We left the land of the mountains, lochs, islands and midges on the death of one of her more successful kings, James VI, also James I of England. Now, his successor, Charles Stuart was not originally meant to be king. When he was born at Dunfermline Castle in 1600, that future responsibility belonged to his big brother, 5 years and a bit older than him, Henry. Prince Henry apparently joked with his younger bro that he would make him Archbishop of Canterbury when he became king – because to everyone’s admiration, as Charles grew up he clearly had a bit of a talent for theological debate. Maybe, just as Henry VI would have made a better bishop than king, Charles would have made a better second son than royal heir, gently retiring from the public eye as younger royal brothers are wont to do these days, echewing publicity and controversy, behaving with dignity and discretion and building up an art collection maybe. But alas for the people of Scotland, Ireland and England – it was not to be.
Charles’ older brother teased him when he was young, and that could have damaged him permanently; obviously an elder brother’s teasing can damage us younger brothers, it’s tough actually. Fortunately, this doesn’t seem to have been the case in my situation, and it doesn’t seem to have been in Charles’ either – he seems to have been very close to his brother and his big sis, Elizabeth. And so when Prince Henry Stuart died in 1612 everyone was surprised, appalled and gutted. Charles would also be very upset when Elizabeth left him – to go and be Queen of Bohemia, which would also have consequences it must be said.
Charles nonetheless had a difficult start in life, since he had rickets when young. Still he overcame that, and grew to be about 5 foot 4 which Cromwell of course considered about 6 inches too tall. Charles also had a stammer that stayed with him all his life; though actually he seemed to conquer the stammer, since people in parliament in particular said he spoke rather well, and were more enthusiastic about his speeches than those of his father. Though alternative interpretations are available it must be said on that point; Charles was probably very self conscious of his stammer, and so spoke much more briefly than his Dad who, to be brutal, did rather warble on. In my lifelong experience of various forms of conference speeches, short is Queen. Anything above 2 ½ minutes is liable to drag, especially just after lunch.
Charles was apparently a good learner – though to be honest, most princes were so reputed and indeed attractive to boot; if you were a chronicler it didn’t do to report that your future divinely anointed monarch was a bit of a thicky with a face like a horse’s arse. He was educated in divinity, though, by a thorough going Calvinist, a Scottish Presbyterian called Thomas Murray; so Charles’ later dalliance with Archbishop Laud and messing about with the ‘beauty of holiness’ didn’t come from his education; that would come later. And his love of Laud and Arminianism had something to do with personal relationships, but more Charles’ love of ceremony, formality and ritual, and the exaltation of authority and hierarchy in the church. But I am getting ahead of myself.
Having said that, that love of ceremony was a big thing early on. Charles would absolutely take on board his Dad’s teaching in Basilikon Doran about how to be a good king; he took those teachings very seriously, and would strive throughout his life to carry out God’s will, promote true religion and the public good and serve the best interests of his subjects. Or at least, what he considered those to be. But back to that ceremony thing; what he did not approve of, not one little bit, was the way his Dad carried on at court – with all his informality and banter and familiarity, the excess and drinking and sexual ambiguities. Charles was very private, very formal, and very controlled; he gave himself strict rules, dividing his day up into chunks for early rising, prayers, exercises, audiences, business, eating, sleeping. Which is impressive – my limit is eating, sleeping and excreting.
Charles was a man of several close relationships; with the Duke of Buckingham, for example, and their extraordinary prancing through Europe to Spain together. One further very important relationship then would be with his wife Henrietta Maria. Henrietta Maria was a French Princess born at a time of great turbulence in France; she was but 15 when she came over to England to marry Charles in 1625. She was a devout catholic, refusing to be crowned by a protestant bishop even, and came with a cloud of catholic religious; which in the circumstances was to prove one of the things that would put the wind up both Scotland and England as the religious temperature warmed up. But Henrietta Maria and Charles became very close after the death of Buckingham, and their union gave not only a healthy number of heirs, but mutual support and encouragement in the troubles ahead. This was probably a two-edged sword; in her mass of correspondence with Charles, she seems to have been bigging up full-on intrigue, keen to protect English Catholicism, deeply political, with strong opinions and great tenacity. Which could be a good thing in the right circumstances, but also maybe a bad thing if not reading the runes right.
You might wonder why I am warbling on so much about Charlie-lad, or Chazza as his councillors did not under any circumstances call him. Well, the historiography of the period we are approaching, of the civil wars in the Atlantic Archipelago, is filled with more interpretations than Goldfinches on a bird feeder, but the most popular currently in ascendancy emphasise the role of the personality of Charles himself. While there are many currents within the politics and religions of the three kingdoms Scotland, Ireland and England – the way Charles handled his often significant and intractable problems and worked towards his objectives would have a massive and possibly decisive impact on events.
Before we launch into Charles’ reign in Scotland, it’s also worth saying something about the broad challenges he faced. As you will remember, Charles’ father James VI had also become James I of England, Wales and Ireland. Since England and Wales were already part of one kingdom, the following troubles, if I can put it like that, have become known as the wars of the Three Kingdoms; I believe there was also an attempt to refer to the period as the wars of the Five kingdoms, to take account of the fact that France and Spain also had an interest and were appealed to at various times by the people of the Archipelago – but to be honest although they do have an impact – or rather the Vatican does in Ireland – these folks in the words of Keane couldn’t stop now because they had troubles of their own, including that remarkably destructive conflagration called the 30 Years War. So I don’t think that’s really taken off as a tag, though it’s worth always remembering that ‘no island is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main’ just to pervert the memory of John Donne. The other Five kingdoms explanation I suppose is England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales and Cornwall.
Anyway, let’s stick with three kingdoms; the thing to remember is that it is impossible to understand what occurs without understanding also something of the interplay between the three. It also means, given that the Irish of Eire don’t consider themselves to be part of the British Isles, that any podcaster needs to get used to using the words Archipelago and unfortunately inevitably, archipelagic. These are unattractive words, but in the spirit of international peace and collaboration I shall try not to stray from the path as I travel through Mirkwood. Anyway, Jimmy VI as you’ll remember had no interest in words like archipelagic, and was terribly excited by being what he called a King of Britain, and even tried to have a flag designed – though he got told to talk to the hand by both Scots and English, and I am not sure that, possibly typically, he bothered to ask the Irish. However, royal policy, especially religious, was always faced by that challenge; because the three kingdoms were very, very different. And that’s not just because, as now, only one of them could play decent football.
Each had different political traditions – Ireland had recently come out of the English conquest under Elizabeth’s reign and although suppressed was not reconciled; and at the same time of course the Reformation had gained very little traction there, and the majority remained resolutely and proudly Catholic. In England, the Elizabethan settlement though doctrinally Calvinist was a strange mix of surviving quasi catholic ritual and structure around Bishops. While Scotland had undergone a more thorough going and consistent Calvinist reformation with considerable success in imposing religious and social uniformity in the Lowlands at least, around the Kirk sessions and courts. The role of the bishops in Scotland was very contested, rather more so than would later be claimed by the Presbyterians, who would rewrite history to suggest that no one had ever liked them one little bit in Scotland.
So we are still in the period of history when no one was yet used to the idea of religious pluralism; to be a coherent kingdom was to share one religion. This clearly gave Charles a problem if he considered himself to be king of Britain, it’s chaos out there if you are looking for uniformity – and Charles’ instincts were absolutely for neatness, to standardise and make all his kingdoms conform to one model – a characteristic he was not alone in holding; Scottish Presbyterians would also agree – they just had a different model to be imposed than Charles’s version. In Scotland there was also a particularly strong tradition from the radical wing of the Protestants under leaders like Andrew Melville that there were two kingdoms – God’s kingdom and the king’s and the king was subject to God’s kingdom, not the other way round. While every king would agree that they were subject to God, they would have no truck with the idea that the church was responsible directly only to God. Not a bit of it, the church was subject to the king’s delegate, the King. This would be the subject of some disagreement in the years ahead.
A final thing to keep in mind as we go into this revolutionary period, is that while it all feels very early modern, and we all know what’s going to happen to the power of kings and so on, do not at your peril underestimate just how fundamental the will of the king is as far as the inhabitants of all the three kingdoms was concerned at this time. Obviously, you may be thinking of the English 15th century jurist Fortesque with his talk of the people and that the king was under the law; you may be reflecting on George Buchanan, and his beating into the young James, literally, the concept of resistance theory – the right of the religious to depose a tyrant; and that for Buchanan kings were subject to the law and entitled to exercise only such rights as ‘the people have granted him over them’. You will remember how keen James VI was on the idea of the absolute power of kings, and be imagining that he did so because this was a particular bone of contention and he was fighting his corner against all comers.
Well you should largely put that out of your mind – the vast majority still firmly believed that the will of the monarch was sovereign, that their power was absolute. That is not to say that their power was without limit; tradition dictated that monarchs must rule wisely and, critically that they must accept the counsel of their great men. This would also become a bone of some contention. But it was a point made firmly to Charles by his Scottish advisers; in January 1626, Charles held a series of conferences with his leading Scottish Councillors, including John Erskine the Earl of Mar and a long time friend of Charles’ father, so a man who knew his onions. Mar made the point that Charles ‘not being acquainted with the laws of our country’, his counsellers were obligated to give him ‘true counsel’ – with the clear implication that Charles was required to listen to said true counsel. It was not a message Charles wanted to hear; as far as he was concerned, counsellors were there to take notes and action points.
Right, I think then that we have done enough setup and should proceed to the action. The Scottish Revolution, a phrase coined by historian David Stevenson in the 1970s, is a very rich period of Scottish history, and I hope I do it justice. It is like most histories contested to some degree. David Stevenson wrote the definitive books of the political history; definitive history must itself be a tricky phrase since of course history is subject to constant revision, and may indeed all be in the eye of the beholder anyway, but once we’ve ploughed through all the post modernist tripe and you want a smashing and authoritative history you go to David Stevenson’s two books they remain a triumph, despite the many revisions and in-depth academic study since. By and large and with horrid, horrid summarisation, Stevenson’s rationale for using the term Revolution was that this was a period of great change brought about by violence; however that change was in his view very much political change driven by the nobility and kirk, not a matter of social revolution. To a degree that is a contention not greatly challenged even now; so for example, while there is much propaganda and use of print in Scotland, there is considerable control and regulation of press by the revolutionary state of the Covenanters, and you don’t really see the unbridled chaos of print seen in England, nor the appeal for individual rights, nor the extraordinary religious pluralism of England. In fact, the tradition that became established immediately after the Restoration of 1660 was very negative in many ways to the Covenanters; through them, it was claimed, disaster had come to Scotland, invaded and brought low by Cromwell’s Commonwealth. Of course in the context of a royalist counter revolution if you like, such a message was possibly unsurprising, but on a basic level it has some truth of course – the Covenanter state did fail in the essential way that it was unable to expel it’s invader.
However, new interpretations or emphases have very much appeared; some of those are about emphases, such as the impact of Scottish involvement in the 30 years war and relationships with the states of the Baltic; or of the central role of women in the Revolution and Covenant. And of course there is the impact of the Covenant itself, and its legacy and symbolism, of a bond freely and jointly made between the citizens of the state, which has some modern resonance. Recently also there’s been a well received book from Laura Stewart, which again in horrid summary makes the point that unlike in England, the Covenanters actually manage to create a highly effective state, which achieves a remarkable level of commitment from the large majority of its subjects. There is no civil war in the way that racks England and indeed Ireland; and that is a fascinating process, which may have had quite a deep impact on the way the ordinary Scot saw their relationship with the way they were governed, though that is a difficult concept to prove. In addition, the Covenanter regime establishes fiscal innovations that will prove a lasting legacy.
We have heard a little of the mindset of Charles I, and something of he challenges he faced; and most histories make sure that the failures of Charles’ reigns are set against the acceptance that he faced many major problems, some of which we have already described. And yet you might look back at the previous couple of hundred years, and a continual stream of minorities with accompanying factionalism and concur that Charles also had some advantages at his accession. Unlike his Padre, he acceded to the Scottish throne peacefully, after a period of great political stability. Those preceding centuries, none of which had resulted in the diminuation of royal power or sustained threat to the existence of the Stuart dynasty, had thereby demonstrated just how fundamentally the monarchy was embedded as the keystone of the Scottish state. Charles had advantages he could have exploited.
Despite that, and despite James’ boast from his court in London that he could rule Scotland by the pen, James’ absenteeism had stored up potential problems for the new king. When he left in 1603, James knew his kingdom and its great families intimately; but by the time of his death even he was in danger of losing touch, having made just one visit since 1603. Charles had not been since he left as a nipper. So when he came to the throne, he did not have that intimate knowledge; he would have to rely on others to help guide him. Meekly and humbly accepting his limitations and asking for and following advice were not core features of Scotland’s young new king – 24 years old by the way, but which age, it has to be said, I was personally pretty clear that my life training was complete and there was little I did not know. Wrongly, as it turned out.
The removal of court to London created a fundamental problem for Scottish governance. As frequently emphasised, the key to a successful ruler was that he very publicly demanded and accepted the counsel of his great men; he didn’t need to do what he was told, but he needed absolutely to show that he’d listened. To do this, a monarch needed some skills; they needed to be present, and accessible; and they needed to be good at developing relationships with their great men. Now Jimmy had been very good at this, embarrassingly so as far as his son was concerned – friendly to the point of over familiarity, to the point with his favourites of really crossing the line as far as PDAs were concerned. James had loved the grandeur, formality and richness of the English court, but by the time he got there, he had of course already had an established and successful reign in Scotland.
Now with a new king, the natural leaders of the Scottish kingdom had something of a problem. If they wanted to access the ear of the king as was their fundamental right, they would have to go to London. That was a big ask. Scotland was a relatively poor kingdom compared to England; the cost of joining the English court was ruinously expensive for most. The annals are filled with Scottish Lairds expressing their shock at the cost of a London fish supper – and would you look at the price of the curry sauce? Also Scottish nobility were deeply tied into the running of their localities through baronry courts and shire courts and so going to court was both a major investment of time & money, and a worrying absence from their lairdly responsibilities.
And if they did, what they found there was often not to their liking. There was a deal of prejudice in the English court towards the Scottish bumpkin. The prejudice was returned by the Scots with interest; there’s a lovely quote from one Patrick Gordon explaining why the English were so much more formal and outwardly deferent than the Scots to the upper nobility;
It is true that in Ingland the keeping of state is in some ways tolerable for that nation which (being so often conquered) is become slavish and takes not as evil to be slaves to their superiors.
But our nation, I mean the gentry not the commons, having never been conquered but always a freeborn people, are only won with courtesies, and the humble mild and cheerful, and affable behaviour of their superiors
Now the greater formality of the English court was straight up Charles’ alley and he revelled in it. So, what tended to happen was that the Scottish nobility that were prepared to come to an anglicised court and remain resident in England, were really not those who wielded the most power and influence in Scotland. The Venetian ambassador commented on the increasing ‘jealousy between the two nations’, and their loss of influence since the death of James; Charles’ statement that
‘he was born a Scot and would bear for Scotland the same affection as his father
Didn’t really cut the mustard as far as Scottish worries were concerned. The Scots wanted a principal minister based in Scotland to try and compensate for this loss of influence; Charles was having none of it, thoroughly convinced by his own rectitude. Instead, Charles worked through the Scottish Privy counsel, after taking advice from those men around him who did make the journey to the court in London. It should be clear then that Charles did not govern Scotland as an English king with English councillors; he kept Scottish affairs rigorously separate from his English councillors and state institutions. That might sound like a good thing, and I guess it is; but Charles was secretive about it, jealous in keeping Scotland as his own affair and nobody else’s. So when the brown stuff hit the spinny thing, it came as a bit of a shock to the English Privy Council, or at least to those who did not have their own sources of information.
Meanwhile, Charles treated his Scottish Privy councillors like mushrooms, an old gag you might know, which in sanitised form means that he kept them in the dark and fed them with manure. He sent them orders and expected them to execute said orders. Needless to say this was not what his noble meant when they spoke of consultation. Nor of course is it an impressive management technique – unsurprisingly his councillors found their jobs meaningless and demotivating; as far as they could see, their king was not interested in having them play a role in the governing of the kingdom. And so many of them simply stayed away and didn’t bother.
One consequence was that in a crisis, Charles would find himself opposed by many of the people who should naturally have been on his side. Just as bad, it meant that many nobles Charles could well have drawn to his side were repelled; one example may well have been James Graham, the Earl of Montrose who seems to have visited Charles in 1636, but been treated with little respect and left steaming. But there was more than that; the point is that the Scots had many concerns about the link with England that needed addressing.
So, first off there was the thing about money; although it had seemed possible when James went south that with their own man on the throne, English resources could be used to further Scottish interests; well, the English parliament and Council had nixed that idea pretty quickly. The danger was that the opposite would prove true; so, Charles straightaway asked the Convention of Estates – which you might remember is a sort of mini parliament, to agree a tax; which they did – but with the prospect that the money would be spent on involvement in the 30 Years War, a policy over which the Scots had no control or influence.
Nor did Charles go north to greet his subjects on his accession. Charles came to the throne on 27th March 1625; It would take him until 1633 to tip up at home. But he did have some bright other ideas. One was to proclaim his support of the Scottish Kirk and
The government of the kirk now happily established
And called for the execution of the law against all non conformists. Now this announcement rather cack handedly trod on the pastures of concerns over the Five Articles of Perth of 1618 in which James had declared his requirement for some religious observances, such as observing Easter and Christmas, and kneeling for communion, and promoting the authority of Bishops which had not gone down well with some of the more radical sections of Presbyterian Scots. The Five articles were a bone of contention, which Charles had just tweaked.
However, if we are talking cack handed then you ain’t seen nothing yet, and let me take you to the Revocation of 1625. Now there was a well accepted right for Scottish kings when they came to the throne before their majority, to revoke the grants of land made during their minority, which it might be expected the minor could not have controlled; James had issued three Revocations, and the idea was to keep crown finances on a strong footing – so, fair enough. Now of course Charles’ position was rather different; he wasn’t really a minor, he was 24; although the rule defined majority as 25, so as long as he got on with it, he could probably do it in a strict legal sense. So, without consulting with the far away privy Council, with just the advice of his London Scots, Charles went for it. And raised a storm.
Rather than focussing on relatively recent grants, the clear implication of the minority rule, Charles made his revocation relevant to all grants since 1540. 15 when?! Yup, the last 85 years. The amount of land threatened by this was more enormous than Roald Dahl’s crocodile, and like that unfortunate reptile threatened to sizzle up landowners like a sausage. Think of all those church lands which had passed into Landowners hands after the Reformation! Although, although, actually when it came down to it much of Charles policies in this Revocation were pretty sound, and did come with compensation. So, the small print. As far as lands were concerned, the landowners would be able to retain all the land they hadn’t feued out. Feuing you might remember was the process of granting land to tenants for which they would owe feudal dues to the original landowner, and an annual rent – but be able to pass those lands on to their heirs, and would hold it therefore on a hereditary basis. So, the original Landowner would indeed have to give those lands up – but they’d get generous compensation for them. So that seems OK. BUT – the kicker was that they‘d need to give up those feudal rights. That meant a serious loss of status for the original landowner. For the Crown it was a handy policy, because it severed a tie of dependence between the Laird, or those who had benefited from feuing, and the upper nobility, which would help the crown continue to develop a relationship with the lairdly class. Since the lairds would no longer owe a debt of social status to the upper nobility, surely then, the king would get the support of the Lairds? Well listen on.
Secondly, the revocation dealt with teinds, or tithes – 10% of the land’s income payable to the church – or though no longer payable to the church because landowners had progessively half inched them. Under Charles’ revocation, Teinds would be fixed; and the actual holders of the land would now own them, rather than the original landowner. But independent commissioners would fix a fair rate for the church minister, and 6% would go to the Crown. Actually it was a jolly fair system and rather nicely weighted with compensation for the original Landowner – but once again, the loss of status was what killed them. Not only that, but amazingly the church was miffed; because they’d hoped for the full teind to be theirs; 1 bird in the hand was noway as good as the prospect of 2 some time in the never never. Finally, the Revocation gave the crown the right to revoke heritable offices, like sheriff, which again was something of an abuse which gave little benefit for central administration – but again, the fear that offices would be revoked, even with compensation, struck fear into the amoure propre of the noble classes.
Essentially, the Revocation wasn’t as bad as the headlines, and people stood to profit from it – clergy should get better stipends, the Lairds would be freed of demeaning feudal obligations and take a greater share in government. But the way Charles did all this was something of a propaganda disaster – once again, there was naff all consultation, maybe made worse by the hurry to get it out before his 25th Birthday. He failed to get key members of his nobility behind him, particularly his Privy Council of course – so that they could help to win people round. The church was miffed despite profiting mightily because they’d wanted more. The Revocation caused insecurity, and due to its size, affected land which generated about 50% of the revenue of the crown; and if Charles could go all the way back to 1540 – what could possibly be safe? Even the Lairds, surely the winners in this, backed their upper nobility, the Peers; they distrusted the motivation of the Crown, seeing this as a move to increase its control, and they were deeply and traditionally connected with the magnates by relationships, lordship, offices and local loyalties; these were bonds that Charles could not shake without very clever consultation and communication.
This was not Charles’ way; as far as he was concerned, obedience was his due, therefore obedience he would have – and what was all the moaning about? At the same time, he’d not increased the ordinary revenue of the Crown one bit; and as a result began to mess about with innovations like charging excise duties every year which had been previously periodic – causing yet more upset. So serious was the boob, as boobs go, that one contemporary said that it was
The ground stone of all the mischief that followed after
And given the mischief ahead of us, that is a ground stone indeed.
The Revocation, then, made for a disastrous start to Charles’ reign. But look, the lad was young, he’d learn from the advisers around him, he’d get better. Actually, even then, he didn’t do everything wrong; he did seem to understand that the Five Articles of Perth were controversial, and like his father he held off enforcing them too harshly; he specifically gave new bishops for example, the right to ignore them before their congregations had got used to them. So maybe that’s a good sign, and he’d learn some manners.
Next time, we will hear a bit more about the early 17th century for the Scots in general, economically and socially as it were, and I’ll introduce you to some characters knocking about who you’ll get to know a bit more intimately. And we’ll hear how well Charles learns and adapts his style, and how far he begins to earn the trust of his Scottish subjects.