This is Past Tense, a podcast about history. We’re talking about the British Civil Wars, or the Wars of the Three Kingdoms in the British Isles. If you’re just joining us here, I recommend starting from the beginning. History by its nature has a lot of people and technical terms in it, so that’s the best way to make sure you don’t miss any of the introductions, or get too far lost in the rest.
Last episode we talked about Charles I’s Personal Rule of England, from the spring of 1629 when he dissolved Parliament and ruled by himself for over a decade. We talked a bit about the religious tensions between the Catholics, the Presbyterians, the Arminians and the Puritans. I told you a bit about some of my favourite art and culture from the 1630s, including some delightfully smutty poetry. We also talked about some of the big political deals during the Personal Rule, including Charles’s selling off of patents and peerages, that resulted in him finally heading into the late 1630s financially solvent - which is pretty impressive, and very unusual for monarchs at the time. But at the same time as those financial wranglings were effective, they were also deeply unpopular, and we talked about Ship Money, and John Hampden’s court case, after which Charles’s credibility in England took a distinct nosedive.
This week we’re going to head north a bit, to Charles’s other kingdom, Scotland. I’ve got to admit, I’ve been looking forward to this one, partly because quite a bit of the action happened less than five miles from where I am as I speak to you right now. That might not be terribly interesting to you, since you’re not me, but this is one thing that really gives me a reason to be interested in history - that hook of being able to say that something momentous happened exactly where you’re standing. For me, this week, that means that four hundred years ago, give or take, on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh, the story goes that a woman in St Giles’s Cathedral threw her chair at the rector and started a riot, which in turn started a war. The fact that you can go to that exact location and pretty much see what those rioters saw just makes it feel so immediate to me. I love that sort of thing.
But before we get into that, there’s something I’d like to talk about that was happening at the same time as the period we’re talking about, that is kind of relevant but which never really gets discussed in conjunction with the civil wars, and that is the mass emigration of Puritans to the New World. A hundred Puritans established their colony in New England in 1620, arriving from Plymouth on the Mayflower, and that’s five years before Charles came to the throne in England. In the 1620s, then, there were a couple of other plantation projects - the word plantation here pretty much means colonisation - and the word started to spread that this was a good place to go - it even, apparently, had weather “as good if not better than England” (Cressy 1987, p11) - which presumably is the highest form of English praise. By 1632, there were three or four thousand English settlers in New England, settling in where we’d now call Virginia, Massachusetts, and Maryland, as well as further south in Barbados and the Caribbean.
At about that time, which coincides rather neatly with Charles’s Personal Rule back in England, the emphasis in the new colonies began to change away from being all about sending across explorers, and became more about having a permanent base for the new settlers to live. The idea in the 1630s was more about turning New England, and Massachusetts in particular, into the model of what an upstanding English settlement ought to look like. So instead of sending across people with nothing to lose, whose main motivation might be to make something new of themselves, the recruiters for the new colonies - I should say, for the English businesses that were starting to get up and running there - started looking for people they might want to live with. And that is how that emphasis on godliness, on frugality, and the Protestant work ethic, that we often associate with early English settlers in the Americas got started.
If you think about who in England in the early 1630s might find those traits appealing, though, you end up with people with very puritan sensibilities - that emphasis on simplicity, and hard work, and no frills living. So when King Charles and his advisers started ramping up the Arminianism - which you’ll remember from last episode was a bit more focused on the beautiful art, and on the spectacle - and he also started ramping up the religious conformity, suddenly it seemed like a really good idea for English puritans to make their way across the Atlantic Ocean to a place where their own priorities were more valued, and they were further away from potential persecution by the state. There were so many of them that decided to do this, in fact, that by the early 1640s there had gone from being three or four thousand settlers in New England, to being more than twenty thousand - with another forty or fifty thousand emigrating further south to Chesapeake and the Caribbean.
So at the same time we have New England becoming this home for religious dissidents, and things that back in England would probably be considered fringe views, and also this very strict Protestant interpretation of the Bible. And my goodness, if you like in-fighting over minutiae of religious doctrine, then 1630s Massachusetts is the place for you.
One thing that I think is a fairly common misconception - or at least it was something that I thought before I looked into it - is that travel to the New World was all one way: when you’re out there, you’re out there. And that’s not really the case - throughout the 1630s, there was a lot of to-ing and fro-ing as people went out for a year or a few years, and then came back, often several times. There was a lot of exchange of information and news, of trade between the old country and the new, and it really was surprisingly well connected. As the political troubles and Civil War in England started in the early 1640s, the frequent travel between England and North America dried up, and with it the emigration. Some colonists went back to help, but most seemed pretty pleased to have got out of the way before anything too awful happened. We’ll come back to them later in this series. But at the moment, and the reason I mention this now, is that this mass emigration particularly of religious dissidents and minorities was definitely happening alongside everything else I’m mentioning over the next couple of weeks. Many of the emigrants were Scottish or Irish, as well as there being English puritans. And New England in particular was a bit of a breeding ground for radical religious and political views that then bled into some of the factions and the discussions back in Britain. So that’s something to keep in the back of your mind in the meantime over the next few episodes - and we’ll come back to it every so often where it’s particularly notable.
Back into the motherland then, and let’s head north to Scotland. Scotland at this time was pretty different from England in a lot of ways - and I want to take a bit of time now to step back into that and see what it looked like. You’ll probably notice from my accent that I didn’t grow up in Scotland, although I live here now - so the early modern history of Scotland that I learned at school was limited, and I suspect that’s the same for a lot of you.
First of all, Scotland was much smaller, and very much poorer than its southern neighbour. It had about a fifth of the population of England - so coming up to a million people. Just in terms of governance, though, the last (I guess) massive period of instability in England was the Wars of the Roses, which finished 150 years earlier in 1485. But in Scotland, governance - and the crown in particular - was in a very different state. The thing I always find quite incredible is that Charles I was literally the first monarch in Scotland in two hundred years to have been a legal adult when he took the throne. His father, James VI, had been only a year old when he became king of Scotland. His mother, Mary Queen of Scots, was eighteen months old when she succeeded the throne - her father, James V, had died when he was only thirty. He also had been about a year old when he had become king - his father, James IV - it’s Jameses all the way down in this bit of Scottish history - but James IV had died aged only forty, having been king since he was fifteen. And so it goes back for another three generations, all the way back through James III who became king aged nine, James II, aged seven, and James I, who was twelve years old when his father died in exile in 1406.
All these Jameses, by the way, have some fantastic stories - but the point of this for our purposes is that Scotland had spent two centuries getting very used to political upheaval - and also, with some long periods of royal minority, which is to say, a king or queen who was underage. The problem with this, as far as governance is concerned, is that if you have a king or queen who is a child, then you also have a regent, and there’s a long and illustrious history of a few Scottish lowland families getting increasingly strong because their patriarch has been the proxy ruler of Scotland for a decade or so - and of course, as soon as whoever is king or queen comes of age, the natural thing to do is to turn to the person who’s spent the interim time actually governing the country.
And if your nobles are fighting amongst each other on a regular basis, that person might have changed, or might be terribly unpopular - when James VI was a child, his first regent was the Earl of Moray, which upset the powerful Hamilton and Huntly families so much that after three years Moray was assassinated in favour of a second regent, who was very good at promoting law and order but utterly dreadful at economics, and who, again, would end up being executed after eight years of proxy rule. It’s a huge amount of instability - these days, we keep prime ministers longer than that! But the Scottish people were very used to instability in government by this point. So when James VI moved his court down to London, and left a few of his nobles in charge north of the border - it was pretty much business as usual.
There’s an old Scottish phrase that the king was historically “first among equals”, and while that seems all radical and democratic to us today, take it back three or four or five hundred years and it takes on a very different tone. To me at first glance it seems very conciliatory - like I know I’m technically the king and you have to do what I say, but don’t worry, we’re still equals, you’re just as big as me really. You’re still allowed to disagree with me. Can you imagine Henry VIII saying that? But I was reading about this in a bit more depth, and I came across this, from historian Rosalind Mitchison, who said: “in practice, the Scotch nobility could often ignore the Crown inside their own territories, and in general politics they had the habit of using it as a weapon by the well-tried method of kidnapping the king.” That’s a hell of a throwaway line - if a Scottish noble disagreed with the king, no big deal, they’d just kidnap him, and keep him in their own territories for a bit where anything could happen. In fact, Mary Queen of Scots was notably kidnapped by the Earl of Bothwell, and turned up three weeks later having probably been forced to marry him. And James VI, in 1582, upset several Scottish nobles by basically promoting his then-boyfriend to be the Duke of Lennox - and he was kidnapped by his treasurer the Earl of Gowrie and held captive for nearly a year until he managed to escape. And life went on! And that’s not even the only time someone tried to kidnap James before he left for England! So by the turn of the seventeenth century, this is not an ancient thing that never happened any more, that’s two consecutive Scottish monarchs who just got kidnapped because they did something someone didn’t agree with. Can you imagine the stink if someone had tried to do that to Elizabeth I in England at exactly the same time?
So that’s a bit of a taster of how royalty was viewed before Charles became king - with respect, certainly… but also only to a point. A far cry, at any rate, from the divine right of kings.
But if the royalty is weak, and the nobility is busy fighting with each other, that leaves a power vacuum. If people want certainty, they’ll have to get it elsewhere. And that’s where the other big influence in Scotland comes in - the Scottish church.
Scotland was not secular. At all. To understand this, we really need to go back about a century, to the Protestant reformation across Europe. This is a very, very broad brush history, but the state religion in Scotland is such a big deal about this time that I want to trace very briefly where it came from, to show you roughly how it came to be how it was, and where it got its biggest features from.
Way back in 1517, Martin Luther nailed a pamphlet to the door of a church in Germany, containing his objections to some of the doctrines of the Catholic church, and across Europe, it suddenly became much easier to object to Catholicism. To object, or, if you will, to protest - because at the very beginning, Protestantism was like we said last time about Puritanism, it wasn’t one single group of people with the same beliefs so much as it was a wide selection of people who disagreed in various ways with what was at the time the dominant way of doing things. One of the things that distinguished early Protestantism from whatever came before it was that it came along at about the same time as the translation of the Bible out of Latin into everyday languages, which meant first of all that you didn’t have to take your priest’s word for what the Bible said, and second of all, that you could read it and try and interpret it yourself. And into this grand new era of new interpretations of Christianity stepped a Frenchman, by the name of John Calvin. The name is probably familiar to you - in the religious reformations that took place across northern Europe in the sixteenth century, Calvinism was one of the biggest, and is probably still one of the most influential.
What I find the most interesting about Calvinism, and about the Protestant reformation in general - at least for our purposes now - is the mixture of the truly forward-thinking ideas with things that even for the time were fairly conservative. So while Calvin was not big on having bishops or an ecclesiastical hierarchy - and especially on having a Pope - and he believed that God was essentially kind, rather than primarily vengeful and cruel, for all that he focused very strongly on the individual’s relationship with God and their struggle to do the right thing on a very personal level… he also believed in original sin, and predestination - which we mentioned last time, that’s the view that it doesn’t matter what you do, there’s only a select group of people already predestined to get into heaven - and Calvin was also socially quite conservative and patriarchal.
This is something that I genuinely find fascinating about sixteenth century religious radicals. It’s the fact that it’s this great jumping-off point in history, of people who’ve suddenly discovered they’re able to - and when it comes down to it, they’re allowed to! - interpret the Bible themselves from first principles from the ground up. How many directions could you take that in? It’s like this phenomenal blank canvas, because if you want to and you try hard enough, you can find a bit of the Bible that explicitly or implicitly agrees with any point you might like to make. When Calvin looked at the Bible, he saw some of the same things we might pick out today: a call to do your best, to love your neighbour, to remember that God is ultimately both powerful and kind. And yet somehow… it’s twisted. Calvinism in the sixteenth century sense was not kind. Neither was Lutherism, Catholicism, Orthodoxy - nor would be Anglicanism, Puritanism, Presbyterianism, Baptism, when they settled down into their various different early forms. But one of the main distinguishing features of Calvinism was the idea that every individual was on a personal crusade, a personal battle against sin in their own minds and in the rest of the world. And I think that involves a certain kind of intolerance and mental gymnastics. It’s funny to think of widespread empathy for people who aren’t like you as an innovation, but I still find it startling in this period of history how little of that there is, how much movement there’s been in four hundred years.
While the Protestant Reformation was going on across continental Europe, England and Scotland were having reformations of their own. You might have heard of the English reformation - Henry VIII and the dissolution of the monasteries, and the formation of the Church of England. The Church of England, or the Anglican church, is different from a lot of other churches around this time because it was set up for political reasons by the king - for very different reasons and in very different ways to, say, Calvin and Luther’s grassroots philosophical adventures. We won’t go into too much depth this week, but by the early seventeenth century Protestantism was very dominant in England, it was nominally calling itself the Church of England, and it was still trying to work out what its own doctrine ought to be, but by the time the 1630s came around it would be influenced by the ideas of another Protestant reformer, Jacobus Arminius - we talked a bit last episode about Arminianism in England.
So that’s England - Protestantism arrived in Scotland at about the same time, but the Scottish Reformation had a much more typically northern European feel to it. It started out in a comparatively grassroots sort of way, without the support of the Scottish monarchy at the time. The leading figure of the Scottish reformation was the theologian John Knox, who for me is the absolute quintessential firebrand Scottish Protestant, he’s got a reputation for being a ferocious arguer with very strong opinions, and for being very rude to Mary Queen of Scots because she was a woman and a Catholic. There’s no doubt he was all of those things, but I have to say, I have rather a soft spot for him as someone vehemently and passionately against the establishment, not because it was the establishment, but just because he’d thought about it and thought they were objectively wrong. He’d have hated me - I’m a woman who hasn’t stopped talking for the last twenty minutes - but you know, times change, what’re you going to do, and I do love a good polemicist now and again. The man had serious balls, whatever other accusations you might throw at him.
Knox was heavily influenced by Calvin - he actually stayed in Geneva for a couple of years while Calvin was working and preaching from there, and Knox brought back a lot of Calvin’s ideas and incorporated them into the way religion was being done at home. Before Knox went to Geneva, the new brand of Scottish Protestantism was fairly heavily focused on teaching at a local level - in local units called presbyteries - and on trying to clean up the immoral reputation of the Catholic clergy. What Knox brought back from Switzerland was that fighting spirit, that envisioning of religion as a fight or a battle. That’s why he was known for arguing so much. And that aggressive, confrontational direction, focused on a local level rather than in the highest end of society, is where Christianity in Scotland started to head.
At the same time as Knox was coming back from Geneva, Mary Queen of Scots had also just come back to Scotland, from growing up in France as a Catholic. As the populace and more importantly the ruling classes of Scotland became more heavily Protestant, in this quite militant way, Mary’s own popularity sank like a stone. Later into her reign she wasn’t just unpopular because of her religion - that’s a gross simplification and again there’s plenty more to say there, but the two things certainly played into one another, and in 1567 she was forced to abdicate, and exiled to England. Her son, James VI, was one year old - and he would be brought up with that series of regents, basically all of whom would insist on his being Protestant, and on his giving a lot of ground up to the Church.
And this is, I guess, a prime example of the conflict of religion and monarchy in Scotland. From 1567 onwards, the monarch would have to defend their authority not just against their nobles, who thought they were equal to the king even if he was technically speaking first among them; but also against the Kirk. If the King of Scotland disagreed with the Church of Scotland - and, said the Church, therefore with Jesus Christ himself - it was anyone’s guess which way the dispute would go.
James VI gave the Kirk a lot of leeway, partly because he had to - for a lot of his early reign, Catholicism was still fairly strong in the Highlands, and James ended up having to gang up on some of the Highland earls with the Kirk. Later on in his reign, he would insist on enforcing the Five Articles of Perth, which were religious rules about having bishops, and kneeling for communion, and observance of holy days - they weren’t popular among some parts of the church, but during his reign they were at least accepted.
In exchange, he gave the church significant legal and administrative protections, as well as the go-ahead to move further down the militant Calvinist route, which is a good part of the reason why, by the time Charles came to the throne in 1625, the Kirk was entrenched in its position in people’s lives. It was the focal point of many towns and villages, and it was responsible for a significant amount of local administration. It put an emphasis on religious ministry, and general education, which quite often went together. A lot of younger sons tended to become ministers, and for daughters the clergy was respectable to marry into, so many people also had family links to the church. The Kirk administered poor aid in years of famine, which there had been quite a lot of lately. Given how proportionally few people in Scotland lived in towns and cities at this time - far fewer than in England and other countries - famine could hit extremely hard. A lot of Scots emigrated west in the 1620s and 30s, to Ireland or the New World. There was a big Scottish presence among the soldiers in the Thirty Years War in Europe, which was in full flow at this point - in Denmark, the Netherlands, France, Germany, even as far as Russia - all men who went to seek their fortunes elsewhere, and quite often ended up staying. The remaining people in Scotland became increasingly religious, increasingly tied to the church, and by the time Charles became king, and over the first few years of his reign, the Scottish church dug its heels in.
Charles, remember, was not Presbyterian at all. And we’ve learned a little, over the last few weeks, about how he reacted to people disagreeing with him.
One thing I’d like to mention now is the hierarchy of the church. The question of who’s in charge of the church had been heavily debated for half a century by the time Charles came to the throne, and the big question was, should there be bishops? John Knox, fifty years earlier, said yes, there should be bishops. But as Presbyterianism developed, a new wave of religious leaders started thinking that everyone - or everyone in the seventeenth century sense of all men who were heads of households - but all of them should be equal in terms of ministry. And if that’s the basis of your theology, having bishops doesn’t really fit into that. Episcopacy is a fancy word you’ll see about this, which basically means having bishops and a church hierarchy. Charles liked episcopacy because he liked ceremony, and he was the head of the English church, but in Scotland there was a big split between people who wanted bishops, and who didn’t want them.
The fact is, there were bishops in Scotland. James VI had made sure of that, and he’d made sure that the bishops were in Parliament, and also that they met every so often for a General Assembly. Hardline Presbyterians didn’t get on with the idea of a General Assembly of bishops at all; instead of bishops, they preferred to have local lay elders, who hadn’t been ordained, and who would just speak on behalf of their fellows. These were often the people doing the ground work of church outreach, and who were the ones that ordinary people in a lot of parts of the country interacted with most often. So when I talk about the church, there isn’t this one unit of men in big hats, all speaking with one voice about what they want. There were some who were sympathetic to the king, who usually were bishops with an interest in keeping episcopacy alive as part of the social hierarchy so they wouldn’t lose their jobs. And then there were others, who had gone much more down the radical Presbyterian route, who thought religious concerns should trump secular ones, and also that bishops weren’t necessary or legitimate. It’s all a balancing act of people trying very carefully to do their thing, while not treading on each other’s toes. That’s common to churches and states the world over, but even more so than usual here.
The very first thing Charles did when he became king was not to head to Scotland to be actually crowned, but to issue from London a revocation - basically to take a load of lands and privileges back that had been given out among Scottish nobles and a few others. This was an old tradition - for the last 200 years, kings and queens had done this when they hit the age of majority and started to rule on their own behalf. It was sort of a rebalancing of control after whichever regent had most recently been in charge. When Charles became king, he was a few months shy of his 25th birthday, and the tradition was, you issued your revocation before you turned 25. So Charles had to get in quickly - he issued his revocation about six weeks after his father’s death.
You’d think this wouldn’t be terribly controversial - it was, after all, a thing that every king and queen before him had done, at about the same point in their reigns, for the last two centuries. He’d not been in power long, so he’d not had a chance to wind anyone in England up yet, but we know that one of Charles’s biggest problems - and indeed one of the Scottish monarchy’s perennial problems - was money. Scotland was poor, and in any case Charles was in a lot of debt - he was still on the edge of war with the French and Spanish, he was deeply in debt and having to fight tooth and nail to get tonnage and poundage from the English Parliament. So with the revocation he went further than his predecessors had ever gone, and took back not just the grants of crown property made by his father, but every single grant made in the previous seventy-five years. It was essentially a massive requisitioning of what other people considered now, after such a long time of having it, to be their own personal property. And it wasn’t just land - he took back a lot of lordships based on church land, stopped a load of nobles from taking stipends that technically speaking belonged to the church - basically it was a fairly hefty redistribution of income streams away from the nobility, in favour of the church and the lower gentry. And a bit for Charles, of course. All of these things were well within his rights to do, by the way - just like last episode where Charles took a load of archaic rules and enforced them for petty cash down in England, he was absolutely allowed to do this in Scotland as well.
Several historians have suggested over the last few years that actually, the revocation was a really great thing for Charles to do, that its main effect was taking things away from some Scottish nobles that they really ought not to have had in the first place. Which, on the face of it, seems entirely fair. But the problem with King Charles - and we’ve seen this before, and we’ll see it again - is not that what he did was bad. It’s not even that his intentions were bad. It’s just that he was so completely tactless about how he went about things. You’d think that taking property away from the nobility to give to the lower gentry and the church might be fairly popular with the gentry and the church. It was not.
And the reason it wasn’t popular is, I think, at least partly a function of the fact that the relationships between king and aristocracy, and indeed between king and the gentry, were very different in Scotland compared to England. The lowlands were still recognisably feudal, and the further into the highlands you got, the more hierarchies tended to be closely tied to families through the clan system. The best way I think to put it is that in Scotland the hierarchy of power was much more visibly informal than it was in England - it didn’t stand on so much ceremony, especially where the people at the top were also the heads of the family. But alongside that informality, the sense of loyalty to your people was an awful lot stronger in Scotland, whoever your people were - you could be visibly chummy with your lord, but you also had to back him up in public. In England, there was a lot more visible deference and distance, but you weren’t necessarily expected to agree with your local lord or back him up politically - later on you wouldn’t be expected to side with him in the war. There was a lot more scope in England than in Scotland for vocal disagreement.
Charles having been down south - essentially abroad - for the majority of his life, was used to the king being allowed to make these big changes, like the revocation, without having to explain himself too much. And he wasn’t used to that staunch loyalty that meant that people would object so vocally to something that ought to be essentially in their favour, because it would take things away from their lords. Their lords who were used to feeling equal to the king, to all intents and purposes - to the extent that it had very recently been a reasonable thing to kidnap him if you disagreed with him. I don’t want it to sound here like the only people in Scotland - or even the only people with opinions - are bishops and the heads of noble families, because that’s not true. But they did tend to speak - not completely, obviously, but quite a bit - for their estates and the people around them in a more overt way than in England.
So Charles passed the revocation without explaining why he was doing it, or what effect it would have, without even coming up to Scotland to do it in person, and there was uproar. To be clear: this was a culture clash. A lot of lands that technically ought to have belonged to the church had ended up in the hands of the old aristocracy, and the revocation was intended to give them back. It should have been fine. But in taking from the aristocracy to give to the church and the gentry, Charles completely misunderstood that the loyalty of the church and the gentry didn’t lie with him. It lay - frankly - with the people who had been in charge of Scotland for centuries. The monarchy commanded little loyalty. The aristocracy commanded a lot. It was very different to what Charles knew in England. It was absolutely a culture clash.
So he started off on the wrong foot, and then proceeded to do the two things most likely to put him in Scottish people’s bad books: raising taxes, and not coming to Scotland. To be fair to Charles, he had a lot going on in England at this point - he was wrestling with the English parliament for money, and becoming increasingly unpopular among them - and in 1629, he dismissed Parliament and embarked on the Personal Rule. It’s strange to me, although perhaps it shouldn’t be, how easy it is to compartmentalise England and Scotland - and indeed Ireland, which we’ll get to in a few more weeks - at this time. We say Charles should have done this differently, he should have put more energy into that thing or gone to another place, but it’s easy to forget quite how much was going on just in London at the time, never mind the rest of England, and never mind even further afield than that.
On top of that, purely in terms of travel time, it would take a messenger several days to get from London to Edinburgh, so a royal entourage would take far longer. I don’t want to sit here wagging my finger and telling you to remember that in the seventeenth century, they didn’t have email, but the truth is I often forget just how difficult it was not just to get things done, but also to communicate, and just to find out the sort of background information you wouldn’t necessarily think to explain in a letter. In a way, it’s no surprise that Charles didn’t understand that part of Scottish culture, or even really that he didn’t explain himself very well. It was harder than we can fathom these days to do. This isn’t to excuse him, but perhaps we ought to characterise Charles’s behaviour towards Scotland as being a case of not looking past the end of his nose. Is that a better failing to have than active avoidance? I mean, it’s still a failure. It’s difficult to recount the past without being in some way judgemental, but I think short-sightedness is descriptively accurate.
But just because Charles wasn’t in Scotland himself - which he wasn’t, for the first eight years of his reign - doesn’t mean there was no governance on his behalf there. Scotland still had a parliament, although like the English one its job was pretty much to rubber-stamp the king’s laws, and it was ultimately pretty toothless. The main people in charge - again, like their counterparts in England - were the Privy Council, who were based in Edinburgh. The Scottish Privy Council had a bit more of a reputation for autonomy than in England, presumably I guess because the King was further away - where in England, it was another team of rubber-stampers, in Scotland the Privy Council had more of a mediating influence. Obviously they knew the local culture better than the king did, and while sometimes their decisions could be unpopular, they did manage to tread that line between first among equals and divine right, and to keep the king’s peace, as it were, fairly well for the first few years of Charles’s reign.
Charles finally came up to Scotland for his formal coronation as King of Scotland in the summer of 1633, eight years after his father died. The place was a surprise to him after spending so long in London - the Scottish court was very different from what he was used to, and he wasn’t exactly enthusiastic to be in it. It took him a month to weave his way up the country from London to Edinburgh, and he stayed there for less than three weeks before heading home. When he convened the Scottish Parliament during that time, he sat at the front of the room and openly took notes on how everyone voted. As far as Charles was concerned, he had a great time - passed the laws he wanted passing, had a few good parties, two thumbs up, A+ would get crowned again. But his reputation in Scotland was already for for remoteness, for distance, and alongside that for not really listening to Scotland. One single flying visit, eight years into his reign, was not going to do much to counter that.
But the main complaints against Charles, from even before he came up for his coronation, were not that he didn’t understand local custom, or that he was basically an absentee king who didn’t seem to have much interest in coming to Scotland. The main complaints were twofold. Firstly, he tried to do to the Scottish tax system what he was trying to do in England at the same time, which is to say, to milk it for all it was worth. It was about as well-received up here as it was down there, with the added bonus of being managed by a gentleman by the name of Lord Traquair, who started out as deputy treasurer, ended up as treasurer, was very good at managing money, but who utterly terrified the Privy Council and managed very quickly to make himself astonishingly unpopular.
The other main complaint, surprising nobody at all, was religion. And this, really, is what sucked Scotland into the civil wars in the end - you can do all sorts of unpopular things with money or secular rules, but the moment you start trying to mess with people’s ideas of morality, that’s when they really start to want to fight back. In this case, it’s that question again of who wins between the crown and the church. It’s harder to answer than you’d think.
Last episode, we met William Laud, who became the Archbishop of Canterbury - the highest official besides the king in the English church - in 1633. It was Charles and Laud who between them had the bright idea for religious reform in Scotland, and actually to begin with Laud wanted to go even further than Charles did - both of them wanted the English and Scottish churches to be using the same official prayer book, but in the early 1630s William Laud just wanted to export the English prayerbook up north and have done with it. That would never have gone down well, and luckily Charles seemed to notice the frostiness emanating from his northern kingdom, and decided to tone it down a little. In 1634, he got together a group of bishops in Scotland, handed them a copy of the English book of prayer, and asked them to suggest alterations to it for use in Scotland.
They did, and sent a draft copy of the prayerbook back to Laud in February 1635. This isn’t quite as simple as it sounds - it sounds like Charles asked for feedback, feedback was got, changes were incorporated, everyone’s happy. But remember, one of the things poor Charles wasn’t very good at was remembering that criticism wasn’t a referendum on how worthy he was as a person and how likely the criticiser was to engage in outright treason against him. So the Scottish bishops were caught in this weird place where they couldn’t let words like “priest” be in the prayerbook because it would upset the Scottish Presbyterians, but also they couldn’t make too many changes, because Charles would feel personally attacked. As it was, up in Scotland, the fact that the bishops were obsessing over the wording and trying to keep everyone happy ended up being interpreted as meaning that the amended prayerbook actually was suspect, and was trying to sneak Catholicism into Scotland by hiding it in reasonable-sounding wording. It reminds me a bit of the Daily Mail taking the European working time regulations and trying to make out that it’s tantamount to taking British jobs - it’s amazing how words can get twisted like this, especially about something that is already so emotive.
Whatever problems any Scots had with the prayerbook, then, they had to tiptoe around it. Some members of the Scottish Parliament put together a supplication to be presented to Charles, a bit like the Petition of Right, with some of their grievances in it - to do with the common prayerbook, as well as other religious and financial matters - but they didn’t dare present it to Charles because of how they expected he would react. That’s fair enough, I think - one of their spokesmen, Lord Rothes, kind of sidled up to Charles at one point and told him there was this terribly unsuitable and tactless supplication going around, but just for the sake of seeing how people thought, would Charles perhaps like to see it? And Charles said no, and Rothes went back to the group to nix the whole thing because it wouldn’t do any good.
And then in February 1635, the MP Lord Balmerino was found with a copy of the supplication, with notes he’d taken on it. Balmerino was one of the sponsors of the supplication, he was very heavily involved in the writing of it, and also, importantly, he’d already stuck his neck out quite a bit over the last few years - he’d voted against some of Charles’s religious measures, and also against some of the effects of the revocation, and when Charles had sat in the Scottish Parliament two years earlier and taken notes on who voted against his measures, Balmerino was on that list.
He was immediately arrested for slandering the king, convicted on a tiny margin - by one vote, actually the vote of Lord Traquair - and sentenced to death. Even staunch supporters of the king were shocked at the harshness of the sentence for something that hadn’t even been published or presented to Charles. It was completely out of proportion - and what’s more, now the Scottish aristocracy weren’t just scared they were going to have their land taken from them on a technicality, now there was a possibility their lives were in danger for any insubordination. This was not how the balance of power worked in Scotland. They weren’t used to it at all. And so their trust in King Charles continued to drip away.
On the other hand, the people who were in favour of Balmerino’s execution - because of how vocal he’d been against the religious measures - were the bishops. So whatever trust Charles was starting to lose, was also being lost by the bishops, and that played into the hands of the more radical nonconformist end of the church.
Between those things, the conviction of Balmerino - and the completely overblown sentence - were roundly criticised, especially because the supplication wasn’t even meant to be read by the king in the first place. There were rumours that there would be rioting if Charles tried to actually carry out the sentence, and both Traquair and Archbishop Laud counselled him not to try it. Given that Traquair had cast the tie-breaker vote to secure the conviction, and Laud was - surprise, surprise - on the side of the bishops in all this, that might give you an idea of quite how serious this was. In June, Charles gave in, and promised to spare Balmerino’s life. A year later, he gave him a full pardon. But the damage was done - not only was the popular view that Charles had pitted himself against an entirely reasonable member of the aristocracy, but he had actually sided with the bishops to do it. Remember that people were very loyal to their local lords, and that an increasing number, while religious, were of the sort of religion that already disapproved of bishops.
This was all happening throughout 1635, and the pardon came in the summer of 1636 - just to put it into perspective, down in England at the same time, Charles was winding up a few people but still fairly popular - but 1636 was the year that everyone stopped paying Ship Money, and John Hampden’s Ship Money case started in May 1637. So by the time the Ship Money case came around, Charles had had two years of some of his citizens very visibly refusing to accept his justice when it got controversial.
He also now had plenty of experience trying to impress his laws on his people, no matter how controversial they were. And at the end of 1636, in the midst of all that controversy going on down in England, with people digging their heels in and refusing to pay him what he believed he was owed… Charles made the mistake that cost him Scotland. He had the Scottish Privy Council issue a proclamation, on December 20th, that all religious services in Scotland would be conducted according to his prayer book, the Book of Common Prayer.
Now, nothing really explosive happened for a few months - the first copies of the Book of Common Prayer didn’t reach Scotland until May 1637. And let’s remember, with this fantastic gift of four hundred years of hindsight that we have, that the contents of this prayer book weren’t new to Scotland. This book had been going through consultation since 1634, when he gave a draft to the Scottish bishops to obsess over the wording for a while. In Charles’s mind, at least, this shouldn’t have been controversial - because they’d had a chance to have their say. In the minds of the Scottish bishops - well, they weren’t going to feel like they’d had much input, had they? They’d had to tiptoe around Charles to avoid offending him, and then the whole business with Lord Balmerino had happened, and who wants to offer constructive criticism after that? And in the minds of the rest of the Scottish populace, it didn’t really matter that the bishops had had input, because they didn’t like or trust the bishops by now anyway.
On 16th July 1637, the Bishop of Edinburgh received orders to use the Book of Common Prayer at his service on the following Sunday, the 23rd. And here is a man with whom I sympathise very much - can you imagine being the Bishop of Edinburgh on the night of Saturday 22nd July? As far as anyone in England was concerned, they’d had a consultation, this was going to be absolutely fine. But it would take a man with nerves of steel not to have quite the sleepless night. He was caught between the king, who was completely unwilling to budge, and the people in Scotland with any political clout at all - really, I can only have sympathy for the man.
These days, the events in Edinburgh in that week have almost a mythical status: halfway up the Royal Mile in Edinburgh, is St Giles Cathedral. On Sunday 23rd July, the two archbishops in Scotland filed in for the morning service, along with eight bishops, several of the Privy Council, and most of the Lords of Session. So far, so unremarkable for a Sunday morning in Edinburgh. Then the Dean of St Giles got up, went to the pulpit, and began to read from the new prayerbook. And immediately, a riot broke out.
Legend has it - and it is pretty much only legend - that the riot was sparked by a woman, by the name of Jenny Geddes, who threw a stool at the Dean’s head. Next to nothing is known about Jenny Geddes - we can’t even be sure that she was a real person. But the legend of her has stuck, because as much as she might have really existed, the figure of Jenny Geddes is also a symbol. If you’re dealing with arcane political disagreements, you want a figurehead like Lord Balmerino, a man with great standing and several generations of family history of being involved in politics. But if your figurehead is a woman - an ordinary, working class woman, picking up her chair and throwing it at a man with serious religious authority, then that says something different. That says, this is personal. This isn’t just about royalty and arcane matters of religion and carefully worded official documents any more - this is about real people, and the very detail of the lives they live. This is hitting close to home. And it’s not just that strong upstanding or landowning men won’t stand for it - but their servants won’t stand for it either, and the people who sell them their food and make their clothes and work for them won’t stand for it either. Women in particular, working class women in particular, weren’t supposed to be political, and certainly not on their own behalves - but here they were. This is serious.
The Dean, by the way, swiftly fled up the steeple of the cathedral and refused to come down all day, and the Bishop of Edinburgh went down the Royal Mile to Holyroodhouse - in a coach that the mob threw stones at, all the way down the road - and basically barricaded himself in. The riots lasted for days, and by the end of the next week, the prayerbook was abandoned. But there was no going back now. There were five years to go before outright civil war, but in Scotland, the crisis was almost upon them.
And we’ll talk about that next time, when we’ll meet the Scottish Covenanters, and get into the bloodshed known as the Bishops’ Wars.
Past Tense is brought to you by Feasibly Productions. It was written by me, Fiona Barnett. The producer is Emily Benita, the sound editor and technical producer is Ali Alnajjar, the historical consultant for this episode was Mary Jacobs, and the music was written and composed by Harry Harris. I’d also like to thank Marc David Jacobs, without whose library card this episode in particular would have been considerably shorter.
Congratulations are in order in particular for historical consultant Mary this week, because she’s just handed her PhD thesis in. We are all delighted for her, and a little bit in awe, and very definitely basking in the reflected glory. I’d also like to say thank you, Mary, for continuing to give your great advice and help, even in times of hardcore deadline-chasing.
Our website is at pasttensepod.com if you’d like to see my bibliography, or a cheat sheet of all the major players who’ve been mentioned in this episode. If you want to support us making Past Tense, first of all, thank you very much - the very best things you can do are to review us on iTunes or wherever you found us - preferably saying nice things, but I can’t legislate your taste - and also to tell your history-nerdiest friends that there’s a new podcast they might like. You can also drop a few coins in our tip jar at patreon.com/pasttensepod. Did you know - and this is a weird linguistic thing that keeps tripping me up - that in the US, the word “fortnight” to mean two weeks is archaic and practically never used? File that under things that the Brits do that don’t seem odd til you leave the country - like saying “are you alright?” to mean “hello”, and not boiling water for tea in the microwave. Anyway, the point of this is, well met, milords and ladies, and we’ll see you in in a fortnight.