Thursday, January 15, 2009

Wicked King George

Andrew Roberts argues here that:

In the avalanche of abuse and ridicule that we are witnessing in the media assessments of President Bush's legacy, there are factors that need to be borne in mind if we are to come to a judgment that is not warped by the kind of partisan hysteria that has characterised this issue on both sides of the Atlantic.

The first is that history, by looking at the key facts rather than being distracted by the loud ambient noise of the 24-hour news cycle, will probably hand down a far more positive judgment on Mr Bush's presidency than the immediate, knee-jerk loathing of the American and European elites.
Reputations are made not just by the actions of the person. We've had some appalling kings in England, and latterly Britain, but even the tree whisperers and divine-right megalomaniacs have survived the assessments of future generations; monarchs remain willing to name their children George or Charles. But two names have been been shunned for almost a millennium: Stephen and John.

Wikipedia quotes Winston Churchill on John:
"When the long tally is added, it will be seen that the British nation and the English-speaking world owe far more to the vices of John than to the labours of virtuous sovereigns"
That's a complicated accolade, or insult, depending how you read it. But the implication that John was not entirely calamitous as a monarch, and that there have been worse, is a fair one.

The same is true of Stephen, who was much liked and admired in his time. I've written before about why his reputation has become sullied, and won't repeat myself here. In the context of George W. Bush and his likely assessment by historians of the future, John makes a more interesting study.

John's reputation comes to us mainly from two writers, who succeeded each other in reality, in their office in a particular monastery, as well as metaphorically. The first was an adult contemporary of John, the second was a teenager when John died. The second drew almost entirely on the writings of the first, a man named Roger of Wendover. Wikipedia tells us that:
Roger of Wendover’s work is, however, now valued not so much for what he culled from previous writers as for its full and lively narrative of contemporary events, from 1216 to 1235
This is slightly misleading, since John died in 1216. Wendover's work was also our principle source for the idea that King John was Wicked.

The work in question was a chronicle that was taken up by other hands and has become an important source for the period, mainly because those other hands were attached to a writer who was, in the main, a serious historian by the standards of the time. What you won't learn from Wikipedia (yes, I know I can edit the article myself if I'm unhappy with it) is that Roger was not a very reliable source. If anything, Wiki spins in Roger's favour:
The Revelation of St Nicholas to a monk of Evesham was composed in 1196 but the author is unknown. In an abridged form, it is found in Roger of Wendover’s Flores Historiarum under the year 1196. It is a curious religious allegory, treating the pilgrimage of a soul from death through purgatory and paradise to heaven. The monk, conducted by St Nicholas, is taken from place to place in purgatory, where he meets and converses with persons of various ranks, who relate their stories and their suffering. From purgatory he advances slowly to paradise, and finally reaches the gates of heaven; after which he awakes.
Abridged and, I believe, embellished, this tale sits in the same narrative as the description of John's misdeeds. It includes accounts, told with absolute seriousness, of a washer woman sucked dry of blood by a small black pig and of loaves that ran with blood when cut because they were baked on the Sabbath.

John came into conflict with the Church as well as with the Barons. That isn't necessarily a bad point against him, but it did prejudice the view of clerical chroniclers, like Roger. Henry II, John's father, also came into conflict with the church and this also affected the views of chroniclers (they were all clerics). Yet Henry's reputation was good. Both were Plantagenets, the family descended, it was whispered, from a she-devil; the family that was famous even by the standards of their times for the violence of their rages and the heat of their lust. Only John has been reviled. His brother Richard, a man whose company small boys were well advised to avoid and who almost bankrupted the country with his constant wars, has become a symbol of monarchical greatness. There was no Wendover for Richard.

If I'm making a comparison that poses George Bush as King John, then Wendover stands for the sort of contemporary chroniclers of events who hysterically attribute the most base motives to Bush, seize on his every verbal stumble and ignore anything good he does. So let's say Wendover is the Guardian newspaper, or the New York Times. What, then, of this later pair of hands, those of the writer who picked up Wendover's work and made it history?

They belonged to a man named Matthew Paris. In 1217, the year after John died, Paris entered the monastery in St Albans where Wendover worked and about twenty years later, when Wendover died, he took over as chronicler taking over, in the process, Wendover's chronicle. It is because Paris is taken seriously that Wendover's lurid accounts of John's misdeeds are taken seriously.

So if George Bush is King John, and The Guardian is Roger of Wendover, who will be Matthew Paris? Oddly enough, it will be Matthew Parris.

Well, it will be Parris and others who, like him, have sober and reasoned voices that are held in wide and non-partisan respect. At the moment Parris looks upon Bush with a jaundiced eye:
The fate of [Obama's] predecessor George W.Bush was to test almost to destruction the theory of the limitlessness of American wealth and power - and of the potency of the American democratic ideal too. With one last heave he pitched his country into a violent and ruinous contest with what at times seemed the whole world, and the whole world's opinion. He failed, luminously.
Like Paris, Parris echoes some of the hysteria of lesser chroniclers. Will he continue to do so in the future?

It's not up to Bush, it's not up to Obama and it's not even, entirely, up to Parris and his fellow writers of the first draft of history. Al Qaeda also has a vote. Since 2001... this can be phrased in different ways. Since 2001 Bush has kept America safe. Since 2001, Bush has been lucky. It is fair, I think, to suggest that if he was lucky after 2001 this was not due to the good will of the enemies who had been attacking America for a decade or more beforehand. It is not really likely that this was luck. No President has ever relied so much on the benevolence of an enemy as will Obama. If I were American, that thought would make me uneasy.

Obama - the man who had Corinthian pillars erected on stage to frame a speech - has planned a coronation so lavish that Washington has already had to declare an emergency just to pay for it. If Al Qaeda aren't very, very nice to him, this will seem - to history - as a part of the most misguided, absurd display of hubris by a President, and Bush may be regarded as a man who kept his people safe for seven and a half difficult years. "May", because even for the Parrisees, it is hard to go against an already established narrative. And they certainly have their Wendovers, should they choose to follow them.

2 comments:

dearieme said...

Bush has been a Democrat in all but name, with the two great Democratic presidential characteristics - lavish expenditure and aggressive war. The academic historians will be shy of criticising him in those terms, of course.

MB said...

As a history undergraduate back in the reign of King Ronald and Queen Margaret I was warned not to take the accounts of the various mediaeval chroniclers at face value, especially when it came to assessing the worth of various monarchs. That said, many gave accounts of social life in England that have been substantially supported by other sources so they are not entirely unreliable.

What the chroniclers inadvertantly reveal is that, contrary to what some people think, politics did exist in England before the establishment of political parties and before Parliament became (technically) superior to the reigning monarch.

Politics was, however, the preserve of the Church and the nobility. The scene in Henry V where clergymen discuss the merits of supporting the war with France is pure mediaeval politics. In return for support, they expect and anticipate concessions from the king. Ye Olde Porke Barrel no less.

All chroniclers had patrons, some clerical, others members of the lay nobility. Sponsoring a chronicler was not cheap; educated, literate men were hard to come by and their wages and the cost of inks and parchment were almost prohibitive. It was also a prestigious and lucrative post to hold. Small wonder that their writings tended to reflect the views of their sponsors.

King John was, without doubt, a controversial ruler but his reign was plagued by debt that had largely been accrued by his brother who had hardly spent any time in England.

John, with the lack of tact typical of the Plantagenets, insisted on exercising his royal prerogative, something that England's barons had not experienced within their lifetimes. They were outraged, John was militarily and financially weak and was forced to cave in at Runneymede.

The chroniclers reported that after Magna Carta John aimlessly wandered the south of England in a melancholy state. Pop historians in the last few decades solemly informed readers that John was not actually "bad" but he was suffering from manic depression, clinical depression even.

Sadly a proper historian decided to check the financial accounts of the royal household. These showed where the king was on any given day, what money was spent, and on what.

It turned out that John was on a royal tour, visiting noble after noble, and the accounts showed that he was feasting with them and paying for much of the food and drink. More interesting was their identities. Some were loyal supporters, some were vehement opponents. The majority were undecided. Shades of a modern political campaign?

Modern chroniclers will not be kind to George W Bush in his lifetime. Despite having a higher grade point average at university than John Kerry (often reported as an intellectual heavyweight), Bush will always be seen by them as a lightweight at best, typically a moron. The collapse of the USSR may have happened on George HW Bush's watch but the first years of the USA as the world's only superpower were presided over by Bill Clinton, a man who did little to project America's power and thus did little to ruffle the feathers of the European Left.

The debacle in Mogadishu only reinforced the view of the Americans as being bumbling incompetents, unfit to act as a world power without significant input from Europe. Then came September 11th 2001. America decided that, whilst it appreciated support, it was prepared to go it alone. Euro intellectuals were shocked to find that their views and opinions were totally ignored by the Americans. Hence the oprobium directed against Bush; people with an axe to grind don't like being ignored. They want to be flattered and feted. Not much of a chance of that happening under the Bush administration, whose attitude is "you're either in the tent pissing out or you're the one being pissed on."

Both President Bush and King John inherited difficult situations that were not of their own making. John inherited a crown that was bankrupt and susceptible to the machinations of over-mighty barons. Bush "inherited" Islamic terrorism. They both dealt with those situations in their own ways, both men using the laws available to them, and changing laws to suit the situation. Both were unpopular during their reigns, but history may prove to be a kinder judge to both.