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The Century of the Three Kingdoms

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David Stevenson looks at the three-kingdom state in the seventeenth century.

For the British Isles the seventeenth century was very much 'the Century of the Three Kingdoms'. On the one hand the three kingdoms were, for the first time, ruled by a single monarch. On the other, the century saw intermittent attempts by the lesser kingdoms, Scotland and Ireland, to escape English domination by adjusting their relationships with their great neighbour in their favour. These attempts failed – and indeed had the opposite effects to those intended. By the early years of the eighteenth century England had triumphed, the lesser kingdoms had been subdued.

The three kingdom state came into existence through the dynastic accident of James VI of Scotland ascending the English throne as James I in 1603; and in the same year the centuries-old English claim to rule all Ireland came much closer to reality than ever in the past, through the completion of the Elizabethan conquest by the submission of the native Irish of Ulster. The relationships of the lesser kingdoms to the greater were thus very different. Ireland was not only constitutionally subordinate to the English crown, she was also newly conquered territory. Scotland, by contrast, was at least nominally an equal partner with England in a union which might be accidental but which was widely regarded as a happy dispensation. The Scots believed that their interests and those of the English were fully compatible; far from seeing their country's position as paralleling that of Ireland as a lesser kingdom in the new state, the Scots sympathised with (and were willing to help in) English plans to complete the subjection of Ireland. England's 'Irish problem' was indeed seen as in some ways similar to Scotland's 'Highland problem'. In each case the political autonomy and the cultural and linguistic identity of Gaelic peoples were under attack.

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