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 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!)
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…
From 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.
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…
Until 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.