Saturday, May 19, 2012

On Roundheads and Cavaliers

This post from Martin on the above subject is that most fabulous of combinations; quite lovely and makes you think - which is why if it were a woman, I'd overcome my natural shyness, dash out and buy her a bunch of flowers and importune her with my affections.

Cavaliers or Roundheads: who are you for? Martin's answer is one I've come across frequently. "I know I'm supposed to say, Roundhead - but..." His answer is a subtle, interesting and personal version of a more common response that so many people, including myself, tend to give to this question - and one that arrives at what I think are valid historical conclusions.

At its core there is the pertinent observation that there is a tendency to view past conflicts and disputes through a modern prism that makes taking sides more congenial:
"In recent years, there has been a tendency to confer retrospective secular sainthood on groups like the Levellers and to throw an ahistorical social-democratic patina over the Roundheads generally."
Absolutely right. We tend to think that the modern questions of monarchy versus republicanism are prefigured in this age, forgetting that the Respublica advocated by Puritans was the very antithesis of the tolerant secularism imagined by the modern reader.

And by extension, this raises a couple of interesting and difficult historical questions, particularly for people of a leftwing disposition. One is that however difficult it may be to accept, it is almost impossible to avoid the conclusion that at various points in history, monarchy has been - particularly in relation to the power of the clerisy - a force for tolerance, liberty and the insistence that there should be a distinction between what is considered a sin and a crime.

Martin mentions Mary Stuart in this context but I am more interested in the reign of her son James VI with regards to this question. That James was a convinced Protestant is testimony to how little input his mother had in his upbringing. This is understandable given the amount of her life that she spent in prison.

James was, by modern standards, intolerably intolerant. The spike in the witch-hunting hysteria in late 16th century Scotland, for example, was due in no small part to the fact that he took a personal interest in the subject to the extent of personally participating in a witchcraft trial.

Yet it is testimony to the spirit of that age that he was in relation to the Kirk a force for relative religious toleration. There were a number of struggles between Church and State in this period and at base many of the grievances held by the Presbyterian faction had to do with the King's reluctance to take stronger action against those Catholics left in the Kingdom of Scotland.

One interesting footnote in this period of Scottish history is that while it is entirely cogent for Scottish Nationalists to argue for independence with the continuation of the British monarch as Scotland's Head of State, one could argue that it was the Union of the Crowns in 1603, rather than the Act of Union in 1707, that left Scotland in a position where the hard-faced Calvinists of the Church of Scotland were free to exercise an influence over the social and cultural life of this country so profound and lasting that its effects are still felt to this very day. I think it was Callum Brown who said that, "One could be forgiven for thinking that the purpose of the Reformation in Scotland was to eliminate purgatory by getting it over while people were still alive."

Or more briefly, prior to the eighteenth century a republican was not the secular creature we imagine today but rather someone more likely to advocate something we would now describe as 'theocracy'.

The other interesting question is, what attitude do we take to events that we can see as prefiguring historical developments that we would identify with now but if we'd have to endure them at the time would have found intolerable? I can't even begin to answer this question on the grounds that it's just too damn hard. There is also the fact that those who attempt this, whether it be Niall Ferguson on the right or Eric Hobsbawm on the left, tend to suffer the fate of being put noisily beyond the pale by posturing hacks and bloggers of various kinds. I dare say this is justified but it would be nice if their critics would come up with alternative answers of their own.

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