For anyone who isn’t familiar with this period of history, James VI of Scotland came to the English throne as James I, after the death of Queen Elizabeth I in 1603. As the son of Mary Queen of Scots and the great great grandson of Henry VII, the first Tudor King of England, he was in line to inherit the thrones of both England and Scotland. The period of his reign is referred to as the Jacobean era, and in it he saw the continuance of the so-called golden age of Elizabethan drama with writers like William Shakespeare and Ben Jonson contributing to a thriving literary culture, as well as some major political events, such as the gunpowder plot of 1605. His son, Charles I came to power after his death, ruling from 1625 until the events of the English civil war(s), in which the King fought the armies of the English and Scottish Parliaments in the years 1642-46 and 1648, which led to his execution in 1649.
The book begins with two chapters by way of a prologue and introduction in which Harris discusses the economic and political state of the three kingdoms before the Stuarts even came into power, setting up some of the questions that lead the rest of his narrative:
Why did it prove impossible to hold this multiple-kingdom inheritance together? Was this inheritance unmanageable, or inherently unstable, meaning that some sort of major cataclysm was bound to eventually come? Or were the problems that arose due to the failings of the particular men in charge?
In the second of these preparatory chapters, ‘How to Reigne Well,’ Harris examines the contemporary ideas and ideals of kingship, including those held by James I himself, showing us a fluid and ambiguous concept that was often manipulated to the purposes of the moment. According to Harris, relations of power between the king, the law, and the religious ideals of the country were never defined absolutely, which left a lot of room for political and polemical manoeuvre. The king was both a ruler and lawmaker by divine right, and subject to the law and to the needs of his people, each to varying degrees depending on the writer or orator, and the occasion. James I himself took each of these stances at varying points, depending on how he wished to be seen at that moment; a strong king invoking his divine right, or a beneficent ruler, servant of his people. This section is very useful in contextualising both the events that were to occur during the English Civil War, and the arguments that were made on either side of the decision to execute King Charles I; a decision towards which the narrative of this book is inevitably, if not self-consciously, building.
The main body of the book is an in depth study of the reigns of James I and Charles I in their own rights. It deals with the impact of their reigns on all of the countries over which they reigned, as well as the circumstances that challenged their ability to reign, with an interest in the Scottish and Irish kingdoms that reaches beyond just how they affected things in England. Harris leads us through key events; the gunpowder plot, religious division, various rebellions, while opening up a range of interpretive possibilities and probabilities in a way that encourages engagement.
In the conclusion of his book, Harris helpfully situates his scholarship within the debate around the origins of the English Civil War, which falls roughly between a traditional argument based on the notion of long-term social and economic problems, and a revisionist argument which emphasises the significant differences of political and religious belief between the king and his parliament, with fortune playing no small part in the way events unfolded from that situation. Harris’s position tends towards restating the traditionalist arguments against the revisionist ones, while giving time to, and finding virtue in, many of the views he is considering. He concludes that while the war was certainly precipitated by short-term factors as the revisionists have suggested, these only became important due to “the longer-term political, religious, social, economic and cultural contexts, which, even if they do not possess strong causal significance, certainly possess great explanatory significance”.