Sunday 15 September 2013

Hampton Court's royal butcher

On a visit to Hampton Court, it was good to be reminded what the monarchy was up to. Mostly, I manage to get through life without joining in the 'let's enjoy the stories about funny old Henry VIII' biz. I have a feeling that he's presented to us as a kind of Falstaff figure, a bit of an old rogue but, hey, you can't help liking him really. There's also an undercurrent of admiration for the 'strong men of history' thing too. This says that the populations of the world past and present need strong men to organise us and if it takes a bit of butchery here, a few wars, some foreign plunder and a steady stream of executions, so be it. Any idea that a ruler like Henry VIII (or Julius Caesar, or Ivan the Terrible etc) stood at the top of a pyramid which was constructed in order to extract wealth from people who worked to provide food and goods, is mostly obscured from view. It's not 'fun'.

With the help of the guide books, information displays and wikipedia when I got home, I found myself dwelling on one corner of this: the ruthlessness with which Henry not only dispatched two of his wives (yes, yes, we all know that) but how he rounded up their consorts, previous lovers, confidantes and the like and executed them too. I notice in the write-ups a distinction is made between which of these people were framed and which might have been 'guilty' , and/or which were OK types and which were baddies of some sort. This is that side of 'history' which accepts that the King's law and rule were in some way legitimate and that people behaved 'well' or 'badly' in relation to it. Meanwhile, in the next sentence, these accounts tell you how Henry (or any other ruler) went to his executive and rigged laws to suit him eg that there should be a law which required that someone marrying the king should reveal who she had had sex within 20 days of the marriage! So, the 'law' wasn't a set of practices that emerged by some kind of mutual consent (the story that's told about 'Anglo-Saxon' law prior to the Norman invasion of 1066).  As far as Henry's own affairs were concerned, the law was something he made up with the purpose of shoring up his position, power and his preferred way of life at the top of the social and political pyramid.

So, I found myself thinking about the royal butchery of it all, how people near to him, wanting to secure their own positions of power in their own localities or walks of life, bowed and scraped to him, desperately hoping for a slice of privilege, desperately hoping that they wouldn't fall out of favour. Though it might have been good to have been in the inner circle of one of his wives when she was married to Henry, it all turned to disaster the moment that wife didn't perform in the way he wanted them to. The woman concerned was, then, a vessel in which the royal power could be placed. If the woman's body failed to reproduce that royal power in the form that he wanted it to, she and her companions had to be killed - though it should be said that he didn't do this to all of them.

In some ways, all this has nothing to do with the present royal family, particularly as they don't have much of Henry's power left. However, in another respect it's entirely to do with them. The picture we are given of the royal family lives in the two time continua of past and present. It is vital to the survival and success of the Windsors that they are seen to be wonderful people in the present and - intimately intertwined with this - that they are a 'great dynasty'.

Now, some aristocratic families can indeed describe themselves as dynasties. By the luck of the draw (as it were), they've been able to create male heirs for hundreds of years. Biology, property and privilege have - luckily for them - combined. The odd thing about the British monarchy is that its line, (ie its dynastic purity) is decidedly shaky or, it should be said, a myth. It doesn't take much research to find that at several moments since...well, since whichever point the dynasty is supposed to have begun - there have been what are in reality decisive breaks.  On several occasions it's been very convenient for the person claiming the throne to get rid of either the person on the throne or anyone who might be a possible rival for it. Alternatively - and once parliament have decided that the king (or queen) has a role to play in sustaining the Protestant independence of Britain - parliament takes on the role of rigging the monarchy so that it should be Protestant too. (This is not a purely religious matter. It's because of the particular nature and history of the wealthiest and most powerful people in Britain. Protestantism in its various forms supported and enabled them to develop wealth and power.) There's nothing 'dynastic' about either the medieval and Tudor ways of seizing power, and nothing dynastic about parliament's search for Protestant heirs (see William and Mary and George I). In the first phase it's greed, power, domination and exploitation. In the second phase it's realpolitik.

And the purpose of it all, is, because we the people aren't able or capable of ruling ourselves without this. I suspect that someone like David Starkey or Roger Scruton would be quite honest about that. They would, I think, say, yes, populations are incapable of being in charge of the means by which we produce wealth, we are incapable of organising and running the institutions of administration and justice so that outcomes are fair for all. Or indeed some say that fairness and equality are undesirable anyway!  However, there is another more mealy-mouthed part of the system which pretends that the monarchy is 'theatre' or a 'pageant' and, yes, it's a bit pricey, but it's all quite glam and entertaining.  The snag with this 'harmless' view of it all is that it suits those who maintain and sustain the whole thing for the harder political reasons.