Leviathan: The Rise of Britain as a World Power by David Scott - review by Paul Lay

Paul Lay

Altered States

Leviathan: The Rise of Britain as a World Power


HarperPress 530pp £26

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When Henry Tudor seized the English crown on Bosworth Field in August 1485, few would have predicted a successful future for the peoples of Britain and Ireland. England had emerged from decades of dynastic conflict to be ruled by a king of tenuous claim to the throne. Scotland was stable but economically backward; Ireland was a warlord’s playground. Four hundred years later, Great Britain would rule the largest empire in history. How that unlikely scenario came about is the subject of David Scott’s challenging and erudite study. Scott revealed his powers of scholarly analysis in Politics and War in the Three Stuart Kingdoms, one of the most important books on the Civil Wars to be published in recent years. Leviathan displays his ability to address a wider audience. In the light of concerns about the British public’s ignorance of their past, its appearance is timely.

The ‘Leviathan’ in question is the fiscal-military state, born of Britain’s commitment to the Protestant cause. The split with Rome that accompanied Henry VIII’s divorce from Katherine of Aragon led to the first restructuring of the Tudor realm by Thomas Cromwell, whose favoured instrument of policy was parliamentary statute. Legal jurisdiction became the monopoly of crown officials rather than noblemen or bishops. Royal authority and revenues grew as a consequence, but so did parliament’s importance. Disagreements over whether law-making was the prerogative of the king-in-parliament or the monarch alone was to mark English politics for a century and a half.

Only during the reign of Elizabeth I did Protestantism take root, as university graduates entered the ministry and Catholics were barred from local government and the Church. The crises and triumphs of her reign – especially the defeat of the Armada in 1588 – ‘sealed the bond between protestantism and

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