Joining them

Conrad Russell

  • Goodwin Wharton by J. Kent Clark
    Oxford, 408 pp, £15.00, November 1984, ISBN 0 19 212234 7
  • Witchcraft and Religion by Christina Larner
    Blackwell, 184 pp, October 1984, ISBN 0 631 13447 6
  • Lordship to Patronage: Scotland 1603-1745 by Rosalind Mitchison
    Arnold, 198 pp, £5.95, November 1983, ISBN 0 7131 6313 5

Goodwin Wharton is a fascinating and amusing figure, but he is sui generis: the same things which make his flirtations with the occult such amusing reading also make it difficult to compare his doings with those of anyone else. He is a figure of the same chronological vintage as Sir Isaac Newton, dabbling in alchemy and gravity by turns, and he exhibits a perhaps comparable mixture (though in very different proportions) of the open-minded and the credulous. Coming as he does right on the edge of the Enlightenment, he does not provide the opportunity for any easy comparison of English and Scottish attitudes to the occult: the gulf between 1590 and 1690 is so deep that Anglo-Scottish differences are liable to become engulfed in it. Nevertheless, though Goodwin Wharton does not provide the material for a comparison, Christina Lamer knew enough about English witchcraft research to have attempted many of the necessary comparisons herself. Her magnum opus, Enemies of God, has been in print for some time. What we have here is a collection of occasional pieces left behind by her tragic death at the age of 49. It would be unjust to review such pieces as if they were finished work, but they do show that she was attempting a genuinely comparative study of witchcraft in Europe.

Like Professor Mitchison, Dr Larner saw Scotland in 1600 as having more in common with the continent of Europe than it did with its big southern neighbour, and she suggested that Scottish witchcraft cases had more in common with Continental than with English cases. This is true both for the content and for the scale of the prosecutions. Scotland, unlike England, took seriously the notion of the pact with the devil, and searched for witches by means of a ‘brodder’, whose task was to find the witch’s mark. Moreover, the scale of the witchcraft phenomenon in Scotland was much greater than in England. Dr Larner had a true scholar’s caution about numbers of executions, which she believed to be permanently unknowable. The guesses she hazarded suggested a balance of some five hundred executions in England to a thousand in Scotland. When it is remembered how much larger the English population was than the Scottish, the difference in scale appears formidable. She was entitled to dismiss English witchcraft cases as ‘a faint ripple from a Continental epicentre’.

Dr Larner was unhappy with attempts to explain the difference. She was suspicious of ‘stress’ explanations of witchcraft cases, and rightly doubtful of the Thomas-Macfarlane thesis of the disappearance of a good-neighbourly ethic. This disappearance, like the rise of the middle classes, has been credited to so many periods that it cannot be right for them all. I read a piece, many years ago, which dated it to the replacement of slums by Council houses in the East End. Nevertheless, though Dr Larner’s doubts about ‘stress’ explanations of witchcraft are worth taking seriously, it is worth setting her material beside some of Professor Mitchison’s material on shortage of food in Scotland in the 1690s. It is not a self-evidently absurd hypothesis that the wave of witchcraft prosecutions in Europe marks the Continent’s narrow avoidance of a major Malthusian crisis, and it seems to be true that witchcraft prosecutions accompany a rapid rise in population, and that cases often involve the refusal to give food. It is surely not fanciful to hear the resentment of the hungry for the well-fed behind the words: ‘aroint thee witch, the rump-fed runyon cries.’

This collection is full of other stimulating, and often provocative, suggestions. The essay on ‘was witch-hunting woman-hunting?’ crosses swords with much fashionable feminist research in the United States. Dr Larner suggested that ‘the pursuit of witches was no more a persecution of women than the prosecution of killers and maimers was a persecution of men. The parallel is not exact, but it is not absurd.’ This point calls for thought: there is undoubtedly a genuine element of misogyny in some witchcraft prosecutions, yet some feminist work on this subject risks making the prosecution of male witches inexplicable. Other social historians will surely welcome Dr Larner’s doubts about the process of abstracting witchcraft statistics from the criminal records in which they are embedded: no reader of Professor Cockburn’s edition of Home Circuit Assize indictments is likely to credit witchcraft with the sort of comparative importance it appears to have in works devoted only to that subject.

The point where Dr Larner’s and Professor Mitchison’s work meet is their insistence that Scottish history should be seen in a Continental and not just a British context. For the period around 1600, the case seems to stand. Dr Larner has pinpointed the moment at which Continental demonology was brought to Scotland: it was in 1590, when James VI returned from Denmark with his bride. It is possible, since an arranged marriage is likely to be more traumatic for a homosexual than it is for most of us, that this moment also pinpoints a major attack of sexual guilt in James himself, and that it is this guilt which was projected onto the witches. That might explain why, once he had got used to marriage, James’s interest in witchcraft seems to have diminished considerably. In intellectual terms, Scottish political thought drew more heavily on French monarchomachi than the English ever did, and a man like Robert Baillie felt more involved in the progress of the Thirty Years’ War than the English normally did. Indeed, it is an important part of why the Scots resisted the invention of ‘Anglicanism’ during the 1630s that they were far more aware than their English counterparts of belonging to a genuinely international Protestant community. Baillie, for example, regularly referred to his tutor at the University of Glasgow as ‘Monsieur Cameron’, not because it was some sort of academic title, but because Cameron had come to Glasgow from a long spell at the University of Saumur. Similarly, Scottish overseas trade seems to have involved them as heavily with Denmark, Holland and France as it did with England. It would certainly be inaccurate to write of such a thing as a ‘British economy’ in 1603: Scotland perhaps illustrates the proposition that there was such a thing as a ‘North Sea economy’. At a time when waterborne trade was so conspicuously easier than land-borne trade, this is probably what should have been expected. The thought prompts the reflection that the improvements in road transport characteristic of the 17th century were, among many other things, a necessary precondition of the Act of Union of 1707.

If this contention that Scotland in 1600 belongs with the Continent rather than with England is correct, it is arguable that it also increases the extent to which the dominant theme of Scottish history between 1603 and 1707 is the working-out of Scotland’s relationship with its powerful southern neighbour, since the proposition is definitely not true in 1707. Was Henry VII’s judgment that ‘the greater will draw the lesser’ entirely accurate? There were times during this period, notably 1641, when it looked as if the lesser might end up drawing the greater. The union of multiple kingdoms was one of the big flashpoints of 16th and 17th-century Europe, and it is fair to ask how the Scots’ reaction to union compares with that of others. If we look at states which experienced a union of kingdoms during this period, there are some, such as the Netherlands and Portugal, which got away and tried to go it alone. There are others, such as Catalonia and Navarre, where the union lasted. Except for the unique case of the Netherlands, it is not entirely clear that either of these reactions to union has been entirely successful. The least satisfactory pattern is that of Catalonia, which tried to get away and failed, and succeeded only in getting itself divided between France and Spain. Is it arguable that, as an example of how to handle union, Scotland is something of a success story?

By 1603, Europe had enough experience of dynastic unions for some of the major flashpoints to be readily perceptible. One of the most important was that of war and taxation: kingdoms pulled into a union regularly found themselves being taxed and exploited to pay for the foreign policy of their senior partner. Control of foreign policy, as the Scots quickly realised, was one of the things of which union had deprived them: when Charles I went to war with Spain, in 1625, there appears to be almost no evidence that Scotland was so much as informed, let alone consulted. Some time shortly after this date, Secretary Coke, taking a leaf out of Olivares’s book, drew up a plan for a union of arms, in which Scotland and Ireland should be asked to contribute a proportionable burden to the cost of British foreign policy. It is one of Scotland’s great good fortunes that, at least in a Scottish context, this plan was never implemented. Here, they would appear to have benefited, both from Stuart administrative weakness and from their own poverty. It was more profitable for the Crown to squeeze England further, and it lacked the resources to do both. It is not until the reign of William III that the Scots found themselves making substantial contribution to the cost of paying for wars.

The problem of the absentee king was another of the standard problems of union, and here what appeared to be an asset under James VI suddenly became a disaster under Charles I. Professor Mitchison perceptively suggests that James’s absence actually strengthened his position in Scotland. The standard technique of Scottish opposition had been the capture of the king, and once he was safely in London this became impossible. Under James, Scotland enjoyed a real system of devolution: Scotland was governed by a Scottish Privy Council able to call on an authority which, because absent, was as unchallengeable as that of a Japanese emperor.

However, the Jacobean system would only work so long as the Scottish government avoided too many grandiose reforming plans. Professor Mitchison points out, in an important passage, that the lack of a court meant that Scotland had no centre for opposition, debate and criticism about royal policy. This passage, incidentally, is a historiographical classic: it marks the full absorption of the important remarks Professor Elton made about the court in 1976. From regarding ‘the court’ as an alien force for imposing royal control on a reluctant country, we have swung right round to the proposition: ‘no court, no opposition.’ Scottish politics in 1637 to 1639 clearly show that Professor Mitchison is right: Traquair, for example, continued to try to function as an old-style courtier, keeping up his social contacts with the Covenanters in the face of considerable criticism, but because the king was not there, he simply did not have the courtier’s tools. It is perhaps the political crisis which began in 1637, with Charles’s imposition of the Scottish Prayer Book, which created a great deal of the constructive Scottish thinking about the problem of union. The terms the Scots proposed in the treaty of London, in 1641, fascinatingly anticipate many of the questions which came up in the negotiation for the Act of Union. The Scots were already insisting on the dismantling of internal tariff barriers and on their right to trade with English colonies, and demanding that neither kingdom should make war without the consent of the Parliament of the other. In the atmosphere of 1641, these proposals were much too constructive to produce serious negotiation but as a guide to Scottish thinking they are extremely interesting.

Where 1641 differs sharply from 1707 is in the treatment of religion. There is nothing for which Charles I is more continually censured than his determination to achieve religious union between the kingdoms: over and over again, this has been cited (by myself, among others) as proof of Charles’s ‘folly’. Yet this, strikingly, is the one thing on which the Covenanters were in full agreement with Charles I: they were as dedicated as he was to the proposition that there would never be stability in Britain until there was one Church on both sides of the Border. Robert Baillie actually said in so many words that they were trying to achieve that conformity which the King had been vexed to obtain, ‘and by it a hearty nation between the kingdoms’. Religion was a matter of right and wrong, and what was damnable one side of the Tweed could not become the way to Heaven for those who started from the other side of the river.

Yet, in trying to achieve religious uniformity between England and Scotland, the Covenanters were trying to do something much harder than they knew. They knew they were working with English hostility to the previous regime, but they did not understand the depth of English hostility to Presbyterianism, any more than Charles could understand the depth of Scottish hostility to his ceremonial liturgy. Even more important, the Scots could not understand that, even if they did persuade the English to adopt ‘Presbyterianism’, what would result would never be anything which would be recognised by that name north of the Border. It is one of Professor Mitchison’s greatest successes that she has made sense of this misunderstanding to a modern reader.

The cornerstone of Covenanter Presbyterianism was the General Assembly, what Alexander Henderson called ‘the representative kirk of this kingdom’. The Assembly, even if reinforced with lay elders, was the ultimate authority in ecclesiastical matters, and a Parliament no more than a necessary rubber stamp to confirm its conclusions. To a man like John Selden, on the other hand, the notion of a ‘representative kirk’ could do little more than make him cry ‘Praemunire’: to the English, whether Presbyterian or not, the Scottish notion of a General Assembly appeared an entirely unwarrantable encroachment on sovereign power. Watching the extent to which the English failed so much as to realise the Scots had this idea, we realise how well Thomas Cromwell had done his work, and how important it is that he never had a Scottish counterpart. In what must have been a remarkably disingenuous conversation during 1641, the English Parliamentary leaders explained to the Covenanters that they would not hold a General Assembly ‘yet’, since the major part of the clergy were still corrupt. It seems hard to believe that Englishmen trained in Parliament and the Inns of Court ever envisaged calling a General Assembly on the Scottish model.

It is this difference in ideas about relations of church and state, far more than the question of bishops or not bishops, which meant that an Anglo-Scottish union of Churches was never going to be possible. Looking at this question, a reviewer is the more ready to be persuaded by Dr Larner’s tentative suggestion that the differences between English and Scottish witchcraft prosecutions can in large measure be explained by differences between the English and Scottish legal systems.

1641 was the high-water mark of Scots attempts to make the lesser draw the greater, and from then on, Scotland faced more and more risk of being dragged at England’s chariot wheels. This is not just because of growing English power, though Cromwell produced plenty of that: it is also an institutional problem. From 1641 onwards the English Parliament was acquiring a rapidly increasing importance at the expense of the English Crown. Among the manifold consequences of this fact was a drastic change in the terms of union. So long as there was a supreme British king, dealing with English, Irish and Scottish Parliaments, it was possible to preserve, at least as a fiction, the idea that the king ruled over three separate but equal kingdoms, each with its own Parliament. As soon as English (and, on many issues, therefore British) policy was formed by a Parliament in which Scots and Irish were unrepresented, it became painfully clear that England was governing the rest. The execution of Charles I was a purely English decision, and Scottish protests that the English had no right to execute Scotland’s king fell on deaf ears. Similarly, 1660 and 1688 were English faits accomplis, with which Scotland could do nothing but fall into line. Perhaps the clearest example, because it refers to a less dramatic issue, is the decision in 1661 to impose English interest rates on Scotland, though, as Professor Mitchison points out, the rate of 6 per cent was ‘unsuited to an undeveloped economy’. By Queen Anne’s reign, as she says, ‘the English ministry governed Scotland.’

It is at this point that the constructive character of the Scots’ response becomes really apparent. European precedent would have led us to expect a fruitless revolt, followed by an equally fruitless attempt to break the union. The Scots, however, had learnt from Oliver Cromwell what sort of union followed from that line of policy: direct confrontation could lead only to an imposed English union. They did not hold a Boston Tea Party. Instead, in the Act of Security, the Scots in effect told the English they could choose a different ruler from the English when Queen Anne died, and asked England to name the price it would pay to avoid this prospect.

It was this negotiating ploy which gave the Scots full trading rights in what, from 1707, became the British Empire, with incalculable consequences for the rest of the world. The survival of the Scottish legal system is perhaps no surprise: it would have been too hard to do anything else. What is really striking about the Act of Union, to anyone who comes to it from a 17th-century perspective, is the decision to allow the new united kingdom to keep two independent national Churches. It was, perhaps, not until religion ceased to be a high-explosive political issue that union between England and Scotland was possible. What is so remarkable about the Act of Union is the success of its negotiators in achieving it at almost the first moment when this could have been possible. In allowing two national Churches within one kingdom, the Act of Union is arguably one of the great watersheds in the separation of religion and politics. It suggests that perhaps after all someone learnt something from the great religious battles of the middle of the 17th century, and that perhaps J.N. Figgis was right that ‘political liberty was the residuary legatee of ecclesiastical animosities.’ Certainly 1707 shows the Lowland Scots as skilled practitioners of the maxim: ‘if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.’

It is, however, a success story of the Lowland Scots only. The 18th-century attempt to ‘civilise’ the Highlands, by contrast, proceeded on the assumption that ‘Gaelic culture needed to be superseded by teaching the population the virtues of Hanoverian rule, English speech and Calvinist doctrine.’ This, by contrast, sounds much more like English policy in Ireland, an example which sharply underlines the claim of Anglo-Scottish relations to be regarded as a success story. Or does the comparison with Ireland suggest that in the end the 17th-century Calvinists were right, that England and Scotland could be united because they had a common Calvinist heritage? Are Anglo-Scottish relations no more than one more illustration of Dr Tyacke’s proposition that Calvinist doctrine provided a ‘common and ameliorating bond’ between those who disagreed about many other things? In this context, we must remember that the ‘British problem’ of the 17th century is not yet solved. When its Irish constituent is solved, maybe serious comparison with the Scottish story will be possible.