Eden Oration given by the Senior Tutor, Dr Clare Jackson
5 December 2014
It requires a difficult feat of imagination to envisage the dark and desperate days of civil war and devastation in which the then Master of Trinity Hall, Dr Thomas Eden, sat down to compose his Last Will & Testament on 24 January 1643. In the preceding years, Charles I’s royal authority had collapsed, first in Scotland, then in Ireland and, finally, in England where Royalist and Parliamentarian forces had first clashed at Edge Hill, in Warwickshire, in October 1642. Early Royalist advances were quickly countered by decisive Parliamentarian victories, including Marston Moor, in Yorkshire, in 1644 and Naseby, in Northamptonshire, in June 1645, just over a month before Dr Eden died – in post, as Master – on 18 July 1645. The human cost was horrific: after Naseby, one eyewitness recalled ‘the field so strewn with carcasses of horses and men … the bodies lay slain about four miles in length, but most thick on the hill where the king stood’.
In this past year, large-scale warfare has assumed renewed public prominence amidst commemorations of the centenary of World War One’s outbreak in 1914. One of the most visually eloquent tributes to those who lost their lives in that conflict was the temporary installation of a crimson sea of 888,246 ceramic poppies in the Tower of London’s moat with each poppy symbolically representing a British military fatality. But the appalling death toll of that conflict actually pales in comparison with the extent of the civil wars that engulfed Charles I’s kingdoms at the time that Dr Eden was writing his Will. Early modern casualty figures are notoriously difficult to determine but over 600 incidents of organized combat have been identified in England alone, whilst many more deaths occurred as a result of siege warfare, disease and starvation. The historian Charles Carlton has estimated a tally of around 230,500 deaths in England (representing around 4.6% of the country’s population of about five million), around 92,500 in Scotland (or about 9.2% of the population) and around 325,000 in Ireland (over 20.8% of the population). Now these figures aren’t directly comparable, since there were also clearly many non-combat related deaths in the twentieth-century conflicts, but – as a rough comparator, about 2.6% of the United Kingdom’s population lost their lives as a result of the First World War and around 0.6% as a result of World War Two.
As mentioned, Dr Eden died – peacefully, and still in post as Master – in July 1645. Having donated the modern equivalent of around £100,000 to the Parliamentarian cause and around £50,000 to the Parliamentarians’ military campaign in Ireland, Eden’s partisan loyalties were clear. In 1643, he had also sworn the ‘Solemn League and Covenant’ whereby English Parliamentarians secured Scottish Covenanting military support through a joint commitment to extirpate ‘Popery, prelacy, superstition, heresy, schism [and] profaneness’ and, in January 1644, a Scottish army of 21,000 soldiers had invaded England, creating a disastrous ‘war on two fronts’ for Charles I and the royalists. Unlike Dr Eden, Charles I did not get to die peacefully and in post: in 1649, he was placed on trial and convicted of treason by a purged House of Commons and executed on a temporary scaffold outside the Banqueting House in Whitehall on 30 January 1649.
Coincidentally, my own research interests in the ‘three kingdoms’ aspects of seventeenth-century British history reached a much wider audience than usual in this past year, through a three-part series I presented on The Stuarts on BBC2 in July and August. (It would be nice – but delusional – to imagine that the readership of early modern history journals run into the millions: it doesn’t). From the outset, however, what appealed about becoming involved in the television series was its focus: not only did the BBC want to rectify a perceived saturation of interest in the Tudor dynasty, but they specifically wanted to reconsider the seventeenth-century Stuart monarchs as rulers of three independent kingdoms – England, Scotland and Ireland – and to emphasize the political, religious and cultural legacies of that era as the crucible in which modern ideas of ‘Great Britain’ were formed. And the modern contemporary resonances were obvious: with a referendum on Scottish independence taking place in September, revisiting the historical make up – and potential break-up – of the modern United Kingdom was timely.
Hence the rationale for the BBC2 series chimed precisely with my own research. Since the 1980s, Cambridge’s History Faculty has been a hub of the so-called ‘New British History’ which has insisted that the history of Britain should be seen primarily in terms of its multinational character and conventional attachments to the ‘nation-state’ are inappropriate. And this did reflect a ground-shift in historical thinking since most of the history taught in schools and universities, before the 1980s, assumed the political coherence of Britain to be axiomatic. By contrast, when studying the First World War, the fact that the former Austro-Hungarian Empire had been made up of so many different nationalities – including Germans, Austrians, Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Croatians and Serbs – was usually portrayed as absurd, making the post-War fragmentation in separate nation-states both inevitable and natural. And before the rise of Scottish and Welsh political nationalisms in the 1960s, and the ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland, the terms ‘England’ and ‘Britain’ were often used interchangeably when studying the past.
Yet historical realities are more complex and thus a generation of ‘New British Historians’ – including myself – have investigated the Stuart dynasty primarily in terms of its multiple monarchy inheritance. In contrast to the English/Welsh roots of the Tudors, or the German affinities of the Hanoverians, it was under the Scottish dynasty of the Stuarts that the political shape of modern Britain emerged. Between 1603 and 1714, successive Stuart monarchs were confronted by an extraordinary range of constitutional options when seeking to govern their English, Scottish and Irish kingdoms – and Welsh principality: nations that were geographical neighbours and shared certain political, social and cultural similarities, but also had divergent religious complexions and histories of mutual antagonism and warfare. And in this year of anniversaries, the timing of September’s Scottish independence referendum was anchored in history, since it coincided with the 700th anniversary of the Scottish victory over the English at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, just a few decades before this College was founded by Bishop Bateman.
Now, looking back over previous Eden Orations, I discern a recurrent opportunity for indulgent autobiography – and it’s often said that ‘if you want to understand the history, understand the historian’. The personal reasons that the Stuart era piqued my interests aren’t difficult to fathom. Born to an English father and a Scottish mother, I went to school in both London and Edinburgh. As an undergraduate studying at Oliver Cromwell’s former College – Sidney Sussex – I first encountered the mid-seventeenth century in the heyday of historiographical ‘revisionism’ that rejected earlier Marxist emphases on the importance of the socio-economic superstructure in explaining the outbreak of civil war as anachronistic and deterministically teleological. By contrast, the ‘revisionists’ launched iconoclastic assaults on all forms of grand narrative and instead emphasized the importance of contingency, chance and individual personality. Beyond academia, a new political landscape was also emerging in Britain by the late 1990s, following the Good Friday Peace Agreement and devolution in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. And thus, as a postgraduate and thereafter, my research interests increasingly came to focus on the practicalities involved in ruling a multiple monarchy and the inevitable anomalies and asymmetries that often resulted.
To some extent, this has continued to view events from the perspective of those Stuart monarchs charged with ruling their British kingdoms. And it will no doubt seriously alarm the Vice-Master – a Professor of Astrophysics – that the biography of Charles II that I’m currently writing for Penguin, starts by discussing attempts to identify the remnants of a supernova as ‘Cassiopeia A’: a bright ‘noon-day star’ that appeared in the skies over London on the day of Charles’s birth in 1630. More specifically, however, and perhaps appropriately in Trinity Hall – the only Cambridge or Oxford college founded exclusively for the study of law – my instinctive adoption of a ‘three-kingdoms’ approach to this period has translated into a particular interest in early modern Scots law, lawyers and jurisprudence. In a century when the royal court had moved from Edinburgh to London, and there was usually no ecclesiastical General Assembly and only infrequent ‘managed’ parliaments, events in the Scottish law courts often supplied a sensitive barometer of Stuart governance. To take a few, quick examples, I’ve been interested in subjects such as appellate jurisdiction, tracing a series of unsuccessful attempts to appeal rulings by the Court of Session (Scotland’s supreme civil court) to the Scottish Parliament in attempts to entrench the Parliament as a permanent political institution. I’ve also studied jury independence at a time of increasing suspicion of deliberate jury nullification in politicized state trials. More broadly, I’ve also examined remarkable similarities – both in substantive content and forensic rhetoric – between arguments articulated by prosecution and defence counsel in Scotland and those found in English law reports, judicial decisions and polemical pamphlets.
And, as a final example of asymmetrical Stuart governance – during a period when judicial torture remained legal in seventeenth-century Scotland, but illegal in England – I’ve also looked at the ways in which Stuart monarchs were regularly tempted to return individual Scots to be ‘forcibly interrogated’ (i.e. tortured) for crimes allegedly committed in England. Such actions understandably prompted debates about jurisdictional competence, the status of coerced testimony and the divergent character of criminal procedure within the multiple monarchy. Meanwhile, concerned English observers, like the poet Andrew Marvell, feared that Scottish inquisitorial techniques thereby supplied a dismal prediction of future Stuart tyranny. And, with another modern resonance – this time prompted by debates about the international rendition of terrorist suspects – I’ve collaborated on aspects of this material with the first Deputy President of the Supreme Court, Baron Hope of Craighead, examining similarities between ‘reason of state’ justifications for torture deployed in the seventeenth century and controversial modern ‘necessity defences’ invoked today.
But mentioning modern resonances often makes academic historians nervous. Although, like all academics, historians invariably have their own political, cultural, social, gendered and other commitments, they usually become evasive when invited to make those preferences explicit. But we shouldn’t be too naïve when instinctively reaching for claims of factual objectivity. All historians are, essentially, story-tellers, but we should ensure that the stories we tell are as robustly researched and reliably constructed as possible. In this context, a recurrent theme of The Stuarts series was emphasizing the importance of ‘the politics of memory’: by looking, for example, at the bright murals and images of Oliver Cromwell and ‘King Billy’ painted on house gables and city walls in today’s Belfast, confirming the modern sectarian resonances of seventeenth-century events. Similarly, when I was interviewing the BBC’s foreign correspondent, Fergal Keane, he spoke of the eerie parallels he’d discerned between the horrific experiences of civil war, ethnic cleansing and attempted genocide in modern-day Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, and atrocities committed by former neighbours in communities across Ireland during the 1640s. More broadly, supervising today’s undergraduates, I’m struck by the changing convictions of tomorrow’s historians. For those growing up post-9/11, the Stuart era continues to fascinate on account of its religious radicalism and extremist fundamentalism – so were the civil wars of the 1640s really Britain’s last ‘Wars of Religion’?
And a flavour of the polemical ends to which public history can be deployed became evident in some of the media reaction to my documentary series last summer. For example, on the day the series started, Mark Lawson wrote an article in The Guardian questioning the future viability of making ‘British’ television about the United Kingdom’s constituent parts. Describing me as ‘a Cambridge-based historian who sounds more like Fiona Bruce than Robert the Bruce’, Lawson acknowledged that aspects of the series were ‘subtle and subversive’ but then made a somewhat eccentric claim that was widely disputed in an ensuing social media storm. According to Lawson, whatever the outcome of the September referendum: ‘Through no fault of its producers, The Stuarts shows that making an impartial or balanced programme about the historical relationship between England and Scotland in the present circumstances is akin to setting up a Middle Eastern Broadcasting Corporation and commissioning a history of the Arab-Israeli conflict that can be shown in all transmission areas’.
Well, history also brings hindsight and, last September, 55% of voters in Scotland elected to remain within the United Kingdom and 45% voted for independence. It’s an ironically emotive figure – 45 – in Scottish history, evoking the decisive defeat of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Jacobite army at Culloden in 1745. But, undeterred, I’m currently involved in a two-part sequel series for BBC2 entitled The Stuarts in Exile, all too aware of the modern political resonances of re-examining Jacobitism as a populist – if not always popular – movement that sought to destabilize the eighteenth-century British state by denouncing the extent to which Britain’s ‘real’ interests were allegedly being sacrificed to an over-arching, ruinously expensive and irrelevant European project, alongside xenophobic concerns about immigration, (particularly the German Hanoverians) and despair at a National Debt that seemed to be spiralling out of control.
But that is a project for next year. The purpose of this evening is to celebrate the distinguished longevity of Dr Eden’s ‘poor Society’: Trinity Hall, and particularly to congratulate our Scholars on their outstanding achievements. In his College history, Charles Crawley attributed Trinity Hall’s lack of public prominence in the seventeenth century partly to ‘a prudent caution proper to lawyers’, but more substantively, to ‘a certain dull conformity or intellectual lethargy’ that settled over the Hall for two centuries. Nothing could be wider of the mark today. Since last year’s Eden Oration, delivered by Dr Bradley, the Hall has admitted a new Master – Dr Jeremy Morris – whose arrival in the Lodge has rekindled happy memories for many of us of Jeremy’s previous tenure as Dean between 2001 and 2009. But I’m assuming few of us will wish Jeremy to model his tenure as Master on Dr Eden of who it was claimed – in his funeral oration – that he had proved ‘another Hercules’, having ‘constantly girded himself to purge some filth which this stable had accumulated in the course of years’. Within the Fellowship, we welcomed two new Honorary Fellows: Professor Sir John Cunningham and Professor James Thouless. We have also been joined by two new Staff Fellows – Dr Nicholas Guyatt and Dr Jack Thorne – in History and Mathematics respectively, as well as by two new Research Fellows – Mr Willem Paul van Pelt and Mr Lindley Lentati – in Archaeology & Anthropology and Astrophysics respectively. And we have also elected four new Fellow Commoners: Dr Elizabeth Caygill, Dr Felix Deschler, Dr Miki Kawabata and Dr Poornima Padipaty, in Biochemistry, Physics, Japanese and Anthropology.
New arrivals to the Fellowship are, however, inevitably accompanied by sad departure. After a distinguished decade in the Lodge, Professor Martin Daunton stepped down from the Mastership in September and – whilst remaining Head of the University’s School of the Humanities and Social Sciences – has returned to a Professorial Fellowship at Churchill College, as well as enjoying new challenges as an English Heritage Commissioner. Dr Teruyoshi Yoshida resigned his Staff Fellowship in Mathematics and Dr Emile Ringe resigned her Research Fellowship to become Assistant Professor in Materials Science and Nano-engineering at Rice University. In the past year, we’ve also bid farewell to Four Fellow Commoners: Dr Luke Clark, now at the University of British Columbia; Dr Rohit De and Dr Julia Stephens, both now at Yale University and Jocelyn Poulton, who stepped down as the College’s Development Director. Finally, with sadness, we note the passing away in 2014 of a former Honorary Fellow, Mr Hamish Maxwell; a former Emeritus Fellow, Dr Bill Grundy; and a former Staff Fellow, Professor Alan Katritsky.
But now it is time for Dr Eden’s Supper. As King Charles II discovered in 1660, after more than a decade of dispiriting and impoverished Continental exile, ‘good things come to those who wait’. And so, after those attending last year’s Eden Supper were exiled to a chilly and incongruous marquee pitched in Front Court, I now invite this ‘poor Society’ of Master, Fellows and Scholars to adjourn to our magnificently restored Dining Hall.