Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Lukács

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Colin Sparks on the horrible history of the House of Windsor

Edward VIII with Wallis Simpson and 'a friend' - you might have missed this bit in Madonna's new film

[At a time when the Tories and right wing press are engaged in a full blown rabid demonisation of supposed 'benefit scroungers' and those supposedly living a life of luxury at the expense of the hard-working majority, it is paradoxical - to say the least - that the same Tories and their media baron friends are in full blown propaganda mode to celebrate the Queen's Diamond Jubilee in June this year - despite quite overwhelming and quite shocking evidence that, yes, the Queen has somehow successfully got away for sixty years living in a palace and cruising around the world at the taxpayers expense. Moreover, given the sad fact it seems kind of unlikely that Terry Deary and the BBC are going to turn their popular 'Horrible Histories' series around to the House of Windsor to mark the Diamond Jubilee, it seems it is our revolutionary democratic duty - to say the least - to republish an article from Socialist Review from July 1981 on 'The horrible history of the House of Windsor'. I am indebted to the author - Colin Sparks - and Socialist Review for kindly giving me permission to republish this article, written around the the time of the marriage of Charles and Diana]

An undistinguished military man in his early thirties is to be married in front of vast crowds and the world's press. How does this come about? What is there about the man which makes his person and doings so fascinating to millions of people? It can hardly be his personal qualities. Despite acres of newsprint, there seems to be nothing very special about him which would distinguish him from thousands of other upper-class twits who merit much more modest treatment. The only possible explanation is the family he was born into. But what's so special about the Windsor family? Colin Sparks investigates.

All families have long histories and they are usually littered with rather sordid events about which it would be better to say nothing. It is in the nature of the institution that it makes people behave in very strange ways. But since this particular family is held up as a model to us all, and rests its wealth and power purely and simply on its history, it is well worth looking hard at that history.
If Charles is going to be King because, and only because, of his descent, it must be admitted that his family's record is so spectacularly sordid, and so riddled with malice and accident, that he would do better to change his name and try to lead a normal life.
Without delving too far into the murky and bloody history of the English Crown, with its murders, imprisonments, usurpations, massacres and general bloodiness, we can conveniently begin with one James II. His subjects suspected him, quite rightly, of secretly preparing tyranny and of being a crypto-Catholic (about the worst thing you could be at the time). He was consequently deposed in the 'Glorious Revolution' of 1688. This was a bloodless coup, largely because the commander of the royal forces, a certain John Churchill, later Duke of Marlborough and ancestor of the current war-monger Winston Churchill, was bribed to change sides just before the decisive battle. This noble act founded the young officer's future fortune but left the old king with no army and no choice: he had to run away.
He was replaced by his daughter Mary. Her claim to fame was that she was a Protestant and was married to the equally Protestant William of Orange - King Billy himself. So the origins of the modern monarchy are based upon a military coup and surrounded by bribery, treachery and foreign mercenaries.
After a few years, the direct line of descent ran out. The descendants of James II were disqualified for their obstinate persistence in Catholicism. So Parliament had to look around for someone else. There were two qualifications: some sort of distant claim and Protestantism - the second of which was much more important. They lighted on an obscure German prince, the Elector of Hanover, and duly shipped him over to be George I.
There was not much wrong with him as a King, apart from the fact that he could not speak English.
Despite having locked his wife up in a castle for 32 years, George I somehow managed to produce offspring, and he was duly succeeded by his son George II, who managed to learn English. His main claim to fame was that, despite having fought in many battles, he eventually died by falling off a lavatory seat in Kensington Palace, striking his head against a chest and expiring from the wound thus gloriously received. His son, Frederick, was already dead, having been hit by a tennis ball nine years earlier, so he was succeeded by his 22 year old grandson, George III.
If Georges Mark I and Mark II had been harmless if rather expensive, George III was not at all harmless. He was simply the most prominent of a pretty bad lot.
His sister, Caroline Matilda, for example, was married off at the age of 15 to the King of Denmark, whose major activity was, as the chronicles quaintly put it, pursuing 'low amours'. To recompense herself she took as a lover the Prime Minister, Struensee. This being discovered, he was hanged for his temerity and she was locked up in a castle for the rest of her life. George's youngest brother, the Duke of Cumberland, seduced Lady Grosvenor was sued by her husband for 'criminal conversation' (ie adultery) and had his love letters read out in open court. Another brother lived with a woman who had the triple handicap of being a widow, illegitimate, and the daughter of a tradeswoman.
George III, who was a bit of a snob and a lot of a puritan, decided that these goings on were getting the family a bad name, and he determined to clean things up a bit. One of his main instruments was the Royal Marriages Act, which he forced through parliament in 1772. This piece of despotism, which is still in force, states that any marriage of a descendant of George II is null and void if contracted without royal consent. This caused an awful lot of trouble because, while George III had a lot of children, they were, in the main, a very much worse lot even than his brothers and sisters.
All of his morality had an unfortunate effect on poor George, and he became a little crazy. On one occasion, driving through the Royal Park at Windsor, he stopped his coach, got out and tried to shake hands with an oak, being under the impression that it was Frederick the Great, King of Prussia. This state of mind came and went with George until, opening the 1811 session of Parliament, he began his address: 'My Lords and Peacocks This was going too far: he was declared unfit to rule, locked away in Windsor Castle, and his eldest son was made Prince Regent.
Now, if George III was mad, his son was positively bad. He had, for example, committed the greatest crime that any future King of England is capable of: he had married a Catholic. Besides this, his extravagance, his reaction, his general uselessness, were nothing. His marriage, to a Mrs Fitzherbert, in 1785, he kept a secret, but it presented him with problems. It made it difficult to marry legally and beget an heir, and without that assurance of future monarchy, Parliament would not agree to pay off his enormous debts. Fortunately, Mrs Fitzherbert was a reasonable woman, and for a bribe of £3,000 a year, agreed to keep quiet about the whole thing.
This noble gesture freed the Prince of Wales to marry his cousin, Caroline of Brunswick, who had been located on the Prince's instructions that, 'One damned German frau is as good as another.' The couple met for the first time three days before the wedding, and hated each other on sight. The Prince was drunk during the wedding, and had to be supported by the Duke of Bedford. The bride nearly fell down under the weight of her wedding dress. Despite these ill omens, the marriage produced a daughter, the succession was secured, and Princess Caroline was given her marching orders in the shape of a formal letter of separation. The Prince of Wales resumed his life with Mrs Fitzherbert.
So far, things have been simple if unpleasant, but at this point it starts to get complicated. In 1817, the successor, Princess Charlotte, died giving birth to a still-born child, and the whole business was back in the melting pot.
The Prince Regent was in a mess. He was married to Mrs Fitzherbert, but she was a Roman Catholic, and if this was discovered he would forfeit his title and be convicted of bigamy to boot. He could shelter behind the Royal Marriage Act but his second regal wife was completely estranged from him. One recourse Was to divorce Caroline and find a third wife. This could only be done on grounds of adultery, which was quite drastic, since the adultery of the wife of the heir to the throne is High Treason, and if convicted, Princess Caroline would have to be beheaded.
(Incidentally, this piece of barbarism is still law, so Lady Di had better keep her vows if she wants to keep her head.)
There were plenty of children floating around from his various brothers, but they were all illegitimate - due once again to the aforesaid Royal Marriages Act - and none of them would do. The Prince started proceedings to divorce his wife, which turned up a good deal of extremely unsavoury evidence as to her activities with her brother Bergami, but she died before she could be tried. The Royal Brothers also took matters in hand. They left their long-standing mistresses in the lurch and hurried off to find eligible princesses.
The situation was pretty desperate. The unemployed regularly took pot shots at the Prince Regent with live ammunition, and if one of them were to aim straight, the first 17 candidates for the throne had no children who could legally inherit. And the first 14 candidates were all themselves over 40. Unless one of them could get legally married and produce a legal heir, then it was a fair bet that the crown would pass from ageing hand to ageing hand quicker than the ball at Cardiff Arms Park. This, it was felt, would be bad publicity for an already detested monarchy and might give occasion for seditious activity tending in a distinctly Jacobin direction.
There was an additional incentive: legal marriage and legal heirs were the only things that would persuade Parliament to raise the salaries of these extravagant drones and pay off their vast debts.
Fortunately for all concerned, the numerous royal houses of Germany had numerous offspring whose parents were quite happy to overlook the moral and personal shortcomings of future spouses who might be expected to sit on the throne of England. Consequently a ready supply of royal brides and bridegrooms were on hand. Thus a Princess Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen had no qualms in marrying the foul-mouthed and disgustingly reactionary Duke of Clarence, despite the fact that he had only just left the actress Mrs Jordan with whom he had lived happily for 20 years. And at the same ceremony, a Princess Victoria of Saxe-Coburg took on the relatively progressive Duke of Kent, who had just left Madame de St Laurent, with whom he had lived for 27 years.
There were a flurry of other Royal Weddings, but the succession was soon secured: the Duke of Kent and Princess Victoria produced a daughter named Victoria. Thus, when George III described by Shelley as 'An old, mad, blind, despised and dying king' finally snuffed it in 1820, the Prince Regent duly became George IV. He was succeeded by his brother the Duke of Clarence as William IV, and he by Victoria.
With her, things settled down a bit. She reigned for an awfully long time and was pretty respectable. Around her, the myth of the modern monarchy was built. Some idea of the breadth of her comprehension can be judged from the fact that female homosexuality has never been illegal in Britain, since she refused to believe that women did that sort of thing and consequently it was exempted from legislation.
She married yet another royal German stud, Prince Albert, and produced an enormous brood. Her successor, Edward VII, was rather less respectable, gambling prodigiously and allegedly cheating at cards, but his personal scandals were confined to illicit liaisons with actresses and married women rather than horrendous crimes like secret marriages to Catholics. His successor, George V, was again very respectable. On being told that a famous man was a homosexual, he replied, 'But I thought that chaps like that shot themselves.'
So far, the vagaries of the succession had depended on the bizarre accidents of dynastic matrimony, and with George V's marriage to Princess Mary of Teck, great-grandaughter of George III, it looked as though things were nicely sewn up among the petty German princes. Almost without exception, these people had been political reactionaries of the deepest hue, but they had never been too far out of step with the ruling classes. At this point there comes about a filthy coincidence of reactionary politics and the absurd regulations of royal marriage which once again shifted the line of succession drastically.
The successor to George V was Edward VIII. He wanted to marry a Mrs Simpson, who was a commoner, an American, and a divorcee. About the only thing going for her was that she was not a Catholic. In addition, young Edward was an enthusiastic admirer of Adolf Hitler. The British ruling class did not much mind fascism as long as it kept the workers in check, but some of them saw a war coming with Germany over the spoils of the world, and thought that they needed to watch their backs. Consequently, Edward was forced to abdicate.
He immediately shuttled off to the Bertschesgarden to have an audience with Hitler, who went on record as considering him 'an ideal fascist monarch'. He continued his contacts with the Nazis during the war. In 1940 the Spanish foreign minister, one of the intermediaries, reported: 'The Duke is a firm supporter of a peaceful arrangement with Germany. The Duke definitely believes that continued severe bombing would make England ready for peace.' A later dispatch said: 'The Duke was considering making a public statement... disavowing present English policy and breaking with his brother (ie the King).' Even when shipped off to the West Indies, he continued in contact with Nazi agents, and after the war settled down next door to Oswald Mosley outside Paris.
His brother and successor, George VI, broke with tradition by marrying a commoner, Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, the current Queen Mother and an enthusiastic supporter of Ian Smith. Their eldest daughter is now Queen, married to a Greek of German royal origin, and mother of the splendidly undistinguished Charles. It is on that illustrious history that his claim to our attention and respect rests.
Nothing sums up the tacky nature of the British royal house so much as its name. We have traced a welter of Guelphs, Saxe-Coburgs, Saxe-Meiningens, and god knows what else, none of which seem to bear much relation to homely old Windsor. The fact is that it was changed to Windsor for 'patriotic' reasons during the wave of anti-German feeling at the start of the First World War. They are a family whose record proves time and time again that they will do literally anything to hang on to their wealth and power.
None of this would count for much, or even be worth the telling, if it were not for the ideological importance of the House of Windsor. They are projected as a central image of our society. They buttress the idea of the family. They prove that some are born to rule and others to be ruled. They embody the notion that merit is of no importance and inheritance is everything. They are the focus of every attempt to paper over the stinking decaying reality of British society with pretty pictures of an ideal dream of the past. Like the reality they conceal, they are a festering sore, and the great lie that they are fitted by breeding to reign over us is the apex of a system of lies which drowns the truth every day.



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