The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 51
Chapter IV. — Plantagenet Royalty
God said, I am tired of kings,
I suffer them no more;
Up to mine ear the morning
Brings the outrage of the poor.
My angel, his name is Freedom,
Choose him to be your king;
He shall cut pathways east and west
And fend you with his wing.
Strip the lives of the kings and queens of England of the meretricious glamour of historic, or rather histrionic, art, and what remains to be recorded is one long weary catalogue of human folly, depravity, and crime. No wonder our historians give play to their imaginations. If they did not permit themselves that indulgence, they must needs abandon their task in disgust. They would find themselves in a position somewhat similar to that of the criminal who was allowed to choose between the galleys and a searching study of the works of Guiccardini. The convict elected to peruse Guiccardini, but soon discovered his mistake, and went cheerfully to the galleys.
Henry II. (1154-1189).
Henry II., the son of Matilda, was the first of the Plantagenets who misgoverned England with all their might for more than three hundred years—from 1154 to 1485. His one aim in life was to render the monarchy absolute, and except from the Church he encountered but little opposition. In Stephen's time Christ and His saints had gone to sleep," and during Henry's reign they can scarcely be said to have walked up. If he did not expressly order the brutal murder of Thomas a Becket, which sent a thrill of horror through Christendom, his words were, to say the least, highly am- page 27 biguous. His notions of religion were peculiar and original. When he did penance at à Becket's shrine, it was from no sentiment of remorse, but because he hoped to cajole the saint to use his influence to get him (Henry) out of certain troubles that then beset him.
For the sake of her large possessions in France, he married a notorious courtesan and divorcee. His own infidelities were unbounded. Among his mistresses was the fair Rosamond Clifford, of Woodstock labyrinth fame, whom the virtuous Queen Eleanor is said to have compelled to drink poison by holding a dagger to her throat.
Irishmen in particular have reason to execrate the memory of this king. To him they owe the beginning of their long protracted national agony. The occasion was befitting. One Irish chief or prince had made off with another chief's wife, and being brought to book for his misconduct by the over-King of Ireland, he posted off to do homage to Henry for his possessions. But years before this auspicious event Henry had concluded that Ireland "was commodious to him," and that it was desirable "to enlarge the bounds of the Church, to restrain the progress of vices, to correct the manners of the people, to plant virtue among them, and to increase the Christian religion! "The Pope had seen matters in the same light all the more clearly that Peter's pence was an uncertain quantity so far as Ireland was concerned. The result had been an annexational Papal bull in Henry's favour.
His last years were not cheerfully spent. His sons, Henry, Richard, and John all rose in arms against him. Eventually he was thoroughly beaten, and driven in headlong flight from his birthplace, Le Mans. As he beheld the flames of the city ascend, he bitterly cursed God. His end was not edifying. His last words were, "Woe is me! Shame be upon me, a conquered king, and may God's curse be upon the children who have stretched me here!" So much for the conqueror of Ireland.
Richard I. (1189—1199).
Henry was succeeded by his dutiful son Richard I.. This man was called Lion Heart, by reason of his habits of violence and brawling; while his fellow-crusader, Philip of page 28 France, was known as the Lamb, his manners being courteous and conciliatory. Richard was a mere atrocious blood-shedder, and nothing else. He had plenty of that animal courage which is still to be had in such abundance at the rate of eighteenpence a-day. He was neither statesman not general. In both these respects he was greatly inferior to the infidel Saladin. He put up every office in the State for sale, in order to raise money for his mad expedition to the Holy Land. His subsequent ransom cost the nation some £300,000—an immense sum for such a worthless bravo.
He appropriately met his death in a petty brawl before the Castle of Chaluz, whose owner had acquired some treasure-trove which Richard coveted. Prowling round the walls with a mercenary band, he was hit by an archer, whose father and two brothers he had killed. On his death-bed Richard is said to have pardoned his slayer; but in point of fact he was flayed alive, while the rest of the garrison were hanged to a man. Sir Walter Scott, and others who have converted this merciless and purposeless scourge of humanity into a hero, have truly much to account for. He himself formed a much more reasonable judgment when, speaking comprehensively of his house, he said, "We came of the devil, and we shall go to the devil."
Richard was succeeded by his brother John, whose character is summed up in one terrible sentence of contemporary hate: "Foul as it is, hell itself is defined by the fouler presence of John." He was an incomparable scoundrel, a compound of all the royal vices—cruelty, lust, avarice, faithlessness, ingratitude, blood-guiltiness. To make sure of the crown he murdered his nephew Arthur in cold blood, and threw his body into the Seine. To retain the crown he became the vassal and tributary of the Pope. To his father and to his brother he was the most shameless of traitors. His Court was a brothel. Of right and wrong he recked nothing. Yet this right royal ruffian, who "wearied God," signed Magna Charta, the foundation stone of such liberties as Englishmen possess.
It is the severest possible condemnation of royalty to say that the worst kings are always practically the best. Not page 29 that King John meant any good to the English people—far from it. The very thought of the Charter made him furious. Heflung himself on the ground, gnawing sticks and straw like a wild beast. He got his over-lord, the Pope, to disallow every concession, and proceeded with mercenary troops from the Continent, to burn, slay, and harry the country from end to end. But the great avenger, death, was at hand. Gluttony or poison killed him, and Englishmen rejoiced and were exceeding glad.
Henry III. (1216—1272.)
John was succeeded by his son, Henry III., a mere boy. He turned out an imbecile, a despicable braggart, and a tyrant to the full limit of his capacity. He could neither manage a horse nor order a battalion. Men called him cor cereum regis, or royal waxen heart. Yet he was a true son of John. In the songs of the day he is "the bitter king," "the enemy of the whole realm, of the Church, and of God." His Court lived at free quarters wherever it moved. The royal retainers robbed in all directions with impunity. One-sixth of the revenue was bestowed on foreign favourites. The Battenbergs, Weimars, and Leiningens are no new inflictions. Magna Charta was wholly disregarded.
But a new spirit of liberty had begun to animate the breasts of Englishmen. A deliverer was at hand. Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester, threw down the gauntlet to the royal power. A man of stainless honour and a born soldier, Earl Simon was yet greater as a statesman. He was the father of representative government. Having defeated Henry and his son Edward, he summoned to parliament in 1265 not merely knights of shires, but burgesses of "communes." In physics the discovery of the law of gravitation was all-important; in politics the discovery of the true law of popular representation was not less so. It had escaped the subtlest philosophers of Greece and Rome, and Greek and Roman democracy had made shipwreck in consequence. Little mattered it that the founder of the House of Communes perished in battle within a few months of his imperishable achievement. He was before his time.
The victor of Evesham, Edward, "the greatest of the Plantagenets," as he has been called, showed the quality of page 30 his royal greatness by causing Earl Simon's body to be shamefully mutilated. His head and hands were presented to a second Herodias, Maud, wife of Roger de Mortimer. But the patriot's work neither Edward nor any of his successors, whether Plantagenet, Tudor, Stuart, or Guelph, could undo. Not a civilised people in the world but has taken its cue from Earl Simon. Even the unhappy Egyptians we have seen making a promising attempt with their Chamber of Notables—an attempt, alas! to be stamped out in blood and flame by the Grand Old Man and his Cabinet of all the talents and all the virtues. Need we chide the Henrys and Edwards with such malefactors in our midst?
Edward I. (1272—1307.)
Edward I. succeeded his father, "the bitter king."
"The greatest of the Plantagenets" may be regarded as great beside such colossal criminals as John and Richard III. In no other sense was he great. Compare him with any real benefactor of mankind, and he at once becomes a moral pigmy. Kings and queens to shine at all must be judged by the lowest standard of moral excellence—that is to say by the royal standard. In a royal personage the mere absence of a marked vice becomes an astonishing virtue. What surprises us with regard to princes is not that they are good, but that everything considered, they are not a great deal worse.
When the Prince of Wales's mischievous trip to India was being planned, Mr. Bright announced that H.R.H. was "good natured." What more reasonable therefore than saddle the taxpayer with the cost of the jaunt? Had we not every reason to expect that a prince would be as surely as a bear? For reasons about equally cogent Edward I. has been styled the English Justinian. He was indeed a lawyer in the sense that, when he wished to rob his neighbours in Scotland, Wales, or France of what belonged to them, he generally prefaced his attacks by legal quibbles of which an Old Bailey lawyer might be ashamed. He tried his utmost to set aside the provisions of the Great Charter, and when he found the barons too strong for him he shed some crocodile tears in Westminster Hall, and abandoned the attempt.
By royal decree he made the Jews give up usury on pain page 31 of death, and in London alone two hundred and eighty of them were hanged. The position of the chosen race in England has greatly improved since then. But recently the Liberal Administration sent to Egypt a powerful fleet and army to extort exorbitant interest on their behalf. On the whole, Edward's method was more commendable. Better far hang a few Goschens, Rothschilds, and Oppenheims than burn Alexandria and slaughter thousands of inoffensive fellaheen at Tel-el-Kebir, or of gallant Arabs at El Teb.
It was the one great ambition of Edward's life to impose the Norman yoke on the whole British islands. To effect this object he drained England of men and money, while inflicting on Scotland and Wales untold miseries. Of the two last native princes of Wales, Llewellyn and David, he caused the head of the former to be stuck on the Tower, crowned with ivy the latter he commanded [to be drawn, hanged, disembowelled, and quartered. They had been guilty of the enormity of standing up for the independence of the ancient Cymric race.
But it was in Scotland that Edward's policy of craft and violence met with a check, the consequences of which can hardly be exaggerated. He had little difficulty in cajoling and intimidating the Scottish nobles (the most unpatriotic in Europe) into submission to his yoke; and when that was accomplished, according to feudal ideas and precedents, all should have been achieved. But what was Edward's rage and astonishment very speedily to find himself face to face with a rising of the Scottish people, a phenomenon absolutely new in feudal Europe! They were summoned to arms by a simple country gentleman, Sir William Wallace, without aristocratic connections of any kind.
This extraordinary man was the forerunner of the Kosciuskos, Capodistrias, and Garibaldis of later times. He was the first soldier in Europe who fought, not for a dynasty, but for a nation. He brushed aside all the technicalities of the feudal law, and boldly assumed in the face of the world the title of Guardian of the Realm of Scotland. He showed how burghers and peasants, with spears in their hands, might overthrow the iron-clad knighthood of Christendom, hitherto considered invincible. He was the first to form the British infantry square, and despite feudalism he introduced the page 32 conscription. His motto was "God armeth the Patriot." In Wallace modern democracy found its first great leader.
After repeated successes against overwhelming odds in the field, aggravated tenfold by the abominable treachery of the Scottish nobles in the council, he was defeated by Edward in a desperate battle at Falkirk, and ultimately betrayed to "the greatest of the Plantagenets" for gold. He was hurried to London, tried at Westminster, and drawn, hanged, disembo welled while yet alive, and quartered at Smithfield. It was not pretended that he had ever sworn allegiance to Edward. His great crime was that he had fought for the honour and independence of Scotland after her feudal lords had ignominiously succumbed. He was judicially murdered.
But like Simon de Montfort, his work was done. His example had made the Scots, the poorest and most uncivilised people in Europe, a nation of stalwart freemen, henceforth resolute never to unite with their powerful neighbour except on terms of perfect equality. Had it been otherwise, England would have had not one Ireland, but two on her hands to day. Englishmen, quite as much as Scotsmen, have reason to bless the memory of the Scottish hero. The burghers of Flanders and the herdsmen of Switzerland were not slow to learn the lesson he had taught. No matter that his head, crowned in mockery with laurel, was stuck with that of his eldest brother, Sir John Wallace, on London bridge, feudal ruffianism in mail had received its death blow in Europe. How puny the greatest achievement of "the greatest of the Plantagenets" with such a result!
"But bleeding and bound though her Wallace wight
For his long-loved country die,
Yet the bugle ne'er sang to a braver knight
Than Wallace of Elderslie;
And the day of his glory shall ne'er depart,
His head unentombed shall with glory be balmed,
From the blood-streaming altar his spirit shall start.
Though the raven hath fed on his mouldering heart,
Yet a nobler was never embalmed,"