Tag Archives: history

Queen Anne: The Politics of Passion

By Anne Somerset.

Queen Anne (1665-1714; queen 1702-14) was yet another English monarch who struggled to produce an heir. Henry VIII wanted boys when he had capable girls; Mary I was good at phantom pregnancies; Elizabeth I preferred to avoid making an her herself by importing one from Scotland; James I managed to father Charles and James, although the former failed to produce any legitimate heirs, and the latter, who was more fecund at home, messed up the succession. Mary II produced no heirs, and Anne followed in the same unfortunate tradition in spite of innumerable pregnancies.

As far as I can tell, Anne wasn’t quite the cully that, say, Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough, thought she was, but she does seem to have been prey to all sorts of muddle-headed ideas, especially during her (seemingly one-sided) feuds with her stepmother, Mary of Modena (who seems to have been a nice enough person misrepresented by Anne’s religious bigotry), and William and Mary (although William seems to have been a colossal tosser).

However, Anne was gullible enough to believe that her half brother was a changeling smuggled into the palace in a warming pan.

Her relationships with her confidantes are only partly covered because we have plenty of material from the highly opinionated Duchess of Marlborough (who doesn’t really seem to have ever cared that much for Anne; for one thing, their politics were diametrically opposed), but much less from Lady Masham (Abigail Hill, a relative of Churchill’s). As far as I can tell, Anne was not so swayed by the latter as she was by the former.

Accusations that she was having a lesbian relationship with Lady Masham seem implausible because her relationship with her husband, Prince George of Denmark, seems to have been too close and affectionate for her to even have considered some same-sex alternative. She went into mourning for two years after her husband’s death. In reality, relationships between women at the time seem to have been characterised by extreme expressions of fondness between friends.

Anne’s religiosity seems to go back to a previous age, and it poisoned her relationship with Mary of Modena. It also meant that Dissenters, who liked Catholicism no more than Anne, were seen as a threat because of their heterodox views.

If Anne’s half brother, James, had been king, it’s hard not to imagine her being resentful of missing her turn in the Big Chair just because he was a boy. Although she may have been fervently religious, she doesn’t seem to have espoused her grandfather’s and great-grandfather’s views about the divine right of kings.

Anne’s great misfortune was her health, having had so many miscarriages, having had a surviving child who was born with the odds heavily against him, and having suffered from painful gout, lupus, and obesity.

The early 18th century was an age of vicious, partisan party politics. While the queen was not the shrewdest political operator herself, she had, it seems, fairly sound guidance from Lord Godolphin. The picture of Godolphin in the book is of a man who tried to do his best for the queen, although it’s difficult to judge whether he was more honest and decent than his usually corrupt contemporaries. He frequently lamented the strain that politics and the queen placed on his health. Regardless of what Godolphin was like in real life, Anne seems to have trusted him.

Anne also had the War of the Spanish Succession to deal with. On the one hand, she a great general, Marlborough, but on the other, the war was economically ruinous for both sides, and party politics were always in the background, making things even worse. She saw Union with Scotland, thus creating a supposedly united Britain.

The queen was less keen on the Hannovers with frequent pressure on her to let one reside in Britain. Her response, that they should be kept out of the country, was probably for the best because with party politics there were already enough troubles in Britain without the potentially disruptive presence of the heir to the throne.

I thought the book was ultimately a bit like wading through mud because it frequently resorted to primary sources to tell and drag out the story, but didn’t do much pro history until the final chapter. Ultimately, the reader is left to make their own mind up about the queen and her supporting cast. She was perhaps not quite the incompetent she appeared to be; Sarah Churchill was immoderately passionate about her views; Lady Masham may not have had quite the influence everyone thought she did, but could’ve been a victim of social snobbery given that she rose from low estate.

The book needed a chronology for quick reference and, perhaps, a few short biographical notes about the major players in Anne’s reign, including some sort of character sketch.


Thomas Becket: Warrior, Priest, Rebel, Victim

By John Guy.

Thomas Becket (what happened to the “à”?) rose from non-noble origins to first be Lord Chancellor of England and then Archbishop of Canterbury under Henry II during the 12th century before some knights decided to take the king at his word, and rode to Canterbury to murder Becket, thus making a martyr of him.

Becket, as becomes apparent from the book, was an unlikely candidate to become a martyr and saint. If he wasn’t quite as licentious as St Augustine had been in his youth, he was no model of devotion, either. He had been a lazy student in Paris, and had no great competence in Latin.

He also had to contend with the apparently quite clever, but also devious, manipulative, and brutal Henry II who might’ve split with the Roman Catholic church not because he wanted to remarry, but because he was obsessed with controlling everything in his kingdom – including the church. When Becket became archbishop, Henry seems to have believed that he would be able to exert control of the church through him. Instead, Becket resisted, which illustrated the problems of a multinational church which dogged Europe.

There was also the added complication of two or even three popes at the time, and the secular interplay between the papacy and the countries which more immediately mattered such as France and the Holy Roman Empire. While the pope might interfere in the business of the rest of Europe, the rest of Europe returned the favour.

The picture which Guy paints of Becket is of a man who should probably have gone along with Henry II’s plans, and who was never really that pious. A lot of the dispute between the two was about the autonomy of the church, and the matter of who should punish clerics who committed criminal acts.

Here I must go off on a lexical tangent. Guy uses the phrase “criminous clerks” about 36 times in the book, but does not explain why he uses “criminous” (which is an archaic word) and not “criminal”, leaving the reader to guess that this is some sort of petrified legal formula. At times it gets so overused that it ceases to be some quaint Anglo-Norman phrase and merely becomes irritating.

(Aside: I checked the Anglo-Norman Dictionary on line to see whether this phrase was used in Anglo-Norman French. It wasn’t, which makes me suspect that this is some post-medieval expression.)

Henry II wanted clerics who had committed especially heinous criminal acts to be tried by a secular court once they had been ejected from the church.

Ultimately, this is another tale of the tension between the church (which was a little like the heir of the Roman Empire) and individual European states. Henry came close to the obvious solution, but it was to be another tyrannical Henry, the VIIIth, who finally led to the creation of a national church. While Becket won the one battle by becoming one of Europe’s most popular saints, he lost because Henry II wriggled out of doing any real penance and Henry VIII destroyed him once and for all.

Overall, Guy’s book is engagingly written (apart from the presence of too many “criminous clerks”, an instance of “elide” where “glide” might be intended [transcription typo in Kindle?], and the use of “process” meaning “parade”) for an amateur audience. He analyses the records from the time, picking away at the fiction to try and uncover some of the possible facts in an age when only the king appeared to know what the acceptable truth was.

Never so down

That it can’t be kicked a good deal more.

Freegate is still groaning under the strain of whatever is, er, straining it. It comes (here I am on WordPress), and goes (there I am not on WordPress), and at the time of writing, is going again. This has got to be the most sustained bout of buggering that Freegate has suffered since I started using it although some of the earlier versions didn’t last long.

Unfortunately, the story of Bo Xilai isn’t going to go away any time soon, and given that Britain plays a small supporting role in the drama, there’s going to be a fair amount of attention from the foreign press. I observe that no one has yet commented that if the Bo family had amassed a fortune of US$126 million, then it implies that all the Party boys have troughs of swill similarly overflowing with lolly. I wouldn’t be at all surprised that the distribution of wealth in the Empire is so uneven that it makes Western countries look like models of equality and fairness.

The other scandal that’s popped up is the use of shoes (don’t ask me how) in the production of the gelatine from which capsules are made. The real problem is chromium in the material although don’t get me started on the shoes. From what I’ve read, this only affects products within the Empire, but not the stuff for export.

Meanwhile, one of my little darlings wrote a response to Exam Exercise 7 for my perusal, but in a bout of nationalistic overexcitement from him, I was informed that his family celebrated the founding of the Republic of China, which occurred “several years ago”. The former was an oversight; the latter probably a reflection of a very poor sense of imperial history. I’ve asked students for instances of this or that from history, but it seems that anything before 1949 or even 1911 is a vast void. But perhaps the same is true elsewhere and my knowledge of history, which isn’t especially broad or deep, is exceptional.

The speaking exams finally finished yesterday and I took care of the aftermath (“Colour the rectangles HB”) this morning. The rest of the exams are little more than a couple of weeks away. At best I can keep throwing listening, summarising and writing at the PAL classes, but whether any of it penetrates is another matter. It’s too late.

Oh, bloody hell. I stumbled across another album I’d like to buy. I’m still vacillating about Couperin’s Apothéoses, but found William Byrd: Complete Consort Music from Linn Records. I have The Great Service, but little else by Byrd, who I don’t think of as a composer of instrumental music. What’s a boy to do?

Actually, he’s to go and buy some water from the shop.

The money vacuum cleaner

AKA, The Chinese Empire.

When I was at university, I did the Age of Discovery paper which, I’m sure, included a lecture on the trade across the Pacific in which silver from South America poured into China. I can’t recall whether we were told what happened to the silver after that, but did it ever benefit anyone outside of the Chinese Empire? I’ve always had the impression that the Empire is like a money vacuum cleaner, sucking up all that it can get, but only ever spending a minuscule proportion of that.

Now Europe needs money, and has come begging to about the only country which has any cash going spare. I was reading about some of the local reactions to that, which also raised the question why the vast amount of money the imperial government has should not be used on the people of China first. I think it’s a good point. In addition to that, my question would be why the Empire is also wasting huge amounts of money on some space programme, which isn’t really achieving anything beyond the stroking of the imperial ego. There are more important things here on Earth which need to be dealt with.

And if the Empire does agree to help Europe, what’s it going to want in return? One suggestion was that Europe would have to STFU about Tibet, Taiwan etc., and start letting China have some of the better hi-tech toys among other things. If there is some agreement, I can’t help but feel that it is a pact with the devil. It cannot be a good idea to allow a country with such an appalling record (not just over the past 60 years, but all too often during the past 2,500) to have some sort of control over the few countries on the planet where there are democracy, freedom of speech, and the rule of law. (Well, in theory, at least.)

Perhaps history will eventually show that it was all for the best, but I’m straining to see how a paranoid tyranny, which is devoid of ethics, which is accountable to no one (except through violent revolt), and which is so avaricious, can possibly benefit the world. (And have I just described America for the past two centuries?)

Holinshed’s Chronicles

State-authorised history.

I’ve been aware of something called Holinshed’s Chronicles most of my life, but I’ve never known anything more about it than the name. I was having a glance at Francis Bacon’s Essays last night, which had various references to Holinshed, and decided to do a search online for more information. That led me to the Holinshed Project.

Like the Phil Soc, the site is based at Oxford, but unlike the Phil Soc, it’s not blocked (as it appeared to be at the time –JH.). It includes the texts of the two different editions, and they’re publicly available. Often with projects like these, you suddenly hit a paywall or have to be a member of Oxford University or the EETS (and a member of some university) or etc. The site includes some background about the writing of the Chronicles, an extensive bibliography, and various matters of related interest to professional historians.

The text itself is actually on the English Department website and attempts to be a faithful rendering of the original, right down to the old-fashioned long-s (ſ).

The first three books are about the history, geography, food, customs and divers other topics, including ‘Whether it be likely there were euer any Gyaunts inhabiting in this iſle or not’, which no doubt kept the pub philosophers of Tudor England quite busy. Our man says, “For this cauſe therefore I haue nowe taken vpon me to make thys briefe diſcourſe inſuing, therby to prooue, that the opiniõ of Gyaunts is not altogether grounded vpon vayne & fa|bulous narrations”, but he does seem to try hedging his bets a little.

In the section on language I learn

The thirde language apparauntly knowen is the Scythian or highe Dutche, brought in at the firſt by the Saxons, an hard and rough kinde of ſpeach god wotte, when our nation was brought firſt into acquaintance withall, but now chaunged with vs into a farre more fine and eaſie kind of vtteraunce, and ſo poli|ſhed and helped with new and milder wordes that it is to be aduouched howe there is no one ſpeache vnder the ſonne ſpoken in our time, that hath or can haue more varietie of words, copie of phraſes, or figures or floures of eloquence, thẽ hath our Engliſhe tongue, although ſome haue affirmed vs rather to barke as dogs, then talke like men, becauſe the moſt of our wordes (as they doe in déede) incline vnto one ſyllable.

Well, another amateur telling us all about language. 500 years and nothing has changed. I love the bit about barking like dogs and that old clarion cry from the 16th century that English was nothing but monosyllables.

In the section on the measurement of time is a version of the old rhyme I learnt long ago about how many days there are in the month (Thirty days hath Nouember, this one begins). The writer also laments the confusion between the calendar year beginning in January and the business year beginning on the 25th of March.

The Chronicles are like an old chest which has been lying half-forgotten until someone stumbles across it one day and finds curiosities rather than treasures inside, which are the diverting and amusing relics of a long-lost age.

Well, yes, to some extent

Good point, though.

Sean over on lostlaowai has posted an entry What if the Chinese ruled the world? He starts by noting that when we hear the boys in Zhongnanhai claiming that China’s rise will be peaceful, we tend to be a little sceptical. If anything, I tend to think of the Catholic church which, no matter how hard it tries to make various luminaries sound like decent, caring people, still manages to make them sound like a bunch of child molesters. China’s claims often have a similar ring to them. 

As Sean observes, in spite of the demonisation of Russia and China over the past couple of centuries, it’s Western countries that have done all the invading and conquering (although if I remember rightly, Simon Schama’s take on the British Empire is that it was an accident; we went to trade, but somehow ended up running things – probably to stop the French from poking their noses into our markets). 

Nonetheless, it’s easy to forget that although we think of China as a country, it still has the form of an empire. There are the home provinces on the eastern seaboard and in the north; then there are the provinces of Tibet-Qinghai and Xinjiang (which, I haven’t forgotten, have been interacting closely in war and commerce with their Han neighbours for centuries); and then there are the southern provinces which (and here my knowledge is wanting) seem to be borderline Hanguo. And even Hanguo isn’t that unified. China seems to be, to parody Deng Xiaoping’s famous saying, One Country, a Multiplicity of Peoples. 

When the announcement about the increase in China’s милитари буджэт was made just recently, I could understand that the country might want to modernise its армэд форсэс, but when I looked for some immediate external threat, I couldn’t find one. The increase seems more intended to convey the idea of a threat to other regions (Taiwan) and countries (Japan and the US; perhaps Vietnam and maybe North Korea). At the same time, China’s rhetoric, empty though it probably really is, sends out the wrong signals to the region and the world. 

If the country really wanted to convince everyone else about its desire for a peaceful rise, it would shut the f_ck up about the following:

  • Claims on Taiwan, which has a sovereign government of its own; is the last remnant of the Republic of China; and is, in spite of the antics of Chen Shui-bian and his family, a democracy.
  • Demands for apologies from Japan about a war that was 60 years ago. When two cultures place such a high value on face, you know that the Japanese have gone as far as they’re ever likely to go. This has long since become a broken record.
  • Though the Yasukuni Shrine visits are objectionable because of the inclusion of war criminals among the dead, China’s objections represent an attempt to interfere in Japan’s internal affairs, even although China deplores interference in its own internal affairs. (The first point above doesn’t count, though.)

But so long as China remains trapped in the past because it needs these bugbears to rally the nation around the flag, then the rest of the world is going to be distrustful of such a large, undemocratic country no matter what history reveals to us about Western nations and their relationship with other countries around the globe. I’d also note that it insults the Chinese people if their government feels that it must perpetually instil patriotic fervour in the nation either this way or with signs reminding people to be civilised and good citizens. However, I also remind myself of citizenship classes at schools in Britain and declare that they sound ludicrous.

Finally, who’s Robert Mugabe’s bestest friend in the whole world?

From a historical perspective, the West is a pot calling the kettle black, but I’d caution against thinking two things. First, as then, so now; second, as America, so the rest of the Western world.

Historical statements by Westerners about China (a sample):

  • And it is well known that the use of ordnance, hath been in China above two thousand years. Francis Bacon (1601) Essays, Of vissicitude of things
  • It is true, the like law against the admission of strangers without license is an ancient law in the Kingdom of China, and yet continued in use. But there it is a poor thing; and hath made them a curious, ignorant, fearful, foolish nation. Francis Bacon, The New Atlantis
  • So is it not in China. For the Chinese sail where they will, or can; which showeth, that their law of keeping out strangers is a law of pusillanimity and fear. ibid.
  • And we understand further, that it is the use of China, and the kingdoms of the high Levant, to write in characters real, which express neither letters nor words in gross, but things or notions; insomuch as countries and provinces, which understand not one another’s language, can nevertheless read one another’s writings, because the characters are accepted more generally than the languages do extend; and therefore they have a vast multitude of characters, as many, I suppose, as radical words. Francis Bacon (1605) The Advancement of Learning, Book II.xvi.2
  • We keepe a coile and wonder at the miraculous invention of our artilerie, and amazed at the rare devise of Printing; when as unknowne to us, other men, and an other end of the world named China, knew and had perfect use of both a thousand yeares before. Michel Montaigne, tr. John Florio (1603) Essays, Book III, Chapter VI, Of coaches
  • In China, the policy, arts and government of which kingdome, having neither knowledge or commerce with ours exceed our examples in divers parts of excellency, and whose Histories teach me how much more ample and divers the World is than eyther we or our forefathers could ever enter into. The Officers appointed by the Prince to visite the state of his Provinces, as they punish such as abuse their charge, so with great liberality they reward such as have uprightly and honestly behaved themselves in them, or have done any thing more then ordinary, and besides the necessity of their duty; There all present themselves, not onely to warrant themselves, but also to get something. Not simply to be paid, but liberally to be rewarded. Michel Montaigne, tr. John Florio (1603) Essays, Book III, Chapter XIII, Of experience
  • But for this, let them consult the King of France’s late envoy thither, who gives no better account of the Chinese themselves. And if we will not believe La Loubere, the missionaries of China, even the Jesuits themselves, the great encomiasts of the Chinese, do all to a man agree, and will convince us, that the sect of the literari, or learned, keeping to the old religion of China, and the ruling party there, are all of them atheists. Vid. Navarette, in the Collection of Voyages, vol. i., and Historia Cultus Sinensium. John Locke (1690) An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Ch. III, 8. Idea of God not innate.
  • I am informed that the Chinese have practised inoculation these hundred years, a circumstance that argues very much in its favour, since they are thought to be the wisest and best governed people in the world. The Chinese, indeed, do not communicate this distemper by inoculation, but at the nose, in the same manner as we take snuff. Voltaire (1733) Letters on England, Letter XI On inoculation
  • On the other hand, our sectaries, who were formerly such dangerous bigots, are now become very free reasoners; and the quakers seem to approach nearly the only regular body of deists in the universe, the literati or the disciples of Confucius in China. David Hume (1777) Essays, Part I, Essay X, Of superstition and enthusiasm
  • In China, there seems to be a pretty considerable stock of politeness and science, which, in the course of so many centuries, might naturally be expected to ripen into something more perfect and finished, than what has yet arisen from them. But China is one vast empire, speaking one language, governed by one law, and sympathizing in the same manners. The authority of any teacher, such as Confucius, was propagated easily from one corner of the empire to the other. None had courage to resist the torrent of popular opinion. And posterity was not bold enough to dispute what had been universally received by their ancestors. This seems to be one natural reason, why the sciences have made so slow a progress in that mighty empire. ibid., Part I, Essay XIV, The rise and progress of the arts and sciences
  • First. We may observe, that, where a very extensive government has been established for many centuries, it spreads a national character over the whole empire, and communicates to every part a similarity of manners. Thus the Chinese have the greatest uniformity of character imaginable: though the air and climate, in different parts of those vast dominions, admit of very considerable variations. ibid., Part I, XXI, Of national characters
  • The Spaniards, Turks, and Chinese are noted for gravity and a serious deportment, without any such difference of climate as to produce this difference of temper. ibid.
  • China is represented as one of the most flourishing empires in the world; though it has very little commerce beyond its own territories. ibid., Part II, I, Of commerce
  • The skill and ingenuity of Europe in general surpasses perhaps that of China, with regard to manual arts and manufactures; yet are we never able to trade thither without great disadvantage. And were it not for the continual recruits, which we receive from America, money would soon sink in Europe, and rise in China, till it came nearly to a level in both places. ibid., Part II, Essay V, Of the balance of trade
  • China, the only country where this practice of exposing children prevails at present, is the most populous country we know of; and every man is married before he is twenty. Such early marriages could scarcely be general, had not men the prospect of so easy a method of getting rid of their children. ibid., Part II, Essay XI, Of the populousness of ancient nations
  • We find also, every where, subjects, who acknowledge this right in their prince, and suppose themselves born under obligations of obedience to a certain sovereign, as much as under the ties of reverence and duty to certain parents. These connexions are always conceived to be equally independent of our consent, in Persia and China; ibid., Part II, XII, Of the original contract


You can’t park that longship here!

I was thinking about the first report of Vikings in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Part of the entry (this comes from Sweet’s Anglo-Saxon Primer) in the Chronicle for 787 reads

And on his dagum comon ærest þreo scipu; and þa se gerefa þærto rad, and hie wolde drifan to þæs cyninges tune, þy he nyste hwæt hie wæron; and hine man ofslog. Þæt wæron þa ærestan scipu Deniscra manna þe Angelcynnes land gesohton.
(And in his day three ships first came; and then the reeve rode there, and wanted to take them to the king’s estate because he didn’t know what sort of people they were; and he was killed. Those were the first three ships of the Danish people that came to England.)

I can just imagine that the reeve was some officious twerp who turned up demanding beach fees for the longship; then asking if they had an import licence for the weapons and armour; then demanding that they pay duty on the weapons and armour; and finally asking them for their passports (which they’d left in their other chainmail which was at home being darned). At this point, Olaf decided that the annoying official was inhibiting free trade in the North Sea region, and decided to slash border controls. If the reeve had got any further, the Vikings would’ve been made to sit an Englishness test.