A word or two about the British monarchy…

One of the things that I kept sensing during the various discussions engendered by my last blog about the Regency was at root a thing about the monarchy.

It’s something in the way some non-Brits write about the monarchy, putting a spin on British history that we simply lack here.  Like, I’m not convinced they get it.

Because here’s the thing–with the exception of a small rump of media types and political republicans here (as opposed to monarchists), we don’t feel there’s anything inherently unequal about having a monarch–a person whom we refer to as His or Her Majesty.  We don’t bristle over that.

We don’t regard it as a slight on our equality in the eyes of God or the law or anything. We don’t regard it as a slap in the face to our personal freedoms.

Some monarchs are more popular than others.  Some were considered useless.  Some are utterly brilliant.  Some go in and out of popularity.

edward-viiEdward VII, for all that the press racked up more salacious stories about him than just about anyone under the sun, was surprisingly popular and it was he who turned the Victorian monarchy into the vibrant modern institution it is today–he it was who got out in his car and drove about, meeting and greeting his subjects.  And he was round and fat and jolly, just like them, and they were quite fond of him for just those reasons. (Though if you read some biogs of the poor fellow, you’d not know this…)

Anyway, as I’ve mulled over this little problem, I’ve become convinced it has something to do with sentiments of the American Revolution, and a misplaced conviction that we must have felt that way too, only we lacked to gumption to throw off those chains of tyranny or something.

So I thought I’d deal talk about that–rather than the news about Richard III.

To begin with, late 18th century Englishmen did not believe they were suffering under any tyrant’s boot.

They thought the opposite–they knew they lived in the freest society on earth.  They believed that to the core of their beings.  They had freedom of speech, freedom of the press and no need even for a police force to patrol them.

(Yes, yes, yes, there were some rabble-rousers like young Tom Paine–but have you read him?  Actually read him?  I mean the guy was as nuts as any bag of squirrel food!)

Ehem…

Indeed, by the late 18th century, British men were firm in their belief that the political vicissitudes inherent in a tyrannical system had been dealt with the abolition of the Star Chamber under Charles I’s rule, and subsequently, with the disposal of Oliver Cromwell, the republic’s dictator.

And it’s important too to remember that it was an Act of Parliament which invited Charles II back to England to sit on the throne.  He was there by populist choice–he wasn’t imposed on us.

And even when his younger brother, James II, proved such a kingly disaster, it wasn’t the monarchy that the people wished to get rid of, it was James.  I mean, they didn’t say, “Oi, this king business is rubbish, let’s have an anarcho-syndacalist commune” instead, did they?

No, they just opted to get rid of James and get in someone more to their taste.

And again, it was Parliament who wrote to William of Orange inviting him to come and be king here.  He ruled by popular consent.  And that is a significant point.  It’s also significant that after 1689, it is always a limited monarchy that is being spoken of–not an absolute monarchy as in France or Russia or Spain…

Also, Britain already had separation of the legislative and executive going back at least as far as Elizabeth–she couldn’t raise her own taxes, for example.

Robert Walpole was the first MP to use the title of Prime Minister–he took office in 1721–and he held that position until 1742–a period of unprecedented peace.  This is also the point at which the political power shifts from the head of state to the head of government.  Thus, Walpole was de facto head of the executive while the head of state was the absentee king, George I.

And–again, important to note–this was an elected government.  And whilst one might say it’s not democracy as we know democracy–they had rotten boroughs and all that–I’d just like to point out what was happening to our nearest neighbour–that would be the reign of Louis XV.  Ehem.

So, skipping along to George III…

imagesFrom the outset, he was immensely popular.  He had everything going for him.  For the first time in several generations, he, the king, had been born here in England.  English was his native language.  He looked and spoke like an English country gentleman.  And they loved him for it.

He married and was devoted to his wife.  He adored his children.

Indeed–though one frequently hears commentary to suggest that Albert and Victoria invented the image of the happy royal family and all that Victorian ideal–the fact is George III was the inventor of the modern family.

George played with his children, he was devoted to them, they were often seen with him in the carriage, or held high in his arms, and it was clear from his every movement and every word, that he sincerely loved them.  And this was a new thing–this engagement with one’s children.  And the people loved him for it.

He was also a tremendous patron of the arts, of manufacture and industry, of scientific study and invention.  A few years ago at the Queen’s Gallery, there was an exhibition showcasing his patronage of the arts and manufacture–and what an exhibition it was!  The range of scientific experimentation and instrument manufacture that had come about because of his support was jaw-dropping.

This was a guy who was constantly on the look-out for ingenuity and advancement, and when he found it, he threw the whole of his weight behind it.  He invited the author/inventor to come talk about it.  He commissioned a fancy prototype for himself.  And when he got hold of it, he shewed it to everybody at court and got them to invest in it…If George III took you up, you were made!  And they loved him for it.

He was like that about the agricultural revolution then sweeping England as well.  His letters to Coke of Norfolk and others are copious, and well-informed.  So the farmers of England (and that’s just about everyone) thought he was pretty sound too.

Then came the American Revolution–and this is a curious thing–because when encountering the colonial complaints and their cries of tyranny, the English living in England didn’t actually know what to make of it.  For a start, they couldn’t figure out what the colonials were talking about.

The cries about the tyrant who imposed unfair taxes, without representation, didn’t even make sense to an 18th century Englishman, because he knew that the king had no say over taxation.  The king didn’t and couldn’t raise taxes–he had nothing to say to the matter one way or another.

(And George III was remarkably frugal.  [There’s another word for it, and that would be nip-farthing…ehem…another reason his British subjects liked him…])

He didn’t have executive power either as stated previously.  So all that George III is a tyrant stuff–that was lost on us.

Anyway.

In the wake of the American Revolution, George III’s reputation did suffer–people here thought that he really should have sent over lots more troops and kicked some sense into the fractious colonials.

But, he and his ministers knew something too (had known something for some time)–and that is that the American Revolution had been paid for by the French crown; the American troops had been led by French officers, their food supplies sent from France, along with all their uniforms, their munitions, etc.

(For a detailed account of the French crown’s investment and Congress’s subsequent reneging of those massive loans–which incidentally caused France’s bankruptcy and hence its slide into Revolution–see Maurice Lever’s three volume biography of Beaumarchais, who in addition to being the author of The Marriage of Figaro, was Louis XVI’s agent in the affair.)

And once the Revolution was over in 1783, and British attention refocused on matters closer to home–as in across the Channel where Englishmen did a lot of their business–George’s reputation recovered.

Then came the first Regency crisis…

Prinny RussellUntil that point, Prince George had been your average rebellious prince, playing around with the naughty crowd–the Devonshire set–in moves designed to set his parents’ teeth on edge…but the Regency crisis changed all that.

And when George III recovered his wits, (just as the French Revolution was about to kick off…) there was more than a whiff of bad odour about the business.

There were, and there had been, echoes of Henry IV’s rage over Prince Hal’s ‘trying on the crown’ in the air (see Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part Two).

Prince George had been far too eager for power…And that was felt to be truly offensive…And I think it’s safe to say their relationship never really recovered.

Meanwhile, George III went back to kinging, to supporting the arts and manufacture, to farming which was his passion.  He may still have felt the loss of the colonies most keenly, but as the French Revolution unfolded and the genocidal violence reached its nadir, old George–devoted to his country, his family, his farm and his people–looked better and better.

He became a symbol of stability, of the English nation that would not bow to the tyrannical violence and bloodshed of Republican France.  Once Napoleon came on the scene and with his military might swallowed up most of Europe, George’s reputation smelled rosier and rosier.

As he aged–and soldiered on on their behalf–he was regarded with great affection by his subjects.  They truly loved him and truly felt great empathy for his physical sufferings and his final descent into blindness, deafness and madness caused by porphyria.

As for George IV, his reputation never did recover.  A disloyal child–to the Georgian mind–was one of the great banes of existence.   There were scores of disinherited children during this period… And George had crossed that line and was perceived as disloyal to his father and disloyal to the king and therefore to the country.

But what’s curious though is that whilst George IV, both as Regent and King, was hated–certainly by the London press–no move was ever made to get rid of him.

(Again, no suggestions of an anarcho-syndacalist commune…and this is important, because often when one considers the history of a place or period, what’s missing is as significant as what’s there…)

And had the problem been with the concept of monarchy, as some people imagine it must have been, Parliament might have stepped in.  They’d done it before…

But they didn’t.

And for all that the newspapers and cartoonists of the day loathed and mocked Prinny, what’s peculiar is the grounds for their so-called hatred:  his licentiousness and profligacy.  Because here’s the thing–as I’ve mentioned earlier, there are more saucy stories about Edward VII than about nearly everyone else put together.  But that doesn’t seem to have bothered either the press or the populace.  By comparison to Edward, Prinny was an amateur, a kindergartner…

And he did a number of quite innovative and good things.

He insisted that Britain should NOT participate in the art-grab when the allies were breaking up the vast collection of artwork in the Louvre, pillaged from all over Europe.  He wouldn’t accept any of those pillaged treasures as gifts either.  He was a patron of the arts and letters–particularly letters–his patronage meant a great deal to Sir Walter Scott and did much to transform the anti-Scottish sentiment which had been the norm in England.

He was the first British monarch since the 17th century to visit Scotland and he loved it there and did everything he could to promote it–so those kudos do not belong to Victoria and Albert either–George IV had already begun the work.

He was also the first monarch to appear in tartan dress.  (Yes, I know that a regular kilt requires 14 yards of fabric, and one for a chap with a 50″ waist just makes my eyes pop…but, well, he probably kept at least one tartan weaver in work for over year…)

When he died, he wasn’t mourned particularly.  The people had loved his daughter, Charlotte…But George IV’s brother, William IV, was much loved too.  He drank too much–they all did–but he was regarded with genuine affection.  And his reign had seen the beginning of many of the reforms that Victoria is often credited with…

And now?  Now we regard the monarchy and our dear Queen with affection and appreciation–probably just as his subjects regarded George III–so my advice to those writing about Britain–don’t infer that we regard our kings or queens with anything other than full-hearted gratitude.  Regardless of what the press are blabbing about.  And many of us sing with full gusto every time we hear the music, those famous strains of Handel’s coronation anthem:  “Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet anointed Solomon king.  And all the people rejoiced and said, God save the King!  Long live the King.  May the King live forever.  Alleluia!  Alleluia…Amen.”

And we mean it.  Every word of it.

200 years ago today ~ War and a new Government…

I shall be brief. 

You may recall that on 11 May 1812, Prime Minister Perceval was assassinated in the lobby of the House of Commons. 

Now today this might have triggered a new Parliamentary election or an election of a new leader of whichever party held power, or even the accession of a Deputy Prime Minister to the post of Prime Minister. 

However, 200 years ago, the post of Prime Minister was in the gift of the Prince Regent.  And the chappie who accepted that gift-post needed then to fill the other various Cabinet positions from among his political allies, friends and even relations.

With Perceval’s death, many had expected the Prince Regent to turn to his former drinking cronies, the Whigs–those to whom he’d always promised power when he wasn’t in a position to give it–to find and form a Government from amongst their ranks. 

But that’s precisely what the Prince Regent didn’t do.

Instead, he turned first to Sir Richard Wellesley, Lord Wellington’s elder brother and another former drinking partner.   

Still, there was a problem. 

Too many of the current Cabinet Ministers and others in the Tory party distrusted Wellesley.  Also, he’d had published a critique of Perceval’s premiership after Perceval’s death, in the Times.  You couldn’t top this for being dishonourable. 

So, Wellesley needed to elicit the support of some of the front bench of the Whig benches.  However, the two biggest shots, and obvious choices, were Lords Grey and Greville and neither of them would join a Cabinet that did not promise to push through Catholic Emancipation in Ireland. 

And the problem with that was?  The Prince Regent was wholly against the idea and would have none of it. 

Hence, Wellesley had to eventually tell HRH that he couldn’t do the job, he couldn’t form a Government.  Full stop.

Then, on 21 May, a chap by the name of Wortley called for a vote of ‘confidence’ in the Government, claiming that “…the administration which was now upon the eve of being formed was inadequate to meet the exigencies of the times…” and “that the present government was not very strong, even with the aid of Mr. Perceval’s great talents…and that they were certainly worse than weak without them.”

Nice, eh?  We’ve got a little governmental crisis here, we’re in the midst of a world war, so what shall we do?  Oh, I think add the toppling of the Government to it, don’t you?  Great idea! 

The Foreign Secretary, Viscount Castlereagh, speaking in the House of Commons, addressed the motion thusly:  “At no period of our history was it more necessary that a Government should be formed of the united talent and honour of the nation…” 

He announced his readiness to resign from his position as Foreign Secretary.  Then he added, “But for the moment, but for the moment, the whole attention of the administration should be bent to the great difficulties in which the country is placed, and, above all, to conducting the war on the Peninsula on the largest possible scale.”

The Government lost the vote by four votes. 

The Prince Regent now did as was expected of him.  He turned to the Whig peer, Lord Moira. 

And Lord Moira had the cunning plan to form a coalition government by bringing in George Canning (Lord Castlereagh’s rival and enemy–they’d even fought a duel over Canning’s backstabbing ways–which ended with a bullet in Canning’s thigh…Whoops.) and his chums. 

But that didn’t work out so well either.  There were a number of people who didn’t quite trust Canning after the behaviour which had led to the duel.  He wasn’t, as it were, considered a gentleman

So…there we are…sitting in Brook’s Club on 8 June, with the Whig MP, Thomas Creevey , who was writing to his wife and telling her quite jubilantly that Lord Moira had been made Prime Minister that day.  When what should happen, but Castlereagh walked past him and stopped to have a brief word. 

Whereupon Creevey finished his letter this way:  “Well this is beyond anything, Castlereagh has just told us that Moira resigned the commission this morning, and that His Royal Highness had appointed Lord Liverpool Prime Minister.  Was there ever anything equal to this?”

The new administration was in place by 200 years ago today:  Lord Liverpool was Prime Minister; Lord Castlereagh remained at the Foreign Office and became Leader of the House of Commons as well; Lord Sidmouth took over the Home Office…

The first order of business that the new administration undertook on 16 June was to repeal the Orders in Council–those Orders which had brought the 50-year old United States to the point of declaring war with Great Britain. 

But their action came too late.

For on the very same day, the United States Congress–led by the War Hawks and President James Madison, who were eager to take full advantage of Britain’s large-scale military commitments in the Peninsula against Napoleon’s troops there to launch their own land grab of Canada, and fully expecting their favourite ally, Napoleon to conquer Russia–declared war on Great Britain. 

There were those who expected that with the repeal of the Orders in Council, the alleged cassus belli, the Americans back down by saying, “Righto, that’s us sorted,” and war would be averted. 

But that sanguine hope was not to be fulfilled. 

And there you have it.  A busy day all round, wasn’t it?

200 years ago today ~ the Trial of John Bellingham

Imagine what would have happened if Winston Churchill had been assassinated in May 1944. 

Instantly all sorts of frightening scenarios flood the mind, don’t they? 

Would Britain have won the war?  Was it a Nazi plot?  Who or what was the next target?  How would security have been expanded?  Could it have been expanded?  Would Hitler have used the event and the terror it caused to launch an even more appalling strike?  An invasion, perhaps?  Who would have taken up the job of Prime Minister?  Who was left?   

The possibilities are endless.  And, as I say, frightening.

Well, exactly 200 years ago today, this is exactly the situation in which Britain found herself.  The assassination of Prime Minister Perceval on 11 May 1812 changed everything! 

Not only that, but Perceval was Chancellor of the Exchequer too.  So you might say that the assassin, John Bellingham, had taken out heart of government with a single shot. 

And, as in my imagined scenario of 1944, all of Europe was at war and had been for a long, long time. 

Times were turbulent, both domestically and abroad.  There was hardly a country in Europe whose government or hereditary ruler hadn’t been deposed by Napoleon, mafia-style, and one of his feckless siblings put on the throne.  Whole countries had been absorbed by others and turned into French satellites.  Across the Atlantic, the Americans had been gearing up for a war in which they could land-grab Canada.  At home, there were the Luddite disturbances in the north, the harvests had been bad for several years running, and the King was mad.  And they were fighting a war against a military genius with an empire which ranged from Spain to Russia…

Insecurity was normal.  

The most immediate effects of the assassination were felt, as was to be expected, here at home.  Hence, during the evening of the 11th, the Cabinet met for hours, hammering out a series of security measures which they trusted would keep the peace and prevent panic from overtaking the realm: 

Sharpshooters were installed atop government buildings.  The Household Guard–those troops responsible for guarding the King and Queen at Windsor and the Prince Regent in London–their numbers were trebled.  The mails were stopped until further notice.  The militia was called out in mass to patrol the streets of London.  The Thames River Police were given orders to search vessels for possible conspirators. 

Nevertheless, fear, panic, terror and distress gripped the nation as the news filtered out from the capital.  It was no non-event, such as history books might suggest.  No, it had more in common with the terrorist attacks of 7/7.

Not only that, but the British were right to suspect the hand of France in it.  Because, let’s face it, by 1812, the French Emperor was good at coups. 

So, at 5.25 p.m. on 11 May 1812, when Bellingham fired that fatal shot at point-blank range, the MPs tore about the place, shouting it was a conspiracy, and searching for accomplices.  There was precedent!

Yet, though it took many people time to accept this, there were no co-conspirators.  Indeed, though the British didn’t know it, Napoleon had left Paris for Dresden on the 9th May, on his way to joining his half a million troops massed in Prussia and Poland, ready for the invasion of Russia. 

Viscount Castlereagh, the Foreign Secretary, was one of those who doubted that Bellingham’s action had been part of a conspiracy or coup.  Even as he assuredly kept his intelligence agents busy looking for enemy agents and the “Black Chamber” of the Post Office was opening every foreign letter…

Which might have been some comfort.  But not much. 

So what next? 

On the 12th, Parliament voted a handsome annuity to Perceval’s wife and 12 children in recognition of his service to the country.  Lord Castlereagh tried to speak to the motion, tried to articulate his affection for his friend and colleague, but broke down sobbing and had to be escorted back to his seat. 

London itself appeared to be under martial law–what with the number of militia on every street.

And, there were ramifications.  Very serious ones.  First off, they needed to find a new Prime Minister.  But what would happen to the war effort?  Would another Prime Minister continue the fight against Napoleon, would he support Wellington’s efforts in the Peninsula, would he secure the troops Wellington needed, and the supplies?

Meanwhile, what of the assassin, the man who had unleashed this latest bout of insecurity upon the nation? 

Since the early hours of the 12th, Bellingham had been incarcerated at Newgate prison, in a cell adjoining the chapel. 

All day the 12th and the 13th, as Castlereagh was speaking and weeping, and as Perceval was being laid to rest, Bellingham was visited by the sheriffs and other public functionaries.  He remained cheerful and was quite clear in all his conversation that when he came to trial, it would “be seen how far he was justified.”  And he repeated that he considered the whole a private matter between himself and the Government which had given him carte blanche to do his worst…

Four days after the death of the Prime Minister, on the 15th May 1812, Bellingham was brought to trial at the Old Bailey. 

At 10.00, the judges took their seats on either side of the Lord Mayor.  The recorder, the Duke of Clarence, the Marquis Wellesley and nearly all the aldermen of the City of London crowded onto the bench.  The court was packed with MPs, jostling among the throng.

At length, Bellingham, wearing a light brown surtout coat and a striped yellow waistcoat, appeared–his hair was unpowdered, the press noted.  He appeared undismayed by the whole.  He bowed to the Court respectfully and even gracefully, some said.

The Attorney General opened the case for the prosecution and several witnesses were called.  Several more witnesses were called in defence to testify that they considered Bellingham insane.  Eventually, Lord Chief Justice Mansfield gave the summing up, and the jury retired to consider the verdict.  

Fourteen minutes later, a guilty verdict was returned.  The death sentence was passed and Bellingham was ordered for execution on the following Monday–the 18th. 

From the moment of his condemnation, Bellingham (as was custom) was fed on bread and water.  Any means of suicide were removed from his cell and he was not allowed to shave–which bothered him.  On Sunday, he was visited by a number of religious gentlemen to whom he resolutely maintained his innocence. 

But what of the rest of the world?  What of the war? 

With the sudden vacancy at the top, those men who’d longed for power began shifting about, seeing this as their opportunity.   The Opposition party, the Whigs, thought that their moment had arrived and hourly expected messengers to invite them to a meeting with the Prince Regent, during which they would happily accept his offer to form a government–which for the war effort would have been nothing short of disaster. 

Meanwhile, Richard Wellesley (brother to the Duke of Wellington) had intended to launch a savage attack on Perceval and his conduct of the war prior to the 11th.  But when he’d sat in the House of Lords, with his notes before him, he’d gone blank and hadn’t made the speech.  Yet, within a day of Perceval’s death, those notes had been found and their gist printed in The Times

The nation was appalled by such bad taste and as one turned against Wellesley. 

Still, strangely, the Prince Regent did send for him (Wellesley was an old friend and gaming companion), though not to offer him the Premiership.  No, it was only to assess how many friends Wellesley could find who would be willing to serve in alongside him in a Cabinet. 

That list turned out to be woefully short. 

Just one man–George Canning–said yes.  (And George Canning was known not to be a gentleman.  Indeed, there were just as many men who wouldn’t serve alongside Canning…)  Too many were offended by his complaints that Perceval had not been willing to spend enough in support of the war and Lord Wellington’s troops, while at the same time trying to negotiate with Whigs who criticised Perceval for spending too much and who had declared themselves against the was effort in Spain and Portugal. 

Next, the Prince Regent would turn to Lord Moira, a Whig, to see if he could form a government…which would have been a very different sort of government and would most assuredly have seen Britain suing for peace with the Americans and with Napoleon–thus ending Wellington’s career.  (Would Napoleon have been defeated without him?) 

The Whigs were jubilant and loud in their triumph.  The officers and under-secretaries at the Admiralty and at Horse Guards were appalled.

But again, Moira turned to George Canning and his followers for support, so this went nowhere.  Even as the country seethed with instability and uncertainty. 

Eventually, another of William Pitt’s disciples (as Castlereagh and Perceval were), Lord Liverpool, was appointed Prime Minister by the Prince Regent.   He kept much of the existing Cabinet appointments intact–Castlereagh remained at the Foreign Office, but added Leader of the House to his list of duties.  And the war against the French was pursued even more vigorously to the total defeat of the French Empire and the abdication of Napoleon Bonaparte. 

But, 200 years ago today, they didn’t know all that…and on 15th May, they couldn’t even begin to imagine it.

Three cheers for Spencer Perceval…

One of the things which really winds me up is how the Victorians routinely minimised the achievements of the early 19th century–those 37 years before Victoria ascended the throne when they were not in charge.  And what gets me even hotter under the collar is how this diminishing rewriting of history has been carried forth by 20th century historians. 
 
I’m not suggesting that the Victorians were unique in their historican revisionist efforts–I fancy there’s little to compete with James I’s efforts to stamp out the long shadow of Elizabeth I’s successes and popularity.  I mean, he had her dug up, and her remains dumped in a little side chapel of Westminster Abbey on top of those of her sister, Mary, with a snidey little comment about them having only one salvation (since they both died childless). 
 
And then he had the remains of his mum–that would be the mum who abandoned him when he was nine months old, the mum who’d been beheaded for treason against the English throne which he now occupied, the mum he’d been raised to call “the whore of Babylon”–that mum–reinterred in pride of place…with a nauseating little verse about her being in the line of greatness or some such weasel-fur. 
 
That, you’ll have to admit, is both disturbed and disturbing.
 
But anyway…I bring all this up because the bicentenary of the Assassination of Prime Minister Perceval on 11 May 1812 is nearly upon us…
 
For despite what the Victorians with their luxuriant sidewhiskers thought, he was a very sound thinker, a good man, and an excellent Prime Minister.  And not only that, he was PM at a time when England was facing some of the gravest crises in her long history.  And he steered the government and the country through these shoals, bless him…
 
Spencer Perceval was born on 1 November 1762, the seventh son of the high-living Earl of Egmont.  But he was also the second son of the the Earl’s second wife, which meant that when he came into his inheritance (a mere £200 a year), well, there wasn’t going to be much to it and he’d need to make his own way in the world. 
 
His father died when he was eight.  He was educated at Harrow; did well at Trinity College, Cambridge, and from there went to study at Lincoln’s Inn.  He was called to the bar in 1786. 
 
He was profoundly religious young man too and it was this which would inform both his private and professional conduct throughout his career.   A devout evangelical Anglican, he was almost the antithesis of what we think of when we think of aristocratic youth in the late 18th century.  For instance, he was fierce in his hatred of slavery and was most certainly a driving force behind the subsequent abolition of the slave trade. 
 
He fell in love with a manufacturer’s daughter, Jane Wilson, when she was 18, but her father refused consent and told them to wait till she was of age–he doubted the Perceval’s ability to provide for her.  Admittedly, his prospects were limited.  Still, the couple duly waited, and the young Perceval asked again for her hand, three years later, when she was 21. 
 
But again, Mr. Wilson refused.  Upon which, Miss Wilson climbed out of the Drawing Room window in her father’s house and the couple eloped, marrying by special license in East Grinstead. 
 
Their first home together was over a shop in Bedford Row–and they remained devoted throughout their married life, producing 12 children to prove it. 
 
The hardworking Perceval’s career prospered too.  By 1795, he had come to the attention of William Pitt, the Prime Minister, who admired his debating very much, and by 1796, he was King’s Counsel, with an income of £1000. 
 
That same year in May, Perceval was elected to Parliament as a member for Northampton–a radical borough where every male not in receipt of the poor law had the vote.  Even so, within a short time, he had to defend his seat in a hotly contested general election. 
 
He succeeded in that and held the same seat for the next 16 years until his death, while at the same time, he continued with his legal career–because in those days, MPs were unpaid.
 
In March 1807, he became Chancellor of the Exchequer and Leader of the House of Commons in a new ministery formed under the Duke of Portland–a ministry which was subsequently to be riven by George Canning’s underhanded attempts to get rid of Viscount Castlereagh at the War Office. 
 
Amidst all the plotting, Perceval remained untainted by Canning’s machinations–quite frankly he didn’t like him and he distrusted him.  (Not without reason.) 
 
(The whole incident deserves a novel of its own–it’s that Machiavellian…) 
 
But to continue…
 
Along the way, he was adviser to Princess Caroline during the investigation into whether she’d had an illegitimate child (she hadn’t), producing a 156 page letter to George III, known as ‘the Book’. 
 
And it was George III, referring to him as “the most straightforward man I have ever known,” who on 4 October 1809–three years after Pitt’s death–asked Perceval to form a Government, which saw him, with his wife and children moving into 10 Downing Street. 
 
As Prime Minister and Chancellor, Perceval strengthened the Orders in Council–which were Britain’s economic fight-back against Napoleon’s Continental Blockade.  And he held the Government together over the increasingly demoralising issue of the King’s mental illness and the need for the Prince to be made Regent.
 
He was also well-known and well-respected for the droll wit with which he dispelled tension during debates in the Commons–as when in response to a particularly vituperative attack upon the Government, he stood up at the Dispatch Box, saying affably, “I have nothing to say to the nothing which has been said.”  (Cue laughter from the whole House…)
 
Curiously, although when he was made Regent in February 1811, everyone assumed that the Prince of Wales would dismiss Perceval and find a government within the ranks of his longtime friends and drinking companions, the Whigs–  that is exactly what the Prince Regent didn’t do.  (Perhaps Prinny wasn’t quite so thick as we’d like to believe either…) 
 
He kept Perceval on, and Perceval, for his part strengthened the government by enlisting the equally hardworking and devout Viscount Castlereagh as Foreign Secretary. 
 
Writing of Perceval’s premiership, Bruce Anderson pointed out recently in The Telegraph:  “Britain faced interlocking crises: economic, social and political.  The war was bad for trade, just at a time when the agricultural and industrial revolutions were causing widespread and disruptive changes.  Technological advances create jobs and reduce prices.”

Yet, “Perceval’s performance justified his master’s [Pitt] praise.  An outstanding debater, and a man of obvious moral depth, he was popular with everyone who knew him.  This enabled him to hold everything together.  While PM, he also acted as Chancellor and made sure that there was enough money to fight the war without crippling the economy.  With no military background, he proved himself a sound judge of military merit, especially when it came to Wellington.  Back in London, the “croakers” were carping about the cost of his campaigns and the shortage of victories.  Perceval stood firm, thus enabling the Great Duke to win battles, and immortal fame.  Perceval’s contribution should not be forgotten, just because he was struck down in the darkest hour before the dawn.”

Perceval’s achievements were enormous and his contribution to the betterment of mankind lasting.  And these should never be underestimated.  Like Castlereagh and Liverpool after him, he was a specialist in nothing germane to the terrors of a 20-year war against the most powerful military state the world has ever known–an empire which Napoleon sought to stretch from the coast of Portugal to the steppes of Russia.  And for much of that time, Britain stood alone against the might of militarised France and all her acolyte states. 

Yet during that time too, Perceval was one of that determined band of  reformers who sought to improve the lot of their fellow man, working wholeheartedly to abolish slavery and the slave trade at a time when the rest of the world still thought these a fine idea.  He was part of the movement which pushed for improvements to the prison system and the treatment of transported convicts.  It was during his watch too that the law was reformed to offer greater protection to apprenticed children–for the first time since the days of Elizabeth I.

Above all, through it all, Spencer Perceval remained a true Regency gentleman.   

 

Viscount Castlereagh, Sorley Maclean and the January glums…

Of late, I’ve been a complete git.  A foul-tempered grumbletonian.  And morose.  (Though I can’t decide if I want to sit in a corner and sulk, or if I’d prefer to thunk my head against the wall over the limitations of my pea-brained intellect.)

Because here’s the thing.  I’ve been reading Castlereagh: Enlightenment, War and Tyranny, John Bew’s new and rather fine biography of Viscount Castlereagh, the Foreign Secretary from 1812-1822the man whom Andrew Roberts called “perhaps the greatest of all Britain’s foreign secretaries”.

(Yes, yes, the thing’s the size of a doorstop for woolly mammoths.  But I like books that fat, they’ve got some meat to ’em.)

And I’m now more than half way through…thus well into his lordship’s stint as Foreign Secretary in 1812–my personal comfort zone, you might say–during the final push to oust Napoleon from power in Europe.

But what’s striking me on page after page is just how much I don’t know.  How much I haven’t really considered or thought through.  How many connexions I hadn’t before seen.

Now normally, I don’t mind that.  In fact, I relish it.  I love having my eyes opened so that I see and understand.  (Though in the case of Lord Castlereagh, it’s not because of any lack of effort on my part.)

I’ve read several of the previous biographies of the fellow–sometimes more than once–as well as various histories of the Congress of Vienna and works about foreign policy and I’ve used them as reference when writing.  I’ve read some of his letters and his speeches given in Parliament too.

I’ve read the newspaper accounts of everything he did and said when the Prime Minister was assassinated.

And still, there is so much I don’t know.  And that vexes me.  Because I want to understand.

Now a great deal of this is down to the general ignorance about the fellow.  Castlereagh lived and worked in a world where truth in newspapers didn’t matter so much (if at all) and the radical press was vituperative, blood-thirsty and venomous.  There were few, if any, checks.  (So it’s been interesting to be reading this while the Leveson inquiry into the abuses of the Press are going on in London.)

Castlereagh lived in an age when Parliamentary discourse–for want of a better term–was often the most scurrilous and vitriolic abuse.  Unprintable stuff, much of it.

And Bew, bless him, spends much of his page-space separating out the lies, the packs and packs of ’em, wading through the criticism and countering it with facts, especially with excerpts from his lordship’s vast correspondence.  (The fellow wrote letters much as I drink cups of tea.)  Though there are also many revealing letters from his brother, Charles Stewart, too.

And what emerges from these pages is not the insular Irishman cum Englishman, unfamiliar with Continental developments and out of his depth with the wily Europeans, nor the corrupt or cold minister loathed and despised by those with Jacobin/radical agendas.

What’s emerging is this soft-spoken (though he did have an Irish slur when he spoke) affable though reserved, genuinely thoughtful, highly intellectual fellow who spoke and voted with his conscience as much as possible–a moderate man who eschewed all the extreme points of view while he worked step by step for the betterment of his fellows.  A loyal friend.  A devoted husband and elder brother.

Unlike that view promulgated by the radicals and his loud-mouthed political enemies, Castlereagh was a reader, especially of Scottish and French Enlightenment authors, and his study floor in St. James’s Square was littered with books, French books, novels by Edgeworth and Rousseau, and international newspapers.

He’d been in France as a young man in 1791 as the French Revolution was really getting underway and what he’d seen concerned him, though he was no Edmund Burke.  And he was once again on the Continent, in 1792, when he remained in Holland as the news of the September Massacres was hitting the headlines, stunning the world with details of a Paris gone mad and revelling in scenes of the most unthinkable torture and atrocity.

He was on the headland at Bantry Bay in Ireland, when the raging gales and blizzard conditions prevented a French army of more than 40,000 troops from landing and bringing the French Revolution to Ireland.

He was in power too as atrocities committed by those devoted to French Jacobin ideals spread across Ireland–slaughter which reads like something out of the Serbian war or the civil war in Rwanda.

It’s no wonder that he never ceased in his fight against French domination of the Continent.  It’s no wonder that he never stopped working for Catholic Emancipation.  It’s no wonder that he stood against radical extremism and Jacobinism in every form–he’d seen how its call to sacrifice everything for political ideals turned into a programme of extermination for anyone who held a differing point of view.

(It’s occurred to me many times in the course of reading this biography how little we understand the horrors of the French Revolution today.  How easily we dismiss it as if it were no more than a ripple in time, of little import, when in fact to minimise it and its effect on Europe and those who lived through it, would be like laughing off Pol Pot’s murderous regime in Cambodia, or dismissing the Bolshevik Revolution as child’s play–incidentally, the French Reign of Terror provided the template for both Lenin and Pol Pot…)

But this, I fancy, is what really winds me up:  Here was this man, this titan of thoughtful, incisive international policy who saved not just Britain’s but Europe’s backside… (Did I mention Castlereagh reorganised the army too, so that Wellington would have the troops and supplies he needed when he needed them?)  And I hate, hate, hate seeing  him trivialised and dropped into novels as though he were a male Regency version of Paris Hilton.

Yet what I hate even more is that as hard as I tried to capture him in both my previous novels–the suavity of his manners, his habitual courtesy, his refusal to meet invective with invective, his wry and self-mocking sense of humour, his love of music and his absolute devotion to his friends and family–all alongside his towering intellect–I’m not convinced I managed it.  Not truly.  Not as I would have been able to had this work been published five years earlier.  I worked like the clappers at it, but I couldn’t do enough, not nearly enough to bring him fully alive on the page.

And that depresses me no end.

(If I have any complaint about Mr. Bew’s work is that there’s not enough of it.  Even at 587 pages of text, I think he’s just scratched the surface.  And I want to know more.  Details, Mr. Bew, details.  Lots of ’em.  So, Mr. Bew, if you’re reading this–how about an expanded two-volume biography on the fellow?  Because I want to be able to understand the pattern of his days as Foreign Secretary, you see, and you haven’t touched on the matter of international espionage at all either…)

Anyway…at the same time…I’ve been reading the Selected Poems of Sorley Maclean, the great 20th century Scots poet.  And I came across this, (this is the English translation from the Scots Gaelic) which made me think, well…perhaps…I shouldn’t give up just yet…

Dogs and Wolves

Across eternity, across its snows
I see my unwritten poems,
I see the spoor of their paws dappling
the untroubled whiteness of the snow:
bristles raging, bloody-tongued,
lean greyhounds and wolves
leaping over the tops of the dykes,
running under the shade of the trees of the wilderness
taking the defile of narrow glens,
making for the steepness of windy mountains;
their baying yell shrieking
across the hard barenesses of the terrible times,
their everylasting barking in my ears,
their onrush seizing my mind:
career of wolves and eerie dogs
swift in pursuit of the quarry,
through the forests without veering,
over the mountain tops without sheering;
the mild mad dogs of poetry,
wolves in chase of beauty,
beauty of soul and face,
a white deer over hills and plains,
the deer of your gentle beloved beauty,
a hunt without halt, without respite.

A few words about the Prince Regent

I know, I know…I never talk about the Prince Regent.  I make it a point not to.

However, last night I watched the first of a three-part series on the English Regency.  And while there was some good stuff there, as well as a number of elements which deserve criticism–and while I equally feel that the controller of BBC4 deserves a good kicking for the infantilisation of history-documentaries in general–there’s one tendency which was abundantly on display in Elegance and Decadance that I cannot let pass. 

It’s the creation of a wrong impression by failing to tell the whole story or failing to place an event or artefact in context.

From the off, we were into ‘wrong impression’ territory.  The presenter showed the camera a corset that the young Prince George (born 1762) had worn as a child which was meant to help him grow up straight and tall.  This corset was, of course, presented as restrictive and unfeelingly strict.  Which I suppose it was. 

But what the viewer wasn’t told was that the young Prince George wasn’t alone in wearing a corset like this.  In that era, it was normal.  The disease of rickets was every 18th century parent’s nightmare–they didn’t know it was caused by a vitamin deficiency.  So they corseted young children in the belief that they were supporting correct growth.

(And this was the future King of England for heaven’s sake–he had to grow up straight and tall.  He couldn’t be a hunchback–that would have had overtones of Richard III…)  All of a sudden, that corset doesn’t look quite so much like child cruelty, does it?  But without context, the unwary non-historian is led to a false conclusion.

Then of course, there was the fact that the Regency officially began in February 1811 and lasted until 1820, which is strictly true, but not the full story–as anyone who has seen Alan Bennett’s The Madness of King George might tell you.  Because George III didn’t just have one lapse into madness in 1810 which proved permanent–he’d been dodging in and out of lucidity for quite a long time as a result of the disease porphyria. 

So although there hadn’t been an Act of Parliament making Prince George the Regent before 1811, they’d come awfully close to it on a previous occasion; then the king had recovered his wits, so they didn’t.  

There’s another thing.  We hear all the time in the press and elsewhere about the need to look beyond the surface of a situation to discover the root causes–for instance to look beneath the surface of sudden teenage rebellion to find perhaps troubled family relationships or family alcoholism or maybe bullying…something.  But when too many historians look at past lives, the insights into emotional cause and effect or troubled relationships and context just evaporate. 

Poof.  It’s gone. 

And we’re left with the same old “he was hated…he was fat…he was…”

Now I’m not going to insist that Prince George was likeable or even lovable.  I’m sure he had his share of faults and vices, and then some.  But I do know this:  he was young once.  He wasn’t always a grotesque, leering caricature poured into too-tight clothes. 

And when he was young, he was something!  Tall, good-looking, dashing, sexy…the public and press adored him.  He was the Brad Pitt of his day.  He hung out with the fastest crowd–the Devonshire set (as in Amanda Foreman’s biography, Georgiana)–and they were daring, energetic, wild and witty, they rejected the stuffiness of the staid court of his father, they embraced the ideals of the French philosophes and the French Revolution in its early stages.  And he was at the centre of it. 

As a series of acts of filial rebellion, it was superb.  And that’s what it was.  

And it was more than that.  Because Prince George was Prince of Wales, the heir to the throne. 

Now I am a fan of George III.  But on the subject of raising children, he was just a tad on the controlling side.  Okay, I’m lying–he was controlling to the point of unreasonableness.  He simply could not be brought to allow Prince George even a hint of freedom or responsibility.  The Prince’s younger brother had been sent to North America with the navy during the Wars of Independence, ostensibly as a young officer, but actually to spy for his father and conduct secret negotiations. 

But for the Prince of Wales, nothing.  His father wouldn’t allow him a place in the army nor the navy, wouldn’t let him to travel outside of England.  Wouldn’t even give him his own estate or household to manage.  He was the heir to the throne and his person could not be exposed to any danger.  Not any.   

And given that, it’s not perhaps surprising that when finally he did escape from his father’s control, when he finally did get out into the world, young George kicked over the traces–he got himself the most beautiful girlfriends, he stayed up all night gambling and drinking, he rode hard, he swore, he hunted, he wore clothes to wind his father up, he did it all. 

The press loved it!  They revelled in using the spectacle of his wild and pleasure-seeking life as a stick with which to beat his father, the King, who was none too popular at the time, due to the loss of those pesky American colonies.  And it drove the straight-laced King potty.  (Who says James Dean invented teenage rebellion?)

But, he was the Prince of Wales, the heir to the throne.  And as that he had only one job:  waiting.  That’s it.  Waiting to be King.  Nothing else.  And his father kept the reins of government, such as they were, firmly in his own hands.  No sharing. 

And despite the image we have of fat, stupid, lazy…Prince George was not stupid.  He was rather intelligent, in fact, with a lifelong love of Greek and Latin literature.  He was a singer with an impressive bass voice, and a sublime cellist–he possessed a deep musicality.  But with that intelligence, with that musicality, he was allowed to do nothing.  So, (in today’s parlance) he channelled his boredom and frustration into what he could do, what he could control, what would irritate his parent–spending money, living garishly and wildly.  In short, into anything that would define him as the opposite of his father. 

Eventually the excesses and mass executions of the French Revolution made Whiggism privately impossible for him–those aristocrats and crowned heads they guillotined in France, those were his friends and cousins, in some cases, so their loss was personal and he grieved for them. (The Duchess of Devonshire was a close friend and correspondent of Marie Antoinette and her ladies in waiting…) Still, by then, rebellion, wildness, fecklessness had become his default setting.  And an arranged marriage to a young woman with a serious hygiene deficiency (his closest friend, Brummell, was the instigator of the daily bath, remember) did nothing to improve the situation.

Which somehow makes him rather understandable–not lovable perhaps–but definitely human. 

Another small point.  The presenter of the series brought up George’s love of uniforms and the number of these in his wardrobe as well as showing us many portraits of him in different military uniforms.  She also derided his habit in later life of recounting the Battle of Salamanca as if he’d been there; ditto his belief that he’d been at Waterloo.

Now, I’m not saying that fashion was kind to the Prince.  It wasn’t.  Skin-tight trousers do not sit well on a fellow of late middle age with a 50″ waistline. 

However, Prince George had grown up and lived in an era of military heroes.  In the 18th century, the ideal of a true gentleman, a true nobleman, was a fellow who dodged bullets as the bravest soldier during the day and then spent his evenings and nights making passionate and delicious love to the ladies.  (I’m not making this up.)

Admiral Lord Nelson had been loved, adored and idolised by the press and public.  He was the kind of military hero who had his arm shot off, the skin blown off his forehead and down into his face, who went down to the surgeon to be patched up and then came back up for more.  He led his men into battle from the front and he was lionised for it.

He may have been the enemy, but Napoleon Bonaparte was a military leader who had won a crown, a country and an empire through military prowess.   His court was that of a military state and he the premier soldier of the age, the head of the French army.

Tsar Alexander and the Prussian King, Frederick William, were both present at many of the battles in which their armies fought (not always with positive results).  It’s what kings did.

Seen in this contextual light, George is no different from his fellow monarchs…he didn’t get to go to war, his father and Parliament wouldn’t allow it.  But kings wore the uniforms of their armed forces, it was part of the job.  And if George wanted some of the adulation which Nelson received, if he thought the uniform would help…well, I fancy one can see his reasoning.

Anything else?  Well, I dare say there is.  But I can’t think of it right now.  No doubt it’ll come to me…

Regency Rollicking

This one’s been bothering me for a long time. 

It’s the generally perceived notion that the Regency was a period entirely given over to riotous living, debauched sex, feckless, foolish gambling and drinking and every conceivable excess.  And as proof of the profligacy of the period, a few names are always trotted out:  Lady Caroline Lamb, Lord Byron, and of course, the Prince Regent…I say the names, the reader gets the images.  

But hang on a tick, say I.  That’s only three people.  That’s hardly representative of a population of 11 million.  And what were the rest of them doing?  And who were these three and how did they become emblematic? 

Well, the Prince Regent obviously gave his title to the period, which officially lasts from February 1811 until his father’s death in 1820.  He had also stepped in as regent before this on the grounds of his father, George III’s diminishing mental capacities, due to the porphyria from which he suffered. 

But by 1811, in many ways, the Prince Regent was a non-force.  He was immensely unpopular and for so many reasons:  his profligacy on every level; his architectural and sartorial extravagance; his gargantuan size and his hypochondria; his treatment of his estranged wife, Princess Caroline; his disloyalty to his father; his mistresses…So he wasn’t precisely someone whom people were eager to emulate. 

Lady Caroline Lamb.  Another interesting figure–iconic to us, perhaps.  But not, I think, to them.  Her father was a violent alcoholic, her mother almost certainly used a great deal of opium and drank excessively, so it would be surprising if there were not ante-natal damage to the child. 

Her father also beat her mother nearly to death–she was whisked out of the country by her sister, the Duchess of Devonshire, so that if she did die, the husband wouldn’t hang for it.  And Caroline was subsequently bounced from household to household–spending much of her childhood in the home of her uncle, the Duke of Devonshire, at Chatsworth.  Nor was that household in any way ‘normal’.  Devonshire had a menage a trois, with his wife and his mistress, Lady Bess Foster, and all their combined children.  Caroline’s cousins didn’t like her at all–she was known to be an attention seeker as a child.  But who could blame her in the midst of all that? 

She married young, it was a political marriage to Lord William Lamb, and within a short time, she was openly involved with Sir George Webster.  A state of affairs which shocked even her mother-in-law, the famously unfaithful Lady Melbourne, not just because of the indiscretion and openness of the affaire, but because Caroline had not yet produced an heir and to spare–thus ensuring the children’s paternity. 

And then comes her affaire with Byron.  Or not affaire.  Certainly she carried on openly with him, but sources close to him insist theirs was not a sexual relationship.  So more attention seeking? 

In any event, he was having an affaire with Caroline’s mother-in-law at the same time.  Caroline eventually went on, following Byron’s public ‘dumping’ of her, to do her best to gain even more attention by allegedly drinking crushed glass at a ball.  Among other things.  And eventually, she was incarcerated for her own safety.  

Was she chronically depressed?  A self-harmer?  Maybe.  Probably.  A victim of generations of alcoholism?  Almost certainly.  All tabloid headline-grabbing stuff!  But was she typical of the Regency?  Er…no. 

So who were the people who were typical and who are these others?  The answer, I believe, often lies along political lines. 

The Devonshires, the Melbournes, all these families from whom are drawn these images of Regency rakes and gamblers and scantily clad, sexually voracious women, belong to the Whig aristocracy.   Who, curiously enough, despite Devonshire owning enough pocket boroughs to steal more than his share of an election, were never in power during the period. 

The electorate of the country didn’t trust them enough to vote them into power.

Those who did hold the power were the Tories.  And the stories about them, by comparison, well, they’re actually quite boring. 

There’s Sir Spencer Perceval–the first and only Prime Minister ever to be assassinated.  He was a successful lawyer, educated at Cambridge, married with twelve children; he became Chancellor of the Exchequer in1807 and Prime Minister in 1809.  Never did a scandalous or a headline-grabbing thing in his life, except die rather dramatically at the hand of a schizophrenic assassin, John Bellingham.

There’s Viscount Castlereagh, the Foreign Secretary, married to one of the Patronesses of Almack’s.  They had no children, but we know from their letters that they were wholly devoted to each other–we even have his letters telling her about all the shopping he was doing for her when he was in Europe in 1814.  He was farmer, forever going on about the rearing and improvement of his herd of merino sheep.  He was a fine cellist, and had a fondness for plum-coloured coats, as well as being Leader of the House of Commons from 1812 until his death. 

There’s William Pitt, Prime Minister until his death in 1806.  Yes, he drank.  Excessively.  But with the streak of chronic and terrible depression running through his family, it’s entirely probable that he was, as we might say today, self-medicating.  It could also probably be said that he worked himself to death.  He was unmarried, but utterly devoted to his family, to his nieces and their interests. 

Or Lord Liverpool, married twice (his first wife died), devoted to his wives, Prime Minister from 1812…

All these men were also society figures.  They were members of the landed gentry and arisotocracy…they turned up at balls, they danced, probably even well–it was expected that a gentleman would do so.   If they gambled, it tended to be modestly.  They married, settled down with their wives, had children, worked hard on their estates managing the land through a period of inflation and seriously bad harvests and therefore local unrest. 

Castlereagh frequently played the cello in chamber works with his friends, and had, with his wife, a menagerie of wild and exotic animals down at their farm… 

And in their spare time these men did things like pass legislation abolishing the slave trade, improving prisons, improving the treatment of working children, outlawing the pillory for women, separating felons from debtors in the prisons, and families from felons… Oh, and pursued the war against the greatest dictator of the greatest military state the world has ever seen–first through naval might and derring-do, and then, militarily under the direction of the Duke of Wellington, first in Spain and then at Waterloo. 

That, to me, is the real Regency.  They did all that:  they had homes which they didn’t gamble away, they had children, they read Romantic poetry, they listened to the premiers of Beethoven’s music, possibly even played it from first editions, they ran the country surprisingly well, sitting through Parliamentary debates that often lasted more than 24 hours, their sons went to fight against Napoleon, and often they died and the families grieved terribly. 

But yes, they danced well at Almack’s too.