Twenty years ago, history degrees were full of courses in “English history”, which often failed to look much beyond London or the Home Counties. Nowadays we are all thoroughly ashamed of our narrow-mindedness, and history degrees boast courses in genuine “British” history. Unfortunately the writing of history has not really caught up with this development, which makes Alec Ryrie’s book on English and Scottish history from 1485 to 1603 both timely and important.
The history of Scotland is not just tacked on to the usual narrative of English history; it is integrated into a confident and characterful overview of the two realms. Comparative analysis of political challenges, relationships between Church and State, the development of monarchy and the unfolding of reformations in both Scotland and England gives a valuable new dimension to the familiar story of the 16th century.
The trials of female monarchy are cast into sharp relief when Mary, Queen of Scots is placed alongside her two English cousins; the unique character of the different reformations appear with striking distinctiveness when viewed side by side. And we see how, in the reigns of Elizabeth I and James VI, “jealous eyes looked from each country at the other”. Ireland is not given quite the same coverage, but then Ireland is a different story. Ryrie has made a compelling argument for interweaving the Tudor and Stewart stories in this way.
Another great thing about this book is that it takes nothing for granted, briskly overturning long-held assumptions and arguing its own case with clarity and conviction.
It fulfils all the usual functions of a textbook, covering the necessary ground, giving a lucid exposition of events and concepts, and explaining its terms quickly and clearly, without taking any specialist knowledge for granted. But the narrative is set within a much deeper appreciation of the religious and political context than one might expect. From the compelling first chapter where, by means of a Tudor Rip van Winkle, Ryrie explains precisely why and how religion shaped daily life, it is clear that the narrative is less important here than the understanding of how 16th-century society thought and functioned.
The emphasis in the introduction on all the things that didn’t happen – papal approval for Henry VIII’s divorce; the marriage of Mary, Queen of Scots to Edward VI; Mary Tudor’s children – is significant. Ryrie argues that “these events did not happen in reality, but they happened again and again in the imaginations of the people we are studying, and so we need to take them seriously”. This attention to fears, expectations, popular thoughts and anxieties illustrates the scope and depth of this study.
Perhaps the best thing about this book, however, is that it is written with real verve and originality and manages to make well-worn subjects appear fresh and surprising. Ryrie’s narratives are balanced, and his interpretations judicious, but his opinions are clearly held and argued with spirit. He also has a knack of vivid illustration. The 15th-century Church and State are described as being “like an old married couple. Each side had its store of old grievances, but they were tied together by powerful bonds of habit, convenience, affection and loyalty. There was no reason to expect a violent break-up”. His judgments are pithy, assured, engaging. “The appearance of dynastic stability in 1603 was deceptive. James, sensibly, never entirely believed it. His son Charles did, with ghastly consequences.” This book will inform and entertain, and it should also get its readers thinking.
The Age of Reformation: The Tudor and Stewart Realms 1485-1603
By Alec Ryrie
Pearson Education, 360pp, £18.99
Published 21 May 2009