Who's Who

Two Books on Charles I

Published in History Today 1992

An Uncounselled King: Charles I and the Scottish Troubles 1837-1841
Peter Donald - Cambridge University Press, 1990 - xv + 351 pp. - £35

Charles I and the Making of the Covenating Movement 1625-1641
Allan I. Macinnes - John Donald, 1991 - ix + 228 pp. - £22

The Scottish rebellion against the personal rule of Charles I has never attracted the sort of passionate historiographical debate engendered by its counterpart in England. Yet whether seen in purely Scottish terms or, as is now increasingly the case even among English historians, as part of the wider problem of the breakdown of multiple kingship in seventeenth-century Britain, it is a story of high drama and consuming interest. The publication of two substantial volumes, therefore, both of them addressing Charles I's government of Scotland but both of them well aware of the British ramifications of the king's Scottish 'Troubles', is a notable event which will be greeted with enthusiasm by historians of Scotland and England alike.

The more interesting of the two works is Allan Macinnes' attempt to unravel the origins of the Scottish covenanting movement through a detailed analysis of Charles I's government of Scotland from his accession in 1625 through the outbreak of revolt in 1637 to the constitutional settlement of 1641. Much of the ground covered here is familiar enough territory and it will surprise no one to read of the king's apparently infinite capacity to alienate his Scottish subjects through his religious and political policies or of his apparently wilful efforts to cut off every possible means by which his subjects could communicate their grievances and seek redress. Charles I emerges from this study, as from so many others, as a peculiarly inept and insensitive ruler who brought most of his problems on himself.

What distinguishes Macinnes' analysis, however, is not just his clear grasp of the political and religious issues at stake, but his attempt to integrate these factors with an innovatory account of the impact of royal policy on the economic and social condition of Scotland in the years prior to the rebellion. This entails both a comprehensive account of the unearthly complexities of the king's Revocation scheme and an examination of lesser known issues such as the problems of the currency, tariff reform, monopolies and the establishment of the common fishing.

Macinnes argues that many of these policies were cut from the same cloth as the crown's political and religious aims: that is, the imposition of uniformity throughout the king's British realms, if necessary by virtue of the royal prerogative alone and invariably on English terms. The fear of Anglicisation is for Macinnes the key to a Scottish revolt which he portrays as a nationalist backlash against Scotland's provincialisation within Britain. The result, he argues, was an attempt to forge a constitutional settlement which would simultaneously limit the scope of the royal prerogative and guarantee the institutional integrity of Scottish political life.

In stark contrast to Macinnes' almost old-fashioned attempt to provide a comprehensive account of the underlying causes of the Scottish revolt, Peter Donald pursues the now voguish course of straight political narrative. The two works overlap: Macinnes' final chapter covering the same period as Donald's entire monograph. Macinnes may be criticised for being too terse: his clipped, staccato prose is often irritatingly cryptic. But Donald's prose style, frequently characterised by awkward syntax and dubious word choices, is hardly adequate to the task of sustained narrative. Much sedulous archival research has gone into an account of Charles I's day-to-day dealings with the covenanters in the crucial years between 1637 and 1641. Yet while much new material has been unearthed, one is still left wondering what, if anything, it all adds up to.

To argue, as Donald does, that the king had a problem of counsel is hardly a profound insight. Nor, given how narrowly the idea of counsel is here interpreted, is it capable of lending his narrative real coherence and direction. For the business of advising the king is construed by Donald almost entirely in terms of personal contact between Charles I and his leading magnates and courtiers. Of the implications of his refusal to acknowledge the role in Scottish political life of either Parliament or general assembly – in many respects the nub of Macinnes' analysis – we hear very little in Donald's study. As a result, his fashionable attempt to play down the revolutionary nature of the covenanting movement, while usefully balancing Macinnes' quite contrary interpretation, is ultimately less than convincing.

To view the Scottish 'Troubles' from the perspective of the king and his court is a valid enough approach which of necessity places the covenanting rebellion in the wider British context where it belongs. At the same time it sheds a good deal of new light on Charles I's relations with his leading Scottish subjects. Yet it also inclines one to view Scotland and its problems from the same blinkered stand-point as the king himself. The result, at least as regards Peter Donald's work, is not so much unsatisfactory in its parts, as unsatisfying as a whole. While students of the period will find much of interest in the new material he has uncovered, it is the Scottish perspective adopted by Allan Macinnes which provides real food for thought.

Roger Mason is the co-editor of New Perspectives on the Politics and Culture of Early Modern Scotland (John Donald, 1982)..

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