Obedience to Lawful Orders : Macaulay, Glencoe, Afganistan and Iraq

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“Lawyers to the left of them, lawyers to the right of them”, the Economist pithily remarked about the situation the British Army increasingly finds itself in. All ranks will be trained more and more in their legal responsibilities, alongside their tactical and technical skills. With increasing media scrutiny, legal awareness, and a litigious environment, as well as the repatriation of the fallen making the circumstances of the death of service personnel the province of coroner’s courts, the Army faces challenges on two fronts- its duty of care to its troops, even in the face of hostile actions and protection of the the human rights of its enemy and the population of the countries in which it is operating.

The Army Legal Service  - now more indispensable than a bayonette?

The Army Legal Service – now more indispensable to the infantryman than a bayonette?

But it is not only the Generals and Defence Ministry who have these legal responsibilities. Although the duty of care cases have been mainly directed at the Ministry and staff for issues such as failings in procurement and supply, the much publicised cases of murder and abuse in Iraq and Afghanistan by both British and American forces have been levelled against private soldiers and NCOs. More than ever the soldier of all ranks’ responsibility to his comrades is a matter of civilian law as well as military duty and he is expected to understand personally how he must treat his enemy.

The so-called “Nuremberg Defence”, that a soldier has a legal responsibility to follow orders, and so he cannot be held accountable for his actions whilst following those orders, was notably, although largely unsuccessfully, adopted by German defendants in the post Second World War Nuremberg trials and is generally considered inadmissible. British military law, currently enshrined in the Armed Forces Act of 2006 if a member of the forces “disobeys a lawful command” he (*1) can be punished with up to ten years imprisonment. The emphasis, though, is on “lawful command”, the British (*2) law (and American Law is very similar) requires every soldier, from a newly passed-out private to the Chief of Staff to assess whether each order is in fact “lawful”. If it is unlawful, he is under no obligation to obey it thus any crime he does commit is his own responsibility. This seems, on the face of it proper and reasonable. A soldier, raised and educated in the morality of a modern liberal democracy should be permitted and expected to refuse an order to, say, torture or murder a prisoner.

150 years ago, though, Thomas Babbington Macaulay thought very differently. He was writing about the Glencoe Massacre (*3), 160 years earlier in his History of England. His telling of the build up massacre and aftermath is Macaulay at his best, and arguably his worst. With a good tale to tell and a cast of flawed characters he is characteristically gripping and astute, judgemental and bigoted.  As I am interested here in Macaulay’s views on Lawful orders, not the fraught question truth of who actually did occur at Glencoe and why, I’ll stick to Macaulay’s account here.

Thomas Babbington Macaulay- English son of the Scottish Enlightenment

Thomas Babbington Macaulay- English son of the Scottish Enlightenment

In 1691, in the aftermath of Highland resistance to the government of William and Mary, it was proclaimed in Edinburgh that any rebel clan who swore to live peaceably under the Crown by 31st December would receive a pardon. Most blustered for a while and then submitted.

In the remote and barren Glencoe lived a branch of the Macdonald tribe, almost surrounded by Campbells. As Macaulay would have it:

amongst the Highlanders generally , to rob was thought at least as honourable an employment as to cultivate the soil ; and, of all the Highlanders, the Macdonalds of Glencoe had the least productive soil and , and the most convenient and secure den of robbers…

The People of Glencoe would probably been less troublesome neighbours if they had lived among their own kindred,. but they were an outpost of the Clan Donald, and surrounded by the domains of the race of Diarmid. They were impelled by hereditary enmity, as well as by want, to live at the expense of the tribe of Campbell

The Glencoe Macdonalds were to Macaulay, the English-born son of a thoroughly Anglicised man of the Scottish enlightenment, uncivilised thieves, prone to inter-tribal feuding and living among their victims and enemies. They still though were subjects of the Crown and entitled to its justice

Chief of the Glencoe Macdonalds was one Mac Ian who, in a display of dramatic cussedness decided that he would only make the oath at the last minute. This was a decision which would fatally backfire. On arriving at Fort William on 31st December he found that there was no magistrate present qualified to take his oath and, delayed by bad weather, it was 6th January before he took the oath in Inveraray. Although a certificate was sent to Edinburgh recording this oath, its lateness placed Mac Ian and his clan technically outside of the law.

This (according to Macaulay) was the cause of delight to three of Scotland’s leading noblemen. The Earl of Argyl and the Earl of Breadalbane were both Campbells, hereditary foes of the Macdonalds and the latter in particular had borne the brunt of Mac Ian’s thievery. The third, John Dalrymple, Master of Stair, had rather different motives.

John Dalrymple, Master of Stair, lowland noble and Macaulay's unequivocal villain

John Dalrymple, Master of Stair, lowland noble and Macaulay’s unequivocal villain

John Dalrymple (called by his title, The Master of Stair by Macaulay), a Lowland Scottish aristocrat, had a contempt for the Highland way of life, condemning them as primitives and brigands, an attitude Macaulay would have us believe, common to most Lowlanders of the time and one Macaulay seemingly largely sympathised with. In the name of progress, he wanted a severe lesson taught to a Highland rebels. Unlike the Campbells, he was indifferent to whether they were MacDonalds or not. The Master of Stair suppressed evidence that Mac Ian had taken (albeit tardily) the oath and induced the King (Macaulay’s hero, William III) to sign an order to the Commander of the Forces in Scotland reading

 

As for Mac Ian of Glencoe and his tribe, if they can be well distinguished from the other Highlanders it will be proper, for the vindication of public justice, to extirpate that set of thieves

Macaulay excuses William (rather too readily, most suggest) as a busy monarch who, kept uninformed by his minister signed the vague order, not fully understanding what “extirpate” might mean in the hands of Argyl, Breadalbane and the Master of Stair.

The task was given to the Argyl regiment, newly raised and mostly manned by Campbells. It’s Colonel, Hill was passed over for its command for being too humane a man and a Lieutenant Colonel Hamilton given the mission. With Breadalbane and Argyl having been given the task of securing any escape routes, Hamilton sent in a detachment of 120 soldiers under a Captain Campbell  (known generally as “Glenlyon” after his family seat to distinguish him from the many other Campbells) and a man related by marriage to Mac Ian’s tribe. Here the tale takes that particular turn which distinguishes it in most minds from the other, none too rare, such slaughters of that time.

The massacre as 20th Century melodrama

The massacre as 20th Century melodrama

Exhibiting the highland traditions of hospitality, and trusting their in-law Glenlyon more than most Campbells, the Glencoe highlanders took in the soldiers who lived among them, ate, drank and were entertained by them. Then, on the morning at 12th Feb 1692, at about 5 a.m., the soldiers started systematically slaughtering their hosts. Mac Ian was shot in the head and killed, his wife died the following day. The death toll on the day was in the thirties. Those killed were mostly men but seemingly some women and children were among them. It was ineptly done though. Many escaped, including Mac Ian’s sons as the troops who were meant to close up the ends of the glen were late and those in the glen poorly disciplined. The village was burned to the ground and as many again died of exposure after fleeing into the highland wilds in February.

The order to Glenlyon- a condemnation or a defense?

The order to Glenlyon- a condemnation or a defense?

There is little doubt that Glenlyon was acting on orders, at least in his killing of the military age men. An extant copy of his order from his immediate superior, Major Duncanson reads:-

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ballacholis
Feb. 12, 1692
Sir:
You are hereby ordered to fall upon the Rebels, the MacDonalds of Glencoe, and put all to the sword under 70. You are to have especial care, that the Old Fox and his Sons do upon no account escape your Hands, you are to secure all the avenues that no man can escape: this you are to put in Execution at five a Clock in the Morning precisely, and by that time or very shortly after it, I’ll strive to be at you with a stronger party. If I do not come at five, you are not to tarry for me but fall on. This is by the King’s Special command, for the good and safety of the country, that these miscreants may be cut off root and branch. See that this be put in execution without Feud or Favor, else you may expect to be treated as not true to the King or Government nor a man fit to carry Commission in the King’s Service. Expecting you will not fail in the fulfilling hereof as you love yourself, I subscribed these with my hand.

Signed Robert Duncanson
For Their Majesties Service

Word of what happened in that isolated place took a long time to properly surface, but when it eventually did it caused great repugnance, the betrayal of the hosts after their long, trusting hospitality causing particular disgust.

An enquiry, was held some three years later by the Parliament of Scotland. Macaulay admired the thoroughness of the report, but not its verdicts. The killings were, it declared, murder, but The Master of Stair guilty only of immoderate zeal. Breadalbane and Argyl suffered damage to their reputations only. Hamilton fled and had some guilt laid on him.

The men who were  designated as “murderers”, however were Glenlyon, Captain Drummond, Lieutenant Lindsey, ensign Lundie and Serjeant Barbour- the junior officers and an NCO on the scene.

This takes me to the nub of this article. This passage struck me as remarkable and if you will forgive my quoting Macaulay at length, as he is far more eloquent than me:

 The Parliament of Scotland was undoubtedly, on this occasion, severe in the wrong place and lenient in the wrong place. The cruelty and baseness of Glenlyon and his comrades excite, even after the lapse of a hundred and sixty years, emotions which make it difficult to reason calmly. Yet whoever can bring himself to look at the conduct of these men with judicial impartiality will probably be of opinion that they could not, without great detriment to the commonwealth, have been treated as assassins. They had slain nobody whom they had not been positively directed by their commanding officer to slay. That subordination without which an army is the worst of all rabbles would be at an end, if every soldier were to be held answerable for the justice of every order in obedience to which he pulls his trigger. The case of Glencoe was, doubtless, an extreme case; but it cannot easily be distinguished in principle from cases which, in war, are of ordinary occurrence. Very terrible military executions are sometimes indispensable. Humanity itself may require them. Who then is to decide whether there be an emergency such as makes severity the truest mercy? Who is to determine whether it be or be not necessary to lay a thriving town in ashes, to decimate a large body of mutineers, to shoot a whole gang of banditti? Is the responsibility with the commanding officer, or with the rank and file whom he orders to make ready, present and fire? And if the general rule be that the responsibility is with the commanding officer, and not with those who obey him, is it possible to find any reason for pronouncing the case of Glencoe an exception to that rule? It is remarkable that no member of the Scottish Parliament proposed that any of the private men of Argyle’s regiment should be prosecuted for murder. Absolute impunity was granted to everybody below the rank of Serjeant. Yet on what principle? Surely, if military obedience was not a valid plea, every man who shot a Macdonald on that horrible night was a murderer. And, if military obedience was a valid plea for the musketeer who acted by order of Serjeant Barbour, why not for Barbour who acted by order of Glenlyon? And why not for Glenlyon who acted by order of Hamilton? It can scarcely be maintained that more deference is due from a private to a noncommissioned officer than from a noncommissioned officer to his captain, or from a captain to his colonel.

It may be said that the orders given to Glenlyon were of so peculiar a nature that, if he had been a man of virtue, he would have thrown up his commission, would have braved the displeasure of colonel, general, and Secretary of State, would have incurred the heaviest penalty which a Court Martial could inflict, rather than have performed the part assigned to him; and this is perfectly true; but the question is not whether he acted like a virtuous man, but whether he did that for which he could, without infringing a rule essential to the discipline of camps and to the security of nations, be hanged as a murderer. In this case, disobedience was assuredly a moral duty; but it does not follow that obedience was a legal crime.

It seems therefore that the guilt of Glenlyon and his fellows was not within the scope of the penal law. The only punishment which could properly be inflicted on them was that which made Cain cry out that it was greater than he could bear; to be vagabonds on the face of the earth, and to carry wherever they went a mark from which even bad men should turn away sick with horror.

For Macaulay, then, the Nuremberg defence is entirely admissible. The Captains, Lieutenants, Ensigns and Sergeant were legally right to carry out their orders. The modern concept of a junior serviceman’s responsibility would be ludicrous to Macaulay. To him, the Master of Stair was the ultimate source of the order and he bore the whole responsibility. All subordinates behaved legally, if not morally, as they should. Interestingly Macaulay who, along with the Scottish parliament, absolved William of all responsibility of instigating the command, holds him in “great breach of duty” for not holding The Master of Stair responsible, indeed regarding it as one of the greatest stains on his reign.

Admittedly the scope of legitimate military action has arguably shifted even further since Macaulay’s days of Colonial policing by the military. No modern army of the liberal democracies is likely to be asked to decimate mutineers or summarily wipe out banditti or (with the ignoble exception of Israel) raze prosperous towns, but his point still has resonance.

Can we expect the modern soldier to routinely make these judgements on the legality of his orders? Or, as Macaulay suggests, might this paralyse him at a crucial moment or lead to a breakdown in the trust necessary for the military to function. The extreme cases would seem easy to judge. Although Macaulay would disagree, I think few would doubt that any soldier should be expected not to shoot a helpless prisoner, no matter who told him to. But inevitable most cases are not so simple. It is easy to conceive situations (that of Private Lee Clegg in Northern Ireland in 1990 occurs) where a soldier has to make an instantaneous decision of whether to shoot or not, with or without orders to do so. Getting this decision wrong could have not only the momentous consequence of taking another’s life, but also, in that instant making yourself a murderer.

None of the rest of us, regardless of our professional responsibilities, are placed in such a position where our action have such immediate, direct and dire consequences. Regardless of whether we believe in the wars these soldiers are fighting, they have been placed there by our governments, our societies and are expected, as well as risking their lives, to expose themselves to these consequences when acting as our proxies.

The argument that the modern soldier is more educated and morally aware than his forebear and is better placed to make such calls has, to me, somewhat limited currency. Although Macaulay assures us that the late seventeenth century soldier was more lax than his puritanical New Model Army predecessor, and he is less wordly than the modern soldier, the late Seventeenth Century musketman would have been raised on a fairly rich diet of protestant morality and public debate on a man’s rights under law.

So am I taking Macaulay’s line that troops, if acting under orders , should be immune from legal penalty? No, of course I can’t advocate this. If our troops behave badly, or we are seen to sanction or inadequately punish this behavior, we lose any shred of moral basis for overseas wars that we have. Further their presence becomes counterproductive and exposes their comrades to greater hazard. It has to be the responsibility of the Subaltern as well as the Secretary of State, the Corporal as well as the Colonel to ensure this is so, and this must have the sanction of law. But in applying the law, framed for comfortable Britain, where by and large, the populous is at worst neutral about our well being, and applying it to the hills of Afghanistan or the streets of Basra, where people are genuinely trying to do harm to their fellow man, we have to remember that the servicemen who we are putting there work under pressures most of us cannot understand, and the law has to be careful not to judge their errors as crimes to appease a fickle world.

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*1 The Act, strangely for a document which should require such precision, actually uses “he” to refer to servicemen and women. I have, rather lazily, done the same in this article as we are mostly discussing frontline troops, who in the British Army at least are still men and the “he/she” or “they” required to avoid it are too clumsy even for me.

*2 British Law, although normally a misnomer with the separate English and Scottish judiciaries, I believe is appropriate here.

*3 No Wikipedia hotlink this time, as the Glencoe Massacre page is awful.

The Independent Scholar- Italian Voices and Desperately Seeking EEBO

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Gordon Square- Eagle Clawed Virginia Wolfe puns are too tempting to resist

Gordon Square- Eagle Clawed Virginia Wolfe puns are too tempting to resist

Well, maybe I flatter myself with the slightly pompous “Independent Scholar” sobriquet. Amateur historian perhaps? Historical blogger? Semi-trained historical layman? Opinionated boor? The “independent” is important however, as part of this post is related to the problems related to taking a more than superficial interest in history whilst not being an active member of a University.

Since graduating from Birkbeck in 2010, I have missed participating on the fringes of academic life. My good intentions of going along to seminars at the Institute of Historical Research or Birkbeck Early Modern Society have not come off, largely due to no longer commuting into London every day. Recently a friend made me aware of a Seminar being co-chaired by Filippo De Vivo at Birkbeck as part of the Italian Voices project entitled “Orality and politics: rhetoric and poetry”, which fell on a day I was rostered to have off. Just mentioning this title to colleagues at work (a large engineering company) caused rolled eyes and further confirmation in some minds that I am probably a bit odd, but I was quite excited. Filippo taught much of my MA and was responsible  for my developing my fascination for Early Modern Venice, which I hope (or perhaps pipedream of) doing some serious study on one day. A couple of the papers were to be on Venice, including one by Claire Judde de Larivière who had also taught me at Birkbeck, and much of the programme, sounded worthwhile.

I don’t get into Bloomsbury, where most of the University of London Colleges are, very often these days and it was good to back. In the short walk from Euston Square tube station, I came across one pair of students, one blindfolded with a scarf being led by the other sniffing at leaves in the park of Gordon square and another ragged undergraduate chap jogging barefoot through the London Streets. I’m entertained by the eccentricity of the young and the clever- I was a bit of a dour engineering student in my undergraduate days.

The seminar was in a room overlooking Gordon square, apparently previously occupied by Virginia Wolfe and the Bloomsbury group. Its lovely rosed ceiling and plaster mouldings were disfigured by the ugliest of modern (or, at least 80s) strip lighting, but it was an appropriately picturesque and impractical setting.

I was made to feel incredibly welcome, despite being an outsider amongst specialists who mostly knew each other very well. However as the morning progressed I wondered whether I might have misjudged my attendance. Despite my fascination for Italy, my Italian is very slim (a shortcoming I intend to rectify) and although I knew that some of the papers would be in Italian, I found that two of the three in the morning session were, leaving me nodding politely and smiling at the speakers. The third, by Florance Alazard was a rather technical linguistic account of the use of interjections of pain or distress in lamenti- poems about current affairs, which I actually found rather interesting, if a bit beyond my ken. I mean no criticism of the organisers- the target audience certainly wasn’t the monoglot amateur, but I was hoping to get more from the afternoon session. Fortunately I was not disappointed.

Stephen Milner’s paper concerned his analysis of preparatory notes which Palla Strozzi the Florentine Century statesman wrote before delivering his orations. This was interesting for its subject matter- that relationship between orality and the written word, but I was really taken by the insight into the historians craft- Strozzi notes were not only undated but at some point his book had been rebound out of sequence. Professor Milner’s ongoing project is to try to relate these notes to known events in Florentine politics with a kind of forensic analysis which put me in mind of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (however improbable a Salander Stephen Milner makes).

The comandadori in the Ducal processions- Common mouthpieces of the Patricians

The comandadori in the Ducal processions- Common mouthpieces of the Patricians

Claire Judde de Larivière gave her paper on the comandadori, who were the voices of the Venetian government- an Italian town crier. She focused, though, on the comandator of Murano, the small island dependency just north of Venice where visitors now go to buy intricate (if rather tasteless) glassware. Venetian republican politics fascinates me with its sophisticated interlocking system of governing bodies and checks and balances on its rulers. These councils however were all made up of the ruling patricians, the populani had no franchise at all. What piqued my interest about Jude de Larivière’s paper was that Murano, with no patricians of its own, was ruled by a Venetian noble proconsul, but also had a council of tradesmen and artisans- unheard of metropolitan Venice. She has promised a paper in the near future.

Maartje van Gelder’s paper, again on Venice, focused on the influence of the populani- who, although they had no political franchise, made their voices known in the deadlocked 1595 ducal election. With the (patrician) panel of electors unable to decide for several weeks on the new Doge, van Gelder conjectures how much the protests of the populani influenced the eventual election of the populist, bread doling Marino Grimani. Both of these two papers gave me a timely reminder of why I’m so gripped by Venetian history.

I got a tremendous amount out of the day. Professional academics perhaps take for granted the pleasure of being surrounded by clever  people relating their passions, and many others would be puzzled by the pleasure derived from what might seem obscure and recherché, but for me it was a reminder of my zeal for. history

However, the point of this piece (if there is such a point) was a conversation I had with Filippo at lunch. When I was a Birkbeck student, I had access to a fantastic range of online resources, including the JSTOR repository for academic papers and the incomparable Early English Books Online (EEBO). EEBO is a huge database of books and pamphlets from the birth of printing to the eighteenth century, all indexed and searchable with a crude looking but remarkably effective engine. I had access to a remarkable range of hhistorical writing and primary sources, all from my desk at home. Without EEBO there would be no Eagle Clawed Wolfe- I first discovered the anti-Rupert pamphlet on EEBO, as well as the reports on the Dumbarton’s regiment mutiny which were the first project of the blog. After I graduated, for a while, these resources were available through Alumni membership of the Senate library, before the Chadwyk, the administrators of EEBO made the Senate house remove offsite privileges. Then, for a little longer Institute of Historical Research (IHR) membership provided access, until that too was limited to onsite access at the Senate House. It struck me that in some ways this reflects the trend of the internet in recent years. Newspapers which were formerly free online became subscription only services and the promised Nirvana of universal free information was reigned in slightly by the realisation of those producing online content commercially that (not unreasonably) they wanted to be reimbursed for it. Rest assured, however, gentle reader, that The Wolfe will not be futilely demanding your money in the near future.

The difference between online newspapers and my treasured online historical resources, though, is that whereas if I want my online access to The Economist (or, heaven forfend, The Daily Mail), they will grant it, on request, for a reasonable fee. Chadwyk are not interested in private membership EEBO and though I would quite willingly have paid, either directly or for associate membership of an academic institutions’ library, there was nobody who was prepared to take my money. Digitisation and commercialisation of data was, perhaps counterintuitively, making academic history even more of a closed shop. This was the situation I found myself in recently and had given up my Senate House Library and  IHR memberships.

England's Wolfe With Eagle Clawes- courtesy of EEBO

England’s Wolfe With Eagle Clawes- courtesy of EEBO

I voiced this sad tale to Filippo, who, besides having been an academic mentor of mine researches archiving and transmission of information, particularly in Early Modern Italy, giving a neat a historical counterpoint to my situation.  Although he offered no more than understanding, I went away determined to see if the situation had improved over the last year or so and whether I can get access to some of the lost online resources.

And I met with some success. I found this article on the Early Modern Online Bibliography, a site dedicated to online access to all things Early Modern. It seems in the States, access to online resources, even for current students is a problem, but EEBO is now available to members of the Renaissance Society of America. After a quick exchange of emails to ensure this was offered outside of the US, and a $60 fee, I found myself as a slightly unlikely member of that body, and have to my joy, restored access to my 17th Century pamphlets and broadsheets.

JSTOR proved a little more problematic. The Senate House Library does now offer JSTOR access again but at £220 p.a. for alumni members is very expensive, especially if you do not have chance to access to their onsite borrowing facilities. JSTOR does offer a couple of direct subscription services. “JPASS”  is a limited JSTOR access for those outside academia and the RSA offers this at a discounted rate of $99 for members, but I haven’t yet fully accessed what the limitations are. RSA says it provides about 80% access which sounds fine unless what you are looking for is in the missing 20%. JSTOR also offers “Register and Read” which is free but limits the subscriber to reading online (without downloading) three articles every two weeks. I will sign up for that and let you know how it works out.

With my enthusiasm rekindled and my resources restored, I hope to give you a bit more history in the next few weeks.

Apologies

My apologies to followers-by-email of the Eagle Clawed Wolfe who received some half written nonsense earlier today. Whilst drafting my next post, my 3 year old, who is discovering joys of touch screen laptops reached over my shoulder and her finger headed for the bright blue “Publish” button with unerring accuracy before I could intercept it. I hope to have that article completed and published very soon.

Starkey’s “Tudors and Us”- Sex and the Reformation Come to Maidenhead

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A couple of weeks or so ago I went to see David Starkey give a talk on “The Tudors and Us” in Maidenhead. I was lucky to get in- I got the very last ticket after my wife spotted them online- it would have been a shame to miss it as it was a five minute stroll away.

David Starkey-  well behaved in Berkshire

David Starkey- well behaved in Berkshire

I suspect that if you are British and reading this history blog, you will know Starkey. He is certainly an interesting character. He is either very establishment or anti-establishment depending on what your view of the establishment is. He is right wing in a largely leftist profession but openly gay in a largely homophobic political creed. He is an forthright atheist but described himself (with typical elegance) as an “Anglican atheist”.   He found a niche as a public intellectual with appearances on Radio 4’s “Moral Maze” and as an occasional political and cultural commentator an earned the label (thanks to our arbiters of intellect at The Daily Mail again) as the “Rudest Man In Britain”- a sobriquet which he responded to by suggesting that the reputation was worth more than £100,000 per year to him. From the turn of the millennium (about when he gave up full time teaching) he started being seen more and more on TV with various programmes and series, initially mostly on the Tudors, but with credentials established and TV history back in vogue, branched out to talk Monarchy, Churchill, Marlborough and Music. Some of it, if not quite all of it, rather good

I personally have always had mixed feeling about him. He is often obnoxious, unkind and conceited. A friend of mine told me she thought he bordered on the misogynist, a view I of him I’ve failed to dismiss from my mind since. However I have a tremendous weakness for genuinely clever people, and he undeniably that and another friend who knows him personally cannot speak highly enough of his generous nature. Some of his TV work has been excellent and his forthright spikiness can be a breath of fresh air in the often anodyne TV news medium.

He is, of course, also a historian of genuine high calibre and for all his fame may owe more to his talents as a controversialist and raconteur than an historian, he is in his field of the Tudor monarchy, a historian with depth as well as sheen.

Hundred thousand pound reputation or not, Starkey was the model of polite charm (at least to those present) in front of his Berkshire audience. At forty, with the exception of a couple of groups of young women of undergraduate or sixth form age, I was amongst the youngest there and in front of his mature (and fee paying) attendees he was affable and respectful.

I felt the “and Us” conceit of the “Tudors and Us” was a little weak and a bit unnecessary in my (often grumpy) view, history need not have relevance to the modern world to be valuable and interesting. He made some token efforts to explain why we feel uniquely connected to the Tudors, but fortunately didn’t feel the need to pursue it too far.

He was repeatedly rather rude about Hilary Mantel (rather ungratefully, as I’m sure his selling out a theatre at seventeen and a half quid per head for a talk on the Tudors owes at least something to her). He admitted (or rather claimed) only to have read 25 pages of her Wolf Hall and one of the personal anecdotes which he sparingly spread through the talk centred on his reassuring his male neighbours that they need not read it whilst fending of queries on Mantel’s accuracy from their wives. There is a bit of posturing in his attitude to Mantel, but we all came expecting it and he didn’t want to disappoint.

He masterfully indulged the prurient curiosity of the audience. How many historians can work the phrase “vajazzle” into a talk on the Tudors? Whenever sex found its way into his narrative, he protested that he couldn’t possibly reveal the details he was party to, then went on to relate them with glee. In the Q&A session, whilst maintaining his good manners, I detected a certain delight in dismissing one of his more romantic questioners assumptions of the sexual continence of pre-puritan Englishwomen with a lurid tale of a Sixteenth Century romp and his countering the indignation of another at his suggestion that Elizabeth’s virginity was of the born-again variety.

He really was very good. He was charming, lively and entertaining, flattering his audience with knowing references to past feuds and his personal life, reminding us that he had sharp teeth, even if he chose not to use them tonight. In an expensive looking suit, he stood behind a chair for the entire talk which, a testament to his skill, was meticulously prepared, yet still seemed conversational.

So what of the history? Tudor history, Starkey explained was caused by the personalities and happenstances of the time. He dismisses the theories of the previous generation of historians (he famously fell out with his mentor Geoffrey Elton) that all history was due to great irresistible forces in history which made its course inevitable with out the intervention of its protagonists. The English reformation was the most significant event since the Norman conquest, but it would not have happened due to the extraordinary circumstances in Henry VIII’s life. Henry was not born to be King. His elder brother, Arthur was. Arthur was raised from an early age amongst men. Henry, the second son, was raised amongst women and developed an intense, obsessive love for women which, along with his genuine piety would dictate the course of his life. On the eve of Henry’s application to the Pope for divorce, he was the most papist monarch, and England the most papist country in Europe. Had Henry not had this weakness for women, or had the Pope not been in compromised political position which prevented his granting the divorce which he would otherwise been inclined to give his Defender of the Faith, the Reformation, for Starkey would not have happened and the history of a counter-reformed England would have been unrecognisable from the protestant arc it took.

I’m not entirely convinced. Plenty of other nations had  reformations without an Anne Boleyn, or even a Henry, most notably England’s nearest neighbour Scotland, who reformed far more thoroughly than England, in spite of, not because of,  their monarchy. Theirs was a reformation from below. Piety seems to me a precondition for reformation, not a barrier. I’m not saying Starkey is wrong, his counter-factual England is quite plausible, and of course we will never know, but I’d be disinclined to express such certainty in that (or any) outcome.

David Starkey, even on his best behaviour, was waspish and mischievous but very polished and engaging. Whilst lecturing on his sweet spot of the Tudor royals he is also impressively assured. I thoroughly enjoyed the evening, even if some of my reservations about him remain. He is touring other (surprisingly obscure) venues over the next few months. If you get a chance, it is a worthwhile use of an evening.

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I saw David Starkey on 27th January at Norden Farm in Maidenhead. Online  publicity is surprisingly poor, but it seems he will be in Radlett, Spalding and Potters Bar over the next few months. See here.

Vive La Revolution. Vive La Difference.

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On BBC’s Newsnight last night, two French pundits discussed Francois Hollande’s recent romantic escapades and the attitudes of the French public and press to them. First one told an anecdote of a French diplomat pointing out to him that there had only ever been two French politicians who did not have mistresses, Edouard Balladur who was not re-elected and Louis XVI who was guillotined. Then the second pundit, not to be outdone postulated the origins of French press subservience to the reign of Louis XIV, and contrasted it with the rise of the English free press at the same time.

Now both of these cultural commentators was clearly as intent on showing how clever they were, as well as informing and entertaining us, but I do wonder how many British commentators, even the showily erudite Paxman would have evoked two distant monarchs with such aplomb.  I did perhaps raise an eyebrow at the ease with which the avowedly republican French still managed to cite the Ancien Regime as precedent and still manage a slight sneer at the aristocratic English in the process.

It was very entertaining television. Vive La Revolution. Vive La Difference.

The censorious......

The censorious……

..... and the chaste

….. and the chaste

Reresby’s Domestic Slave: Short Life and Undignified Death in 17th Century England

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Resresby FronticeSir John Reresby was quite an interesting chap. Being from a Royalist family, he spent much of the interregnum in quasi-exile travelling throughout Europe , returning after the restoration to become an MP and Governor of York. He was also that finest of historical figures- an autobiographer. His “Memoirs” and “Travels” are full of nuggets for the historian. I was reading them for his view on the Dumbarton’s Regiment, but I came across this strange, sad, grotesque, but thought provoking story.

Reresby tell us:

I had a fine black of about sixteen years of age, presented to me by a gentleman who brought him over from Barbadoes: This black lived with me some years and died on the 20th of October , 1676, of an imposthume in his head

However, some six weeks after the burial, it came to Reresby’s attention that in London the story had been put about that the cause of death was not a brain abscess but:

I had caused him to be gelt [gelded], and that the operation had killed him

Reresby claimed that this rumour was spread by the duke of Norfolk and his family, with whom he had  some legal dispute, in the hope that Reresby would be convicted of a felony and forfeit his estate. Reresby had the coroner exhume the body, where the tale becomes all the more macabre and disturbing. The coroner summoned a jury. However, when the decaying body was uncovered to the breast, this jury was so horrified, they refused to allow it to be exposed further. Unable to inspect him personally, they interviewed eleven  witnesses who had helped lay him out and others who:

 several, because of his colour, having a curiosity to see him after he was dead

The jury, having heard these ghoulish witnesses, declared that he was killed Ex visitatione Dei, by the hand of God.

However this was not good enough for Reresby’s opponents and they sent down two lawyers and a surgeon to inspect the body. It was found that, though most of the body was badly decayed, the genitals were “perfectly sound and entire” and after having a possible attempt by the visiting surgeon to make a post-mortem incriminating wound foiled, they had to concede that no emasculation had taken place.

So what do we make of this sordid tale? I will admit to a fairly limited knowledge of slavery in England at the time, and I welcome correction or elaboration. The mid-late Seventeenth Century saw the infancy (or perhaps adolescence) of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. It was established in the plantations of South America and the Carribean, but the worst of the large scale transportation of slaves was for the next Century.

Elizabeth Murray, Countess Dysart and a black servant, c.1651

Elizabeth Murray, Countess Dysart and a black servant, c.1651

The word “slave” isn’t used at all in Reresby’s account but there is little doubt that this was what the dead boy (his very anonymity speaks volumes) was. It would seem that there were both “free” and “slave” black people working in England at the time- Pepys “blackamoor” cook was, it seems, a regular domestic employee. However he was “presented to” Reresby as a child and, since he came from Barbados, was almost certainly the son of slaves on a plantation. The language in which he introduced the story of his slave is very much one of possession. I first came across the passage whilst skim reading for something else and initially assumed that the “black” he referred to was a horse, only shamefacedly re-reading when the truth became apparent to me.

The position of slavery on English soil was somewhat ambiguous- on the occassions when slavery was challenged in the courts, the verdict, from as early as 1569, generally supported the position that there was not such thing as slavery under English Law. This did not however lead to any suggestion of a general emacipation, and that his status as a slave would probably have been denied by a court would be of little use or consolation to the little boy given to Reresby.

We must remember that the period also does  pre-date, by a century, the quasi-scientific racial theories of the enlightenment and the evangelism of the abolishinists.

Anne of Denmark, King James I's wife with black groom.

Anne of Denmark, King James I’s wife with black groom.

Unlike on the plantations, it would seem that in Seventeenth Century England, Africans were not generally employed as cheap labour. They seem to have been desired of their exoticism and used as (often liveried) servants for display by the rich and eve royalty. This desire to display them is illustrated by their use in contemporary portraits. These portraits invariably featured a young, good looking African, (see the couple of examples I’ve included, there are more, with some more background here). Reresby’s description of the boy (I do so wish we had a name) as “fine” suggests he may have been picked out as a child for his beauty.

That the accusation was directed at Reresby says something about the status of the “slave” in England, distinct from those in the New World or on the transatlantic passage. Had the charges about him been proved and he had caused the boy’s death he would have committed a felony, and the cause of the boy’s death was the business of the coroner- i.e. his life and person had at least some of the same legal status as a “free” person. Although he could be given away or, presumably, sold he was, legally at least, a person as well as a chattel, and Reresby didn’t even consider suggesting otherwise as a defence.  The same could not be said of the plantations or passages where assault or homicide would not conceivably result in criminal liability for the overseer or owner.

The accusation of gelding itself is a bizarre one. Reresby repeatedly calls it “ridiculous” repeatedly and it seems no means a common, or known practice. At sixteen, any castration would be too late to create a eunuch in the Asian tradition or a castrato singer. The accusation is no doubt related to the handsome youth reaching his sexual virility. Was the European paranoia about African male sexuality already established in the 1670s? Was the accusation (assuming, of course we take Reresby at his word and it was not true) pitched at play on the lurid prejudices of the public to further embarrass Reresby, or was there, in fact some scandal involving the boy which gave seed to the accusation?

Even from the little we can glean it was a sad tale. The nameless boy may well have had a better life with Raresby than he would in Barbados, possibly no worse than another domestic in the house of an aristocrat of the time. His legal position as a slave was ambiguous, but his de facto lack of freedom clear. He was taken from the plantation, but also probably from his parents, conceivably for the sake of his looks. He was given away by his owner, probably to curry favour with an influential man and lived out his short life as an object of curiosity. Even if he was not, in fact emasculated,  in death he found no dignity, leered at as a corpse, exhumed and his cadaver used as a political pawn.

The Vindictive Press- From Ralph Milliband to Prince Rupert in Two Motifs

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The Eagle Clawed Wolfe takes its name from the headline of a rather evocative Seventeenth Century broadsheet, which slung mud at the reputation of Prince Rupert of the Rhine. Rupert, before going on to be a privateer, courtier, investor in new world colonisation, scientist, artist and alleged inventor of party novelties had, of course been one of the foremost generals in Charles I’s royalist army in the English Civil Wars. This earned him the disapprobation of much of the country.

In other pamphlets, Rupert would be accused of a wide variety of sins, beyond the conventional war crimes of the Wolfe With Eagles Clawes broadsheet, ranging from sexual congress with his pets to witchcraft, or worst of all, Catholicism.

As you may have read from my article on the Wolfe, as the broadsheet itself makes no mention of this decidedly odd hybrid I have a strong suspicion that the publisher had lifted the phrase “Wolfe With Eagles Clawes” and its accompanying illustration from an earlier publication, which has been lost (to me at least!).

Although it is purely speculation, this recycling of headlines occurred me recently when I read some modern incarnations of the abusive pamphlet.

Those of you outside of the UK will probably have missed this incident entirely, whilst those within will be fed up of hearing about it, but back in September, the Daily Mail, a right of centre, populist tabloid with a distinct nasty streak, ran an article about Ralph Miliband, father of the leader of the Labour party, Ed, under the headline “The man who hated Britain”. Miliband Senior was one of those committed, angry, otherworldly Marxist academics who post war Britain fostered. The article suggested that the Jewish refugee Miliband ungratefully despised his adopted country and this was a profound influence on his sons. The article insisted that this upbringing somehow made his son, Ed dangerous and unfit to be Prime Minister.

Ralph Miliband - The Eagle Clawed Marxist?

Ralph Miliband – The Eagle Clawed Marxist?

Now I’m sure it is not coincidence that both Ralph’s sons are Labour MPs, and Ed, at least, is on the left of the party, but in my view his background no more disbars him from office than Cameron’s Old Etonian providence makes him ineligible for his. Most people seemed to agree the article was a shabby, vindictive piece of journalism. It transpired that the Mail had infiltrated a funeral to talk to Miliband family members and used of pictures of Ralph’s headstone (since removed from the online article) and family pictures which offended many sensibilities. I had a good degree of sympathy with Ed Miliband, despite my being far from an admirer, although much of this goodwill inevitably evaporated as the Labour gilded the lily of indignation beyond recognition in layers of righteous bluster.

The fuss eventually died down, thankfully largely forgotten.

Then a few weeks ago (when browsing for I’m not sure what), I came across another Daily Mail article, from October last year. It was A.N. Wilson‘s reaction to the obituaries on the BBC and in the left leaning press on Eric Hobsbawm, another Marxist academic, Jewish refugee and a contemporary of Ralph Miliband. The article describes Hobsbawm’s much quoted position that the oppressions and killings of Stalin and the Eastern European communist regimes were justified a position he only modified after the fall of Communism – and then only because the revolution failed.

Eric Hobsbawm- As kind as photographs get, I'm afraid

Eric Hobsbawm- As kind as photographs get, I’m afraid

Hobsbawm taught at Birkbeck until shortly before I was there and I am one of the “one in 10,000″ who Wilson say have heard of him, and read some of his work.

Whilst I believe that much of what Hobsbawm concludes is wrong and I can’t buy into his coldly dispassionate (or is it hotly passionate?) Marxist historiography and find it hard to forgive his consequent dismissal of horrors from the Terror to the suppression of the Hungarian uprising as essential trivial episodes on the route to true proletarian revolution,  I am always left with a nagging doubt that he might, in fact, see the big picture more clearly than I. His writing deserves much of the praise the left-wing press heaped on him, for its scope and insight. Misguided he might be, but the author of “lousy books” (Wilson again)? I think not.

But it was not the article alone, which, (bitchy though it was) was not without some virtue and validity, which was offensive. The editorial treatment by the Mail was quite spiteful. Eric Hobsbawm, was not, especially in old age, a handsome man by any stretch of the imagination, but the Mail’s selection of photos, supporting their characterisation of a “barmy old man” (Wilson once more) was childishly vindictive, with pictures of him slack-jawed and with sticking plastered forehead.

But it was the headline which caught my eye. You may have seen this coming, but it was “He Hated Britain“.

So not only had the Milliband piece been an obnoxious cheap shot at Ed but in its content as well as its catchy barbed headline, unoriginal. A self-plagerised copy-and-paste of an earlier article directed at another, man, also dead and beyond both reply and the scope of the libel laws. As the demonised Eagle-Wolfe had (possibly) been borrowed from another vilification to abuse Prince Rupert, the Britain Hating motif had been transferred from one 20th Century Maxist to another.

Now I don’t seek to defend either Ralph Miliband or Eric Hobsbawm’s politics, which although they may have had some intellectual integrity, were stubbornly obtuse and sought to justify the unforgivable. Nor am I attempting to defend Ed Miliband, whose attempts at a return to the class conflict politics I had hoped Labour had left behind and (arguably worse in a parliamentary democracy) ineffectualness in opposition have not earned my admiration.

However, as an Early Modern Historian the (granted slightly tenuous) parallels between the methods Seventeenth Century populist pamphleteer and the modern provocative right-wing press are irresistible. The modern press is still as nasty and unscrupulous as the Civil War propagandists, and their methods not dissimilar.

The rub is though, that very same nasty and unscrupulous Seventeenth Century pamphleteering culture is also that vibrant and liberated period which also been celebrated as the genesis of the English free press, which in turn can be seen as a vital component in the development of Western Liberal Democracy.

Following the fall out from the Leveson Report, the debate over the freedom of the press in Britain is as warm now as it has perhaps ever been. The sometimes foul behaviour of the national papers has produced calls for increased regulation, but also counter-claims that any government control of the press, even at arm’s length, damages the vital role that the print media has in keeping those who govern us honest.

The Daily Mail’s reporting may have been odious, but, by instinct as well as historical example I am very nervous of allowing anyone to prevent them from doing it.

Confounded Wise Men and Dicing Userers- Macaulay on Finance

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Those few of you who are regular readers will know that I am several joyous months into my task of listening to the entire Librivox recording of Macaulay’s five volume History of England from the Accession of James the First, supplemented by reference to my lovely ex -W.H. Thompson calf bound edition. Thus my historical creed is becoming steadily transformed into that of an undiluted Victorian Whig. Let me tell you it is a wonderful place to be. I realise at some point, for the sake of my quasi-academic soul I will have to raise myself above the glow of comforting certainty and gorgeous prose for the sake of more modern analysis by less elegant writers, but for now, let me bathe in Macaulay’s light.

I don’t want to give the impression, however, that Macaulay is all about prose and no substance. His analysis is extensive and, although guided by prejudices which are sometimes no longer ours, his conclusions are often surprisingly modern.

Macaulay- Whig Sage

Macaulay- Whig Sage

In 1693, Macaulay tells us, William and Mary are now reasonably secure on the throne, William has drawn Britain into his European coalition against France. Warfare, by the close of the Seventeenth Century (or the beginning of the Long 18th, if you prefer) has increased in scale and expense, both military and naval. Meanwhile the developing economy is starting to generate more and more private wealth. England follows other Europeans in giving a stable investment for this money whilst financing William’s war by instigating the National Debt.

Writing, remember, from his perspective of a mid-Victorian Britain nearing the zenith of her Imperial and Military power, Macaulay says:

Such was the origin of that debt which has since become the greatest prodigy and confounded the pride of statesmen and philosophers. At every stage in the growth of that debt the nation has set up the same cry of anguish and despair. At every stage in the growth of that debt it has been seriously asserted by wise men that bankruptcy and ruin were at hand. Yet still the debt went on growing; and still bankruptcy and ruin were as remote as ever.

To Macaulay, the reason for this happy circumstance is that (although he doesn’t use this exact phase) Economic Growth will always out-pace a reasonable growth in the National Debt.

The power of a society to pay its debts is proportional to the progress which that society has made in industry, in commerce, and in all the arts and sciences which flourish under the benignant influence of freedom and equality under law

Almost the creed of the Victorian Whig! We are all now, of course, asking the seemingly obvious question, “but what if the growth stops?”. Macaulay’s supposition cannot be dismissed however as Victorian quaintness- it was a policy assumption of the last Labour government, and indeed most ostensively creditworthy governments until quite recently.

Macaulay, though, saw public borrowing as an expedient for exceptional circumstances, to be incurred to finance necessary wars, great public need, such as the re-coinage of 1696 or other public works- reminiscent of Gordon Brown’s laudable (especially with hindsight) but briefly enforced “Golden Rule” from the early days of his chancellorship. Generally however, modern governments have seen this presumption of growth as a justification to outspend their income.

Macaulay, champion of the debt did, in fact look to the future:

Long experience justifies us in believing that England may, in the 20th century, be better able to bear a debt of sixteen hundred millions than she is at the present time to bear her present load.

Even he might have been shocked that, at the close of the 20th Century Britain’s debt would be £350 Billion, twenty odd times his £1.6 Billion estimate.

My point is not however, to debate modern fiscal policy. What do I know after all? What interests me that Macaulay’s perceptive statement that for the previous 160 years, the debt had been repeatedly pronounced as unsustainable, when faced with circumstances which must have appeared dire to those experiencing them. He warns us against making similar prognoses and he has been proved right for 150 years after his death. Whether this is the occasion when this breaks down, only time will tell, but our Victorian sage even from beyond the grave advises that history strongly suggests otherwise.

Another ubiquitous theme of the commentary on the post-Lehmann’s Brothers financial world has been condemnation of the recklessness of bankers. Until the end of the 20th Century, the new wisdom holds,  bankers were the models of not only respectability but probity and caution- a kind of Captain Mainwaring writ large. Yet Macaulay writes of the public attitudes towards the embryonic bankers of the later Seventeenth Century

these userers, it was said, played at hazard with what had been earned by the industry and hoarded by the thrift of other men. If the dice turned up well, the knave who kept the cash became an alderman: if it turned up ill , the dupe who furnished the cash became a bankrupt.

Although far more pithily put that any modern commentator would even attempt, this echoes the sentiments voiced by demagogues, politicians, pundits and and the public over the last few years.  I am not attempting to defend modern bankers (besides such defence being a lynching offence, at least some of the criticism seems entirely justified) but it is intriguing to see such sentiments voiced, once again by a man 150 years ago about the attitudes a century and a half before his time.

And just to show that Macaulay is not the oldest text with wisdom for us. Although I make no claim to the creed, I give you Ecclesiastes 1 (King James Bible)

The thing that has been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.

Is there any thing of which it may be said, See, this is new? it has been already of old time, which was before us.

There is no remembrance of former things; neither shall there be any remembrance of things that are to come with those that shall come after.

                                                                                                          

For those of you with an interest in the post Glorious Revolution origins of  National debt and late Seventeenth Century Economics, my friend D’Maris Coffman has just published Excise Taxation and the Origins of Public Debt. I can’t claim to have read it yet, but knowing Maris’ acute insight into both history and economics, I don’t doubt it will be worth it.

A Brief History of Old Men (and Women) Part Two: Blind Doges and Old Besses

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In Part 1 I had begun an attempted anecdotal slaying of a personal bugbear- the popular perception, (wilfully propagated by the BBC), that anyone approaching that age loosely called average life expectancy was nearing the end of their natural term.

My first two examples were nearly contemporary Englishmen who made their names fighting the Scots (and, on occasion, uppity Englishmen) into old age. My next is somewhat earlier and further afield.

Enrico Dandolo was Doge of Venice from 1192 until his death in 1205. For those of you not familiar with the gorgeously unique political system of the Republic this means he was elected as head of government for life by a merchant oligarchy. His great age at his election was widely commented on, but only Marino Sanuto (who is usually reliable as well as entertaining, although far from contemporary) gives an exact figure- of 85 years old at the time of his election. This would have Dandolo born in around 1107. Some historians have tried to shave a decade off this age, but it is generally accepted as probably (if not certainly) true. Equally noteworthy was his blindness, probably caused by a blow to the head and not (despite colourful tales) the deliberate act by the Byzantines. At the time of his election, his sight had started to decline, but it degenerated quickly from then on was soon  nearly complete.

He came to prominence, even within his family quite late. His father, Vitale, died on a diplomatic mission to Constantinople at past 90 and his uncle, the Patriarch Enrico Dandolo lived to at least his late 80s. His Dogeship however, was perhaps the most pivotal in the history of the Republic. In 1201, with the Forth Crusade needing passage to the Holy Land, Dandolo negotiated to provide this to them, an undertaking which would require the entire logistic resources of the Republic for which he demanded an eye-watering price. When the crusaders couldn’t pay, Venice faced bancruptcy and Dandolo renegotiated much of the payment against future plunder. With the Venetian Republic having a huge stake in the project, the 90 year old, essentially blind Doge joined the fleet.

Of course, history tells us that it was Constantinople, not Jerusalem that was sacked by the crusaders, but this is not the place to go into the convoluted, riveting but shameful tale of the fall of the city. Suffice to say that the city was taken, sacked and the rump of its empire divided amongst the victors. Venice got its money back, and many of the great prizes still shown off in the city to this day. That Dandolo was prominent in the councils of war, commanded the naval efforts, negotiated with rival Emperors and elected puppets for the Byzantine throne will be no surprise- none of the youthful Frankish crusaders had his skill or experience, although the energy of a man of his years can only be admired. The more astonishing tale was, with the early stages of the assault in doubt, the sightless nonagenarian placed himself in the prow of the lead ship of the Venetian fleet, jumping ashore at the walls and shaming the crusaders into following him.

The Fall of Constantinople- No Country for Old Men?

The Fall of Constantinople- No Country for Old Men?

He lived, active in Venetian and Byzantine politics to the end, until 1205, if Sanuto is correct, a tantalising year or two short of his hundredth year.

I am conscious that again I have focused exclusively on men (and am equally conscious that I am in danger of justifying Early Modern Commons tagging me as a military history blog) and am quite aware of the sin of adding women as paranthesis to the main topic (as well as in the title). However, two of the most famous women of the Tudor era also lived into old age.

Elizabeth I, who should need no introduction here, didn’t quite make it to her 70th birthday, but was politically active to nearly the end of her 69 years.

Her contemporary, Bess of Hardwick who was amongst other things, goaler to Mary Queen of Scots, Grandmother and guardian to Arbella Stuart as well as being one of the richest women in England out lived her, dying in 1608 at an impressive 86.

Bess of Hardwick

Bess of Hardwick

These examples are all, to a lesser or greater degree all members of an elite and, of course nothing like representative. In each case, their age was considered exceptional by their contemporaries. Their value as examples is partly their fame- unlike the old man by the ale house fire who has outlived everyone who could dispute his claims of age, or the Old Testament patriarch, their prominence and literacy should have meant that these figures birth’s or early lives were recorded and they did not enter history in old age with dubious claims to venerability. This should give great veracity to their claims of age. Unfortunately, as both Forster and Dandolo have showed, this isn’t necessarily as watertight an argument as I would have liked, but does have some merit.

Although I’ve focused on the ruling class in these pieces, due to their notoriety, if you delve into any niche of history, you will find the aged occurring regularly, whether is is the relatively prosperous shipbuilder Phineas Pett (who I’ve talked about at length before) living to a ripe 77 or his contemporaries in the Venetian Arsenale for whom what to do with superannuated shipwrights who seem to have survived in that crowded miasmic city in significant numbers was a recurring problem.

There were, in the pre-industrial world, so many things that could kill you as an adult which you might well survive today. Cancers were not curable, heart disease couldn’t be treated with drugs or surgery, lack of hygiene and antibiotics could lead to non fatal wounds, whether in war or accident killing later (although, equally, astonishingly serious wounds were also often survived). War, although not perpetual, could devastate populations (the 30 Years war cut swathes through the Holy Roman Empire) or demographics (it is estimated that in a day at Towton, around 20,000 of the adult male population of England, out of a total population of less than 3 miilion was killed, and at Flodden, the affect on the Scottish adult male population may have been harsh, but the nobility lost perhaps a majority of its fighting age men), and, of course, periodic “malthusian” bouts of plague and famine wiped out large chunks of population. Death by violence outside of war was far beyond modern levels. Childbirth, although perhaps not quite as dangerous as the popular imagination would suggest (it is estimated that 1.5%- 2.5% of women died per birth in the 17th Century, compounded at a time where multiple pregnancies would be common),  was not anything like the coin toss for survival which is sometimes suggested but awful by modern standards and enough to make a dent in life expectancy statistics.

But whilst there were plenty of things to kill you, if you managed to avoid them all, you aged pretty much as we do now. We carry the same genetic make-up as our ancestors. A 30 year old woman was not middle-aged, she was probably just married, at the peak of her strength and near the prime of childbearing. Menopause occurred at the same age as now, and women bore children until it occurred. An active man of my age, if luck had avoided illness or injury, would now be in the same relative physical state as I am- considerably less spry than in his youth but with most of his strength intact and not yet at the edge of dottage.

Life expectancy at birth has its uses as a single, compound statistic for a society’s health (albeit one muddied by violent and accidental deaths). But its value is only ever relative between different societies or societies over time. It can tell us in broad terms that you were more likely to live long and less likely to die young in modern Britain than Late Victorian Britain, and Late Victorian Britain than Seventeenth Century Britain. It can tell us the same when comparing modern Western Europe with sub-Saharan Africa. Its anomalies can be instructive, but only in comparison, so the shocking decline in life expectancy Zimbabwe in recent years or the markedly low figure in Glasgow only have value when compared to the figure attained in the recent past, or in neighbouring cities.

What it is not is a useful measure of how long a woman of a certain age could expect to live and certainly not a measure of where in the process of aging a man of a certain age stands.

Indeed I am struck when reading about deaths in the Early Modern Period (as demonstrated quite neatly in my brief study of the Pett Women) is not that people died of premature old age in their 50’s, more that there was almost no decade of your life when there was not a good possibility of death occurring. Mortality may have been somewhat lower amongst strong adults in their prime, but it it was still ever present.

We have seen that men led active professional, political and military lives into middle age. Women (such as the Petts) bore children into their 40’s and rules households or even counties into old age.

Caxton, embarking on his new career at around 40, would have known that he probably had nearly as much chance of reaching 50 as he had of reaching 40 a decade earlier i.e. probably but far from certainly. What contemporary thoughts were with regards their expectations of a lifespan is another matter, and a fascinating one, although it is a thesis I will have to leave to others. I suspect he would have known that mortality was ever present, but hoped to live a long life and planned his endeavours in the anticipation of being able to complete them. Bragg’s suggestion that men in early middle age used to curtail any ambition and merely wait to die seems to me not only against human nature, but can be dismissed with the most superficial investigation.

For the record, he lived to be past 70.

A Brief History of Old Men (and Women) Part One: Steel Bonnets on Grey Pates

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If you will forgive the vagueness of this anecdote, there were two women on television, one a BBC presenter, the other a historian who should have known better (it may have been Bettany Hughes, who I rather like, so my apologies if I calumnise her). They are discussing a third woman, a historical figure of 35.

“Of course, at 35 she would have been virtually an old woman”, says the presenter.

To the historian’s credit, she pauses considering a proper answer before, bound by TV convention, agrees.

Then there was Melvyn Bragg, who although not a professional academic is also in the ranks of those who “should know better”. In his (otherwise rather good) “In Our Time” on Caxton and the Printing Press Bragg expresses surprise that Caxton, began his printing career at 40 “which was about the life expectancy of the time”.

William Caxton at bbout 50 - and not dead

William Caxton at about 50 – and not dead

As you may have read in my last article, age is a bit of a sensitive subject at the moment, but this popular misconception of age in the past is a bugbear of mine. Part of the reason, I think, is that most abused of statistics, life expectancy at birth.   It is a gross over simplification, but put brutally, in a period of high infant mortality, for every infant death, someone has to survive into old age to maintain even a moderate mean. I’ve been repeatedly struck when reading about medieval and Early modern topics that interest me how frequently elderly people were not only surviving, but playing very active roles and in lieu of a systematic study of mortality rates, I’d like to share some examples.

My first two spring from my fascination with the Scottish borders. Thomas Howard, 2nd Earl of Surrey (as he was at the time of his finest hour) was a remarkable in serving four English monarchs, Edward IV, Richard III and the two Tudor Henrys. He was born in 1443 and was a soldier from his youth, badly wounded at the Battle of Barnet in 1471, knighted in 1478 and fought for Richard III at Bosworth in 1485. After this he was disenfranchised and imprisoned in the Tower, before  talking his way back into Henry VII’s favour.

Thomas Howard, Earl of Surrey, Praying before Flodden

Thomas Howard, Earl of Surrey, An old man looking Medieval

By 1513 he was a 70 year old man, and Earl Marshall of England to Henry VIII. Henry took the flower of English chivalry to invade France, leaving Howard in England as Lieutenant General in the North. James IV Scotland, unwisely, decided to honour the “auld alliance” with France and invaded England in support of his ally. Howard gathered what had to be considered a “B-Team” of England’s military might. All the heavy cavalry was campaigning with Henry in France and Howard raised a force of billmen and longbowmen along with some of the light cavalry the border were famed for and a few pieces of artillery and marched his force against a force of Scots which far outnumbered them.

Although this is not the place to dissect the resulting Battle of Flodden, famously Howard maneuvered his force behind the strong Scots defensive position and destroyed the Scottish army in a viscious hand to hand fight, killing James himself and much of the Scottish nobility of military age.

This was probably the last major battle on English soil where gunpowder, at least in hand-held guns, did not play a significant role. It is not clear whether the aging Surrey would have actually struck any blows, but some accounts say that James’ desperate final attack cut to within “spear’s length” of Howard. After some weeks of the discomfort of campaigning, he put on his armour took part in a forced march and a fierce fight. Remarkable for a man of his age.

He was not done, either. In 1517 (now styled Duke of Norfolk) he went on to lead a troop of cavalry to help put down the Evil May Day Riot in London . He was active politically until his 80th year and finally died in 1523 at 81.

Another man who made his name fighting Scots in the Borders through a long life was Sir John Forster. He was Warden of the Middle March through much of the second half of the Sixteenth Century, near the end of the period of the border reivers.

He almost exemplified the border conflict. He fought in the two biggest post-Flodden border battles of Solway Moss and Pinkie Clough and served in various minor commands before his 35 years as Warden. During this time few were more courageous and active in enforcing border law, but also he was corrupt, vicious and dishonest. Application of arbitrary justice was part of life in the borders, even part of his job as Warden, but there are tales of his not only quasi-judicially murdering the innocent  but also of his leniency with the guilty amongst the Scottish Reivers when it suited his personal needs. He was present, and maybe partly responsible for at least two outbreaks of violence at the nominally sacrosanct Days of Truce where cross border conflicts were meant to be resolved. He helped put down two rebellions by advocates of Mary Queen of Scots. He lived well into old age and only yielded the Wardenship unwillingly when this finally made him susceptible to “imbicillity and weakness”. Even then, living in retirement at Bamburgh in 1597 thirty Scots crossed the border, broke into Bamburgh Castle and tried to murder him.

The problem is, how old was he? Forster was one of the inspirations for this article  after reading about him in George MacDonald Fraser’s “The Steel Bonnets“. Fraser pronounces with complete confidence that he was born in 1501 and, neatly encapsulating the Sixteenth Century, died in 1602. This made him over a hundred at his death, 94 when he was stripped of the Middle March Wardenship for the final time and 96 at the time of the assassination attempt. This age is not unprecedented, but quite exceptional. Unfortunately, as I started reading around a little before writing this piece, some conflicting birth dates appear. Some writers also mention  Fraser’s 1601-02, but several others say 1620. This would still have him living to past 80, serving actively as Warden into his late 70s and thirty Scots thinking his life was worth shortening at about 77. These comparatively youthful ages would, in themselves, earn a place here and do not in any way detract from my point, however I will have to beg your indulgence in not pronouncing one way or the other until I have had time to do some more rigorous research.

The lives of these two men overlapped, indeed if Fraser is correct it is not impossible that the old Howard knew the young Forster. Their lives spanned an astonishing period of English History. Howard was born with Henry VI on the throne and the Hundred Years War about to reach its dénouement; Forster died just before James Stuart came down from Scotland to take the English crown.

They show that men living tough, active, violent lives in the late Middle Ages and Early modern period could and did, (albeit rarely) live long and serve well into old age. Although Howard and Forster are exceptional, finding examples of fighting men in middle age is far easier, indeed in both England and Scotland military age had long been established at 16-60.

In part two I’ll introduce a few more example from home and abroad and talk more about the reality of age and mortality for our pre-industrial forebears.

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