Top 5 ‘Upper Class Idiots In Charge’

In his excellent book ‘An Utterly Impartial History Of Britain’ (which I use as partial source material for far too many of my history-based posts), author John O’Farrell offers us the subtitle of ‘Two Thousand Years of Upper Class Idiots In Charge’. As a description of Britain’s, and indeed most of the world’s, political history, it is an almost depressingly accurate sobriquet; only in the last hundred years (and some would argue not even nowadays given who currently sits in No. 10) have ‘commoners’ been given the chance to rule our little island, and not since King William III has any effective power rested with anyone other than the hereditary monarch. However, just as with elected Prime Ministers, some of these upper-class idiots have done a significantly better job than others at running our country, and since I love a good arbitrary list as much as anyone I thought I would dedicate this post to detailing my Top 5 English* Monarchs. Oh, and a quick apology; this is going to be a long one.

*Because I am not all that familiar with pre-Union Scottish, Irish or Welsh history, my list will be drawn from the line representing the English monarchy that began in 927 and later became the Kingdom of Great Britain under the ‘rule’ of Queen Anne. Technically, therefore, some of the monarchs considered will be British, rather than English, but to dub this a list of British monarchs would a) be doing the other kings of this isle who do not form part of this line and who I am unfamiliar with a severe disservice and b) make the job of choosing just five one hell of a lot more complicated. OK, let’s begin, in chronological order:

Athelstan (927-39)

Despite strong challenges from his grandfather, Alfred the Great (who was unfortunately ruler of Wessex, rather than England) and the Viking king Canute, Athelstan takes his rightful place here as the greatest pre-Norman king of England. This is partly thanks to the fact he created the title; in 924 he inherited the Kingdom of Wessex and immediately embarked on a campaign to throw the Vikings out of the Danegeld (the land north of the old Roman road Watling street) that had been allocated to them by Alfred. It should be mentioned that this was less a ‘liberation’ than a land grab, but nonetheless he was one of the most staggeringly effective military leaders in British history; he conquered all the land between the Midlands and Northumberland (including the historic Viking capital of York), defeated the King of Scotland, marched back down south to take control of Wales (hence why the ‘English’ throne has always incorporated Wales) and the inconveniently titled West Wales (Devon & Cornwall), and finally defeated a coalition army of pretty much all of the above to become recognised as the undisputed king of all England (and a few other bits besides) in 937. Little is known about his domestic policy (this was the Dark Ages after all), but he nonetheless deserves credit as being a truly ‘great’ leader in the classical sense of the word.

Henry II (1154-89)

Henry II was not really an English monarch; he was a Frenchman, head of the Angevin Empire that stretched from Scotland to the southern tip of France, incorporating France’s entire Atlantic coast and control of both sides of the English channel. This owed much to his cleverly strategic marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine, de facto ruler of much of western France at the time, and it is a tribute to his sheer energy that he was able to manage all of it with such aplomb. So impatient was he to get on with the day’s work, he reportedly chose his chaplain based on who could get through mass the fastest.

During his reign, Henry made some quite staggering achievements, controlling his barons (who would later force his son John to sign the Magna Carta) to great effect, reconquering the land won back by the Scots and Welsh from his predecessors’ rule, revolutionising the justice system with the creation of the offices of sherriff and coroner and generally micromanaging the realm to within an inch of its life with great effect, both military and economic. In fact, he only made two notable mistakes during his entire reign; the first was an invasion of Ireland that set the two countries on course for an 800 year long dispute that would cost thousands of lives, and the second concerned his attempts to bring the ultra-powerful Church under his control. When his hand-picked Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas a Becket, began to stop toeing the Henry line, the infamously hot tempered king shouted an order that was misinterpreted by a group of his knights to walk into Canterbury Cathedral (holy ground, upon which blood was not allowed to be spilt) and bash Becket’s brains out then and there. The Church milked the scandal for all it was worth, making Thomas a saint and vilifying Henry to the highest degree. Even today, many only know Henry because of the ‘Becket incident’.

Edward III (1327-77)

During his half-century reign, Edward III made a major impression in just about every part of England and English life at the time. Whilst his father Edward II had lost to the Scots at Bannockburn, enabling them to establish independence, Edward III was quick to march back over the border and quickly won victory over Robert the Bruce’s son David II at Halidon Hill, forcing him into exile and replacing him with the more compliant Edward Balliol, who promptly gave back all the land Robert had taken from the English. This was, in fact, a preferable situation to having the Scots under English rule, where they would simply rebel, as the subsequent half-century of political muddling over Scotland’s future prevented it from mounting a threat to English lands. With Scotland out of the way, Edward made the slightly more dubious decision to begin the Hundred Years War (had he known that was going to be the title, he might have considered against it) to enforce his claim to the French throne, and in doing so won stunning victories at the Battles of Sluys (at sea, in which the court jester was forced to break the humiliating news to the French king by saying how the cowardly English didn’t dare jump into the sea like the brave Frenchmen) and Crecy (on land, in which his bowmen and infantry soundly defeated the French cavalry, shattering the supposed invincibility of the mounted knight and beginning the slow demise of the knight in warfare). Had the Black Death not had the discourtesy to come along in the middle and wipe out nearly 40% of the European population (in turn utterly changing the balance of power in Europe), the Hundred Years’ War might have all but ended there with England’s victory over the French (although that would require the war to get a new name). Especially since he’d captured the French king.

But it was not just on the battlefield that Edward had success. He founded the Order of the Garter, still the highest office in the British Honours system, to maintain the chivalric code a little longer, cleared corrupt officials out of government to create an efficient, profitable taxation system and government, strengthened the legal system and Parliament (making the House of Commons and Lords separate entities) whilst increasing the monarchy’s importance and authority, and fostered a sense of Englishness in his country for the first time; St George, for example, became England’s patron saint. It is worth noting in relation to this latter point that this was also the era of Geoffrey Chaucer, whose Canterbury Tales would become among the most significant works in history by establishing English as a written language for the first time.

Henry VII (1485-1509)

As every schoolboy knows, Henry VII became the first Tudor king after victory at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485, but that was to be the last significant military action during his reign (and indeed, the last time an English king won their throne in battle). Unlike many of his ‘great’ predecessors, Henry gains a place on this list by being one of the most effective, if unglamorous, of all British rulers on the domestic front. Soon after Bosworth Field, the Lancastrian Henry married the Yorkist Eleanor of York, both bolstering his claim to the throne and uniting the two houses that had fought so viciously during the wars of the roses and ensuring his heir would be regarded as legitimate by all. He then, somehow, managed to persuade all the barons to obey his edict that banned their keeping the private militias that had so helped him on his rise to power, and then started milking off most of the resulting cash generated as part of his highly effective taxation system. That he managed to stay on the throne of a country full of immensely powerful barons who he was then able to gain control over and squeeze money out of based on a rather weak claim without any significant bloodshed is as good a testament as any to his interpersonal and management skills, and he spent the next two decades amassing the biggest fortune of any English king to date (in spite of his decision not to grant Columbus a royal charter to sail across the Atlantic, a deal that would net Spain all the gold of South America). It’s a shame his son Henry VIII would go on to spend nearly all of it on rather wasteful ventures, but that was hardly his fault

Elizabeth II

OK, a bold call I’ll admit, but hear me out. The English monarchy can be argued to have passed through three stages in its long and illustrious history; the pre-feudal phase, when a mixture of an elective council, assassins and armies were the ultimate decider of who was on the throne, the medieval phase (post William the Conqueror) in which Britain was a fairly typical feudal monarchy run by its hereditary monarch, and the Parliamentary phase (post William III) where the monarchy became more and more of a ceremonial role with all real power coming from Parliament (some would date this period from Charles I and Oliver Cromwell’s rule, but there was significant power jostling between monarch and Parliament for the rest of the Stuart era until the monarchs finally assumed a subservient position). Of  my previous four picks, three has been from the medieval phase and one from the pre-feudal, but the very nature of the monarchy during this third period means that ‘greatness’ doesn’t really spring up in the traditional sense. However, I felt this period needed some representation, and our current Queen has adapted to the role of a monarch during this period better than any other, fulfilling her symbolic role whilst not arrogantly attempting to pretend to power. Not only that, but she has had to do so during what must be the most tumultuous period of change experienced in any monarch’s reign, and has coped with this change magnificently. Whether you think that her role or the concept of a monarch should exist at all, it is hard to deny that she has done her job. Which is more that can be said for most of her ancestors.

The Third Crusade Onward

When we think of the crusades, the subject of my previous two posts and this concluding one, it is primarily the third that springs to mind. This is partly because it was one of the biggest,with the three great European powers of England, France and the Holy Roman Empire uniting for the cause against the might of Islam behind Saladin, and also one of the simplest to understand; one lot of Christians fight one lot of Muslims and whoever ends up with the Holy Land is the winner. However, the main reason it is so well remembered is thanks to Richard I, also known as Coeur-de-Lion or Richard the Lionheart. Richard is a strange figure in English history; a Frenchman who never learnt English, visited England three times in his life, was a decidedly useless ruler who sold and taxed to death everything in England he could in order to pay for his wars, then completely bankrupted it by forcing his subjects to levy the single largest ransom in history to pay for his release and who is STILL somehow considered this great hero of English history. This is almost entirely due to the enduring tale of Robin Hood, whose struggle against Richard’s even more incompetent brother John (who acted as interim ruler during Richard’s absence), and the fact that Richard did some good PR work by forgiving John immediately after returning, before going off to war again, getting himself killed besieging a castle in France and forcing the country to put up with John as an actual king.

Richard was, however, a brilliant warrior and military strategist (which is presumably why he spent his entire life at war), and nowhere was this as well-illustrated as when he went crusading. Even when the vast armies of the Holy Roman Empire almost all went home after Emperor Frederick’s death, he was able to conquer the great walled city of Acre in little over a month. The city would go on to become the new home of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, previously destroyed by Saladin. The subsequent arguments over the city would result in all the remaining German forces and all but 10,000 of the French leaving the Holy Land, which didn’t prevent Richard from routing Saladin’s army when it ambushed his in the Battle of Arsuf, boosting the morale of his men. He captured several more cities, only being forced back from taking the severely weakened Jerusalem due to bad weather, lost the city of Jaffa to a large Muslim force and then defeated them too with a small force of just 2,000; no mean feat given Saladin’s known prowess as a general. Through Richard’s work, the Kingdom of Jerusalem was refounded, albeit without much of its original land or the titular city that Richard, for various reasons, neglected to capture.

In many ways, it’s a shame he was so successful and that his name, and that of his crusade, has lived on so long; Richard was by all accounts an all round terrible person, sanctioning the massacre of civilians at Acre and the mass beheading of prisoners in full view of the Muslim army after the battle because negotiations were taking too long to name but two things. By contrast, even European history has remembered Saladin as more than an ‘infidel’, but as a man of honour and chivalry; when his army retook Jaffa, he reportedly ordered the Christians to take shelter as he attempted to regain control of an army maddened with rage and with thoughts of revenge for Acre in its collective mind. He even sent exotic fruits and healers to his enemy when Richard was nearly dying of fever. He was also known to be supportive of scientific and academic advances in his realm, and died poor after distributing most of his money among his subjects. Richard, by all accounts, respected the hell out of his adversary for precisely these reasons, but couldn’t manage to be as good a man as him.

The Christian attempt to take back the Holy Land would never come close to Richard’s successes. The Fourth Crusade, declared by Pope Innocent III just 10 years later ended in disaster when the crusaders couldn’t find a way to pay the Venetian shipbuilders who built the largest fleet since Roman times to accommodate them, with the crusade sacking the Christian cities of Zara and Constantinople before being excommunicated by the pope and utterly falling to pieces, in the process signalling the end of the once-great Byzantine empire. Innocent III declared the last official papally-sanctioned crusade for the Holy Land 15 years after that, whereupon the crusading army was forced to surrender to Muslim forces in Egypt, No. 6 was little more than a series of non-papally sanctioned political manoeuvres by the excommunicated Emperor Frederick II of the Holy Roman Empire that did nonetheless give the Kingdom of Jerusalem actual control of Jerusalem for 20 years, but then Muslim forces invaded and took it back. Three subsequent crusades attempted to win it back, but none made it beyond North Africa. In 1291, the once-prosperous Kingdom of Jerusalem set up by Richard fell with the recapture of Acre by the Muslims, and the crusading dream finally ended. Not that anyone told the King of Jerusalem; officially the Kingdom merely moved to Cyprus and the title has lived on for many centuries. Nowadays many people, including King Juan Carlos I of Spain, have a claim on the title.

In many ways, the crusades were a reflection of the age, and particularly the role of the Church within it. The role of the Pope has (reportedly) existed for 2000 years, but it was during the medieval age, between the Norman Conquest and the Renaissance, that it really became a political force. Once just a voice on religious matters, it was during this time that the Christian world embraced religious zealotry; the age where the bishop was the most powerful voice in a community, and was just as much a political leader as the most powerful king or emperor. And, really, this was a direct result of the crusading idea, of the idea that violence in the pursuit of better things was justified, for this gave the church earthly power that it had never previously held. It can be easy to ignore the wills of the Church when all they can physically do to you is waggle a finger and talk about heaven and hell, but when an army marches under a cross, when people are prepared to kill and to die for God, then it becomes one hell of a lot harder to ignore. The Church fully embraced this power, calling crusades not just in the middle east but also for political reasons across Europe (even if not many people went on them), and crusades were even called as late as 1444 in the Balkans. The growing power and influence of the church in this age was perhaps best indicated in the Thomas a Becket incident, when Henry II (in a fit of rage) accidentally ordered the assassination of his archbishop. Henry, one of England’s greatest ever kings, was forced pretty much solely by public pressure to spend vast amounts of money on numerous acts of penance and his reputation has only just begun to recover. Even nowadays, with the role of the church vastly diminished (and to a far lesser extent), this idea of the Christian faith as a political force and even a tool for violence is still very much with us; it provided the moral justification used by the KKK, for example. The story of the crusades is an ugly one, packed to the brim with zealotry, bigotry, hypocrisy and violence on a truly appalling scale; but they are a lot more than just ancient history. The legacy of the crusades will be rattling around our world for many years to come.

Connections

History is a funny old business; an endless mix of overlapping threads, intermingling stories and repeating patterns that makes fascinating study for anyone who knows where to look. However, the part of it that I enjoy most involves taking the longitudinal view on things, linking two seemingly innocuous, or at least totally unrelated, events and following the trail of breadcrumbs that allow the two to connect. Things get even more interesting when the relationship is causal, so today I am going to follow the trail of one of my favourite little stories; how a single storm was, in the long run, responsible for the Industrial revolution. Especially surprising given that the storm in question occurred in 1064.

This particular storm occurred in the English Channel, and doubtless blew many ships off course, including one that had left from the English port of Bosham (opposite the Isle of Wight). Records don’t say why the ship was making its journey, but what was definitely significant was its passenger; Harold Godwinson, Earl of Wessex and possibly the most powerful person in the country after King Edward the Confessor. He landed (although that might be overstating the dignity and intention of the process) at Ponthieu, in northern France, and was captured by the local count, who subsequently turned him over to his liege when he, with his famed temper, heard of his visitor: the liege in question was Duke William of Normandy, or ‘William the Bastard’ as he was also known (he was the illegitimate son of the old duke and a tanner). Harold’s next move was (apparently) to accompany his captor to a battle just up the road in Brittany. He then tried to negotiate his freedom, which William accepted, on the condition that he swear an oath to him that, were the childless King Edward to die, he would support William’s claim to the throne (England at the time operated a sort of elective monarchy, where prospective candidates were chosen by a council of nobles known as the Witengamot). According to the Bayeux tapestry, Harold took this oath and left France; but two years later King Edward fell into a coma. With his last moment of consciousness before what was surely an unpleasant death, he apparently gestured to Harold, standing by his bedside. This was taken by Harold, and the Witengamot, as a sign of appointing a successor, and Harold accepted the throne. This understandably infuriated William, who considered this a violation of his oath, and subsequently invaded England. His timing of this coincided with another distant cousin, Harald Hardrada of Norway, deciding to push his claim to the throne, and in the resulting chaos William came to the fore. He became William the Conqueror, and the Normans controlled England for the next several hundred years.

One of the things that the Norman’s brought with them was a newfound view on religion; England was already Christian, but their respective Church’s views on certain subjects differed slightly. One such subject was serfdom, a form of slavery that was very popular among the feudal lords of the time. Serfs were basically slaves, in that they could be bought or sold as commodities; they were legally bound to the land they worked, and were thus traded and owned by the feudal lords who owned the land. In some countries, it was not unusual for one’s lord to change overnight after a drunken card game; Leo Tolstoy lost most of his land in just such an incident, but that’s another story. It was not a good existence for a serf, completely devoid of any form of freedom, but for a feudal lord it was great; cheap, guaranteed labour and thus income from one’s land, and no real risks concerned. However the Norman church’s interpretation of Christianity was morally opposed to the idea, and began to trade serfs for free peasants as a form of agricultural labour. A free peasant was not tied to the land but rented it from his liege, along with the right to use various pieces of land & equipment; the feudal lord still had income, but if he wanted goods from his land he had to pay for it from his peasants, and there were limits on the control he had over them. If a peasant so wished, he could pack up and move to London or wherever, or to join a ship; whatever he wanted in his quest to make his fortune. The vast majority were never faced with this choice as a reasonable idea, but the principle was important- a later Norman king, Henry I, also reorganised the legal system and introduced the role of sheriff, producing a society based around something almost resembling justice.

[It is worth noting that the very last serfs were not freed until the reign of Queen Elizabeth in the 1500s, and that subsequent British generations during the 18th century had absolutely no problem with trading in black slaves, but they justified that partly by never actually seeing the slaves and partly by taking the view that the black people weren’t proper humans anyway. We can be disgusting creatures]

A third Norman king further enhanced this concept of justice, even if completely by accident. King John was the younger brother of inexplicable national hero King Richard I, aka Richard the Lionheart or Couer-de-Lion (seriously, the dude was a Frenchman who visited England twice, both to raise money for his military campaigns, and later levied the largest ransom in history on his people when he had to be released by the Holy Roman Emperor- how he came to national prominence I will never know), and John was unpopular. He levied heavy taxes on his people to pay for costly and invariably unsuccessful military campaigns, and whilst various incarnations of Robin Hood have made him seem a lot more malevolent than he probably was, he was not a good King. He was also harsh to his people, and successfully pissed off peasant and noble alike; eventually the Norman Barons presented John with an ultimatum to limit his power, and restore some of theirs. However, the wording of the document also granted some basic and fundamental rights to the common people as well; this document was known as the Magna Carta; one of the most important legal documents in history, and arguably the cornerstone in the temple of western democracy.

The long-term ramifacations of this were huge; numerous wars were fought over the power it gave the nobility in the coming centuries, and Henry II (9 years old when he took over from father John) was eventually forced to call the first parliament; which, crucially, featured both barons (the noblemen, in what would soon become the House of Lords) and burghers (administrative leaders and representatives of the cities & commoners, in the House of Commons). The Black Death (which wiped out most of the peasant population and thus raised the value of the few who were left) greatly increased the value and importance of peasants across Europe for purely economic reasons for a few years, but over the next few centuries multiple generations of kings in several countries would slowly return things to the old ways, with them on top and their nobles kept subservient. In countries such as France, a nobleman got himself power, rank, influence and wealth by getting into bed with the king (in the cases of some ambitious noblewomen, quite literally); but in England the existence of a Parliament meant that no matter how much the king’s power increased through the reign of Plantagenets, Tudors and Stuarts, the gentry had some form of national power and community- and that the people were, to some nominal degree, represented as well. This in turn meant that it became not uncommon for the nobility and high-ranking (or at least rich) ordinary people to come into contact, and created a very fluid class system. Whilst in France a middle class businessman was looked on with disdain by the lords, in Britain he would be far more likely to be offered a peerage; nowadays the practice is considered undemocratic, but this was the cutting edge of societal advancement several hundred years ago. It was this ‘lower’ class of gentry, comprising the likes of John Hampden and Oliver Cromwell, who would precipitate the English Civil War as King Charles I tried to rule without Parliament altogether (as opposed to his predecessors  who merely chose to not listen to them a lot of the time); when the monarchy was restored (after several years of bloodshed and puritan brutality at the hands of Cromwell’s New Model Army, and a seemingly paradoxical few decades spent with Cromwell governing with only a token parliament, when he used them at all), parliament was the political force in Britain. When James II once again tried his dad’s tactic of proclaiming himself god-sent ruler whom all should respect unquestioningly, Parliament’s response was to invite the Dutch King William of Orange over to replace James and become William III, which he duly did. Throughout the reign of the remaining Stuarts and the Hanoverian monarchs (George I to Queen Victoria), the power of the monarch became steadily more and more ceremonial as the two key political factions of the day, the Whigs (later to become the Liberal, and subsequently Liberal Democrat, Party) and the Tories (as today’s Conservative Party is still known) slugged it out for control of Parliament, the newly created role of ‘First Lord of the Treasury’ (or Prime Minister- the job wasn’t regularly selected from among the commons for another century or so) and, eventually, the country. This brought political stability, and it brought about the foundations of modern democracy.

But I’m getting ahead of myself; what does this have to do with the Industrial Revolution? Well, we can partly blame the political and financial stability at the time, enabling corporations and big business to operate simply and effectively among ambitious individuals wishing to exploit potential; but I think that the key reason it occurred has to do with those ambitious people themselves. In Eastern Europe & Russia, in particular, there were two classes of people; nobility who were simply content to scheme and enjoy their power, and the masses of illiterate serfs. In most of Western Europe, there was a growing middle class, but the monarchy and nobility were united in keeping them under their thumb and preventing them from making any serious impact on the world. The French got a bloodthirsty revolution and political chaos as an added bonus, whilst the Russians waited for another century to finally get sufficiently pissed of at the Czar to precipitate a communist revolution. In Britain, however, there were no serfs, and corporations were built from the middle classes. These people’s primary concerns wasn’t rank or long-running feuds, disagreements over land or who was sleeping with the king; they wanted to make money, and would do so by every means at their disposal. This was an environment ripe for entrepreneurism, for an idea worth thousands to take the world by storm, and they did so with relish. The likes of Arkwright, Stephenson and Watt came from the middle classes and were backed by middle class industry, and the rest of Britain came along for the ride as Britain’s coincidentally vast coal resources were put to good use in powering the change. Per capita income, population and living standards all soared, and despite the horrors that an age of unregulated industry certainly wrought on its populace, it was this period of unprecedented change that was the vital step in the formation of the world as we know it today. And to think that all this can be traced, through centuries of political change, to the genes of uselessness that would later become King John crossing the channel after one unfortunate shipwreck…

And apologies, this post ended up being a lot longer than I intended it to be