Britain has had some seventy-five prime ministers since the year 1721. Many in the earlier days came from the higher aristocracy, were landed and naturally unpaid. Many, but by no means all, had been to schools like Eton, Harrow and Winchester, though mainly Eton. The last senior aristocrat to be PM was the Marquess of Salisbury (PM 1895 – 1902). One man was PM no less than four times – William E. Gladstone ( PM 1868 – 74, 1880 – 85, 1886 and 1892 – 94). Despite being middle class, Scottish and representing the Labour Party, Ramsay Macdonald was prime minister three times (PM 1924, 1929 – 31, 1931 – 35). No Labour prime minister in the 20th or 21st century has been genuinely working class, though one (Gordon Brown) was a son of the manse, and knew what being poor was like. Tony Blair was of much higher class, though a Labourite, than Conservative John Major. Around twenty-five PMs have been hereditary dukes, marquesses, earls or viscounts. In the 20th century one Scottish earl renounced his earldom in order to become prime minister (14th Earl of Home, PM 1963/64 as Alec Douglas-Home). One Anglo/Scottish/American prime minister became an earl (of Stockton) when he retired from politics (Harold Macmillan PM 1957 – 63). Margaret Thatcher (Cons. PM 1979 – 90) and Harold Wilson (Lab. PM 1964 – 70 and 1974 -76) were educated at grammar schools before this excellent educational system was destroyed by legislation. Here we mention three somewhat ineffectual prime ministers from different periods in British history. Continue reading
In early February, 1399, John of Gaunt died in Leicester. He was fifty-eight years old – not a bad age-scale for the fourteenth century. His body was brought for burial at the old St. Paul’s church in London, the mourners dressed in black. King Richard II had been to see his old councillor on his deathbed, who warned him against lechery.
John was the third son of the great Plantagenet King Edward III. The son and heir was Edward the Black Prince, black armour, black humours, fabulous in battle. The second son was Lionel of Clarence, who had died in 1368. John had first married Blanche, only daughter of the Earl, then first Duke of Lancaster, Henry Grosmont. Grosmont was extremely rich, and Blanche had inherited land, farms and castles spread across medieval England. Through marriage, John became the first (Plantagenet) Duke of Lancaster and whatever was Blanche’s became his. Blanche died in the same year as brother Lionel of Clarence, providing the opportunity for John to marry Constance (Constanza) of Castile in Spain. John, who was son of kings and father of them too, had no kingdom, and thought that he might, through diplomacy or warfare or both become King of Castile (Castilla) too. But Constance died in 1394, so John married his mistress of many years – Catherine Swynford – with a quiverful of illegitimate children whom he intended to make legitimate. When this was done the children became John, Henry, Thomas and John Beaufort. They were all of the House of Lancaster, and from them descend the ducal line of Beaufort, still very much in existence now. The first, John Earl of Somerset, was great-grandfather to the horrible first Tudor, Henry VII, through his mother Margaret Beaufort. Continue reading
On the afternoon of 7th July, 1307, the Plantagenet king of England Edward I died on his way north with a huge army. His intention had been, again, to smash the irritating and disobedient Scots. After all, he was known by his politer subjects as ‘Hammer of the Scots’. He had certainly hammered the Welsh, after many bloody battles, leading to the building of dozens of superior castles on the borders with England, and surrounding Gwynedd and most of North Wales.
He collapsed and died as his servants tried to lift him out of a bed to eat something, but had been ill for many months, and was too weak even to hault himself out of bed. Later he tried and failed to get on his faithful old warhorse, much to the latter’s astonishment. But Edward, once tall, immensely strong, with dark blond locks and a fearsome temper (Plantagenet) – was now a shattered wreck. He was sixty-eight, and his courtiers could hardly recognise the great man and monarch he had been. Continue reading
These three sixteenth century men had a lot in common, though the first had royal blood, the second noble blood, and the third was a foreign commoner. What they had in common was Mary Queen of Scots. All four would have spectacular or gruesome ends.
Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley was an Anglo-Scottish aristocrat who married as her second husband the ill-fated Mary Stuart, whose first husband had been a king of France.This matrimony produced a son, the future King James VI of Scotland and First of England – founder therefore of the reigning Stuart dynasty. Darnley was tall, athletic and handsome, but weak in mind and spirit. At his marriage to Mary he was Earl of Ross and Duke of Albany, both ancient Scots titles dotted about in the works of Shakespeare. This young man quite liked his very tall wife (Mary was six feet high in her silk stockings), but then he liked all women equally, and spent much time in bedchambers other than his wife’s. He was arrogant, debauched and made a present to his wife of a venereal disease. He was, like so many ladychasers, insanely jealous, and it was his jealousy of Mary’s young Italian secretary, David Rizzio, that caused his downfall. Continue reading
King John has the worst reputation of any English king, and there is plenty of competition. He was a crooked legislator, greedy, consumed with ambition of the despicable kind; he is proved to have murdered his nephew Arthur (son of Geoffrey) with his own hands in the boy’s prison cell. The boy was still in his teens, and after strangling him John tied a stone to the body and threw it in the River Seine. He brought constitutional crisis to England before and during his reign. Robin Hood was a mythical figure, but it is no coincidence that stories about the legendary outlaw proliferated during the reign of King John. Continue reading
Few people have any other mind’s eye image of Winston Churchill than that of a very old man, with a big cigar and perhaps an even bigger ego.
But Winston too had a father, and not an insignificant one either. He was Lord Randolph Henry Spencer, third son of the Duke of Marlborough, who lived in the great palace of Blenheim, given to the family ‘by a grateful nation’ of the first Duke, with grateful thanks for his outstanding military qualities, shown across Europe in battles at Donnauwórth, Blenheim, Ramillies, and Oudenarde. John Churchill won all these, after defeated the rebellious bastard son of Charles II – The Duke of Monmouth. He had a split personality too, which he demonstrated by betraying his one-time friend, the brother of King Charles II – James II. It was Marlborough and others who orchestrated the de-throning and voluntary banishment of James, who had pronounced Catholic tendencies disliked by Marborough and other magnates. Continue reading
Regicide, or the killing of a reigning monarch by his own people has always been believed (though not by republicans) to be among the worst of all crimes. In British history the best known regicide is that of Charles I: there are other not so celebrated perhaps, but regicides nonetheless. Murders committed within the royal family itself are also numerous. Mysteries never yet solved abound too. Here is an easily remembered account of these criminal actions.
William II (Rufus) Family murder and mystery: The unpopular king, a son of William I the Conquerer was fatally shot with an arrow while hunting in the south of England in the year 1100. He was around 44 years old, and was succeeded by Henry I (his brother) who may or may not have arranged the killing. Henry reigned for 35 years.
King John, an immensely unpopular man and king, murdered by strangulation his own nephew Arthur, imprisoned by him, probably in Calais.
Edward II was murdered in Berkeley Castle, Gloucs, by order of his own wife, known as ‘the she-wolf of France’ and her lover, Mortimer, who had his eye on the throne. It was September, 1327. Tradition has it that red-hot pokers were introduced into the king’s body via the anus and rectum, using a horn funnel so that no marks of violence could be seen on the body after death. Mortimer was foiled by Edward’s eighteen-year old son, who became King Edward III and reigned well for fifty years. Mortimer was executed at his order, and he sent his mother the she-wolf to a nunnery which she was not allowed to leave.
Richard II was born in 1367, and deposed in September, 1399. Five months later he was murdered in prison by order of Bolingbroke, who had usurped his throne and become King Henry IV (‘Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown’ William Shakespeare).
Henry VI founder of Eton and Kings College. Weak, often ill and semi-deranged, he was the son of popular Henry V (winner at Agincourt). He was deposed in March, 1461 during the Wars of the Roses, restored to the throne in 1470 as the battles between York and Lancaster raged, deposed again in April, 1471, and finally disposed of in prison in May of that year, presumably by order of the new king, Yorkist usurper Edward IV. Henry VI was the last Lancastrian king.
Edward V was born, a son of Edward IV in 1470. He actually became a very young king on the early death of his father. He was shut in the Tower of London accompanied by his younger brother the Duke of York, by order of king Richard III, who was their uncle. Richard usurped the throne, and the two young boys never left the Tower. Londoners believed Richard had had them murdered, but there is no evidence. The boys had been declared officially illegitimate, and could therefore pose no threat to Richard’s kingship. Two other men, the Duke of Buckingham, a royal cousin, and Henry Tudor himself, stand out as more likely suspects, for a multitude of reasons and motives revealed in countless scholarly books.
Richard III was killed on the battlefield by soldiers supposedly serving him. Kings killed in battle by the common soldiery are not seen as the subject of regicide.
Henry VIII judicially murdered two of his wives, Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, but these unfortunate women are only two in a very long list of those who died because they offended Henry or disagreed with him. He was about to kill Cardinal Wolsey, and actually executed Thomas Cromwell, both men having served him faithfully and well.
Lady Jane Grey was born in 1537, promoted as queen by a relative, a Dudley Duke of Northumberland, acceded in 1553, and executed with her teenaged husband Guildford at the order of Mary I (a Tudor) after a reign so brief it was hardly noticeable.
Elizabeth I last of the Tudors, signed the death warrant of her cousin Mary Queen of France and Scotland, whom she had imprisoned. She later claimed that she had been pressured to do so by her courtiers. This is not regicide as such, merely a significant murder in the family.
Charles I, son of James I of England and IV of Scotland, declared war on his own parliament, causing the English Civil War. A gentle, indecisive man, his is the best-known regicide in British history. He was beheaded in 1649 on a cold, blustery day, and it is said that a loud groan from the huge crowd was heard all round Whitehall. He died at the behest of ‘the Regicides’, some, but not all of whom would pay with their lives for their signatures on the death warrant, at the Restoration of Charles’ son, king Charles II.
In February, 1945, the second ‘Big Three’ conference took place at Yalta in the Crimea. The first had been in Teheran in Persia. What was agreed at Yalta changed the face of Europe, prepared the ground for the Cold War, and put millions of ordinary people into a condition of near-slavery. The three major protagonists were the respective leaders of the United States, Great Britain, and Russia – Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin. The first was dying slowly but certainly, the second was old and exhausted, and the third was younger, fitter, and unable to see any point of view that was not his. He was also a fully-qualified dictator. Continue reading
Towards the end of the Victorian era, when neither statesmen or dustmen had yet heard of political correctitude, Australia began the unenviable task of preventing the immigration of non-Europeans. In the 1850s/1860s waves of Chinese and South Pacific islanders had come to Australia because of a dearth of labour in the Queensland sugar farms, but trade unions had been invented in the mother country, and were becoming rife in the Dominions too. They objected, as dirt cheap labour was seen as a threat to their members’ living standards. Continue reading
Readers become confused by the essential differences between dominions and colonies and protectorates. The British Empire, when it existed, embraced all three. ‘Dominions’ was the name used for countries in the Empire that had a certain degree of self-government, but owed allegiance to the British Crown. The first country to be called a Dominion was Canada (1867), followed by Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, and, at last, the Irish Free State in 1921. Their new independence was officially recognised at the Imperial Conference in 1926. Actual power to pass legislation independently of the Government was confirmed by the Statute of Westminster.
In 1931 this Statute gave freedom to the Dominions. Following the Great War these Dominions had been accepted as national states in their own right, though they were still part of the Empire. They joined the ill-fated League of Nations (q.v.) but it was seen (by them) as if their ‘freedom’ was still limited. Continue reading