History tends not to come with serving suggestions, but it does make a lot of difference where you choose to slice it. In the case of early modern England, the knife usually falls around 1603, between the flamboyance of the Tudor era and the dysfunction and disaster of the Stuarts. Clare Jackson, however, has served up a century of English history between the years 1588 to 1688, from the defeat of the Spanish Armada by Elizabeth I’s regime to the so-called Glorious Revolution, which brought William III and Mary II to the throne. This already confounds our expectations, but Jackson goes further, suggesting that the unifying features of this epoch were not the emergence of the modern British state and the beginning of Britain’s role on the world stage (as some might like to claim) but misadventure and calamity. She sees England in this period as essentially a ‘failed state’, profoundly unstable and lurching from one disaster to the next, from near invasion to the Gunpowder Plot, from the Civil Wars and Charles I’s execution to the Great Fire of London.
If it all sounds a bit bleak, that is because Jackson has chosen to view this era in large part through the eyes of commentators elsewhere in Europe who reacted with (sometimes pleasurable) horror at the succession of catastrophes to afflict England. It was a Dutch pamphleteer who suggested in 1652 that England, according to the fable the land of angels, should instead be christened ‘Devil-land’. Viewing our troubled
archipelago through the eyes of foreigners in this way is one of the great strengths of the book. We see the events of this period through the prism of shocked or dismissive remarks made by ambassadors, spies, preachers and writers. The negative tone of the book as a whole is heavily influenced by the fact that such judgements tended to be of the more gloomy variety. Take, for example, the Spanish Jesuit whose history of England painted it as ‘a nest of vipers, a den of thieves, a ditch and cesspit of poisons and noxious vapours’. When James VI acceded to the English throne, one French observer appeared disappointed at the absence of the ‘most horrible and bloody tragedies’ that he was expecting. Foreign-policy pundits, then as now, tended to lack subtlety, even if they could be highly articulate about a nation they did not like very much.
There are some difficulties with this approach. For one thing, such quantities of testimony are hard to contextualise in depth. The people who reacted with outrage to the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, in 1587 were frequently very different in outlook from those who condemned the upheavals of civil war or the execution of Charles I. United in condemnation they may have been, but Spanish disapproval could be far removed from Dutch criticism, and the differences in these people’s identities and political agendas is at times rather lost to sight as the litany of disasters unfolds. They were also not always very discerning: the Dutch theologian who classed the British Civil Wars of the 1640s alongside revolt in Catalonia and an earthquake in North Africa was painting a picture that was vivid but not especially coherent.
It might also be said that, as an objective account of this period of British history (and after 1603 it is Britain, not England, that we need to consider), the book is somewhat lacking in nuance. It seems timely to point out that there were some lighter moments between 1588 and 1688 alongside all this tragedy. Elizabeth did defeat the Spanish Armada and, after some time and effort, the uprising in Ireland too. As one of these observers notes, James VI came to the throne ‘as quietly as could possibly be desired’. The Gunpowder Plot was, as Jackson also acknowledges, ‘a catastrophe that did not happen’. All of the Stuarts had long periods when they were not at war, when government functioned as well as governments ever do and when their subjects were able to carry on as normal, fostering trade and industry, building houses, raising families, writing plays and so forth.
One great and laudable merit of this book is that you cannot come away from it without a reinforced awareness of how much Britain has always been a part of Europe, and of just how far its history has been contingent on international developments. Jackson does a skilful job of delineating different alliances, tensions and conflicts, and how they contributed to political events and popular perceptions alike. The way in which decisions in London were shaped, and often determined, by events in France, Spain and the Dutch Republic, among others, is clearly driven home here, to good effect. Nonetheless, it is also arguably a problem that this book is so heavily reliant on foreign observers and their opinions. Their utterances are undeniably fascinating, but the individuals concerned were also highly partisan, often ill-informed and generally shaped their comments to fit a particular agenda at home. A history of contemporary Britain written on the basis of articles in Le Monde, De Telegraaf and El País, interwoven with excerpts of what they are really saying about us in Brussels and Strasbourg, would undoubtedly be very interesting, but as a picture of events on this side of the Channel it would have its limitations.
The events of Jackson’s chosen century have long been the stuff of historical mythologies, from the greatness of Gloriana’s England to the lamentable failures of the early Stuarts, from the radicalism of the Interregnum and the corruption of Charles II to the alleged blow for freedom that was 1688. It is always good to see a historical myth interrogated and common assumptions challenged, and Jackson sets about this with some verve. The problem is that each of these caricatures belongs to a slightly different type of historical mythology and it is hard to overthrow them all at the same time. Meanwhile, Jackson is in danger of replacing them with just another set of generalisations. ‘Devil-land’ Britain may have been to some, but given what was happening across the Channel in the Thirty Years’ War, and the many other wars of the 17th century, the reigns of the Stuarts, for all their failings, do not compare too badly. Jackson describes her purpose using the metaphor of a jumper turned inside out – ‘to reveal the untidy seams, tied-off threads and disordered fabric of Stuart rule’ – and she has given a lively account of the more disreputable aspects of British politics and diplomacy in the years under scrutiny, but that is still only half the story. If foreign observers found 17th-century Britain infuriating, ‘its political infrastructure weak, its inhabitants capricious and its intentions impossible to fathom’, it was at least in part because they did not really know what they were talking about. Devil-Land is an entertaining read and it makes some important points, but Jackson has not given 17th-century Englishmen and women much right of reply to these disparaging foreigners.