Jacobean court farce

The reign of King James I began to fall apart into farce in 1612. The King was no fool, or if he was, he was as the cliché has it “the wisest fool in Christendom”, and in character he was uncertain, fearful and indecisive, which led to his relying on other who were unworthy of trust. Until 1612, he had at his right hand Robert Cecil, who had served Good Queen Bess as had his father and who guided the new, inexperienced king. In 1612, Cecil died and the King was adrift, and the kingdom with him.

King James was a good king to the extent he could be given his limitations. He had ruled in Scotland, and had been impatient to rule his inheritance in England too, making plans based on expectation not experience, and the change from the unruly, poverty-stricken court in Edinburgh to the surface splendours he found in England left him unsure of how to react.

The King also had a nervous complaint which led him to fidget constantly and left him unable to concentrate his mind on the task at hand whenever another presented itself, and make the King unable to govern himself let alone a kingdom. Part of this was his unfortunate fondness for handsome young men, many of whom were promoted in court despite no merits beyond their comeliness, and a court full of handsome young men and many rather personable young ladies was a source of constant intrigue.

Had this dysfunctional royal court been merely a private parlour, one might pass over in distaste it like a tabloid sensation, but these plotting courtiers were governors too, in the absence of control by the King. It led to the collapse of the King’s authority, and worse later.

They competed for favour and gathered positions and titles from an impressionable king who saw these favours as costing him nothing. Two such young men were Robert Carr and Thomas Overbury, who came to London together and wormed their way into the court, Overton by his intelligence and Carr by his face; Oveton gained a knighthood, and Carr was made Earl of Somerset. This is a poor substitute for the competition of merit which the kingdom needed, but it is not unknown to this day.

These games become dangerous. Those competing for favours formed factions of convenience, and whispered accusations circulated, in a dangerous atmosphere where treason was the fear in the wind, as well it might be after Guy Fawkes and after the By and Main plots, and was a fatal accusation, but even an accusation of discourtesy would be fatal to a career.

History books tell better how the breach between friends came, when Carr openly took up with Frances Howard and arranged the annulment of her marriage so he might have her. Overbury’s poem The Wife was a deadly insult to Frances, now Countess of Somerset. She pulled an old and cruel trick: she spread a tale that Overbury had been disrespectful to the Queen. He fell from favour at once and and the next year, though further intrigue he was in the Tower accused of treason, where Carr and Frances arranged for him to be poisoned. Their faction were all implicated.

It starts with personal disagreements, and political rivalry which has personal motives, rarely the good of the nation, fought by personal intrigue, with never a thought to the public responsibilities of office – and when power is purely without responsibility it is precious indeed and to be defended at all costs. Courtiers fought like rats in a sack, and their political heirs still do today. If they stay in the sack it might not bother the wider world until we realise whose taxes are still paying them.

No servant is greater than his master, and it is a weak master who allows them to think they are. That was King James’s failing, and that of several other political leaders down the ages.

The scandal that culminated in the death of innocent Overbury was just one of the many intrigues that scared the Jacobean court, and lost the king the love of the nation. It all continued under his son, King Charles I, which led to the discontent, rebellion and Civil War.

I wish that we had learnt to rise above this sort of thing, but apparently not.

See also

Books

And then there was silence

The guns fell silent at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. It has been for our nations, the victors, a sacred moment remembered each year. It might have been for Germany too, but they were caught up in their own revolutions at the time and it seemed a strange sort of peace with the sound of gunfire ever present. For the great concert of Europe though, the unthinkably brutality of this war was over.

The clean forgetfulness of the public imagination has this moment as an end to war, the war to end all wars, until the next one. Would that it had been. It was a long effort to make a peace though and the treaties were still being argued over in 1920: this year Hungary mourned the centenary of its own dismemberment at the hands of the vengeful Entente allies: three quarters of Hungary was torn away and two thirds of its population left in foreign lands, and not a single yard of its border was unencroached. That hurt has not faded in a hundred years, nor Austria’s for loss of South Tyrol. Turkey in 1920 was dissolved, and its rulers today appear vengeful for it. War did not cease: the new Mitteleuropa states fought to reverse their border losses almost from the start, and the murderous Russian Civil War ground on.

In the west the joy of victory would not be spoiled by foreigners’ tussles. It was a new era, and the revolutionary map of Europe cast a revolutionary mood into the air – only by the skin of our teeth and the common sense of the common man did Britain escape a bloody communist tyranny. The febrile atmosphere in which everything was possible and every idea hailed a revelation carried through until those ideas tumbled Europe into a war yet more bloody, more evil than imagination could have furnished even amongst those who had seen the drowned trenches. The first war gave us poetry: the second gave us films of heroism, and real heroism there was in more places than the who canon of literature can supply, and we can cheer, as long as we do not look too far below the surface of those years as that would curdle the feelings.

The remembrance is important. The names are read, the sermons and the familiar verses; we tramp to the village green, we stand silent awaiting the bugle. It is ceremony, old and familiar, and in this we remember, for it has been mercifully many decades since war came to these islands and we forget, or would forget. Politicians still like to play with soldiers, but every November they meet and remember it is not a game, and there are better men who stood what no man among them would bear, or few.

See also

Messages pour in for Joe

World leaders were united in offering congratulations to the man who will soon control the biggest national spending power in the world. Boris Johnson was one of the first to call the new President-to-be and in tribute to Mr Biden’s unique style, he plagiarised the whole text from a speech by Stalin.

Across the world, the message was the same: ‘we want your friendship, your goodwill, and most of all your money’. Hunter Biden stood by his father, watching as job offers rolled in from across the globe.

Boris Johnson did not forget to congratulate Kamala Harris too in her role, reminding her that both her parents were British subjects by birth and remarking on how well regarded her Indian grandfather was in the service the Empire.

Other political figures sent their own tributes. Ed Davey, brushed off being mistaken for a telephone sales caller to give a heartfelt tribute from the British Liberal Democrats, noting that they have long considered themselves allies with the US Democrats even if the Democrats have never heard of them, and they are in complete admiration, as in Britain they have never managed to conduct such open manipulation of the electoral system as was achieved in America.

Vladimir Putin did not send his congratulations: it is understood that in Russia a presidential election is not considered settled until they have finished counting all the bodies.

As the sound of knives sharpening behind Mr Biden continued, the world stood and considered the bright future for his budget spending.

In America now

Everyone has to give a commentary on the elections in the United States, apparently, and though I have never so much as stepped on American soil, it is expected of me.

The big winner was Joe Biden, in more ways than commentators have noticed; the apparent weakness of his overall position actually gives him more power against those who are seeking grab power themselves, but more later.

The election was all showbusiness, and that is what we have come to expect. It is turbo-charged since Hollywood pizzazz became the norm in all public presentations, and the Presidential Election is Hollywood-style with the stops pulled out, and that is the spirit in which I followed it, to the extent I did.

It would be comforting to believe this and the visceral hatred splitting the nation is new, but in 1835, when the ink was barely dry on the Constitution, De Tocqueville, who celebrated American democracy said:

For a long while before the appointed time has come, the election becomes the important and, so to speak, the all-engrossing topic of discussion. Factional ardour is redoubled, and all the artificial passions which the imagination can create in a happy and peaceful land are agitated and brought to light. . . . As the election draws near, the activity of intrigue and the agitation of the populace increase; the citizens are divided into hostile camps, each of which assumes the name of its favourite candidate; the whole nation glows with feverish excitement, the election is the daily theme of the press, the subject of private conversation, the end of every thought and every action, the sole interest of the present.

I say that Biden won, but there are the legal challenges. (Were there instances of corruption, stolen votes, dead voters and fraud? I expect so: there usually are in the American system.) It goes to the courts then to confirm the result we already know: the United States were founded by lawyers; the Union’s constitution and institutions were shaped by lawyers, and so it is expected that it will be fought out through lawyers. That is a habit of the American system almost unheard-of in the Commonwealth. On the other hand, it is far better than the alternative we see in less favoured lands.

The Presidency is a winner-takes all situation; it is not like a Commonwealth Prime Minister weighing the strength or weakness of a parliamentary majority, so the narrowness of win does not weaken the incoming President. What does, on the surface, is that his party failed to win control of the Senate, or to move the House of Representative much either. However, all is not what it seems.

The ground-level of the Democratic Party has become a very different place. This was the ancient party of the establishment – the party of Andrew Jackson, Jefferson Davis and George Wallace, the party that came out of the established powers and upheld them, championing in turn the old states, the plantation system and slavery, Jim Crow, and the gang bosses of New York. It was reliability encapsulated, against the insurgent Republican Party that wanted to tear down slavery and ossified power, but it learned to adapt, to create client groups dependent on them, in the New Deal and the entrenched dependency of welfare systems: even the Civil Rights Act was a cynical client-creation system when Jim Crow had failed. Now the roots are very different, filling with radicals that are the antithesis of what the Democrats were, whose ideas would cause collapse of systems, which are shattering the client systems. Now the man of their party is on top, with all the executive power in his hands, they want a turn at the wheel.

This is where the apparent weakness becomes a strength. By having power restrained, Biden cannot give that power to the nutcases – while he retains sufficient power to do as he wishes. Without control of the Senate, the wild-Democrats cannot fill all the offices of the Union with fellow nutcases: it requires compromise, which leaves Mr Biden in control of appointments, not the radical element.

Much has been made of the new conservative Supreme Court, and again this is to Mr Biden’s advantage, though not in the same way. The political argument over the court has been about the willingness of justices to overturn legislation, by reading into the Constitution words which are not there: a conservative court reads the American Constitution as it is written, and so is les willing to overturn legislation and executive acts. That strengthens the power of the President and of the House of Representatives. Mr Biden, for all the bluster by those behind him, should welcome a conservative court, and when the time comes he should appoint more conservative justices to it.

I doubt that the politicians will see it this way.

On the other hand, I am not an American, and I could have got it all wrong, and any American is welcome to tell me it is none of my business, which it isn’t.

See also

Books

Oh, Vienna!

This means anything but nothing to me: the city is imprinted upon my mind as much as in the days I trod its streets. It is an enchanting, frustrating, beguiling city. It is the Hauptstadt of Austria, but it is not an Austrian city – it is too big un-German and unique: Vienna is an Austro-Hungarian city.

The city is a jewel, a demonstration of the exuberant confidence which created it, not at the edge of a little, rural country as it is now, but at the centre of an empire of interwoven people, in which Vienna was the showpiece summation of cultural achievement, which was reflected also in the empire’s co-capitals, in Budapest and Prague. These cities were, and are, all of a piece with Vienna. Vienna is not the German one of the three cities but a coalescence: its heritage is German-Hungarian-Bohemian-Italian, and that still shows not just in the architecture and art but down to the everyday culture, such as the cuisine, and habits of the people.

This week the city was struck by horror. It somehow got lost in news that is obsessed with the showbiz election in America, and coming just after more horrors in France (which have themselves been lost to the attention because they are so frequent these days). It hit me because the city should be a place of joy.

It never has been, though. There was always a dark undercurrent beneath the dazzling sights: more than one Emperor has been driven out by a mob. In its heyday the streets were filled with a babble of voices from across the Habsburg lands and in reaction the populace installed a German nationalist mayor of a sort more familiar in the next generation. Here gathered artists, each believing himself a genius, and most being mainly talentless. Hitler and Stalin were wandering around town at the same time: there is no evidence that they ever met, but I like to think of them sitting together on a bench in the Volksgarten yarning over whom they would round up and kill if they ever could, as powerless vagrants do. There were artistic movements, but also very nasty political ones.

Now there are few Hungarian or Bohemian or Croatian noblemen riding about town to their palaces, but the streets are still a babble of voices. Of these came the blow that shattered the dream-city this week, ending the laughter with a voice reaching out in a piercing cry, killing and maiming near the city’s synagogue. (That there is still a synagogue tells something of resilience in defiance of all-burning slaughter; that it cannot live in peace is a shame to civilisation.) The daylight brings a cool empty silence.

Poignantly, those hailed as heroes for restraining the killer were two Turks and an Arab; amongst the city’s new version of its internationalism.

Oh, Vienna; your troubles hit me hard.

See also