Highlighting news stories important to the Civic Republican
particularly those that are overlooked or little covered in the main media.
In the second episode of the BBC series on the Stuart monarchy the posh bird presenter kicks off in fine form with a short sentence that packs in a simple lie and a gross distortion of history:
Between 1603 and 1714 the Kingdoms of England, Scotland and Ireland were ruled by a royal family that did more than any other to shape Modern Britain.
So the Commonwealth of 1649 to 1600 did not happen, and the main driver of the many radical reforms that took place was the royal family – not the whole host of brilliant, far-sighted radicals and activists in political philosophy, political economy and politics that were the actors in these events and not the rapid growth of industry and trading. If she made that statement in a history exam at any level she would fail – unless the standards have dropped much farther than I imagine they have.
Following this our presenter shifts into a jokey mood. Presumably as a historian she is familiar with the poor standard of history education in our schools and so she can confidently patronise her audience with:
You’ve heard of Charles I – the king who got his head cut off, and Charles II the ‘merry monarch’. And you’ve heard of [colluding giggle] the “roundheads and cavaliers”.
So with the viewers’ knowledge, or rather lack if it, thus delimited the tone is set for a set of further gross distortions and lies concerning our history throughout the programme.
Straight away she makes clear that this is going to be a revisionist version of history of the English Civil War and its before and after. Nothing wrong with that. It is always a good thing to question received opinion, re-examine the facts and reveal new ones. But this is not revisionism based on new research. Her new version reveals nothing that was not already part of the standard historical narratives. All she has done is to change the emphasis, to rechristen the war as The War of the Three Kingdoms and at the same time to studiously ignore the central driver of the conflict.
She admits that this revisionist history is only 30 years old and that the standard view of the civil war was generally subscribed to for 350 years - so the latter certain had a good long innings. Why change it now? Let’s examine old and new versions of history.
The traditional view tells us that the English Civil War was a war essentially between the king and parliament. Put simply the king could not accept the powers of parliament which hurt him particularly in his ability to raise taxes. It is true that Charles I needed more taxes, mainly to rebuild the navy that his father James I had run down horribly during his reign, but he needed to negotiate with parliament to be successful.
I referred in the last newsletter to the concept of modernity that his father signed up to which meant an autocratic king and a weak parliament - or no parliament. Charles had this same mentality and simply could not grasp that he lived in a country where parliament had power which could not be ignored without provoking protest - even war. And this is precisely what happened. The English Civil War was a war between the king and his supporters and parliament. So it was very much a war to preserve what we now all hold dear – the vital role of parliament in government.
The BBC version that Charles belonged to a “royal family that did more than any other to shape Modern Britain” is total rubbish. The Stuarts resisted the shaping of Modern Britain at every turn. To say otherwise is so close to a lie as makes no difference. The aim of this misinformation, as I discussed in the last newsletter, is to whitewash the monarchs in our history in order to present monarchism in a better light in preparation for the coming succession crisis.
So what does this Tolkien-esque sounding War of the Three Kingdoms do to help understand our history? Really not very much. All it does is talk about the Scottish and Irish dimension of the Civil War and sideline Charles’s conflict with parliament. This revisionist history tries to muddy the waters. If you read the accounts by G.M.Trevelyan and Will Durant, two respected master historians, all the details of events in Ireland and Scotland are fully there. There is really nothing new in the revisionist account beyond playing down certain key facts to cast the monarchy in a more favourable light.
But the BBC goes beyond this and attempts to even further muddy the waters so much so that to those unfamiliar with the period the nature of the conflict becomes completely obscured.
Time and time again in the film, the war is compared with the wars that took place in the Balkans following the breakup of Yugoslavia. Film of the latter including the destruction of the famous and beautiful bridge at Mostar, is constantly interspersed into the narrative. The suggestion is hammered home that the English Civil War and associated wars in Scotland and Ireland were similar to events in the Balkans. This is presented as if it will enlighten the viewers’ understanding of the English war.
Quite reasonably, most British people have little detailed understanding of the complex series of conflicts in the Balkans and so the BBC message is clear. The Balkans were an unholy mess where it is difficult to pin blame. The English Civil war, it is suggested by the BBC, is the same. This interpretation conveniently lets the The Stuart king off scot free.
There is an essential difference between the English, Scottish and Irish wars of the seventeenth century and the Balkan wars of the twentieth – the former was about the unification of power in the British Isles and which elements of the constitution should control it. The Balkan wars were about the disintegration of a unitary state. This is hardly a subtle difference – it is a fundamental difference that renders any attempt to illuminate one with the other absurd.
The BBC comparison can only be aimed at one purpose – to conceal the truth. That is what our public broadcasting service and its hired “historians” are doing.
If the BBC wants to emphasise that there were more sides in the Civil war than the roundheads and cavaliers (nudge-nudge, I expect you’ve heard of them) then it should have gone beyond Scotland and Ireland to include a fourth power – the greatest of the time, France.
As I said in my comment on the first programme of this series, it is natural for monarchs to see their position not just in terms of the nation whose throne they sit on. Especially when they are foreigners to that nation, they can ally with foreign monarchs even against their own people. This is the mentality that sees royal blood as all important and so for instance Charles I could have felt a strong affinity with Louis XIV of France which might have been reciprocated. This could put him in a position where he could ask Louis for help in his war against his own people.
And this is precisely what he did. His request was helped greatly by his marriage to Louis XIVs daughter but of course the marriage was part of the desire of both monarchs to draw close together. Clearly there had to be something in this for Louis and this was the possibility of a more authoritarian, less Protestant, king of England – which Charles clearly would be. Charles did not receive direct military help from France, but he received enormous financial help – financial help that could fund the killing of his own people to further his desire to eliminate their parliament. So if you want to talk about the War of Kingdoms you should talk about all four of them.
I should mention a major event that was happening under Charles I that the BBC would prefer you were not aware of and that was the exodus of thousands and thousands of his subjects to begin a perilous new life in the American colonies - the most renowned of which were the Pilgrim Fathers. This was prompted by Charles I's intolerance towards dissenters like Quakers. But then this crucial fact would cast the king in a bad light so the BBC hushes it up.
And the omission was not through lack of time for there is a long passage concerning a bunch of nutters who set up in 1894 the so-called The Society of King Charles the Martyr. The Society is still active and describes itself as a Christian devotional society under the patronage of Saint Charles. At last the programme told me something I did not know before. Charles I is the only person ever to be proclaimed a saint by the Anglican Church. Well now!
Why is the BBC giving publicity to these cranks?. It is a disgrace to promote the idea that Charles was a martyr. The real martyrs were the people of England, Scotland and Ireland that died in the war he caused.
Where the programme was on stronger ground was in its display of Oliver Cromwell’s tendency, during the time he headed the Commonwealth (ie Republic), towards taking on the trappings of monarchy. Cromwell was a world class statesman of and a great warrior. He was, contrary to what English school textbooks tell you, a humane man. He came up against a duplicitous king and Cromwell had to shed blood but he never did so gratuitously or vindictively.
Following the execution of Charles he had to negotiate his way through completely uncharted territory. He was an able governor and administrator and put in place many lasting institutions. He strengthened the form of a solid, relatively incorrupt civil service, he built up the navy and had resounding victories under our forgotten naval hero, Robert Blake, he liberalised religion leading to a multiplication of new sects (some of which survive today: Quakers, Baptists, Unitarians) and he started to make some far-sighted financial reforms. Amongst all these qualities and achievements he had one significant defect. He was no constitutionalist.
He had fought two violent civil wars for the preservation of parliament but he did not see that having gained power that he had to evolve a good working relation with parliament - and in his time that meant both the Commons and the Lords. A new constitution was needed but in his defence we should recognise that England was virtually the first republican nation ever. There was not a host of precedents to use as guidance. The best would have been the Dutch Republic, but Holland was a very different country in many respects. Dutch power was based in the merchants more than the aristocracy as in England. The only other modern republics were small city states like Venice and Genoa. Indeed, it was a commonly held idea for the next 100 years at least that a republic could not work in a large nation state like England – leave alone a Britain including three separate nations.
Cromwell was not handicapped by a lack of visionary writing to help him, for England was a hotbed of radical republican writing at the time with giants like John Milton and James Harrington as well as a whole host of lesser known figures and “commonwealthmen”. But he simply failed in the challenged to construct a permanent republic. And frankly, he would have had to be a constitutional as well as a political genius to have succeeded.
Although it is outside the subject of this piece we should mention in passing that in spite of the restoration of 1660 the gains made in the Civil War and the Commonwealth were far from lost and remain with us today.
Naturally the BBC makes no attempt at a balanced assessment of Cromwell, but drools over the macabre business of his body being exhumed to be tried and “executed” – a personal order from the restored King Charles II.
The presenter sums up the Civil War with the depressing toll of lives that were sacrificed to the Stuarts’ concept of authoritarian rule and religious conformity. She cites 280,000 men-at-arms having died. Other accounts refer to ten percent of the population having died because of Charles’s war. And she glibly recounts that only ten “regicides” where executed. “Executed” is a nice prim little word. These were the words that actually read out by the sentencing judge on the new Stuart kings instructions:
You shall be drawn upon a hurdle to the place of execution and there you shall be hung by the neck and being alive should be cut down, and your privy members to be cut off, your entrails to be taken out of your body and (you living) the same to be burnt before your eyes, and your head to be cut off, your body to be divided into four quarters and your head and quarters to be disposed of at the pleasure of the King’s Majesty.
The stench of the executions was so great that the polite residents of the Strand complained to the authorities.
This was how the “Merrie Monarch” began his reign
The BBC is running at the same time a two part series by Melvyn Bragg called The Radicals. The second one just broadcast is on Tom Paine the republican writer who achieved international fame and sold a lot of books.
I watched with interest to see how many times the word "republican" was mentioned as normally when Bragg discusses republican subjects he avoids the word completely - quite a dexterous feat. Whether this is self imposed or imposed by the BBC we have no way of knowing.
In the programme on Paine he used the word twice - but in the same sentence and in reference to America. That was twice more that I expected. How did he avoid the word "republican" when giving a life history of a great republican?.
He used a 'find and replace' on his text so 'republican' became 'radical'. This distorts what Paine was about and while the story was still interesting (it is impossible for a life of Paine to be otherwise) the context of repubicanism in which it unfolded is absent and so only half the picture is presented.
Bravo to Lord Bragg for reminding us of the importance of Paine but he too would fail in his history exam for failing to describe the absolutely central point about Paine's writing and actions.
The BBC does not want you to know about the great republicans that Britain produced and is prepared to stoop to totalitarian methods of censorship to further that aim.
As defenders of the monarchy such as Walter Bagehot tell us, you have to keep a mystique around the monarch for monarchism to work. The process also means denying that republicanism exists for awareness of the republican alternative could undermine the mystique.
This is why monarchist states can never be truly free. A lot of the information the people are fed has to be distorted to maintain the mystique.
As long as we have a monarchy we can never be free.