'This Great Firebrand'

William Laud and Scotland, 1617-1645

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Leonie James
  • Suffolk, England: 
    Boydell & Brewer Publishers
    , May
     216 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Since the 1980s, the historiography on the series of conflicts that roiled the early modern British Isles in the 1640s has emphasized both the role of religion—especially as it was driven by Archbishop of Canterbury William Laud—and the necessity of studying the kingdoms of England, Scotland, and Ireland as a connected political system. In her recent book, This Great Firebrand, Leonie James combines these imperatives into a masterful account of the efforts of Laud to exert his influence in Scottish religious affairs. Laud, “at the hub of political and religious events from the early 1630s until shortly before the opening of the Long Parliament in 1640” (7), influenced the disastrous choices Charles I made in regard to Scottish religion, promoting an emphasis on the importance of bishops and an anglicized Scottish Prayer Book, both of which were abhorrent to a majority of Scottish Protestants.

James begins her narrative with a detailed examination of the influence the archbishops of Canterbury played in shaping royal religious policy in Scotland throughout the opening decades of the 17th century. Laud’s archiepiscopal predecessors, particularly John Whitgift and Richard Bancroft, helped James VI to bring the Calvinist Scottish church into a more harmonious relationship with its neighbor, the Church of England. These attempts were fundamental for Laud’s later involvement, not only because they helped to establish the precedent of archiepiscopal interference in Scottish affairs, but also because Laud himself accompanied the king on his journey across the River Tweed to deliver the Five Articles of Perth. After tracing Laud’s meteoric rise to Canterbury under Charles I in 1633, James then turns in her second chapter to Laud’s relationships with the Scottish bishops implementing the royal reforms on the ground. Preferring to work with John Maxwell, the bishop of Ross, over the more senior John Spottiswoode, the archbishop of St. Andrews, Laud echoed his English and Irish policies in England by favoring bishops more in line with royal religious policy over bishops seemingly more tolerant of Calvinism. Charles, working in tandem with Laud, appointed new bishops in Scotland with remarkable speed, most notably by creating a new bishopric in Edinburgh in 1634. Despite growing tensions between the Calvinists and the Episcopalians in Scotland, Laud had all the pieces in play for his most ambitious interference into Scottish religion: the drafting of the Scottish canons and prayer book.

It is James’ third chapter that covers this crucial event, and it is here that her largest historiographical intervention is revealed. By working with underutilized sources, the 1640 Scottish commissioners’ charges against Laud, James argues that the archbishop had considerable free rein in Scottish religion, working with both the king and the bishops to construct both canons and a prayer book that would be much more in alignment with the English theology. James rightly contends that Laud was not alone in this effort, for both the king and the bishops were a crucial part of the Anglicization of the Scottish Church, but that he was “a dominant figure” given “considerable free rein” by Charles (80). By placing Laud squarely at the center of these important and controversial steps, James stresses the significance of Laud to the resulting riots and demise of the British peace.

Furthermore, as James’ next chapter relates, Laud was a crucial component of Charles’ negotiation with the revolting Covenanters in 1638. Far from retreating into the shadows in the wake of the Prayer Book Rebellion, Laud was instrumental in the negotiations, relying on his relationship with both Charles and the 3rd Marquis of Hamilton, who was sent to the Covenanters to negotiate on the king’s behalf, in order to ingratiate himself further at the royal court. At the same time, he began a “personal damage-limitation strategy” to distance himself from the increasingly disastrous Scottish religious policies (11). Lastly, James looks to the role of the Scots in Laud’s trial throughout the early 1640s. Here, James argues that the Scottish commissioners were key in diminishing Laud’s power in London and securing a trial for the archbishop. Although the trial was mainly based on English complaints against Laud, due in large part to growing English hostility toward “the intrusion of the Scots into English political affairs,” the commissioners were able to bring Laud to trial, and watch as the archbishop’s life was ended in January of 1645 (162).

James’ account masterfully brings to life the role of Laud in Scottish affairs in the buildup to the civil wars. Remarkably, she does so despite the relative dearth of sources in Scotland during this time. By using sources that have hitherto been underutilized, most notably the accounts of the Scottish commissioners during Laud’s trial, James emphasizes the centrality of the archbishop to the chaotic affairs of the 1630s and 1640s. This not only shows the importance of the Three Kingdoms approach to the study of Stuart Britain, but also demonstrates just how essential religious policy was to the development of the wars. James’ work is thus a fundamental account of both Laud and Scotland that is a vital part of Caroline Britain historiography.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Collin Schnakenberg is a doctoral student in History at Purdue University.

Date of Review: 
September 21, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Leonie James is lecturer in history at the University of Kent, Canterbury.


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