Both Sides the Tweed

Working on the account of Ben Jonson’s walk between London and Edinburgh, I became increasingly aware of the huge significance, for him and for his countrymen, of the relationship between England and Scotland in the years after 1603. It’s not just that James designated himself king of the as yet non-existent realm of ‘Great Britain’, nor even that the possibility of creating something called Britain was now a distinct possibility with strong royal support. A whole series of factors made this an ongoing source of interest and concern even once the king’s plans for full political union had been successfully frustrated by opponents on both sides of the border.

The composition of the royal administration, for instance, made Anglo-Scottish relations unignorable – Whitehall was now effectively the site of both English and Scottish courts, which co-existed in an only uneasy balance. The status of Scotsmen as landholders in England became a pressing concern, with a test case arranged to determine who could hold property where, and on what terms – a question that turned out to require the determination of fundamental issues of governance and allegiance. The king, in particular, brokered a number of high-profile Anglo-Scots marriages, which made literal the metaphor through which many commentators approached the question of the union. And at the same time, English ecclesiastical debates drew strength from, and mingled with, those that animated Scotland.

John Speed, Theatre of the Empire of Great Britain

We’re used to thinking of this period as a kind of invention, or re-invention, of Britain. But if that was so, then the Britain created was actually not yet a nation – it was binational, and it explicitly confronted both English and Scots with the question of what their nation or nations consisted in. This project will be an attempt to flesh out what the implications of this idea of ‘binationality’ are, and in particular to trace it through the familial and cultural relations between England and Scotland after 1603 and before the creation of the United Kingdom.

There’s a timeliness to this, of course – we have, it seems, reached a point where the political and wider culture of the UK as a whole is having to grapple with the renewed political relevance of all of its component nations, and in particular with the transformation and reinvigoration of the idea of the nation that has had a growing and powerful influence on Scottish politics for several decades. What this project – still in its very early stages – hopes to do is to explore the ways in which current political and cultural debates might be informed by an awareness of their origins in, or passage through, the unique conditions of this peculiarly formative century.

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