England Under Siege, 1588-1688

Clare Jackson

England’s relationship with the continent during this period was problematic, to say the least.
The Spanish Armada
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By coincidence, I signed the contract with Penguin to write Devil-Land: England Under Siege 1588-1688 in the week that followed the referendum held on 23 June 2016 in which a majority of the United Kingdom’s electorate voted to leave the European Union. I finally finished the manuscript in the week after the UK’s final departure from the EU, following expiry of the ‘transition period’ on 31 December 2020. Amid a new coronavirus lockdown, France had shut its borders to the UK, and miles of queueing Continental hauliers were stranded in Kent. Written in the shadow of Brexit speculation and debate, Devil-Land’s focus on the contingent mutability of 17th century England’s relations with its Continental neighbours provides perspective, if scant comfort, for its readers.

Devil-Land’s title derives from the nickname ‘Duyvel-Landt’, coined by an anonymous Dutch pamphleteer in 1652. Reversing familiar Latin puns whereby the English (‘Angli’) were to be cherished as cherubic angels (‘angeli’), the English appeared, rather, as diabolically dreadful king-killers. Three years earlier, the English had sent shockwaves throughout Continental Europe by putting their divinely ordained king, Charles I, on trial for high treason and executing him in public. Defiantly unrepentant, the new republican regime’s leaders in London were now about to declare war on their fellow Protestant republicans, the Dutch, in the first of a series of 17th century Anglo-Dutch wars fought over trade routes and colonial expansion.

Published in September 2021, Devil-Land’s dust jacket depicts a robin, in a detail from an illustrated Jacobean charter preserved in Canterbury Cathedral. Jauntily colourful, the benign image belies the book’s darkly unsettling tale of the most unstable and turbulent century in England’s history. Appraising Devil-Land for the London Review of Books, Jessie Childs noted its cover: ‘a robin redbreast – that most territorial of birds – perched on a branch ripe with berries’, observing that ‘it’s impossible to tell if it is poised for fight, flight or song. The English tried all three in this century’. Selecting their dozen favourite book covers of 2021, the books department of The Times newspaper avoided any hypothesis, admitting that ‘we’re not quite sure how this beautiful robin and its snacks reflect this book’s thesis that 17th century England was a pariah state – but we love it anyway’.

Dissecting a nation’s endemic fears, anxieties and insecurities, Devil-Land’s account is bookended by two major foreign invasion attempts. It opens in the late years of Elizabeth I’s reign which saw a vast Spanish fleet, comprising over 130 ships, 7,000 sailors, 17,000 soldiers and around 1,300 officials enter the English Channel in August 1588, hoping to rendezvous with Philip II of Spain’s nephew, Alexander Farnese, duke of Parma, who would bring an invasion force of 27,000 Habsburg soldiers across from Flanders to land in Kent. Spanish ambitions were frustrated by summer storms and poor communications, and the scattered Armada embarked on a circuitous return journey via northern Scotland, western Ireland and the Bay of Biscay, during which a third of its ships sank, and over half of its sailors and soldiers drowned or died from starvation or being lynched on beaches. Devil-Land concludes its account, a century later, with another foreign seaborn invasion that succeeded: when William of Orange’s force of around 400 ships, 15,000 soldiers and 3,000-4,000 horses landed at Torbay in Devon on 5 November 1688, prompting his Catholic uncle and father-in-law, King James VII & II, to flee to Louis XIV’s France.

Henrietta Maria

Inspiration for Devil-Land’s arguments came from five television films I made for the BBC entitled The Stuarts and The Stuarts in Exile in 2014-15. Commissioned in the run-up to the Scottish independence referendum in 2014, the films revisited the Stuart rulers of England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales through the prism of their multiple monarchy inheritance. Having succeeded Elizabeth I as England’s first Stuart king in 1603, James VI & I promoted a ‘union of hearts and minds’, hoping that the two formerly hostile and warring nations of England and Scotland might be peacefully reconciled within a new state, named Great Britain. A new British coinage bore images of roses and thistles and a new flag design became known, eponymously, as the ‘Union Jack’. Alongside the British vision of the new Stuart line was, moreover, a cosmopolitan range of dynastic, diplomatic and cultural attachments to the Continent. During the two years spent making the BBC films, the seeds of Devil-Land’s arguments were sown when reappraising the impact of Stuart rule in locations ranging from a windswept Aberdeenshire beach that once hosted an invading Jacobite force, to Derry’s city walls, Breda’s cobbled streets, Madrid’s monumental Plaza Mayor, Versailles’s Hall of Mirrors and the Vatican City tomb of the Jacobite ‘Old Pretender’. As I concluded, to many of their 17th century English subjects, the Stuarts appeared an alien, imported dynasty that could not be securely relied upon to promote the national interest. And the distrust was mutual. Objecting to the rambunctiousness of the English Parliament to the Spanish ambassador in 1614, James VI & I admitted, ‘I am a stranger and found it here when I arrived, so that I am obliged to put up with what I cannot get rid of’. For her part, James’s Danish wife, Queen Anna, wrote in seven languages and after covertly abandoning Lutheranism for Catholicism, became one of a succession of Catholic queens consort – Henrietta Maria, Catherine of Braganza and Mary of Modena – who all brought separate networks of political patronage, confessional attachments and foreign entanglements.

In emphasising themes of confusion, distrust and trepidation, rather than confidence, buoyancy and assurance, Devil-Land’s is a self-consciously subjective argument. In the book’s introduction, I cite a tract published in 1624 by the English clergyman, Edmund Garrard, who predicted that his readers could plausibly complain ‘that in my discourse I have been squint-eyed, as not looking or bending my course any ways direct’. Devil-Land’s readers might feel similarly. But amid bitter confessional sectarianism across Continental Europe, the geopolitical stakes were high: between 1590 and 1690, the territorial extent of Protestantism was reduced from one-half to one-fifth of Europe’s landmass. Reviewing Devil-Land for The Sunday Times, John Adamson explained that ‘the reason for much of that century’s devilry, Jackson contends, comes from a single source: the question of England’s proper relation with Europe’. Since dynastic, diplomatic and economic decisions were invariably inflected by confessional choices, ‘get that wrong, and the nation would literally go to the Devil’.

William of Orange arrives at Torbay

To foreign observers, 17th century England frequently appeared infuriating: its political infrastructure was weak, its inhabitants were capricious, and its intentions were impossible to fathom. Dispatched to London to congratulate James VI & I on his accession in 1603, the French diplomat, the count of Rosny, concluded that ‘no nation in Europe is more haughty and disdainful, nor more conceited in an opinion of its superior excellence’. In the late 1630s, a Venetian envoy in London was informed by his Spanish counterpart, the count of Oñate, that ‘there was no school in the world where one could learn how to negotiate with the English’; Oñate declared himself ‘incapable of understanding their humours’. During the interregnum in the 1650s, foreign diplomats who spoke English, such as the Swede, Christer Bonde, were welcomed by the monoglot Oliver Cromwell. But as Bonde despaired to his king, Charles X, ‘I go round in circles with these irresolute people: sometimes I blaze away at them … they cannot produce a single argument which I cannot show to be palpably erroneous’. Following the Stuart monarchy’s restoration in 1660, fears that England’s national interests risked liquidation only intensified when Charles II sought to rely on secret French subsidies as a means of circumventing the truculent English Parliament. But as traditional Hispanophobia in England transmuted into frenzied Francophobia, Charles admitted to the French ambassador that he was ‘standing up for France’s interests against his entire kingdom’ in 1674. And although Louis XIV’s court at Versailles might now seem a remarkable regime in itself, another despairing French envoy, the marquis of Branges, warned Louis in 1680 that ‘what I write will appear to your Majesty without doubt very extraordinary, but England has no resemblance to other countries’.

Discussing Devil-Land’s focus on foreigners’ perceptions of 17th century England under its Stuart rulers, one reviewer, Lucy Wooding, imagined a contemporary equivalent: ‘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’. Wooding’s observation reminded me of the illuminating series of articles entitled ‘As others see us’ by David Leask in The Herald newspaper before the Scottish independence referendum in 2014. As Leask had advised his readers, ‘we are being watched. Scotland – usually an ignored and barely acknowledged corner of Europe – is suddenly at the centre of a slow-burning global news story’. Hence Leask had sought to try, as Robert Burns had famously put it, ‘to see ourselves as others see us’ precisely because ‘sometimes foreign observers will tell us something about ourselves we don’t know’. For over a year, Leask published digests of articles on the Scottish independence debate culled from publications in nationalist hotspots and disputed territories across the world, including Quebec, Catalonia, Crimea, Nagorno-Karabah and Sri Lanka, as well as commentaries from London, Dublin, Paris, Berlin, Washington and Moscow. More recently, ‘seeing ourselves as others see us’ formed the theme of an episode of Andrew Marr’s Start the Week programme on Radio 4 last October, where parallels were drawn between Devil-Land’s arguments and Fintan O’Toole’s insightful and personal history of Ireland since 1958, resonantly entitled We Don’t Know Ourselves. When populations of other countries were exhorted, from the late-1990s to 2008 ‘to be like Ireland’, O’Toole lamented that ‘our already hyped-up vision of ourselves was magnified by being reflected back at us in the admiring gaze of foreigners’.

Juxtaposing Devil-Land’s account of 17th century England’s foreign relations with O’Toole’s history of modern Ireland confirmed the resonance of modern parallels. Coincidentally, our discussion on Start the Week occurred weeks after a new entente discordiale had been reached in Franco-British diplomatic relations, following Australia’s announcement of Aukus: a new three-way strategic defence alliance with the United States and Britain that required Australia to abandon a multi-billion-dollar contract to purchase French submarines. For the first time in the history of the United States, France had recalled its ambassador from Washington, and had also broken off diplomatic relations with Canberra. But when asked why their diplomatic counterpart in London had not been recalled, the French foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, dismissed Britain as the redundant ‘fifth wheel on the carriage’. When it comes to trading insults, evidently not much has changed from 1638 when Louis XIV’s chief minister, Cardinal Richelieu, ‘stated emphatically that, at present, England might be called the country where they talk of everything and conclude nothing’.

Clare Jackson is the Senior Tutor of Trinity Hall, Cambridge University. She has presented a number of highly successful programmes on the Stuart dynasty for the BBC and is the author of Charles II in the Penguin Monarchs series. Her latest book is Devil-Land: England Under Siege 1588-1688.

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