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‘This Great Firebrand’: William Laud and Scotland, 1617–1645

Reviewed by Alasdair Raffe

Leonie James, ‘This Great Firebrand’: William Laud and Scotland, 1617–1645 (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2017), ISBN 978-1-78327-21, 216 pp., £60.00.

[1] The title of Leonie James’s rigorous and well-written book could have been William Laud and Scotland: The Case for the Prosecution. Her aim is to convince the reader that Laud, archbishop of Canterbury under Charles I, had a vital influence on the religious policies that provoked Scots to rebel and fight against their king in 1637-40. Her method is to sift with great care the fragments of evidence illustrating Laud’s engagement with Scotland. When the sources suggest that Laud was marginal, she offers the generally convincing argument that the archbishop, fearful of criticism or prosecution, misleadingly minimised his role. Laud was ultimately brought to trial before the Long Parliament in 1644, and the charges assembled against him by commissioners from Scotland provide James with some of her evidence. This fact, together with the precision of James’s analysis, ensures that reading the book gives the feeling of being in a court room, listening to a skillful barrister (or perhaps a Scottish advocate!) pleading against Laud.

[2] The book follows Laud’s career chronologically, from his first experience of Scotland as part of James VI and I’s visit in 1617 to his execution in 1645.  The first two chapters provide much contextual information, including a survey of earlier archbishops’ involvement with Scotland and a helpful assessment of the Scottish episcopate.  In these chapters, James justifies her conclusion that, while Laud ‘was not the first archbishop of Canterbury to take an interest in the Scottish church’, he was the first ‘to be given relatively free rein to intervene in Scottish church affairs’ (p. 169).  In doing so, he made use of his close relations with a group of younger bishops appointed to Scottish sees in the mid-1630s, notably Bishop John Maxwell of Ross.

[3] In the following chapters, James focuses more narrowly on what the evidence can tell us about Laud’s Scottish activities. Chapter three argues that Laud was ‘a dominant figure’ in the drafting of canons and a Prayer Book for the Church of Scotland in the 1630s (p. 80). Given the weight of earlier scholarship on the Prayer Book of 1637, James gives welcome attention to the canons, which reinforced the royal supremacy over the Church and intended to consign general assemblies (and probably presbyteries too) to the past. After the new Prayer Book provoked riots in Scotland, Laud had a crucial influence on the king’s response. Chapter four uses the correspondence between Laud and James, 3rd marquis of Hamilton, Charles’s commissioner, to assess the extent and character of the archbishop’s advice. Laud discouraged Charles from making concessions to the opponents of the Prayer Book, helping to bring about war between the king and his Scottish subjects. By the time we reach chapter five, and Laud’s downfall, James has succeeded admirably in explaining why the archbishop’s demise was engineered as much by his Scottish critics as by members of the Church of England over which he had formal jurisdiction. In Robert Baillie’s Canterburian’s Self-Conviction (1640) and the negotiations prior to the peace treaty of London in 1641, Laud was presented as an ‘incendiary’ who had inflamed animosities between the Scots and their king.

[4] James’s historiographical starting point is the influential essay by John Morrill on ‘Ecclesiastical Imperialism under the Early Stuarts’ (1994). Like others who have responded to the essay, James tends to question Morrill’s argument that James VI and I and Charles I sought ‘congruity’ between the Churches of the three kingdoms, and not simply to anglicise those of Scotland and Ireland. Laud was a force for anglicisation in Scotland and Ireland, though ‘the individual historical trajectories of each church’ and the lack of ‘mechanisms for multi-church reform’ placed limits on how similar the three Churches would become (p. 172). Laud’s instincts were authoritarian, but he and Charles had to accommodate the canons and Prayer Book to at least some Scottish cultural realities. Like Morrill, James often comments on Laud’s interest in Irish affairs. One reason for this is that his letters to the Lord Deputy, Thomas Wentworth, give fuller evidence of his agenda for the three kingdoms than do sources specifically relating to Scotland.

[5] As my comments on James’s source material and arguments imply, the book is concerned largely with the formation of policy and the resulting struggles at court and (at the end of the period) in parliament. James pays some attention to Scottish reactions to the canons and Prayer Book, but largely so as to understand Laud’s next steps. Thus the book adds most to debates about the revolts against Charles I in Scotland and England, and offers less to those interested in the impact of the Kirk in the localities. Kirk session, presbytery and synod records are not among the manuscripts cited by James. She provides judicious accounts of such episodes as the trial for slandering the king of John Elphinstone, 2nd Lord Balmerino and Charles’s defeat in the Bishops’ Wars. Inevitably, however, she leans on the extensive previous scholarship on such matters, and does not claim great originality in her discussions of them. The field is so crowded that it is on the narrow subject of Laud’s roles in Scottish religious policy that ‘This Great Firebrand’ makes a distinctive contribution. It does so thanks to the rigour and clarity of James’s analysis. On Laud’s meddling in Scotland, this is now the essential work.

University of Edinburgh, April 2019

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