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
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
Some years ago the anglophobe film star and director Gibson made a Hollywood-backed movie called Braveheart. This tasteful work of art purports to be the story of a Scot called Wallace who led his (kilted) warriors to victory against a dastardly English king and won a major battle at Stirling in the cause of independence for Scotland from domineering, untrustworthy England. The film is so full of historical errors as to make it extremely funny, and therefore worth watching on your video machine at least once a year.
The real William Wallace was born around 1294. His was a knightly family, not a collection of crofters. Still young, he began the impossible task of gathering the Picts and Scots together – not the clans, they came later. Most northern Scots spoke Gaelic and nothing else, except some relics of their Norse ancestry. All lowland Scots spoke what went for English in the 13th century, a heady mixture of French and Saxon tongues. One thing bound these fighters together, their joint hatred of the English, and of each other. William Wallace, who was born a knight, did indeed manage this tricky task, and the English were trounced at the battle of Stirling in 1297 when William was only twenty-three. Continue reading
This astute man was born in 1767, in Extremadura, a well-named rocky wilderness bordering Portugal, with the vastness of Andalucía to the south. As a very young man he became a guardsman accompanying the Spanish royal family, and is said to have had an affair with Queen María Luisa. This may seem unlikely, given the almost god-like position royal persons had in Spain in the eighteenth century, and their total separation from ordinary people. Nevertheless, young Godoy got on well enough with the King, Carlos IV to become his trusted confidant. Stranger things have happened. Continue reading
I doubt if more than a handful of today’s teenagers have ever heard of Sir Oswald Mosley, or if they have, he is but a shadowy figure haunting the nineteen thirties. And yet he was brilliantly guyed in the television series Jeeves and Wooster in the 1990s; with another name of course, P.G. Wodehouse invented a comic horror who has several brushups with Bertie, Jeeves and Gussie Fink-Nottle (newts and all). Wodehouse calls him Sir Roderick Spode. He is played to perfection by John Turner. Continue reading
Raj is Hindi for ‘rule’. The East India Company (always known as The Company) had opened up this vast Asian territory since the latter part of the 18th century. Largely because of corrupt practices, the British government took control in 1858. India was to be governed by a Viceroy in situ and a Secretary of State in London. The country would be controlled and administered by the Indian civil service, created in 1853 with entrance permitted only by the passing of competitive examinations, where there was supposed to be no racial discrimination. The exams were, however, held in London so Indians taking them were few and far between. They did manage however to secure the less important posts.
It became obvious that a few thousand British officials could not control tens of millions of Indians (305 million in 1921, 400 million in 1941) without the cooperation of the natural (and hereditary) leaders in the princely states, which meant 30% of the continent with around a quarter of the population. The British therefore awarded honours and restricted powers to the princes, while at the same time impressing them with British strength at the mightily staged Durbars. Continue reading
This uprising, which started in 1850 and ended fourteen years later, was the greatest peasant rebellion in China in the 19th century. The 18th had seen a rise in China’s population from 150 to 350 million – more than double – and by 1850 the figure had risen to 450 million. This extraordinary fertility was not matched by any increase in cultivable land, so the peasants, among whom the population rise was marked, were worse off than they had ever been. The majority could not pay their bills, taxes or rents, and were therefore dispossessed and homeless. Something had to give.
What happened was a series of peasants’ revolts lasting twenty years from 1850. Part of the North China Plain, between the Huai and Yellow rivers, came under the control of the Nian rebels. In Yunnan the Chinese Muslim population rose up between 1862 – 1873, and the Miao natives revolted in the Kweichow mountains from 1854 – 72. Continue reading
One of the great Hungarian heroes, about whom much fact and fiction has been mixed, Kossuth was born in 1802. His family was poor but noble. He was part Slovak, part ethnic German. Well educated, he worked as a jobbing lawyer for a while, before entering politics as a deputy at the Diet (Parliament) of Pressburg.
He also published pamphlets that could not by law be published, so he had them transcribed and widely circulated. It was said of him at the time that it would be difficult to stop him in any activity he chose to follow, but the pamphlets got him into jail. After freedom came in 1840 he was appointed editor of the polkitical journal, published twice-weekly called Pesti Hirlap – an extremely liberal paper with perhaps too much of a chauvinistic approach. Continue reading
William IV King of Great Britain and Ireland was born in the eighteenth century (1765) and died seventy-two years later. He was also King of Hanover from 1830 to 1837, because he was the third son of George III. He was called ‘the Sailor King’ because he joined the Navy at fourteen, serving around the coasts of the United States and in the West Indies. He was promoted admiral in 1811 at forty-six – not bad for the crusty British Navy – and then rose to be Lord High Admiral in 1827.
George IV (who had been the infamous Prince Regent) died in 1830, and William ascended the throne because his older brother had died. He was to be the penultimate British monarch of the House of Hanover. The country believed he had Whiggish (liberal) sentiments, and this might have beeen true, but he soon abandoned them, developing serious Conservative sympathies, obstructing the passing of the first Reform Bill in 1832.
William IV was the last British monarch to use prerogatory powers to dismiss a ministry which had won by a majority vote. He achieved this by firing Lord Melbourne in 1834 and inviting the Tories to form a government. He died in 1837 and was succeeded in that year by his niece Victoria at the age of eighteen. Queen Victoria did not fire Lord Melbourne; she learnt about politics and power from him. Ascending the throne as a Hanoverian, she changed the name to Saxe-Coburg-Gotha when she married a German prince.