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Response to Review of The Murder of King James I

We are grateful for David Coast’s perceptive review of The Murder of King James I and for his interesting questions about further research. As he suggests, a properly historicized approach to how contemporaries imagined that political life operated is essential to further progress in the field, and, in the past few months, our understanding of this particular issue has come into even sharper focus with the publication of Peter Lake’s Bad Queen Bess and Noah Millstone’s eagerly anticipated Manuscript Circulation and the Invention of Politics in Early Stuart England.(1)

The obsession with plots and secret histories is a good place to test a historicized approach to early modern political culture. Conspiracy theories are far from peculiar to Stuart England, of course, and the deaths of political leaders (from John F. Kennedy to Yasser Arafat) continue to prove fertile ground for speculation. At a microhistorical level, the careful study of such conspiracy theories provides insight into the historically specific anxieties and preoccupations of the culture that spawned them, and one could imagine a project analysing such stories across time, though it would require a great historical range to pull off. As Norman Cohn reminded us 40 years ago, Europeans have obsessed over their ‘inner demons’ for centuries. 

But the fact remains that many contemporaries in 17th-century England embraced such theories with a particular fervor. Coast is right to wonder why they did. Part of an answer may lie in the confluence of broader political and cultural changes in the post-Reformation era: routine official calls for obedience to authority and respect for the arcana imperii lost their purchase in an age of increased religious, ideological and political division at home and abroad; social, intellectual and political change nurtured the development of a multimedia ‘news culture’ that the crown occasionally tried to exploit and occasionally tried to ignore; and in this particular hot house environment of increased media production and consumption, ineffective state control, and heightened ideological and political friction, conspiracy theories thrived and sank deep roots in popular political consciousness.  

To understand the details of this process, we need further work both contextualizing ‘the political’ and unpacking the logic of the early modern conspiratorial mindset. As Coast notes, there was a powerful simplifying force to conspiratorial thinking, which rendered the complex straightforward, the opaque clear. We need to look too at the particular symbolic resonance of certain types of conspiracies and conspirators in certain cultural contexts and consider why certain ‘plots’ acquired credibility at certain times. This is what we tried to do in The Murder of King James I, and we hope readers find the book’s methodology portable to other cases and places. Perhaps the key is to avoid condescension towards the bizarre and distasteful elements of the early modern past – the oft-used label of ‘paranoia’ to describe early modern obsessions with plots seems notably unhelpful as an analytic tool. We might also remember (as Jonathan Scott insisted some years ago) that there were very good reasons for early moderns to be afraid – after all, even paranoids can have real enemies.

Notes

  1. Peter Lake, Bad Queen Bess? Libels, Secret Histories, and the Politics of Publicity in the Reign of Queen Elizabeth I (Oxford, 2016); Noah Millstone, Manuscript Circulation and the Invention of Politics in Early Stuart England (Cambridge, 2016).Back to (1)