Sawney Scott and John Bull. Courtesy of the British Museum.

The British Problem: The Making of an Early Modern State

Tutor: Laura Stewart

Module type: MA Option

Module code: HIS00088M

Credits: 20

Britain was once regarded as such an extraordinarily successful state that historians expended little effort investigating how it came into being. Yet the making of Britain was a violent, volatile, and intensely controversial process that took over a century to work itself out. The 1707 Treaty of Union between England and Scotland, which remains the foundation of the modern British state, was one way of dealing with the increasingly disruptive relationship between the two kingdoms, but it was neither ‘inevitable’ nor the end of the story.

This course uses Britain to think about a ‘problem’ that was commonplace in early modern Europe: the formation of ‘multiple monarchies’. In 1603, King James VI of Scotland inherited the Crown of England, which also came with the principality of Wales and the dependant kingdom of Ireland. Over the next century, successive rulers tried to bring the kingdoms and peoples into line with one another – which usually meant making Scotland, Wales, and Ireland more like England. Although there were certainly cultural, religious, and political factors aiding peaceful integration, the notion that parts of the British Isles needed not only to conform to English models of governance, but also to be ‘civilized’ generated resistance and conflict. This project profoundly influenced the major political upheavals that characterize this century: the civil wars of the 1640s, the military conquests of the 1650s, and the revolution of 1688/9. Examining these events as part of a complicated process of British ‘state formation’ offers both new perspectives on controversial historical debates and interesting possibilities for comparative study.

The provisional outline for the module is as follows:

    • ‘The British problem’
    • King James VI and I’s ‘perfect union’
    • Ireland: the first British colony
    • Religious unity
    • The British problem: Oliver Cromwell’s solution
    • British Revolutions: 1688-9
    • ‘A Pen and Ink War’: debating Anglo-Scottish union
    • Britons?


Preliminary Reading

    • Braddick, Michael. State Formation in Early Modern England, c.1550-1700. Cambridge, 2000
    • Levack, Brian. The Formation of the British State: England, Scotland and the Union, 1603-1707. Oxford, 1987
    • Macinnes, Allan I. and Jane Ohlmeyer, eds, The Stuart Kingdoms in the Seventeenth Century: Awkward Neighbours. Dublin, 2002
    • Smyth, Jim, The Making of the United Kingdom, 1660-1800: State, Religion and Identity in Britain and Ireland. London, 2001

For more information, please visit the module catalogue.