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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 51

Chapter V. — More Plantagenet Royalty

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Chapter V.

More Plantagenet Royalty

"Princes are gods; oh, do not then
Rake in their graves to prove them men."

Edward II. (1307—1317.)

"The greatest of the Plantagenets," Edward I.—his greatest achievements were to kill, and, like a savage to mutilate the bodies of his two immortal contemporaries, Earl Simon de Montfort and Sir William Wallace—was succeeded by his son, Edward II., the smallest of the Plantagenets. After vigour imbecility, alter senility infancy, such are among the frequent sequences of hereditary rule.

It is doubtful if even elective presidents are necessary to the welfare of a state; but compare, for example, the remarkable series of statesmen from Washington to Arthur who have presided over the destinies of the great republic of the West with the contemporary sovereigns of England from mad and bad George III. to Queen Victoria, whom the late Earl of Beaconsfield, in a moment of after-dinner veracity, pronounced "physically and morally incapable of government," and what a contrast! A Washington, an Adams, a Jackson, a Lincoln, or a Garfield were worth the whole spawn of English kings and queens from the Conquest to the present day. Nor is the condemnation of royalty merely comparative. It is positive and essential. Edward I. was a strong king, and Edward II. a weak one, but the more hurtful to the realm was Edward père.

The disease of royalty is the lust of arbitrary power. In pursuit of this unhallowed object, Edward I. bequeathed to his son a damnosa hereditas—a legacy of wrong-doing—which the latter was, fortunately for mankind, unable to take up. On the ever-memorable field of Bannockburn it was not Bruce that conquered Edward the Second; it was the spirit page 34 of Wallace and the principle of free nationalities that triumphed over Edward I. and the outrage of conquest. What Scotland achieved in 1314, Ireland, under altered conditions, is attempting in 1884. Better late than never.

Never was there a more unlucky prince than Edward II. The terror which his warlike father had inspired was at an end after Bannockburn. He became an object of contempt to his subjects. He had favourites—favouritism is a prime vice of royalty—and his barons hanged them. Occasionally, but not often, he was able to hang a stray baron by way of set-off. At last his queen, Isabella, took a trip to Paris, where she openly cohabited with a malcontent nobleman, Mortimer. The virtuous couple eventually got together an armed force, invaded England, took the king prisoner, had him dethroned with every mark of indignity, and committed to a dungeon. Among other offences, he was charged with disregard of good advice!

His treatment by his custodians was shameful. They amused the rabble by placing a crown of straw on his head, and hailing him with a "Fare forth, sir king!" His end was terrible to relate. It was contrived by his wife, her paramour Mortimer, and the Bishop of Hereford. He was thrown on a bed, held down by a table, while a red-hot plumber's iron was thrust through a horn into his intestines, so as to leave no marks of external violence. But his agonized shrieks aroused the whole castle, and a participant in the crime subsequently told the dreadful story. "The divinity" which Shakespeare says "doth hedge a king" was clearly not on duty at Berkeley Castle that night. The pious Bishop of Hereford would doubtless have explained that the only effectual way to get rid of an obnoxious hereditary ruler is to murder him—another testimony to the superiority of the monarchical system of government.

Edward III. (1327—1377).

Edward II. was succeeded by his son, Edward III., a lad of fourteen, and who so fit to rule in the boy-king's name as the murderers of his father—his mother, Isabella, and Mortimer? In time, however, Edward was able to seclude the one and execute the other, and then devote himself energetically to the pastime of kings and the ruin of nations—war. page 35 His life was spent in fighting and pillaging Scotland and France. His quarrel with both countries, particularly the latter, was absolutely unjust. He claimed the crown of France, though notoriously cut off from the succession by the Salic law. He and his son, the Black Prince, won many battles—nay, surprising victories; but neither Neville's Cross, Sluys, Cressy, nor Poictiers secured England a single permanent advantage. Thousands on thousands of lives he sacrificed in the pursuit of a phantom. Whoever wishes to realise the the wickedness and absurdity of military ambition should study this reign. He succeeded in throwing France and Scotland into complete chaos, while England was taxed almost to the limit of endurance at a time when the Black Death had carried off from a third to a half of the entire population. He was a merciless marauder, without a single perceptible notion of statesmanship, and the Black Prince was, if possible, worse.

Among the achievements of the latter was to reseat on the throne of Castile the double-dyed murderer, Pedro the Cruel. In a single expedition in the South of France this Black Prince, this darling of romance, at the head of his "Free Companies," burned to the ground five hundred towns and villages. On one occasion he caused three thousand men, women, and children to be massacred in cold blood in the town of Limoges. Lucky it was for England that she escaped the rule of such a miscreant.

In his old age the victor of Cressy—all his victories come to nought—became the slave of an impudent courtesan, Alice Perrers. She countermanded royal decrees, and dictated to the judges on the bench. When the king lay dying she waited till his eyes were glazing, then stripped the rings from his fingers and decamped. The other attendants imitated so good an example, and like Marmion, the king was left, but for a single poor priest, "alone to die."

Richard II. (1377—1399).

Edward III. was succeeded by his grandson, Richard II., a boy of eleven. Richard, as he grew up, disappointed everyone. He was another Edward II. In the beginning of his reign took place the famous peasant revolt led by Wat Tyler—a movement which well deserves, and may re- page 36 ceive in another connection, some measure of attention. The young king in the presence of danger promised much; out of danger he was, of course, prompt to revoke his plighted royal word. But to do him justice he was better than his landlord parliament, whom he asked if they would consent to enfranchise the serfs. "Consent," they replied, "we have never given, and never will give, were we all to die in one day." There spoke the Salisburys, Chaplins, and Lowthers of the fourteenth century!

Richard's besetting sins were favouritism and extravagance. Of one young minister, De Vere, whom he made Duke of Ireland, it was said, "he has seen nothing, he has learned nothing, and never been in a battle." This efficient administrator was popularly known as "the doll." In the royal kitchen it was complained there were no fewer than 300 servants, while 10,000 retainers had been known to sit down to dinner What would the baronial grumblers have said of Queen Victoria, who, with a well-paid household of 1,000 servants, great and small, never feasts anybody but a few pauper German relatives? Doubtless she would have shared the fate of Richard.

Richard had a cousin, Henry of Lancaster, whom he had, with more or less reason, banished from England. Henry was a dark, scheming man, who could bide his time. He waited till Richard went on a visit to Ireland, from which he returned only to find Henry master of the kingdom. He was seized, mounted on a wretched nag, and led from town to town amid the jeers of the unfeeling multitude. He was then formally dethroned, and committed to a dungeon, Henry being elected king in his stead. The rest followed as a matter of course. To prevent the possibility of a restoration, he was secretly put to death, but by what means is unknown. Henry was not the man to bungle a murder after the Isabella Mortimer fashion.

Henry IV.—(1399-1413).

Henry IV. ascended the throne a perjured man. At Don-caster he had solemnly sworn that he had no designs on the crown whatever; but perjury and murder are no disqualifications for the kingly office. He had the effrontery to lay claim to the royal title on the ground of descent as well as page 37 election, and circulated an idle genealogical story about his mother to make good the point. It availed nothing. He had planted the dragons' teeth, which grew up as the White and Red Roses.

To strengthen his dynasty and to appease his conscience, he was the first to take to the burning of heretics. Of his own motion he passed a statute "De Hætico Comburendo," under which William Sautré, parish priest of Lynn, was the first, but by no means the last, to suffer.

Rebellion followed rebellion, conspiracy, conspiracy. Several attempts were made to poison him. Sharp irons were cunningly placed in his bed: at other times his hose and night shirt were smeared with venom. The constant dread of assassination which broke down the iron nerves of Oliver Cromwell was too much for Henry. He died the miserable victim of anxiety, epilepsy, and leprosy.

Henry V.—(1413-1422).

He was succeeded by his son, Henry V., Shakspere's Tiotous Prince Hal. What we know of him for certain is in singular contrast with the Shaksperian delineation. He stands out in history simply as a stern religious bigot and merciless soldier, carrying on unscrupulous wars abroad to divert the minds of his subjects from the defectiveness of his dynastic title.

While Prince of Wales he superintended the burning of a poor heretic, John Badby. He attempted to convert the half-burnt sufferer without success, and then piously recommitted him to the flames. Badby shocked him by maintaining that the bread in the sacrament was not the body of Christ.

His treatment of Sir John Oldcastle, the original of Sir John Falstaff, though Shakspere found it convenient to deny it, was even more shameful. Sir John, afterwards Lord Cobham, was a man of the highest character, a brave and skilful commander, and a personal friend of the king, from whom he had the misfortune to differ in religious opinion. Sir John held, with Wycliffe, that the Pope was anti-Christ, and that the bread in the sacrament was bread, whatever else it might be. The king argued with his friend, and failing to convince him, handed him over without remorse to the page 38 tender mercies of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Oldcastla was condemned to be burnt alive. He escaped, but four years later he was recaptured and executed on the old charge.

Henry's claim to the crown of France was even less defensible than that set up by Edward III., and the war which he waged was, if possible, conducted with greater cruelty and less magnanimity than were exercised by the Black Prince, When a city capitulated, he seized the available goods, put the richer citizens to ransom, expelled all who would not become English, and hanged a selection of its bravest defenders.

His successes at Agincourt and elsewhere were equally astonishing and fruitless. He showed the wind, and his son reaped the whirlwind. He was as pious as the late lamented Mr. Peace of sainted memory, and made about an equally edifying end.

Henry VI.—(1422-1471).

Henry V. was succeeded by his son, Henry VI., a child eleven months old. During his minority all the advantages of a monarchical regency were powerfully illustrated. He grew up a perfect imbecile. From time to time he lost his reason altogether. The war in France continued, but in time the tide turned against the English invaders.

At last appeared on the scene that unique figure in history, Joan of Arc, the Maid of Orleans. Her achievements require no recital. She saved France at the cost of her own heroic life. She fell into the hands of the English, by whom she was treated with incredible brutality. Though a mere girl of twenty, she was placed in an iron cage, and so bound with iron chains by neck, waist, feet, and hands that she could not move. She became ill, and the Earl of Warwick sent physicians to her with this royal injunction, "The king would not have her by any means die a natural death. He has bought her dear, and is desirous that she should die by justice, and be burned. Visit her therefore and cure her." The pure-souled girl met her dreadful doom as became the liberator of her country. The king's secretary, who saw her end, wrote with prophetic foresight. "We are all lost. A holy person has been burnt, but her soul is in the hands of God,"

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In this wretched reign the nation, for the second time, tasted to the full all the horrors of a disputed succession. Constitutional writers insist that the hereditary principle gives stability to governments. Nothing could be further from the truth. Dynastic wars have from the first deluged the world in blood. Nor are they over. The last terrible death-grapple between France and Germany was, in reality, a dynastic war. It was caused by Hohenzollern succession intrigues in Spain, and the need of military prestige to give the son of Eugenie a chance of the imperial inheritance. How two civilised peoples could ever have permitted themselves to rend each other over such issues is inexplicable, except on the hypothesis that men in the mass may go mad exactly as individuals at times go mad.

If I were King of France, or, what's better, Pope of Rome,
I'd have no fighting men abroad nor weeping maids at home;
All the world should be at peace; let kings assert their right,
And those that make the quarrels be the only men to fight,

In the Wars of the Roses the old Norman aristocracy took sides—York v. Lancaster—to a man, and, like the swine in the Gospel, rushed headlong down a steep place into the sea, where, happily, they nearly all perished. Of "our old nobility" who "came over at the Conquest" hardly a dozen specimens were left alive. The struggle lasted for thirty years from the first battle of St. Alban's 1455, to Bosworth Field, 1485.

Edward IV. (1461—1483).

Edward IV. of York, who succeeded eventually in conquering Lancastrian Henry VI. and having him secretly murdered in the approved kingly fashion, had a better hereditary title than his victim, and perhaps he was not a worse king. But Philip de Comines, an excellent observer, remarks of him:—"He indulged himself in a larger share of ease and pleasure than any prince in his time." He surrounded himself with courtesans, epicures, parasites, and buffoons. Sir Thomas More observes:—"He" (Edward) "used to say that he had three concubines who excelled in three distinct properties. One was the merriest, another the wiliest, the third the holiest harlot in his kingdom." The merriest was the unfortunate Jane Shore.

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Edward V. and Richard III. (1483—1485).

Edward IV. was succeeded by his son, Edward V., a lad of twelve. He reigned for nearly three months—a long time, considering the character of his amiable uncle, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, the Protector of the realm. It has been said that it is possible to paint the devil himself in colours too dark; but no one has yet been able to find pigments black enough to suit the moral lineaments of Richard III. Compared with him, even King John becomes respectable, and Nero has to look to his laurels. He accused his own mother of marital infidelity, and got his two nephews, the elder being the king, first bastardized and then suffocated in the Tower. The murdered lads' sister, his niece, Elizabeth, he proposed to marry, and the young lady, with the correct moral instinct of royal persons, was eager for the match. He beheaded everyone who stood in his way, generally without trial. Yet he appears to have been a man of considerable ability—a sort of "greatest of the Plantagenets" in his way. He was a patron of Caxton.

But such stupendous villany, though it might appal for a time, could not endure. The worst of the Plantagenets was also the last. On Bosworth field Richard encountered the Duke of Richmond, the head of the revived Lancastrian party, and shrieking wildly, "Treason! treason!" fell like Macbeth, fighting with desperate valour. Treason to Richard, or indeed to any of his hateful race, were indeed a paradox. "We came of the devil," said Richard I., "and we shall go to the devil." And he said well.

Yet true it is and of verity, that in our national and public schools the ingenuous youth of England are to-day taught to reverence rather than to execrate the memory of this detestable line of reprobates. We are but beginning to recognise that kings are not gods, but by the very law of their existence the worst specimens of men.