Grace Dent on TV: The Stuarts doesn't give light, sideways glances. These are history lessons


As the good people of Scotland mull over independence, it’s worth taking some time to work out how we ended up in this curious, often unsatisfactory four-way group hug at all. Until I watched the rather marvellous The Stuarts on BBC2 this week I can’t say I was wholly certain myself. My fuzzy A-level history recall is of Elizabethan Scotland and England, chalk and cheese, forever battering each other in Berwick and forming hollow alliances with France, or Spain, to keep the other country nervous. I don’t remember Wales being mentioned at all. Then at one point we appear to have joined forces, all as one observing a baggy pact with a swaggering name: “Great Britain”.

The first of this three-part history lesson from Dr Clare Jackson of Cambridge University – and these are lessons, not light, sideways glances at history – explores exactly how King James VI of Scotland achieved this. In short, James did it with smooth talking and scruffy charisma, combined with a PR campaign which hammered home that not only was James chosen by God, but God loves the idea of the United Kingdom. Indeed, why would God make this lovely island and then expect it to be divided? Why would you hack off God? This was, in fact, the greatest “Better Together” campaign of all time.

James’s first speech in England’s parliament was greeted with mild befuddlement and a plan to “hold an inquiry”. Gosh I love it when history throws up examples of how ruling bodies never really change. Game of Thrones, which cherry-picks storylines from a multitude of historical eras, had lulled us into believing that border issues were historically solved via enslavement and mass execution. In fact, 17th-century London reacted to King James’s plans with a committee. Meanwhile, James pulled out the big guns in his brainwashing arsenal: a fancy new coin, not massively unlike a golden £1 coin, featuring symbols of all four countries. Ooh shiny coins! Who doesn’t like a lovely commemorative coin? Still today Britain seems enormously attached to, proud of and soothed by the idea of a shared currency.

Then James commissioned a spanking new edition of the Bible to appeal to a multinational audience, with a letter, OK let’s just call it an advert, pointing out how ruddy lovely it is to be one big country, and God thinks so too. Stop annoying God! In case this approach proved too subtle, James ordered the Earl of Nottingham to start merging the English and Scottish flag into some sort of bold red white and blue affair to pin to the front of ships to warn future colonies that, yes, we are here to steal your gold but, fellas, try to stay chipper as we come, waving a flag, in the name of the Lord.

As Dr Jackson described King James’s innate skill in achieving his own ends, it was hard not to be quietly impressed by his chutzpah. James wanted peace to be given a chance; our nation is proof that he achieved it. Still, James’s attitude to the problem of governing Ireland made uncomfortable viewing even 400 years on. The Protestant king, having made no friend of a hundred or so Catholic rulers, decided that, when they fled, en masse, to Spain, he’d breezily replace them with a hundred other candidates who were more to his liking. Stories of land-grabs, town-rebrands, misplaced families and stolen farms remind us that behind every great plan for peace are the green shoots of more wars.

Dr Jackson pointed out that, despite the unrest, this was a period of relative stability for Ireland. Some might argue that the Irish were simply  in shock.

Almost to underline the “in a wonky way, we sort of are better together” case, the episode moved on to James’s successor, Charles, and his plan to intermingle the Stuart dynasty with the all powerful House of Habsburg. Pig-sick of being nagged by Parliament over who to marry, Charles opted to ride his horse for 13 days to Madrid in search of a bride. He stayed in Spain for two months flirting with Catholicism, making all sorts of rash promises to the Spanish and, importantly, soaking up lessons in a different, frantic manner of royal adoration. King Philip, he found, was treated virtually like God on Earth. He gave orders without interference from anyone, spare a few “special advisors”. It was a different manner of governing. It just wasn’t bloody British. By the close of episode one Charles had command of the United Kingdom, was married to a French woman, was ruling like a Spaniard and despite having full access to a horse, hadn’t managed to pop in on Scotland for the first eight years. Perhaps, I wondered, 17th-century Great Britain was the golden age of unity and mutual respect and it was all downhill from then on. Still it seems a shame to change things now. Our coins and our flag are so pretty.

Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment


film review
Arts and Entertainment
Relocation, relocation: Zawe Ashton travels the pathway to Northampton
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
    10 best statement lightbulbs

    10 best statement lightbulbs

    Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
    Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

    It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
    Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

    Dustin Brown

    Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
    Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test
    Tour de France 2015: Twins Simon and Adam Yates have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

    Twins have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

    Yates brothers will target the steepest sections in bid to win a stage in France
    John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

    Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

    'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
    Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

    Forget little green men

    Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
    Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

    Dying dream of Doctor Death

    Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy