330 John Bates’ Currants

Although the case for a Great Britain failed to win many hearts, the dual monarchy ended the history of the Reivers at last. But a seemingly small customs dispute about currants would grow into a sore that would last til the civil war.

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Before I start; you know Twitter right? Social media thingumybob? Pit of vile hatefulness and glib opinions given without thought of consequence? Well, I have to record that on occasion, it can actually be really useful and positive. So, I came across a quote from Francis Bacon, the 17th century legal and philosopher chap as opposed to the modern painter and decorator, and the quote was this:

Treasure and Moneyes, in a State, be not gathered into few Hands. Money is like Muck, not good except it be spread’

We’ll come back to why Fran said this later or next time or whenever, but I thought it was a good metaphor. Well Eric then pointed out that it wasn’t really a metaphor – it was in fact a simile, and we shared notes from school about having been taught this; I, unlike Eric never thought the difference was worth the rough end of a pineapple. Any, at this point in comes Salik who explains that a simile is meant to make a short punchy point – such as guests are like fish, after 3 days they start to smell. Metaphors are used to explain complex or abstract concepts using simple, well-known imagery; of which Chesterton’s fence is a good example – which you’ll need to look up, in the spirit of investigative education. Well, all I can say, is that after 50 plus years of feeling vaguely irritated whenever anyone said as cool as a cucumber, Salik and Eric have lifted a weight off my elbows.

Anyway, by way of starting the history stuff, In April 1606, James VI and I of Scotland and England issued a decree. The decree announced King James, or King of Great Britain as he liked to call himself to his rubber duck when having his Sunday evening bath, was for a new flag to be used, and the new flag melded the flags of Scotland and England. There were quite a few designs folks had gone through it has to be said, some of them reasonably rubbish but look design is a creative and iterative process. The resulting flag looks remarkably like the union flag of 1801, just without the red Saltire of St Patrick and Ireland which was added then. So as such there was no Welsh dragon, which I confess would irritate the bejesus out of me were I Welsh, but this was on the principle that the flag of St George represented the united kingdom of England and Wales, don’t shout at me, I am just the messenger. Interestingly, there was an attempt relatively recently to update the flag, but I think it crashed and burned. Back in the day when the island of Ireland was part of the crown’s possessions, there was no specific symbol for that, but the Protectorate did add the harp which lasted only 2 years.

Anyway, the Union Jack was part of James’ enthusiastic attempt to create a new British state, which had been espoused and supported by the House of Lords but run into trouble in the Commons, with Edwin Sandys’ clever intervention that all the laws of England and Scotland would be negated, and we’d all need to start again. James was most frustrated and irritated at the lack of enthusiasm.

Salisbury returned to the fray as parliament reconvened after the excitement about the Gunpowder plot had finally subsided; Salisbury, ever the diplomat worked closely with the Earl of Dunbar and the Scottish Privy Council, but frankly more generally there was dislike both sides of the border. The English were thoroughly miffed with the Scots surrounding the king and the handouts they were receiving, and could only conceive of a combined nation under English laws; the Scots basically thought the same in reverse, and refused the idea of losing their distinctive laws, and the thought they might be ruled by a deputy. Also, there was a deal of antipathy. One Scot, Patrick Gordon mused that England was

A nation which (being so often conquered) is become slavish and takes not as evil to be slaves to their superiors.

While an English MP Christopher Piggott declared that the Scots

Had not suffered above two kings to die in their beds these 200 years

In which he had a point, but it’s a bit unfair given that James III died of disappointment when his invasion of England ended in disaster at Solway Moss, James IV died at the end of an English pike, James V blew himself up. Anyway, for historical inaccuracy, Piggot was censored by parliament and sent to the Tower to write out ‘I must not make rash generalisations about history just to try to make some facile political point’ one million times. There are some modern  candidates for the same punishment, but I guess twas ever thus.

All of this drove James up the wall; he simply couldn’t see why it was all such a problem, and it’s quite interesting to reflect why the views of Commons and King & peers remained so far apart, because it’s all tied back to the concept of kingship and constitution will be a bit of a thing in 17th century England. For James, all these folks were his subjects, and therefore all should be the same – and after all, the king was above petty considerations like the law. For plenty of people in the Commons, the law was superior to the king. So, the pair disagreed about where lay the ultimate source of authority. Hmm, that’ll be interesting.

Generally, the Commons remained at odds with each other in England and Scotland, which is a thing, and I suppose not that unusual given that both parties had been beating seven bells out of each other for hundreds of years. For the English there was the sight of Scottish snouts in the English trough, for the Scots the court at Whitehall increasingly represented all the negative aspects of the British link – toleration for Catholicism, corruption and rampant excessive royal expenditure, with a strong stand of arbitrary government. Interestingly, in the increasing distrust of Court on behalf of the country, there will also be a common interest and view between English and Scottish commons, in all those aspects. Watch this space.


Anywho, in March 1607 James made the best of a bad job, and rather graciously apologised to parliament for having assumed the issue would be such a gimme. And the idea of Union was dead. And there were some achievements; parliament did pass a law removing hostile laws, to allow Scots to become English citizens, though to be fair it was a heated debate and a full and frank exchange of views without the beer and sandwichs, and it wasn’t really very clear what had happened by the end of the session. Step forward Salisbuy, who engineered a court case of one Robert Calvin – and at the court case in 1608, Robert was naturalised as an Englishman, confirming that any Scot born after James’ accession in 1603 would automatically be naturalised Englishmen. Apparently Calvin’s case would be a thing in 18th century America in establishing rights to law by right of birth, don’t quote me on that. I have no idea though whether the reverse was true, and whether English had all the benefits of Scottish law for the same reason, the text books I have read for some reason do not think that way round to be worth discussing, so if you’d like to let me know that would be great – I mean I assume it was reciprocal, but I don’t actually know so.

More progress it has to be said was made at the level of the nobility of both England and Scotland; they mingled at the royal courts, both James and Anne’s courts, they intermarried, and James’ actions at least started the process of establishing some sense of Britishness, with which the British flag helped. Coastal trade from Scotland to London increased and so people began to see some benefits.

And there was another monster benefit, which does sneak its way into the edge of the general textbooks, and this benefit comes with the end of the name Reiver, which is, is it not, a tremendous word? A Germanic word apparently, to break, tear apart, coming to mean to plunder, steal and rob. Many moons ago when those small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri were still furry, we had an episode on the Reivers, who in English and Scottish tradition inhabited the land either side of the Borders; and indeed, inhabited some bits on the western March which no one could agree to which nation they belonged, called the debateable land. The whole of the Marches were very, very clannish; family fought family, and names like the Grahams, Armstrongs, Kerrs, Forsters, Charltons and more were synonymous with life there.

Before talking about what James does there, let us talk a little about that life was like on the Northern Marches. Or Southern marches depending where you start. And if our Hobbsy had ever been there, he’d have seen that his nasty brutish and short thing was something of an understatement, and he’d have done better to build in a few superlatives. The laws of the march were ambiguous, and the application of the laws even more ambiguous; the tradition of riding, of gathering together the clan and raiding and pillaging was written into the landscape and buildings, with heavy stone, squat building and towers with tiny openings that could be defended at short notice. There’s a sort of romantic hindsight, and a sort of ‘way of life’ narrative, but really – you would not want to bring up a family there between the 13th and 17th centuries, the insurance premiums would have been a nightmare. To give you one example of an event much romanticised let me introduce you to Walter Scott of Buccleuch and Kinmont Willie Armstrong. Kinmont Willie Armstrong was a Scot, of whom we first hear in 1583 on a raid into Tynedale in England. Next we hear of him, he’s having a hack in Scotland fighting for the Earl of Arran in a raid on Stirling; then back again to Tynedale with supposedly 1,000 men, which sounds too big to be true to be honest, and apparently carrying off 2000 head of cattle and £30 worth of goodies. 1600, Armstrong attacked the village of Scotby near Carlisle with 140 riders, burning and taking prisoners and cattle. So, charming lad, and as you can see violence was part of daily life, and lordship and family allegiances meant much more than nationality. His luck did run out one day. There he was, riding home in Liddlesdale, under a 1 day truce, so you know, no need to hurry, plenty of time to smell the heather. Suddenly, the English deputy Thomas Salkeld and 200 troopers appeared and chased him across the landscape until after 4 miles he was taken, and dragged off to prison in Carlisle.

Armstrong had been the victim of the officers responsible for maintaining the law. The Borders were split up into three Marches, Western, Middle and Eastern, and officers appointed both sides to maintain law and order, at which it must be said they did a toweringly rubbish job. Obviously it was a tough rap, endemic violence but worst of all the cooperation between Scottish and English officers was patchy, and completely unreliable. So for an example, enter into this story Walter Scott of Buccleuch, the Keeper of Liddlesdale, so a man who was supposed to be working with his opposite number in England to keep the peace. Instead, Buccleuch gathered 80 men raided Carlisle, got into the castle by trickery and sprung the murdering Willie Armstrong. There was a diplomatic incident, James VI was unwilling to shop his man, but as it happens the Flasheart like Scott, turned himself in, found guilty of course, and was presented to Elizabeth I. Elizabeth liked a dashing rogue, and announced

“With ten thousand such men, our brother in Scotland might shake the firmest throne of Europe.”

I can imagine Burghley’s head hitting his hands as Buccleuch rode triumphantly back to Scotland scott free. Buccleuch was an adventurer – before long, he was fighting for the Dutch in the low countries against Spain. When he came back though – it would be for a very different job.

Essentially, in short, the violence of Reiver society was a result of Borders – note bene, borders breed distrust, violence, social disadvantage, just saying. The Borders split law keeping into opposing camps, and the peace keepers were as likely to fight for their own side and cause violence as much as prevent it.

So the disappearance of the border was a big thing; now those responsible for the peace reported to the same man, they were on the same side. And James was determined to re-establish the king’s peace. It is significant that James referred to the Borders now as the Middle Shires, and actually also talked about North Britons and South Briton often rather than Scotland and England.

However, it must be said that it didn’t start well. There was a convenient rumour, you see, that when a monarch died all their laws were suspended until a new one was crowned – this is a handy law if you are looking to loot a few head of cattle, just for example. So as soon as Elizabeth died, it was party time, with added poppers and streamers, and the riders celebrated what become known as ‘ill week’, a celebration of local custom. Scottish West March riders penetrated on a raid deep into England south of Carlisle; Hutcheon Graham went on a predatory sweep into Cumberland, spoiling, burning and looting.

James passed an act snappily entitled ‘An act for the utter abolition of all memory of hostility, and the dependence thereof, between England and Scotland, and for repressing of occasions of disorders, and disorders in time to come’. Border law was scrapped, the structure of Wardens of the Marches deleted, and new lieutenants appointed to impose order on the Middle Shires. In 1603 a new armed guard was sent to Dumfries, and the process started; as a result, 32 Elliots, Armstrongs, Johnstones and Batys were executed, 15 banished and 140 Outlawed.

The pacification of the Middle Shires was a brutal process for a few years. A Commission of 5 Scots and 5 English was created, and they went hunting, and were not too choosy about who and how they administered justice. In Scotland, the summary justice of the Borders was called Jeddart Justice, after the town of Jedburgh where such justice was administered – it essentially means to ask for forgiveness rather than permission when it comes to hanging people you don’t like. One of the many recruited to suppress the Reivers way of making a living was, with deep irony, our Walter Scott of Buccleuch, back from the Dutch wars, who filled up his boots with hanging and drowning Reivers without trial; for which James gave him complete legal immunity. In fact Buccleuch was commended in 1608 for his services, and died in his bed in 1611[1].

There was an incentive for the men James appointed to rub out the Reivers – one of them was that arch favourite, land, and here we must revisit the story of the Grahams, which we have mentioned before. The Grahams of the debateable land had a particularly notorious reputation for violence and lawlessness. The Deputy of the Scottish Commission William Cranston by this time was reporting that he had banged up so many Reivers he had no where to put them. One solution was to send them to war in the low countries, another James hit on was to transport Grahams lock stock and barrel to Ireland around Roscommon. The benefit of that was not just in getting rid of some of the most violent people in a violent part of the country – but also because their land would now be available for re-distribution. I think they may all this a double whammy. 50 families were herded to Workington, and thence shipped out, James’ first experiment with Irish plantations. It was a disaster, under funded under supported. The Grahams fled, died or came back; as late as 1614 proclamations were being issued forbidding Grahams to return from the Low Countries or Ireland.

Cranston kept at his bloody business; in July 1609, there was a mass hanging of thieves at Dumfries, and the Earl of Dunfermline was able to report to James that he had

Purgit the borders of all the chief malefactors robbers and brigands…as Hercules sometimes is written to have purged Augeas the King his escuries.

According to him, the middle shires were now ‘as quiet as any part of the civil kingdom in Christianity’

Now he may have been exaggerating a bit; in 1611 the Scottish Privy Council reports 38 who were to hang at Jedburgh. But the truth is that the Union of the Crowns and James’ determination to bring peace at any cost to the Middle Shires, had worked, had within a few short years brought peace to an area wracked by violence for centuries. It was brutally done. But it needed to be done. And it was done and life was better as a result. Well played Jim.


Okally dokllay. As I remember, last time I promised you faithfully that we would talk about money. I have to say, I’ve always been given to understand that it’s terribly, terribly vulgar to talk about money, one just doesn’t. But sadly, vulgar or not, we need to talk about it together, you and I, so tighten your various sphincters and let’s do this thing.

Ok, we are going to start in April 1606, and you and I are going to visit the docks in London. We are going to see a Merchant called John Bate, managing the unloading of a cargo from the Levant on which the man has made a packet – Currants. But John Bate is steaming. Bate supplied something like a quarter of the entire demand in England for currants, but his business was in trouble, as was that of association he was part of, the wider Levant company. Disruption of war and the cost of royal impositions and taxes had caused problems for years. Now although a deal from Salisbury was in the offing for the Levant company, the tax on currents remained horribly high, and Bate was in debt to the crown for his customs dues to the tune of £900. Mainy because the Crown had imposed a much higher customs tax on those currants.

John Bate was confronting a farmer. That’s not a bloke with a smock and a twig of straw sticking out of his mouth. Nope this is a financial bloke with cold eyes and a fat purse – this is a man who gives a sum of money up front to the crown every year for the right to collect the crown’s customs dues – and hope that he has paid the crown less than he can squeeze from merchants, and thereby make a tidy profit. The arrangements for customs farming had been made a couple of years before, in what was known as the Great Farm. Salisbury and the Lord Treasurer the Earl of Dorset had realised that with a bit more structure, the Crown could make a bit more cash – and as we’ll hear in a while, the crown could do with a few more bob hitting the royal purse. So, they’d invited bids from Financial farmers, and those financial farmers had run around like blue bottomed flies, burned the candle at both ends, twisted the arm of the accountants to cut their profit margin, ordered late night pizzas and got the bid in 5 minutes before the tender window closed. Or at least that’s my experience of bids and tenders. Well for the Crown, the Great Farm gave them an assured revenue; for the farmers, they could screw out a profit from Merchants, everyone was happy possibly apart from the Merchants and Consumers but hey. So profitable for farmers was the Great Farm, that Salisbury increased the price as soon as 1607, but they were still minting it.

Anyway, so back to that Customs Farmer at the Levant company docks, and ghe merchant in their crosshairs, John Bate. The Customs Farmer had reached the end of his tether – Bate owed him £900 that was enough already, there was no more Mr Nice Guy, no more Bottomless Pit of generosity, no more credit. And he ordered Bate’s cargo impounded to pay for the outstanding debt. Well you don’t separate a man from his currants without a lot of pain, and Bate wasn’t having it. He ordered his carters to just ignore the Customs Man and declared

he would stand between them and all farmers,

the courts then later recorded

upon which violent course taken by the carrying away of the goods from the officer and from a constable there assisting the officer, many people gathered together in the streets, by which concourse there might have followed a great mischief[2]

Well, Bate was duly carpeted as you’d expect – hauled up in from of the privy Council and committed to the Marshalsea. Parliament though saw an issue into which their teeth could fully sink; Merchants were being squeezed unacceptably hard but more than this, what was with all these new customs impositions? True, Parliament granted customs dues income to the Crown traditionally at the start of each reign, but this big increase on customs tax on Currants was new. Last time Parliament had looked they were responsible for granting taxation – what’s you game mister? Said MP Fuller in Parliament – or at least words to that effect. By 11th April, Merchants in London had gathered around their fellow merchant John Bate, and hired legal counsel, and prepared to take the Crown on.

Well, I guess Salisbury and Dorset could have chosen the path of emollience; after all the Levant Charter was in the process of being finally agreed. Maybe he could cut a deal. But Salisbury’s back was to the wall. He needed money, he needed money very badly.

Let me explain briefly about the money, though honestly I’m getting a sense of deja vue. I think I have mentioned that one of Burghley and Elizabeth’s failings were that they had never updated the tax assessment system, and of course since local great men and peers were able to control their assessment level, the whole system was pretty rotten, as evidenced by Burghley’s frankly risible level of tax. So, in 1588 a single parliamentary subsidy had raised £137,000; by 1601 a subsidy raised but £76,000. Customs valuations, wardship charges, income from land all these had been neglected – and meanwhile inflation was also at work. So by 1602 it’s been calculated that the Crown’s ordinary revenue of £357,000 was worth 40% less in real terms than it had been at the end of Henry VII’s reign.

Well, I hear you say pshaw and pish, Good Queen Bess had not struggled, as I believe again I have said – actually her debts at death were pretty much covered by the subsidies being collected as she croaked. None the less people saw trouble ahead – Sir John Harrington observed that

England of late is bankrupt grown…but one good steward would put all in Order

Well, a weary Scottish Privy Councillor might have warned them that Good Steward was definitively not what they were getting in the new manager. Although to give him his due, Jimmy had costs Elizabeth did not – a Queen Consort and her household, a son and prince and his growing household and costs. Things started badly – it cost £10,00 to get down south, £20,000 for Elizabeth’s funeral, royal ambassadors were costing him £40,000; and in the first five years of the reign the war in Ireland dragged on and cost £600,000.

But James can’t get away from it, he was financially incontinent; we’ve already mentioned the massive £44,000 payment he gave to three courtiers, but that was just the tip of the lettuce. He kept giving money away to courtiers, in the form of grants and pensions; in 1603 fees and annuities for royal officials had cost £27,00 a year; by 1608 it was £48,000 and would keep going north, to £105,000 in 1614. By 1610, James had given his Scottish pals £90,000 in gifts and £10,000 were going out in pensions. Parliament was already jaundiced – giving money now seemed like chucking a sausage down Granby street – I have no idea what that means by the way, my mate Nick said it 40 years ago, we all laughed and had no idea then what it meant anyway. No point to it in this case – so as one wit wrote

The Scotchmen are but beggars yet

Although their begging was not small

But now a parliament will sit

A subsidy shall pay for all

And just to finish off the story of doom and indeed of gloom, income from crown lands were falling, because they were getting smaller – James had sold £682,000 worth of undervalued land by 1613, losing annual revenue of £27,000. Peter was robbing Paul blind.




Now Salisbury was a resourceful man, and a hard working one. He laboured away to find unrealised dues and fines and debts, and more cash he could raise through wardships. Salisbury’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, most amusingly was called Sir Julius Caesar, quite a name to live up to, and he looked on admiringly and noted that in a day’s work, Salisbury had raised over £9000 for the king from improved leases. Plus, the Great Farm had yielded more money. But of course there was a limit to all of this back of the sofa stuff. So Salisbury gathered himself emotionally, and he put things pretty straight to James, and managed to persuade him to put an entail on his lands so he could not give them away. But James’ expenditure did not go down. So, in short – the right to increase customs dues, and the right to make new impositions without reference to parliament was utterly crucial as far as Salisbury was concerned – he had to find some way of not sailing the Ship of State off the falls. And anyway, James was able to impose whatever dues he liked in Scotland – why not in England too? James couldn’t understand why there’d be a problem. So all in all – Bate’s challenge to the right to impose customs on Currants must be fought because it was not just about currant but ab out the Principle (capital P) of Impositions (capital I). And fought it would be.

Now then, you all know of course that justice is blind, blind to the participants and the kind of people they are, blind to power. We know that, of course, from Thomas More’s trial all that time ago. But it is true to say that all that blundering around with a blindfold on is injurious to health don’t you think? When walking around the corridors of justice, surely the old lady would profit from having a guiding hand on her elbow, the old lady in this particular case being the Barons of the Exchequer. And we have a delightfully fresh-faced and innocent little note from Lord Treasurer Dorset to Salisbury, saying he’d taken Salisbury’s letter about the need to win the case against Bate and then

I sent for my lord chief baron of the exchequer early in the morning and had conference with him according to the contents of your letter. And afterwards in the court I had like conference with the rest of the barons

Hmm. Well in fact as Lord Treasurer Dorset was entitled to exercise full judicial function in the cases before the Chancellors of his department, the Exchequer. But they do appear to have gone a little further here; as Secretary of State, Salisbury was in fact having a discussion at one remove with the Barons judging the case about getting a quick verdict, and discussing whether or not they should give a full explanation of the case – it’s a sort of tactical discussion. And duly in November 1606, the Court made its pronouncement that the imposition on currants was lawfully imposed by the crown. Bate was forced to pay his £900 and costs, and the merchants backing him melted away before the might of Salisbury and the Crown, and lodged no appeal. Bate would duly go bankrupt by 1616.

Now, for James, this was just as it should be surely – the king was supreme, the king was short of a bob or two, so the king imposed taxes, just like back at home in Scotland the Brave. What are we even discussing this for, and Salisbury my man, why has it all taken so long and I’m off hunting, Abysinia. For the London merchants, they were for the moment, very much cowed.

Dorset was cock-a-hoop, and pronounced the judgement

‘the best judgement for the Crown and the clearest that ever was.

As far as he and James were concerned this opened the floodgates to loads of new impositions, loadsamoney, no need to refer to parliament any more for customs at least. But Salisbury realised that in fact the case of John Bate, the Levant company and currants was a very tainted case, all wrapped up in negotiations with the Levant company and so it was difficult to use it as a general principle, unlike James’ view. So when extra money was needed the following year in 1607, the Privy Council went for a loan. But by 1608, as James rode the ship of state into Debtors Prison, the council reluctantly concluded that impositions upon trade would be

‘the best temporary remedy for those charges which were likely to come on too fast to attend a parliament’

And though Salisbury was to defend himself later by saying the new impositions were placed only on

‘spices, silks, cloths of gold and other such things as we are desirous should be made at home’

customs dues duly soared, for many others it was a running sore.Dues rose to £70,000 a year, a hefty sum. For the Commons, this was simply illegal – new taxes could not be imposed without the consent of parliament, and the issue did not go away. In 1610, the Commons presented a petition to the king. Interestingly, the French Ambassador was with him when he received it, and noted that it gave him ‘un assez mauvais visage’ and that later the king said acidly that the petition of grievances from the Commons was long enough to be his chamber tapestry. The petition objected to the consequences of the Bate case and presented

‘With all humility’ this most just and necessary petition unto your Majesty, that all impositions set without assent of parliament may be quite abolished and taken away.’

I guess the ‘with all humility’ was the 17th century equivalent of the ‘with all due respect’ format, so meaning neither humility nor respect.

Well, Salisbury stuck to his guns, and delivered a reply on behalf of his king to the petition

Though I am no professor of the law… I say that whatsoever is done by the warrant of a legal judgment, and in his proper seat of justice, is not unlawful. The new impositions were laid… after a legal judgment, whereby His Majesty’s right was declared in open court, judicially argued and sentenced in the case of currants. And therefore the new impositions were not unlawful.

For the moment, the Commons withdrew, grumbling. But to amend the words of those keen observers of historical debate, the Corrs, the matter of impositions was not forgiven, and not forgotten. Indeed John Pym, father of the English revolution referred to it in 1640 saying

‘And for that pretended judgement in the case of currants… God defend that ever that court and a judgement thereon should conclude the whole realm

There’s plenty of debate about where the civil wars originated, and the Revisionist argument is very much towards later rather than earlier, possibly from the 1620s, maybe even just down to Charles and his actions and approach. But others, including Pauline Croft from whose article this discussion of the Bate Case comes, feel that it is possible to certainly trace some roots of discontent to the matter of the royal impositions; money is after all the root of all evil is it not? It’s not just that here was an exercise of royal prerogative that the Commons believed was not sanctioned by law and custom; it was also that the judgement shook the faith of the commons in the independence of the legal process and judiciary. Bad things follow when that happens.

However, in 1607, bad things were happening anyway to be honest they weren’t happening to the big names the important figures that bestride history like colossi, or Romanes who eunt domus, they were happening to ordinary folks. And it is to the ordinary folk of the midlands to whom we will turn next time.


Weekly Word

Now that would of course be an excellent place to end the episode. But hold on there just a dawg gorn moment. It just so happened that I started a thread on the Facebook group asking about whether or not folks would like to see the return of the Weekly Word. It became something of an Albatross, trying to think of something relevant to the episode, so I stopped. Unwisely, the Union Flag discussion prompted me to think again here, so we’ll have a weekly word to finish the episode. I am thinking I could start it again maybe through themes I could develop – the one top of my mind is for landscape features, like forms of woods -hanger, shaw, plantation for example. It would tie me less to panicking in each episode, I could do them in advance – but then it might break the narrative. Anyway for the moment let it be an occasional extra.

So the discussion about the Union Flag. Obviously, we often call it the Union Jack thing. Every so often I see a grumpy, or more frequently weary comment about this, usually along the ‘I’m not angry just disappointed’ sort of level – but you know, people can reach up to asperity level.  So, the objection goes that around the end of James’s reign, ships had developed two identifying flags at deck level, in addition to the flags in the tops. At the stern was the big Ensign; very much in early development, but on its way. Meanwhile James I had ordered in 1606 that a combination flag, his new British flag of Scottish Saltire combined with St George’s cross be flown from the tops. However there was another, smaller flag commonly flown at the bow of the ship from the bowsprit. This was called the Jack. The contention is that the Union Flag should only be referred to as the Union Jack when flown on a ship – but apparently, this is not so. In fact it’s perfectly legitimate to call the flag the union jack wherever; by 1674, the little flag was referred to as His Majesty’s Jack’ and I’m told that in 1908 parliament even found time to confirm that the Union Jack was the name of our national flag.

This got me to thinking about the word jack, because it’s a nice word and very common, used for a variety of purposes. It’s frequently used as a diminutive for John, which use appeared in written form first in 1725, and came from the French Jakke but also old Dutch. It’s also a word for a short, padded jacket in medieval times, which is rather curious, since that seems to have come from a colloquial name for a French peasant, referred to as Jacques – as in the rebellion of the jacquerie for example. So diminutive, inferior, lowly is written all over the word with various levels of connotation – so the Jack in a set of playing cards was synonymous with knave, a negative connotation; though not sure how a diminutive fits in with Jackboot, a word for a military boot that appears in the 18th century. It’s an early 20th C name for VD, the name of an Asian fruit, the Australians developed a colourful use for the word apparently, meaning angry with, as in to be jacked off with someone or something, so you know, not such a nice word in that context I guess, and apparently another set of colonials on the other side of the pond use it to denote stealing stuff.

Anyway, there can’t be many more versatile words. At the base of it I guess is the diminutive idea, the lowly peasant, the short garment, the short staff on the bowsprit called the jack. Anyway, conformation to you all that calling the British flag the Union jack is perfectly legitimate, so go for it, and you now have an answer if challenged!

[1] Fraser, The Steel Bonnets, p 369

[2] Croft, P ‘Fresh Light on Bate’s Case’, The Historical Journal , Sep., 1987, Vol. 30, No. 3 (Sep., 1987), pp. 523-539


2 thoughts on “330 John Bates’ Currants

  1. Was your comment on Christopher Piggott’s remarks about scots not letting their kings die in their beds a test to see if we have been listening? You said James III died after Solway Moss – that was in fact James V; and it was James II not James V that blew himself up. So the only Scottish kings to be killed by other Scots in the previous 200 years were James I, assassinated in Perth, and James III, killed at Sauchieburn.

    1. No Barbara, it was brute ignorance and error! Darn it, I’ll have to go back and edit. However, it does reinforce the point that Piggott himself was stretching a point!

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