John Major’s vision of Britain is history by now: a unitary state north and south of the Tweed, secured by consent, subject to one monarch and funded by a non-tartan tax system. When Major first published his views, however, in the punningly titled Historia Maioris Britanniae (1521), his innovativeness upset fellow Scots. It was one thing for a North Berwick-born philosopher to refute the medieval legend which derived English claims to rule in Scotland from the overlordship of a Trojan called Brut; it was another for him to challenge the myth which traced Scottish independence back to an ancient Greek prince called Gathelus. Defeated at the Battle of Flodden, and fearful of Tudor encroachments, the Scottish élite resisted both Major’s historiography and his proposal that royal dynasties on the island should intermarry to unite ‘Greater Britain’. Not until 1603, when James VI succeeded to the English throne, would talk of union become orthodox.
More than an accident of naming links the scholastic philosopher John Major with John Major of Brixton: they stand at either end of a long phase of political development. The Early Modern period saw the emergence of ideas of nationhood in England, Scotland, Wales and (more patchily) Ireland which were probably encouraged and definitely complicated by the construction of a British state – a state which failed to achieve lasting stability, and which, even after the secession of most of Ireland in 1922, has suffered repeated jolts to its 16th and 17th-century foundations. In The Political World of Thomas Wentworth – a distinguished collection of essays on one Stuart minister who advanced British hegemony – Peter Lake urges historians not to link Early Modern crises ‘directly to contemporary concerns about Northern Ireland, the union with Scotland and the European union’. It strikes me that Lake devalues the past, though, when he plays down its connections with the present. What most historians need is more, not less, self-awareness about the political pressures which determine the topics they choose to research.
Certainly, the subject which is at once too blandly and too provocatively called ‘British history’ was generated by political circumstance. J.G.A. Pocock established its parameters in 1973, in a paper read in New Zealand just after the UK had turned its back on the Commonwealth in order to join the EEC. With a chapter in the history of Empire ending, it seemed right to investigate how a dynamic state-system had established itself on the Atlantic archipelago before spreading to North America and the Antipodes. His arguments attracted a number of UK historians whose sense of identity was being shaken by the devolutionary debates of the Seventies. Since then, as he points out in a barn-storming lecture printed in The British Problem, a sense of decline has encouraged Anglo-Saxon historians to ‘decentre’ their investigations. As power ebbs from London to Brussels, Dublin and now Edinburgh, it is tempting ‘to deny that English history makes any kind of sense, or contains within itself any of the motors of its own dynamic or the causes of its own crises’.
While the turn to ‘British history’ may be motivated by waning English confidence, however, many Irish and Scottish historians interpret it as a form of intellectual colonialism. Having dismantled Whig and Marxist explanations of political change in England, revisionists like Conrad Russell make raids into Scottish and Irish history looking for the causes of Civil War. Used in that way, such events as the Presbyterian Covenant of 1637 and the Ulster Rebellion of 1641 clarify English crises at the expense of their local significance. As Nicholas Canny implies in the collection about Thomas Wentworth, Anglocentrism is particularly insidious when talk of interaction across the archipelago is used to obscure English expansionism.
These books show how different the results can be when Early Modern history is decentred. J.F. Merritt’s collection gathers a dozen fine-grained studies of a statesman whose dazzling career took him from the ranks of the Parliamentary opposition in the 1620S through high office under Charles I to execution on Tower Hill. With the help of archival papers scattered between Sheffield, Dublin and California, the contributors are able to build up a new picture not just of the Earl of Strafford but, through him, of an entire period.
At the other extreme there is Malcolm Smuts’s The Stuart Court and Europe. This sprawl of conference papers mounts no coherent case, but it does illuminate what Martin Butler, in his alert essay on Stuart masque, calls ‘the invention of Britain’, by throwing open windows to the Continent. A clear view of Europe is worth having not just because the instability of Stuart Britain finds parallels in such Early Modern ‘multiple monarchies’ as Spain, Poland and France but because those states interacted by means of culture and conflict. Though his attempt to reinstate the English Revolution as a branch of the Thirty Years War is sometimes extravagant, Jonathan Scott has a point when he argues that the true context of the Stuart crisis was not British but European, in the sense that Continental interference, climaxing in the Dutch invasion in 1688-9, clinched a process of state-formation which the civil wars had not secured. As he tartly notes, ‘modern British politicians who claim to be defending the British state against Europe appear not to understand that that state was itself a European creation.’
Scott’s attempt to outflank ‘British history’ can be outflanked in turn by recalling the global reach of Early Modern empire-building. Europe can hardly be viewed as the primum mobile of English affairs when its nations were at odds with native peoples and each other in the Americas and East Indies. In any case, what matters is not finding the most inclusive geopolitical context but establishing which frames of reference best clarify particular events. This is where John Morrill and Brendan Bradshaw’s collection is so impressive. Hiram Morgan’s piece, for example, argues that England’s behaviour towards its neighbours was defined less by colonialist ambition than by a conservative desire to keep French and Spanish influence out of the archipelago. This argument is calculated to irritate those like Canny who believe mat the English used religious war to drive their power westwards, through Ireland to the New World, but it convincingly meshes with Morrill’s claim, in the title-essay of The British Problem, that European pressures offer ‘a further layer of explanation’ for events in the islands, ‘not an alternative layer, let alone an excuse for ignoring the British layer of explanation’.
When Pocock called for a new British history, his emphasis was on centre and margin, on the politics of ‘kingdom and march’, with Mountjoy, Cromwell and Cumberland seen as extending a civilised imperium into Gaelic regions regarded as barbarous. This model was readily squared with the sort of colonial analysis resisted by Hiram Morgan. In his essay in The British Problem, Pocock rightly hangs on to the view that English behaviour in Early Modern Ireland had its colonialist aspect, but he concedes the importance of the shift which revisionists have effected towards a ‘multiple monarchy’ analysis. And is there, in principle, any reason why historians with separatist instincts who are interested in colonialism should deny that the Stuarts found it hard to govern three politically divergent kingdoms? The British Problem readily accommodates work which stresses gaps between Scottish and English experience, while finding room for trenchant essays on Ireland by nationalist historians. Though it substantiates Pocock’s founding insight that the peoples of the archipelago ‘interacted so as to modify the conditions of one another’s existence’, the book also bears out John Morrill’s remark that, especially in the later 17th century, ‘the archipelagic dimension ... arose less from the degree of interaction between the component nations and kingdoms than from the unnatural degree of isolation of each from the others.’
The key factor is that the dynamics of union and settlement operated differently in each kingdom. Henry VIII’s successful incorporation of Wales in 1536-43 set a misleading precedent for Elizabethan policy in Ireland, partly because the Welsh gentry found the extension of Parliamentary representation and common law advantageous while the Old English community in Ireland felt that their interests and their Catholic religion were threatened by administrators from London, and partly because, while the Crown made headway in Ireland by exploiting division, its policy in Wales created a species of Home Rule. When it abolished the medieval distinction between the shired Principality in the West and the Marcher Lordships in the East, it gave the Cymry, for the first time since the tenth century, a coherent national territory. Meanwhile, Tyrone’s Rebellion 1594-1603, and the Ulster troubles of 1641, destabilised relations between the Gaelic, the New (Protestant) and the Old English peoples without securely reconciling the last group to government from London.
The Scottish situation was different. At odds with England for centuries, the northern state had its own legal code, its own Reformation and a distinctive social structure. When John Major wrote his history of ‘Greater Britain’, he found it impossible to construct a single narrative for the whole island. The separateness of Scotland was scarcely affected by the Union of Crowns in 1603: though lairds sometimes found rich wives south of the border, they preserved their estates and much of their culture unaffected by English ways. Moreover, James VI inherited Elizabeth’s throne more by dynastic accident than political inevitability. When he tried to unify his kingdoms, the House of Commons would not accept it. Did he even intend a full union? Jenny Wormald suggests that, as a shrewd negotiator, James advocated integration in order to secure the lesser right of having Scotsmen in his government.
Given these complications, the test for The British Problem is whether it can provide a synthesis. That the answer is nearly yes is a tribute to John Morrill. His title-essay is a tour de force which unknots political intricacies and pins down paradoxes before driving a helpful narrative through the crisis points of the age. Yet if Morrill’s assiduity makes The British Problem the best guide to the subject, neither his essay nor the book escapes from the awkwardness of the title they share. It is ironic that, having attacked Conrad Russell for writing insufficiently devolved history, Morrill should inherit from him a title-formula which Russell now rejects as inaccurate, preferring to speak of ‘a British and Irish problem’. Try as Morrill does to avoid Anglocentrism, the bias inscribed in ‘the British problem’ encourages him to think radially back and forth between Anglo-Britain and adjacent realms which are perceived as peripheral.
This deficiency leaves its footprint in Morrill’s sometimes reversible arguments. In an essay in an earlier collection, Conquest and Union (1995), for instance, Morrill concedes the apartness of Early Modern Ireland by noting that ‘maps of Britain continued to omit it,’ yet, in The British Problem, he insists that ‘maps of “Britain” began routinely to show Ireland alongside the island of Britain and as part of the whole.’ This contradiction is symptomatic of a fault line which runs through the editorial attitudes, as well as the subject-matter, of The British Problem. For Morrill and Brendan Bradshaw interact as ‘problematically’ as England and Ireland. While the former is expansively British, confident that Ireland, though ‘semi-detached’, can be fitted into his story when necessary, Bradshaw is a bit of a Brito-sceptic: accepting that Ireland was drawn, at ‘catastrophic’ cost, into the English orbit, he enforces a nationalist narrative which sweeps aside cautions about relating past and present. ‘The legacy of the “unfinished business” of Ulster,’ he writes, ‘has remained to bedevil the politics of the archipelago to the end of the 20th century.’ His view of Irish history is the one the Christian Brothers taught me – which doesn’t make it all wrong, just difficult to reconcile with Morrill’s revisionism.
The clash becomes explicit in a discreetly buried footnote in which Morrill suggests that the Early Modern period saw the emergence of a pan-Gaelic identity across the northwest of the archipelago, but adds that ‘Brendan Bradshaw strongly dissented from a less guarded version of this in draft and is unlikely to be persuaded by this more cautious version.’ This telegram from the front-line of editorial contention highlights a failing in The British Problem which applies to much ‘British history’: obsessed with high politics, diplomacy and war, archipelagic historians under-explore the motivating power of culture, even when it seems integral to their case. Morrill’s claim about ‘Gaelic polity’, and Bradshaw’s counter-conviction that Irish ‘separatist sensibilities’ go way back, are testable hypotheses, but only if the ideological work done by literary texts is fully taken into account.
Breandán Ó Buachalla has gathered evidence from Gaelic sources which confirms what Mícheál Mac Craith found in 17th-century chronicles: that there was a growing sense of Ireland as a náision under James VI and I. How far this new perception of a commonweal (maitheas poiblighe) was the product of consolidating pressure on the Gaelic population during Tyrone’s Rebellion, how far the result of subsequent attempts to reach out to the Old English community, and how far a contented reaction to the replacement of Elizabeth I by a monarch perceived as a Gael – and one likely to have some tolerance of Catholicism – is debatable. But these developments are tractable to analysis, not least with the help of Joep Leerssen’s Mere Irish and Fíor-Ghael. This absorbing study quotes, translates and analyses a great deal of Early Modern writing about Gael and Gall, and though it resists the temptation to find anachronistic forms of nationalism, it does identify verse in Irish which moves away from bardic localism and treats Éire as a single entity.
Nothing in Mere Irish simply confirms either Morrill’s or Bradshaw’s position, but it does show how literary evidence can ease a deadlock. The cultural blind-spots of The British Problem, however, extend further than Ireland. Morrill, for example, says that, once political incorporation took hold, ‘the English seem to have treated Wales as part of England.’ Yet every London theatregoer knew that the Welsh were lustful, ate lots of cheese and (as Falstaff says of Parson Evans) made fritters of English. Six decades after the Acts of Union, Shakespeare’s Hotspur mocks Welsh song; his Fluellen is in large part a figure of fun. To infer social attitudes directly from drama would be naive; but the production of such masques and plays as For the Honour of Wales (by Jonson) and The Welsh Ambassador (by Heywood) shows that people were aware of, and entertained by, sharp cultural differences within Anglo-Welsh union.
Early Modern literature was more archipelagic than the textbooks would have you believe. An English work such as Sidney’s Arcadia was read as a hybrid romance once its ragged ending was rounded off by the Scottish courtier Sir William Alexander and the ‘Scoto-Brit’ James Johnstoun. Caroline editions of the work include a finale composed by the Catholic Irishman, Richard Bellings, who rose to prominence in the Royalist confederation and wrote a history of its affairs. The milieu of Ben Jonson’s friend, William Drummond of Hawthornden, was far from exclusively Scottish. Henry Vaughan’s religious poetry emerged from a crisis in Welsh Anglicanism, and the echoes of the Welsh language can be heard in his verse. Even the hostility to Gaelic culture expressed in his View of the Present State of Ireland did not prevent Spenser from being fascinated by bardic poetry. Fear of ‘degenerating’ into Irish ways entwined his verse with what it resists. The landscape of The Faerie Queene, full of deceptions, idolatrous allurements and rebels, is shaped by the poet’s experience of life in the Munster plantation, and his epic celebration of Gloriana ends with a vision of Mutabilitie set on a hill in North Cork.
Spenser’s praise of Elizabeth I is hard enough for Irish nationalists to stomach. Still less digestible is the eulogy of her composed by the Gaelic poet Flann Mag Craith. Irish scholars have tried to read this panegyric as a parody, but the Limerick writer Dáibhí Ó Bruadair had no difficulty in recognising and denouncing its tenor in the late 17th century. By this time, after Cromwell, attitudes had hardened against the English, yet the lives of Royalist Irishmen often remained culturally hybrid. The first Marquis of Antrim (1609-83), for example, a player in English politics for most of his long career, adorned his castle at Dunluce with the latest London fashions but maintained a Gaelic retinue of bards, musiciansand fighting men in Irish dress. In any case, antagonism served to increase cultural inter-penetration, and after the 1640s Irish poets began to use English words in their verse – at first, for contemptuous and satirical effect, but also with a sense that these alien terms were threatening the Gaelic which embedded them.
Patrick Collinson has complained (LRB, 3 April) about ‘the lack of relations’ between historians and literary critics working on Elizabethan England. Just as Early Modern historians of the ‘British and Irish problem’ need to think more intently about culture, so students of literature would profit by working historically across the three kingdoms. Consider what may well be the best essay in the Thomas Wentworth collection: John McCafferty’s study of Laudian attempts to reconcile the Church of Ireland to English practice, and to make it, in some respects, more Laudian than its sister. This minutely scrupulous piece transforms our understanding of Wentworth’s role in the Irish Convocation of 1634, but it concentrates so much on discovering what ‘really’ happened that it neglects representations of religious reform – the fuse, many would argue, that lit the powder of civil war. To read James Shirley’s play St Patrick for Ireland, for instance, next to McCafferty’s essay, is to have a sharpened sense not just of why a writer in Wentworth’s circle would want to write this saint’s life for a Dublin playhouse in 1639, but of how the ambiguities of Laudianism might have been seen by contemporaries.
That Shirley had Catholic friends in Ireland – including Bellings, the adapter of Arcadia – is not in dispute. The fact that he uses a Counter-Reformation source for his play might seem to support the commonplace that he was himself a Papist What McCafferty’s account helps you see, however, is that Shirley subtly discounts the Romanist elements of the legend – such as the notion that Patrick came to Ireland as a Papal legate. In this he follows the authority of the Protestant scholar Archbishop Ussher, whose resistance to Laudian reform was reinforced by his pride in the indigenous, Celtic roots of his Church. Yet Shirley complicates the picture by having Patrick arrive from ‘Britain’. This philologically correct term for ‘Brittany’, Patrick’s actual point of departure, puts this most Irish saint into what is now called ‘British history’ and implies that he came with a Laudian mission to bring religious truth to a bunch of Gaels who appear, within the play, to be committed to a paganism which looks like idolatrous Catholicism.
The ambiguities go on, texturing and dividing the drama in such a way as to appeal to Old English Catholics in Shirley’s audience but also to Laudian hardliners. As a result, St Patrick brings into focus the ideological perplexities, and missed chances, of a crucial historical moment. Does it support a colonialist analysis of events in the Stuart three kingdoms, in the manner of Nicholas Canny, or Morrill’s revisionist version? What seems certain is that, if we are to have a cogent account of the Early Modern basis of present-day arguments about devolution and the EU, historians must think harder about hybrid artefacts and literary critics give more attention to the ‘British and Irish problem’.