Thursday, March 29, 2012


A review of Jeremy Black’s George III: America’s Last King (2006)

(Rating 5 of 5)

Jeremy Black has written a very good biography of one of the most important monarchs in world history: King George III. I think in the end George III was a good king, just not great one. He might have been able to be a great one but his mental health stood in the way of any possible greatness. George III did however provide precedence for the monarch as a ceremonial figurehead of unity rather than an active ruler. He was a person of great abilities and great flaws.

Unlike a lot of his contemporary monarchs of the same time period George III accepted the concept of constitutional monarchy. During this period Gustav III of Sweden suspended his country’s constitution, Louis XVI tried to undermine the constitution forced upon him, and Russians dared not challenge the rights of the Tsar. King George III was not only loyal to the British constitution, but he actually loved the idea of the British system. George III understood that his family’s very claim to the throne of Great Britain was dependent on the very idea of revolution and he was committed to the British ideal.

(King George III)
Unlike his immediate predecessors George III was very British. The Royal Family for the bulk of the last century had been what we would now call an immigrant family. Like most immigrant families after a few generations they embrace their family's adopted home over mother country. George I and II were German princes who were Kings of Great Britain; George III was a British prince. George however had several problems. The first of these problems was even though he believed in his constitution, his constitution was unwritten. Today in the United States we often debate about what our written constitution means, imagine debating what the unwritten one is suppose to mean. And it seems that everyone’s interpretation of this unwritten constitution is the interpretation that gives their political group the most power. George knew he was King and as King he had certain rights under the constitution to govern his country under the law and traditions established.

(King George III, older)

I have some sympathy with George, although I do not agree with monarchy, if you are going to have one does it not make sense to let the monarch do his job? It seems throughout his reign King George would try to his job as the unwritten constitution defined it, only to be criticized as a Stuart want-a-be. He thought he had to job to do, tried to do it, and was criticized for undermining the constitution that he actually loved.

(King George III with a nice hat)

He also had a hard time accepting any change what so ever. He could not see that the House of Commons need to be reformed, he could not listen to the needs and legitimacy of the plight of the American colonists, and he needed to be nudged into supporting the abolition of the slave trade. Most importantly he saw the emancipation of Catholics in Britain to be a betrayal of the Glorious Revolution that brought his family to power.

(What George would like to forget.)

His last major problem was his battles with mental illness. This problem would undermine his reign and destroy his attempts to make an active monarchy. He would have to accept a more ceremonial figurehead role during the Napoleonic wars, although in that role he would have his greatest rise in popularity.

An ironic twist in King George III’s career is although he most known for losing the thirteen American colonies that became the United States of America, under King George III, Britain actually underwent a very large expansion of its imperial borders.
“In 1779, firmly stating his resolution never to grant American independence, George claimed that such a measure ‘must entirely fix the fall of this empire.’ Instead, on the global scale, the reach of British power provided one of the most lasting legacies of George’s reign, and one that, in the shape of political culture, survived the end of the British empire. As a result of this reach, this chapter is necessarily eclectic, but it reflects the range of activities and topics in which George was engaged as a result of the spread of the empire, and the very different ways in which he was of real or symbolic importance. One of the most enduring aspects was naming which marked British imperial expansion with the royal presence. The process of naming is still readily apparent, especially in areas where the end of imperial control was not accompanied by a determination to reject the legacy of the past. The royal nomenclature of place indeed is the most persistent for the Hanoverian period, when empire was largely a case of North America and the West Indies: Georgetowns and Charlottes testify to the reach of British power and the determination to identify colonies with the crown and the royal family.” (p.329)
When he ascended to the throne of Great Britain he had two goals. The first goal was to restore the monarch to a more active role in the government from the more a supervisory role of his grandfather and great-grandfather. The second was to make the monarchy above politics and a symbol of unity. On first point he failed and the second he succeeded. The reason for this is these were contradictory goals. You cannot act political and be above politics.

Jeremy Black wrote a very great book about a very difficult ruler. I only a have few quibbles, for example why is words ‘king’ and ‘king of Great Britain’ not capitalized but the words ‘Elector’ and ‘Elector of Hanover’ are. Also there is slight error; George Washington never preferred the title ‘His Mightiness, President of the United States and the protector of their liberties’. That was John Adams, Washington rejected that, although everything else Black said about Washington is true. Other than those two things the book is perfect.

{Video is from the movie The Madness of King George}

Saturday, March 24, 2012


A review of Veronica Baker-Smith’s Royal Discord: The Family of George II (2008)

(Rating 5 of 5)

In Royal Discord Veronica Baker-Smith explores the British Royal Family during the time of King George II. The children of George II are often ignored in British history despite the fact that they had significant contributions. At first glance the reason seems obvious: none of this King’s children had ever sat on the throne themselves. The heir Fredrick, the Prince of Wales, died before his father did, but not before he himself had many children to ensure that the throne would never pass to his siblings. George II would be followed by his grandson, not his son. The third Hanoverian generation was never represented on the line of British kings. This however is not a good explanation because the children of Edward III never occupied the throne either and they are almost all remembered. There really is no good reason why these royals were forgotten they just were. Baker-Smith’s focus is on the King himself, his two sons and his eldest daughter. The whole family is covered but those four are the most prominent.

As for King George II, I would guess he must have suffered from mental illness like his successor and grandson. The way he treated his family and his really bizarre behavior around his ministers, led me to believe that he must have been mentally ill. The author describes him as knocking over furniture to find a penny and kicking his wig around the floor.

(King George II)

Fredrick, the Prince of Wales, comes off as extremely tragic. At the age of seven he is left behind to a figurehead in Hanover, occasionally waiting for his grandfather, George I, to come visit him. When he comes to England his parents cruelly isolate him from the rest of the family, openly ridiculing him, and hoping that he would impotent as so not to deprive their favorite son, the Duke of Cumberland, from the throne. Well even though Fredrick would not outlive his father and thus would never be king, he would marry and produce nine children. The multiple children meant the younger brother would never be the king.

(Fredrick, the Prince of Wales)

William Augustus, the Duke of Cumberland was a great military leader and reformer. The Duke had an incredible military career distinguishing himself in the War of Austrian Succession and putting down the rebellion of 1745. In defeating the rebellion he crushed the dreams of Young Pretender of claiming back his country for his dad and himself. The Duke would be the favorite of his parents but had a falling out with his father toward the end of his father’s life. This however opened up for him an opportunity to serve as a senior statesman during the reign of his nephew, King George III.

(William Augustus, the Duke of Cumberland)

Anne, the Princess Royal of Great Britain, the eldest daughter of the King, she was a princess who wanted to be queen. Anne often wished not to have brothers so she could claim the crown. However she married the Prince of Orange, William IV, which allowed her to hold a consort position in the Dutch Republic. When her husband died she was regent to her son but was also given a legitimate position within the Republic.

(Anne, Princess Royal)

“Anne’s whole-hearted identification with her adopted country was recognized and thus gave her, theoretically, a powerful and unique position for an English princess: she could be seen as a ruler in her own right rather than just representing her son.” (p.167)

This family should not have been forgotten they were very interesting individuals. If HBO or Showtime were looking for ideas, they might want to take a look at these people.

{Video is David Starkey's Monarchy: House of Hanover}

Wednesday, March 21, 2012


A review of Ragnhild Hatton’s George I (1978)

(Rating 4 of 5)

Ragnhild Hatton wrote a very good biography of a very forgotten—yet important—King of Great Britain. ‘Lucky George’ was the good fortune recipient of the Civil Wars that plagued Britain during the seventeenth century. He became the patriarch of the modern British dynasty, although they have since changed their name. George I’s rise to the British throne was really the pinnacle of an already successful political and military career. Although England’s patron saint since the time of Edward III was St. George, England never had a ‘King George’ until this monarch. They would go on to have five after him. This man did indeed live an interesting life.

(King George I)

Born in Germany in the final phase of what was call the Holy Roman Empire. His father Ernst August did everything he could to have his Duke of Hanover title converted into an electoral one. George’s destiny would be even greater where his dad became an elector he became a king.

(Electress Sophia of Hanover, matriarch of the modern British dynasty.)

The reputation that King George I has is that of a boring stand in. During the reigns of William III and Anne there were rumors that the Old Pretender was a changeling switched with a dead baby. This gave at least a hint of legitimacy to their rule. But there was no pretending with the House of Hanover, with over fifty people were better claims, they knew they owed their crown to a revolution, despite whether or not they wanted to admit it. The prettier, charismatic Stuarts seem to gain a great deal of sympathy against the boring, plain German dynasty.

This book debunks a lot of the myths about George I. Far from being a boring old king, he was general who led armies of the Holy Roman Empire during the War of Spanish Succession. Becoming King of Great Britain was a literal crowning achievement of an already spectacular career. He also, despite his reputation, acquired a working knowledge of English. When people say ‘constitutional monarchy’ what they mean is ceremonial figurehead. However that does not really describe King George I, he was an actually ruler who governed his kingdom with his ministers but understood and accepted that the King was restrained by law.

The only downside to this book is capitalization. No titles in this book are capitalized. In the text you have king George, prince Fredrick, and emperor Charles. It is very annoying. Despite this one drawback it is a quite good biography.

{Video from the series Kings and Queens of England}

Sunday, March 18, 2012


A review of Stephan Baxter’s William III (1966)

(Rating 4 of 5)

Stephan Baxter tells the story of the Dutchman who became the King of England. Both the people of Holland and the people of Britain knew him as William III. To the Dutch he was William III Prince of Orange, two of the previous princes being his father and his great-grandfather—the famous William the Silent. To the English he was King William III, the two previous kings to bear that name was the Conqueror himself and the useless son, William Rufus. This William would do the same things his predecessors (Silent and Conqueror) did, but the result would be far different.

William was born the only child of William II, Prince of Orange and Mary, Princess of Orange and Princess Royal of England. He was a citizen of the Dutch Republic, a very confusing political entity if there ever was one. Although a Republic, it still had nobility, hereditary princes, and the leadership of a ‘Great Man’ who dominated the Republic. Despite their size and confusing political system they were the premier power of their day.

However their day was quickly ending with the rise of France under the rule of King Louis XIV. The Sun King as he was called would be the most powerful man in Europe getting fellow kings, emperors, and popes to have to follow his directive. Baxter presents William as the hero of the Republic. The Prince would build and led coalitions against the emerging superpower. Although the era would still be the Age of Louis XIV, William would preserve the Republic’s independence, and carry the banner of Protestantism.

(King Louis XIV the most powerful monarch in Europe)

However, what William is most famous for is his role in what is known as the Glorious Revolution. The Glorious Revolution would result in the overthrow of his father-in-law, King James II, and would establish both he and his wife as the new King and Queen of England. William’s great-grandfather, the Prince of Orange known as William the Silent, set precedent of a foreign prince aiding an oppressed people. In addition, over six hundred years previous his distant ancestor William the Conqueror he would land in England during a succession dispute depose the King by force and take the crown itself. William III preferred to emulate his more recent Dutch ancestor. He wanted to be William the Deliverer who crossed the Channel to hold a free Parliament for the British people.

(William's uncle and father-in-law who be dethroned in the Glorious Revolution. He has the interesting distinction of being the only deposed King of England not to be murdered.)

(The winners: William and Mary now King William III and Queen Mary II of England)

The Prince of Orange also had a distinct advantage the Duke of Normandy did not. The Prince really did have the people behind him. King James II had been a terrible monarch, but he had none of the survival skills that his older brother, Charles II, had processed. In one way that I found Baxter lacking is the author discusses many things about James’ mind: that he lost his nerve, that he made foolish mistakes, and he might have been able to salvage the situation had he not turned into a coward. Yet, not once does Baxter mention the fate of James’ father, King Charles I, who was deposed, tried, and executed. I would think that during a Revolution against his rule that he feels he may not win, his father’s fate would be close to his mind. Nevertheless, he runs and gives a clear field to the Dutchman.

“One of the great myths of the Revolution of 1688 is that it was made by the nobility rather than the people of England. It was not. The ultimate cause of course, was the misgovernment of James II which so alienated the people that two abortive risings occurred as early as 1685.” (p.243-4)

In a way, William put himself in the same trap that King Henry IV fell into. By refusing to assume the role of conqueror he, like Henry, limited his right to rule based on competence and Parliamentary approval. As so he would find the position of monarch directly weakened as a result. Although William’s revolution was bloodless compared to the Dukes of Normandy and Lancaster, by unintentionally coping the later he found himself in a compromised position. Although, what was bad for the King was a good thing for long-term democracy and freedom codified in the English Bill of Rights. The right of a people to overthrow tyranny established by this Revolution would create precedent for people across the pond in less than a hundred years later.

“The rest of the Convention’s conduct was of a piece with its refusal to grant the King a life revenue. In February the King and Queen had accepted the crown of England on conditions, those contained in the famous Declaration of Right. William III was annoyed at any reduction of the royal power and hoped that the crown would not be the worse for his wearing it. At the time, the Declaration was explained to him as being a mere restatement of existing law. Whatever it might be, he hoped to have heard the last of it. Yet at the end of the years the Convention made the Declaration into a statute, known as the Bill of Rights.” (p.256)

William the Dutchman becoming the King of England would allow the British to copy the banking and merchant policies that allow little Holland to become a world power. The result would be the foundation of the great British Empire that would dominate the world for the next two hundred years.

Stephan Baxter tells a great story about a homely and shy prince who becomes not only one of the greatest monarchs the world had ever known but also a champion for freedom.

{In the video Eric Foner gives a good brief description of the Glorious Revolution and its impact on the colonies}

Friday, March 16, 2012


A review of Stephen Coote’s Royal Survivor: The Life of Charles II (1999)

(Rating 5 of 5)

Royal Survivor is great book written about an interesting person with a fascinating life. Born to the ultimate form of privilege Charles was the eldest son of the King. As and heir to the throne of the King of England, Charles spent his boyhood as the Prince of Wales leading a life a wealth and luxury. However as he grew to greater awareness, he observed the country go through the greatest upheaval in its history. The English Civil War was turning the world on its head. His father, King Charles I would be dethroned, tried, and executed. He would spend his young adulthood wandering around Europe, homeless, hoping other charitable monarchs to take him in and feed him. Then he is suddenly restored to his rightful place to begin a very memorable reign.

(Charles II as the Prince of Wales)

Charles II is most famous for being ‘the Merry Monarch’ I however found the most interesting parts of the book to be his time in exile. It was not easy for a prince born the heir to the throne believing he was rightful king in a monarchy that had now been abolished, having to now live in state of poverty. For Charles it must have been as if the whole world had turned upside down. Poor, homeless, and impoverished the man who considered himself to be a king was hardly living the life, being tossed back and forth between France, Holland, and Spain. His previous attempts to win back his crown had ended in disaster. However with the self-destruction of the Protectorate government of England a few years following the death of Oliver Cromwell, he was then presented with the opportunity of a lifetime. Parliament invited him back to rule, and Charles was restored in a change of government that almost bloodless! Only the regicides perished when King Charles II was actually able to rule his kingdom. It was an amazing feat that he played well, but it was a victory that he did not earn.

“There was also a more subtle reasons for irony. It was surely evident to Charles how small a part he had played in his own restoration. On the occasions when he had exerted himself and tried to regain his crown, the result had always been bloodshed, defeat and death. Now he had been bloodlessly willed into power by his own people, his single contribution having been the adroitness with which he had been able to present himself as the only credible alternative to the repeated failures of the Interregnum regimes. Charles had been restored not because of who he was but of what he was: his country’s legitimate monarch.”p.180

The reign of King Charles II was what the previous puritan regime was not: scandalous. The people, who lived under the tyranny of Oliver Cromwell’s major generals, were most likely grateful to live under a monarch who paraded his mistresses around with pride. However his reign was more than just about sex, during his kingship England saw great progress in the areas of science. And unlike his personnel restoration, which he played no great role in, he directly contributed to the scientific progress that defined his era. Charles’ grandfather, King James I, ruled a nation that took the idea of witches seriously. King James wrote a book about witches complete with flying broomsticks, and he seriously believed that it was a witch’s curse that gave him an overly large tongue. The England of King Charles II brought to the Western World Newtonian physics.

“The Royal Society was incorporated under a charter granted by Charles on 15 July 1662, and his genuine interest in scientific matters led to research and debate becoming fashionable among the nobility and gentry. Charles employed one of his gentlemen ushers to convey his enquiries to the Society and probed the members as to why sensitive plants flinched and contracted when touched, and why ants’ eggs were sometimes bigger than the ants themselves. He arranged for a laboratory to be built in his palace at Whitehall where experiments could be conducted before him or he could investigate problems for himself. He took a keen interest in inventions that the society patented, presented it with curiosities, and throughout his life provided members with the venison traditionally eaten at the anniversary dinner. What Charles was encouraging in such ways was a profound change in the manner in which the elite looked at the world.

The regular publication of research was a crucial part of the Society’s early achievement and, if the initial hopes of its founders were nor immediately realized, the record of its success is remarkable indeed. The group of scholars and gentlemen amateurs incorporated by Charles included Robert Hooke, Robert Boyle and above all Sir Isaac Newton. Though the discoveries of these men especially, it became possible to view the universe as acting in all places and at all times according to consistent and verifiable rules or natural laws.” p.258-9

(Charles II as King)

Throughout his life and reign King Charles II was a brilliant politician in ways his father could have only dreamed of being. Despite his humble method in restoration he would emerge as a very powerful king. He has a troubling legacy in terms of succession. It is still unclear to me why he did not try to legitimize the Duke of Monmouth. King Henry VIII was desperate for an heir and often considered making his illegitimate son that person. Had Henry Fitzroy, the Duke of Richmond lived as long as his father he mostly likely would have been king. Even if Henry VIII held off to the birth of his legitimate son, Edward VI, Richmond still would have been in line in the same manner that his sisters, Mary I and Elizabeth I, were. Yet, Charles, even though Coote writes that the he considered his lawful heir, the Duke of York, to be a moron, he did not chose to support his son. Ultimately, he Duke of Monmouth suffered the same fate as his royal grandfather only it was more gruesome. Nevertheless the Exclusion crisis, which tried to prevent his brother from coming to the throne, allowed Charles to triumph over his political adversaries and emerge supreme.

(James II, Duke of York in his brother's and father's reigns. James II was a foolish king who was the last British monarch to be dethroned)

(The Duke of Monmouth, the eldest of the king's bastards and the first to try to dethrone his uncle. He failed and was beheaded.)

“He had emerged from the Exclusion Crisis as an unfettered sovereign, and as such he would remain. He distanced himself from his Tory supporters, refusing them the privileges they might legitimately have expected. Indeed, Charles was determined to lower the levels of political consciousness and excitement in the country as a whole, and to reduce the influence of party activity especially.” P.344

Royal Survivor is great book. The life of King Charles II is one incredible adventure and Coote creates a great narrative to explain it. I would recommend this book to the historian and non-historian alike.

{Video is from the BBC series The Last King- The Power and Passion of Charles II}