Monthly Archives: January 2011

Every picture tells a story


The casual tourist in London may see only the core, the area between Tower Bridge and Kensington. Who knows London, who only that bit knows?

Beyond that are the places where millions of Londoners occupy their separate urban villages, where Hampstead barely speaks to Highgate, where it is a stretch of distance and imagination between Blackheath and Greenwich.

Where the dill flower blooms

And so to Dulwich, which is sarf uv de riva, and therefore, to a Norf Lunnuner as Malcolm is, terra incognita. Which, on this occasion, is also America, my new-found-land.

One very-well-connected man explains much of what Dulwich Village is all about: Edward Alleyn, actor, entrepreneur, Jacobean property magnate and philanthropist. Having served his apprenticeship on the London stage, working in the company that was Shakespeare’s main rivals, he became a highly-successful businessman. In the second decade of the seventeenth century he bought the manor of Dulwich and converted his considerable fortune into a charitable foundation and a college. Hence the public school. Hence the park. But not the picture gallery: despite its original name (the Dulwich College Picture Gallery) that is more the legacy of Sir John Soane (whom we were with some time ago), two hundred years later.

A specific appellation

Notice the moniker: “Picture Gallery” — not generic “art”. What we are getting is the representational, the illustrative, the picturesque, the figurative: the concrete and human world rendered on paper, board and canvas, and even in stone.

For this trimester that means Norman Rockwell’s America (as above), transplanted from the National Museum of American Illustration.

We all “know” Rockwell. In a blind tasting, the general public would probably recognise his work as much as anyone’s. Much of his stuff is saccharine sweet and smooth; as The Times Leader had it:

Because Norman Rockwell’s pictures seem to celebrate American life, because they are inhabited by schoolboys and grey-haired grannies, because they are set in diners and drugstores, because he painted Middle America in the middle of the 20th century, before Kennedy’s assassination and Vietnam stirred cynicism into the American Dream, he is sometimes caricatured as the man who not only painted America but who also mythologised it.

Before hastening on:

It is not just that, like Andy Warhol, Rockwell took icons of everyday American life and lent them a mythic quality; or even that his pictures depict the virtues of tolerance and family and fair play. It was that his compositional brilliance was so acute that he could tell stories in a single image.

Before concluding:

Rockwell said that he painted life not as it is but “as I would like it to be”. Yet his portrait of America was no fantasy. Art, Picasso said, is a lie that makes you realise the truth. Few painters told lies that resonated more authentically than Rockwell’s.

Which proves something in that Rockwell’s name seems not out-of-place alongside Warhol and Picasso, except that Rockwell probably makes more sense than either.

When Nancy Durrant reviewed the show for The Times (and gave it four stars), she put it like this:

What do you see when you think of 20th-century American art ? Pollock’s macho yet controlled splashes? Rothko’s brooding, muscular block colours? Or a snub-nosed boy, red hair askew, bracing himself for a large spoonful of medicine? This is the art of Norman Rockwell, happy to be known as an illustrator for the whole of his 60-year career, but as technically proficient a representational painter in oils as you could hope to find. Nostalgic it may be, but Rockwell’s rose-tinted but witty (and occasionally searingly sharp) vision of his country was one that gained him a vast public following. It was expressed largely through the 323 covers he painted for theSaturday Evening Post between 1916 and 1963, all of which are on display here, alongside 40 original paintings and studies.

Note the “searingly sharp”.

It is a commonplace that Rockwell discovered social issues and liberalism only in his last phase, particularly after he forsake the Saturday Evening Post for Look. Again, fair enough. Until one inspects further.

Take, for example, his Colonial Sign Painter (right), the first all-colour cover of the Post. Then twig the date on the easel: 1785. Ye Pipe and Bowl tavern is not just getting a touch-up; it is getting a new name and image, for the face on the sign must be that of George III. As for the bespectacled intent painter, that looks a pastiche of Rockwell himself. Rockwell was happy to undertake advertising commissions; and therefore sees himself as the natural successor to his subject here.

Like many of Rockwell’s works, this one exists in two different versions. The message becomes quite blatant in the other, fully-developed “art-work” (as below).


Now we see that Rockwell is ridiculing the device of political-rebranding, decontamination by image and association, just as the likes of Malcolm repeatedly mocks the likes of the Windscale/Sellafield futile detox.

OK, let’s leave the rest (and there’s a lot more to come)  to a later post.

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Rupe’s bordello

Devastating piece in the Sindy by Professor Brian Cathcart on the phone-hacking scandal. He ties the nexus of News International, the Met Police, the media watchdogs which didn’t bark, the leaky mobile phone operators (with their massive tax bribes), and the upper echelons of our politics:

Politics, the police, the media and the phone industry, all tangled in what an Italian might well consider to be a web of systemic corruption. Only the prostitutes are missing.

There are many differences, but until now we’ve concentrated on those and sneered at the Italians. Isn’t it time we worried about the similarities?

The headline gets the essence:

Thinking Italian: UK is like Berlusconi without the whores.

Hold on, Brian: you’ve forgotten Jeremy Hunt!

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Lend me your Lears


London is currently awash with Lears. It must be on the A-level course, of course. There’s a decent one in the large at the Camden Roundhouse; and there’s intimate Jacobi at the Donmar,

Which to choose? A no-brainer.

The Donmar production, by Michael Grandage, must be the sparest, sparsest, bleakest stage in all of theatreland: nothing but Christopher Oram’s rough-washed boards of wall and stage (the white slightly roseate where the regular deposits of stage-gore are wiped away between performances). Apart from the Fool, simple black is the colour of everybody’s gear. The whole props table seems to total one map and pointer, various ironmongery, one “stocks”, one chair, bits of rope, and a garland for Lear’s final scene. None of that gets in the way of a spectacular storm (Neil Austin runs the lighting plot, and deserves a credit for that scene alone):

Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench’d our steeples, drown’d the cocks!
You sulphurous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Smite flat the thick rotundity o’ the world!
Crack nature’s moulds, and germens spill at once,
That make ingrateful man.

No need to snigger at the back there. Just because Herr Doktor Freud won’t be around for another three centuries, that doesn’t mean the ambiguity isn’t deliberate.

The two wicked sisters glow with malice. Gina McKee’s Goneril is, quite literally, a ball-breaker. Justine Mitchell as Regan becomes quite giddy with excitement at the prospect of doing for Gloucester.

We came for just two things: another attempt to grapple with this most complex of plays, and for Jacobi. The old boy (now chronologically in his early seventies) is stunning. When he loses it over Cordelia, one hopes his G.P. has thoroughly checked his heart: the violence and spleen are magnificent. At the end he hoicks Cordelia (winsome and fortunately slight Pippa Bennett-Warner) over his shoulder with no sign of creaking limbs. In between he manages every shift of mood and derangement the script requires. There have to be the diversions from accustomed practice: “I shall go mad” is delivered after a scream of pain, but quiet enough to be an assurance rather than a fear.

Malcolm knows from bitter experience that this play is an absolute bugger to teach: its complexity is overwhelming. For easy explaining to bored teenagers, there always seem to be a couple of characters too many. The body-count is awesome, even for the early Jacobean theatre. The action is bloody (and Gloucester’s visit to the opticians abundantly so).

And then there are the motifs.

Malcolm’s time in the eddikashun business came before the ready availability of word-clouds (as at the head of this post). Indeed, those first stirrings would have involved laborious line-by-line searches, had it not been for the Herculean efforts of the likes of Caroline Spurgeon and Robert Heilman. Else he would might have been forced to trade up from the odd glove or sock to the full arm or leg. Then, in the early 80s,  along came the marvellous BBC micro, where a 2MHz chip-speed and 32KB of RAM adequately managed the whole digital text and a find function.

So, today, one can set a class to rummaging out those key references: nature, eye, love … and take a break.

There is one further element of Lear that continues to fascinate: Edmund, the Machiavel (here Alec Newman getting his jollies), who is given the other most magnificent soliloquy of the play:

Thou, nature, art my goddess; to thy law
My services are bound. Wherefore should I
Stand in the plague of custom, and permit
The curiosity of nations to deprive me,
For that I am some twelve or fourteen moon-shines
Lag of a brother? Why bastard? wherefore base?

See what Malcolm means? There’s nature and, through moon-shines, the light image, and duty. OK, class, let’s see how those stack up across the whole play! And here it comes! The breath-taking:

I grow; I prosper:
Now, gods, stand up for bastards!

Yes: they’ll all remember that bit. And quote it, endlessly.

There’s another thread to follow: Shakespeare and the Machiavel. In Malcolm’s time the starting point there was Harry Levin on Marlowe: you’ll be looking for that on the second-hand market now (though Malcolm suspects he has two copies). Malcolm finds it interesting that John Roe’s more recent, and more precise, study of Shakespeare and Machiavelli managed to miss out on Edmund in Lear. Too complex, perhaps. Anyway, that theme will be back in vogue in the not-too-distant future when Kevin Spacey brings Turdulent Dick to the Old Vic.

Which leaves Malcolm only one unresolved mystery of the show at the Donmar: how did that girl in the front row manage to sleep through all the bombast, fire and brimstone?

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A Wilde time

One of the wonders of the modern age must be why Oscar Wilde is so much in fashion, while George Bernard Shaw is largely neglected.

Here we have An Ideal Husband back on stage at the Vaudeville in the Strand.

At one level, it ought to creak with the late Victorian devices of a sequence of purloined and misinterpreted letters. On second thoughts, it is always the mislaid e-mail that brings down the modern politico. So no change there.

Beyond that, Wilde has a politician dancing on the head of a pin:

LADY CHILTERN. Robert! Oh! it is horrible that I should have to ask you such a question – Robert, are you telling me the whole truth?

SIR ROBERT CHILTERN. Why do you ask me such a question?

LADY CHILTERN. [After a pause.] Why do you not answer it?

SIR ROBERT CHILTERN. [Sitting down.] Gertrude, truth is a very complex thing, and politics is a very complex business. There are wheels within wheels. One may be under certain obligations to people that one must pay. Sooner or later in political life one has to compromise. Every one does.

Some things never change.

Or yet again (and this one draws a chortle of recognition from any modern audience):

SIR ROBERT CHILTERN. Oh! spies are of no use nowadays. Their
profession is over. The newspapers do their work instead.

LORD GORING. And thunderingly well they do it.

In one respect, Wilde ventures where no modern playwright would venture: the politician is saved by simple friendship. In the last two Acts, the effete Lord Goring has to rise beyond his affectations to outwit the devious femme fatale, rescue Chiltern from ruin, re-boot Lady Chiltern’s wifely love, and — in due reward — claim the fair maiden who is dutifully in love with him. And who is quite his match in Wildean wit:

LORD GORING. [Taking hold of her hand.] Mabel, I have told you that I love you. Can’t you love me a little in return?

MABEL CHILTERN. You silly Arthur! If you knew anything about . . . anything, which you don’t, you would know that I adore you. Every one in London knows it except you. It is a public scandal the way I adore you. I have been going about for the last six months telling the whole of society that I adore you. I wonder you consent to have anything to say to me. I have no character left at all. At least, I feel so happy that I am quite sure I have no character left at all.

LORD GORING. [Catches her in his arms and kisses her. Then there is a pause of bliss.] Dear! Do you know I was awfully afraid of being refused!

MABEL CHILTERN. [Looking up at him.] But you never have been refused yet by anybody, have you, Arthur? I can’t imagine any one refusing you.

LORD GORING. [After kissing her again.] Of course I’m not nearly good enough for you, Mabel.

MABEL CHILTERN. [Nestling close to him.] I am so glad, darling. I was afraid you were.

Moreover, there is the devious Mrs Cheveley. Wilde’s stage direction is as precise as anything established by Shaw (who would have done it at far greater length):

MRS. CHEVELEY … is tall and rather slight. Lips very thin and highly-coloured, a line of scarlet on a pallid face. Venetian red hair, aquiline nose, and long throat. Rouge accentuates the natural paleness of her complexion. Gray-green eyes that move restlessly. She is in heliotrope, with diamonds. She looks rather like an orchid, and makes great demands on one’s curiosity. In all her movements she is extremely graceful. A work of art, on the whole, but showing the influence of too many schools.

That might have been Florence West (right) in the 1890s. Today we have husky-voiced Samantha Bond (left). She not only has the lines, she has the frocks.

All in all, this is quite a lavishly presented piece. It ought to stagger towards its predictable conclusion. In fact, thanks to a cast playing to each other’s considerable strengths, it accelerates quite nicely after the interval. Samantha Bond, of course, is the headliner that many come to see: every one of the reviewers was fascinated by her performance. Alongside her is her real-life husband, Alex Hanson, playing Chiltern, and making a fair fist of a rather po-faced script. Then there is Elliot Cowan, making Goring’s rise from languid lethargy to dynamic machination quite credible.

An excellent outing was had by all.


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Up the poll

Nobody should take any opinion poll, at any time, without more than one pinch of salt.

Yet Malcolm has to note that Labour is now tracking rather better than the Tories did for all except the odd moments of the previous parliament.

Consider this historic record from UKpolling report:

Now refer to this, on the left:

The latest in that sequence is Con 38%, Labour 44%, LibDems 8%.

Which seems to indicate there is a continuing downward shift in registered support for the Conservative-led government parties, while Labour is becoming established in the lower forties, and tending upwards.

Again: these are artificial figures, and meaningless until they are tested in a real-life situation. When they are so tested, as at Old and Sad, or on a weekly basis in trivial local Council by-elections, the pattern seems to hold. Debbie Abrahams at Old and Sad actually increased the numerical Labour vote, as well as scoring a 10% swing in the proportional vote: the much-vaunted LibDem increase of +0.3% masks a loss of three thousand votes and of over eleven thousand for the Tory.

There is something quite extraordinary going on.

Eight months on from losing a General Election, with the Tory media screaming about the outgoing government’s “economic incompetence” and ridiculing the new Labour team, anyone given the chance to express an opinion tends to give Labour more than an edge.

In comparison, it was into 2000, well over thirty months, before the 1997 Blair government pitched regularly below 50% and leads of twenty-plus percentage points.

Meanwhile, neither shoe of the New Economic Order (increased taxes, reduced public employment) has quite yet hit the deck.

And now back to the cultural stuff.

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The Scottish Covenant

It started with a post on politics.ie:

The Scottish Covenanters: Radicals or Proto-fascists?

That irritated Malcolm in oh-so-many-ways.

First up was the looseness of thought that could apply a term like “proto-fascists” to the early seventeenth century. It’s like blaming Christopher Columbus for not just checking out Google Earth (which would have saved him, the native Americans, and the world an awful lot of bother).

Let’s get that out of the way for a start.

Fascism, as a term, became current, imported from Italian, only around 1921, and proto-fascism was coined (in the New York Times, believe it or not) a decade later to refer to Georges Sorel (1847-1922). So extrapolating back three further centuries is a leap of imagination too far.

Anyone devious enough to plunder the Eleventh edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica (and that’s not going to occur to any of the habitués of politics.ie) may discover an earlier reference:

… in Sicily a discontent of which Socialist agitators took advantage to organize the workmen of the towns and the peasants of the country into groups known as fasci.

That was plumped out by Eric Hobsbawn in his Primitive Rebels of 1959:

The great peasant rising of 1894—the Fasci Siciliani—saw [the Mafia] on the side of reaction, or at best neutral .‥ Even then it was observed that the rise of the Fasci had diminished the hold of Mafia on the peasants.

That quibble apart, Malcolm’s main objection was to the thinness of the argument. It depended from a casual reading and a review on the Scottish Republican Socialist Movement website. Oh dear! The depth of thought here can be quickly exemplified:

Take the Covenanters. After many years of “struggle” they were able to impose their vision on Scotland (albeit a watered down one.) It was a long road. In Greyfriars Churchyard in 1638 they signed a ‘Church in Danger’ document which they called the National Covenant. The Union of the Crowns in 1603 had taken the Stuarts to London faster than the proverbial Scottish Labour MP (and with the same intention of not returning!)

The interests of our larger neighbour seemed to predominate in all affairs – be it politics, culture or religion. The Greyfriars signatories had a legitimate grievance in feeling that their Kirk was being anglicised. But let us put this “Scottish Revolution” in perspective. True, the Covenanters act of rebellion was favoured in much of lowland Scotland. Parts of the north east and the Gaeltacht were the exceptions. Charles I’s domestic English problems had a say in both these outcomes : it gave the Covenanters a free hand to secure their position within Scotland free from any organised royalist resistance until late 1643 – early 1644 by which time England and Ireland were in civil war.

Let’s not choke on that nonsense about 1640s Ireland being in “civil war”. But whizz to the end of the same effort:

The Covenanters legacy can be seen in many small town lowland prejudices, namely anti-highland and anti-Irish prejudices. For my part, the Covenanting tradition belongs to the Orangemen lock, stock and barrel – in bigotry, in language, in defence of the same rights and victories. They signed covenants in 1638; they play flutes and lambeg drums today. For those who believe in a secular Scottish Republic, who adhere to the old United Irishmen maxim of ” uniting Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter” then we can have no truck with the intolerance and proto-fascism of the Covenanters. How can we ever re-claim that maxim if we honour those who tried to destroy it.

That tells us more about the author than about the topic. It seems to assume that, because the Ulstermen of 1912 adapted the Covenant as a device, it must be the same device. So the author is entitled to berate the National Covenant of 1638 with the rhetoric of the late 20th-century by some process of assimilation.

Malcolm objected. He drew attention to Neil Oliver’s opinionated, shallow but amusing A History of Scotland (now in paperback). The episode on the Covenant, God’s Chosen People, is re-titled King Jesus. Oliver starts his chapter with a throat-clearing anecdote:

A Scottish Presbyterian man is headed for a new life in Australia when his ship hits an uncharted reef and sinks. Alone of all the passengers and crew he survives the wreck and swims to a little uninhabited island. Twenty years later another liner is blown off course by another storm and onto the same reef. This time a handful of survivors make it into a lifeboat and they row themselves to the Scotsman’s island.
He greets them warmly and takes them on a tour of their new home. They soon realise he has worked hard to create a comfortable, civilised life for himself.
‘This is my house — complete with running water,’ he says, walking them past a well-built timber building with a roof of palm leaves.
‘Here’s my garden and my vegetable plot,’ he says, smiling broadly. ‘I can grow fruit as well, anything I want — the climate is so wonderful.’
‘And over there — slung between two palm trees — is my hammock, where I like to watch the sun set each evening.’
One of the survivors takes a minute to gaze around and then poijnts to a stone building on a nearby hill.
‘And what’s that?’ he asks.
‘Oh, that’s my church,’ says the Scotsman.
Another survivor points to an almost identical building right beside the first one.
‘And that?’ he asks.
“That?’ says the Scotsman. ‘Oh … that’s the church I don’t go to.’

At which point, Malcolm was challenged to give his own interpretation of what the Covenant was all about. And this he did in three extended postings.

Part ye firste

Above all, it is necessary to appreciate the inter-weaving of the religious and the political. Along with that we need to recognise that Scotland was then a rapidly-evolving social system, but any sense of Scottish separateness had to play off French and English interference.

So, perhaps one starting point would not be in Scotland nor in the seventeenth century. It would be with that July 1525 act of the Scots parliament forbidding the import of Lutheran materials (so they must have been current, and significant). Or with Patrick Hamilton, who studied under Luther and Erasmus, and absorbed their humanism and the “discovery” of individual conscience. Archbishop Beaton had him burned (in the Fifeshire rain it took six hours for him to die) and the Reformation in Scotland had its first martyr.

In 1545 Beaton arrested George Wishart (a protestant reformer and political agent of Henry VIII — this is, after all, during the “rough wooing”) and burned him, too. Revenge came soon: Wishart was assassinated (29 May 1546) and the sixteen conspirators barricaded themselves in St Andrews Castle, where they were joined by sympathisers, including one John Knox. When they surrendered, a month later, Mary of Guise and her ruling faction had them sent to the French galleys.

Then there was, of course, the earlier Covenant (“the first Bond”) of 1557-8. Five noblemen, “The Lords of the Congregation”, swore to leave the Catholic Church, to establish ministers and defend them and their congregations against interference. Across Scotland, local worthies, town officers and the gentlefolk signed up. It’s worth noting that this, rather than simple reforming zeal, was a “moderate” reaction as much against Knox and his ilk as against Mary of Guise.

24 April 1558: Mary of Scotland was married to François, Dauphin of France, who could, and did, now boast himself King of Scotland. Loudly.

Meanwhile, back home, Mary of Guise set about suppressing the first Bond, demanding that protestant preachers submit to Romanism before her. None appeared; and they were outlawed. That provoked what must have been a concerted plot by the Prod nobles. “The Beggar’s Summons” of New Year, 1559, was nailed to friaries and hospices in all the burghs, claiming the property for the poor of the town. Many burghs declared for protestantism, and the nobles recalled John Knox.

A week after arriving at Leith, Knox preached at Perth (11 May 1559): the congregation rioted for two days, gutting the ecclesiastical property there and at Scone. Mary of Guise raised an army to march on Perth. The Lords raised their own forces, sacked St Andrews, occupied Edinburgh. Mary of Guise retreated to Dunbar and called for French aid.

July 1559: Henri II of France died. François II succeded, and published his royal arms, quartered with the emblems of Scotland and England (his claim was that Elizabeth was illegitimate and he was rightful King of England through his wife)

That drew Elizabeth of England into the issue. First money was sent; then the English fleet blockaded the French at Leith. Stalemate. Only when Mary of Guise herself pegged out (11 June) did the French at Leith surrender. The result was the Treaty of Edinburgh (6 July 1560) between the English and the French.

Now this bit is significant. The Scots were not at any time signatories to the Treaty: this was a matter for the English and French to decide on their behalf, and in their own national interests. No foreigners were to be appointed to Scottish offices. The government of Scotland was to be in the hands of a council of twelve: seven nominees of Queen Mary, five by the Scottish parliament.

Parliament assembled on 1 August 1560: the usual notables (earls and Catholic bishops), twenty-two burghs represented, and — wha’ hey! —110 lesser nobles. “Power” (whatever that term implies in this context) was no longer the plaything of the Great Lords, but was being diluted among the lesser landlords and the rising burgesses.

Mary had not signed the Treaty, and would not do so because it meant denying her claim to the throne of England, so the first item on the agenda: were they legally constituted? Parliament duly voted its own legitimacy. The protestants from the burghs and those lesser lords took over the Lords of the Articles (effectively the main “executive”). The Lords of the Articles abolished papal authority and the Mass, not forgetting to seize church lands and property. Knox was called in to write the twenty-five Articles of Confession of Faith (a.k.a. the “Scots Confession”).

As any good thriller-writer would plot it, François II then popped his clogs (septic ear over Christmas 1560) and Mary was a widow. She rattled around for a few months while every Catholic monarch in Europe weighed up his chances, until her uncles suggested a trip home. When she arrived back, a convinced Catholic monarch, she found the Scottish Kirk had become formalised, that laymen, Elders, had responsibility for their congregations, and that the Kirk had a General Assembly. The Kirk had laid down a Book of Discipline which not only detailed religious matters, but social ones: poor relief, and free education. Only the nobles, recognising they would be paying for all this, held up profound social progress.

Thus was established the pattern of Scottish life that persisted until Charles I determined to change things.

Part ye seconde

The various doings that saw off (the photogenic, but otherwise useless) Mary, Queen of Scots, made little impact, except to cement the protestant lords into their dominance. The caveat here, of course, is that the Kirk was established only in the Lowlands: the writs of both monarch and General Assembly barely touched the Highlands and Islands; the north-east was episcopalian. Then there was the small matter of money.

Sequestered church property had, as so commonly happens, fallen into the hands of the nobles. There was an agreement, “the Thirds”, by which the nobles provided for the church and the monarchy: neither of these two recipients found their share sufficed. Stewarts were high-maintenance. The ministers of the Kirk were constantly increasing in number (not surprisingly: the Lowlands were over-populated, to which we shall return shortly).

Once Mary despatched herself to serial captivities in England, Scotland settled into business as usual: two decades of bloodshed and assassination.

The minority of James VI was managed by a succession of four regents (Moray, Lennox, Mar and Morton): two murdered and one beheaded. Meanwhile, Andrew Melville was creating a powerhouse at Glasgow University. Melville was one of the divines who authored The Second Book of Discipline (1578).

Here we have the handbook of a Calvinist Scotland. Melville spelled it out to James:

There is twa kings and twa kingdoms in Scotland, there is Christ Jesus and His kingdom the Kirk whose subject King James the sixth is, and of whose kingdom not a king, nor a heid, nor a laird, but a member.

Not what any self-destructive Stewart meekly accepts, particularly one who is seen to be flirting (indeed: this is James Stuart) with Rome in the form of Frenchified cousin Esmé Stuart, soon elevated to Duke of Lennox. The protestant lords arranged the kidnap of the king (the Raid of Ruthven) to force Lennox’ removal; but growing suspicion of James obliged him into his Negative Confession, denouncing popery, which later became the first element of the National Covenant.

James came back with:

  • First with his Trew Law of the Free Monarchies, which boils down to that “divine right” James learned from reading Bodinus (Jean Bodin, 1530-96) and which was drummed into us at middle school.
  • Then in May 1584 James formulated his “Black Acts” to affirm royal supremacy and send Melville and his fellow Calvinist divines into exile.
  • Much later (1598) came Basilikon Doron, his treatise on kingship addressed to his son-and-heir:
... learn to know and love that God, whom to ye have a double obligation; first, for that he made you a man; and next, for that He made you a little God to sit on his throne, and rule over other men.

Spot the coming crisis.

James’s other problem was money. After 1586 he had an agreement with Elizabeth to keep the peace on the border, in return for a stipend of £4,000 a year (this James saw also as a down-payment on his eventual accession to the English throne). Then the marriage (October 1589) to Anne of Denmark brought in a substantial dowry. If these connections, and the appointment from the “new men” of officials such as Sir John Maitland, eased his problems with his protestant gentry, they also provoked a rising by the Catholic lords. [Though there are also indications that James was in on the plot, as a roundabout way of pressing his claims on Elizabeth of England.]

To side-track from the religious issue, it’s worth noting another ramification. The rebellious Western Isles had to be brought under proper control. In 1597 it was enacted that a plantation and townships should be established for the “civility and policy” of the Western Isles. What was attempted, with small success in Lewis and Kintyre, became the pattern for Ulster, and then for Nova Scotia. Apart from subduing the parts royal power and protestantism had not previously reached, the plantations drained off the surplus population of the Lowlands, many of whom were unwelcome immigrants into England or entering mercenary service in Europe.

James’s opportunity to subdue the presbytery came once he was established in England. He invited to London Melville (who on arrival was promptly locked up in the Tower and denied any return to Scotland) and other divines (who were roundly abused). James set about increasing the number of Scottish bishops. Then, in 1617, the English parliament financed a royal trip to Scotland. Oh, dear!

At Holyrood James installed a choir and organ. He imposed the Five Articles of Perth, effectively anglicizing the Scottish practice: communion would be received kneeling; confirmation performed only by bishops; private communion and baptism be permitted; confession be restored (this last significant because it qualified the private conscience so important to Calvinists). When the Kirk did not abide by the letter of these Articles, the General Assembly was prohibited. And that, along with the publication of the Authorized Version, was how James left the Scottish church.

On, in part ye thirde, to the nub of the issue, starring Charles I.

Parte ye thirde

Let’s imagine being — say — among Edinburgh advocates at the end of March, 1625. News has arrived from London (the roads are bad, it may have been from a ship-captain landed at the Port of Leith). King Jamie Stewart the Sixt is deid. His son Charles Stewart, the spare not Henry the heir, is proclaimed. 

What would these intelligent and thoughtful professional men make of the situation? As many opinions as there are lawyers, no doubt.

Traditionalists would bewail the loss of prestige by the union of the crowns, a constant reminder that Scotland was a smaller, poorer place than the southern neighbour. Yet, wealth and power of England had financed conquest in the Highlands, leading to the outlawing of the Clan MacGregor, the forced reduction of the chieftains’ private armies, and the imposition of reformed religion, along with the guid Scots tongue, on the Gaelic fringes.

Others would as likely award deid King Jamie a fair rating. Under his reign, the longest of the Scottish kingdom, Scotland had changed greatly, and for the better. The country was a more orderly place, particularly now the Border troubles were ended (look at a map: see how close Edinburgh and the Lothians lie to the Border). The over-population of the Lowlands had been alleviated when the excess of borderers went to break heids in Ulster and further awa’. Burghs prospered with improved trade: there was a small but growing middle class. Enough of the feudal great Lords had gone south (having waxed fat on the pickings from sequestered church lands) and taken with them their squabbles and Francophilia. The lesser lords, the baronage, the gentry, were increasingly the makirs of the Scottish reformation, and now were more to the fore.

King Jamie in distant London, ruling through a Privy Council, suited the Scots very well. Scottish opinion was not anti-monarch; but the Calvinist temperament wanted a king who would accept the authority of scripture. Jamie at Holyrood had confronted this, and seen himself as the ultimate arbiter of divine authority. He also wisely knew his limits; managed the General Assemblies to accommodate the conservative elements from further north; achieved some shift of authority from presbytries to his appointed bishops; and arranged an agreed Prayer Book (instructively, through an Assembly held up in Aberdeen); but hadn’t attempted to impose it forcibly.

Charles Stewart was an unknown quantity. He had left Scotland as an infant; and spent half his conscious life as the spare to the heir. Among his first actions was the 1625 Act of Revocation, which annulled all grants of crown lands back to 1540, and restored the Teinds (the tithes) due to the Scottish church. This instantly bolstered his own and the church’s income; and financed the episcopacy through which he intended to rule the Kirk, and thereby the whole of Scotland. This was further implemented in 1634 with nine bishops nominated to the Scottish Privy Council where power was to be centralised.

When Charles, in 1633, long overdue, came to Edinburgh for his Scottish coronation, he transgressed every limit of tolerance his father had tacitly recognised. He brought with him Archbishop William Laud and the full panoply of Anglican worship. He created a bishop of Edinburgh; and Charles’s episcopacy was authoritarian. His Lords of the Articles had drafted a whole tranche of Acts which determined what the Church of Scotland would now be. When John Elphinstone, Lord Belmarino, objected to the imposition of royal authority on the Kirk (and the parliament voted with Belnarino — though the clerk prudently recorded a different result), Belmarino was arraigned for treason, found guilty by the odd vote of fifteen justices, condemned to death, and only reprieved by some special pleading.

Using his self-awarded powers, Charles then imposed a Book of Canons which styled him Head of the Church, a new Service Book (“Laud’s Liturgy”) and all without reference to the General Assembly or the Scottish parliament. All this seems to have been acceptable to the generality of the clergy, who had already accepted the episcopacy, whose status, and even stipends, had been improved. However, the lay congregations had absorbed their Calvinism well; and saw their presbyterianism stemming from the General Assembly, where the monarch had no say.

For the first time, on 23 July 1637, James Hanna, dean of the High Kirk in Edinburgh, read the order of service from the new Book of Common Prayer. When he reached the Collect, there was a pre-arranged riot. Jenny Geddes, who ran a vegetable stall in the market, gets the credit for first heaving her foot-stool at Hanna, wishing on him a hellish dose of the farts for saying Mass in her hearing. That gains effect in the demotic original:

“Deil colic the wame o’ ye, fause thief. Daur ye say Mass in my lug?”

[Rabbie Burns later showed his sympathies by naming his mare, “Jenny Geddes”. Both Jenny Geddes and James Hanna now have their plaques in St Giles. Separately.]
Next day, the Privy Council, advised by Archbishop Spottiswood, suspended the introduction of the Prayer Book. 

Demonstrations spread from Edinburgh to the other Calvinist burghs. So far, it had been the gentry and the nobles fomenting opposition. Charles, predictably, sent an edict for the ring-leaders to be arrested. Across the Calvinist kirks, ministers organised subscriptions and petitions: the opposition was becoming populist. The Privy Council appealed to London: London (Laud urging Charles to persist, lest any weakness encourage the English puritans) was emphatic the prayer book be enforced and objectors punished. Even in the episcopalian north-east, Bishop Whiteford of Brechin needed a pair of loaded pistols and an armed guard to read the liturgy (he then promptly fled Scotland for his own safety). More rioting in Edinburgh forced the Privy Council to remove to Linlithgow. The petitioners, the “suppliants”, confronted Charles’s chosen stooge, Lord Treasurer, the earl of Traquair. Official obduracy confronted rapidly-solidifying and well-organised opposition.

Out of the process of petitioning, a new administration, the Tables, began to emerge; and first assembled on 6 Dec 1637 at the Parliament House.

It’s worth noting how this worked, for it became the way Scotland would be governed under the Covenanters. Four of the “Tables”, in reality separate committee rooms, each represented one of the Estates: the divines; the lairds (who included a name to watch: James Graham, earl of Montrose); the county gentry; and the burghs, with the fifth “Table” as a secretariat and executive. The fifth Table provided not just a clearing-house, but also a testing of propositions by dialectic: five advocates, successors to that group we imagined at the start of this post. And one of them was Archibald Johnston of Wariston, a Glasgow-educated lynx-eyed lawyer … fu’ o’ fire and energy and gloom.

The Fifth Table delegated Archie Johnston to compose a “declinator”, a full, formal explanation of why the Tables excluded bishops in from discussion of their grievances.

Tranquair played for time, issuing a proclamation against popery, but also demanding the arrest of troublemakers. When the two sides did eventually meet, the Tables, led by the earl of Loudoun, presented their declinator. Loudoun was followed by James Cunningham, the minister of Cumnock, to press the doctrinal arguments. Tranquair recognised that all this was a few ulcers beyond his salary level, collected the documents, and took them and himself to London.

Charles and Laud were implacable. In mid-February 1638 Tranquair could prevaricate no longer: a royal proclamation demanded all to submit to his authority and the new prayer book.

The Fifth Table had already already been at work on its reasoned response, drafted by Alexander Henderson, the minister at Leuchars, and Archie Johnston. One provided the 1581 “Negative Confession”, agreed by James VI, and more: the other trawled law-books to complete the legal basis of the Calvinist faith and the Kirk. They had a working document of way over 4,000 words by 23 February. This went to the nobles for a final review the next day. It then passed to a convention of 300 representative ministers in the Tailors’ Hall in Cowgate: the moderates there quibbled over bishops, and this item was dropped at the last moment.

On 28 February, one of the most significant dates in Scottish history, Archie Johnston read the National Covenant to the assembled nobles at Greyfriars Kirk, in defiance of the royal proclamation which had declared such gatherings treasonable. First up to sign was the earl of Montrose. After the nobles, there were three days when the ministers and burghers signed. Then the Covenant went to the congregations.

At some point here we have moved from the populist to the popular. It was a National Covenant, carried by express horsemen, across Scotland, excepting only episcopalian Aberdeen and the irredeemably Gaelic north-west. Tens of thousands signed an personal sacred contract with a personal God, to defend our Church, the presbyterian establishment and our King. Any boundary between the ecclesiastical and the political gets lost here: all other considerations are subsumed in a Scottish national consciousness which is divinely-ordained and comprised of individual predestined souls. That’s a potent concoction.

The Covenanters may not meet the Spartist requirements for a proletarian revolution; but they were a moment of waking for the ordinary folk who were signatories. They deserve better respect for that.


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All kulchered out? Overture and beginners, please!

So, Malcolm, what’s been with you these last few days?

Oh, busy, busy …

For example?

Well, it started with the Scottish Covenanters. Then Oscar Wilde. Derek Jagobi’s Lear. And lastly the Norman Rockwell exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery.

No pubs?

Well, just the odd one or two …

That figures. The highlights, please!

Well, here they come, ready or not.

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