NPG 3065; Oliver Cromwell by Samuel Cooper

‘Oliver Cromwell’
by Samuel Cooper (1656) [1]

Oliver Cromwell (b. 1599 – d. 1658) lists among British history’s most enigmatic – and problematic – characters. To some, he was – or has been – a military genius, a forward-thinking Republican hero. To others he was a Machiavellian monster[2] , a vicious tyrant – a ‘murdering bastard’[3]. Many remember him as a Christmas-cancelling, wart-faced caricature, a pantomime villain or even a vampire[4]. There are many faces to the turmoil of the mid-seventeenth-century British Isles, and Oliver Cromwell has worn them all.

Here, the focus is on how Cromwell was visually represented. Cromwell does not appear to have gained the same mastery over he and others presented him to the world – unlike his predecessor and dramatic foil ‘the merry monarch’, Charles II. Since the seventeenth-century, politicians, pamphleteers, artists, academics, authors, playwrights and film directors have all presented him differently.

The image above is perhaps one of the best known portraits of Oliver Cromwell. It is also perhaps my personal favourite, because it seems the most ambiguous: with its distant yet determined gaze, it permits as many variant readings of Oliver Cromwell as history, and the historiography, calls for. Meanwhile, as it was copied and re-issued in various official and unofficial guises, Cooper’s depiction of Cromwell got a little bit wartier and a little bit uglier. It was a sign of things to come.

NPG D22714; Oliver Cromwell by William Faithorne

‘Oliver Cromwell’
by William Faithorne, line engraving, 1656[5]

This image depicts Cromwell as a British hero: ‘Olivarivs Britannicvs Heros’. Across the British Isles, even today, it is Ireland where the image of Oliver Cromwell resonates most deeply – and most darkly. In 1997, the then Taoiseach Bertie Ahern famously refused to enter the Westminster office of the British foreign secretary before a portrait of Oliver Cromwell taken down[6]. In some parts, even today, Cromwell forms part of one of the worst curses to be mustered: mallacht Chromail ort[7].

Cromwell landed in Ireland, on the request of Parliament, in the summer of 1649. Although meeting with virtually no resistance, Cromwell left an almost undeniably vicious legacy behind him, with his brutal treatment of defeated opponents at Drogheda and Wexford living on still in popular memory. The armies behind Cromwell in this image, together with his militant, warlike stance, support this savage interpretation. Yet, Cromwell’s depiction as a leader of men and a ‘British hero’ are far removed from the tales of Wexford and Drogheda – as well as the enforced mass evictions and deportations to Barbados and Bermuda that Cromwell is also held to have carried out. Historians like John Morrill have even accused Cromwell of implementing a policy of deliberate ethnic cleansing. There certainly was a strong ethnic dynamic to this particular strain of anti-Catholicism. Arguments have been made that Cromwell has been made somewhat of a scapegoat for the actions of several military leaders and for events that took place after he had left Ireland. Whatever the truth in such claims, the image above good illustration of Cromwell’s depiction as a military leader, as opposed to political ruler, and the ongoing portrayal of Cromwell, and the rest of the Commonwealth, as evincing the entire British Isles.

NPG 4365; Oliver Cromwell ('The Dunbar Medal') by Thomas Simon

‘The Dunbar Medal’
by Thomas Simon, silver medal, 1650[8]

Although it has been claimed that Cromwell treated the Presbyterian Scots much better than the Catholic Irish, thousands of Scots – mainly Catholic and Gaelic-speaking highlanders – were also deported to the colonies. After the Scots were defeated at the Battle of Dunbar in 1650, Presbyterianism remained but the Kirk lost almost all of its authority. With most Scottish political figures imprisoned, local rulers and tax officials were often English and imposed by the Commonwealth. On the medal given to his troops after Dunbar, Cromwell is shown in the style of a Roman conqueror, underlining his depiction at that time as a great military leader. The inscription, ‘The Lord of Hosts’, suggests that God was fighting alongside Cromwell and his army at Dunbar. The connotation God fought alongside Cromwell’s elevated him both militarily and politically.

Cromwell Lely

Oliver Cromwell
by Sir Peter Lely (c.1554)[9]

The gruesome tale – relished by centuries of slightly-bored pupils (including myself) – that Cromwell’s body was dug up and executed by the Restoration regime,[10] makes it easy to forget that he was buried in Westminster Abbey in first place. Westminster Abbey was built as the coronation and resting place for English, and later British, sovereigns: an explicitly royalist resting place for one of the men who signed King Charles I’s death warrant. Additionally, Cromwell’s funeral was inspired by that of the first Anglo-Scottish monarch, James VI & I. His funeral included a state procession featuring an effigy of Cromwell that wore full royal regalia, including a crown, and carried a scepter and orb. Cromwell was buried like a King.[11]

In 1653, under the constitutional re-settlement known as the Instrument of Government[12] , Oliver Cromwell was elected – or arguably rather selected – as ‘Lord Protector’ of the Commonwealth; a Republic which included three kingdoms within one parliament. However, although Cromwell’s person now wielded executive power, his investiture carefully avoided all forms of ‘royal’ costume and regalia. However, his signature ‘Oliver P’ – the P standing for Protector – echoed, too closely for some contemporary and later critics, the traditional regal styling of ‘R’, indicating ‘Rex’ or ‘Regina’.

As the balance of power within the Protectorate shifted, further constitutional re-structuring was needed and the Instrument of Government was replaced with 1657 Humble Petition and Advice. Parliament offered Cromwell the crown – over a month later he declined it. Cromwell was ceremonially re-installed as Lord Protector on June 26th 1657: on King Edward’s Chair. Although the ceremony took place in Westminster Hall and not Westminster Abbey, the use of King Edward’s coronation chair gave a nod to a long line of kings claiming legitimacy through religious coronation[13]. Cromwell wore a purple robe, lined in ermine, and carried symbols of monarchy, including the sword of justice and royal scepter. Lord Protector did not become a hereditary title but Cromwell was able to nominate his heir: Richard, his eldest son. The new political establishment presented Cromwell as king in all but name.

None of this is immediately clear in the picture above – but the undercurrent is there. This portrait was painted by Sir Peter Lely and is one of the later images of Oliver Cromwell[14]. Not only was Lely portrait painter to Charles I, but he would also become court painter to Charles II after the Restoration: the message might be different but the artist and propaganda machine remained the same. Famously, Lely was employed by Cromwell to paint him honestly and faithfully – ‘warts and all’[15] – which would influence all, especially negative, works to come – Above all, perhaps this image suggests that however the political establishment sought to present him as, Cromwell himself attempted to avoid the elaborate trappings of fashion and royalty. This painting is certainly noticeably different in style from much of Lely’s other, mainly lavishly-styled and posed, portraiture.

NPG D28676; Oliver Cromwell in ''A GENEALOGIE OF ANTI-CHRIST'' by George Bickham the Elder, published by  Charles Price

‘A Genealogie of Anti-Christ’
by George Bickham the Elder, line engraving, early to mid-eighteenth century[16]

A spectral caricature of Cromwell was often used as a more easily comprehensible abbreviation for the swirling mass of radical factions struggling for power in the British Isles during the seventeenth-century. In the image above, Cromwell is depicted as the father of all the British Isles’ troubles: the Arminians and Puritans that jostled for influence in England during the 1630s; the Presbytery in Scotland; Atheists and Blasphemers; Libertines and Murderers. In this genealogy, even ‘the Civil War’ itself descends from Cromwell, masking the complexity of the political situation and spectrum of political thought across the kingdoms of the British Isles. The simplification of all these issues into the image of Cromwell, the archetypal English roundhead and parliamentarian, was echoed in centuries of historiography until the term ‘the English Civil War’ was gradually replaced by ‘the War of the Three Kingdoms.’

Cromwell As King

‘Oliver Cromwell as King’ by unknown Dutch artist[17]

With the unfortunate Charles I meeting his sticky end in the background, the Oliver Cromwell of this image stands to the fore in his stolen royal regalia. In the top left-hand corner, held by two devils, is a dog. As a symbol, the dog was used to represent loyalty as the Latin name for dog, fido, derived from that for fidus (loyalty), and the sword it is holding in its mouth represented justice and authority. The image suggests that fidelity, justice, and authority have been suspended by Cromwell and his devils’ usurpation of royal power. The three bags guarded by the dog represent the three kingdoms of the Stuart monarchy. This cartoon appears to support the idea that Cromwell masqueraded as king in all but name – as discussed above – and in this way demonstrates how the Restoration regime would also use this crown-clad caricature as a tragi-comic figure to underline the necessity of monarchy and all its trappings.

Cromwell Westminster

‘Oliver Cromwell’
by Hamo Thornycroft (c.1897-1899)[18]

This statue of Oliver Cromwell was erected in 1899 and, even after the passage of time, remains extremely controversial. Whilst some celebrate Cromwell as an English or British icon, his usage as a symbol of Republicanism[19] remains a double-edged sword. Reasons to revile the statue and its subject still stand: radicalism; suppression; the creator of uncertainty; unpopular cultural and religious policies; his forced and often savage conquest of Scotland and, more especially, Ireland. Given the appearance of the ‘three kingdom’ issue – as with many of these images – and the impact of mid-seventeenth century political turmoil on the later history of entire British Isles, it is clear that Oliver Cromwell – and all that he has been used to represent – is a key figure in any understanding of these issues.

[1] S. Cooper, ‘Oliver Cromwell’ (1656), watercolour on vellum, NPG 3065. See: http://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw01601/Oliver-Cromwell?LinkID=mp01116&search=sas&sText=oliver+cromwell&role=sit&rNo=10; [2] J. Lilliburn, The Iuglers Discovered ([London]: 1647). [3] See: http://www.vaguelyinteresting.co.uk/?p=40 and.[4] A character known only as ‘Oliver’ appears in the Morganville Vampire series of fictional novels by Rachel Caine. He shares Cromwell’s place and date of birth, many of his nicknames and claims to have been present at all of his battles. See: http://www.morganvillevampire.com. [5] W. Faithorne, ‘Oliver Cromwell’ (published 1656) line engraving, NPG D22714. For more information see: http://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw116870/Oliver-Cromwell?sort=dateAsc&LinkID=mp01116&search=sas&sText=cromwell&wPage=3&role=sit&rNo=69. [6] M. O Siochru, God’s Executioner: Oliver Cromwell and the Conquest of Ireland (Dublin: Faber & Faber, repr. 2008); See also, F. O’Toole, ‘The face that haunts Ireland’s history’, The Guardian (Sunday August 24th 2008). [7] Meaning ‘the Curse of Cromwell Upon You’. [8] Oliver Cromwell (‘The Dunbar Medal’) by Thomas Simon, silver medal, 1650, NPG 436. For further information see: http://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw01595/Oliver-Cromwell-The-Dunbar-Medal. [9] Sir P. Lely, ‘Oliver Cromwell’ (c. 1554), oil on canvas, Galleria Palatina, Florence. Accessed online and used with creative commons license, see: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Peter_Lely_-_Portrait_of_Oliver_Cromwell_-_WGA12647.jpg. [10] Cromwell’s head was not finally buried until 1960 at Sidney Sussex College, the University of Cambridge. [11] T. Burton Esq., ‘Cromwell’s death and funeral order’, taken from The Diary of Thomas Burton Esq (1828) ii, pp. 516-530. [12] For more information on the Instrument of Government (1653) see: http://www.british-civil-wars.co.uk/glossary/instrument-government.htm.%5B13%5D King Edward’s Coronation Chair was originally made to hold the Stone of Scone, used in the coronation of Scotland’s ancient kings, which he took during war against Scotland. Again, Cromwell is held up as ruler and conqueror of both England and Scotland. [14] Born Pieter van der Faes in Westphalia. Knighted 1680.[15] It is commonly believed that the English expression, ‘warts and all’ derives from Lely’s description of his Cromwell portrait and the instructions he received for it. [16]
G. Bickham, ‘A Genealogie of Anti-Christ’ (London: Charles Price, early-mid eighteenth-century), line engraving, NPG D28676. See: http://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portraitLarge/mw135185/Oliver-Cromwell-in-A-GENEALOGIE-OF-ANTI-CHRIST?sort=dateAsc&LinkID=mp01116&search=sas&sText=cromwell&wPage=4&role=sit&rNo=90 . [17] ‘Oliver Cromwell as King’, cartoon, exact date unknown. From Thomas Macaulay, The History of England (London: Macmillan, 1913). [18] H. Thornycroft, ‘Statue of Oliver Cromwell’, Westminster (c.1897-1899), bronze. Used on creative commons license from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Oliver_Cromwell_statue,_Westminster.jpg#file . [19] It should be noted that not only did Cromwell become the figurehead for the Interregnum regime, but that he was one of those who actually signed Charles I’s death warrant.

I do not believe that the 1707 Treaty of Union was ever inevitable. This does not mean to say that I disapprove of it, or that I am predicting its demise, but I do consider its creation and continuance as a matter of choice. I do not agree that Scotland was forced into closer union with England through economic necessity. Nor do I believe that Scotland was ‘bought and sold for English gold’[1] by politicians lacking in political principles. It is my contention that the most significant factor behind the 1707 Treaty of Incorporating Union was the instability caused by regal union (the unification of the English and Scottish crowns in 1603), which increased dramatically when it became clear the Queen Anne (reigned from 1702) did not have an heir. The British Isles was plunged into a succession crisis.

As it became clear that Queen Anne would remain heirless, men in both the Scottish and English Parliaments sought a solution to that would best safeguard their respective kingdoms’ constitutional settlements established by the ‘Glorious’ Revolution of 1689. Not only was this dependent upon choosing a reliable and sympathetic sovereign, but also upon choosing and establishing the right grounds for their succession within a multi-kingdom framework that had threatened to undermine the political stability of the British Isles ever since 1603. Not only was the status quo not working, with regard to state and succession, but it was about to disappear altogether: Queen Anne had no successor. A choice lay before both the Scottish and English Parliaments, should they separate as kingdoms and chose their own heirs? Or, should they select the same heir and solidify their union. And, if so, under what terms?

The Treaty of Union itself cemented the succession of the House of Hanover before almost any other business.[2] To be sure, most of those entitled to inherit the thrones of Scotland and England had the misfortune to be either inconveniently Catholic or a member of the French royal family – mostly both. It is nearly always assumed that unless either England or Scotland wanted to restore the ousted Jacobite branch of the Stuart dynastyirrevocably tainted by Catholicism and Louis XIV style tyrannythat their only suitable successor was Sophia of Hanover and her descendants. But this is not necessarily true.

The closest Protestant descendant of James VI and I was, in fact, the promising young military officer Charles Louis Schomberg, Marquess of Harwich (b.1683). The Schombergs had an impeccably Protestant pedigree, fleeing to England after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. Harwich’s mother, Raugräfin Caroline Elizabeth (1659-1696) was the daughter of Karl Ludwig, Elector Palatine, grandson of James VI of Scotland and I of England. His father, Meinhard Schomberg duke of Leinster and third duke of Schomberg (1641-1719), a decorated military officer and an experienced political figure, was a close confident and ally of William (of Orange) III. So close and trusted in fact, that William placed him in charge when absent from the British Isles. Later, Meinhard was to be a pawn bearer at William’s funeral.[3] His son, Charles, potentially appears to be the perfect candidate. Furthermore, Schomberg also had three younger sisters, Ladies Caroline (b.1686), Frederica (b.1688) and Mary (b.1692), approaching marriageable age in a time of unromantic politically-strategic marriages. In 1705, as negotiations were under way for a treaty on the succession, Sophia of Hanover was sixty-third in line to the British throne; The Marquess of Harwich was eighteenth.[4] So, what about the Schombergs?

The short answer regarding the Schombergs and the early eighteenth-century ‘British’ succession crisis is that they were never seriously suggested. Ever since the Bill of Rights committee had suggested entailing the crown on to Sophia of Hanover as far back as 1689, it appears that the Hanoverian line had been collectively marked out as the most secure, and securely Protestant, route for the succession of the British monarchies.

The Schombergs, it seems, no matter how glorious their Revolutionary credentials were, remained tainted by illegitimacy. The Marquess of Harwich and his sisters owed their biologically ‘blue’ blood to their mother, but she herself was the daughter of Elector Karl Ludwig and his second wife, Marie Luise von Degenfield. The Elector’s first marriage, to Charlotte of Hesse-Kassel, was notoriously unhappy and the Electress herself openly stated that she had been forced into it against her will. In the event, however, Charlotte refused to acknowledge the marriage’s legal resolution. Many saw the union of Karl Ludwig and Marie Luise, therefore, as bigamous and nothing could be allowed to undermine the next dynasty that would sit on the respective thrones of the British Isles. The Hanoverian Succession and the Union of England and Scotland were secured during an era of European wars that were, for the most part, dynastic. In the shadow of the mid-seventeenth century civil wars, contemporaries in the British Isles remained sensitive to the possibility of further serious unrest and the spread of dynastic turmoil to their own shores.

Sadly, the promising young Marquess of Harwich died abroad in the autumn of 1713.[5] But there is no way that anybody in either Scotland or England in 1705 could have foreseen this. The only explanation for the Schomberg line of the British succession never having been seriously considered as an answer tothe early eighteenth-century succession question, was their challengeable legitimacy. The aversion of crisis took clear priority over any further revolutionary aims, zeal or ideals. It is the Schomberg’s absence from serious debate itself that is in fact the most illustrative of the wider issues at play. Clearly, the prime concern in 1705 was that the legitimacy of the British Isles’ next monarch would remain unchallenged and that their succession was established upon the most politically secure foundations possiblea unified British state.


[1] R. Burns, Such a Parcel of Rogues in a Nation [http://www.robertburns.org/works/344.shtml].

[2] The succession was settled in the second of the twenty five acts of union. See http://www.rahbarnes.demon.co.uk/Union/UnionWithEnglandAct.htm and http://www.rahbarnes.demon.co.uk/Union/UnionWithScotlandAct.htm.

[3] J. Childs, ‘Meinhard Schomberg, duke of Leinster and third duke of Schomberg, 1641-1719’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, online edition (2004) [www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/24825?docPos=3].

[4] Christopher Whatley claims that Sophia was 58th in line to the throne but on my count it is definitely 63rd. I would love to hear from anyone who can clear this up! See C. Whatley and D. Patrick, The Scots and the Union (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007 repr. 2011) p.2.

[5] London Gazette No. 5162 (October 6th 1713). Harwich is stated to have died of consumption.

In 1791, Robert Burns, poet and national icon, looked back on the 1707 Incorporating Union between England and Scotland and exclaimed that Scotland had been ‘bought and sold for English gold’ by a ‘parcel of rogues’ [1] – namely, the unprincipled Scottish politicians who had placed ready money and personal advancement above their great and ancient kingdom. Like many others since, Burns considered independent Scotland to have been bullied and ‘purchased’ in exchange for a slice of the English economy. This is the case for a historically wronged Scotland.

However, the history written over the centuries since 1707 clearly shows that the issue was not that simple. Whilst some historians, like William Ferguson [2], have continued to buy (ok, pun intended) into this argument, others have produced strong opposing evidence. Christopher Whatley and Derek Patrick, for example, have stressed the links between political principle and political union, and joined others in pointing to England and Scotland’s shared monarchy and shared need for internal and international security.[3] The suggestion of their argument is that at least some seventeenth-century Scots considered themselves part of a wider, British monarchy and state.

In the autumn of 2014 Scotland will once again vote on its future. Unlike 1707, it will be a vote conducted democratically and one in which England – for now at least – has no say. Certainly, the separatist nationalist cause is strong; they have the SNP’s popular backing, King Robert the Bruce and even Sean Connery. Yet today, there is a simultaneous but alternative Scotland to identify with: generations have grown up part of a proudly Scottish, bagpipe-playing and haggis-scoffing culture with Scotland’s own sports teams – and now even own parliament – whilst still identifying with the idea of ‘Britain’; a culturally nationalist but politically unionist Scotland. Those voting in the Scottish referendum should certainly consider it less a pitched battle between England and Scotland and more of a struggle between these two interpretations of the same tartan-clad, internationally treasured historic Scotland – and an entire spectrum of identities, cultures and uncertainties in-between. And identity of course, depends much upon an individual’s sentimentality. Furthermore, in today’s commercialised society most of us are aware that advertisement, namely the buying and selling of ideas, is as much a part of political decisions as it is everything else. Which begs the question, what is Scotland to be bought or sold for this time? Oil? (the black gold of Scottish nationalists as opposed to the English gold of ‘unpatriotic’ unionists) The Euro? The picturesque and tourism-worthy Highland scenes on every other shortbread tin? A patriotically deep-fried mars bar flung in the face of an interfering Westminster? Perhaps we are to be bought and sold for Mel Gibson’s warpaint and ‘Freedom!’ speech in Braveheart – a nineties, Americanised version of a sentimental Scotland? Perhaps, like all successful business transactions, it is best to keep sentimentality out of it.

This piece is not intended to reflect a bias in either direction for Scotland’s future. It is just that the 2014 referendum is too relevant to my historical interests for me to ignore it. My main interest is this: how will this imminent future incarnation of Scotland affect, and interact with, previous interpretations of Scotland’s history? Historian Allan Macinnes has claimed (fairly controversially) that an alternative union was promoted in late seventeenth-century Scotland, a union with the United Provinces of the Netherlands,[4] would this idea be taken more seriously in an independent, Eurocentric Scotland? How would our idea of early modern monarchy look if today’s Queen of Scots – albeit a politically powerless one – was also queen of other independent kingdoms? Indeed, how would our perceptions of England and Scotland’s seventeenth-century dynastic union fare if it were re-invented, especially given that contemporary Scots, English and Irish alike all seem to be in agreement that it didn’t really work?

History dictates that, regardless of outcome, there will always be multiple interpretations of Scotland’s decision, some favourable and some damming. Today, more so than ever, there are two visible versions of Scotland crammed within her borders. Here, the lesson from history is clear: 2014 will not solve the Anglo-Scottish problem.

(C) Laura I. Doak

[1] R. Burns, ‘Such a Parcel of Rogues in a Nation’, Robert Burns, [http://www.robertburns.org/works/344.shtml] accessed February 14th 2013.
[2] W. Ferguson, ‘The Making of the Treaty of Union of 1707’, Scottish Historical Review (October 1964) p.p. 92, 110. See also, G. Lockhart, Memoirs concerning the Affairs of Scotland from Queen Anne’s accession to the Throne, to the Commencement of the Union (1714).
[3] C. Whatley with. D. Patrick, The Scots and the Union (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007) p. p. xiv, 29; B. Harris, ‘Defending the Revolution, Defeating the Jacobites’, Journal of British Studies (January 2010) p.p. 33, 35.
[4] See A. I. Macinnes, Union and Empire: The Making of the United Kingdom in 1707 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007) ‘Chapter Eight: Going Dutch?’ p.p. 201-240.

IACOBVS PRIMVS BRITANNIAE FRANCAIE ET HYBERNAIE REX

King James VI of Scotland’s accession to the throne of England in 1603 was heralded by a fanfare of discussion over the nature of this new ‘union’.[1] Wranglings over closer political union dominated most parliamentary sessions during the early years of James’ reign. The form and future of the new Stuart monarchy was the hot political topic of its day.

When it came to the use and display of the royal arms, James’ attempts to symbolise the new dynastic union of Scotland and England through the creation of a unified coat of royal arms proved equally controversial. In the end, each kingdom received a different set of ‘combined’ arms. This heraldic tug of war, therefore, not only set the scene for a century-long dynastic union but also the ensuing – and arguably still ongoing – struggle for dominance and prominence within the British Isles.

English Arms King James

Above: The Royal Arms of England under King James I [2]

James 6 & 1 arms

Above: The Royal Arms of Scotland under James VI after 1603[3]

On the English coat of arms, the escutcheon (shield) has been marshalled (divided) with two quarters featuring the royal arms of the English monarch. On the Scottish version, it is the rampant red lion upon a golden background[4], – the arms of Scotland since the early thirteenth centurywhich is repeated twice. The right-hand supporter[5], traditionally seen as the most important, is interestingly given over to the supporting figure most commonly associated with the other kingdom. For example, the right-hand supporter on the English arms is the unicorn, a heraldic emblem used by the Stuart dynasty as Kings of Scots since the early fifteenth century, symbolising purity and – in this instance – James’ unbroken lineage. Thus, on the Scottish version, it is the English lion that is positioned as the most significant supporter, a nod to James’ hopes that Scotland and England’s mutual support would increase their greatness.

The Scottish arms, in this case taken from Edinburgh Castle, are emblazoned below with the inscription ‘IACOBVS PRIMVS BRITANNIAE FRANCIAE ET HYBERNIAE REX’, (trans: King James I of Britain, France and Ireland) a form used in Scotland but not tolerated in England where the term ‘Britain’ was seen as a loss of identity. Note also the use of the Fleur de Lys, indicating James’ claims upon the throne of France. More immediately significant is the gold harp with silver strings on a blue background[6] symbolizing Ireland, which was revealingly now added to the royal coat of arms for the first time.[7] Tellingly, Ireland did not receive its own individual variation.

The arms themselves also reveal a lot about James’ personal experience with regard to Anglo-Scottish union.[8] Clearly, he aimed to unite his new kingdoms entirely: unas Rex, una Lex and unas Grex – one king, one law and one people.[9] In reality, what James got was two distinct kingdoms with the semblance of unity under one monarch, and it was this, in the end, that he was forced to settle for. King James’ determination to attain symbolic union is also evidenced by his proclamation of a new ‘union’ flag in April 1606 which combined the crosses of both kingdoms and formed the basic design for what we now know as the Union Jack (possibly short for ‘Jacobus’, Latin for James), although Scotland and England remained permitted to fly the crosses of St. Andrew and St. George, respectively, on their ships alongside it.

Unlike his predecessors, James saw himself as Scottish and was experienced in successfully ruling Scotland as a kingdom.[10] Despite the suggestions of past Whig and anglocentric historians, like Hugh Trevor-Roper and George Macaulay Trevelyan,[11] the regal union of 1603 signaled neither the immediate Anglicization of the Scottish crown nor an inevitably suffocating English ascendancy over Scotland within the British Isles. Instead it is possible to see an attempt to balance the two kingdoms with a measure of equality. As Jenny Wormald has suggested, James himself certainly did not want to simply smudge his native kingdom into the territory of his new inheritance, but sought to “shift his English subjects into a new perception of themselves” [12]: a ‘British’ ideal that would remain unrealised.

Suggestions of Further Reading

  • B. Galloway, The Union of England and Scotland, 1603-1608 (Edinburgh: J. Donald, 2003)
  • B. Galloway and B. Levack, eds., The Jacobean Union: six tracts of 1604 (Edinburgh: Printed for the Scottish History Society by C. Constable, 1985)
  • I. Carrier, James VI and I: King of Great Britain (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998)
  • James I King of England, The Kings Majesties speech, as it was deliuered by him in the vpper house of the Parliament to the Lords spirituall and temporall and to the knights, citizens and burgesses there assembled on Munday the 19. Day of March 1603 (London, 1604)
  • A. C. Fox-Davies, A complete guide to heraldry (London: Orbis, 1985)

[1] For examples see: J. Gordon, The vnion of Great Britaine By Iohn Gordon Dean of Salisburie (1604); Sir F. Bacon, A briefe discourse, touching the happie vnion of the kingdoms of England, and Scotland (1603); M. Drayton, To his Maiestie of King James (London, 1603).

[2] The image here is from the reign of James’ son, King Charles I, but the heraldic arms displayed were the same. Image taken from G. Russell, ‘The Kings and Queens of England’, Confessions of a Ci-Devant (September 26th 2011) [accessed online at: http://garethrussellcidevant.blogspot.com/2011/09/kings-and-queens-of-england.html January 22nd 2013].

[3] Recreation of the Royal Coat of Scottish Arms under King James VI after 1603 at Edinburgh Castle. Image taken from ‘Symbols of Scotland – Heraldic Crests’,  Rampant Scotland, http://www.rampantscotland.com/symbols/blsymbols_crests.htm [accessed online January 23rd 2013].

[4] Blazon: Or, Lion rampant Gules.

[5] A heraldic term. The supporters are the figures or animals holding up the coat of arms on its left and right.

[6] To ‘blazon’ arms means to describe them in the correct heraldic way. In this case: Azure, a harp Or stringed Argent.

[7] J. P. Brooke-Little, ed., Boutell’s Heraldry (London New York: Frederick Warne, 1983) p.p. 213, 215.

[8] James outlined his plans for a complete Anglo-Scottish union during his first speech to the English Parliament in March 1603: James I King of England, The Kings Majesties speech, as it was deliuered by him in the vpper house of the Parliament to the Lords spirituall and temporall and to the knights, citizens and burgesses there assembled on Munday the 19. Day of March 1603 (London, 1604).

[9] I. Kimber, The history of England from the earliest accounts of time, to the death of the late Queen Anne, iii (Printed for E. Bell, 1722) p.19.

[10] Jenny Wormald, ‘James VI and I of Scotland, England and Ireland’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography Online  [accessed online January 23rd 2013].

[11] H. Trevor-Roper,  ‘The Anglo-Scottish Union’, in From Counter-Reformation to Glorious Revolution (London: Secker & Walburg, 1992); T. Babington Macaulay, The history of England from the accession of James II, 2 vols (London: Longmans, 1889).

[12] Jenny Wormald, ‘James VI and I of Scotland, England and Ireland’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography Online  [accessed online January 23rd 2013].

‘There is no writing the History of Three Kingdoms in one Thread of Narration, and preserving at the same time Chronological Order; or indeed keeping Things clear without confusion’
– John Oldmixon, The history of England during the reigns of King William and Queen Mary, Queen Anne, King George I, vol. 3 (London, 1735) p.24

“I have tried to stick with my assignment, which is English History. Where the Welsh, the Scotch, the Irish, or the British overseas have the same history as the English, my book includes them also; where there have a different history, it does not.”
– A. J. P. Taylor, English History, 1914-1945 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965) ‘preface’

“A. J. P. Taylor’s volume of the Oxford History of England opens – in a way which may or may not have escaped the attention of Scottish reviewers – with a flat and express denial that the term ‘Britain’ has any meaning.”
- J. G. A. Pocock, ‘British History: A Plea For A New Subject’, The Journal of Modern History, vol 75, no. 4 (1975) p.601

The ‘New British History’ of the early modern period, “has transpired to be no more than traditional English political history in mufti”
– Nicholas Canny, ‘Writing Early Modern History: Ireland, Britain and the Wider World’, The Historical Journal, 46 (2003) p.723

“UNGENEROUS England! at this savage rate, Still to abuse a free and neighbouring State!”
– A Pil For Pork Eaters: Or A Scots Lancet For An English Swelling (Edinburgh: James Watson, 1705) p.9

“so as we may conceiue an hope, that the next generation, will in tongue & heart, and euery way else, becom English [sic]; so as there will bee no difference or distinction, but the Irish Sea betwixt vs.”
– Sir John Davies, A Discoverie of the Trve Cavses Why Ireland Was Neuer Entirely Subdved (London: 1612) p.272

“The union was crammed down Scotland’s throat”
- George Lockhart of Carnwath, ‘Scotland’s Ruine’: Lockhart of Carnwath’s Memoirs of the Union ed. D. Szechi (Aberdeen: Association for Scottish literary studies, 1995) p.144

“the Union was the natural flower of evolution”
– Andrew Lang, A history of Scotland from the Roman occupation, vol. iv (Edinburgh: Blackwood, 1907) p.110

“That he [Cromwell] should govern the Nations of England, Scotland, and Ireland, according to the Fundamental Laws thereof; That he should maintain the true Orthodox Ministery of the Church of England; and that He should extirpate and abolish all Popery, Schismes, and Heresie; and maintain and preserve the peoples Rights, Priviledges, and Liberty, &c… [sic]… So that now this Common-wealth is become the Wonder and Emulation of Europe; nay, of the whole World”
- Oliver Cromwell, A Declaration concerning the government of the three nations of England, Scotland and Ireland (1653) p.p. 4-6

Writing ‘British’ history has always been problematic. Even before the union of the crowns in 1603, the story of the British peoples was one of collision, collusion and corrosion. Tied together on one archipelago, England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales share a rich and often turbulent history and yet have been, and arguably are still – in one form or another – independent kingdoms. The ideal of one gloriously unified kingdom stretches back in time to quasi-mythic memories of Aethelstan and Arthur. Yet it is an ideal, of course, that has never been a reality.

The British Isles, on the death of Elizabeth I of England, in March 1603 was a shifting kaleidoscope of peoples, regions and kingdoms. Days after Elizabeth’s death, rebels in Ireland –an island suffering under an extended period of conquest and colonisation by Protestant English – capitulated to the new King James VII of Scotland and I of England, ending the Nine Years’ War. Scotland, somewhat internally divided into Gaelic-speaking Highlands and Scots-speaking Lowlands, had its own Presbyterian and Episcopalian politico-religious fractures to contend with and many Scots considered themselves closer allies with the French, with whom they had traditionally seen the English as their common enemy. England, having last invaded Scotland just decades earlier, now found itself ruled by its monarch and their own English court invaded by Scots nobles. Wales had been forged onto England by Henry VIII and still possessed its own distinct culture and language, as is evident today. Some areas, such as patches of the Anglo-Scottish ‘borders’, did not always appear to belong to any particular kingdom at all. The new king’s reign very nearly began with a very big bang with the infamous Gunpowder Plot of 1605, the themes of whichsedition and resistance, state power, the discourses of parliament versus tyranny and the struggles between Catholicism and Protestantism, as well as the newly created problems of multi-monarchyseem to run through the history of the seventeenth-century British Isles in its entirety. Yet still, the question remains, do common themes and a common monarch constitute a common history?

The idea that the British Isles were always destined to become one great nation is one laced with Whiggish determinism and stifling anglocentricity. Most Scots, Irish and Welsh are regularly frustrated abroad by the perception that British and English are interchangeable terms: England’ remains in many ways a detrimental euphemism for Britain. It may be an old-fashioned idea but it is still prevalent. Is the entire discourse of perfect ‘British’ union a lie? Perhaps it is just a slip of the pen? Or are darker forces at work? Empiricism or conscious ascendancy perhaps?

As well as investigating individual aspects of life, thought and politics within the British kingdoms between 1603 and 1707, the complex notion of ‘British’ history will be the over-arching theme for the entries here. This is certainly an issue with ample scope for discussionit may be an issue embedded within centuries of historiography, but is certainly not a historical debate: Ireland’s divisions need no extended explanation. In 2014 Scotland will hold referendum on independence and secessionist party Plaid Cymru holds considerable political sway in Wales. There are also those in England now calling for increased political independence now that other areas of the British Isles have their own assemblies and parliaments. The future of the pan-Brittanic myth appears as uncertain as ever: the puzzle of the three kingdoms remains an issue very much alive.

 

© Laura Butterworth

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