Rough Wooing


In December 1543, Henry VII of England declared war on the kingdom of Scotland, ostensibly because King James refused to break with Roman Catholicism as Henry did. In actuality, it was the just latest in a series of attempts by would-be Kings of All Britain to annex or outright destroy the other nations of the isles.

William Ferguson was uncompromising in his appraisal of the war:

Henry VII went berserk and resolved to read the Scots a bitter lesson, one that seemed all the more necessary as England once more stood on the brink of war with France. On 10th April 1544 the Earl of Hertford was accordingly instructed to ravage Scotland where he was to “put all to fire and sword, burn Edinburgh town, so rased and defaced when you have sacked and gotten what you can of it, as there may remain forever a perpetual memory of the vengeance of God lightened upon them for their falsehood and disloyalty. Hertford doubted the wisdom of such orders, but his mild protests were brushed aside; and though Henry VIII’s last campaigns against Scotland are usually jocularly dismissed with the Protector Somerset’s under the nuckname of ‘the Rough Wooing’, they were in fact the most savage and devastating of the numerous English invasions of Scotland. In the course of them many of the leading towns of Scotland were sacked and burned, and so were the chief border abbeys and many churches. English policy was simply to pulverise Scotland, to beat her either into acquiescence or out of existence, and Hertford’s campaigns resemble nothing so much as Nazi total warfare – ‘blitzkrieg’, reign of terror, extermination of all resisters, the encouragement of collaborators, and so on.
Scotland’s Relations with England: A Survey to 1707

The conflict was initially called the Eight (or Nine) Years’ War, but Henry’s proposal that his son Edward should marry the infant Mary led to its popular modern name – the “rough wooing.” Because of this particularly horrid period in Anglo-Scottish relations, I have an instinctive aversion to the very term “wooing.” I can’t hear or read it without wincing, because for me, it is not a term that evokes love or romance, but political machinations and bloody conquest.

But that’s just me. I realise not everyone reads or hears the word “wooing” and immediately thinks back to the Anglo-Scottish Wars, the weirdos.

“The girl does not always say yes first time.”

An MSP wrote something on Twitter. It could have been interpreted a number of different ways. Some thought it was, while perhaps a quaint, naive, or poor choice of words, clearly not in reference to harassment or assault, but something as wholesome as asking someone out to dinner, proposing marriage, maybe even starting a family. Others interpret it in a particularly dark light, thinking it endemic of a misogynistic, paternalistic culture which ignores or even dismisses consent. I’m sure some people would think it was a new TSB advert.

The thing is, I cringed when I read the tweet. I immediately thought of the “worst” things a girl could be asked to do. But, since I make a habit of questioning myself, I then thought: why did I think that way? Was it because I truly felt that was the intention of the message? Did I just think “oh, great, another thing the Britnats are going to go on about?” Or was it because I read it only after the controversy erupted, and thus was – intentionally or not – subconsciously primed to interpret it in the worst way? Would I have interpreted the tweet as problematic if I came across it before it was loudly and widely denounced as such?


I note that at least six newspapers which covered the story chose to go with the worst interpretation, which is obvious, since that was the cause of the furore – and in doing so, they may have primed readers to interpret the sentence in that way too. How else could you interpret something, when the press talked about it “trivialising” a horrendous crime, that people expressed “disgust,” that the MSP was “in trouble” and “under fire” for an “appalling tweet”?

Yet it isn’t as simple as that. I’m used to treating the media with a critical eye, and in the end, you are responsible for your own emotions – so long as they are yours. The issue, as I see it, is that we are seeing a microcosm of a much bigger, wider problem in UK, and “western,” political discourse.

Consider the climate of the UK right now. Even after decades of womens’ suffrage, a survey suggested half of women experienced harassment in the workplace. Casual sexism is on display from the BBC to the Olympics. An MP who once said women only want equality “when it suits” was appointed to the Commons Womens & Equalities Committee, and celebrated by attempted to filibuster a long-overdue bill on the UK ratifying the Istanbul Convention. Even elected representatives of the UK Government Party have called out their colleagues on rampant, endemic sexism which directly affects policy. I don’t even have to link to some of the things the current President-Elect of the United States has said about women, which has emboldened the anti-feminist movement in the US, and has elements within the UK eyeing up these isles. Can you blame people for thinking the worst, given how much cause they have to lose faith in humanity – and how it always seems to be the worst people in charge?

But we must not forget those who have a vested interest in people believing the worst: those who profit from that sense of hopelessness, apathy, the idea that “things can’t be any better, all the politicians are as bad as each other, so why even bother?” The modern Rough Wooing is fought not with pike & shot, fire & sword, cannon & musket, but with words: to crush not with force of arms, but with the intolerable negativity, constantly repeated, of a steamroller back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, over the hopes and dreams of a people for a better future for themselves. And then, when the government does its worst, they retort “but we had no other option! There was no alternative.” Apply it to feminism. “Well ladies, you had your fun with suffrage and equal opportunities, but now the boys are back in town. Best not to resist, it makes such a mess.” Apply it to socialism. “Well comrades, we tried socialism, but it seemed to fizzle out after Tony Blair, so I guess there’s no appetite for anything remotely left of centre.” Apply it to independence. “Well nats, you did your best, but with the oil and the debt and the deficit and the Tunnocks, it’s time to eat your cereal and leave the EU.”

Like I said, it’s a microcosm. Many are so attuned to the very real attacks on everything we as a people have fought and bled and died for the past few decades, we see the hate in everything – even the most innocuous messages. It’s difficult picking battles, I know – when there are so many fronts, it’s hard to know where to focus your energy, and whether it will make any difference at all. It’s even more difficult when there are so many forces at play actively seeking to disrupt and distract us from our goals. And that means questioning everything – even, especially, yourself.


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