Successful kingship, like all great leadership, defies analysis. The Plantagenet Henry II of England handed on to posterity a shining reputation as a great administrator and a great man, while his son John, certainly more intelligent and probably more able, is one of the great villains of English history. Only one thing is clear: intellectuals had little chance of success in this exacting profession.
In the Middle Ages kingship was physically as well as mentally exacting. The exercise of power was personal and could rarely be delegated with safety and success, which meant that a king like Henry II, with dominions as broad as Charlemagne’s, was constantly on the move; from Chester to Rouen, Rouen to Toulouse, and back through Le Mans to London and York. If he neglected one part of his territories for more than a few months he faced an arduous task on his return.
His habits were at once the wonder and despair of those around him. Frugal in both eating and drinking from fear of corpulence, he was no lover of comforts; restless to a fault, he never sat down except to eat. He would hear state business even at mass, and was always travelling, moving in intolerable stages, like a courier; and his followers made this their chief complaint against him. To the four things that Solomon called hard to discern—“the way of an eagle in the air, the way of a serpent upon a rock, the way of a ship in the midst of the sea, and the way of a man with a maid”—this age had added a fifth, or so they were accustomed to say: the way of King Henry on his journeyings.
On 24 April, 1172 he was in the depths of Wales, on May 16 he was at Gorron in Maine, having outstripped the couriers bringing news of his coming, and caught the delegates of Pope Alexander III unawares; his speed was little short of diabolic. His most eminent successors, like Edward I, Edward III, and Henry V, were to show this same energetic mobility.
More than four centuries later, and kingship had changed very little, largely because communications had not changed. Parliament, which Henry II had never known, was growing more important with every generation, but on the other hand the majesty and dignity of the king had been enhanced by the Reformation, which gave him the last word on what his subjects were to believe as well as how they were to worship. The theory of the Divine Right of Kings gave him a spiritual sanction which had hitherto depended, however remotely, on papal approval; he was no longer “his Grace” but “his Majesty.” But the coalescing of national territories, the strengthening of central governments, the rapid spread of nationalist feelings, elevated the monarchs of western Europe into national leaders, imaginary representatives of their people, as well as mere rulers. The grotesqueries and fatuities of James I concealed an able mind; he won the respect and loyalty of the governing classes in spite of them; but he was never able to project an image which was satisfactory to the mass of his subjects.
THE OVERBURY CASE in 1616, which ended in the conviction of the King’s favorite, and possibly his lover, the Earl of Somerset, for complicity in the poisoning of Sir Thomas Overbury, destroyed the public reputation of his court and to some extent his government at a crucial stage of the reign. Many books have been written on this cause célèbre, but Beatrice White’s Cast of Ravens is the first to use all the sources available, manuscript as well as printed. It is a thrilling story in itself, with some excellent trial scenes, but it also deserves to be read by anyone interested in seventeenth-century mores. Perhaps because of its rather silly title, this book did not receive the recognition it deserved when it was published in England a year ago.
In the later seventeenth century the role of monarchy was violently altered. The execution of Charles I openly defied the theory of Divine Right and questioned the very necessity of monarchy. At the Restoration of Charles II every effort was made to heal this breach and the new king’s reign was dated from his father’s death. But this was nothing more than a pretense, and a thin one at that. For instance, the restored government found itself obliged to confirm the decisions of courts of law taken during the eleven years that had elapsed since Charles I’s death, and in so doing they gave some legal sanction to a usurping government.
The deposition of James II in 1689 emphasized that medieval political theory, which had permitted the deposition of Edward II, Richard II, and Henry VI, was still valid. The hiatus of a few days which followed before William III ascended the throne was a serious break in continuity. In spite of protestations to the contrary, the new king, who had no direct hereditary right, was elected to the monarchy. There was a further break in continuity in 1696, when a statute was passed decreeing that Parliament remain in being for up to six months after the death of the King. The belief that no organ of government could survive the King was thus decisively rejected.
William III was a strange mixture. He was the first English king since the Reformation who was a professional soldier, and he guided England through her most serious European war to date, a conflict which can without too much exaggeration be described as the first of the world wars. His personal command of the war in all spheres, and the fact that, in spite of the Revolution, he continued to exercise personal responsibility for war and administration, offset his theoretical constitutional disadvantages. He faced great opposition in England from time to time, but it was for the most part provoked by fear of his power rather than a desire to exploit his weakness.
Another century, and kingship had become almost irrelevant to government. Under George IV, as Regent and King, the English government was engaged in a titanic struggle against France which consumed its energies from 1792 to 1815 with the exception of two brief intervals of peace. From this conflict she emerged not as a world power but as the world power. Yet George’s participation in the war was largely confined to the appointment and dismissal of cabinets, and even that prerogative had to be exercised with caution. Whether he was in fact capable of directing the nation as some of his predecessors had done is in any case doubtful, but he was not put to the test. In his reign the British monarchy began to decline into a public spectacle; its every doing became the subject of intense gossip and publicity. Indeed, Professor Plumb pointed out some years ago that by his visits to Scotland and Ireland George IV paved the way for George V and Elizabeth II:
Bi-kilted, be-sporraned, be-tartaned, riding up Princess Street to Holyrood House to the roaring cheers of the loyal Scots, he was showing the way that the monarchy would have to go if it were to survive into an industrial and democratic society.
Unfortunately, as his latest biographer admits, “from his youth the King had developed an unhappy genius for getting into situations at once farcical and deplorable,” and he was quite unable to maintain the prestige of the monarchy in the face of the publicity he received. Generations of the blameless domesticity of William IV and Victoria were needed to rescue the institution from the contempt into which it had fallen under George IV, and the effort required was such as to castrate the monarchy as a political force.
JOANNA RICHARDSON’S new biography of George IV is presented as “a portrait,” but whatever it is it is certainly not that. Indeed, his character is buried in so much detail about his contemporaries, many of whom had little contact with him, that the reader, uncertain at an early stage what he is intended to accept as relevant or irrelevant, finishes the book in a greater state of confusion and ignorance than when he began. The disproportionate attention lavished on such men as Byron, Walter Scott, and Sir Thomas Lawrence makes the book read in places like a panorama of the reign rather than a portrait of the ruler. Of course, George’s fame must rest on his patronage of artistic and literary figures, but it is tragic that it should. If he had been more of a politician and less of a popinjay, if he had an ounce of statesmanship or even common masculinity in his character, most of all, if he had had any sort of self-control, then he might have arrested the drift of the monarchy away from real political influence which had begun in the 1780s with the American Revolution and George III’s madness. Miss Richardson’s attempt to show that this was balanced by his patronage of literature and the arts, and by his role as “First Gentleman of Europe” (which is little more than saying that he was an early-nineteenth-century Aly Kahn) is unconvincing; Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, does as much, though in a slightly different sphere.
Stephen Baxter’s life of William III is from a different world. Cold, incisive, and entirely professional, it partakes of the aura of its subject. William III never knew his father, who died before he was born; his mother died when he was ten. His life revolved round abstract conceptions like the State and Europe which were at the same time directly physical. He is a man whom posterity almost universally regards as great, but he is also a man from whom posterity turns in aversion if not revulsion. No biographer can make him anything less than inhuman, and the nearest he came to common clay was in his deep sorrow at his wife’s childlessness, though even here the basic reason for his sorrow was political, not personal. His tragedy was that he had to leave Holland and England to men not of his flesh and blood; England prospered, but Holland after his death entered upon a long decline, which leveled out only in the nineteenth century.
Richard Barber’s short life of Henry II is chatty and agreeable, but by an elaborate apparatus of scholarship pretends to a greater depth of learning than it possesses. The work of William L. Warren and Margaret Wade Labarge has made the biography of medieval kings an important minor industry, but Barber has not quite brought it off. So little is known of any king before Henry VIII that his biography must always be to a great extent a feat of the imagination; here the imagination is lacking.
There is a persistent myth that the writings of professional historians are accurate but unreadable, and that amateurs not only write like angels but usually, by imagination and perception, arrive at a “truth” denied the professionals. A routine examination of the historical biographies published over the past forty years would brand this as nonsense, but the fact that it is nonsense is worth stating over again. Professor Baxter knows his subject in depth, and has thought about him, lived with him, for ten years not ten months. He can take much of the background for granted, and therefore is not embarrassed nor hampered by it, and has thus produced an excellent biography. Barber and Miss Richardson, though they have taken subjects which are by comparison, and for different reasons, easy, fall far short of his achievement.
June 29, 1967