Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Luk√°cs

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Dead Queen Watch: Mary II

Mary II died on 29 December 1694, which makes this the 311th anniversary of her death. Wikipedia claims she died on the 28 December, but according to Brewer's The Death of Kings, on that day, after a week in bed with smallpox, 'she seemed to be very much better...indeed, the doctors began to think that she had perhaps had an attack of the measles'. However it is true that that night she fell very ill with an acute attack of smallpox and died about 1 o'clock in the morning of the 29th December. Brewer points out that her death was widely mourned as she was only 32 at the time, as 'she had been a somewhat simple person who had no enemies and was universally loved and respected.' It is worth looking at her life briefly to see why things were actually a little more complicated than that.

Mary was born in 1662 in London at St James's Palace, the daughter of future King James II, then Duke of York. Her uncle was therefore King Charles II and mother was James's first wife, the Lady Anne Hyde. She and her sister were therefore brought up strict Protestants - but in 1668 or 1669 her father converted to Roman Catholicism and her mother died soon after. What was to become of Princess Mary?

Aged just 15, she had a marriage arranged for her - to the Dutch Prince of Orange, William III, also a Protestant - and as it happened, her first cousin. Pressured by Parliament, her Catholic father agreed to the marriage, falsely assuming that it would improve his popularity amongst Protestants. The first cousins Mary and William married in London on 4 November 1677, and then Mary went to the Netherlands to live.

I don't know if anyone else watched any of the spate of recent TV documentaries about troublesome Royal relationships (Wallis and Edward - about Nazi King Edward VIII who had to abdicate in 1936 - and Whatever Love Means - about Charles and Camilla), but it seems that the marriage between William and Mary was hardly destined to be a happy one. Brewer notes that 'she was 15 years old, no less than a 5 feet inches tall, handsome, well dressed and with a beautiful complexion. William was 37, 4 inches shorter than her, pale and ill-dressed, usually in black; he spoke English with difficulty and had constant trouble from his asthma. It is no surprise to learn that Mary was in tears on the day of her wedding.' However, she did grow to love the Dutch people and countryside and even to some extent William himself. William however preferred the company of younger male cousins of his and long maintained an affair with Elizabeth Villiers, one of Mary's ladies-in-waiting, with whom he became quite infatuated.

In 1688, her father James became King of England. However, his Catholicism made him very unpopular and within a year he was ousted in a 'Glorious Revolution' by the Whig bourgeosie who organised the succession to pass peacefully to William and Mary as Joint Sovereigns. Here is Karl Marx on the 'Glorious Revolution':

'The "Glorious Revolution" brought into power, along with William of Orange, the landlord and capitalist appropriators of surplus value. They inaugurated the new era by practising on a colossal scale thefts of State lands, thefts that had hitherto been managed more modestly. These estates were given away, sold at a ridiculous figure or even annexed to private estates by direct seizure. All this happened without the slightest observation of legal etiquette. The Crown Lands thus fraudulently appropriated, together with the Church estates, so far as these had not been lost again during the republican revolution, form the basis of the today princely domains of the English oligarchy. The bourgeois capitalists favoured the operation with the view, among others, to promoting free trade in land, to extending the domain of modern agriculture on the large farm system, and to increasing their supply of agricultural proletarians ready to hand. Besides, the new landed aristocracy was the natural ally of the new bankocracy, of the new-hatched haute finance and of the large manufacturer, then depending on protective duties'.

As AL Morton notes, 'the "Revolution" of 1688, placed in the hands of the Whigs for the next century, apart from short intervals, the control of the central State apparatus' - though the Tory squirearchy maintained control of local government creating a situation of 'dual power' throughout the eighteenth-century. William agreed to this hand over of power (enshrined in the Bill of Rights) as he wanted wealth and manpower for war against France. For that, he needed to bring Ireland and Scotland under tighter control - and so he launched new wars here first. As Morton notes, William ensured that Ireland was 'ruled more brutally and openly than ever before as a colony which existed for the exclusive benefit of the English bourgeoisie'. 'By 1692 William's sovereignty was undisputed throughout the British Isles' and he now turned his attention to the French under Louis XIV. Wikipedia notes that 'when her husband was away, Mary acted in her own name but on his advice; whilst he was in England, Mary completely refrained from interfering in political matters'. It is perhaps this somewhat detached position from power that explains her apparent popularity at the end of her life.



At 5:27 am, Blogger Frank Partisan said...

That's a sad story.

At 10:29 am, Blogger Snowball said...

It is quite a sad story, I suppose, yes. Tony Benn often argues that republicans shouldn't use the personalities of individual monarchs to attack the institution of monarchy (in the way that I might well be accused of doing with 'Dead King Watch') as they have not chosen that role in life but were born into it and are just doing their 'duty', etc.

In the case of say, Mary II, I think this is fair comment really - and actually her life highlights that the life of monarchs is not all sweetness and light - and in many ways it is a pity (for them) that they could not live 'ordinary' lives. Then again, if any of them had really felt strongly enough about it they could always have abdicated and declared a republic...

However, I think Marxists can and should look at the individual characters of monarchs and rulers - after all Marx did so in his classic The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte - just as they can look at the lives of any individual in society. If placed correctly in context, then that one life can help us understand that society better.

I should say here that I am not arguing that my 'Dead King Watch' feature is a model for helping us to understand wider English society from a Marxist perspective in the way in which Marx helped us understand France after 1848 in The Eighteenth Brumaire - but I think in terms of methodology it is defensible for a Marxist to compile a 'Dead King Watch' style feature.

Anyway, what am I discussing Mary II for anyway - I should be discussing Craig Murray and the British Government's defence of the use of torture to gain evidence shouldn't I? Then again, Lenin's Tomb and other blogs do that stuff so well it seems pointless to try and imitate their work...


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