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.

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
    Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

    Why are we addicted to theme parks?

    Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
    Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

    Iran is opening up again to tourists

    After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
    10 best PS4 games

    10 best PS4 games

    Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
    Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

    Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

    Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
    Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

    ‘Can we really just turn away?’

    Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

    ... and not just because of Isis vandalism
    Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

    Girl on a Plane

    An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent