The first ‘Prime Minister’ to hold that title in Britain was Robert Walpole, a Whig. Before 1721 there were First Ministers, Lord Chancellors, Heads of the Council and other names for the chief adviser to the monarch, and (when there were sitting parliaments) the leader of the governing party, if such a thing existed. ‘Whigs’ became ‘Liberals’ in 1846 with Lord John Russell; ‘Tories’ became ‘Conservatives’ in 1834 with Robert Peel. In 1924 the first Labour Party Prime Minister was James Ramsay Macdonald. In 1935 Stanley Baldwin became the first of two Nationalist Party Prime Ministers. In1783 the Duke of Portland became the first of three Coalition (combination of two or more parties) Prime Ministers followed in 1915 by Asquith, and in 1916 by David Lloyd George. The word ‘Premier’ seems to be a 20th century invention, and its use is perfectly correct. (more…)
In World History, the last years of the eighteenth century as opposed to the middle years, were full of unrest, rebellion, revolution and unworthy, unlawful acts. Ireland and ‘the Irish Question’ has cropped up in British history since William the Conquerer’s successful invasion of Saxon England. At all times there has been trouble brewing, or happening, in the Emerald Isle, a place of beauty and mystery. Since English kings decided Ireland belonged to them, instead of the Irish, English gentlemen have crossed the Irish Sea to quell some rebellion or other, always with the best (or worst) intentions. Like Essex and Raleigh, they failed and returned with their English tails between the legs, to face the block. (more…)
was born in 1749, but his upward mobility was such that he was in Parliament at the age of nineteen. This may have been been because in debating societies at school even the ushers had noted his skill in debate and his accuracy; in class he shone because he could absorb facts and arguments rapidly and store them away in his brain for future use. After Rockingham died in 1782 he became in effect leader of the Whig party.
Almost everybody found him charming and agreeable, and he made many friends, but there was a mutual loathing between him and Lord North, who probably thought him a whippersnapper; George III King of Great Britain, whose illness of porphyria made him quite mad at the most inopportune moments, and William Pitt the Younger, a careful and more astute politician, ten years younger, who was Prime Minister at twenty-four. In the last-named case I think jealousy played a great part in the animosity between two excellent politicians. Nevertheless, making an enemy of a landed aristocrat, a King and a Prime Minister kept Fox out of all the high posts he deserved for all but one and a half years out of the thirty-seven he spent in Parliament. He had no means of controlling his volatile tongue, and no intention of doing so. (more…)
Germany attacked France in May, 1940. 136 German divisions faced 125 British, French and Belgian ones. The Germans had over two thousand tanks, but even their commander admitted half were obsolete. The Allies had a little more than three thousand six hundred tanks, among which the French armour was better than anything the Germans had. But they had many more aircraft. Only the French, with their thousand aeroplanes, could provide much opposition. 400 British fighters, mostly Hawker Hurricanes were based in France. The French seemed paralysed by ther audacity and skill of Guderian’s Panzer tanks and troops, and watched with their mouths open as the Panzers crossed the Meuse,, open a fifty-mile gap in the Allied front, and then raced along the valley of the Somme towards the channel (q.v.). By 20 May they had got there. Gamelin, the French commander, seemed immovable and was replaced by a seventy-three year old – Weygand, who had been sitting in Syria. By 28 May the Germans were in Calais, cutting off the French, British and Belgian forces in the north from the remainder of French forces. The Dutch and the Belgians surrendered. The British got to Dunkirk where, miraculously, they evacuated nearly four hundred thousand troops back to English shores, unfortunately leaving tanks and ammunition behind, as there was not sufficient time to load them on to the Royal Navy ships sent, along with hundreds of small motor and sail craft which had also crossed the Channel to help. Meanwhile the French retreated to the Loire, thus separating themselves from those still holding the Maginot line, which Guderian had contemptuously avoided. In June two million Parisians left their homes and scuttled south, joining the six million who had already fled from northern France and Belgium. Weygand was replaced by Marshall Petain, who instantly accepted German surrender terms. The Atlantic coast and all Northern France were to be occupied and controlled by German forces. The rest of the country would be governed, hand in glove with the Germans, by Petain, in what became known as Vichy France. The French Army had been beaten in six weeks. (more…)
Only Dickens, or perhaps Anthony Trollope, could have invented the name Asquith for one of their novels. It is a respectable surname, but certainly rather odd. Our subject was born in 1852, in the middle of the century that saw Britain’s empire in a state of permanent and very expensive growth, protected by the Royal Navy, with a tiny, young and resolute Queen on the throne. He lived until 1928, when the Great War had almost bankrupted Britain, and the rumour of the break-up of Empire would soon become the shattering noise of World War II. (more…)
Spain’s royal champion don Juan of Austria was commander of the Christian fleet at the Battle of Lepanto (1571). This was a battle of galleys, luxuriously illustrated by many painters. Both the Turks and the Spanish sailors had the use of cannon mounted on the forecastle. It is said Turkey never truly recovered from defeat in this fight, though they did rebuild their galley fleet. It is interesting to scholars that Cervantes, author of Don Quixote fought at Lepanto in one of the galleys.
In the seventeenth century rivalry for an eventual domination of the seas raged between Britain and the Dutch. Having cut off the king’s head, Oliver Cromwell as England’s Lord Protector continued the late Charles’ policy of building up a royal navy. Among other things, he introduced the idea of three decks carrying guns, giving enormous fire power from port and starboard. He also developed naval training so that broadsides could be fired more often during a battle. Ships’ crews began rivalling each other in the time taken to load, fire and re-load again, ready for use. Many a bloody scuffle occurred in the Portsmouth taverns as a result of murderous competition; bottles, stools and insults were thrown.
It was during the reign of the unfortunate king’s son Charles II that his squadrons were first called ‘The Royal Navy’. Diarist Samuel Pepys in his role as a naval administrator also carried out many reforms. Royal Navy or not, they never really dominated the Dutch, but Holland’s economic decline brought naval re-building and reforms almost to a standstill.
In the eighteenth century it was the French with their fast, elegant warships who put a brake on Britain’s slower-moving, older and heavier ships of the line. But the French ships were less strongly built and more expensive to maintain.By this time most navies’ vessels had copper bottoms for better protection, and occasionally a double hull which helped reduce damage by cannon balls. The epoch had arrived when European navies were composed of state-owned ships especially built to suit conditions.
During the French Revolution (q.v.) and the Napoleonic wars that followed, the Royal Navy at last began to emerge as the most feared state-owned squadrons. Pressing by the naval press-gang, which was in effect legal kidnapping of able-bodied men from the poorer streets, provided the crews. Discipline was harsh, and depended on the character of the commander. Some used the lash or noose constantly, others did not believe in it, like Nelson, which explains why this little man was so popular. When he was killed at Trafalgar, half the crew of H.M.S Victory, not usually crybabies, were in tears.
The Royal Navy won a series of spectacular victories against the French and the Spanish, both nations with a deserved reputation for magnificent seamanship: the Glorious First of June in the Atlantic in 1794, Cape St. Vincent in February, 1797, Camperdown in October of the same year, Aboukir Bay in 1798 and Trafalgar in 1805, a sea battle which deeply affected Napoleon’s war plans at least for while. Rear-Admiral Nelson suffered his only defeat in the silly and ill-planned assault on Santa Cruz, port and capital of Tenerife in the Canaries, when local militia and the townspeople fought off Nelson’s attempt at invasion and capture of treasure ships. But Great Britain’s Royal Navy was at last established as the planet’s premier sea power. This reputation lasted a very long time, and the people joyously sang Britannia rules the Waves! Bonaparte had to concentrate on land-based campaigning, for which he had developed great abilities, though his invasion of Russia, like all invasions of Russia, was unsuccessful.
This was the real turning point in the Second World War, although it came much later than it should have done, due mainly to inappropriate weather conditions for a sea-based landing. The British Isles were undergoing one of those violent climate changes to which we are now more accustomed. It was summertime, but Britain’s east coast ports and resorts were lashed by wind and near freezing rain. The sea between British and French coasts choppy and crossed with currents. The cold at sea was appalling, as if the breezes were blowing directly from the Russian steppes. Only the tempers of the soldiers, sailors and airmen waiting, waiting, and still waiting in the barracks, manor houses and homes to which they had been invited by English people in the villages and towns of the south-east, were hot and getting hotter. (more…)
A large part of the island of Ireland, mainly Leinster and Munster was under English rule from the twelfth century for three centuries.The Gaelic King of Leinster had invited Anglo/Norman barons to come with their private armies to Ireland in 1167* to expand his territory. With their help, he brought much of the south under his dominance.
Henry II, first Plantagenet King of England had learned to be wary of his barons’ undue influence in English affairs, and certainly did not wish their powers to spread into Ireland. Not being one to stand about wringing his hands, he crossed immediately to Dublin, where he re-asserted his authority with the menace of summary justice, and established ‘The Lordship of Ireland’. He would himself be the Lord, of course. (more…)
These days the word strikes a sour note, arousing images of rough settlements, starving ‘piccaninies’, whips, shackles, thoughtless government from a distance of thousdands of miles etc. If there are any ‘colonies’ left after the post-war rush to be rid of them I think it is because the ‘colonists’ prefer it that way. 90% of colonies which achieved independence have suffered under bad or atrocious rule since being ‘freed’, with the possible exception of the United States, and even there half the settlers in the Thirteen Colonies claimed they did not wish for independence from British rule, and after 1776 sold up lock, stock and barrel and moved to Canada, where they were welcomed. (more…)
This Atlantic, south-western European country is on the western side of the Iberian Peninsula, bounded to north and east by Spain and to the west and south by the ocean. Its first kingdom came in 1139 under Alfonso I, but by the fifteenth century Europeans were beinning to talk of a Portuguese Empire, due to world exploration by Portuguese navigators and adventurers. In 1580 however, Portugal came under Spanish domination which lasted until 1640. The French invaded too, in 1807. (more…)