Kiss & Tell…..William Tell at the royal opera house

William Tell – Royal Opera House​ – 5th July – Kiss & Tell

There is one scene in this production which aptly summarises the gratuitous perversity of its whole. It occurred not long after the now infamous “rape” a la ClockWork Orange perversely acted out over pretty the Rossini dance music for the original ballet.

The scene is for female chorus and two sopranos. In this production the women are accompanied by children – some indeed very small – who, whilst the two principals sing – are undressed to their skimpy underwear and washed on stage. There is no reason for this. The audience was invited to oggle at this side-show rather than concentrate on the singers. At the very least visually the kinder-strip wreaked of prurience and at worse it evoked something much more sinister….

William Tell is a troubled Opera with a patchy performance history. It is self consciously Grand Opera a genre still only in its infancy at the time of composition. At its best the music is mesmerising – rising to vast crescendos of soloists;chorus and orchestra. Like Wagner the characters have leitmotif – Rossini’s invention. Like Meyerbeer it’s a sprawling entertainment made up of many elements. Written for the French Opera that necessarily included dance or ballet music and an incidental music to set scenes – like the fabulous storm music at the end. It has an equally sprawling overture which is twice the length of the famous bit that everyone knows – the music used in TV series of The Lone Ranger – announced by the unmistakable flourish of hunting horns. These operas we meant to be elaborately staged – they were really the Epic Movies of their day.

This is essentially a story of good and evil – the evil represented by Gasler (a sort of Sheriff of Nottingham figure) the good by Tell. Dramatically the libretto is based on a Schiller play and is a complex study of the politics of the state and of the nation – a conflict between personal liberty and feudal duty. This conflict is made flesh as it were in the person of the heroine – the local princess Mathilde. For all its obvious drama the elements of this strange giant of an opera never quite meld into an intoxicating dramatic whole – though in their own right the elements are quite extraordinary. Rossini’s genius has so many original vocal ideas that others like Verdi and Wagner and even Meyerbeer would freely plunder to develop to effect.

In order to convince this opera of all needs a lavish production that fills in the gaps. What we had was one idea – the horrors of war – with which we were beaten over the head for 5 unrelenting hours. Some of it was silly – a ghost carrying a suitcase in front of the great trio of Act II; some of it was insulting; some of it was adolescent – the use of toy soldiers and a comic book; some of it gratuitous; very occasionally some of it resolved into a wonderful still tableau that indeed caught something of the grand in Grand Opera. But the fact is the whole thing was bloody awful rather than bloody and awful. It was an insult to the audience that the production only managed to add injury after injury.

Productions that court controversy deserve all the opprobrium they get. Cutting out the scenes designed to shock – there was not a lot left except a stage covered with compost and a big dead tree. These were the leitmotif for the barrenness of the producer’s imagination. It was telling in its lack of response to the variety of Rossini’s musical inventiveness. It is the vice of our times to believe audiences can only hold one idea in their heads. It is the vanity of producers to think we need continuous visual distractions or we’ll get bored. This William Tell was an exemplar of both these vices and vanities. In the end it was (rightly) buried alive under the weighty grandiosity of its conceptual pomposity.

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Charles Kennedy RIP

Charles Kennedy RIP:

.000000charleskennedy1983_3326080bI am genuinely sad to learn of the death of Charles Kennedy. He was still a young man although perhaps his greatest days sadly were behind him. Nevertheless, he was one of the very few politicians who in mastering the Media art in the politics of our times never lost his authenticity. Like the late John Smith he is a reminder to us all of the immense richness we gain as a political nation by the Union. He was also that most rare of birds in our political ornithology – a true social democrat. If continuity with its Liberal past makes a comparison true – Kennedy was most successful Liberal leader since Lloyd George both in terms of votes won in 2001 and 2005 and seats won in 2001 and 2005. Charles Kennedy was right about the Iraq War when many, including me, were terribly wrong. Curiously perhaps for a leader of a third force in the UK he was not particularly in favour of PR. His personal demons got the better of his later time as a leading public and political figure but because of his personal authenticity perhaps his fall from grace was consequently graced with humanity rather than hubris. It is not often it can honestly be said but for Charles Kennedy it can be – if there were more of his ilk in public life our politics would be better regarded; our Parliament held in greater esteem and our institutions of government better served.

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Game of thrones III – a rough Guide to the Wars of the roses

Game of thrones III – Lancaster bombs and York’s son rises:

.000shield henry vSome events no sooner have passed than they are bound with a tissue of myth. It is part of our cultural response to certain events – the assassination of JFK in November 1963 is an obvious example. Henry V was similarly and almost as immediately immortalised after his unexpected and unforeseen death in 1422. He was joined to that Pantheon of heroes  – most often young – snatched tragically too soon  – before their work was yet completed and before their promise was fulfilled – epitomised by Alexander the Great. Unlike us lesser mortals they never taste the soured grapes of failure; they elude the chastening of history’s hard judgement; they escape the forgetful frailties that come with age. Forever young – they live on in myth –  and in the case of Henry V forever wrapped in the splendid cope of Shakespeare’s poetry.

As a king, Henry V quickly came to epitomise an English chivalric ideal. As a monarch he was devout; as any good Christian king, he was religiously observant. As a patron he was a generous benefactor – Henry V founded All Souls College as a memorial to his victory at Agincourt. As its name suggests it was partly endowed as a Chantry College part of whose office was to pray for the souls of  England’s dead heroes rather than teach undergraduates. Henry V was a king who fought battles and won them against the odds. He was the king who made himself heir to the throne of France by force of arms but graciously sealed victory on the field by the peaceful gesture of dynastic marriage. Though young and brave he was wise and restrained. Whether the real Henry V was all or any or none of these things hardly matters for Empire won on the fields of France the conquering hero who was Henry V did not dally long before he in turn was conquered by death.

Henry V’s marriage to Katherine de Valois was a dynastic rather than a love match. Katherine was in fact the second wife King Charles VI had furnished to an English king since her elder sister Isabella had been the child-bride to the doomed Richard II. Katherine de Valois was quickly pregnant. Their first child was a son, born in December 1421, he was christened Henry. The infant boy was heir to both the thrones of England and of France.

The unification of the two warring kingdoms personified by this young prince-ling had required Charles VI to disinherit his youngest son – claiming the dauphin (later Charles VII of France) was illegitimate. His two elder sons, Louis and John had perished at Agincourt in the general slaughter of French nobility. The subsequent Treaty of Troyes (May 1420) bestowed not only the hand of Charles VI’s daughter but also settled the succession to the throne of France on Charles VI’s new son-in-law, Henry V. It may be as a consequence of this French chroniclers nicknamed Charles VI ‘the mad’. Mad or not,  Charles VI certainly suffered from repeated bouts of depressive illness which might have been of no significance were it not to be for the subsequent history of his grandson.

Henry V

Henry V

That was yet to come for in December 1421 the proud father, Henry V, was only thirty three. The House of Lancaster was secure and it appeared the greatest days for dynasty and king were yet to come.  As ever in history appearances can be deceptive.

Charles VI of France died in October 1422 – ten months after his grandson’s birth by which time the infant prince’s young, vigorous father, Henry V,  was also dead.  As accidents of history are most often fatal to a dynasty; so, it is the unforeseen that most often alters history’s course. Such youthful promise lost still in its fullest flower drew easy comparisons and in death Henry V’s renown was readily burnished with the heroic patina of an Alexander. But renown’s paeans die in the eerie still that follows the herald’s final trumpeting. The future now belonged rather to the dead king’s nine month old son, King Henry VI.

Henry VI – Faction & Intrigue

Young Henry VI’s coronation did not follow swiftly on his accession but like most of his life – it had rather to wait upon events. In July 1427 – inspired by Joan of Arc – the ‘bastard’ dauphin – the young son whom Charles VI had disinherited – was crowned Charles VII of France to acclaim in Reims cathedral.  By way of contradiction to the coronation of the dauphin Henry VI was finally crowned king of England in Westminster Abbey in November 1429 and shortly thereafter he was also crowned king of France in Notre Dame de Paris.  Already it was too late as even by 1429 the dazzling possibility of a single English monarch governing the two kingdoms was but a chimera. Its moment had already passed.

The accession of so young a king had also caused other problems. The queen, Katherine de Valois, had hardly the time to established herself in England before her husband was dead. It was therefore inevitable that the chary nobility refused her the natural role of regent or any formal place on the king’s council. Equally, they did not want their queen to return to France. She was rather marooned in England  – and then subsequently she was kept from a marriage to a high ranking Lancastrian noble by the jealous council. The queen was closely confined and kept out of harm’s way in the royal apartments in a suite of rooms on the king’s side. The young dowager queen was only just 20 and as so often with the young – harm has its way of finding them out. She looked elsewhere for comfort, entertainment and love. It came to her in the courtly cape of the keeper of her wardrobe – a Welshman – Owen Tudor. The Tudor family had been stalwarts of Owain Glyndwyr’s rising in 1400 which had been supported by Edmund Mortimer. After their defeat a number of these Welsh ‘gentry’ were brought to Henry IV’s court – rather as hostages – and many made there way from there into royal service of Henry IV and to hold office- in the royal household. The dowager queen was quickly pregnant and their son Edmund was consequently of doubtful legitimacy.When in time Henry VI made their son Edmund,  Earl of Richmond few would have believed he would become a significant player in the battle for the English succession. Legitimised and ennobled, Edmund Tudor in fact married into the legitimised and ennobled Lancastrian Beaufort line – Margaret Beaufort, daughter of the second Duke of Somerset (by second creation) and by 1485 surviving sole heiress of the House of Lancaster. Edmund and Margaret had only one child whom they named Henry Tudor. The rest, as they say is history.

Meanwhile, much as in the reign of the young Richard II,  Henry VI’s government was the business rather of his royal uncles. And as before, they quickly filled the royal breach with their own ambitions. Initially, there were plenty of Lancastrian Uncles left to choose from – of the brothers of Henry V –  the eldest Thomas, Duke of Clarence had died in 1421; the next, named for John of Gaunt, John, Duke of Bedford was appointed regent in France. He faced down Joan of Arc but died without issue in 1435 and was buried in Rouen. The youngest of Henry V’s brothers was by far the most able – Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester. He was Henry VI’s  lord protector but he too was unlucky in love  – his first wife bore him no children and his second wife was accused of sorcery and imprisoned and by the time of his death in 1447 he had no legitimate heirs.

.warsofroseshenryvipayne_rosesHumphrey was also unlucky in politics since his main rivalry was with the cadet Beaufort branch of the House of Lancaster in the person of John of Gaunt’s second son by Katherine Swynford, Cardinal Henry Beaufort Bishop of Winchester. It is the rivalry and intrigue between these two scions of the Gaunt descent that fills Raphael Holinshed’s history of England and shaped much of Shakespeare’s Henry VI Part I. The cardinal died shortly after Humphrey leaving the young king to rule alone. Henry VI was by then 26. The ‘bastard’ Beaufort line was fecund and in its statutory legitimacy found itself bound into the wider English nobility. And it is with the other Beaufort – the 2nd Duke Duke of Somerset – second creation –  who is is famously depicted in Henry VI Pt II and set in Temple Gardens. The meeting portrayed opposite never took place but it sums up perfectly the elements in the gathering storm that was to completely overwhelm the House of Lancaster and her king, Henry VI in the decade after 1445.

The root of the problem was the king. Henry VI was later memorialised as a saint. In Tudor ceremonials – funeral and marriages – Henry VI’s arms were borne in procession under the designation St. Henry. He certainly was religious but is was his poor mental health that posed the greatest danger to his government. His marriage to Margaret of Anjou was successful enough in its own terms but Henry was slow to fulfill his office of husband. His first serious bout of mental illness therefore left him at the mercy of the ambitions of his Yorkist cousins.

The rise of the sons of York

The House of York had originally somewhat withered on its original branches. Edmund Duke of York, Edward III’s fourth son and his eldest son and heir, Edward were both dead by 1415. The duchy lands –  though not the ducal title – had, therefore, passed sideways to Edmund’s second son, Richard (of Conisburgh) Earl of Cambridge. The York branch was junior to all of Gaunt’s children. The Beaufort – illegitimate children of Gaunt’s mistress Katherine Swynford –  were later legitimised when the grand old duke married Mistress Swynford but their legitimisation excluded in any event from the succession. The senior lines to Gaunt via Richard II had failed; and via the second son of Edward III, Lionel Duke of Clarence, it had descended via the female line into the Mortimer. The Mortimer, father and son had been Richard II’s preferred heirs but that came to mean nothing and by the death of Henry V the male Mortimer lines had also failed. However, their deaths left a sister, Anne Mortimer. Her marriage to Richard (of Conisburgh) Earl of Cambridge united the senior Clarence claim to the junior male York descent. Their son, another Richard, was consequently made Duke of York by Henry VI. He is the first Yorkist claimant.

The family tree that led to a family at war with itself...

The family tree that led to a family at war with itself…


.0000Edward_IV_PlantagenetRichard, Duke of York was premier peer. He married in his turn Anne Neville sister to the Richard Neville Earl of Warwick (the kingmaker). By her he had four sons – Edward, Earl of March; George; Richard and Edmund. Richard, Duke of York, was as aforementioned the first of the royal house to use Plantagenet as a family name. This Duke of York was as able and ambitious as his royal cousin Henry VI was vacillating and modest. Whilst Henry VI was mentally incapacitated Richard served briefly as Protector of England (1453-4). This promotion only served to feed his appetite for a more permanent royal status. York bullied the then heir-less king, Henry VI, into naming him as his heir.It was a fateful ambition that now stirred.

Henry VI’s recovery from his silent depression was quickly followed by his wife Margaret’s pregnancy. The birth of their son, Edward of Westminster changed everything. Whatever the king had promised York or was prepared to accept Margaret was not minded to have her child lightly set aside. She refused to acknowledge her son was disinherited and despairing of her husband’s spine – Margaret took matters into her own hands. The thwarted Duke of York reacted furiously asserting his right to the crown and claiming legitimacy via Anne Mortimer. Parliament havered – it was nervous about removing an anointed king so instead it settled on Richard Duke of York the titles of Lord Protector; Earl of Chester and Prince of Wales. Richard Duke of York  was therefore legally putative heir to Henry VI. The promotion to Earl of Chester was important since it made the Duke of York a Palatine Prince co-equal to the palatinate status of the duchy of Lancaster. Parliament could not create such a palatine but it could and did award one already existing and already owned by the crown to York. It could hardly have been more explicit.

Queen Margaret fled North looking for allies and found a welcome in Scotland. Together with James III she invaded England at the head of a large army and Richard, Duke of York was unexpectedly defeated by her army at Wakefield. He and his youngest son Edmund were killed.

.00woodvillearticle-1078522-0226D772000005DC-426_306x423His three surviving sons, Edward, now Duke of York; George, (later Duke of Clarence);and Richard (later, Duke of Gloucester) were not minded to take the murder of their father and brother lying down. If his father had ambition; drive and skill on the field; Edward had real military flair verging – alike that of Henry V – on genius. He was also handsome as Hades and a notorious womaniser and looked every inch the king he was about to become. The three brothers together with the Neville defeated Margaret. Edward seized his moment and was quickly crowned Edward IV (1461-1483).

Queen Margaret and their son Edward of Westminster fled to France. Henry VI was placed in the Tower.  In their places they all stayed until Fate tempted them.

Fate came in the cut of the Earl of Warwick – the kingmaker was switching kings. He persuaded Edward IV’s brother George Duke of Clarence to join him. Clarence later double-ratted and the worm of treachery burrowed its way into what until then had been the united House of York.

The House of York

Edward IV once king had surprised everyone by marrying down rather than up. He fell in love with and secretly married Elizabeth Woodville and by her had two sons Edward (proclaimed  Edward V in June 1483) and Richard, Duke of York. These are known to History as the ‘two princes in the Tower’.There were a number of surviving girls – Elizabeth; Mary; Cecily; Anne; and Bridget (who became a nun in Dartford Abbey). If the boys failed to live up to the promise of the three glorious sons of York  – Edward IV’s daughters fared better and went further.

Edward IV’s marriage was not without controversy and not at all what the earl of Warwick had planned for the king. Warwick in negotiation with France had won the hand of a French princess for the new dynasty’s new king. Thwarted Warwick fell from favour and fled England. His travels eventually brought him to the court of Margaret and the Lancastrian Prince of Wales. Their subsequent invasion caught Edward IV off-guard and he in his turn fled London to Burgundy. Henry VI was briefly restored but as ever with Henry’s reign fate rained on his parade. In 1471 at Tewkesbury Edward IV defeated the forces of Margaret and there followed a bloodbath of Lancastrian nobility which included the putative Lancastrian heir, Edward of Westminster.  Edward IV then had Henry VI brusquely murdered in the Tower – leaving no further hostages to fortune – it seems the family war was finally over.

There was one other trailing piece of business – Edward IV no longer trusted his brother George. He duly had the duke was arrested and attainted for treason. Clarence’s children were excluded from the succession and Clarence ended in a butt of Malmsey wine.

But alike Henry V,  Fate now took a hand and her revenge upon the Yorkists in their pride. Edward IV died suddenly. He left two young princes at the tender mercy of the body politic. If minorities were unstable this was to prove the least stable of all of them.

.000edwardiv3809993796_52c5418aa8Edward IV’s younger brother, Richard Duke of Gloucester was briefly Lord Protector to the minor Edward V but the princes were declared bastards and Richard was himself proclaimed King Richard III in July 1483. Richard III was the last Plantagenet king to rule England and the last monarch of the House of York. His death at Bosworth Field in 1485 made way for the Tudors – who had their claim via the Beaufort  cadet branch from John of Gaunt and Catherine de Valois, wife of Henry V and later of Owen Tudor.

Elizabeth of York married Henry VII and thus the Tudors united the two roses and she is consequently both mother to the Tudor dynasty and a grandmother to the Stewart.

The other daughters of Edward IV – Cecily married John, Viscount Wells – half-brother to Margaret Beaufort; Catherine married the William Courtenay, created Earl of Devon in 1511 by Henry VIII. Clarence’s surviving heir was restored in blood by Henry VIII. She had by them married a henchman of Henry VII, Sir Richard Pole. Margaret Pole, Clarence’s youngest daughter was made Countess of Salisbury in her own right. But the sun on these last of York burned too bright. Margaret’s son fell out with Henry VIII over the divorce. Reginald Pole fled England in 1533 and only finally returned to England under Mary I to serve briefly as Archbishop of Canterbury.  his mother, Blessed Margaret Pole was by then dead. She had refused the Supremacy and was executed for treason a few days after her eldest son. He grandson died a few years later in mysterious circumstances inside the tower. The lights of the House of York were extinguished.

Ends and what ends mean

However, because the story is complicated it does not mean it cannot be readily understood.That seems to me to show intellectual condescension that is unjustified. If the “average Joe” is quite capable of following a complex web of family intrigue involving power that is the Game of Thrones on TV the Wars of the roses ought to be a piece of cake.

There has been a great deal of twaddle spoken and written about Richard III over recent months. Historians good, bad and indifferent have paraded around Media studios like circus clowns. I saw one historian sitting on a sofa wearing a suit of armor chatting to Jon Snow meaningfully about how it helped him to get inside the tenor of the times of Richard III. Dressing up in costumes and play-acting is fun – it should be encouraged – but it should not be dressed up as history – anymore than microwaving a chilled dinner can masquerade as cooking.

Richard III

Richard III

Channel Four News coverage has gilded practically every lily and white rose it could lay its hand upon. We have been solemnly informed that this was an historic occasion; the Epic journey of the last Medieval Plantagenet king; and at its end Richard III was finally buried with the dignity of kingship.It makes one wonder if any serial killer might deserve to be re-interred with such pomp in the right circumstance.

The event was noteworthy and not historic. As it happens the king had already been buried in Grey Friars and would have received all his spiritual dues, even if his dead body had by then been exposed to indignities. Carting the rediscovered bones of Richard III about Leicester in a new coffin hardly adds up to an Odyssey let alone an Epic event. Finally, King Richard III has been dead some five hundred years and at this stage whatever we know we are unlikely to know very much more – the surviving evidence is not changed a jot by all of this. His bones – with the curvature of the spine –  provide an interesting footnote. His tomb in Leicester Cathedral will provide the city with a tourist attraction – much as the relics of saints did for churches in medieval times. In that there is no harm and perhaps some definite good.


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Humble Pie Day

Humble Pie Day:

One must never be grudging or bittealogosdownload (1)r about being wrong. I have been completely wrong before about election results so being completely wrong again is not a surprise to me. I wrote the paragraph below at 2 am before bed but I did not post it but I think it’s fair enough in the cold light of this coldly disappointing day.

“As ever the important thing to learn from a political defeat is the right lesson. For all this night may now bring in disappointment to political parties and to individuals – it is very much alike the victories bought with Danegeld which bought time and a sort of peace but left entirely unresolved the problem the of the Danes. The Union which makes the United kingdom had been traded by the Conservative Party for the fools gold of a victory that is only English.The LibDems are completely eviscerated as they had were previously been by their fond embrace of the Conservative Party in the 1930’s.

Labour has deluded itself for five years that it could eke out a victory by winning in the marginals without winning the bigger argument. and one of the arguments lost decisively was lost shortly after 2010 when the coalition pinned the responsibility for the financial crash on Labour ably assisted by Liam Byrne’s foolish letter – meant as a joke – which always sounded to the wider electorate as a confession of guilt.

Finally, for those on the progressive and Union side of UK politics this not a time for mutual recriminations. We must start from where we are and learn from what went before.”

I’ve not seen the actual voting % yet as I went to bed around 2 not long after Putney but I will make some observations – first, the LibDem % below 10% would previously have led to to the conclusion that alike UKIP they would end up with only a handful of seats. Secondly, to be fair to the pollsters the Labour vote I’m guessing will be around 30% which would have been at the lower end of their + or – 3% rule. Thirdly, it seems the Murdoch press has what it wanted – the SNP in Scotland and the conservatives in England. Prepare for the Europe referendum and for the SNP demanding another Referendum as part of their Holyrood campaign next year.

But one should not deny the Conservatives their due – once again they played a blinder with the vote SNP get Labour mantra which clearly had traction. This strategy started on the morning of the Referendum result when Cameron cited English votes for English Laws as a consequence of the Scots decision to remain in the Union. As in 2010 the Conservative leadership has played its hand with a ruthless flair and you cannot learn the lessons of a defeat unless you embrace the reality of its cause.

I’m glad to have quoted Teddy Kennedy’s speech previously – it was written by Ted Sorensen who crafted all of JFK’s great speeches and Bobby Kennedy’s too. Great causes need great words but they also need guile of great men or women – we need to find them in the rubble of this defeat….and one of them will not be Mr Balls!

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Made in Chelsea made me think……

.000homeless329552840_4_homeless-person-beg-signThe poor are always with us….

Last night I caught a few minutes of a TV series dedicated to ‘the haves’ of our nation –  Made in Chelsea. It chronicles the lives and loves of a group of affluent young people in the West London – about and around Belgravia, the King’s Road and Knightsbridge and their adventures in the wider world of city breaks and endless parties, lunches and vacations.

Their preoccupations are singular and self obsessed. It is easy to laugh at them and then do as they habitually do pass on to something more amusing without a further thought. It is easy just to laugh at the show for is it not just a foolish Media foolish confection accurately reflecting nothing more or less than the shallow vacuity of our consumerist society?  Is that the moral response?

Moral – humbug say you – gilded youth is surely often hedonistic and those youths fortunate by birth to have lives gilded with real gold will only tend to be more hedonistic than the rest. They will spend money as freely as they spend time and striking an absolute moral pose about this fact of life only draws attention to one’s own personal foibles and failings – the word hypocrite trips too easily off the tongue. We fear the word moral as we fear being termed hypocrites.

Made in Chelsea is a TV show about London a city where I have lived most of my adult life. In this same city as Alexandra “Binky” Felstead or Mark-Francis Vandelli  there are 2.2 million other Londoners living in relative poverty – that is they live on less than half the average national income. Half national income is roughly £12,000 per annum. That is roughly twice the number as when I first came to live here in 1976.

Nor has relative poverty increased in isolation. For example 39% of those living in the private rented sector in London are categorised as living in relative poverty and that is because more people now live in the rented sector because of the shortage of social or public housing. There are 11 thousand families living in temporary accommodation – many of them outside the boroughs where they registered housing need and where they work. Fourteen million UK citizens live in or around that income level and many are in constant danger of real material deprivation.

One million of our fellow citizens have used a food bank in the last 12 months. Therefore, one million families in the UK have some direct experience of what we term poverty. Government statistics tell us one and five children live in what is termed absolute poverty in the UK.  Absolute poverty is defined as lack of sufficient resources to meet basic needs. There are around 12 thousand homeless in London at any one time and half of these live on the streets.

Those made in Chelsea might say – sad but true – or what has that to do with me?  Or they might excuse themselves by saying God helps those who help themselves – as if the Almighty is just another material acquisition like a pair of Gucci shoes or a Chanel handbag to which those who have are entitled.  These are of the legion of polite fictions we regularly employ to save ourselves from the inconvenience of thinking too hard about the realities of others lives beyond those of our immediate and charmed circle of acquaintance. The poor are with us and we need not trouble ourselves about it much more than giving the occasional nod via an occasional donation to this or that charity.

We claim the unfortunate for ourselves so we can feel we care and then we quietly look the other way. I’m no better than anyone but I am more and more uncomfortable with my pose. In the context of an entry I made on Facebook yesterday about food banks – Made in Chelsea last night made me feel ashamed. I still feel ashamed. We cast the net of blame about us as if we might catch the conscience of a king. Sometimes we do not need to wait upon royal prerogative – we can do something ourselves. The things in question may be small – trivial – hardly noticed – but they will accumulate to make a difference. One of those things is to vote; another is to vote with conscience rather than just as self-interest directs.

We too easily forget in our relative privilege that Poverty is usually blameless and usually the accident of birth or misfortune. Many of those living in poverty have physical or learning disabilities; or low educational attainment; or they suffer from serious recurrent mental health issues. Their poverty is often inter-generational and often leads to social exclusion and as a consequence they suffer discrimination on almost every level – from accessing state benefits or education or housing to basic legal aid. They will often fall further into social exclusion – fall foul of the criminal law – or acquire addictions. They will as often as not present to us as unsympathetic. Poverty is a state into which they are born. There they remain a lifetime – not in the bucolic idyll of obscurity etched out in Grey’s Elegy but in the blind hopelessness that accrues to them because they are poor and because they are disadvantaged. We who are not poor console ourselves with the notion that it is possible for everyone to enjoy our relative success. That is of course untrue – for history may be littered with memorials to the the blessed few that made it through to the top but the other 99% died as they were born – in want.

We are all bi-polar if only in a philosophical sense. We experience life within the narrows of our mind and body but oddly we conceptualise our life principally in the terms of others – or at the very least in terms of things outside our being even if only within our easy grasp. Sometimes as apparently with those starring in Made in Chelsea the acquisition of things in easy grasp becomes a way of life; for others less fortunate things in easy grasp are things to take from those who have. They both share the common delusion that the things – and their possession – will somehow make for happiness and contentment. Most often they only lead to a hunger for more and more and like all human appetites when fed it will need more to satisfy the craving.

.0000homelessimagesAt the best this conceptualised experience of life  can lead us towards each other and to the moments of our greatest fulfillment. For simplicity’s sake we might call this love. Love of our fellow man is part and parcel of how we imagine our own humanity. We garnered this wisdom early on in our short time on this planet. About the same time we were studying the stars at night we were studying each other. From the one we understood something of the motion of planets and the geometry of their movement opened a new world here on earth –  as well as making the heavens somehow predictable. At the time when we were writing these observations down we were also wrting down philosophical ideas often in the form of memorable aphorisms. One of them – love thy neighbour as thyself – aptly summarises the bipolar philosophical condition of our existence. Although often associated as uniquely Christian the injunction first appears in the Bible in Leviticus.  We can therefore be pretty sure its provenance is older.

The idea of loving your neighbour challenges us simply because we only really experience the world directly through and from our own perspective and within the limitations of our bodies and of our minds. Moreover – it has always been the stranger to whom this injunction has been applied – friends and family did not count when this principle was coined – indeed in Leviticus the usage ‘foreigner’  is the one most commonly appearing in translation. It is a call to consciousness of others’ needs that speaks directly to our own experience – for in a strange – perhaps in a counter-intuitive way – ancient mankind had observed the greatest collective security was to gained by considering the needs of others as if they were our own. The idea has constantly recurred in philosophy and in religions everywhere.

I had no notion on going to sleep that Made in Chelsea had made such an impression on me. When I woke this morning at about half four – I felt impelled to write. In so doing I probably have made a fool of myself. I do not do this for myself or because I feel superior or because I judge others and least because I am better than anyone. I write this because I feel it needs to be said. We easily forget the many chances life affords us and i have been afforded for whatever reason more chances than many. I want to give others – most especially those whom I regard as the least deserving – that same chance to look back on their life and feel as I do when I look back on mine.



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The Last Word….

alogosdownload (1)I have avoided commenting on the debates in detail mainly because we all reveal our own (party) prejudices inevitably in listening to discussion – even when we agree with a speaker –  and we tend to hear the things that most reflect our own beliefs and reinforce our own position. As my position is widely known I imagine its repetition with neither engage nor intrigue.

I did not like the format. I thought many of the questions were too contrived. Frankly some sounded desperately planted. I also thought as there were two coalition partners defending their record in government with an equal amount of time – it lacked inevitable balance. I also thought – and here so did those watching with me – that the PM was accorded too much latitude from cross questioning from audience members a grace which was not given either to Miliband or to Clegg. I noted particularly David Dimbleby did not permit those asking questions on food banks to challenge the PM but invited them to challenge Deputy PM Clegg.In the narrows of the advantage gained – Mr Clegg may well have done enough to ensure he hangs on in Sheffield Hallam assuming his constituents were watching on TV.

The most interesting comments of the night – scripted or otherwise – came from Mr Cameron with his referendum redline; Clegg with his EU redline equal and opposite and finally a clear indication that if Miliband is asked to form a government we are looking to a minority government – alike Wilson in 1974 – whether Miliband has the sinuous skills this will demand is an interesting question which arises from his decision.

The debate did not illuminate the public discourse and it will neither change minds or inspire fervour.

We are very much where we were when we came in – except made tireder by this extended format now permitted by fixed term parliaments – with the numbing possibility that we will have to face this all again within a year.

In that profound sense my feeling is that once we are dusted and done on 7th May – akin to the Scots referendum – leaving nothing finally settled in any positive way – the momentum will move once more from both the larger parties, especially as any new election is bound to fall into the timetable for the elections to Holyrood.

The UK and potentially its continuance; and its membership of the EU as a single entity or as a series of smaller nation states will all remain in play.

A century ago the entire island of Ireland was as yet still part of the United Kingdom. A century on and it looks as if the dynamic that knit together the islands of the British archipelago into one of the most centrally governed unitary states in history is in reverse. I guess the Roman Empire fell apart as completely over a hundred years as well… History is replete with unresolvable conundrums of this nature.

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United we Stand – divided they rule – the politics of the Union

alogosdownload (1)United we stand?

Party politicians on all sides should be chary about the tactics they employ in this general election over the political legitimacy of potential coalition partners – for they may have effects which are unexpected and potentially irreversible.

It is becoming less and less clear to me that the Conservatives are any longer minded to continue on with the Union in its traditional terms. The tactics first adopted on the morning of the Referendum result when the PM raised the issue of English votes for English Laws (EVEL) in a manner which only exacerbated a prevailing sense that politics of the UK Union are singularly a matter of party advantage.  These are not new tactics. The main political parties have employed them one way or another ever since Parnell. As tactics today they only make political sense to a political party that has had little or no representation in Scotland for 40 years. The Conservative Party has literally lost touch with an entire nation in the Union.

This tactic has now been continued into the General Election. It may bring some near term party advantage to the Conservatives in terms of seats in England but may also bring about another Independence Referendum in Scotland. The fact they are willing to take that risk  betrays much more than the need to win. to this as a party they have additionally added the potential of the EU referendum. That may also further destabilise Union parties in Scotland. Moreover, the febrile nature of the politics of devolution in NI rests on the UK and Irish governments as two equal parties. Were there to be more parties to that agreement the very rationale that has contained aspirations for a United Ireland may be quickly undermined – particularly if Sinn Fein rises in Ireland North and South much as the SNP has risen in Scotland.

The LibDems have today – or at least Mr Clegg has – set out his terms for a UK government that may exclude the entire party political interest in Scotland from participation in the Union government in Westminster. The Labour Party has not been far behind in rhetoric but somewhat less explicit. Mr  Clegg has additionally offered the constitutional novelty of the notion that a party with most votes or seats  – presuming no matter how small the plurality – in always entitled to be part of the government. The corollary to this is the LibDems must be present in a government to make it legitimate; whereas UKip or DUP would have an equal and opposite effect. In effect a minority Conservative government would be preferable to one composed of any number of other parties.

If as seems likely – there are no Conservative or LibDem MP’s from North of the border and at best a handful of LiS – they are by these actions only making the SNP’s case to pursue independence.

I’m not sure Union parties who can’t get MP’s elected in Scotland should be wagging their fingers at the party chosen by an entire Nation in the Union and saying – we cannot do business with you. I am at a loss how these Nationalists differ in nature to the Irish nationalists or British and Irish unionists with whom we happily did business for a century.

Personally, as an Irishman and historian I am well aware that the politics of the Unions was always about low base calculation rather than high principle. That said – that was then – the history of these Islands since 1921 has demonstrated that small independent nations particularly within the EU can prosper – and that the politics of divide and rule tends over time to make divisions ever more unbridgeable.

The parties of the Union have all failed in Scotland. That is not something for which they’re taking any responsibility but instead they’re demonising their opponent and in doing so making the whole project UK ever more unstable.

Many contemporary politicians have a very poor grasp on History. If they did they’d really not play party politics with the Union – it had never ended well in the past – in Ireland North and South and elsewhere in GB – over disestablishing the Church of wales for example –  and it will end badly this time as well.

It is a cliche of every age to say we get the politicians we deserve – but honestly this time we all deserve better of them because something bigger is at stake. If we all value the UK and the Union we should all tell all our party political leaders to drop this language.

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Game of Thrones II – a rough Guide to the Wars of the Roses continued…

A rough Guide to the Wars of the Roses –

Part II –  a culture of claim & counter-claim.

.000000000000000000Edward_III_of_England_(Order_of_the_Garter)Edward III: sire of princes & father of the Royal Dukes

In addition to the Black Prince, Edward (of Woodstock) Prince of Wales, Edward III had four other sons: Lionel (of Antwerp); John (of Ghent/Gaunt); Edmund (of Langley); and Thomas (of Woodstock). In line with his elevated notions of royal blood Edward III broke with precedent and, following the French custom and as his sons came of age or married, he created them Royal Dukes rather than mere Earls.

The Plantagenet family now literally lorded it over the rest of the nobility. Additionally these royal dukes had significant royal lands bestowed upon them – often landholdings located in the more distant reaches of the kingdom which had been largely in crown hands since the Norman confiscations – or as a consequence of successful waging of war – the far west of England – the north of England and along the Marches of Wales and within Wales. These royal dukes were also useful in providing marriageable sons into ancient noble houses like the Neville, Percy and Mortimer. They then were a natural focal point for crown-led local government and for regional administration organised in informal royal councils in Wales; in the North of England and all along its debatable Scots border; and in Devon and Cornwall.

A suitably heroic Victorian impression of the Black Prince....

A suitably heroic Victorian impression of the Black Prince….

So it was that the younger brothers of Edward Prince of Wales were all made dukes – Lionel (of Antwerp) was created Duke of Clarence; John of Gaunt (i.e. Ghent) was created Duke of Lancaster; Edmund of Langley was created Duke of York. Edward III’s youngest son, Thomas (of Woodstock) – was as yet unmarried when his father died in 1377. On his accession Richard II continued his grandfather’s tradition by making his Uncle Thomas, the Duke of Gloucester. It turned out there was little gratitude in noble preferment. Gloucester of all the king’s paternal ducal uncles harboured a truly royal ambition.

These ducal titles have since been employed and reemployed for the same purpose of elevating in title Princes of the Blood above the nobility. It is therefore to Edward III that we owe the tradition of royal dukes and royal duchies.

.000000000000Richard-IIRichard II & the family rivalry begins:

Richard II was only 10 on his accession in 1377.

If previous Plantagenet minorities were a mixed bag at least both Henry III and Edward III  had survived the storms of faction to reign supreme. From those precedents Richard II could reasonably have hoped to survive his own minority even if it was to be one marked by the predations of his relatives. As matters turned out his minority rather was marked by regal authority mature for its years; and his majority by an equally immature imperious grandiosity.

All successful kingship rests heavily on the temperament of the king. In husbanding this vital quality the Plantagenet kings had owned a long if patchy history. King John had lost most of his family’s personal Angevin Empire leaving him England alone and he almost lost his English throne as well before timely death saved matters for his baby son, Henry III. Richard II’s great grandfather Edward II had lost not only his better judgement in affairs of the heart but he also lost his throne to his wife and his life itself at he hands her scheming lover Roger Mortimer, 1st Earl of March.

Richard II’s accession in 1377 was therefore met with some trepidation. Initially  it fell to Richard II’s uncles to provide him with sound support and wise advice. As by this time both Edward the Black Prince and Lionel, Duke of Clarence had gone to their graves that duty of care of the young king fell largely to Edward’s third son, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster; and his fourth son, Edmund of Langley, Duke of York and the youngest, Thomas of Woodstock whom Richard as aforementioned had made Duke of Gloucester for his coronation.

As Richard was now sole heir of the Black Prince his marriage was the only means of continuing the senior Plantagenet line. His marriage to Anne of Bohemia was a personal success but from it, it was quickly apparent there was to be no heir apparent. The reason almost certainly rested with Anne rather than Richard but the failure to make legitimate issue created issues that would play out in bouts of repeated political unrest.

The second line to the throne descended via Lionel, Duke of Clarence. It was similarly perilous since Lionel had only one surviving child before his death – Phillipa of Clarence. She had married the 3rd Earl of March, Edmund Mortimer and she and March together had two sons – Roger Mortimer and Edmund Mortimer.

Whilst Richard II had no children these two Brothers Mortimer were nearest in line to the succession and in 1486 – his own marriage being without issue – Richard II informally named the elder cousin, Roger Mortimer to be his heir presumptive. Given that matrilineal descent from Empress Matilda had established the succession of the first Plantagenet king, Henry II, there was nothing out of the way in Richard II’s nomination of his cousin.

The family tree that led to a family at war with itself...

The family tree that led to a family at war with itself…

However, prudence was not always to be the hallmark of Richard II’s reign – like that of his great grandfather, Edward II – his reign was strewn with incident and adversity. When he was still only 13 he faced the most serious challenge to the post conquest English monarchy – in the form of a popular insurrection known as the Peasants’ Revolt. In 1381 it almost ended in a political disaster and also almost ended the Plantagenet dynasty. The rebellion had been stirred over the imposition of a Poll Tax to pay for continued wars in France. It was not his wise uncles on the royal council – led by John of Gaunt – but the inexperienced king himself who rode to the rescue of the monarchy and nobility. By his bold action he saved his throne and after Watt Tyler was butchered in a melee it was the king’s cry to the milling peasantry –  ‘I am your captain follow me’ –  that saved the day.

.0000000000000000spirit_richard_IIlargeAfterwards there were recriminations and tensions in the court. The king was wary of his family. That wariness was reinforced by repeated military failures in France which also inevitably brought about a cooling of relations between uncles and royal nephew. John of Gaunt withdrew first from the king’s Council and then from the kingdom – ostensibly to pursue his claim to the throne of Portugal.  Richard did not turn to his other uncles – York and Gloucester – but instead promoted his own men – primarily the de la Poles and the de Vere Earl of Oxford and his powerful regional affinity. The latter became a particular royal favourite and like all  medieval royal favourites de Vere became particularly detested. Richard ignored the clamour of the royal dukes and made his upstart friend Duke of Ireland. The upstart was now an equal; that was intolerable. The royal dukes were then cast aside from the royal council – that was not to be borne with.

Minor squabbles and major disagreements

The dukes and their sons –  led by Thomas (of Woodstock) whom Richard II had made Duke of Gloucester and Gaunt’s eldest son Henry (of Bolingbroke) –  were determined not to be so lightly set-aside by the king still nominally but a minor. They used their position to appeal matters in Parliament and thereby they hoped to force the king to set aside his new advisers. As a result of their appeal the royal and noble opposition became known collectively as the Lords Appellant. The lords however did not play straight with the king. As Richard II ‘s happy marriage to Anne of Bohemia had produced no children the Duke of Gloucester’s agents in Parliament – with their own axes to grind because of refused patronage – loudly whispered that there was something unnatural in the king’s relationship with de Vere. The accusation deliberately brought to mind the conduct of Edward II and thus caught light and spread like wild fire. Richard showed a regal disdain which although understandable was unhelpful to his cause.

The king, resentful,  parried and resisted but gradually he was forced to make concessions to the lords appellant whilst he secretly appealed to de Vere for assistance. The king’s ploy forced a confrontation and the so-called ‘lords appellant’ ambushed the king’s favourite de Vere at Radcot Bridge near Oxford. De Vere was heavily defeated and he and the de la Pole fled the country. Richard II’s victorious uncle, Thomas, Duke of Gloucester now forced the king to purge his chamber of his favourite chamber-knights and even forced the king to give up his old tutor Sir Simon de Burley. Gloucester then ensured – despite appeals form all sides including from his brother the Duke of York  – that they were all executed. Richard II was powerless to resist his uncle’s pretensions and bore the insult with an even countenance. Behind the shallow mask of manners there was another hidden – the face of revenge.

Restored to their monopoly of advice on council and at court the royal dukes gradually relented and everything returned to a sort of normal. Richard II, however, was biding his time. He never forgave Uncle Gloucester and he was now also as wary of his cousin Henry Bolingbroke – John of Gaunt’s eldest son – who had led the army which defeated de Vere at Radcot Bridge.

Thoughtfully, Richard recalled his senior uncle, John of Gaunt, from Spain. The old duke of Lancaster came back in a triumph and managed both the young king and the lords appellant and managed to restrain his own son from further confrontation with the king: family relations were mended and patched.  Richard II gradually asserted his own policy priorities over those of Gaunt – remaking English policy in France by seeking peace – and on the death of his first wife he cemented that policy by marrying the young French Princess Isabella. She, however, at the age of 7 was too young for child bearing.

Meanwhile, turning his attention to Ireland where rebellions had partly created the opportunity for the lords appellant to strike at his king’s friends through Parliament, Richard II raised an army 8000 strong of which he took personal command. He went on campaign in Ireland and quickly won a string of striking successes and his success raised his reputation back home in England.

Empowered, Richard suddenly struck down the unsuspecting appellant lords – arresting three of them whilst he had his Uncle Gloucester detained in Calais where he had him murdered. That murder of his own uncle in retrospect might be considered the moment when the so-called Wars of the Roses truly began. Richard also executed Arundel and Warwick and then set about breaking up their noble affinities in the localities – this time buying new friends on the way like the de Mowbray whom Richard cannily made up to duke of Norfolk. By this means he enhanced royal revenues and for the first time in his reign looked very much in control of politics. Old John of Gaunt and his son sided with Richard and as a reward Richard also made Gaunt’s son Henry Bolingbroke Duke of Hereford in his own right.

Later, a row flared up between Bolingbroke, newly created duke of Hereford and the newly created duke of Norfolk which Parliament declared had to be settled by single combat. The king over-ruled and banished both Norfolk and Henry – the former for life and the latter for ten years. Bolingbroke fled to France but the French king wanted no war with England and was not minded to do more than offer his English royal cousin much more than royal hospitality.

Heartbroken by his son’s sudden disgrace, the tottering colossus that was John of Gaunt stood with the king but the old man had not much time left on earth. He died in 1399.

Richard II then took a fatal decision – to disinherit Henry Bolingbroke. He extended Bolingbroke’s banishment to life and effectively annexed the duchy of Lancaster to the crown.

The Duchy of Lancaster:

.0Henry IVThe House of Lancaster as a cadet branch of the Plantagenet line had origins much further back than the reign of Edward III. Originally Henry III’s second son , Edmund “Crouchback” (Crossed Back i.e. a crusader knight) was made Earl of Leicester; and later Earl of Lancaster. He was endowed with very considerable lands in the north and midlands. Edmund’s son Thomas played a prominent part in the reign of Edward II for which he was richly rewarded adding Ferrers Earldom of Derby and the Earldom of Lincoln to the family honours. He fell out with his royal cousin’s (Edward II) lover Piers Gaveston and after the disastrous defeat of Edward II at Bannockburn Thomas became England’s virtual governor. His success was short-lived and when Edward II reasserted his control of the government he had Thomas was executed in 1322.

Thomas had no heir so titles and lands had passed to his younger brother Henry who became third Earl of Lancaster. It was his son, Henry of Grosmont (born in Grosmont castle) who famously served in the renewed wars with France and was credited with saving the life of the Black Prince and thus became a favourite at the court of Edward III. Edward III created him successively, first Earl of Salisbury and then first Duke of Lancaster. Most unusually, Edward III made the entire county into a Palatinate. (Palatinates are princely fiefdoms independent of the crown. They were common in Europe – particularly in the lands of the Holy Roman Empire. In England there were only three palatinates: the County of Durham (an ecclesiastical palatinate, belonging to the prince-bishop of Durham); the earldom of Chester (a crown palatinate); and the duchy of Lancaster.)

Henry, first Duke of Lancaster as it happened had no male heir and his only daughter Blanche of Lancaster was his heiress. Blanche married to Edward III’s third son, John of Gaunt (Ghent). On her father’s death Edward III created Blanche’s husband John of Gaunt, first Duke of Lancaster in the second creation. By then John of Gaunt was already Duke of Aquitaine and one of England’s richest nobles. He now inherited all the lands of Blanche and the royal palatinate remained part of his new royal duchy. By this marriage, therefore, the duke of Lancaster had considerably greater status than the other royal dukes.

The later dynastic claims of the House of Lancaster united Plantagenet descent both from cadet branch of Henry III with direct descent from Edward III’s third son, John of Gaunt.

John of Gaunt added a further footnote to this lineage of Lancaster in the form of bastard children. After the death of his first wife Blanche in 1469 Gaunt began an affair with Katherine Swynford – one of her privy chamber women. They had four children  – all given the family name Beaufort – John – later Duke of Somerset; Henry, later Cardinal and Bishop of Winchester; Thomas, later Duke of Exeter; Joan, later Countess of Westmoreland. After the death of his second wife in 1396, Gaunt married Katherine Swynford making her Duchess of Lancaster. Richard II – who had a soft spot both for Katherine and her children – made all their children legitimate by Act of Parliament – although the act itself provided the Beaufort could make no claim to the succession. At that time of course the House of Lancaster was replete with legitimate male claimants. The Beaufort were destined by fate to play a greater part in the future history of Lancaster.

The decision of Richard II to disinherit his cousin Bolingbroke was, therefore, more than simply a family affair. It struck at all the nobility. Henry Bolingbroke returned to England with an army ostensibly to reclaim his lands. He landed whilst Richard was in Ireland – on a mission to avenge the murder of his nominated heir Roger Mortimer who had been killed in a skirmish at Kells in County Meath. Whilst Richard was away Henry Bolingbroke easily won over his nervous fellow peers. Richard II returned and was quickly defeated and officially resigned his crown to Bolingbroke –  who was crowned Henry IV. Richard was murdered by agents of the new king.

.0000henryivdownload (1)Shortly thereafter Henry’s claim was tested by Richard’s legal heir the son of Roger Mortimer, Edmund, whose uncle, also confusingly an Edmund, at one stage was involved in a plot with Owen Glen-dower to remove the Lancastrian King Henry IV and divide the English kingdom into three parts – between himself and the two Mortimer branches of the Plantagenet line.

Henry IV held the Mortimer family in the Tower and other paces around London since they all possessed a senior claim over his own to the throne. Henry IV’s reign was marked by repeated challenges to the House of Lancaster as Henry IV tried to establish himself and his son firmly in the succession. Henry IV died in 1413 and shortly thereafter his son, Henry V renewed the war with France and reunited the nobility in a campaign that ended in the shock of a total and overwhelming English victory at Agincourt.  There were few English dead but amongst the few was Edmund Mortimer. It seemed at least the sun once again smiled on Plantagenet and the House of Lancaster now was secure as houses.




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A Game of Thrones (a rough guide to the wars of the Roses)

rough guide to the wars of the Roses –

MOU202432Burying King Richard III

Laying to rest the earthly remains of Richard III seems to have dug up a lot of a-historical nonsense long buried by good historical research. In the best of traditions the pantomime image of the hunchbacked Richard III has turned out not to be that far from the physical reality. Richard was indeed a hunchback. We have been breathlessly told this certainty would change history. Unsurprisingly, it has done no such thing. What the blizzard of Media interest did reveal was the depth of the shallows of common knowledge about England’s history.

0000000000000000000richardIII467229860King Richard III remains have been was re-interred in Leicester Cathedral with what passes these days for pomp, circumstance and – as the late Kenny Everett might have said –  “and all in the best possible taste”.  A royal duke; a royal countess; a Cardinal Archbishop; and, even the Archbishop of Canterbury were present to make history before our eyes. There was a a phalanx of Media historians as learned outriders. Revelations were promised. The circus has left Leicester. Gone and as easily forgotten as these events deservedly may be they have left me wondering whether anyone was really any the wiser from all the juggling of names and dates and all the clowning about in period costume.

As I’ve vociferously  complained about the silly things that have been said on Channel 4 and elsewhere I have asked myself could I do any better?

Best beloved, you must decide that for yourselves – here’s my Rough Guide to those pesky Wars of the Roses and the Plantagenet – of whom Richard III was only the last rose of the House of York’s once glorious summer.

Part I: The Wars and the Roses:

The wars in question are more a series of military engagements fought by various cadre of various branches of a single royal family or dynasty –  Plantagenet  – in the last decade of the fourteenth century and again the middle decades of the fifteenth century. They are taken to have ended in Bosworth Field in 1485 and with the death of Richard III and the accession of the first Tudor – Henry VII.

However, as there was no formal beginning to these so-called wars it should be no surprise that their ending was as similarly informal. The end date of 1485 was only formally noted from the lofty retrospect afforded from the theatrical stage in the 1590’s as set by William Shakespeare. By then another sun was setting on the last of another dynasty  – one that had made it largely because of the Wars of the Roses – the Tudors – for by the 1590’s the last Tudor, Elizabeth I, short of hair and long on make-up was long beyond child-bearing. Elizabeth was already making way for the progeny of her longtime rival Mary, Queen of Scots. That is another history….back to the Roses….

As these Wars of the Roses were largely bitter fruits of family feuding in that sense they partly and genuinely resemble the TV series Game of Thrones which took its inspiration from them.

The roses in question are red and white: the red rose is for Lancaster and the white rose is for York. These badges still survive in their respective county emblems to this day. The roses came to represent two cadet branches of the one family – the Plantagenet – for these wars were nothing if not an entirely family affair.

.warsofroseshenryvipayne_rosesTheir choice of roses of two colours as a badge of their conflict went back to a law case and subsequently to a confrontation in Temple Garden between the litigants. Its dull prose are poetically repainted in Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part I: Act II, scene iv which itself symbolically portrays this occasion as the origin both of of the Wars and of the Roses. Richard Plantagenet (the figure on the left) who eventually became the Duke of York; Lord Protector and legal heir apparent to Henry VI, plucked a white rose as the emblem of his family branch, York; and his adversary, John Beaufort, Duke of Somerset (the figure on the right), picked a red rose as the badge of the other branch, Lancaster.

In Shakespeare’s play their followers then choose sides by plucking a red or white rose. This dramatic conceit works brilliantly on stage but is clouds a darker dynastic reality – the conflict reignited in Temple Gardens had its origin in an earlier act of regicide, when the son of the Duke of Lancaster (John of Gaunt’s eldest son) known as Henry Bolingbroke after the castle where he had been born, first had pushed aside Richard II; and then later almost certainly had the king murdered. Henry Bolingbroke succeeded Richard II in 1399 as Henry IV – and he was the first king of the House of Lancaster. His claim was always questionable and had always left many awkward questions of legitimacy unanswered. These questions were decisively but deceptively answered by Henry IV’s son, Henry V, in his victory at Agincourt but they resurfaced after Henry V’s untimely death in the political tensions during long minority of Henry VI.

The Royal Houses of Lancaster and York were therefore both branches of family Plantagenet. They respectively each took their names from the royal duchies of the two principals in this bloody struggle for the throne. Edward III had originally bestowed these titles on his younger sons. This is why they are described as the cadet branches of the same royal house or royal family. They are the junior lines to to the senior established line of succession just as today Prince Andrew and Prince Edward are the juniors to the senior line of their elder brother, Prince Charles. Similarly, Edward III’s eldest son (another Edward) was eldest son and heir to his father. He was nicknamed ‘the Black Prince’ because in battle he wore a black ostrich plume in his helmet. He had taken ostrich feathers or plumes to be part of his coat of arms as Prince of Wales (and heir apparent) when his father created the order of the Knights of the Garter and made his son the premier garter knight. To this day ostrich plumes have remained part of the regalia of any Prince of Wales.

Family Plantagenet

The family name ‘Plantagenet’ like the family name ‘Windsor’ was not originally a family or surname. It was a nickname. It not until the mid-fifteenth century that it was actually adopted as a family name – and then – and initially – only by one of the two principal protagonists: Richard, (3rd) Duke of York. Before then children of the Plantagenet royal dynasty were generally named after the place of their birth: for example – Edward of Woodstock (Prince of Wales – the Black Prince); Lionel of Antwerp; John of Ghent (i.e. Gaunt). Women heiresses by contrast often took the name of their noble house – Eleanor of Aquitaine; Blanche of Lancaster.

By the time the Yorkist branch adopted the family name Plantagenet in 1450 the struggle between Plantagenet royal cousins and their kindred already had been underway on and off for almost sixty years.

Plantagenet the Name

..0000plante geneste6f6b8e288c35108dd108fe533da6549ePlantegenest (Plante Genest) had been a 12th-century nickname of Geoffrey, Count of Anjou who commonly wore the flower on his hat or coat. Count Geoffrey married (Empress) Matilda who was the only child of the last Norman King of England, Henry I, who was himself the fourth son of the William the Conqueror (William I).

Count Geoffrey was Matilda’s second husband. Matilda’s first marriage to the Holy Roman Emperor Henry V had been childless. Hers was a title therefore above all titles and her children by Geoffrey bore the nickname ‘FitzEmpress’ (son of the Empress). Their eldest, Henry FitzEmpress, had another nickname Curtmantel (short coat) from the cut of his coat. However, generally, he is simply known as Henry II of England.

In addition to England and Normandy from his mother Henry II inherited Anjou, Touraine and Maine from his father Geoffrey; and shortly thereafter he acquired by marriage the lands of the duchy of  Aquitaine by marrying its heiress, Eleanor, Duke of Aquitaine in her own right and sometime Queen of France.  Altogether these lands in England and France – to which Henry II in due course added parts of Ireland, Brittany, the Vexin and parts of Southern France –  comprised the Angevin Empire.

Therefore, Henry II (1154-1189) is England’s first Plantagenet king.

The Plantagenet Dynasty:

The Plantagenet kings are commonly taken to compose four different houses or dynasties in history’s book: The Angevin; The Plantagenet; The House of Lancaster; The House of York.

Henry II & Eleanor of Aquitaine; foreground Richard I. In the same abbey at Fontevraud are buried the hearts both of King John and his son Henry III.

Henry II & Eleanor of Aquitaine; foreground Richard I. In the same abbey at Fontevraud are buried the hearts both of King John and his son Henry III.

1. The House of Angevin: the Angevin kings are Henry II – and his sons, King Richard I (the Lionhearted) and King John. After the death of Henry II Kings Richard and John embarked on high risk, high tax polices which duly lost the family of most of its French possessions and as Henry II’s Empire collapsed, the barons became ever resentful of royal demands on their incomes. The stand off between crown and nobility was nominally settled by Magna Carta but even after making all these concessions King John struggled to hold on to the English throne. His sudden death accidentally secured the realm for his infant son, Henry III.

2. The House of  Plantagenet: this is the main line of the succession of English kings which runs from King John’s baby son and heir Henry III (1216-72); to Edward I (1272- 1307); to Edward II (1307- deposed Feb 1327 d. Sept. 1327 ); and gloriously to Edward III (1327 -1377); and finally to his grandson Richard II (1377- deposed 1399 d.1400).

3. The House of Lancaster: there are as we have seen three kings of the House of Lancaster: Henry IV ( Henry (of) Bolingbroke 1399-1413); Henry V (1413-1422) and famously the victor of Agincourt and King of France; and his son by Katherine of France, Henry VI (1422 -1461) (1470-1471 – imprisoned in the Tower d.1471).These three kings are the central figures in the Shakespeare history plays named for them and they played a very important part in shaping the political imagination of England’s governing class from Tudor times onward.

4. The House of York: there are three kings of the House of York: Edward IV; Edward V; Richard III. These too feature prominently in Shakespeare’s history – mainly in Henry VI Parts II & III and naturally enough in King Richard III, famously (over)played by Lawrence Olivier on film.

The Rival Claims:

The House of Lancaster and the House of York were as aforementioned both cadet branches of the main Plantagenet line of succession. The dynasty as can be seen from above already had had its troubles from time to time – with King John and then more notoriously with Edward II. However, everything had seemed to come good and heaven smiled on the monarchy of Edward III.

.000000000000000000Edward_III_of_England_(Order_of_the_Garter)Edward III in his long reign re-made the Plantagenet dynasty afresh. he gave it a distinctly English image. Edward III was shrewd in marriage and politics: cautioned as he was by his father’s homosexual foibles; tutored as he was by his father’s failures; and later schooled as he was under the the presumptions of his mother’s lover – Roger Mortimer, Earl of March – the very man supposed to have arranged his father’s (Edward II) death with the infamous red hot poker, Edward III understood the rules of the game of thrones better than any of his family.

Edward III set aside tutelage of his mother and her upstart lover and despite his mother’s plea “fair son, have pity on the gentle Mortimer” Edward had gentle Mortimer ignominiously hanged at Tyburn. Edward III was not a prince to be sentimental about old family friends and ties of blood.

Edward III made a sound marriage to Phillipa of Hainault. His wars with France regained territories long lost to the Plantagenet dynasty. But Edward III reconquered those lost lands in France as King of England. This was an English Empire not an Angevin Empire restored. The wars he thus initiated became known as ‘The Hundred Years War’. The booty and the lands in France made the English nobility rich and by this means Edward III kept them engaged in his foreign enterprises – much as Louis XIV was later to do in France. It also gave the king a free hand to do as he wished in England.

By his marriage to Phillipa of Hainault Edward had a string of children most of whom unusually survived to adulthood. His eldest son, “the Black Prince” Edward, Prince of Wales became the principal agent of the dynasty’s political project in France. His chivalrous image as a knight of the garter; as the hero of Crecy, Poitier and Reims; disguised the fact he was something of a brutal thug. In France “the Black Prince” fought a string of military campaigns as notable for their violent savagery and as their strategic brilliance. He married his cousin Joan of Kent – herself a direct descendant of Edward I – by whom he had two sons Edward of Angoulême and Richard of Bordeaux. All then seemed set fair when the young Edward of Angoulême died suddenly in 1375. As so often in royal history, one dynastic tragedy was followed by another.

.0000blackprinceeffigybigBy 1375 the Black Prince himself had long been plagued by what may have been recurrent bouts of amoebic dysentery acquired on campaign in Portugal. The Black Prince died in 1376. He was buried in Canterbury Cathedral. His effigy and tomb have become an archetype for his age. Then in 1377 Black Prince’s father Edward III as suddenly quickly followed his eldest son to the grave.

Suddenly the dynasty was left in the insecure hands of the ten year old Richard of Bordeaux. He succeeded his grandfather Edward III in 1377 as Richard II. By culture and education and outlook the boy-king was a product of Edward’s new monarchy. Unfortunately the boy-king Richard II combined the lofty royal condescension of Edward III’s kingship with another less desirable Plantagenet character trait – he had that same strong stubborn streak the Plantagenet kings manifested most often in their overbearing irrational affections – blind loyalty to flawed friends and irrational hatred of supposed enemies.

The family tree that led to a family at war with itself...

The family tree that led to a family at war with itself…

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Democracy fizzles out as Parliament Dissolves.

Parliament is dissolved – we’re off

alogosdownload (1)The word ‘historic’ is so overused as to make me over-wrought. It has become a synonym for noteworthy. That’s life. Nevertheless this Dissolution of Parliament is historic in its true sense – since this is the first time that a UK general election and the subsequent aftermath of forming a government will no longer be bound by unwritten ‘conventions’. Until this election the Prime minister has effectively exercised the prerogative powers of the crown; determining not only the date of the election but the protocols surrounding the meeting of the next parliament. Instead for the future all Prime Ministers will act by under the aegis of statute – that is the Fixed Term Parliament Act.

So, perhaps, it might be best to start the day after the last  election day.

Last time Gordon Brown faced a ‘hung’ parliament he had two powers he could choose to exercise as he was still the Prime Minister: first he could choose the meet Parliament either with a confidence vote or with his own Queen’s Speech and let the the House of Commons vote it down; secondly, as PM, in theory, he had the first bite of the coalition-forming cherry. There was recent precedent for use of both these powers – the former by Stanley Baldwin in 1924 leading to the first Labour government; and the latter, by Ted Heath in 1974 when, although a few seats less than Labour and a few popular votes more, he first tried to make a coalition with the Liberals under Jeremy Thorpe. Only when that failed did Heath resign and ask the Queen to call Harold Wilson to form a government. These procedures were important – as any PM then still held a third power – the right to ‘request’ the Queen to dissolve parliament. Therefore, whomsoever the crown asked to form a government, he or she did so with the preserved right to request a dissolution. Wilson exercised this right in October 1974; Ramsey McDonald was defeated in the Commons on a confidence motion and similarly asked the king to dissolve Parliament in November 1924.

alogosdownload (1)If there is another hung Parliament – this is not what will happen after this election. This time Mr Cameron or any other party leader who can put together a majority in the House of Commons will be asked by the Queen to form a government. For this purpose, the Queen’s Private Secretary will have an desk in the Cabinet Office – behind no 10. He and the Cabinet Secretary will arbiter the politicians and keep the Queen clear of the party leaders and the party politics of coalition. The Queen is no longer formally involved; she is no longer reliant on the ‘advice’ of her Prime Minster; and no longer informally bound to accept that advice. Whoever gets to the magic number of 326 MP’s –  or can make a stable majority by another route –  will get the nod from the Cabinet Secretary and the Queen’s Private Secretary and will be then formally be asked to form a government. In this struggle to assemble enough votes Cameron and Miliband are now equal. Neither being the incumbent PM nor being the party with the largest number of MP’s – or even a plurality of votes –  is sufficient of itself – to obtain the right to form or lead government; or to enjoy the privilege of getting the first chance to assemble a coalition. Whoever assembles a working majority will govern.

Clearly if any party wins 326 seats outright then de facto it has a majority and will form of government.

alogosdownload (1)However, that is at least as unlikely an outcome as it was at this stage of the last election – indeed more unlikely – since last time at this stage the Conservatives held a 7-8% advantage over Labour in the polls – 37% to 29%.  Of the latest polls two have Labour ahead by 2-4%; and one a Conservative lead of 4% but frankly these leads between the two larger parties have flowed and ebbed for the better part of nine months. In the time left it seems unlikely either Labour or Conservatives will break into a decisive lead. The best assumption is the next Parliament will be hung – and most probably more hung than the last.These are the working assumptions of the Civil Service.

This time it is also highly unlikely that one large party and alone with one other will together command a decisive majority. Last time the Conservatives 307 MP’s combined with the LibDem 57 MP’s to created a coalition with an very effective working majority – and in both Houses of Parliament. This time it will be different. First, the SNP is likely to take about 40-50 seats. Secondly, the LibDems have slumped from 23% to 8% and therefore will loose at least half or more of their seats. Thirdly, even the modest rise of Labour into percentages in the low to mid thirties  – a rise of say 4% on its last election performance – will put a good number of Conservative marginals at risk. The Conservatives could loose up to 40-50 seats to Labour whilst picking up 15 or more Liberal seats. Then we have both UKip and the Greens – who remain unlikely to win many but who may have 6 seats between them. Finally there will be the Irish Unionists (12-15); 2 Irish SDLP and perhaps 3 Sinn Fein MP’s – the latter have previously never taken their seats in the UK Parliament.  Shaking this political kaleidoscope will not necessarily throw up a government composed from party colours in any possible pattern. Metaphorically speaking the parliamentary politics works rather more like dice, loaded in Labour’s favour. How so, you ask? The answer is easy enough to divine.

alogosdownload (1)Given the Labour Party, the Scots and Welsh Nationalists; the Irish SDLP; and any Green Party MP(s) would actively vote down any Conservative government,  the road to assembling a Conservative led coalition or a Conservative minority government is filled with potholes. For Mr Cameron to be able to pursue such a course his party would need to win upwards of 290 MP’s and probably nearer to 300. He would then need to find thirty votes from the Irish Unionists and the LibDems. If Mr Clegg loses his seat or loses the LibDem leadership getting LibDem support might prove harder than last time round. Indeed signs are the risk averse in the LibDem leadership are already thinking only in terms if supply and confidence. Even the NI Unionists are talking in terms of supply and confidence.

The converse is true for Mr Miliband – since he starts off with the Scots and Welsh Nationalists; the Irish SDLP; and any Green Party MP(s) on side. Therefore were he to tempt either the Irish unionists into a supply and confidence arrangement or indeed the LibDems into a similar arrangement – as they did with Callaghan’s Labour minority government in 1976-8 Miliband could form a government and govern as a minority government for at least a stable period of three or four years or even five years.

If Mr Cameron were to insist on meeting the new Parliament it is certain the crown would not attend a state opening. There would be and could be no Queen’s Speech setting out the government program. Instead legislation rather suggests the government would first need to put down or table and carry a confidence motion just in order to establish it had the votes to command the business in the two houses of Parliament – and only then could it form a government. If Labour the Nationalists and the Greens together have over 305-10 votes – the Conservatives would be very unlikely to be able to create a stable government. indeed the LibDems might be just as likely to join the larger more representative coalition as to one narrowly based, even if Mr Clegg wanted to continue as deputy Prime Minister.

The hill for the Conservatives to climb back to power is steeper but it far from impossible. there are now so many local imponderables that local campaigns may make all the difference. most elections throw up a handful of odd results this one might throw up twenty or thirty. That throws any psephologists predictions completely out. It will be a long night.

Meanwhile we have the debates. Thus far both Sky’s Ms Burley and  freelance conservative supporter Paxman felt able to ask in excusably rude questions to the Labour leader. Strangely, Ed survived the kicking they tried to administer in rather better shape than many expected. Miliband in the only leader who will participate in all the ‘debates’. He turns out to be rather better than many hoped or feared – hence the reason Cameron has gone very personal very early.In that sense Cameron’s announcement of not serving a Third term is not only lifted straight from the Tony Blair election book but it has left hostages to fortune.

alogosdownload (1) The problem for Cameron is the same problem he faced in 2010 – the Conservative Party divided over Europe and culturally at war with itself, has failed to win a general election since 1992. Even the unelectable Ted Heath managed to do better. In fact Mrs Thatcher was believed pretty unelectable in 1979. The thrones of kings and seats of power have been filled many times by men and women everyone believed should not have made it. Mr Cameron should note – born to rule doesn’t mean the rules can’t be changed.


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