At the end of February, I travelled up to Glasgow to speak at the English Folk Dance and Song Society’s Broadside Day at the Unviersity of Strathclyde. This is the first in a short series of posts about the day.

On Cathdral Street, Glasgow

Due to a series of unfortunate cricumstances, I didn’t reach Glasgow until 11am, so I missed papers by Catherine Ann Cullen (Speckled Cats and Gravey Distillers), David Stenton (The Forth Valley Songster) and E. Wyn James (‘The Black Spot’ and ‘The Old Man of the Wood’: Welsh Street Literature During the Long Eighteenth Century

I arrived during the morning tea break (nice pastries and a decent cuppa). The first paper I heard was given by Freyja Cox Jensen on ‘In Good Queen Bess’s Golden Days’: Memories of Elizabethan England in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries’. Freya talked about the context of English identity, which was very closely bound up with Protestantism and Protestant insularity.  The period was shaped by the notion of England as an island nation.  The idea comes from Elizabeth I, who comes to embody a very English types of Protestantism, with England as God’s chosen land.  Elizabeth continues to play a role in the idea of Englishness in the years after her death, as part of the cultural memory of Elizabethan England.  She’s a model for high politics after James II, especially with William and Mary.  The image of England is partly, therefore, created from the top-down, but it is also celebrated more widely.  Ballads from Queen Anne’s reign make explicit reference to Elizabeth I.  They see parallels between the armada and the Anne intervention in the war of Spanish succession. The most common idea, though, is the one that Elizabethan period was merry and a golden age. It was held up for centuries afterward as a jolly good time.

Freya Cox-Jensen

  Ballads are often set to Tudor tunes, and pick out martial characters from the period, such as the earl of Essex,  or Thomas Stukely who was a rather more complicated character than most – the ballad suggests he repents of going abroad as a recusant even though there is no evidence of this.  Many of these are long lived songs. They represent England as the underdog, the small and feisty man fighting for good.

But Freya noted that none of this is true – it’s a constructed myth that’s been going on for centuries.  And it’s not just about nation building, it’s also the belief in the ancient constitution which we see raised against Charles I before his execution. Custom is also a legitimising framework in court. Appealing to time out of mind trumps anything more recent especially relating to parish boundaries and common land. Traditionally scholars say the creation of the Elizabethan myth happens in the 18th and 19th centuries but Freya argued that the ideas were alive and well even before Elizabeth died.

Next up was me, talking about ‘Liege Ladies: Sixteenth-Century Broadside Ballads and Reigning Queens’, in a significant reworking of a paper I gave a few years ago at the Mary I Quincentenary conference. Then it was time for lunch.