Monday, 28 July 2014

Royal Martyrs

The martyred King Louis XVI gives money to the poor.
I apologise for not posting anything for a while. Part of the reason for this absence is that I've just returned from France, where I had a rather Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette themed holiday, visiting the Château de Versailles, seat of the Ancien Régime; the Conciergerie, where Queen Marie Antoinette was held prior to her execution; the Place de la Concorde, formerly Place de la Révolution, where the King and Queen were among the hundreds guillotined by the successive revolutionary governments; and the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Denis, where the remains of Louis and his family were interred following the Bourbon Restoration on the orders of King Louis XVIII. The tragic story of the revolution and the murder of the Royal Family was brought to life for me after seeing where they lived and died, but by far the most harrowing moment was visiting the grave of the titular King Louis XVII, son of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, who died in 1795 of tuberculosis almost certainly brought on by the horrific circumstances he was kept in by the revolutionaries after his parents were sent to the guillotine. He had no official grave until 2004, when a heart which DNA testing showed to be that of the ten-year-old King was interred by French royalists along with his family in the royal crypt beneath St. Denis.
Louis XVII, titular
King of France and Navarre

My visit to Paris caused my mind to dwell somewhat on the fate of royal martyrs, among whom three in particular leap to mind; Charles I of Great Britain, Louis XVI of France (of course), and Nicholas II of Russia. All three of these monarchs were deposed and then executed- or, rather, murdered- by revolutionaries. But the similarities do not end here. What struck me thinking about these three men and their fates is that all three were, by all accounts, personally very moral and upright individuals. All three loved their wives and not one of them was known to have ever had an affair, despite the nature of royals' arranged marriages making royal mistresses common throughout history. All three were men of strong Christian faith- Anglican, Catholic and Orthodox. All three men were regarded as reactionaries and tyrants, but all three certainly regarded themselves as being in the right and as defending the true law of their respective kingdoms (or empire, in the case of Nicholas). Louis and Charles both showed great courage when facing their deaths, Charles I famously wearing two shirts in case the cold caused him to shiver and give the impression that he was afraid, while Louis XVI exclaimed to the crowd as he was strapped down, "My people, I am innocent!" The executioner, Charles Henri Samson, later said that the King "bore all this with a composure and a firmness which has surprised us all," putting it down to the King's deep religiosity. Nicholas II, of course, was not even given the courtesy of a show trial by the Bolsheviks; supposedly his last words after being told he and his family were to be put to death were simply, "What? What?"

Finally, all three, upon closer inspection of their lives and reigns, appear to have been more incompetent or weak than outright malicious. Even then, in more ordinary times they might have been remembered as pious, much-loved sovereigns- not particularly militarily successful, or great reformers, but fine rulers nonetheless. It seems to me that when revolution rears its ugly head, it is the gentlest and most moral of rulers who tend to fall. There is a reason for this- strong, politically savvy kings like Louis XIV or the "Iron Tsar" Nicholas I do not fall to revolutionaries. They crush them.

Charles I, King and Martyr
Some might argue that this is a weakness of monarchy; one weak king at a bad time may spell disaster. But Charles, Louis and Nicholas all faced colossal challenges; in similarly troubling times, democracy does not tend to do well either. In fact, it has a tendency to commit suicide by raising dictators to power. Democracy works well enough in stable countries like the United States and the United Kingdom. In the Middle East, however, or in Ukraine, or Thailand, one sees that democracy has not coped well with challenges such as sectarianism or social upheaval. Likewise, if King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette were King and Queen of a modern day France, they would likely be beloved of their people. The much-vilified Marie Antoinette, with her personally charitable nature and exasperation with the stifling traditions of the French court, would probably be seen as a Queen of the People; the libelles that turned the populace on her on the eve of the revolution, with horrifying tales of degeneracy and decadence, would be dubbed "trolls" or prosecuted for, erm, libel. As monarchists should know, the Queen never uttered that immortal line, "Let them eat cake;" she did say, on the occasion of her and Louis' coronation, "It is quite certain that in seeing the people who treat us so well despite their own misfortune, we are more obliged than ever to work hard for their happiness."

In many ways, the sufferings of these monarchs and their families after their overthrow are symbolic of the sufferings of their people. Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were followed to the guillotine by thousands of Frenchmen, ironically including many of those who had sentenced the King and Queen to death themselves. Millions of Nicholas II's former subjects perished in the gulags of the Soviet Union, many more than had ever been killed by the Tsarist regime. And Cromwell's Protectorate, which came to power in the aftermath of Charles I's execution and wielded power until Richard Cromwell was overthrown and the Stuart monarchy restored in the 1660 Restoration, was almost a prototype for modern totalitarian regimes- from banning Christmas in 1647 as part of an effort to force Puritan beliefs on the population to the brutal Cromwellian conquest of Ireland from 1649 to 1653, which has been described as genocidal. It is, of course, important that we don't forget the thousands of anonymous individuals who lost their lives or livelihoods to the march of revolution, but in remembering the sovereigns and their families who were themselves martyred for their beliefs, in a way we are symbolically remembering all of those who were lost in the revolutions that toppled those sovereigns and their monarchies. And one martyr is a powerful thing; one martyr who serves as representative for millions more is surely even more powerful.

Official portrait of Nicholas II of Russia and his family
in 1911, seven years before they were murdered.

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