Friday, November 09, 2007

some Jacobean prose from an Elizabethan hold-over

My friend Catherine says (with wit) that she wonders where Musharraf gets off pretending to be Henry VI.

As it happens I was reading last night Sir Walter Raleigh's caustic account of the wrongs done by English monarchs. Raleigh does not mention Joan of Arc (to whom Catherine alludes), but does boldly chronicle the brutality of kings and nobles. {Update/correction: Catherine says: "Actually, I was going for 'first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers,' but it seems the allegory works more levels than I'd thought."}

Here are some extracts:
Among our kings of the Norman race, we have no sooner passed over the violence of the Norman Conquest, than we encounter with a singular and most remarkable example of God's justice, upon the children of Henry the First. For that King, when both by force, craft, and cruelty, he had dispossessed, overreached, and lastly made blind and destroyed his elder brother Robert Duke of Normandy, to make his own sons lords of this land: God cast them all, male and female, nephews and nieces (Maud excepted) into the bottom of the sea, with above a hundred and fifty others that attended them; whereof a great many were noble and of the King dearly beloved. . . .

To pass over the rest, till we come to Edward the Second; it is certain, that. after the murder of that King, the issue of blood then made, though it had some times of stay and stopping, did again break out, and that so often and in such abundance, as all our princes of the masculine race ( very few excepted) died of the same disease.

Richard the Second, who saw both his Treasurers, his Chancellor, and his Steward, with divers others of his counsellors, some of them slaughtered by the people, others in his absence executed by his enemies, yet he always took himself for over-wise to be taught by examples. The Earls of Huntingdon and Kent, Montagu and Spencer, who thought themselves as great politicians in those days as others have done in these: hoping to please the King, and to secure themselves, by the murder of Gloucester; died soon after, with many other their adherents, by the like violent hands; and far more shamefully than did that duke. And as for the King himself (who in regard of many deeds, unworthy of his greatness, cannot be excused, as the disavowing himself by breach of faith, charters, pardons, and patents) : he was in the prime of his youth deposed, and murdered by his cousin-german and vassal, Henry of Lancaster, afterwards Henry the Fourth. . . .

Now for Henry the Sixth, upon whom the great storm of his grandfather's grievous faults fell, as it formerly had done upon Richard the grandchild of Edward: although he was generally esteemed for a gentle and innocent prince, yet as he refused the daughter of Armagnac, of the House of Navarre, the greatest of the Princes of France, to whom he was affianced (by which match he might have defended his inheritance in France) and married the daughter of Anjou, (by which he lost all that he had in France) so in condescending to the unworthy death of his uncle of Gloucester, the main and strong pillar of the House of Lancaster; he drew on himself and this kingdom the greatest joint-loss and dishonor, that ever it sustained since the Norman Conquest. Of whom it may truly be said which a counsellor of his own spake of Henry the Third of France, " Qu'il estait une fort gentile Prince; mais son reigne est advenu en une fort mauvais temps:" " He was a very gentle Prince; but his reign happened in a very unfortunate season." . . .

Edward the Fourth (to omit more than many of his other cruelties) beheld and allowed the slaughter which Gloucester, Dorset, Hastings, and others, made of Edward the Prince in his own presence; of which tragical actors, there was not one that escaped the judgment of God in the same kind. And he, which (besides the execution of his brother Clarence, for none other offence than he himself had formed in his own imagination) instructed Gloucester to kill Henry the Sixth, his predecessor; taught him also by the same art to kill his own sons and successors, Edward and Richard.

Those kings which have sold the blood of others at a low rate; have but made the market for their own enemies, to buy of theirs at the same price.
At the end of the preface, Raleigh explains why he did not write a history of his own times, saying he knows he would write the truth as he saw it and that the truth would be injurious to his health. (As it happens he was beheaded only a couple of years after he wrote this, though not for its writing.)
I know that it will be said by many, that I might have been more pleasing to the reader, if I had written the story of mine own times, having been permitted to draw water as near the well-head as another. To this I answer, that whosoever in writing a modern history, shall follow truth too near the heels, it may haply strike out his teeth. There is no mistress or guide, that hath led her followers and servants into greater miseries. He that goes after her too far off, loseth her sight, and loseth himself: and he that walks after her at a middle distance: I know not whether I should call that kind of course, temper or baseness. It is true, that I never travelled after men's opinions, when I might have made the best use of them: and I have now too few days remaining, to imitate those, that either out of extreme ambition, or of extreme cowardice, or both, do yet (when death hath them on his shoulders) flatter the world, between the bed and the grave. It is enough for me (being in that state I am) to write of the eldest times: wherein also why may it not be said, that in speaking of the past, I point at the present, and tax the vices of those that are yet living, in their persons that are long since dead; and have it laid to my charge ? But this I cannot help, though innocent. And certainly, if there be any, that finding themselves spotted like the tigers of old time, shall find fault with me for painting them over anew, they shall therein accuse themselves justly, and me falsely.
My source: Prefaces and Prologues to Famous Books, vol 39 in the Harvard Classics series, which you can download from Google Book Search if you wish.

Addendum: Musharraf is not a monarch and his tyranny does not conform to the murderous pattern of eliminating real and imagined rivals that Raleigh describes. There's plenty of violence associated with his rule, but it isn't alleged that he offed opponents in rising to, or staying in power.

No comments: