Peter Ackroyd has been praised as one of the greatest living chroniclers of Britain and its people. In Rebellion, he continues his dazzling account of the history of England, beginning with the progress south of the Scottish king, James VI, who on the death of Elizabeth I became the first Stuart king of England, and ending with the deposition and flight into exile of his grandson, James II.
The Stuart monarchy brought together the two nations of England and Scotland into one realm, albeit a realm still marked by political divisions that echo to this day. More importantly, perhaps, the Stuart era was marked by the cruel depredations of civil war, and the killing of a king. Shrewd and opinionated, James I was eloquent on matters as diverse as theology, witchcraft, and the abuses of tobacco, but his attitude to the English parliament sowed the seeds of the division that would split the country during the reign of his hapless heir, Charles I. Ackroyd offers a brilliant, warts-and-all portrayal of Charles's nemesis, Oliver Cromwell, Parliament's great military leader and England's only dictator, who began his career as a political liberator but ended it as much of a despot as "that man of blood," the king he executed.
England's turbulent seventeenth century is vividly laid out before us, but so too is the cultural and social life of the period, notable for its extraordinarily rich literature, including Shakespeare's late masterpieces, Jacobean tragedy, the poetry of John Donne and Milton and Thomas Hobbes's great philosophical treatise, Leviathan. In addition to its account of England's royalty, Rebellion also gives us a very real sense of the lives of ordinary English men and women, lived out against a backdrop of constant disruption and uncertainty.
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The History of England from James I to the Glorious Revolution
By Peter Ackroyd
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2014 Peter Ackroyd
All rights reserved.
A new Solomon
Sir Robert Carey rode furiously from London to Edinburgh along the Great North Road, spending one night in Yorkshire and another in Northumberland; he arrived at Holyrood Palace, 'be-bloodied with great falls and bruises' after a journey of more than 330 miles. It was late at night on Saturday 26 March 1603. He was ushered into the presence of King James VI of Scotland and, falling to his knees, proclaimed him to be 'King of England, France and Ireland'. He gave him as testimony a sapphire ring that his sister, Lady Scrope, had thrown to him from a window at Richmond Palace immediately after the death of Elizabeth I. 'I have', he told his new sovereign, 'a blue ring from a fair lady.'
'It is enough,' James said. 'I know by this you are a true messenger.' The king had previously entrusted this ring to Lady Scrope in the event of the queen's death.
A body of prelates and peers had already met Sir Robert Cecil, the principal councillor of the old queen, at Whitehall Gate before they proceeded with him to the cross at Cheapside where Cecil proclaimed James as king; bonfires and bells greeted the news of the swift and easy succession. Cecil himself declared that he had 'steered King James's ship into the right harbour, without cross of wave or tide that could have overturned a cock-boat'. The councillor had entered a secret correspondence with James before Elizabeth's death; he had urged the Scottish king to nourish 'a heart of adamant in a world of feathers'.
On 5 April James left Edinburgh to travel to his new realm. He had been the king of Scotland for thirty-six years, ever since he had assumed the throne at the age of thirteen months after the forced abdication of his mother Mary Queen of Scots. He had been a successful if not a glorious monarch, managing to curb the pretensions of an argumentative clergy and of a fractious nobility. From his earliest years the restive and combative spirit of the Scottish lords ensured that, in the words of the French ambassador, he had been nourished in fear. Yet he had by guile and compromise held on to his crown. Now, as he told his followers, he was about to enter the Land of Promise. He had already written to the council at Westminster, asking for money; he did not have the funds to finance his journey south.
The king did not perhaps expect so effusive and jubilant a welcome from his new subjects. He recalled later how 'the people of all sorts rid and ran, nay rather flew to meet me'. They came to gaze at him, since none of them had experienced the rule of a male monarch. He himself was impressed by the prosperity of the land and by the evident wealth of its rulers. He said later that the first three years of his reign were 'as a Christmas'. It took him a month to reach London, largely because he wished to avoid the funeral of his predecessor. He had no great fondness for Elizabeth; she had prevaricated over his right to the succession and, perhaps more significantly, had ordered the execution of his mother.
He reached York by the middle of April, where Cecil came to greet him. 'Though you be but a little man,' the king told him, 'we shall surely load your shoulders with business.' At Newark-on-Trent he gave orders that a cutpurse, preying upon his retinue, should summarily be hanged; he had not properly been informed on the provisions of English common law. It is an indication that he was still, in many important respects, a foreigner. At Burghley-by-Stamford he fell from his horse and broke his collar bone. Slowly he made his way to London. For three or four days he rested in Hertfordshire at Robert Cecil's country home, Theobalds House, at which seat he took pleasure in creating many knights.
He was so generous with titles that he was accused of improvidence. The reign of Elizabeth witnessed the creation of 878 knights; in the first four months of the king's rule, some 906 new men were awarded that honour. The queen had knighted those whom she considered to be of genuine merit or importance; James merely considered knighthood to be a mark of status. He was said to have knighted a piece of beef with the words 'Arise, Sir Loin'. On another occasion he did not catch the name of the recipient and said, 'Prithee, rise up, and call thyself Sir What Thou Wilt.' Other titles could be purchased with cash. The diminution in the importance of honour marks one of the first changes to the old Tudor system.
Those who were permitted into the king's presence may not have been entirely impressed. He was awkward and hesitant in manner; his legs were slightly bowed and his gait erratic, perhaps the consequence of rickets acquired in childhood. One admittedly hostile witness, Sir Anthony Weldon, also described him as forever 'fiddling about his codpiece'.
He was a robust and fluent conversationalist, who rather liked to hear the sound of his own voice, but the effect upon his English audience was perhaps impaired by the fact that he retained a broad Scots accent. If he was eager to talk, he was also quick to laugh. He could be witty, but delivered his droll remarks in a grave and serious voice. His manners were not impeccable, and he was said to have slobbered over his food and drink. He paid little attention to his dress, but favoured thickly padded doublets that might impede an assassin's dagger; ever since his childhood he had lived in fear of assault or murder. He was said to have a horror of naked steel. He had a restless, roving eye; he paid particular notice to those at court who were not known to him.
On 7 May he rode towards London, but was greeted 4 miles outside the city by the lord mayor and innumerable citizens. He lodged at the Charterhouse for four nights, and then made his way to the Tower, where he remained for a few days. While staying in the royal apartments he began an excited tour of his capital, 'secretly in his coach and by water', as one contemporary put it; he was particularly struck by the sight of the crown jewels, held at the palace in Whitehall. Here was the glittering and unmistakable evidence of his new-found wealth.
Yet London was not a pleasure-dome. Even as he approached it, the plague began its secret ministry in the streets and alleys; by the end of the summer it had claimed the lives of 30,000 citizens. A grand state entry had been planned for 25 July, the day of the coronation, but the fear of infected crowds curtailed the ceremony; there would be a crowning, but no state procession.
Even in these early months of the reign conspiracies began to mount against his throne. A group of gentlemen, among them Sir Walter Raleigh and Henry Brooke, Lord Cobham, were suspected of a scheme to depose James and to replace him with his cousin Arabella Stuart; like most conspiracies it was plagued by rumour, indecision and premature disclosure. Raleigh was arrested and consigned to the Tower, where two weeks later he attempted suicide; at his subsequent trial he was denounced by the attorney general, Sir Edward Coke, as 'a spider of hell'.
Raleigh: You speak indiscreetly, barbarously and uncivilly.
Coke: I want words sufficient to express thy viperous treasons.
Raleigh: You want words, indeed, for you have spoken the one thing half a dozen times.
This was the end of what was called 'the Main Plot'. A 'Bye Plot' was also discovered, whereby the king was to be kidnapped by priests and forced to suspend the laws against Roman Catholics. It came to nothing, of course, except for the deaths of the principals engaged in it.
The time had come for the formal, if subdued, coronation of the king; the archbishop of Canterbury performed the ceremony expeditiously in the sight of an invited audience. James's consort, Anne of Denmark, agreed to receive her crown from the archbishop; as a Catholic, however, she refused to partake of Protestant communion. Being of a complaisant and gregarious disposition she caused very little trouble for the rest of her husband's reign. Her chaplain once remarked that 'the king himself was a very chaste man, and there was little in the queen to make him uxorious; yet they did love as well as man and wife could do, not conversing together'. After the ceremony the royal family left pestilential London for the healthier air of the country. James and Anne made their first 'progress' in the August of the year, making their way to Winchester and Southampton before turning north into Oxfordshire; in this, they were following the fashion of the king's illustrious predecessor.
James had already established, however, the foundations of his court and council. In particular he took care to reward his Scottish nobles with the most prominent positions in his personal retinue. The centre of his rule lay in the royal bedchamber, which was almost wholly staffed by the entourage that had followed him from his native land. This was a source of much discontent and disquiet among the English courtiers; it was said that the Scottish lords stood like mountains between the beams of the king's grace and themselves. Yet a new privy chamber was also established, half of Scots and half of English; the king revelled in his role as 'the pacifier', and this equal pairing evinced his moderation.
Among the English councillors the palm was awarded to Sir Robert Cecil and to the Howards. Henry Howard, earl of Northampton, was appointed as lord warden of the cinque ports at the beginning of 1604 and, a year later, lord privy seal; in the previous reign he had sent what James called 'Asiatic and endless volumes' of advice to Edinburgh. Thomas Howard, earl of Suffolk, was lord chamberlain. Cecil, soon to become Viscount Cranborne and then earl of Salisbury, was in fact pre-eminent; he was very small, with a hunched back, but he stood above the others. The king had told him that 'before God I count you the best servant that ever I had, albeit you be but a beagle'. He often addressed him as 'my little beagle'. Cecil managed parliament, and the revenues; he supervised Ireland and all foreign affairs. He was forever industrious, highly efficient and always courteous; he had borne with patience all the humiliating remarks about his appearance and physique. He was the ultimate civil servant and his cousin, Francis Bacon, once said of him that he might prevent public affairs getting worse but could not make them any better. That is perhaps too harsh; Cecil had so great a political intelligence that he may qualify as a statesman. Snapping at his heels, however, was Henry Howard.
Elizabeth's council had comprised some thirteen members; James soon doubled its size, but took great pleasure in avoiding its meetings. He favoured private deliberations, in the seclusion of his bedchamber, where he could then delegate responsibility. He preferred intimate meetings where his wit and common sense could compensate for his lack of dignity. He did not particularly like London in any case, and always preferred to go hunting in the countryside beyond; from this vantage James once wrote a complacent letter to his councillors, imagining them to be 'frying in the pains of purgatory' upon royal business. Yet he made quick and sudden visits to the capital, when his presence was deemed to be indispensable; he said that he came 'like a flash of lightning, both in going, staying there, and returning'.
The palace of Whitehall was a straggling complex of some 1,400 rooms, closets and galleries and chambers huddled together. It was a place of secrets and of clandestine meetings, of staged encounters and sudden quarrels. This is the proper setting for John Donne's satires as well as for Ben Jonson's two Roman plays on the nature of ambition and corruption. It is also the setting for the great age of the masque. A ball, or a comedy, was staged every other day.
Yet the court is also the most significant context for the collection of Thomas Howard, earl of Arundel, which came to include the architectural drawings of Palladio as well as the work of Holbein, Raphael and Dürer. The great lords and courtiers also built elaborate houses at Audley End, Hatfield and elsewhere. The earl of Northampton furnished his house in the Strand with Turkish carpets, Brussels tapestries and Chinese porcelain; he also owned globes, and maps of all the principal nations. This is the burgeoning world of Jacobeanism.
* * *
On his progress to London from Edinburgh, at the beginning of his reign, the king was given a petition; it was an appeal from his puritan subjects that became known as the 'millenary petition', bearing the signatures of 1,000 ministers of religion. In moderate terms it suggested to the king that the sign of the cross should be removed from the baptismal ceremony and that the marriage ring was unnecessary. The words 'priest' and 'absolution' should be 'corrected', and the rite of confirmation abolished. The cap and the surplice, the vestments of conformity, were not to be 'urged'.
The king himself liked nothing so much as doctrinal discussion, in which he could display his learning. The first important act of his reign, therefore, was to bring together a small number of clerics at his palace of Hampton Court where they might debate matters of religious policy and religious principle. Five distinguished and learned puritan ministers were matched against the leading ecclesiastics of the realm, among them the archbishop of Canterbury and eight bishops.
This was an age of religious polemic, perhaps prophesying the civil wars of the succeeding reign. On the side of the bishops were those generally satisfied with the doctrines and ceremonies of the established Church; they were moderate; they espoused the union of Church and state. They put more trust in communal worship than in private prayer; they acknowledged the role of custom, experience and reason in spiritual matters. It may not have been a fully formed faith, but it served to bind together those of unclear or flexible belief. It also suited those who simply wished to conform with their neighbours.
On the side of the puritans were those more concerned with the exigencies of the private conscience. They believed in the natural depravity of man, unless the sinner be redeemed by grace. They abhorred the practice of confession and encouraged intensive self-examination as well as self-discipline. They did not wish for a sacramental priesthood but a preaching ministry; they accepted the word of Scripture as the source of all divine truth. They took their compass from the stirrings of providence. Men and women of a puritan tradition were utterly obedient to God's absolute will from which no ritual or sacrament could avert them. This lent them zeal and energy in their attempt to purify the world or, as one puritan theologian put it, 'a holy violence in the performing of all duties'. Sometimes they spoke out as the spirit moved them. It was said, unfairly, that they loved God with all their soul and hated their neighbour with all their heart.
They were not at this stage, however, rival creeds; they are perhaps better regarded as opposing tendencies within the same Church, and their first formal confrontation took place at Hampton Court in the middle of winter. The proceedings of the first day, 14 January 1604, were confined to the king and his ecclesiastics. James debated with his bishops the changes suggested in the 'millenary petition'. On the second day the puritan divines were invited to attend. John Reynolds, the first to be called, argued that the English Church should embrace Calvinist doctrine. The bishop of London, Richard Bancroft, quickly intervened. He knelt down before the king and demanded that 'the ancient canon might be remembered', by which he meant that 'schismatici' should not be permitted to speak against the bishops. James allowed the discussion on specific matters to continue.
In the subsequent debate the king seems to have been shrewd and judicious. He did not accede to the puritans' demand for Calvinism, but he did accept their proposal for an improved translation of the Bible. This request bore magnificent fruit in the King James translation published later in the reign. The delegates then discussed the problem of providing a learned ministry, and the difficulties of dealing with issues of private conscience. The king was willing to concede certain matters to the puritans, in the evident belief that a middle way would encourage unity within the Church. In the bitter weather the fires of Hampton Court roared, while the king sat in his furs; the bishops, and even the puritan delegates, were also clad in fur cloaks.
All seemed to be proceeding without much incident until Reynolds recommended that the bishops of the realm should consult with the 'presbyters'. At this, the king bridled. 'Presbyter', the term for the elder or minister of a Christian church, had for him unfortunate connotations. He had previously been outraged by the Presbyterian divines of Scotland, who did not always treat His Majesty with appropriate respect; they inclined towards republicanism and even egalitarianism. One of them, Andrew Melville, had called him to his face 'God's silly vassal'.
Excerpted from Rebellion by Peter Ackroyd. Copyright © 2014 Peter Ackroyd. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Table of Contents
1. A new Solomon
2. The plot
3. The beacons
4. The god of money
5. The angel
6. The vapours
7. What news?
8. A Bohemian tragedy
9. The Spanish travellers
10. An interlude
11. Vivat rex
12. A fall from grace
13. Take that slime away
14. I am the man
15. The crack of doom
16. The shrimp
17. Sudden flashings
18. Venture all
19. A great and dangerous treason
20. Madness and fury
21. A world of change
22. Worse and worse news
23. A world of mischief
24. Neither hot nor cold
25. The gates of hell
26. The women of war
27. The face of God
28. The mansion house of liberty
29. A game to play
30. To kill a king
31. This house to be let
32. Fear and trembling
33. Healing and settling
34. Is it possible?
35. The young gentleman
36. Oh, prodigious change!
37. On the road
38. To rise and piss
39. And not dead yet?
40. The true force
41. Hot news
42. New infirmities
43. Or at the Cock?
44. Noise rhymes to noise
45. The Protestant windFurther readingIndex