The Accession of James I: Historical and Cultural Consequences. Eds. Glenn Burgess, Rowland Wymer, and Jason Lawrence. Houndmills: Palgrave, 2006. xxvii+215pp.

Christopher Ivic
SUNY, Potsdam

Christopher Ivic . "Review of The Accession of James I: Historical and Cultural Consequences."Early Modern Literary Studies 13.3 (January, 2008) 13.1-9 <URL:>.

  1. This volume of essays was written to mark the 400th anniversary of the accession of King James VI of Scotland to the English throne in 1603. It includes essays by historians (including a legal historian) and literary historians that critically reflect on the immediate as well as the long-term consequences of James's accession. While the Jacobean union of the crowns emerges as a central issue in this volume, a number of other subjects-literature, Catholicism, diplomacy, favouritism, the Essex myth, the Ancient Constitution-also receive critical attention.

  2. In the Introduction to this volume, the editors pose a number of questions relating to the transition from Elizabeth's rule to James's -- concerning political ideas, court behaviour, patronage, collective identity, gender -- and, severally and together, these essays provide thoughtful, informative responses. If there is a central question that occupies this volume it is that of the union of the crowns: "Union of some sort had happened," the editors note; they go on to ask "How was it to be understood? What opportunities did it create?" (xiv). No less than five essays provide direct responses to these questions, and the strength of this collection is that the at times complementary, at times conflicting, responses reveal an open, vibrant, contested field of study.

  3. A wonderful lead into both this volume and the topic of union is provided by the late Conrad Russell, whose opening essay contemplates the "unevolved state" of Britain in 1603, which, Russell reminds us, consisted of "two crowns, two coronations, two Privy Councils, two Parliaments, two laws, two churches and a border" (4). Why, Russell asks, did James "pretend otherwise" (4)? The answer, according to Russell, lies in the fact that only union would secure for James a single succession. And this, in turn, explains why James's plans for union lacked certainty and purpose: that is, the goal was not union itself but union to secure a single succession. This is an unsatisfactory answer. Fortunately, Russell's essay covers more ground, and the result is an essay that, rather than forcing a thesis, majestically surveys the multiple voices and ideas that surfaced in early seventeenth-century union debate. Tracing both English (read Parliamentarians and common law lawyers) resistance to union as well as Scottish favour toward union (Sir Thomas Craig), Russell does a superb job of teasing out the threats and possibilities spawned by the occasion of the union of the crowns, addressed by the 1604 Anglo-Scottish Union Commission, and debated in subsequent English parliamentary sessions. At once revisiting and revising the union debate, Russell refuses to hail the likes of Sir Edwin Sandys and Sir Edward Coke (who is the centrepiece of the volume's final essay by Daniel Hulsebosch) as champions of liberty: their xenophobia and insularity is well exposed. The Scottish civil lawyer Sir Thomas Craig, on the other hand, emerges as the "Jean Monnet of the British Union" (6), a thoughtful, open-minded commissioner well versed in not simply English but also continental law.

  4. Another Scottish voice receives ample attention in Arthur Williamson's essay: David Hume of Godscroft. Williamson convincingly portrays Hume, author of De Unione Insulae Britannicae, as a disciple of George Buchanan and Andrew Melville; therefore, Hume's pro-union tracts should not be mistaken for mere prince-pleasing (had Hume's second tract been a prince-pleaser, then it would have made it into print; Hume attempted unsuccessfully to have it published anonymously in Bordeaux in 1610). Hume, we are told, viewed the union of the crowns as a "unique opportunity for immediate, far-reaching political innovation and creativity . . . Hume's writings passionately urged a civic and reformed British commonwealth" (56). One of Hume's central themes is the formation of a collective British identity, an identity to be forged, for instance, through Anglo-Scottish marriages. Williamson is to be lauded for his in-depth examination of Hume and his cultural moment. In the course of his fine discussion of Hume's "radical" writings, however, Williamson makes some grand claims, a few of which are questionable. His representation of Hume as "anti-racist" (61), for instance, downplays the rhetoric of civility that underpins Hume's writings; moreover, his take on Edmund Spenser's "civic," "anti-imperial" "view of the settlements in Ireland" suggests either unfamiliarity with or a na´ve reading of Spenser's less than civil, rather racist (if we can use this word in this period) View of the Present State of Ireland. By no means do these claims diminish Williamson's attention to the forward-looking, innovative nature of Hume's writings.

  5. In many ways, this volume's work on the subject of union is to be welcomed as some of the best scholarship produced on union matters. For one, it contributes to the rethinking of long-held views that Jacobean discourse on Anglo-Scottish union was monopolized by James and his supposed sycophants. However, there are moments in this volume when the subject of union is imagined as James's pet project, moments when those in favour of union are represented in a rather dismissive manner. In their Introduction, the editors, writing on James and his desire to cement the union, state: "His approach, and that of his propagandists, was both to talk up the areas of convergence that already existed between England and Scotland and to find ways of nudging both countries along a path of further convergence" (xiv). One page later they write: "James's plans [for union] were supported by a chorus of politicians, clergyman, and civil lawyers; but the chorus did not seem to produce sympathetic echoes elsewhere in the political nation" (xv). Why are those who wrote in support of union imagined as a "chorus" and as "propagandists" and not, say, "authors"? To use words such as "chorus" and "propagandists" forecloses the possibility that some of James's subjects-such as Sir Thomas Craig-were really thinking through questions of national, cultural, legal union. While the editors grant Hume the status of possessing a "'British' vision" (xxi), one wonders why authors of pro-union tracts such as Sir Francis Bacon, Sir John Hayward, and John Thornborough are not afforded the same "vision"? Again, Russell's essay is invaluable because it not only reveals the limits of earlier representations of the union but also opens up new ways of examining and understanding union ideas and debate.

  6. The problem of how we represent writers and how that may predetermine our approach to them is nicely illustrated in the essays by Philip Schwyzer and Tracey Hill. Schwyzer's piece focuses on King Lear and the Jacobean union controversy; in short, he reads Shakespeare's tragedy within the context of debate on the union-in particular, the "propaganda" produced in favour of union: "The years 1603-1606," he writes, "saw the production of numerous tracts, poems, genealogies, pageants, plays, and miscellaneous pieces in support of the king's British policy" (35). Schwyzer then distinguishes Shakespeare's play from the "propaganda" by providing a close and intelligent reading of the play's "cagey and ambiguous" (39) take on the hot topics of union and Britain. He does so, in part, by contrasting Shakespeare's profound reflections on the union and Britain with texts that he represents as less sophisticated and more ideologically coherent and suspect, such as Anthony Munday's The Triumphes of Re-united Britania. For Tracey Hill, however, Munday's Jacobean Lord Mayor's Show is anything but a piece of simple propaganda. Drawing upon James Knowles's theory of "a double reading of civic ritual," Hill attends to the ways in which Munday celebrates not only a national identity but also, and more emphatically, a civic identity. Crucial to Hill's reading is "ideological slippage": that is, those moments in Munday's text when, for instance, the word "England" appears in place of the expected "Britain" or when his use of "we" and "us" clearly signals (and favours) an English rather than British community. Hill does well to reveal Munday's commitment to a burgeoning civic community in early modern London; in fact, she paints a much more complex picture of Munday's text than Schwyzer does. Still, I wonder why Hill is surprised by such "ideological slippage." Does she expect all writers to simply share James's vision? While such slippage can be read as resistance, might it not also bear witness to an inability at this precise moment in time to articulate clearly and coherently a British nationalist discourse or a sense of Britishness?

  7. Although not an essay on the union per se, John Kerrigan's piece on the Romans in Britain is a tour de force. Author of the longest essay in the volume, Kerrigan has the space to cover a number of Jacobean plays (William Rowley's A Shoo-maker a Gentleman, Shakespeare's Cymbeline, John Fletcher's Bonduca, and Robert Armin's The Valiant Welshman) produced over an eleven-year span, beginning in the year of James's accession. Arguing that a "play about ancient Britain could not exist for post-1603 audiences . . . in a purely English perspective" (123), Kerrigan highlights the complex and often contradictory ideologies embedded in these plays, especially their representation of Wales, with which the "positive qualities of ancient Briton were associated" (114). For Kerrigan, these plays, in particular Rowley's, reveal "popular theatre reaching an accommodation with the politics of 1603" (121). What makes Kerrigan's essay so valuable is his ability to move beyond a limited and limiting pro-/anti-union paradigm to capture the dynamics of post-1603 "archipelagic politics."

  8. The remaining essays in this volume take us beyond union matters. Literature, in particular Scottish poetry, is the subject of Roderick Lyall's piece, which compares and contrasts the lives and works of two prominent Scottish poets: William Drummond of Hawthornden, who chose to remain at his estate near Edinburgh, and Sir Robert Ayton, who joined the Scottish cultural "exodus" to London. Ironically, it is the less travelled, though more widely read, Drummond who, for Lyall, gives voice to an oeuvre fully informed, indeed imitative, of sixteenth-century continental poets. Uncovering "a murmur of real sympathy for the recusant position" (111) in Shakespeare's Macbeth, Matthew Baynham's brief but forceful essay on equivocation in Macbeth supplies us with more solid material to rethink Shakespeare's Catholic influences and connections. More reflection on James, his rule, or 1603, would have made this an even stronger essay. Curtis Perry supplies an excellent essay on the discourse of favoritism, historicizing and contextualizing the discourse of favoritism in and around 1603. Perry provides a perceptive account of James's court and what he terms "eroticized accounts of Jacobean favouritism" (158). But when Perry discusses the decay of positive discourses of favouritism in the wake of James's accession (pointing out that James's Bedchamber was staffed principally by Scottish men), he misses the opportunity to examine the crucial role that English nationalism played in post-1603 discourses of favouritism. More could have been said of the foreignness of the king's body and the foreignness of bodies at court.

  9. Three essays in this volume do a fine job of detailing the topic of transition from Elizabeth's to James's reign. Whereas Jenny Wormald expertly shows how a country, Scotland, kept going without a king, Pauline Croft sheds valuable light on how a statesman fashioned under Elizabeth's rule, Sir Robert Cecil, maintained his Elizabethan diplomacy in order to effect the rather un-Jacobean 1604 peace with Spain. Maureen King provides a brief yet comprehensive account of the Essex myth in Jacobean England, focusing on how and why Essex's reputation was rehabilitated in the years following Elizabeth's death. Reading these three essays, one realizes just how fluid and, paradoxically, just how entrenched certain ideas, images, and behaviours were in the early modern period. Indeed, the volume as a whole sheds valuable light on the continuities and discontinuities in a signal moment in English/British history and literary history.

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© 2008-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).