Great Tales from English History Volume 3: Captain Cook, Samuel Johnson, Queen Victoria, Charles Darwin, Edward the Abdicator, and Moreby Robert Lacey
From William and Mary to Watson and Crick, Robert Lacey's final volume of Great Tales from English History offers up the most stirring English stories of the last few centuries. These are the years in which Great Britain came into being and the British Empire reached its zenith. They are also years of great technological advances – from the seed drill/i>
From William and Mary to Watson and Crick, Robert Lacey's final volume of Great Tales from English History offers up the most stirring English stories of the last few centuries. These are the years in which Great Britain came into being and the British Empire reached its zenith. They are also years of great technological advances – from the seed drill to the spinning jenny and the locomotive – and of leaps and bounds in political and moral philosophy.
In his trademark style, Lacey tells the tales that shaped a nation, revisiting some of England's most memorable personages: mad King George III, Samuel Johnson, Captain Cook, Victoria and Albert, Charles Darwin, and Winston Churchill. Alongside them, Lacey introduces some lesser known historical figures: the feminist crusader who was trampled by the king's racehorse, for instance, or the wife-murdering doctor who was tripped up by the new technology of telegraphy. Royal families and renowned scientists, highwaymen and war heroes – through unforgettable characters, the most pivotal moments of modern English history unfurl.
This is history with pace, punch, and personality. Robert Lacey's pinpoint accuracy in research is matched by his unerring instinct to unearth the stories behind the headlines of history – stories that, with this volume, see the culmination of his lively, magisterial, and sometimes mischievous trilogy of England's history.
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Great Tales From English History (3)Captain Cook, Samuel Johnson, Queen Victoria, Charles Darwin, Edward the Abdicator, and More
By Robert Lacey
LITTLE, BROWNCopyright © 2006 Robert Lacey
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTALE OF A WHALE
LAST WEEK A WHALE SWAM PAST THE BOTTOM of my road. I live about a hundred yards from the Thames, in Pimlico, central London, so when the news came on the radio, I dashed down to the river to take a look.
There were hundreds of people there already, focusing their binoculars and clutching flasks of tea. It was rather a cheery, holiday happening - but also, in some way, an historic moment. Parents had brought their children to witness this event of a lifetime. Peering under the bridges, we could see that gallant volunteers had waded into the water to try to shoo the bewildered creature back downriver. When it became clear she could not do the job herself, they hoisted her on to a rescue barge.
I saw the barge come steaming back downstream, heading for the mouth of the river. It was travelling fast. On the deck we could make out the grey, shiny mass of the whale, surrounded by the volunteers splashing water over her. Could they keep her alive for long enough? we wondered. Could they make it to the open sea?
In the event, our hopes were dashed. The whale died, still on board the barge, in the estuary of the Thames, and the papers next day mourned her passing. One asked its readers for £10,000 to save the animal's bones for thenation, and there were agonised heart-searchings - could more have been done to save 'celebrity big blubber'?
It all made a striking contrast to the year 1240, in the reign of King Henry III, when a whale swam under London Bridge and the citizens pursued it upstream to Mortlake. They harpooned the creature to death - and when, four centuries later, another 'beast of prodigious size' lost its way in the river, it was similarly set upon, to be sliced up and borne away in oil-dripping chunks. The date was 3 June 1658, following 'an extraordinary storm of hail and rain, the season as cold as winter', and this disruption of nature's course was taken to be a significant omen. Oliver Cromwell fell ill that summer, and died three months later.
From old-time slaughter to modern empathy, with some ancient superstition along the way, the history of London's human-whale interaction from 1240 to 2006 would seem to demonstrate that mankind's finer feelings have made progress over the years. What a concentration of human goodwill was beamed towards that whale!
But consider how, in the centuries before people flicked a switch to light their homes, whale oil was a premier source of clean and bright illumination - a precious commodity. Then spare a few minutes, if you can bear it, to survey the superstitious omens on offer in the average modern horoscope column. Add in the tens of thousands of pounds that were spent in January 2006 on helicopters, cameras and whale punditry to turn the lingering death of a tragically disoriented mammal into a round-the-clock source of popular entertainment, and perhaps you will arrive at a different perspective - from level-headed survival to empty-headed sentimentality, perhaps? At least the harpooners of 1240 and 1658 put the poor animal out of its misery with dispatch.
The verdict is yours, dear reader. The job of the historian is to deal objectively with the available facts. But history is in the eye of the beholder and also of the historian who, as a human being, has feelings and prejudices of his own. In the two previous paragraphs you have seen the tale of the whale designed and redesigned to offer you two alternative conclusions.
So let me try to be candid about some of my own prejudices. I believe passionately in the power of good storytelling, not only because it is fun, but because it breathes life into the past. It is also through accurate narrative - establishing what happened first and what happened next - that we start to perceive the cause of things, and what influences human beings to act in the noble and cruel ways that they do. I believe that nobility actually secures more effective outcomes than cruelty, though the story of the slave trade in the pages that follow might seem to challenge that. I also believe that ideas matter, that change is possible, that knowledge dispels fear, and that good history both explains and facilitates all those things.
This volume, the third and final part of my 'Great Tales from English History', opens in 1690, and describes what flowed from the momentous agreement of 13 February 1689, the day when England's Parliament concluded its negotiations with Willem van Oranje, the Dutch prince who had forcibly captured the country four months earlier. As we read at the end of volume 2, this 38-year-old Willem the Conqueror had assembled the largest invasion force ever to land in England and had chased away his father-in-law, the Catholic King James II. Now Willem's blue-coated Dutch soldiers patrolled the streets of London.
The previous morning his wife Mary, daughter of the deposed King, had stepped off a ship from Holland. After changing her clothes and breakfasting at Greenwich, Mary had travelled up the Thames to Westminster to join her husband and add some blood legitimacy to his naked military power.
Modern history starts here. You might have thought that the execution of Charles I in January 1649 had settled the question as to whether King or Parliament had the final word on how England was to be run. But the bitter divisions of the Civil War, over which more than eighty thousand men had fought and died, had not been resolved by the Cromwell years – and when Charles II was restored in 1660, he had cannily sidestepped attempts to define his powers. The 'Merry Monarch' ruled for a quarter of a century as if his father's head had never been cut off, and from 1685 his brother James nursed a similar confidence that he was divinely blessed. It had ended with Willem's invasion and with King James II tearing up the writs summoning Parliament as he stalked off into the night - throwing the Great Seal of England into the Thames for good measure.
Now Parliament determined to get the system right: the King must obey the law; he would have no right to interfere with the country's judges or with the legal system; he must call Parliament regularly and he could levy taxes only with Parliament's consent; the Crown could not interfere with elections, and must also guarantee freedom of speech in debate; no monarch could maintain a standing army in peacetime without Parliament's consent.
All these conditions were read out to Willem van Oranje and his wife Mary on 13 February 1689 as they sat beneath the gloriously painted ceiling of Whitehall's Banqueting Chamber - the last thing that Charles I would have seen as he walked out to be beheaded forty years earlier. When the assembled Lords and Commons heard the couple (both of them grandchildren of the executed King) promise to accept and abide by this 'Declaration of Rights', they offered them the crown. The deal was done. England had the basis of its modern constitutional system of government, and while the future would offer conflicts and turmoil aplenty, with a last Stuart attempt to seize the throne in 1745, there would be no more civil wars.
Stooped and racked with an asthmatic cough, England's third King William was not obvious king material. His only evidence of regality was a head of hair that sprouted so luxuriantly he did not need to wear a wig. But he had good armies and the right wife. Traditionalists felt Queen Mary II should now inherit the throne, but William of Orange hadn't led twenty-five thousand soldiers to England in order to end up the consort of his spouse. So Parliament sorted that one out as well. For the first and only time in history, England had joint sovereigns. 'WilliamanMary', as 1066 And All That would later describe them, were crowned together on 11 April 1689.
It all went to show how the people's elected representatives, meeting with the peers, judges and bishops in the House of Lords, could arrange things in England more or less however they wanted, and so it has proved ever since. From 1690 onwards Parliament would meet every single year - theoretically at the summons of the sovereign, but in reality on the basis of its own hard-won power and authority.
But we should not think of England at this date as a modern parliamentary 'democracy'. Women had no vote at all, and would not get it for another two hundred and thirty years. Elections were decided by the votes of less than 25 per cent of the country's adult males - most of them at the richer, land- and property-owning end of the social scale. There was no secret ballot.
Yet in 1690 there was no country on earth that could match the degree of popular representation that England enjoyed, and this was reflected in a grudging acceptance of different religious points of view. Roman Catholics were marginalised, Jews were often envied and sneered at, while 'Mahometans' were bizarre strangers from beyond the fringe of the civilised world. But the suspicious and previously warring factions of the Protestant faith had negotiated a coexistence that was the envy of visiting foreigners. England's liberty of worship, declared the French philosopher Voltaire, who fled from Paris to London in 1726 to escape the intolerance of an absolute monarchy, was the secret of the country's great achievements.
We shall read of these achievements in the pages that follow - of how English and Scottish enterprise helped manufacture 'Great Britain' with its massive military might and its much celebrated dominion of the seas. In many respects this third and final volume leaves England behind, to recount Great Tales of British History, in which the English, Irish, Scots and Welsh, while remaining healthily fractious, collaborate as never before - not least in the creation of the world-wide British Empire. This profitable adventure, which involved considerable loss of life, was built on the world's first ever 'Industrial Revolution', on countless individual tales of success and suffering - and, yes, on the slave trade, that profoundly shaming sin. The political context for all these complex developments was provided by the deal that Willem the Dutchman struck with Parliament on 13 February 1689.
Later that year King William III would cross to Ireland to fight the campaign that culminated in the Battle of the Boyne, ensuring that his deal beneath the painted ceiling - soon to be celebrated as the 'Glorious Revolution' - would have a chance to bear fruit. But let us start with the philosopher who put the inspiring idea of toleration into words.
Excerpted from Great Tales From English History (3) by Robert Lacey Copyright © 2006 by Robert Lacey. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Robert Lacey is the coauthor of the history classic The Year 1000, and the author of such acclaimed and bestselling books as Majesty, The Kingdom, Ford: The Men and the Machine, Sotheby's: Bidding for Class, and The Queen Mother's Century. He lives in London.
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