"Language is a virus." — William S. Burroughs
Think now of Yvonne Rainer’s ‘Trio A’ (1978). Rainer originally choreographed the piece in 1966 and it was strongly linked to her idea of one dancer “transmitting” the dance to another, one dancer teaching another to replicate it through the physical equivalent of oral history.
Yet, in 1978, in an arguably contradictory act, she committed the dance work to film, a seemingly permanent medium that intrinsically denies the ephemeral person-to-person nature of transmission that had hitherto been such a strong part of her personal practice.
No, this show is not about Yvonne Rainer. No, this show is not about ‘Trio A’. This exhibition is about transmission.
Yes, I know that there are some artists in this show who might prefer that I write about their work rather than all this "dry history stuff”. Maybe they fail to see that I am writing about their work…
In about 275 B.C. European Celtic culture reached its zenith stretching from Ireland to Germany, from Switzerland to Turkey in the east and dominating much of Europe; encompassing what is today the UK and Ireland, France, Belgium and the Netherlands and most of the Iberian Peninsula.
Without getting bogged down in debates about the differences between ethnicity and cultural-linguistic identity, what is reasonable to say is that at the height of this Iron Age culture, it shared a language—or at least shared “understood” linguistics—and shared belief structures that were transmitted across this vast continental mass.
Of course, it was washed away by what came after, made all the easier because these Celts had no unified written language despite their highly aestheticised cultures. The truism states that, “history is written by the victors”. This is certainly true for the dominant Roman culture that battered Celtic culture into submission while stealing its own supposedly classic values from the Greeks and casting Celtic culture in a light that would still resonate with 19th-century colonialists; the notion of “the noble savage".
This linear connection is perhaps most clearly illustrated in the Western cultural reverence for the sculpture known as 'The Dying Gaul' (also known as 'The Dying Galatian') generally attributed to Epigonus, court sculptor of the Attalid dynasty of Pergamon. Given the title, many jump to the conclusion that it's a depiction of a Gaul dying under the Roman sword in present-day France or Spain. Actually, it is most likely to have been commissioned between 230 and 220 BC by Attalus I of Pergamon to celebrate his victory over the Galatians, the Celtic or Gaulish people of parts of Anatolia in present-day Turkey.
Another factor to consider, and one that probably contributes to the much later advent of a Celtic-Catholic impetus, is the surprising unity of the visual culture of ancient Celtic civilisation, unlike that of the Romans who simply couldn't resist appropriating visual motifs from every culture they conquered, including the Celts. By contrast, ancient Celtic culture from Ireland to Switzerland, Scotland to Brittany, is surprisingly unified in its material culture. We know that these Celtic cultures, especially those on the more peripheral edges of Celtic world had frequent contact with other civilisations. But, apart from materials uniquely found in one locale and not another or those small details that get expert archaeologists excited, a torque found in Germany is as instantly recognisable as Celtic as one found in England. Clothing and even depicted hairstyles vary little from artefacts found in Germany (and are obviously related) to those found in France. If the Celts are considered primarily a culture of a shared, almost entirely unrecorded language, they were also one notable for a visual cultural cohesion that did not extend to the empire that battered them into submission.
Na Dùthchannan Ceilteach
For the purposes of True North, let’s jump forward two millennia or so. Current political pop consensus talks of seven or eight “Celtic nations”. Much of this is, of course, driven by nationalistic ideas that arose in the 19th century.
The basic tenet is that Eire (Ireland), Kernow (Cornwall), Mannin (Isle of Mann), Breizh (Brittany), Alba (Scotland) and Cymru (Wales) are somehow bonafide Celtic “nations” because the Celtic language of Gaelic is still spoken there. By contrast, the historic territories of Gallaecia and Astures (today, northern Portugal, Galicia, Asturias, León, and Cantabria) are regarded as the “ghost Celtic nation” (by self-appointed arbiters such as the BBC) because, while their Celtic heritage remains tangible, Gaelic is no longer spoken locally. Some—including the BBC, obviously—argue that this is a fair qualification given that Celtic culture was ultimately linguistic and not ethnic.
Another approach would be to go back to that map and turn it upside down; to look at the blue bits and not the brown bits.
Archaeology is currently revealing things that help us understand a potential recalibration of what we learned in school. For example, excavations on Scottish islands—such as the Orkneys and Shetlands—are unearthing significant centres of trade in which these islands were not the outlying edges of Europe, as we consider them today, but foci for trade between the Viking and Celtic worlds, places where Scandinavia and the Baltic traded with a culture that had its own extant sea routes south to simpatico cultures throughout the British Isles, France, Spain and what is today Belgium and the Netherlands (the regions there before they raised it from the seabed…)
It is into this vibrant and affluent culture of a forgotten North that Christianity first enters. No, this really isn’t about trying to locate Saint Patrick, Saint Brigit of Kildare and Saint Columba, the trinity of Northern Celtic saints, in any real historical context. Rather, it’s about being clear that their cults and power were well established by the time the Moors occupied much of the Iberian Peninsula.
For the purposes of True North, the consideration is a nearly forgotten memory in which the preeminence of Gaelic Christianity becomes a link with the Christian parts of Spain via the blue bits on the map. For example, by 719 AD, practically all of the Iberian Peninsula save for a defiant “strip” of its northern regions was part of the muslim-ruled Al-Andalus. One could point out the contemporaneous nature of the famous Book of Kells—the book of Columba—but one would not have to if one actually paid attention to contemporaneous realities removed from the bias of their usual geograpahic axes…
Just as ancient winds and sea routes carried trade and people between Spain and the North—and FYI, this often involved sailing up through the Irish sea to get to Scotland rather than up through the English Channel and North Sea as is more common today—so too did Spain’s Moorish occupation and mainland Europe’s confusion about what it was going to do during the fallout of the ancient Roman Empire in the first millennium offer opportunities, largely unrecorded, for cultural connection between the Christian part of Spain and the North.
Here is transmission; the transmission that binds.
The big part here is actually the North. Consider it is as a contemporary Netflix sci-fi film or something from the 'Star Wars' litany. Spain is almost lost in its commitment to the One True Faith. But, far to the north, a vibrant and strong Christian faith is busy creating artefacts of exquisite beauty that testify to exactly that shared faith and it will help keep the flame of Christianity alive and share it with Christian kin, the faithful adherents holding out in Northern Spain and Portugal...
Ironic then that this story will be denigrated during the Early Modern Period and, sadly, even ignored by Spain when politically expedient to do so.
Unlike Yvonne Rainer's 'Trio A', too much of Celtic (Gaelic) written culture was not kept for posterity. It was not preserved. Or, it was done so in a language that in later centuries became so obscure that no one noticed. There is a reason that the "ghost Celtic nation" of Spain and Portugal no longer speaks Gaelic. Because, after the Reconquista, it no longer needed to look to its allies to the North.
In the telling
The persistent mythologies that today link Spain with the North, have a lot to do with political developments during the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, even if the most dramatic events to which they refer occurred during the 16th and 17th centuries.
One of the dominant narratives that remains today is that of Ireland and Scotland’s Catholic links with Spain. There is little doubt that this is the result of resistance to the English Protestant narratives that near-deified Elizabeth I—”good Queen Bess”—and demonised her elder half-Spanish half-sister Queen Mary—”bloody Mary”—arising out of various struggles.
In Scotland, the most significant of these were the various Jacobite uprisings that sought to restore the natural—and Catholic—Stuart heir to the thrones of England and Scotland following the death of childless Queen Anne in 1714.
In Ireland, the journey was an even more complex one but with near linear continuity dating back to much earlier English invasions of Ireland. It can later be traced via Ireland’s role as a theatre of war during the Jacobite uprisings that spilled over from Scotland and the oppression of the native Irish during the settlements and vast grants of land to (largely Scottish) Protestant nobles by the British crown, the so-called “plantations'', a political action from which the English word, with all its later colonialist and slave-owning connotations, is derived. We can trace these narratives of resistance all the way through to the struggles for Irish independence of the 19th and 20th centuries, right through to the sectarian “troubles” in Northern Ireland that continued until nearly the new millennium (or aren't’ over yet, depending on whose opinions you believe).
As in any history of political resistance, culture is a powerful instrument. Symbols and images, songs and poems are simply so much harder to police than the gathering of people or their possession of weapons. Whether Scottish Jacobite ballads or Irish Republican songs; white cockades, a bundle or sticks or even Medusa—Jacobite symbols—all travelled far and wide, over the sea (and not just to Skye). Discreetly hummed or embroidered onto a handkerchief, they could be a way of the likeminded identifying each other in the dangerous territories at home, of spotting each other abroad.
Just like Yvonne Riner’s dance, songs—both in Gaelic and English—were passed from one person to another, transmitting all of their ideas and aspirations without a single word committed to paper. They travelled the oceans, whether to the nearer safe havens of the Lowlands and France or further afield; the Americas and the Caribbean.
Then, at the start of the 19th century, something extraordinary happened.
Written Gaelic, which had arisen and flourished in Scotland and Ireland during the centuries following the collapse of the Ancient Roman Empire, during the so-called Dark Ages, had been informally and formally widely suppressed in various waves between the 11th and 18th centuries.
One of the cited reasons by the authorities suppressing Gaelic in the 18th century was that it was a “heathen” and “ungodly” language. This is somewhat ironic: at a time when much of Spain came under Moorish rule and many parts of Europe returned to non-Christian beliefs, such as those emanating around Viking strongholds, Gaelic Christianity elaborated in written Gaelic flourished.
One strongly suspects that this justification was convenient for the authorities in Scotland—with their royal orders from London—actually fearing Gaelic’s role as a focal point for Jacobite sentiment, not to mention enabling the local population to communicate with each other without being understood under the very ears of the English garrisons sent in to prevent rebellion. But, if the English-speaking town faelk of the Scottish lowlands were fully complicit in this suppression or not, they were certainly more preoccupied with international trade and the burgeoning scientific ideas of the Enlightenment than safeguarding the cultural rights of Gaelic speakers.
Then, in the 19th century, various movements and pioneering individuals embraced Gaelic. For example, a full translation of the Bible into Scots Gaelic was published in 1801. And, in 1811, the Gaelic Schools Society was established to teach Gaelic speakers to read their own language so that they could read the Bible in Gaelic. This translation of the Bible later became the standard for written modern Scots Gaelic.
Similar movements took place in the other Celtic nations. In some, such as Wales, with its staunchly British royalist tendencies and dominant Protestantism, these were actually welcomed, perhaps seen as "quaint", by the English authorities and media of the day. But in others, most notably Ireland, the suppression of Gaelic continued. For example, there was the dogged destruction of the hedge schools (scoil chois claí), underscoring that the overlords implicitly understood the power of language culture as political resistance. These small, illegal schools that took their name from the fact that they often took place outdoors, frequently changing locations to avoid detection, were doubly loathed, not only for often for teaching in Gaelic, but also because they taught non-conformist religious doctrines; Catholicism or Presbyterianism.
Later, during the 20th century, particularly during the Easter Rebellion of 1916, the period leading up to Irish independence and later periods of sectarian conflicts in Northern Ireland, old songs and slogans joined with the new. When suppressed in the UK media, they remained defiantly present in the media of places to which diasporan Celts had carried them across oceans: North America, Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere.
It’s also in the cultural phenomena of the 20th century that there emerges a perhaps coincidental notion of a broader, international Celtic identity, bonded in solidarity by resistance. Yet, it’s most certainly not “purist”: traditional 18th-century Scottish Child ballads might just as likely be performed on stage at protest concerts in aid of the Irish Republican cause as ‘The Rising of the Moon’, a vehemently Republican ballad published in 1867, telling of events during the Irish Rebellion of 1798. Irish songs associated with resistance turned out to be originally Scottish and vice versa.
‘The Skye Boat Song’, ostensibly a fiercely Jacobite anthem, joined the repertoire of the most middle-of-the-road English musicians and gentle school choirs. And, the tear-jerking ballad ‘Grace’, written by Frank and Sean O'Meara, that tells of the marriage of Joseph Mary Plunkett and Grace Gifford in Kilmainham Gaol mere hours before his execution by firing squad for treason for his part in the Easter Rebellion of 1916, turns out to have been published in 1985 and is not “traditional” as apocryphal gossip transmitted from one person to another in pubs from Boston to Halifax, Nova Scotia; Brisbane to Birmingham, Alabama or elsewhere.
And, so back to Spain. Because it is also in the late 20th century, particularly during the 1970s and 1980s, that the phenomenon of armed resistance that almost defines the era starts to join the dots and circle back to much older alliances. Given the level of disinformation emanating from official sources during the period, it’s difficult to tell exactly how much cooperation the IRA may or may not have had with ETA, the ANC or the PLO or other groups committed to armed struggle.
But, this also depends on what you call history and how you measure and value it. If you have no problem accepting the validity of the transmission of shared goals and cultural heritage through an oral tradition—and I’m hardly hiding that I would be one of those people—then you have no problem valuing what trusted friends and colleagues tell you, in a pub in Belfast or a hospital cafeteria, the contemporary, badly lit version of a hedge school. In these places, if you listen without judgement, you might hear tales from your colleague who grew up on the Falls Road about how her Da’ helped get the daughters of a PLO political refugee a place in a Catholic school that would lay back on the religious dogma because he'd rather that than have his children subjected to the political influence of the children of Orange Men in a secular school. Or, you might learn about a community initiative on a very poor Glasgow housing estate that welcomed ANC exiles in fierce contrast to today’s racist click bait stories. You might even learn about how a very rich lady from Bilbao used her London soirees, supposedly centred around folk music, to affect meetings between the IRA and ETA.
In this version of “transmission”, we can get back to understanding that one of the ideas that Celtic identity in the 20th century and beyond—whether on the BBC’s “official” list or not—embraces an almost forgotten sense of cultural identity, so very deeply rooted, but almost forgotten through centuries of elision by other dominant cultures. In this universe, the trade and communication routes that first radiated out, south towards Spain, east and north to Europe, later embraced pretty much the whole planet.
What are related as a series of similar barroom retellings of histories of oppression, evictions and simply bad luck less frequently elaborate the other side of the coin. Aside from the entirely different, forced African Diaspora, the global diasporas of the Celts are among the most successful and expansive of the last thousand years. If Scotland is comparatively underpopulated today, it's because they're all living somewhere else.
In the immigrant communities at least, the pride is tangible—think only of Irish-American communities in Chicago or Canada’s massive Caledonian and Hibernian organisations. The part that seems far harder to reconcile is where to place that Celtic identity within a contemporary European context. Those of us brought up with a Celtic sense of identity and the importance of a Gaelic linguistic/cultural tradition seem far more able to talk about its global influence than what it means back in the very places it was born.
Again, we're back to talking about transmission, how the power of transmission trumps the it-is-what-is of any phenomenon in and of itself. When William S. Burroughs said that language was a virus—and, no doubt all of the implicit notions of virulence are currently more foregrounded in our post-COVID-19 world—he probably wasn’t thinking of the Celts. But, he might as well have been.
"I'd taken the overnight ferry from Hull to Zeebrugge. I was standing outside the station in Bruges, drinking a coffee, killing time before my train to Antwerp, still barely awake.
"This young Spanish family exited the station through the doors next to which I was standing. A pin-up for contemporary Spanish family life; trendy mum and dad and two kids, a boy and a girl, both under 10. They were clearly tourists—Mum clutched a guide book and various tourism brochures.
"The little girl was not happy, stamping her feet and angrily whining. In a fit of pique, she hurled her little pink backpack on the ground.
"Trendy dad took care of it, retrieving her backpack and crouching down to chat with her. I couldn't really make out what he was whispering to her, nor what she was saying over indignantly folded arms. Trendy mum just rolled her eyes, patting her obedient son on the shoulder.
"The little girl seemed to calm down. Dad, returning to an almost standing position, gestured encouragingly in the direction of the spires of the medieval city and said something like: 'Sí Sí. Solíamos ser dueños de toda la ciudad.'
"Now, my Spanish is ropey, but I'm pretty certain that means, 'Yes, yes. We used to own the whole city.'
"Almost instantly she became compliant, held out her little hand to him. And, the family sauntered off in the direction of the old town."
Meanwhile, on the other side of the Channel
In stark contrast to the persistent mythologies first arising in the 16th and 17th centuries that created narratives of some kind of deep-seated bond between the Celtic, largely Catholic, peoples in Ireland and Britain, narratives arising from the Lowlands in roughly the same period tell a decidedly different story.
To reduce a complex history to a simple precis, one of the most significant figures of the period to bring decisive change to the region that today comprises Benelux and the culturally Flemish parts of northern France, was Willem I, Prince of Orange. He is generally referred to as William the Silent in English, though his sobriquet in Dutch (Willem de Schluwe) has other more specific connotations such as sly, wily or cunning.
William was a key figure in what happened when the Holy Roman Hapsburg Emperor Charles V abdicated in favour of his son Philip II, King of Spain. Philip (in)famously committed in his role as Defender of the One True Faith, almost immediately swept aside his father’s policies of caution and religious tolerance in ruling Holland and Flanders. Via his regents, he made it very clear that the heresy of Protestantism was no longer going to be tolerated in the Lowlands through increasingly aggressive and strong-armed policies.
William of Orange, technically a German prince, raised a Catholic and a longtime favourite of Charles V, joined others of the view that something had to be done about the Spanish crown’s rule in the Netherlands, eventually becoming the leader of the Dutch Revolt, triggering the near stalemate of the Eighty Years War.
This conflict was marked by unprecedented brutality, in the Flemish and Dutch narratives at least, on the part of the Spanish overlords. Fernando Álvarez de Toledo y Pimentel, 3rd Duke of Alba, Governor of the Netherlands from 1567 to 1573, became increasingly frustrated at the seemingly endless round of military losses and gains. His five-year tenure as governor saw a multitude of cruel attempts to bring the region back under compliant Spanish rule. For example, it saw him order some 5000 executions, including those of two leading, highly respected noblemen in Brussels convicted for treason for failing to suppress an iconoclast uprising in Antwerp, in Philip II’s opinion, without sufficiently vengeful Catholic zeal.
It was actually after the Duke of Alba had returned to Spain that what is known as "the Spanish Fury at Antwerp" took place in 1576. Spanish mercenaries garrisoned in Antwerp, angered that they had not been paid, sacked the city, perpetrating the greatest massacre in the history of the Low Countries.
Despite this atrocity having occurred on another’s watch, the Duke of Alba remains demonised, a bogeyman figure in Flemish popular culture. Even today you might hear an elderly Antwerpenaar chastise naughty children with the words, “Behave. Or else the Duke of Alba will get you!”
The main long-term outcome of William of Orange’s ultimately unsuccessful attempt to drive the forces of the Spanish crown out of the Lowlands was that it divided the region into two distinct regions that remain a tangible spectre on today’s map of Europe. To the south, in what it today Belgium (and part of the southern Netherlands), the Spanish Netherlands were brought back into compliance under the iron rule of Spain. Any iconoclasts or Protestants who had not yet been put to death for heresy fled north and adherence to the Catholic faith was no longer a matter of choice. To the north, the United Provinces of the Netherlands, where Calvinism and Protestantism dominated, went on to become the Dutch Republic. But, the political and ideological divide also had a great economic impact. Antwerp, under the iron fist of Spanish rule and in decline as a result of the devastating massacre, lost its economic preeminence in the region. Amsterdam, the new capital of the Dutch Republic, flourished, experiencing an economic boom signalling the beginning of the Dutch Golden Age.
Yet, if this all seems cut-’n-dried history, it isn’t, at least not in cultural terms. It’s curious, for example, how even today popular Flemish culture and narratives combine a number of almost contradictory beliefs. For example, there are few in Flanders who question the role of the Spanish as villains in the fate of the region in the 16th and 17th centuries. Unlike the peoples of Ireland or Scotland that see their shared Catholic heritage as a point of connection with Spain, the Flemish, even when sometimes proudly citing their Catholicism as a positive point of difference when articulating the differences between Flanders and the Netherlands, do not see their shared faith as something that brings them closer to Spanish culture. Or do they?
In some of the popular tales or anecdotes about the Spanish impact on Flanders still told, one can palpably detect something that isn’t complete abhorrence or rejection. For example, in Antwerp, it’s not uncommon for visitors to be told by a local that the word “flamenco” originated in Flanders because of the particular style of dance brought from Spain by mercenaries and their gitana camp followers; that “flamenco” is a corruption of the Dutch word “vlaming” (Fleming). That in itself might not be that odd; a possibly apocryphal pub quiz “fact”. But, it’s when the local goes on to tell visitors with pride, “And that’s why even today we still have one of the world’s best flamenco schools in the world in the city”, that things become a little more interesting, take on the air of some form of historic Stockholm Syndrome in which the impact of the armies of occupation are not only a source of horror, but also a source of some kind of pride.
In a contemporary world in which the psychological ambivalence sometimes exhibited by those from countries with a history of occupation or colonisation has long been noted and discussed (think, for example of the seminal work of Frantz Fanon) perhaps the oddest thing is that, given Belgium's more recent record as a particularly abusive coloniser, we still see traces of this ambivalence in self-defined narratives of cultural identity as victims so many centuries later.
These layers in mythologies do not stop there. Unlike northern Spain and parts of Portugal, today Flanders is not accorded the status of a “Celtic ghost nation” by self-appointed arbiters of such terms. This is ironic because it’s the Celtic tribe named the Belgae in Julius Caesar’s writings that give today’s Belgium its name. Admired by Caesar for their ferocity in battle, the name they supposedly called themselves in their native tongue means “bulging with anger or rage”. This cultural heritage of the Belgae transmitted by classical Roman culture was resurrected by Flemish nationalists in the 19th century articulating a national identity for the newly formed kingdom that finally erased the Spanish stranglehold on the back of the defeat of Napoleon.
Furthermore, this disconnect of the Catholic kingdom of Belgium from comparable 19th-century Celtic revival movements in Ireland and Scotland at the time seems even stranger because the Belgae where a Celtic people who were not only based in what is today Belgium, but had crossed the channel and occupied vast swathes of land in what is today East Anglia and Norfolk, ensconced as a cross-channel Celtic nation centuries before Julius Caesar’s campaigns.
This was not without long-term impact. When German tribes pressing westwards captured more territories from the Belgae during the height of the Roman Empire, much of it part of the Roman province of Gaul, the Belgae retreated towards the coast and river ports with sea access—what are today Ghent, Ostend and Antwerp—but augmented their main power base in England. In the period of chaos following the withdrawal of Romans from Britain and the collapse of the empire, these ancient sea routes and cultural connections proved advantageous: during the early Middle Ages and much of the mediaeval period, the all-important supply chain that carried wool from England to the skilled weavers of Flemish city states saw both regions on either side of the English Channel prosper.
Aye, there’s the rub
True North explores certain constructs in narratives about Spain and the North. But we should also tear them apart.
We could, for example, discuss how the policies of Philip II of Spain, a Hapsburg religious zealot, in his will to see the Netherlands return to the Catholic faith, sent the Duke of Alba, storming like a bull into a china shop, into the Netherlands after his accession to the Spanish throne and how this sent everything to buggery.
But then there is realpolitik.
In the case of True North, it’s clear that "real" can have decidedly different meanings in Spanish and Germanic languages, but then again it might maintain both simultaneously in a larger political atlas.
In simplistic terms, the power players fed the enduring mythologies about how the links between Spain and the North played out—the real (in the Spanish sense of the term) on one side—undoubting in their God-given royal birthrights simultaneously demanding that they fulfil their duty as defenders of the One True Faith. On the other hand, movers and shakers who, though never questioning their royal entitlement, understood that realpolitik is arguably the only hope they had of maintaining their power over regions torn apart by decades, centuries even, of religious conflict.
A prime example of the former is Philip II, King of Portugal and Spain, among his many other titles, as well as heir to numerous of his father’s Hapsburg realms. The villain of English narratives, famous for “having his beard singed” by the loss of the Armada, many of these mythologies were created by English Protestant propagandists, quite rightly recognising his dogged determination to put an end to all forms of heresy, including Protestantism, least of all on the throne of England.
In stark contrast, his own father Charles V was born in Ghent, at the time the epicentre of the Duchy of Burgundy. While Charles had oodles of blue blood pumping through his veins, he was originally expected to play no more than a supporting role in the dynastic strategy of the Austrian Hapsburgs. But, through the not entirely unusual fickleness of fate in an age when life expectancy was rather random, he ended up winning the lottery, the last standing dynastic heir, ending up adding the titles of Holy Roman Emperor, King of Spain and various other titular privileges to those with which he was born. Not bad for someone originally expected to rise no further than a vaguely useful duke providing a buffer against the dominance of France.
It’s easy for us today to project a transhistoric reading onto the differences between father and son. Did Philip II feel the need to assert his devout Catholicism into his policies for governance of his realms precisely because his father Charles V took a far more tolerant view? Was this, in fact, the only way in which he could surpass his father’s seemingly effortless mastery in ruling over “the empire on which the sun never set”? (yes, kids, the English Victorian colonialists stole this one from the Austrian-Spanish-Flemish-Portuguese situation penned centuries earlier).
Tempting as it might be, the reality is probably far more pragmatic. Charles V grew up on the frontline of Protestantism pushing west and south while Catholicism pushed back. In this world of big players, no one even noticed the Celtic-Gaelic cultures that had borne the torch of Catholicism in the centuries when Islamic rulers had taken possession of various parts of Europe.
One of Charles V’s first major challenges as Holy Roman Emperor was to maintain reasonable unity among the German princes, many of whose domains had already or were rapidly embracing new Protestant doctrines based on Luther’s teachings. Charles’ response was pure realpolitik. He called Martin Luther to attend the Diet of Worms in 1521, promising him safe conduct if he did so. Rather inconveniently also crowned King of Germany around the same time, Charles duly declared Luther an outlawed heretic but stuck to his word, allowing the pesky cleric with loud opinions safe exit from a Catholic lion’s den calling for him to be burned at the stake.
A policy of modulated religious tolerance ensured relative unity within his realms in Europe during his long reign, though he was far more brutal in allowing the excesses of the Inquisition to find an outlet in the Spanish colonies in the Americas. Realpolitik.
One of the reasons for his policy of religious tolerance in the increasingly Protestant Lowlands is probably his own cultural connection with the region: quite literally a native, his primary languages were French and Dutch. Though he later became proficient in Castilian Spanish, a requirement of him assuming the title of King of Spain that he inherited somewhat later in life, there is evidence suggesting that he was more proficient in Basque (Euskara). This seems to have come about organically as a result of friendly relationships he developed with traders from northern Spanish ports while still young and living in Ghent, at the time still an important European trading hub. In turn, he later appointed Basque-speakers as advisors and secretaries when he became King of Spain being less suspicious of them than the wily grandees of the Spanish court. They, in turn, showed devoted loyalty for an honour rarely previously bestowed by the Spanish crown on a generally overlooked region of the Peninsula.
Like other mythologies and narratives considered in True North, this too reveals certain ironies. For example, while a number of the enduring legends and tales underscore the Celtic-Catholic connections between Spain and the North, depicting Philip II as a pious Catholic monarch seeking to return the British Isles to orthodoxy through his marriage to Mary I, it’s actually his far more realistic father who turns out to be the bridge for more tangible connections between Spain and the North.
But, this is merely one example of the tensions between the ideological and romantic aspirations of enduring mythologies and real, historic policies and events.
Conversely, Philip II remained true to his anti-heretical policies in the Spanish Netherlands. He continued to support the efforts of Irish and Scottish Catholics, even after the death of his wife Mary I and after the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots by her cousin Elizabeth I. One might even read as his commitment to try and invade England with the Armada as the antithesis of realpolitik given the warnings of his own admirals.
Taek this, Mary Queen of Scots!
One of the most enduring mythologies harnessed to perpetuate the notion of a meaningful Catholic alliance between the North, France and Spain is the multitude of legends centring on Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots.
Everyone from Schiller to Donizetti to veritable crowds of contemporary filmmakers have created their own versions of the story of Mary, Queen of Scots. Whether opera, German-language drama or tacky TV series, most of these narratives cast Mary as some kind of tragic heroine, frequently in narratives with an undercurrent of some form of Scots struggle for independence from the English. "Independence" here is not a misjudged word: many of these narratives entirely confuse the difference between Mary's personal liberty and Scotland's actual independent sovereignty from England. Effectively equating Elizabeth's imprisonment of her cousin with the occupation of a whole country, many creating these stories encourage a massive misconceptions. While England and Scotland had gone to war with each other on numerous occasions, Elizabeth I had no intention of claiming the Scottish thrown. After, all, once Mary was safely under lock and key, her heir in the hands of staunchly Protestant regents, why would she? And, let's face it, an effort to claim the thrown of Scotland would be rather beneath the English sovereign... Aware that James was also likely to be her heir, if anything, it could prove convenient for her: unlike her father she wouldn't have to go as far as military campaigns to force a Scottish-English alliance through marriage.
Visually, paintings of poor wee Mary, depicted at her trial or being led to her execution, reach a melodramatic frenzy during the 19th-century, sometimes linked to burgeoning Scottish national identity, at others, a delighted defiance on the part of Catholic French or European mainland painters creating a visual riposte to the English exultation of Protestant Elizabeth I.
Yet, histories of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots presenting evidence-based arguments reveal very little that is romantic, nor indeed genuinely connected with the needs and aspirations of Scottish Gaels, even though the enduring myths draw so heavily on the Catholic-Celtic discourse embedded in tales of the relationship between the North, France and Spain. Rather, what one uncovers is a multiplayer game of realpolitik in which Mary, at best, is a realpolitik player who simply runs out of luck, at worst, is simply rather dim.
In very real terms, there are many dramatic elements to Mary’s life often ignored by popular legends. She became Queen of Scotland when only six days old. At an early age she was whisked off to France, betrothed in infancy to the dauphin, a future queen of France in preparation. This was logical given the rationale of her Catholic mother ruling Scotland as regent during her infancy: it was safer for her to be in France during “the Rough Wooing”; the period in which Henry VIII tried to force the Scots to agree a marriage between Mary and his heir, Edward through acts of aggression.
Henry seemed to think that he could compel the Scots to comply through a campaign of violence, thereby cementing an alliance between England and Scotland and simultaneously overriding the “auld alliance”, the agreement between France and Scotland snaking tenuously back to the 13th century that ensured the two nations would support each other against English aggression. He seriously underestimated Mary’s mother, Mary of Guise.
Even then, was Mary of Guise’s successful strategy really that normative? Infant or not, Mary was already a Scottish monarch in her own right. At what point had any European kingdom ever allowed the monarch to leave the country, especially during times of threat? Yes, it may well have to do with the unquestioned importance of France on the European power landscape—not to mention that Mary’s mother, Mary of Guise, was a high ranking noble in one of the French houses periodically eager to assert its own claim to the French throne. And, yes, the notoriously iron-willed Mary of Guise, former queen consort of Scotland, had every intention of protecting Mary’s interests in Scotland as regent. But one can’t help but be suspicious of opportunistic Scottish nobles with their own claims to the throne all too happy to see baby Mary dispatched to France. After all, once queen consort of France, she might be simply too busy giving birth to French royal heirs to prevent anyone from grasping her rather peripheral Scottish throne…
In time, Mary did become queen consort of France. But, the dauphin, with whom she had grown up at the French court, was only her husband, King Francis II of France and the titular king consort of Scotland for barely a year before unexpectedly dying of an infection.
Barely nine months later, devoutly Catholic Mary returned to Scotland. In many histories, she is cast as the naive, sometimes self-righteous pawn of others eager to exploit her potential to return a Catholic monarch to the throne of England. In some versions, this is a machination of Charles V; that he intended to use Mary’s claim to the English throne to trump French influence over her in exchange for backing her claim. Another version is that her mother-in-law Catherine de Medici sneakily sent her packing in order to bed down her own role as regent on behalf of her younger son, the new king of France. Yet another is that getting her to return to Scotland was the scheme of her illegitimate half-brother James Stewart, 1st Earl of Moray to place her on the throne as his puppet. Others still claim that Mary’s decision to return to Scotland had originally been her own mother’s high-stakes game to bring Catholic France and Spain into a war that would depose Elizabeth I and place Mary on the throne of England and that, doubly grieving, Mary Stuart finally took her recently deceased mother’s advice. Yes, it seems that everyone except Mary herself had reasons for her to return to Scotland.
There is evidence to support all of these arguments. But, it’s almost like historians are only seeking evidence that doesn’t even question the assumption that Mary Stuart was a naive little girl, a pawn in the hands of others. Why is it so difficult to consider the possibility that after a first adult taste of power as Queen of France and after lifelong reassurances that she was already Queen of Scotland in her own right, Mary might simply be keen to take up the reins of kingship that were already legally hers?
Furthermore, the narratives that cast Mary as a naive kid don’t entirely hold water. Despite the reputation of Catherine de Medici, Mary Stuart actually played an important role in firming up her power at the French court. Even if realpolitik dictates that money talks and Catherine brought sorely needed money into French coffers as heir to an Italian banking dynasty, the snobby French court saw only royal blood as important. Catherine's position was tenuous, even after she eventually gave birth to the sickly, socially awkward dauphin. Appreciated or not, Mary Stuart’s marriage to her son cemented her role as the head of a new French line even if her real power would only come when she took up regency on behalf of her second son following Francis’ death.
One recent popular TV series that presents Catherine de Medici in opposition to Mary Stuart’s supposed plan to take on the role of regent of France is particularly laughable: Salic Law specifically prevented a woman from becoming the sovereign of France. Thus, Mary Stuart could never become the French monarch, neither in fact nor in action. Her position as the former queen consort of France would not entitle her to the role of regent on behalf of her young brother-in-law unlike Catherine, his mother. Furthermore, some of the arguments arising in recent years that there existed a plot on the part of princes of the blood to oust Catherine de Medici from the role of regent by appointing Mary Stuart as a puppet instead are highly questionable. No, there is no possibility that Mary Stuart could have a significant future role in France. And, she would have known this. Whatever the reason, Mary Stuart returned to Scotland not because she was pushed, but because she jumped.
This possibility is amplified by evidence about her time at the French court. For one thing, Mary’s knowledge and awareness of events unfolding in Scotland were far more detailed than versions of the myth that choose to cast her as a naive young girl would have us believe; that innocent young lassie who returns to Scotland as some kind of innocent martyr to the Catholic cause.
For one thing, despite her formidable reputation resulting from what happened long after Mary Stuart left France, Catherine de Medici was in no position to prevent the free flow of information from Scotland to the rightful monarch of Scotland in her own right. Mary of Guise, Mary’s mother and erstwhile regent in her stead was a member of a French royal house that kept Catherine’s aspirations and power in check. And, close advisors such as Lady Fleming, who accompanied Mary to France and later back to Scotland, had ongoing access to an extensive network of informers and nobles loyal to Mary’s cause travelling back and forth between Scotland and France.
Even if Mary were taken aback by political realities on her return to Scotland, somewhat shocked by the openness with which John Knox, one of the leading figures of the Scottish Reformation, spoke out against her, she was hardly unaware that ruling as a devout Catholic monarch in an increasingly Protestant Scotland was not going to be straightforward—it was already a concern and daily point of discussion at the French court in which she grew up where French Protestants had grown into a formidable force, including in the upper echelons of the royal inner circle.
In many ways, Mary Stuart’s role as a Catholic symbol and figurehead is something retrospectively attributed to her by much later Celtic-Catholic discourses. In fact, she grew up surrounded by realpolitik. Both her father-in-law Henry II and his father Francis I had had to navigate careful paths to prevent civil war in a France increasingly under French Huguenot influence that reached into the leading noble houses. Even Catherine de’ Medici, often seen as responsible for the St Bartholomew's Massacre of Protestants in Paris in 1572, adhered to a line of religious tolerance in the time that Mary was at the French Court.
Furthermore, Mary was well aware, well before she returned to Scotland, that her illegitimate half-brother Lord Moray had thrown in his lot with the Protestants, an effective strategy that had removed her aging mother as regent. Despite their tempestuous, sometimes openly hostile relationship played out on the battlefield, Moray was a curious combination of contradictions. While he clearly aspired to power—for example, he made sure that he was appointed regent of Scotland following Mary’s execution while her son James was still a minor—he never crossed a line into directly attempting to take the throne of Scotland for himself, unlike at least one of Mary’s questionable husbands.
Some more cynical historians argue that his choice to not make a direct claim for the Scottish throne as the natural son of a king was only tempered by the trajectory of Elizabeth I whose established rule had importantly secured the possibility of a female monarch in the British Isles, something that was not nearly as assured merely a century earlier. Besides, such a bold move would almost certainly have provoked Elizabeth I to dispatch English forces northwards to depose him. As a female monarch whose accession had never been assured until she and her loyal supporters ensured it, Elizabeth had a far greater interest in having a precarious female Catholic on the Scottish throne than a vehemently Protestant man with a claim to her own throne through her own father’s line, albeit a flimsy one.
Others more observant of human intimacy, even among witnesses hungry for power at the Scottish court, point to a genuine warmth and affection between Moray and Mary. In many ways he was a brother she never had during her childhood, something conveyed in documents and correspondence that give a sense of theirs being the empathetic, if somewhat stilted, relationship of displaced siblings of royal blood.
Even in his darker machinations—for example, Moray, along with Mary's husband Lord Darnley, was believed to be instrumental in the murder of David Rizzio, her Italian (and suspiciously Catholic) companion, musician and private secretary rumoured, perhaps conveniently. to also be her lover—there is little evidence that Moray ever plotted to assassinate Mary at a time when assassinations were almost a sport at the Scottish court. What one historian reads as “political”, another might read as family psychodynamics.
In discussing True North with an old colleague in Cambridge and talking about the relationship between Mary and Moray, she said to me: “Is this really any different from the creepy roles big brothers appoint themselves to supposedly protect their sisters in many cultures? Wasn’t it you who told me the story of how your brother emailed a graphic to his former friend of a bullet with his (the friend’s) name on it when he heard that your sister was marrying the guy?”
Mary, Queen of Scots may now be established as a romantic idea pliable to every cause from 19th-century nationalism to the perpetuating the Catholic-Celtic discourses about the connections between the North, France and Spain. But, far more prosaic evidence would suggest that she too may have simply been a player committed to realpolitik outmanoeuvred by far better players.