Thursday, 22 September 2016

Lessons from the Bishops' War

Britain in 1638 was a powderkeg awaiting a spark. In Scotland King Charles I had, in the teeth of local Presbyterian opinion, decreed that all religion must follow the Book of Common Prayer. This was a high-Anglican pattern book that had been introduced into churches in England.

The spark had a name - Jenny Geddes. A market stall owner in Edinburgh's High Street, the minister in St Giles Kirk had barely begun reading from the new book when she flung a stool at his head, shouting:

"daur ye say Mass in my lug?"

And all hell broke loose.

In an act of fundamental rebellion against the King, Scots refused to accept the new Prayer Book. They signed the National Covenant in their droves. Today this long document makes a turgid read. There is no uplifting take-away phrase from the National Covenant, no 'we hold these truths to be self-evident', no 'liberté, égalité, fraternité', no 'for so long as a hundred of us remain alive', just a rambling furrow of Catholic-bashing. But at the time it was revolutionary, mass printing and widespread literacy enabling the population, for the first time ever, the tools to question their superiors and demand a better, more populist, more Godly rule. Archibald Johnston of Warriston was ecstatic. It was:

"the glorious marriage day of the Kingdom with God."

In the meantime, English Puritans weren't happy either with the pomp, circumstance, and knee-bending to authority that was inherent in Episcopalianism, the halfway-house brand of Protestantism that had been founded in England by Henry VIII and enthusiastically endorsed by royalty ever since. Charles I was a fan of course, and wished to bring Protestantism to new aesthetic heights. Many of Charles' MPs at Westminster opposed his plans, which he dealt with through the simple expedient of dissolving Parliament. As Parliament was the mechanism by which royalty raised money, Charles now had to raise funds by other, exceptionally unpopular means. But with the Scots rebelling, he realised he needed even more money to pay for an army to face them. Reluctantly, he recalled Parliament. They immediately presented him with a list of grievances and refused to fund him until their demands were met. Charles promptly dissolved Parliament again.

However where the English were divided, the Scots were united. Charles raised a motley army of 20,000 unmotivated men to face the Scots. In contrast General Leslie led a Scottish army of 12,000, who had been recalled from the Continent where they had been hardened as mercenaries fighting religious wars against Catholics. The fighting in the Bishops' War was desultory - neither side really wanted to hurt the other - but the result decisive. The Scots occupied Newcastle and issued quixotic demands to the English Parliament.

Because in the aftermath of victory it was clear to Scottish Presbyterians that Scots were the chosen nation, like Israelites in the days of old. As demonstrated by victory in the Bishops' War, it was manifestly God's will that the rest of the world - starting with England - should follow Scotland's lead in making Presbyterianism compulsory. Treaties were made with the English Parliament, who desperately needed the help of the Scottish army against Charles. But the English Parliament had neither the intent nor the ability to seriously enforce Presbyterianism on their countrymen.

In a time of rapidly shifting politics, it is striking that today England is again divided and chaotic over a fundamental issue, whereas Scotland is relatively united and well-led and would, if it could, impose its will on England for its own good. It is a situation where progressive opinion on both sides of the border has a common cause. There are massive opportunities for Scotland to gain from this situation. But it would behoove any Scottish leader to be aware of the risks too. For if we are looking back at history as any kind of guide...

The ultimate result of the events kicked off by Jenny Geddes was the military occupation of Cromwell.

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

When Women Ruled

It's a town straggling eastwards down a hill with a castle on top. Edinburgh? Stirling? No - Clackmannan. The town gets its name (Clach Mannan = Mannan Stone in Gaelic) from the stone raised on a plinth outside the old tollbooth.

The Mannan Stone:


I was keen to see the Mannan Stone and visited this hilltop village after the Stirling 10k. There's a Co-op... a post office... a pub... some sheltered housing... otherwise, there is not much going on in Clackmannan. But oh, there's a story in the old stone!

Central Clackmannan:


This ancient fetish object was a ceremonial centrepiece for the people of Manau, the Maetae, the tribe who lived in this area during Roman times. The name of one chief is even recorded for posterity - Argentocoxus. It was he and his wife (whose name is sadly unknown) who submitted to Emperor Severus and his wife Julia in 209, when Severus brought the largest army Britain had ever seen to Caledonia to subdue his troublesome northernmost frontier.

Clackmannan vista:


As the men parleyed, the women had their own conversation. It was a memorable exchange. Julia questioned Argentocoxus' wife's virtue by referencing the fact she slept with the warriors of the tribe. The reply was stinging.
"I proudly sleep with the best of men in full public knowledge, while you skulk in secret with the worst." (Julia was rumoured to be having an affair with a senator.)
Because there is something worth knowing about the women of ancient Britain and Ireland. True, they lived in a man's world - but it was a very different world to that of the Continent, where women were treated as property of their fathers or husbands. Women in Britain and Ireland could own property in their own right - they could divorce on fourteen grounds from physical cruelty to male impotence - and they could occasionally lead tribes and armies, as Boudicca, Cartimandua, Maeve and Sgàthach attest. And - what really excited writers from the Mediterranean - they openly slept around. This practice died out in Roman dominated Britannia, but was clearly still in full swing in the Pictish lands outside Roman influence.

Clackmannan Castle:


And this leads to an interesting speculation, one that I've never seen in any history book. Beyond any moral implications, there is a very good practical reason to promote monogamy. Where this reason doesn't exist - the island of Tahiti before the arrival of Europeans for example - society can be structured quite differently. Could it be that as well as rabbits and aqueducts, there is something else the Romans introduced to Britain - sexually transmitted diseases?