Friday, 30 January 2015

Anniversary of Regicide

Today is the 30th January. On this day in 1649, His Majesty Charles I, by the Grace of God, King of England, Scotland, France and Ireland, Defender of the Faith, was executed on the orders of a kangaroo court. The previous day, he had seen the two of his children who remained in England (Princess Elizabeth and Prince Henry) for the final time, bidding them a tearful farewell; he reminded his son, Henry, that his elder brothers the future kings Charles II and James II and VII were ahead of him in the line of succession, and so he must not allow the parliamentarians to set him up as a puppet king in his brothers' place. The Princess Elizabeth later recorded the exchange; Charles said, "Heed, my child, what I say: they will cut off my head and perhaps make thee a king. But mark what I say. Thou must not be a king as long as thy brothers Charles and James do live; for they will cut off your brothers' heads when they can catch them, and cut off thy head too at the last, and therefore I charge you, do not be made a king by them." The young prince replied, "I will be torn in pieces first!"

Famously, the condemned king wore two shirts on the day of his execution so as to not feel the cold, saying that he did not want to shiver and give the spectators the false impression that he was afraid of death. The king gave one last speech from the scaffold before his death, professing his innocence of the crimes he was accused of; "indeed, I could hold my peace very well, if I did not think that holding my peace would make some men think that I did submit to the guilt as well as to the punishment.  But I think it is my duty to God first and to my country for to clear myself both as an honest man and a good King, and a good Christian." The king insisted that he was not responsible for beginning the civil war. He told the onlookers, "all the world knows that I never did begin a war with the two Houses of Parliament. And I call God to witness, to whom I must shortly make an account, that I never did intend for to encroach upon their privileges. They began upon me, it is the Militia they began upon, they confest that the Militia was mine, but they thought it fit for to have it from me.  And, to be short, if any body will look to the dates of Commissions, of their commissions and mine, and likewise to the Declarations, will see clearly that they began these unhappy troubles, not I." At the same time, he exonerated Parliament of the blame; "God forbid that I should lay it upon the two Houses of Parliament; there is no necessity of either, I hope that they are free of this guilt.   For I do believe that ill instruments between them and me has been the chief cause of all this bloodshed."

The king went on to attribute the unjust sentence he had been dealt to an unjust sentence dealt to one of his loyal servants, the Earl of Strafford, the Lord Deputy of Ireland, who had been sentenced to death by Parliament and whom the king had failed to save, saying "an unjust sentence that I suffered for to take effect, is punished now by an unjust sentence upon me." He also dismissed the accusations that he was a tyrant who had threatened the traditional liberties of the English people. "And truly I desire their liberty and freedom as much as anybody whomsoever. But I must tell you that their liberty and freedom consists in having of government; those laws by which their life and their goods may be most their own. It is not for having share in government, Sir, that is nothing pertaining to them. A subject and a sovereign are clean different things, and therefore until they do that, I mean, that you do put the people in that liberty as I say, certainly they will never enjoy themselves.

"Sirs. It was for this that now I am come here. If I would have given way to an arbitrary way, for to have all laws changed according to the power of the sword I needed not to have come here. And, therefore, I tell you, and I pray God it be not laid to your charge, that I am the martyr of the people." 

The Bishop of London, Dr. William Juxon, whom Charles had requested administer him his last rites upon the scaffold, then reminded the king to say something about his Christian faith; "Will your Majesty, though it may be very well known, your Majesties affections to religion, yet it may be expected that you should say somewhat for the world's satisfaction?" The king replied by thanking Juxon and firmly repudiating accusations that he possessed Catholic sympathies by declaring his Christian faith and loyalty to the Church of England, "as I found it left me by my father."

The king concluded with the immortal words, "I go from a corruptible to an incorruptible crown; where no disturbance can be, no disturbance in the world." Dr. Juxon agreed, saying, "You are exchanged from a temporal to an eternal crown, a good exchange." The king asked his executioner to wait for a sign from the king before delivering the blow. His final words, thinking the executioner was about to bring down the ax before the signal, were "stay for the sign." The executioner replied, "Yes, I will, an it please your Majesty." After a pause, the king stretched out his hands, and he was decapitated with a single clean blow. A clergyman named Philip Henry who was among the onlookers later said of the day, "at the instant when the blow was given, there was such a dismal universal groan among the thousands of people that were in sight of it, as it were with one consent."

The king's death was to be followed by the eleven-year Interregnum, most of which was spent under the Cromwellian military dictatorship. Following the restoration of King Charles II in 1660 after Oliver Cromwell's death and the overthrow of his son Richard, Charles I was recognised as a martyr by the Church of England, and is still commemorated today by high church Anglicans. The Royal Stuart Society lays a wreath at the statue of King Charles I in Trafalgar Square every year on the 30th January to commemorate his death. Charles was not a great king; one contemporary, Archbishop William Laud, described him as "a mild and gracious prince who knew not how to be, or how to be made, great." Nonetheless, the historical picture we have of the king is one of a well-meaning sovereign who genuinely believed he was in the right. The House of Lords and the bulk of the House of Commons opposed putting the king on trial, but an effective military coup by Cromwell and other army leaders on the 6th and 7th December 1648 saw those Members of Parliament who opposed the army and favoured coming to a settlement with the king arrested. The remaining rump House of Commons voted in favour of putting the king on trial, the first time a monarch had been put on trial by his own people. In the end, neither King Charles nor Parliament won.

The king's trial and execution was a travesty of justice. It would set a terrible precedent for future revolutionaries, by establishing that a lawful king- or indeed any lawful government- could be removed by violent force and that power did not derive from the laws of God or the State but, as Chairman Mao put it,  grows out of the barrel of a gun. Today, as we remember his death, it should serve as a warning from history of the consequences when force of might overrules lawful authority. RIP Your Majesty; if you are looking down upon us all from your incorruptible crown, spare a thought for those of us left behind who remember you.

The King is dead; long live the Queen.

Sunday, 25 January 2015

Burns' Night

Engraving of Robert Burns
 Today is the 25th January, the 256th birthday of one of Scotland's most famous sons, poet Rabbie Burns. As such, Scots and members of the Scottish diaspora throughout the world will be celebrating Burns' Night with haggis aplenty. The tradition of the Burns supper originates with Burns' personal friends and acquaintances in Ayrshire in the late 18th century, and they were originally held on the anniversary of his death, the 21st July. Later, in 1801, the first Burns Club was founded by Greenock merchants to celebrate Burns' life and works every year on his birthday, or what they believed to be his birthday, the 29th January; later records came to light showing that Burns was actually born on the 25th, and so Burns suppers have been held on the 25th ever since.

Burns himself was a fascinating character. Politically liberal and a patriotic Scotsman, Burns was opposed to the Act of Union and is reported to have supported the French Revolution; however, he was critical of the Jacobite risings, the Catholic absolutism of the House of Stuart being inimical to Burns' liberal tastes, and in 1795 he helped organise the Dumfries Volunteers, a militia formed to help protect the nation in the event of a French invasion. At the same time he wrote his poem, "Should Haughty Gaul Invasion Threat," in which he proclaims: "Be Britain still to Britain true, / Amang ourselves united; /  For never but by British hands /  Maun British wrangs be righted!" Burns' precise political views have long been debated and will likely continue to be a subject of debate; was he a closeted liberal republican, whose later apparent British nationalism was an act to avoid the attention of the authorities? Was he a firm supporter of the constitution, supportive of the French Revolution at first only to later balk at its descent into bloody tyranny?

Sir Walter Scott, 1st Baronet;
painted by Sir William Allan
Whatever the case, although I might not have agreed with the Bard's politics, I am an avid fan of his poetry. It's also clear that Burns and his work have become a celebrated fixture of Scottish culture. He was the pivotal figure of Scottish Romanticism before it had even really got started, and played a role in ensuring the continuation of a unique Scottish identity within Great Britain and later the United Kingdom. Even that other great staple of the Scottish Romantic movement, Sir Walter Scott, who himself was more my political cup of tea being a staunch Scottish Tory  and unionist at a time when Toryism was still about loyalty to King and Country and less about privatisation, made it clear he considered Burns to be the far superior writer when asked how he thought he compared to his antecessor, declaring that “there is no comparison whatever: we ought not to be named in the same day.” Scott, incidentally, played an important role in promoting Burns' works after his death as part of the romanticised Scottish identity Scott promoted. The two met only once, at a literary salon in the winter of 1786. Burns asked who had authored a certain poem, and Scott was the only one present who could answer him; Burns thanked him. Oh, to be a fly on the wall that day.

Alas, Scotland's great poet was to be taken from the world too soon; he died at just 37 years of age, in 1796. His legacy lives on in his poetry. To celebrate his life and contributions to poetry, it seems only fitting I should conclude this post with a poem by Burns (I would try to compose a tribute myself, but alas I am hopelessly inept at writing anything but prose). After much indecision, I chose this one, probably my favourite Burns poem: Lament Of Mary, Queen Of Scots, On The Approach Of Spring.

"Now Nature hangs her mantle green 
On every blooming tree, 
And spreads her sheets o' daisies white 
Out o'er the grassy lea ; 
Now Phoebus cheers the crystal streams, 
And glads the azure skies; 
But nought can glad the weary wight 
That fast in durance lies. 

"Now laverocks wake the merry morn 
Mary, Queen of Scots, at age 13; during
her time in France
Aloft on dewy wing; 
The merle , in his noontide bow'r, 
Makes woodland echoes ring; 
The mavis wild wi' mony a note, 
Sings drowsy day to rest: 
In love and freedom they rejoice, 
Wi' care nor thrall opprest. 

"Now blooms the lily by the bank, 
The primrose down the brae ; 
The hawthorn's budding in the glen, 
And milk-white is the slae : 
The meanest hind in fair Scotland 
May rove their sweets amang ; 
But I, the Queen of a' Scotland, 
Maun lie in prison strang . 

"I was the Queen o' bonie France, 
Where happy I hae been; 
Fu' lightly raise I in the morn, 
As blythe lay down at e'en : 
And I'm the sov'reign of Scotland, 
And mony a traitor there; 
Yet here I lie in foreign bands, 
And never-ending care. 

"But as for thee, thou false woman, 
My sister and my fae , 
Grim Vengeance yet shall whet a sword 
That thro' thy soul shall gae ; 
The weeping blood in woman's breast 
Was never known to thee; 
Nor th' balm that draps on wounds of woe 
Frae woman's pitying e'e . 

"My son! my son! may kinder stars 
Mary portrayed next to her son,
King James VI and I 

Upon thy fortune shine; 
And may those pleasures gild thy reign, 
That ne'er wad blink on mine! 
God keep thee frae thy mother's faes , 
Or turn their hearts to thee: 
And where thou meet'st thy mother's friend, 
Remember him for me! 

"O! soon, to me, may Summer suns 
Nae mair light up the morn! 
Nae mair to me the Autumn winds 
Wave o'er the yellow corn? 
And, in the narrow house of death, 
Let Winter round me rave; 
And the next flow'rs that deck the Spring , 

Bloom on my peaceful grave!"