The subject of Britain, 1603-25, by Christopher Ivic

Posted by Bethan Hirst - Friday, 27 Nov 2020


Christopher Ivic takes us back 400 years, to a time when no real or imagined ‘UK’ existed. The accession of Scottish King James VI and I to the English throne in 1603 dramatically changed the political landscape.  Ivic explores the ways in which a wide range of writers responded to James’s accession, his composite monarchy and his call for union.

According to Robert Jenrick, Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, Boris Johnson ‘loves the UK’. Johnson, moreover, ‘feels strongly’ that ‘devolution in Scotland has facilitated the rise of separatism and nationalism in the form of the SNP, and that that’s trying to break apart the United Kingdom’.[1] The words ‘love’ and ‘feels’ seek to convey the native New Yorker’s supranational attachment to a multinational kingdom or state, which, as Prime Minister, he governs from Westminster—notwithstanding varieties of power sharing (three parliaments, one assembly). As the words ‘separatism’ and ‘nationalism’ evince, Johnson’s emotional investment in the UK is facing serious competition from his fellow British citizens in the form of alternative national sympathies.

Rewind just over 400 years to a radically different cultural and political landscape. No real or imagined ‘UK’ existed as a polity in the early seventeenth century. For the first time in history, however, one monarch did lay claim to a dominion stretching, however precariously, across not only Britain but also Ireland. Some kind of British national state—that is, a united England and Scotland, Wales having been politically incorporated into the Kingdom of England during the reign of King Henry VIII—might have come into existence but for the rise of separatism and nationalism south of the River Tweed.

When the Scottish King James VI and I acceded to the English throne in 1603, he sought to unify England and Scotland into a British nation-state, a geopolitical entity to which Wales and Ireland were already ‘sworne brothers’.[2] But James’s desire for a unified Britain met a brick wall not from Scotland’s Parliament but rather in the form of English MPs who feared such a union masked the foreign monarch’s political aggrandisement. There was also the matter of ‘England’. In his handwritten anti-union tract, Henry Spelman (MP, member of the Society of Antiquaries) proclaimed (likely to a select readership given that only one copy of Spelman’s manuscript survives): ‘if the honor-able name of England be buried in the resurrection of Albion or Britannia, we shall change the goulden beames of the sonne for a cloudy day, and drownde the glory of a nation triumphant through all the worlde to restore the memory of an obscure and barberous people’.[3] Whig historians heralded English MPs such as Spelman for bravely having put paid to an absolutist and foreign King’s desire for union. An incorporating Anglo-Scottish union would have to wait another century as would the fashioning of a British national identity. End of story.

Revisionist historiography has painted a much more complicated picture of this crucial moment in the history of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, highlighting the chauvinism and Little Englander mentality that underpinned select English MPs’ resistance to Anglo-Scottish union. Informed by such work, especially the New British History, The subject of Britain, 1603-25 explores the ways in which a wide range of writers responded—imaginatively, ambivalently, critically—to James’s accession, his composite monarchy and his call for union.

What I found most remarkable whilst conducting research for this book is how James’s unprecedented three-kingdom, four-nation rule unleashed new forms of writing, new political ideas and new articulations of identity. Take, for example, ‘the Scottish play’. Macbeth has recently been described as ‘the most effective piece of literary propaganda directed against notions of Scottish independence’.[4] Textual support for this statement isn’t hard to find: we could point to Macduff and Malcolm’s reliance on English forces to defeat Macbeth as well as the Anglicisation of Scotland that Malcolm’s ‘My Thanes and Kinsmen / Henceforth be Earles’ (TLN 2515-16) adumbrates. Although it draws upon Holinshed’s Chronicles, Macbeth is quite unlike Shakespeare’s Elizabethan English history plays in form and content. It has much more in common with his Jacobean ‘British’ plays: namely, King Lear and Cymbeline. Much has been made of Shakespeare’s turn from matters English to matters British in the wake of James’s accession, as evidenced in the paucity of references to ‘England’ and ‘English’ in his post-1603 plays (although of all his Jacobean plays Macbeth has the most references to ‘English’ and the second-most to ‘England’). Surprisingly, among the words that never appear in Macbeth are ‘Scot’, ‘Scots’, ‘Scottish’, ‘Scottishman’ or ‘Scottishmen’. A key word that does surface is ‘Birthdome’ (TLN 1818)—a neologism that appears in no other single or co-authored Shakespeare play. Macduff speaks the word in act 4, scene 3 in reference to … well, that’s the question. To what precisely does Macduff’s ‘Our downfall Birthdome’ refer? The obvious answer is Scotland, but how exactly is a ‘Birthdome’ organised politically? According to the OED, the word denotes ‘Possessions or privileges to which a person is entitled by birth; inheritance, birthright’. Modern editors of the play, however, have offered other meanings, ranging from ‘country’ to ‘kingdom’ to ‘native land’. The allusive and elusive ‘Birthdome’—he who speaks it is not of woman born—serves as a prime example of the ways in which subjects of a self-proclaimed British king sought to rearticulate forms of political representation and communal affiliation during this signal moment in the history of a polity that, eventually, unevenly, would become the UK.

Is it any wonder that some of the texts examined in this book continue to speak to the heterogeneous citizenry of Britain and Ireland? David Greig’s Dunsinane (2010), to cite an obvious example, revisits and rewrites Macbeth from a post-devolution and pre-Indyref perspective. The Scottish playwright has described his play as ‘answering back a little bit … claiming just a little bit of history from another point of view’.[5] Perhaps a less well-known example is Eavan Boland’s ‘Becoming The Hand of John Speed’ (2007), a poetic reflection on nationhood and belonging prompted by the map of ‘The Kingdome of Irland’ in John Speed’s Theatre of the Empire of Great Britaine (1612). Dynastic union provides a context for Speed’s map of Ireland, but so, too, does the Jacobean ‘conquest’ of Ireland and plantation of Ulster. Boland opens her poem with the question ‘How do you make a nation?’ If the response—’I have no answer. I was born in a nation / I had no part in making’[6]—illuminates the cultural and political legacies of James’s English accession, then it also bears witness to rearticulations and redefinitions of individual and collective senses of belonging and place.


[1] ‘Boris Johnson “called Scottish devolution disaster”’ [accessed 17 November 2020]

[2] William Shakespeare, The Life of Henry the Fift, in Charlton Hinman (ed.), The Norton Facsimile: the First Folio of Shakespeare (New York: W. W. Norton, 1968), TLN 516. Subsequent references to Hinman’s edition of the First Folio will be given parenthetically, citing Through Line Numbers (TLN).

[3] Henry Spelman, ‘Of the Union’, British Library, Sloane MS 3521.

[4] Robert Crawford, Bannockburns: Scottish Independence and Literary Imagination, 1314-2014 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2014), p. 45.

[5] Nigel Wrench, ‘Writing Macbeth after Shakespeare’ [accessed 20 November 2020]

[6] Eavan Boland, ‘Becoming the Hand of John Speed’, in Domestic Violence (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2007), p. 48.

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