Top People

Charles V: Elected Emperor and Hereditary Ruler

by Manuel Fernández Alvarez, translated by J.A. Lalaguna
Thames and Hudson, 220 pp., $16.95

Philip II of Spain

by Peter Pierson
Thames and Hudson, 240 pp., $16.95

The Young Mazarin

by Georges Dethan, translated by Stanley Baron
Thames and Hudson, 199 pp., $16.95

Charles V
Charles V; drawing by David Levine

“Far too much of modern British history,” Sir Lewis Namier wrote, “is ensconced in biographies which dribble away their material without coming to grips with basic problems.” He need not have limited his remark to British history. Biography has been under something of a cloud with purist historians since the decline of “great man” theories. We are all sociologists now, and inclined to see rulers as products of the movements of their age rather than as directors of them—corks, not waves.

But there seems to be an insatiable public demand for biographies, and this is very comprehensible. As professional historians succumb to the lure of statistics, curves, and the computer, their works become less and less accessible to the ordinary reader who wants to know how men and women lived in the past. But the historical record, at least until very recent times, has left very scanty evidence of the lives of any but top people; it tells us little about how ordinary people lived. The title of Pierre Goubert’s book Louis XIV and the Twenty Million Frenchmen makes the point.

The decline of the biographical approach also relates to the rise of representative government. Lives of Lloyd George and Churchill, Wilson and Roosevelt, deal not only with individual prime ministers and presidents directing events but also with the political processes by which they attained their eminence. They are necessarily studies of party government, of public opinion, as well as of mere events.

Yet representative government has had a relatively short life span, and is the product of a relatively sophisticated society. For a great deal of recorded human history rulers did not win their way to power: they were born to it—apart from the occasional successful revolutionary leader—a Cromwell, a Washington, a Napoleon, the exceptions which prove the rule. The hereditary principle now seems a very inefficient way of selecting rulers. The fact that one man is a good king is no guarantee that his eldest son will not be a moron. But the great advantage of the hereditary principle is its arbitrariness. There is no damned merit about it. B succeeds A, not because he is cleverer than all the other letters of the alphabet, but because he is A’s eldest son. Cleverness, ability to rule, are matters about which we all may differ; descent is far less open to challenge. For similar reasons old-fashioned institutions like the British army and civil service are addicted to the principle of seniority. Other things being equal, it is less upsetting to promote old Snooks, who has been there for longer than anyone else, rather than young Bloggs, about whose apparently greater cleverness some of us have our doubts.

There was of course always the possibility in the old monarchies of breaking strict hereditary succession. When a Richard II, a Richard III, or a James II proved intolerable, he could be removed,…

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