Britain and the Beast: The Apocalypse and the Seventeenth-Century Debate About the Creation of the British State

  • A. H. Williamson
Part of the International Archives of the History of Ideas / Archives Internationales d’Histoire des Idées book series (ARCH, volume 175)


Andrew Melville (1545–1622) memorialized Queen Elizabeth’s death in 1603 with verses describing her as “the divine mother of the Britons.”1 Strange sounding indeed, for whatever Elizabeth’s varied titles, “her Britannic majesty” was not one of them. Moreover, the queen had utterly rejected Melville’s Presbyterian Church polity, discounted much of his theology, and eventually destroyed his English colleagues and counterparts. Yet, despite such drastic faults, Melville applauded Elizabeth’s “great love of religion” — she had been the terror of the Iberians, the protector of Scotland, France, and the Netherlands — and, implicitly, of the reformations within each of them. Through these commitments her long reign had restored the golden age. However severe her shortcomings, she had undertaken what Melville regarded as the British project.


British State English Institution British Identity National Epic Royal Authority 
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  1. 1.
    Britannorum inclyta mater”: all references in this paragraph and the next are to the two poems, “Ad Elizabetham Angliæ Reginam ægrotantuem 1603.8.calend. Aprilis” and “Anno 1603 calend. April. Votum pro Iacobo Sexto Britanniarum Rege,” in Viri clarisimi A. Melvini musa et P. Admosoni vita et palinodia... (np, 1620), p 12. Melville emphasized Elizabeth’s British character by describing her as “queen of the waves” (undaram regina), a phrase visibly anticipating the 18th-century anthem. Other poets would greet Henry’s birth with high British and Arthurian expectations: Walter Quin at Dublin addressed a poem to “Henricus Fridericus Stewartus/ Arthuri in Sede Futurus Crescis.” But Melville seems to have developed the most fully articulated British vision. See E.C. Wilson, Prince Henry and English Literature ( Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1946 ), 9–10.Google Scholar
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    hoc cardine rerum”; ETHOANIIEKION Ad Scotia Regem, Habitum in Coronatione Regina (Edinburgh, 1590), sig. A2r and passim. Google Scholar
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    Principis Scoti-Britannorum natalia (Edinburgh, 1594); reprinted with translation in Paul McGinnis and Arthur Williamson (eds), George Buchanan. The Political Poetry (Edinburgh: Scottish History Society, 2000), Appendix Cl.Google Scholar
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    See McGinnis and Williamson, George Buchanan. The Political Poetry,“Introduction,” and Appendix C (forthcoming) Only fragments survive from Melville’s epic, and it was almost certainly never completed.Google Scholar
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    haud Roma Britannos/Maxima iam metuet frustra: aut terrebit inultos/Tarpeius torquens fremembunda tonitrua flamen”; “... et ad quæuis aggredienda, propagandis quam longissime extra insulam imperii finibus.” “Daphn-Amaryllis,” 10, 15.Google Scholar
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    Td Toit) poao3J é foôia, The Muses Welcome,ed. John Adamson (Edinburgh, 1618), 228.Google Scholar
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    The Poetical Works of Sir William Alexander,eds L.E. Kastner and H.B. Charlton (Edinburgh and London: Scottish Text Society, 1921, 1929), 2: 5–6. For a detailed discussion of the themes and materials in this paragraph, see A.H. Williamson, “Scotland, Antichrist, and the Invention of Great Britain,” in John Dwyer et al., eds., New Perspectives on the Politics and Culture of Early Modern Scotland (Edinburgh: John Donald, 1982), 34–58.Google Scholar
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    Hayward, A Treatise of Union of the two Realmes of England and Scotland (London, 1604), 11, 35–46; cf. Fortescue, De laudibus,ed. and trans. S.B. Chrimes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1949), Chap. xvi, 38–41: The kingdom of England was first inhabited by Britons, then ruled by Romans, again by Britons, then possessed by Saxons, who changed its name from Britain to England. Then for a short time the kingdom was conquered by Danes, and again by Saxons, but finally by Normans, whose posterity hold the realm at the present time. And throughout the period of these nations and their kings, the realm has been continuously ruled by the same customs as it is now, customs which, if they had not been the best, some of those kings would have changed for the sake of justice of by the impulse of caprice, and totally abolished them, especially the Romans, who judged almost the whole of the rest of the world by their laws. On the significance of Fortescue’s volume for English traditionalism and its implication for union with Scotland, see A. H. Williamson, “Union with England Traditional, Union with England Radical: Sir James Hope and the Mid-Seventeenth-Century British State,” English Historical Review 110 (1995), 303–22. For its larger intellectual context, see J.G.A. Pocock, The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1975), esp. 12–5. Scots as different as the lawyer Thomas Craig, the minister John Davidson, and the poet Hume of Godscroft found themselves greatly exercised by Camden. See A. H. Williamson, Scottish National Consciousness in the Age of James VI (Edinburgh: John Donald, 1979), esp. 125–30.Google Scholar
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    Roy Strong, Henry Prince of Wales and England’s Lost Renaissance (London: Thames and Hudson [printed in the German Democratic Republic], 1986) provides by far the most comprehensive and sophisticated analysis of the culture emerging at Henry’s court. Regarding Hayward and Camden, see 146–8.Google Scholar
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    Strong, Henry Prince of Wales,54, 225.Google Scholar
  12. Dennis Kay, Melodious Tears: The English Funeral Elegy from Spenser to Milton (Oxford: Oxford University press, 1990), 78, 124, 136, 203, and passim. David Armitage has argued that the “military revolution” of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries made heroic conquest–and thus the epic poem that celebrated it–all but impossible except in the context of the New World. Thus the epic persisted within the Iberian literatures, while in the anglophone world it either failed to develop or assumed an anti-imperial character. One almost gets the impression that the later Spenserians within the orbit of Henry’s court were aware of this dilemma: even the conservative William Drummond of Hawthornden speaks of how Henry’s conquest of Constantinople and of Rome might have led to “some great Homer imping wings to fame” (perhaps himself?). Teares on the Death of Meliades (Edinburgh, 1613), lines 35–58. Armitage suggests that Spenser himself despaired of heroic empire in the later 1590s and abandoned The Faerie Queene as a result. Armitage, “Literature and Empire,” in N.P. Canny (ed.), The Oxford History of the British Empire, I: The Origins of Empire to 1689 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 99–123.Google Scholar
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    Willet, Ecclesia Triumphans (Cambridge, 1603), sig. 7v, cited and discussed in B.P. Levack, The Formation of the British State: England, Scotland, and the Union, 1603–1707 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), 107; cf. Willet, De universali et novissima Iudaeorum vocatione... (Cambridge, 1590). Appropriately enough, Willet dedicated his An harmonie upon the first booke of Samuel to the prince as a “testimonie of my service and dutie.” Willet perceived Henry as a latter-day King David who might “oppose yourselfe, even in these your tender and springing yeares to that Goliath of Rome, and professe your selfe an adversarie to the whole bodie of Popish and Antichristian superstition... God shall give unto your Highnes strength, not onely to attempt, but to accomplish great things for the service of his Church” (Wilson, Prince Henry and English Literature,59–60).Google Scholar
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    Cited by C. Russell, “Composite Monarchies in Early Modern Europe: The British and Irish Example,” in A. Grant and K.J. Stringer, eds., Uniting the Kingdom? The Making of British History ( London: Routledge, 1995 ), 145.Google Scholar
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    Highley, “Antiquarians, Catholics, and Anglo-Scottish Union.” My thanks to Professor Highley for sharing his paper with me prior to publication.Google Scholar
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    Mosse, Scotland’s Welcome (London, 1603), 78–9; cf. Levack, The Formation of the British State,107.Google Scholar
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    See A.H. Williamson, “`A Pil for Pork-Eaters’: Ethnic Identity, Apocalyptic Promise, and the Strange Creation of the Judeo-Scots,” in R.B. Waddington and A.H. Williamson, eds., The Expulsion of the Jews: 1492 and After (New York: Garland, 1994), 237–58; Williamson, “Latter-day Judah, Latter-Israel: The Millennium, the Jews, and the British Future,” in Klaus Deppermann et al., eds., Chiliasmus in Deutschland und England im 17. Jahrhundert ( Göttingen: Vanderhoeck Ruprecht, 1988 ), 149–65.Google Scholar
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    An Encouragement to Colonies (London, 1624; reprinted Edinburgh, 1867), sig. A2r-v, 3, 5, 6. Cf. Williamson, “Scotland, Antichrist, and the Invention of Great Britain.”Google Scholar
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    Strong, Henry Prince of Wales, 152, 156; though see Wilson, Prince Henry and English Literature, 76–7. Objection to the sale of honors involved not simply concern for their corruption, but the elevation of unworthy tradesmen. On Henry and overseas empire, see J.W. Williamson, The Myth of the Conqueror Prince Henry Stewart: A Study of 17th Century Personation (New York: AMS, 1978), chap. 3. Maxwell is discussed in A.H. Williamson, “George Buchanan, Civic Virtue, and Commerce: European Imperialism and Its 16th-Century Critics,” in Scottish Historical Review 75 (1996), 19–36.Google Scholar
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    Ed. W.L. Renwick (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970). Jean R. Brink and Catherine G. Canino have questioned Spenser’s authorship. See Brink, “Constructing the View of the Present State of Ireland, in Spenser Studies: A Renaissance Poetry Annual 11 (1994), 203–27; Canino, “Reconstructing Lord Grey’s Reputation: A New View of the View,” The Sixteenth Century Journal 29 (1998), 3–18.Google Scholar
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    Williamson, Scottish National Consciousness, chap. 7; J.S. Morrill, “The National Covenant in its British Context,” in J.S. Morrill, ed., The Scottish National Covenant in its British Context, 1638–51 ( Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1990 ), 1–30.Google Scholar
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    D.S. Katz, The Jews in the History of England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), esp. 107–8; D.S. Katz, Philo-Semitism and the Readmission of the Jews to England, 1603–1655(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982); Williamson, “Latter-Day Judah, Latter-Day Israel: The Millennium, the Jews and the British Future,” in Pietismus und Neuzeit; Williamson, “Union with England Traditional,” 318–9.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2001

Authors and Affiliations

  • A. H. Williamson
    • 1
  1. 1.California State UniversitySacramentoUSA

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