Dr. Natalia Nowakowska is a Tutor & Lecturer in Early Modern History at Somerville College, University of Oxford.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Composite Monarchies

A composite monarch? James VI and I, by Daniel Mytens
In 1992, John Elliott, Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford, published a seminal article which I ask all my students of early modern Europe read – ‘A Europe of Composite Monarchies’ (Past and Present, paywall). Perhaps, at this juncture, British politicians should read it too.

Elliott pointed out that late medieval Europe consisted of dozens of small states and statelets – e.g. the Duchy of Savoy, or Milan – but that in the sixteenth century there was a trend for political entities to coalesce into bigger units. The marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella in 1469 forged a union between the Iberian kingdoms of Castile and Aragon (‘Spain’). The French monarchy came to absorb the duchy of Brittany. Further east, the marriage of Grand Duke Jogaila of Lithuania to Queen Jadwiga of Poland in 1386 created a dynastic union between the two polities, which was cemented into a legal union in 1569. And, in 1603, with the extinction of the Tudor line, a Scottish monarch travelled south to claim his English throne, creating an enduring dynastic union in the British Isles. Elliott’s point was that such unions, or ‘composite states’ were a quintessential feature of European political life in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, a way of reconciling, as he so eloquently put it, ‘the competing aspirations towards diversity and unity that have remained a constant of European history’. Composite states were, he pointed out, both highly fruitful arrangements and inherently challenging to govern.

Composite states are a hallmark of early modern Europe, and yet, four centuries later, what is the United Kingdom, if not a composite state? With its union of three kingdoms (England, Scotland, and Ireland) and Wales, the Stuart composite monarchy was one of the more ambitious, or crowded, in Europe. Alongside Spain (a fusion of Aragon, Castile, Navarre), the UK is one of the great surviving composite monarchies of the Renaissance age. Others, such as the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, broke down into competing nation-states long ago – as Timothy Snyder has traced so well, into modern Poland, Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine. Today, we are still dealing with some of the long-term consequences of that failed composite state. If the Scots vote yes tomorrow, we will be leaving early modern Europe a little further behind us, shaking off one of its powerful legacies.


And regardless of the referendum result, British politicians would also do well to read Conrad Russell’s The Fall of the British Monarchies, 1637-42 (1991). In this classic work, Russell demonstrated how the English civil war was sparked by riots in Edinburgh – he charted how quickly different parts of a union can destabilise each other, and how bad policy in Scotland triggered a spiral of local reactions and events across the British Isles, which a London government proved quite unable to control. History can’t predict the future, but it can give us insightful and salutary models to think with – scholars, voters and politicians alike. Composite states are relatively easy to forge, messy to maintain, and messy to dismantle.

Sigismund Augustus, King of Poland & Grand Duke of Lithuania (d. 1572).