570 and 1603 as shown by their testaments. An English memorandum of 1580 had claimed that a Scots merchant was reckoned wealthy if he was worth £1000 sterling – only seven individuals were in that class when they died. Other contributors discuss the evidence for increasing literacy in the Highlands in the 16th century (J. Bannerman) and the history of the Shetlands in the same period (T.M.Y. Manson), while the Earl of Rothes’ flight to Denmark in 1546 forms the subject of a study of relations with that country which also involves questions of state concerning England and France.
Two of the essays refer more extensively to the England of Elizabeth. One (M. Lee Jr.) describes the problems of the royal administration of James VI under which it was still possible for a Catholic to hold high office. It illuminates the uneasy relationship that existed between the King, the recusant earls and the Kirk, and across the border with Elizabethan England. The other (E.J. Cowan) weaves an account of the Scottish witch craze into the extraordinary career of Francis Stewart, Earl of Bothwell and cousin of James VI, who was accused of trying to encompass the death of the King by black magic. Bothwell fled to England, returned with a small raiding party, negotiated with both the Duke of Parma and Elizabeth and may have been implicated in the affair of the Scottish Blanks, a plan for a number of Scottish nobles to rise for the Spaniards (not for the Pope alone, as the author says, although the Jesuits were a party to the plot). Fearing a Spanish and Catholic onslaught through Scotland, Elizabeth tried to make peace between the cousins. James did embrace the earl but even as they declared their loving amity, Bothwell was in correspondence with the agents of Elizabeth offering to raise a force for her providing it was kept secret from James. Then, after being wooed by the Scottish recusant earls, he fled from James’s wrath and by 1598 entered into the pay of Spain, planning an attack on England while simultaneously assuring Elizabeth of his loyalty. The essay throws some light on the murkier aspects of Scottish politics as we watch James perform a balancing act between Protestants and Catholics whilst keeping his eye on the English throne. At one time he even weighed the pros and cons of joining Spain in an attempt to conquer England. Little wonder that behind all in these years, as far as most of the English were concerned, loomed the King of Spain and the Pope of Rome.
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