Fifteen Eighty Four

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False News? A Closer Look at Early Modern Public Opinion

Karin Bowie

In modern democracies, the ‘public sphere’ is an essential concept that seeks to explain how public opinion is formed and expressed. Historical accounts of the public sphere have reflected the present-day importance of a free press by pointing to the consumption of newspapers by men in early modern coffeehouses and other urban spaces. These accounts capture an important dynamic—but not the full picture. Also important to early modern public opinion were older methods of communication and engagement that were adapted to mobilise ordinary men and women and amplify their voices. These included subscriptional petitioning, public protestation and collective oath-taking. 

The case of early modern Scotland provides an ideal vehicle for understanding the relative importance of these less well-known modes of public engagement. By the time of the Union of the Scottish and English kingdoms in 1707, Scottish writers and speakers referred routinely to ‘the inclinations of the people’ or ‘the sense of the nation’ in political debates. These phrases indicate a shared concept of national public opinion in the Scottish realm. Yet political print in Scotland had grown slowly across the seventeenth century, with no successful domestic newspapers before 1699. How then did the Scots develop such a robust sense of opinion at large?

My new book shows how Scotland’s political and religious circumstances made successive Scottish monarchs and their opponents more interested in stimulating and controlling public opinion. Scotland’s 1560 Protestant Reformation arose from a rebellion and led to a civil war, producing religious and constitutional tensions that were worsened when Scotland in 1603 became part of a composite British monarchy with England. Consultation with absent Scottish monarchs became more constrained at the same time as new archipelagic priorities pushed royal policies in controversial directions. 

In order to influence monarchs based in London, dissidents in Scotland used petitions and protestations to make statements of resistance in the name of the church and nation. Breaking with convention, large numbers of signatures were gathered on petitions in the name of Scotland’s burghs, shires, presbyteries and parishes to suggest—not always accurately—a cumulative consensus. In a similar way, the protestation–a juridical device normally used to record a formal objection to the decision of a court–was made into a political weapon with the public reading of protestations against royal proclamations and decisions. 

Dissidents also capitalised on a post-Reformation practice of imposing confessional oaths, promulgating an unauthorised National Covenant in 1638 to harness the opinions of ordinary parishioners to a constitutional creed. The oath allowed dissidents to successfully oppose royal policy with assertive claims about the conscientious opinions of a covenanted nation. Alongside petitions, protestations and oaths, political pamphlets had a role to play in circulating oppositional arguments, though censorship meant that these often were smuggled from presses abroad or produced in manuscript form.

In these conflicts, the Crown recognised the importance of keeping the hearts and minds of its subjects on side. Often bemoaning how easily the people could be misled by false news, proclamations, books, pamphlets, sermons and visual propaganda sponsored by the Crown sought to convey favourable messages and encourage popular sympathies (though some monarchs managed this better than others). 

Over time, these political machinations made it more possible for contemporaries to imagine collective opinions outside of the Scottish parliament and to argue that Crown and Parliament should take these views into account. Public opinion still could be constrained by reductive imagery, such as the stock character of Jock Upaland, a lowly farmer who spoke truth to power in the tradition of vox populi vox Dei. But increasingly political rhetoric featured more inclusive concepts of a thinking nation. Strikingly, the religious dimension of Scotland’s constitutional disputes meant that women were engaged alongside men in congregational oaths and could be encompassed in claims about the covenanted nation. By the 1690s, writers could assert that the Scottish people ought to be polled for their opinion on whether the national church should be Episcopalian or Presbyterian; and in 1706-7 a pamphleteer argued that the treaty of Anglo-Scottish union should be put to an assembly of male freeholders and their female relatives. 

Public Opinion in Early Modern Scotland, c.1560-1707 traces the performance of opinion politics and the evolving rhetoric of public opinion in Scotland’s post-Reformation context. Chapters on petitions, protestations, oaths and public communications show how these modes of engagement and persuasion developed episodically up to the Revolution of 1688-90, stimulating new ways of describing and making claims about public opinion and, conversely, greater monarchical efforts to influence and control opinion at large. Two final chapters examine the role of public opinion in Scottish politics from the Revolution to the Union of 1707, revealing the combined influence of petitioning, protestation, oaths and political communications at a time of rising print outputs and renewed constitutional conflict. By providing a new interpretation of the post-Reformation era in Scotland, the book aims to outline a research agenda for understanding early modern public opinion that looks beyond print-oriented histories of the public sphere.  

Public Opinion in Early Modern Scotland, c.1560–1707 by Karin Bowie
Public Opinion in Early Modern Scotland, c.1560–1707 by Karin Bowie

About The Author

Karin Bowie

Karin Bowie is Senior Lecturer in the School of Humanities at the University of Glasgow and a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society where she received the David Berry prize in 201...

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