Given the current political turmoil surrounding British Prime Minister Theresa May’s efforts to secure a deal for exiting the European Union, let us reflect on whether the Brexit myth of ‘Britain alone‘ (rooted in Britain’s supposedly single-handed defeat of the Nazis) passes muster from an early modern perspective. It may not even ‘pass mustard’ (or any other continental European condiments and other foodstuffs), if there is a no-deal Brexit, such that the British people may end up with a ‘no-meal breakfast’.
Now, what could be more British than the royal family? The truth, however, is that the history of British monarchy is deeply European. Besides such glaring instances as the Anglo-Norman Richard I, the Lionheart King of England in 1189-99 who may have known little English and spent only six months of his reign in England, here are some early modern examples of ‘True Brit’ royals:
1. The French Queen of Scots: contrary to the heavy Scottish accent put on by the Irish-American actress Saoirse Ronan, star of the sensationalist new film Mary, Queen of Scots, Queen Elizabeth’s northern rival was brought up in France. Her father James V of Scotland married Mary of Guise. The Guise family rose to prominence in sixteenth-century France and was a chief instigator of the bloody wars of religion there. The younger Mary lived at the French court from the age of 5 until her return to Scotland in 1561, at the end of her teens. She was raised Catholic under the supervision of her Guise uncles, and claimed the English throne when back in Scotland. The turbulence of her subsequent life–including dealing with the Francophic, anti-monarchical, and anti-Catholic Scots under the leadership of John Knox; her unpopular marriage to Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, who assassinated Mary’s secretary David Rizzio over suspicions of adultery and was himself killed in a conspiracy against James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell; Bothwell’s abduction of and marriage to Mary; her flight to England and the protection of Queen Elizabeth after a rising of Scottish lords; her involvement in plots against Elizabeth; and her subsequent execution in 1587–inspired both Friedrich Schiller’s famous play Maria Stuart and the current movie, which adopts Schiller’s conceit of a meeting between the two queens but without any of Schiller’s dramatic verve. The story, however, doesn’t make any sense without stressing her French Catholic identity: Catholics in France clearly differed with Reformation Scots as to whether she was an angel or devil in dis-Guise. The latter group saw her as ‘Scot-free’.
2. The Dutch invader: Mary’s son James became King of Great Britain after Elizabeth’s death, and James I (as recounted in the EMT post gunpowder flop) successfully survived an assassination attempt by conspirators who were disappointed that the king was not interest in reinstating Catholicism. Nevertheless, his Stuart successors were suspected of favouring the Popish religion. Charles I married Henrietta-Maria of France, and was accused of crypto-Catholicism in imposing High Anglicanism on England and Scotland (it wouldn’t have helped that he was fond of doing crypto-Catholic ‘cross’-Word puzzles, though not of solving their divine mysteries). Charles just couldn’t get ahead in the world; in fact, he lost his head in 1648 as Britain underwent two decades of republican rule. After the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, his son King Charles II was clearly an admirer of France and emulated the absolutism of Louis XIV. The many mistresses of the pleasure-lovin’ Chuck begot him plenty of illegitimate heirs, but the only legitimate successor to the throne was his avowedly Catholic brother James. Upon Charles’s passing (which included a death-bed conversion to Catholicism), King James II set upon actively reinstating Catholicism as the established religion of Great Britain. The British people and Parliament, horrified at the policy of his descendant of the French queen of Scotland, invited James’s daughter Mary and her Dutch Protestant husband William of Orange to invade Britain and oust the Catholic king in 1688 in a ‘glorious revolution’. In other words, the patriotic English favoured a foreign Protestant co-regent to a homegrown Catholic king; William III became sole sovereign after Mary’s death in 1694. There were many depictions of William as a Roman-style conqueror saving Britain from Popism, and even a popular drink commemorating the victory of this Dutch invader of Britain: ‘Orange Julius’.
3. The German Kings of Britain: William and Mary had no surviving children, and so upon William III’s death, the throne passed to James II’s younger daughter Anne (who had supported William during the Glorious Revolution). Anne had no surviving children by 1700, so an Act of Settlement was decreed in which Parliament would bestow the succession of the crown to Anne’s Protestant relatives in the German state of Hanover. And so following Queen Anne’s death in 1714, there was a ‘hand-over’ of power to the Hanover Elector George. Although unsympathetic to British constitutionalism and uninterested in living in England, King George I at least learned English well–but left government affairs in the hands of the ‘Prime Minister’ Robert Walpole. His son and successor in 1727, George II, was also German-born, and so it was only in 1760 that Britain finally had a British-born king again: George II’s grandson, also imaginatively named George. Now, when George I took the throne in 1714, he at least showed he had a ‘handle’ on the musical situation by having with him the Italian-influenced German composer Georg Friedrich Händel. Anglicised as Handel, the composer would write operatic, instrumental, and choral masterpieces throughout his long career in England until his death in 1759. The state honours at his funeral and his burial at Westminster Abbey reflect how perhaps the greatest British composer was a naturalised German.
(Not so lucky was the German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, commissioned by the House of Hanover to write a history of the family. Leibniz regarded all things in the universe as interconnected, worked on several projects at once, and spent his time corresponding and meeting with as many European intellectuals as possible. He decided, then, that to write the history properly, he would have to go back to the origins of the universe, and got as far as hunting for dinosaur fossils in Germany by the time George I became King of Great Britain. By the time Leibniz arrived back in Hanover, the royal family had left, and ordered that he finish the history before joining them in London. He never completed it. Britain was deprived of Germany’s greatest philosopher because of his Leibniz-picking.)
Nevertheless, British anxieties over its relationship to Europe are as old as Britain itself. The 1804 political cartoon, pictured above, features a skeletal Napoleon (who thus earns his name ‘Bones-apart’) on the right-hand side stalking the exhausted figure of Britannia. But her mortal fatigue is mainly due to the bumblings of the British politicians before her, namely William Pitt the Younger as he ousts the ministry of Charles James Fox. ‘Fox-hunting’, it seems, will only weaken Britain and drive it to the Pitt of hell. Arguably, the greatest threat to the British polity in 2018 is not the Napoleonic EU (as Brexiters might see it), but the division wrought by turbulent politicians on all sides.
Early Modern Times will return in 2019, hopefully to a brighter future for Britain and the planet. But I’m not holding my breath, except to reduce smog intake.
Director, Early Modern Britty Future Studies Program