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As all that is solid melts to air and everything holy is profaned...

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Martyrs: religion politics terrorism

Religion Politics Terrorism

Here we go, another history lecture.

But where to begin? In a church. [The one you can see here] For the first 16 years of my life I went tthis church every Sunday. It was rather dull. No hellfire and damnation, no lengthy lectures on sin and damnation. It was, and still is, a Church of Scotland church. But doing some local history research last year, I found its origins lay in religious terrorism. The church had been built in 1801 by the Reformed Presbyterians aka Macmillanites aka Cameronians. The Cameronians took their name from Richard Cameron. In 1680, Cameron with a troop of about 20 armed horsemen, rode into the small town of Sanquhar in the Southern Uplands of Scotland and read out a Declaration of Holy War against the British State ( king Charles II and his brother James) at the town cross.

The response was swift. Within a month, Cameron had been hunted down and killed. End of story? Not quite. Following the death of Charles II, his Catholic brother James (VII and II) fled into exile after the 'Glorious Revolution' of 1688 which gave the kingship to the Protestant William of Orange. In Scotland, followers of Richard Cameron fought against the Jacobites (supporters of James VII and II) at the battle of Killiecrankie. In Ireland the Battle of the Boyne in 1689 was the deciding one - although Orange (after William of Orange) marchers in Ireland and Scotland still re-fight this battle every July.

The famous battle of Culloden in 1746 was part of the same history, as was the 'English' Civil War, which led to Charles II's dad having his head chopped off a hundred years earlier. (After the Scots, who had captured him, sold him to the English for £200 000).

"Death to me is as a bed to the weary. Do not weep for me, the bell tolls not for my execution, but for my wedding day.".

The words of a 26 year old about to die for his beliefs and become yet another religious martyr. But this was not an Islamic fundamentalist, it was a Scot, James Renwick executed on the 17th February 1688 in Edinburgh. On the steps of the gallows, Renwick proclaimed:

"I am this day to lay down my life for three things; for disowning the usurpation and tyranny of James , Duke of York [king James VII and II], for preaching that it is unlawful to pay the cess [tax levied to pay for troops to suppress religious dissidents/ extremists] and for teaching that it was lawful for people to carry arms to defend themselves [against troops sent to suppress 'illegal' religious gatherings]... I think a testimony for these is worth many lives."

Within months of Renwick's execution, Catholic king James fled Britain and Protestant William of Orange became king.

Now I am stuck. I have already written 1500 words here, but the sound bite is elusive. The best I can manage is that violent fundamentalist religious extremism is part of British history. And that where British and Irish histories overlap, it is part of the present day. 3600 people have died in the past 30 years due to an overlap between religion and politics in the north of Ireland. Although James Renwick and Richard Cameron (see below) are all but forgotten, the Battle of the Boyne is not. The battle was fought between kings James and William, between Catholics and Protestants.

Where the history starts to get complicated is that what began as religious arguments against 'Stuart Absolutism' (the Divine in Right of Kings) in the 17th century - like Samuel Rutherford’s 'Lex, Rex' of 1644, which found religious and philosophical justification for the overthrow of tyrannical regimes - laid the foundations for later democratic politics. Equally, as Rutherford found, it was not possible to construct a 'religious state' based on Pure Faith. [See Politics, Religion and the British Revolutions : The mind of Samuel Rutherford by John Coffey : Cambridge University Press: 1997 and 2002 ]. Caught up in the political turmoil of London during the 'English' Civil War, Rutherford retreated into religion as a private and personal belief system, despairing of any attempt to create a 'Godly Kingdom'.

Not that this saved him from being accused of treason on the restoration of Charles II. He was due to stand trial and be executed in 1661, but luckily (?) died before the trial began. Instead his book was burnt by the hangman. Funny thing is, looking up Rutherford, I found on a website
dedicated to the USA Constitution there is the whole text of Lex Rex -
the claim being that Rutherford's ideas were 'in the mix' when the Constitution was being drafted. Which is possible. Rutherford was minister (vicar) at Anwoth in Galloway and one of his best mates was John Livingston - another Covenanter minister. Livingston eventually fled into exile in Holland, from where his son, Robert Livingston, emigrated to America in 1670. This Robert Livingston was a businessman not a religious type and founded a New York based dynasty. His (great?) grandson, another Robert Livingston, helped draft the USA Constitution and actually swore in George Washington as first President.
Amusing aside - Rutherford's old church at Anwoth features in the classic horror film The Wickerman. See http://www.sw-scotland-screen.com/wickerman_trail/day1.html
http://www.nuada98.fsnet.co.uk/nuada%203/page3.html and tons more

Religion , politics, economy.
When did it all begin? Barbarism vs civilisation... try The Making of Europe : Conquest, Colonization and Cultural Change 950- 1350 by Robert Bartlett: BCA : 1993. Bartlett's theme is that from the nucleus of the Emperor Charlemagne’s attempt to re-create the Roman Empire as a Holy Roman Empire, a wave of 'Europeanisation' spread out across what was to become Europe or 'Christendom' as it was first called. Bartlett even mentions 12th century Galloway (pages 79/ 80) to illustrate his theme of the gradual and often violent incorporation of 'primitive and barbaric' regions into the new Europe of feudalism and 'modern' Christianity. Physically this involved building castles and abbeys.

The castles ( Norman style motte and bailey, built of wood and earth) were sources of political power, the abbeys ( built of stone) economic and spiritual power. The economic aspect of abbeys is the critical one here. The Cistercians (linked , for conspiracy buffs, to the Templars) in particular were very good at taking over 'waste' land and turning it into productive land - by sheep farming for wool, but also pig farming. Fast forward 400 years and the economic wealth of abbeys and the church as landowner led to 'nationalisation'. Various hard up Scots kings started taking over church lands and passing them on as bribes to the nobility. At the same time (1500s) the wealth of the church from its landholdings had undermined the religious 'purity' of Christianity. The church was seen as corrupt and lacking in any spiritual (rather than economic) value. So reformers tried to argue for a spiritual rather than and economically and hence politically powerful church. They wanted to get back to the 'fundamental values' of Christianity.

In Scotland Charles I managed to piss off both the nobility, who had gained huge chunks of church lands - by threatening to reclaim all previous 'gifts' of such lands, and the reformers, by trying to re-impose what they saw as the 'corrupt' religious practices of Catholicism on the Reformed church. The result was an unholy alliance between landowners who wanted to hang on to the huge tracts of church land they had got their paws on and the religious types who wanted a spiritual reformation of Christianity. This unholy alliance led to a Holy Covenant between the people of Scotland and God. (There were two Covenants - a National one and a Solemn one).

With God on their side, poor old Charles I didn't have a chance against a Covenanted nation.
But then the English went and mixed economy and religion up with politics. They chopped Charles I head off. So the Scots crowned his son as Charles II in retaliation. Or at least some of them did. A 'remnant' who cared more about religion than economy and politics rejected Charles II even after his restoration in 1660 and (see above) ended up declaring Holy War on him and his brother. Galloway and the Southern Uplands of Scotland were the hotbed of this extremist dissent. Hundreds were killed as a result, it was an insurrection...
But why here? One reason is that the Protestant Reformation had taken early root in the region. - in the early 16th century. It was also a region outside the mainstream of Scottish culture, and in Galloway at least, had to be forcibly incorporated into Scotland from the time of King Fergus of Galloway (1120-1160) onwards.
But to take a Marxist approach, what about the economic infrastructure? This is interesting, but something most historians seem to have missed.

Up until 1550, trade between Scotland and England was blocked by the Debatable Lands - a small area on the Border near Carlisle which was claimed by both Scotland and England and so home to a criminal class who raided into both countries. The problem of the Debatable Land was solved then - by splitting it half and half between England and Scotland. This in turn allowed cattle from Ireland to be driven overland through Galloway and into England for sale. This trade was developed through the 17th century tripling in size from 2500 to 7500 head of cattle per year. Bans on the import of Irish cattle imposed by England in 1666 and Scotland in 1672 led to the development of local cattle breeding and the enclosure by walls of whole estates which allowed up to 1000 head of cattle to be kept. These cattle were traded for English cash, undermining the previous feudal economy which had been based on payment in kind - in grain, hens, pigs, peats, cheeses etc.

English cash was hard cash., unlike Scots currency which had been progressively debased to the point where a Scots shilling was worth only an English penny. In other words, at the same time that religious extremism was at its violent height in Galloway - the 1680ies- the local agricultural economy was undergoing a transformation from feudalism to capitalism. Significantly, forty years later, Galloway was also home to Scotland's only 'peasants revolt' - the uprising of the Galloway Levellers of 1723/5.

The Galloway Levellers threw down the cattle enclosures of capitalist landlords who were trying to profit from the political Union of England and Scotland by selling yet more cattle to England for cash. The Levellers were supported by Cameronian ministers and drew on the Solemn League and Covenant to justify their actions - the throwing down or levelling of walls around large cattle enclosures. So their political and economic actions were still part of a local religious culture of resistance.

And the moral is?
Violent fundamentalist religious extremism is part of British : Scottish, English, Welsh(? Not so sure) and Irish culture. But the religious element cannot be separated from economic and political forces. Some of these elements - the Scottish Covenanters, English Civil War and Galloway Levellers - are safely part of history, but others , e.g. Northern Ireland are not.

The belief held by some Muslims that a ‘Godly state’ can be created is not some weird unBritish aberration - it was a belief strongly held by thousands of Brits - Scottish and English in the 17th century and created a bloody and violent civil war in which tens of thousands died. The last battle fought on British (Scottish) soil was the battle of Culloden in 1746 - which was a continuation of the ‘English‘ Civil War. Bonnie prince Charlie being a Stuart attempting to reclaim the throne lost by his ancestors. The ‘Troubles’ of Northern Ireland have their historic roots in the politics of religion and added another 3600 to the religious death toll. Even the ‘innocent’ celebrations of Guy Fawkes’ day remain as a fading echo the bloody Catholic / Protestant, Presbyterian/ Episcopalian struggles of the past.

Violent fundamentalist religious extremism is an essentuial part of British , Scottish, English and Irish cultural, history and identity.


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