Category Archives: British History

William Turner (Painter)

 

William Turner VeniceJoseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851) was an English painter who stood out thanks to his extraordinary watercolour landscapes and oil paintings.

The particular confusion between brilliance and madness was very obvious in the biography of William Turner. An academic painter during his origins, Turner developed his art until reaching a free, atmospheric and in occasions, abstract style that made critics reject his creations until they finally understood he was just a genious. Continue reading

Henry M. Stanley, explorer and journalist

Henry M. Stanley, explorer and journalist

Stanley with a bearer carring his favourite shooting stick / literaturadeviajes.com

Stanley with a bearer carring his favourite shooting stick / literaturadeviajes.com

One is not too sure that modern schoolchildren are taught about persons like Henry Stanley, or for that matter Dr. Livingstone, with whom Stanley is inextricably connected. It is supposed that vast changes in syllabus are responsible for this, just as in the Classics, neither Latin or Greek are these days awarded much importance. At my school we were unfailingly taught that Henry Stanley was American; he was a naturalized American citizen for a period, but he was born British – Welsh in fact – son of a farmer from that region. He was also illegitimate, and was first called John Rowlands.

Stanley lived a life so adventurous it seemed to be fiction stemming from the Boys Own Paper. Born in 1841 he existed, somehow, in a poorhouse from 1847 to 1856, got away and managed to get himself on a ship sailing to the United States. Here he was luckily befriended by a merchant in cereals who adopted him. Young Henry also took the merchant’s name – Stanley, and after adoption automatically became an American citizen. Continue reading

A bracing brace of Bentincks

3rd Duke of Portland / alaintruong.com

3rd Duke of Portland / alaintruong.com

Hans Willem, Baron Bentinck was born in the middle of the seventeenth century. An aristocrat by birth, he served as a page to the Stadholder (q.v.) William. Surviving his master’s customary bad humour, he became a confidant, friend and agent to the future King William III of England. We have already described how a Dutchman became king of England in another volume of General History, so suffice it to say that William was married to Mary, who descended from Mary Queen of Scots. Thanks to the treachery of Marlborough and others, the rightful monarch of England, James II, was requested to leave, which he did, and William and Mary became joint rulers of England. The good Baron Bentinck came with them.

In fact it was thanks to Bentinck that the marriage between the Stadholder and Princess Mary ( a daughter of James VII and II of Scotland and England ) came about, as he negotiated the terms. Not only that, but the plans for a minor invasion of England by William of Holland in 1688 were supervised by Bentinck. Minor became major, James II ran off to Catholic France, and surly William the Stadholder mounted the English throne accompanied by his wife, who was not blessed with good looks. Once William was installed he rewarded his faithful confidant by making him the Ist Duke of Portland (1689). The ‘Glorious Revolution’ had been achieved with little bloodshed, and the name Bentinck began to ring through British political history. Hans Willem died in 1709. Continue reading

Further thoughts on Thomas Becket, martyr and saint

O'Toole & Burton (right) as the King and Thomas Becket in the famous movie / mrfalk.18.wordpress.com

O’Toole & Burton (right) as the King and Thomas Becket in the famous movie / mrfalk.18.wordpress.com

Thomas Becket, or Thomas à Becket as he was called by my teacher of History, was not a Saxon. He was a son of a wealthy Norman merchant (born 1118), and as Norman as his friend and king, Henry II. Thomas read Canon Law at the University of Bologna, where his teachers found him a first-class student, digesting books when he was not drinking or whoring. It may have been his ability to keep up glass by glass with the young Henry Plantagenet that cemented (he thought) his friendship, and caused Henry to make Thomas his Chancellor, the holder of the royal seal, and high on the list of very powerful men in England, an island he had chosen to make his home. Continue reading

Queen Elizabeth I (the ‘Virgin Queen’)

The queen in 'the Armada Portrait', note the right hand resting comfortably on the globe /en.wikipedia.org

The queen in ‘the Armada Portrait’, note the right hand resting comfortably on the globe /en.wikipedia.org

The only half-decent member of the infamous Tudor dynasty was Elizabeth, born in 1533. She was the daughter of Henry VIII and his second wife Anne Boleyn. It is a matter for debate from whom Elizabeth inherited the worst genes, though it is admitted that Anne never went to bed with Henry until he was properly divorced from Catharine of Aragon and a marriage between them had taken place; the Catholic Church had meanwhile been assaulted and robbed, Thomas More and others had been shortened by a head etc. etc. Continue reading

A seventeenth century diarist – Samuel Pepys

/ en.wikipedia.org

/ en.wikipedia.org

History too is re-cycled, like glass, water, paper and other essenials. A history book is nothing more than a re-thinking, in some cases revising as well, of what an earlier historian wrote in another book. What happened in the world ten thousand years ago on a certain day is History, but then what happened in our world yesterday is History too. Historians have always relied on contempories who were there, in a great battle for instance, survived injured or whole, and wrote about that battle as soon as they could. This particular piece of history might be heard in the form of a ballad, or published as writing, or become a yarn told in taverns. In a recent very serious case, England discovered that their teachers, and their teachers’ teachers, and their teachers’ teachers, relying on published history texts, have been stating untruths for nearly five hundred years. This is the case of King Richard III, last of the Plantagenets, who died on a battlefield. He was everybody’s wicked uncle, a serial murderer, poisoner of his own wife, assassin of his own brother etc. etc since 1485 because the contemporary historians said so. Though it was mostly mythical, it was taught as fact in schools and colleges. Luckily, the very finest texts that can be used by historians, if they have been preserved well, are diaries. Obviously they were written by first-hand witnesses, though many have been embellished, as a diarist’s wont. It was a diarist, a foreigner whose English was questionable, called Polydore Vergil, who wrote most of the lies about Richard. Another contemporary diarist was Thomas More, an official and well paid Tudor historian, who wrote distatefully about Richard because it suited his book to do so. It was pure propaganda, but it kept More’s head on his shoulders – even if only for a while.

Samuel Pepys (1633 – 1703) is probably the most famous and quoted (and misquoted) diarist in world history. He was nothing more than an Admiralty clerk, who rose after the Restoration of Charles II in the ever-growing British Navy. He became Admiralty Secretary in 1672 when he was thirty-nine. Then he lost his job because some imp accused him of involvement in The Popish Plot (1679). It was nonsense, and he was re-instated in 1684. Meanwhile however, he was keeping a diary which became internationally celebrated, running from January, 1660 to May, 1669. It is fascinating because it provides an intimate picture of everyday personal life (Pepys was exceptionately fond of buxom, pretty, large women), court intrigue (the merriest of melancholic monarchs, Charles II, was on the throne), and naval administration. His account of three national disasters, The Great Plague of 1665/66, the Great Fire of London (1666) that followed, and the impertinent but courageous sailing up the Thames Estuary and river itself of the Dutch war fleet and the damage it did – have been quoted and used by historians ever since. It should be noted that these diaries were written in code which was not de-coded until 1825, one hundred and twenty-two years after Pepys’ death at the age of seventy. Continue reading

Some ineffectual prime ministers

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

Further thoughts on John of Gaunt & his son Henry Bolingbroke

The old Palace of the Savoy / freegaes.genealogy.rootsweb.ancestry.com

The old Palace of the Savoy / freegaes.genealogy.rootsweb.ancestry.com

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

Further thoughts on Edward I of England

Artist's impression of King Edward / genial.net

Artist’s impression of King Edward / genial.net

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

An infamous trio, Darnley, Bothwell & Rizzio

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.

The explosive end of Lord Darnley / groteskology.blogspot

The explosive end of Lord Darnley / groteskology.blogspot

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