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“England was seen as a pariah state, ruled by regicidal rebels who’d publicly executed their king”: Clare Jackson on Stuart England

Dr Clare Jackson speaks to Ellie Cawthorne about her new account of one of the most turbulent, anxious and insecure periods of English history

Published: November 2, 2021 at 4:54 pm
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Ellie Cawthorne: Devil-Land looks at England from 1588 to 1688. Why do you think this is such a fascinating 100-year period of English history?

Dr Clare Jackson: Partly because so much happened: you get a feeling that events were unfolding at a dizzying speed that even contemporaries had difficulty getting their heads around. Throughout the book I tried to put myself in their position – to imagine how it would feel to not know who might be on the throne this time next year, or what sort of religious settlement might be in place. So much was precarious in the 17th century and so much was up for grabs.

As the period opened, England was a country whose dynastic future was uncertain, to put it mildly. Elizabeth I made discussion of her successor a capital crime. That was a moment of great anxiety because there were lots of potential contenders, all of whom came with their own dynastic and religious baggage. There were at least 10 claimants who brought with them the opportunity – or horror, depending on your viewpoint – of England being re-Catholicised. At any point in the 1580s, from the Armada onwards, there was always a fear that England might be plunged immediately into a big continental war of succession.

The geopolitical landscape was fast-changing. The counter-reformation was making large gains on the continent, and in the first half of the 17th century, Europe was convulsed by the Thirty Years’ War. In the 1640s, England itself was plunged into bloody revolution, leading to the public execution of its monarch, Charles I, and the only 11 years in the country’s history when it’s been a republic. Although today we look back on “the interregnum” as an anomaly bookmarked between two periods of monarchy, it wouldn’t have seemed as reassuringly temporary as that to contemporaries. They didn’t know it wasn’t to last. And the period ended with the Glorious Revolution – a foreign invasion, backed by armed support from the Netherlands.

To me, it’s both a fascinating but also quite a terrifying 100 years in England’s history.

You describe this as an intensely insecure time. What were the most gnawing anxieties of the age?

Throughout this period, there was a sense of England being a very young Protestant nation, which many people would regard as only half-reformed. Its religious destiny wasn’t clear, and there were plenty of Puritan elements who wished to pursue the Reformation more fully. But there were also entrenched remnants of the Catholic church. The country’s religious identity was seen as under constant threat, whether from its own rulers with their suspect Catholic proclivities and their Catholic spouses, an internal fifth column, or an aggressive neighbour like France’s Louis XIV.

There was a very identifiable fear of popish encirclement or a popish plot. At the start of the period, Mary, Queen of Scots was executed by Elizabeth I for fomenting Catholic conspiracies. A whole series of popish plots followed, into which contemporaries could very readily read recurrent manifestations – from Guy Fawkes’ gunpowder plot, to the Irish rebellion in 1641 and the “popish plot” in the 1670s. And if one thinks about a period like the mid-1660s, there was plentiful scope for paranoia and fear. London experienced a huge plague and then one of the largest fires in its history. Immediately, blame for that fire was laid at the door of foreign Catholics, to which Charles II responded: “No, it’s the wind, it’s been a hot, dry summer.” But what’s striking is the readiness of contemporaries to fit everyday disasters into a larger narrative of either providential deliverance or near-Catholic takeover.

Another of the recurrent fears was of imminent foreign invasion. The fear that the Isle of Wight, Margate or any coastal port might one day become a landing site for an invasion was very palpable. And that fear didn’t go away with the defeat of the Spanish Armada. There were smaller Armadas in the 1590s, and a constant anxiety about continental Europe only being half-a-day’s sail away.

The fear of Catholic encirclement wasn’t a threat posed only by central Europe – it could also come through the “side door”, Ireland, or the “back door”, Scotland, which traditionally had an alliance with France. Intensifying these concerns, England didn’t have a standing army. It relied on local militias and other forms of defence. So England being able to defend its interests was something that couldn’t be taken for granted.

King Charles I, as depicted by Dutch painter Daniel Mytens the Elder in 1631
King Charles I, as depicted by Dutch painter Daniel Mytens the Elder in 1631. “There’s an interesting irony that while Charles I’s accession was never disputed, he was the one who ended up on the scaffold,” says Clare Jackson. (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

Did these anxieties also trickle down to ordinary people?

One of the most interesting themes of this period is the rise of news. It’s the time in which printed newspapers as we would recognise them make their way into Britain. It’s also the heyday of polemical pamphlet publishing. Some of this was clearly “fake news”, rumour and speculation, but some was real and accurate. This was still a world in which news often arrived with certain delays. People were always itching after what was new, but this emerging interest in news also encouraged a sense of paranoia and uncertainty.

London at this time was one of the biggest cities in Europe, with a highly literate populace. Something that foreign diplomats often mention is that this was a city in which everybody wanted to talk politics. The watermen that rowed you across the Thames had their own views on political crises of the day. And out in the “provinces” it was anything but parochial. Political information was disseminated from the pulpit, local assizes or market crosses.

The book is called Devil-land – where does that name come from?

"Duyvel-landt" is what the Dutch called England in the mid-17th century. It partly draws on a medieval folk concept belief that Englishmen had tails. This idea had been dispelled by the mid-17th century, but there were many abroad who nonetheless believed that the English had indeed become devils. "Duyvel-landt" was playing on a Latin pun Angli, that the English could be seen as angelic. But by the mid-17th century they had become Diaboli – regicidal rebels who'd overthrown their monarchy and publicly executed their king. They were seen as a pariah state with aggressive foreign ambitions.

You draw on foreign perspectives throughout the book. What can we learn about 17th-century England from looking at how it was viewed by foreign powers?

When I was working on BBC documentaries on the Stuarts, it brought home the extent to which the Stuarts were really a foreign, imported dynasty – they were Scottish. Each Stuart monarch had a foreign consort, whether it was Anna of Denmark, Henrietta Maria, or Catherine of Braganza, all of whom had their own confessional Catholic ties or foreign dynastic links. There was a lot about the Stuart century that doesn’t seem traditionally English – whether that’s the continental baroque décor in Whitehall’s Banqueting House, or the fact that Charles I spent six months as prince of Wales wooing the infanta at the Spanish court in Madrid. I was interested in the ways in which the English increasingly began to suspect the Stuart dynasty could not always be trusted to act in the country’s national interests.

Listen: Dr Clare Jackson discusses her new book Devil-Land, which examines the insecurities and anxieties that plagued England between 1588 and 1688, on this episode of the HistoryExtra podcast:

What were England’s most significant foreign relationships during this era?

One of the most interesting things is the extent to which those alliances varied. At points they were self-contradictory in a way that was really quite impossible for many diplomats to fathom. At one point in the 1670s, Charles II was receiving secret financial subsidies from Louis XIV’s court while his parliament was voting to declare war on France. That’s either diplomatic ineptitude of the highest degree, or a very calculated stratagem for keeping various options open.

One of the dilemmas for 17th-century England was how best to preserve Protestantism when potentially encircled by Catholic states. But there was also a question of how to position England’s foreign relations when the big superpowers of the age – Spain and France – were also Catholic countries. On the other hand, it made confessional sense to maintain an alliance with the Protestant Dutch, but they were England’s greatest commercial competitors. So it was a very fluctuating picture, complicated again by the Stuarts’ own confessional and dynastic allegiances.

You also emphasise the international context in the Civil War. Why have you chosen to do so?

Contemporaries certainly saw the Civil War of the 1640s within the wider context of continental Europe being convulsed by confessional war through the 1630s. Some people felt that Charles I had been right to keep England out of this great conflagration on the continent that was laying waste to so much territory. But then, as some historians have argued, you could say that England ended up convulsed by its own “wars of religion” in the 1640s.

Initially, there was a lot of continental expertise deployed in the Civil War. The forces of the Scottish Covenanting army, for example, were led by veterans with continental experience, who had served overseas in the armies of Gustavus Adolphus in Sweden and elsewhere.

Once the dynamic started to shift in favour of parliament, the Cromwellian vision of the New Model Army was of it not being made up of foreign strangers, but rather an English army fighting for England’s interest and seeking a settlement with Charles that only extended to England. That was reflected in the way in which it was framed as an English decision to put Charles I on trial and an English decision to execute him. The king’s death was much to the horror of the Scots, even those who had fought against him.

Was the foreign response to the regicide one of universal horror?

Yes, there was universal horror in 1649. People saw the regicide as confirmation of England being “Devil-Land”. It was not only that the monarch had been executed, but the fact that the execution was both public and ceremonial. Continental audiences were used to monarchs being assassinated by a lone extremist, but the idea that you could try and clothe what they essentially saw as sacrilegious murder in a judicial disguise was utterly unacceptable. What also underlined the horror was a sense that this was something that the English political nation did. It was, after all, Elizabeth I who put Charles’s grandmother Mary, Queen of Scots on trial and ordered her execution, even though she was (as she saw it) a divinely ordained monarch, a former queen consort in France and queen of Scotland. So there was a sense, particularly in France, that it wasn’t surprising the English would do something like this, as they were a people who were out of control and could not be trusted.

The foreign response to the regicide was one of universal horror – confirmation of England being “Devil-Land”. The English were out of control and could not be trusted

How would you characterise the people’s religious temperament?

Very mixed: there was a wide spectrum of religious opinion in Britain and Ireland. Another challenge the Stuarts faced was ruling a multiple monarchy with different religious complexions in each of its states. England had a majority episcopalian population with pockets of support for both alternate Puritan models and Catholic recusancy. Scotland had a very different religious complexion, with greater support for further reformation along Presbyterian lines, while Ireland had a majority Catholic population. And it was always the case that a minority element in each country wanted their own country to follow the path of one of the other Stuart states. That’s an almost impossible inheritance for any monarch to be able to rule satisfactorily.

Clare Jackson is the author of Devil-Land: England Under Siege 1588–1688 (Allen Lane)

What do you see as some of the defining features of governance in this period?

One intractable problem for the Stuarts was a lack of crown finance. Throughout the period, until what we now call the “Financial Revolution” in the 1690s, all the Stuarts suffered from a difficulty in raising money on the scale of their European counterparts. For all of the language James VI and I used about leading a great Protestant crusade on the continent, he simply didn’t have the military or financial resources to do it, and successive parliaments were reluctant to vote for the sums of money that would be required.

One thing that changed, however, was parliament. People went to war in the name of parliament in the mid-17th century, but parliament as an institution didn’t meet every year again until after 1689. In this period, parliament was an “event”, not an “institution”, and when it was prorogued for partisan reasons or dissolved, contemporaries usually didn’t know when it would meet again.

Which monarchs did the best job at navigating this unstable situation? And which did the worst?

There’s an interesting irony that the monarchs who had a difficult time coming to the throne or whose accession was disputed were the ones who most often lasted. I’m thinking of James VI and I, who spent the 1590s looking at the English throne, trying to assert his right to succeed Elizabeth in a way that wouldn’t unleash a large European war. And yet when he came to the throne, he managed to keep hold of it, and eventually died in his bed of natural causes. Meanwhile Charles I’s accession was never disputed, but he was the one who ended up on the scaffold.

What was different about England in 1688 compared to a century earlier?

It’s hard not to be swayed by hindsight – about the stability that we now know followed in the Georgian era. But I’m not sure it was a fundamentally different place. In 1688 nothing could be taken for certain, and the 1690s were a pretty terrifying period to live through. I think that the underlying insecurity and uncertainty about the future that characterised this century were still there. For example, anxieties surrounding the succession persisted well beyond Queen Anne’s death in 1714. The decision to place the succession in the Hanoverian line was an attempt again to secure England’s Protestant settlement as much as possible against Catholic overthrow or foreign intervention.

However, perhaps some of the most radical changes that occurred in this century were in the ideological sphere. There was a much more sophisticated level of public debate and clearer divisions of partisan allegiances by the second half of the 17th century. I’m not saying that royalist and parliamentarian divisions map directly onto Tory and Whig party affiliations, but the idea of institutionalising political conflict had become more common. And the Civil War had spawned unnervingly radical ideas that couldn’t be unthought.

Clare Jackson is senior tutor of Trinity Hall, University of Cambridge. She has presented BBC documentaries on the Stuart dynasty and her previous books include Charles II for the Penguin Monarchs series and Restoration Scotland 1660–1690 (Boydell)

This article first appeared in the November 2021 issue of BBC History Magazine


Ellie CawthornePodcast editor, HistoryExtra

Ellie Cawthorne is HistoryExtra’s podcast editor. She also contributes to BBC History Magazine, runs the podcast newsletter and hosts several live and virtual BBC History Magazine events.


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