The Stuart Successions project colloquium took place at Jesus College, Oxford at the end of September. The event marked the halfway point of the project and was an opportunity for scholars contributing essays to the project volume to share their work-in-progress and to discuss with other literary critics and historians the importance of succession writing to the political culture of the early-modern period. The papers delivered over the two days of the colloquium analysed succession writing in a variety of generic forms, and alongside different media, from across the full chronological range of the project.
The first day was started by Richard McCabe who explored the uncertainties of the verse panegyric that was produced to mark the accession of a Scottish monarch to the English throne and the commencement of a new dynasty in 1603. Shifting the focus onto 1625, David Colclough examined the sermon as a genre of succession writing, looking especially at John Donne’s response to a last minute call-up to preach before the new king, Charles I, in April 1625.
Whilst Colclough looked at the accession of Charles, Alastair Bellany attended to the death of James I and unpacked in literature from both England and the continent the narratives constructed around James’s death, including the story that he was poisoned.
Henry Power’s paper shed light on the institutional responses to succession by looking at the huge but hitherto neglected body of succession poetry printed in the anthologies issued for such occasions by the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. Ian Archer explored responses from another set of institutions based in and around the City of London to Charles II’s assumption of power in 1660.
Widening the scope of the colloquium to investigate the relationship between writing and other media, Barrie Cook surveyed the coins issued on the accession of the Stuart monarchs and the Cromwells and showed how they could become objects described and often satirised in succession poetry.
The idea that succession literature had a life beyond moments of succession was explored in papers by Anna-Marie Linnell, who looked at the recycling of imagery from 1660 in the poems produced on the Braganza match in 1662, and Mark Knights, who argued that the address in later 17th– and early 18th-century Britain should be seen as a form of panegyric that kept questions of succession in play between changes of monarch.
The importance of the protectoral accessions and successions of the 1650s was elucidated by Steven Zwicker through close analyses of some of the most remarkable succession poetry of the century by Marvell and Dryden. Chris Highley’s paper meanwhile returned to the 1650s but did so to examine Charles II’s religious and political education on the continent during his exile and the subsequent anxieties on his return to England in 1660 about his adherence to the Protestant faith.
The reasons for the perplexing paucity of English panegyrical response to the accession of William and Mary in 1689 were addressed by John West. Dutch responses to William’s accession to the English throne were far more prominent, however, and it was this international perspective that Helmer Helmers brought to the fore by looking at succession literature in the Anglo-Scoto-Dutch public sphere from the Exclusion Crisis to the period after the Monmouth rebellion.
In a panel focussed on coronations, Joseph Hone drew on musical and visual culture as well as literature to explore the partisan contest over Queen Anne’s accession and coronation whilst Jane Rickard looked at how the two Scottish coronations of 1633 and 1651 highlighted how successions could have an impact upon the relationship between different kingdoms in Britain.
A final roundtable provided an opportunity for all delegates to discuss the themes arising from the colloquium that could be further explored by the project. It was pointed out that a number of the papers had described responses to successions as moments of anxiety. Many of the papers indeed showed how successions raised uncertainty about the future, about what sort of monarch was taking power, what sort of rule was being inaugurated and how far it would continue or break with that of a predecessor.
What sort of impact could this uncertainty have on the writing that responded to these successions? One idea stressed by several delegates was that uncertainty might open up succession writing to the notion of ‘imagined successions’, that is, reflections on what might have and what might yet be. On the one hand, literary reflections on the lost successions of heirs who died prematurely (Prince Henry) or were deprived of power (James III – maybe even Charles II in 1649?) might have helped communities (non-jurors, Jacobites) to build up around these counter-factual historical narratives. On the other, as Richard McCabe pointed out in the roundtable discussion, all successions are in a sense ‘imagined’ in that they provided spaces in which it became possible to envisage alternative models of governance.
Uncertainty in these paradigms might therefore be an enabling condition of succession writing. Yet Mark Knights also suggested that moments of succession presented the state with an opportunity to lock political culture and political language into predictable patterns. In this sense, the administrative handling of a succession or the ceremonies that accompanied it could be re-iterations of an existing power base rather than explorations of alternative models of power.
Such a reading links into a point made by Steven Zwicker who argued that with the exception of the 1650s moments of succession rarely produced good writing. Whilst meant as a provocation to debate, Zwicker’s point nonetheless may suggest the possibility that the uncertainties of succession prompted writers to retreat to the comfort of familiar tropes and imagery. How far imaginative failure (a phrase Henry Power used in discussing some of the university panegyrics) in succession literature reflects the need to control a moment of political uncertainty, and why the 1650s might be an exception to that rule, are areas the project will continue to explore.
These are some of our initial reflections and thoughts on what proved to be an exciting and lively event and we welcome further ideas and comments from the delegates who were there and from others interested in the project – please leave a reply below.