Here’s another entry that grew and took on a life of its own.
Back in 1969 Masterpiece Theater premiered with the costume drama, The First Churchill’s. It was good then, and still impressive after more than thirty years. It was released on DVD a couple of years ago and I finally broke down and bought the set. The twelve part series chronicles the rise of John Churchill through the ranks of the army and the courts of four Stuart monarchs. Churchill was recognized as a military genius and was created Duke of Marlborough by Queen Anne.
The scripts do a fantastic job of telling not only the people stories but the political stories. I’m not sure if scary is the word I would use, but it’s more than interesting to hear problems we have now, being discussed more than three hundred years ago. Religious freedom, the right to face your accusers, the right to be brought to trial or released, the right to bail and the rise of party government. And perhaps the most important, is the ruler subject to the law or above the law? Listening to James II claim in council to be “above the law” had an oddly familiar ring to it.
Rewatching this series only reinforces my belief that teaching US history has to include English history. American history always has an arbitrary feel to it, at least at the beginning. And I’m being arbitrary starting with Henry VIII. But you have to draw the line somewhere or you end up going all the way back to Roman Britain.
Bluff King Hal and his six wives, interesting enough, but how the king’s government worked through the resulting problems is the real story. Despite his reputation, Henry was not really a tyrant. Capricious, mercurial, temperamental, somewhat spoiled, and increasingly cruel he may have been, but all the changes made during his rule were made through Parliament. Of course England’s sixteenth century parliaments were nothing like American representative government.
But, at a time in history when power was increasingly concentrated in monarch and a few ministers with almost no input from the governed, the English somehow managed to keep some semblance of representative government. It took a revolution or two, they beheaded a king to do it, and it took at least two centuries to work it out but they did it. Kind of makes me think our job isn’t done yet.
Henry’s position as head of the English church, the break with Rome and the succession were all handled through parliament. The King in parliament, not the king and parliament. When his daughter Mary tried to undo the changes made by her father and her brother Edward, she again acted through parliament. Elizabeth may have been at logger heads with her parliaments over her marriage and taxes but she couldn’t ignore it. James I may have believed in the rights of an absolute monarchy but he knew when to bend when he had to. His son Charles never learned to bend and paid for it with his head.
Incidentally, Charles was a prime of example of the ruler who believes that he has the divine right to rule. Faced with opposition, any means may be used to support that power including lying and deliberate deception. Sound familiar?
I’ll skip the commonwealth and Cromwell for now, but when Charles II was restored to the throne it was at the invitation of his people through parliament. His parliaments’ remembered his father and kept him short of cash. Charles had more than a dozen children by his mistresses, but none by his queen. Louis XIV of France supported his cousin with secret stipends and kept the pot boiling in England with bribes to members of Charles’ parliament. England had their own version of the McCarthy era with a fear of the pope and a catholic heir to the throne instead of the Red menace. Things really never do change, do they?
But, the Habeas Corpus Act was passed during Charles time, and we’re fighting over it still. The act put into written law something that had existed for nearly three centuries. And the complaint of Charles’ successor, his catholic brother James, that the act allowed traitors to go free on bail to plot more treason has a strangely modern ring. Hmmm, I wonder what word we could substitute for traitor in that sentence? And the time between the first uses of writs of Habeas Corpus and the act is longer than the time between our revolution and the present day. Perhaps we should show it a little more respect.
Anyway, England was willing to support James as long as his Protestant daughters were his potential successors. Faced with potential Catholic successor when he finally had a son, the gentry and lords invited James’ daughter Mary and her husband William of Orange to come over.
I suspect the intention was to use William and Mary as levers force James to honor the promises he made when he succeeded his brother and raise his son as a Protestant. When he fled England for sanctuary in the court of his cousin Louis parliament settled the crown on William and Mary. And brought more succession problems. Neither the Stuarts or the Tudors had much luck when it came to legitimate heirs. And the Mary and her husband were first cousins, so I guess they were hit with a double dose of ill luck. Dutch William had no particular love for the English, or they for him. Forcing James from the throne gained English resources for the opponents of French ambitions on the continent and added protection for the Dutch states.
When Mary’s sister Anne also failed to produce a living heir, the succession was settled again by parliament, this time on the Hanoverian descendants of one of James I daughters. Poor Anne, more than a dozen children and most of them didn’t survive more than a year or two. Her grandfather James had married into the Danish royal house, as did Anne. So her husband was probably a cousin too.
Parliaments and congresses are just as capable of acting capriciously and unfairly as monarchs and presidents. But, more knowledge of how we got where we are might help us deal with the problems we have now.
Lines on a map don’t make a nation. A nation is made up of its people whether they all live withing those little lines or not. And a nation comes into being the same way people do. It takes time, patience, and perhaps more than a little pain. Unlike child birth, it has to be done without the benefits of painkillers. And while we can’t do it without human costs, we owe it to each other to keep those costs as low as possible.