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King or country?

Monarchy or republic: the living debate sets the scene for A-level students thinking about how historians' interpretations reflect or challenge the mood of their times, says Lesley Le Claire

Once upon a time it was simple to teach the Civil War. W C Sellar and R J Yeatman, the authors of that much-loved skit on English history, 1066 and All That, wrote of "the utterly memorable Struggle between the Cavaliers (Wrong but Wromantic) and the Roundheads (Right but Repulsive)". Although it is 70 years since their book appeared, during which time there have been innumerable changes in the approach to the teaching of history, their comic definitions still raise rueful chuckles.

Sellar and Yeatman were schoolteachers. They understood the distortions and simplifications of history - often all that pupils retain. This is particularly true of the Tudors and the Stuarts. Even in their day the age of the great narrative historians such as Samuel Rawson Gardiner, Charles Firth and George Macaulay Trevelyan was passing. Comfortable Whig certainties were increasingly questioned by new theories of historical causation. Inevitably this was reflected in the teaching in schools. For some time now, sixth-formers have been expected to cope with questions such as the rise of the gentry and the relationship between Puritanism and capitalism.

Nevertheless, it seems still to be true that, instinctively, we are all Cavaliers or Roundheads, royalists or republicans. On the one side, art historians see Charles I as the great connoisseur, the patron of the arts, the martyr. On the other side, political historians view him as the man whose incredibly expensive tastes emptied the royal coffers and whose religious stubbornness imposed the Laudian Prayer Book on Scotland, lighting the touchpaper that finally plunged the whole country into the conflagration of the Civil War.

This tendency to polarise is one of the things which makes the English Revolution so difficult to teach and may be why it has declined in popularity. Yet there is much to fire the imagination of the young and we are seriously failing them if they are not given an understanding of how the events of the 1640s bear down on today.

There are many parallels. The present debate about the future of the monarchy and the role of the House of Lords, for example, first took place in 1647 in a church in Putney. It was an unlikely venue for discussions between different factions of Cromwell's New Model Army. At the end of the first stage of the civil war, as the formula for peace grew increasingly elusive, the grievances of the soldiers - financial, religious and political - rose to the surface and bubbled over. Their arguments were recorded, though not discovered until the end of the 19th century.

The so-called Putney Debates have become a set text in university examinations; dramatised versions have been acted by students and by professional actors on radio and television.

Yet even here, the Royalists have the edge. Dramatic though the Putney Debates are, they cannot compete with the sensation created by the trial and execution of Charles I when, the flaws in his character forgotten, he donned the mantle of a Shakespearian tragic hero and a groan rippled through the watching crowd. Perhaps the closest modern parallel was society's reaction to the violent death of Diana, Princess of Wales. "Brightness falls from the air" as the poet Thomas Nashe wrote.

The power of the press is well-recognised today but it was in the mid-17th century that it first came into its own. The astonishing outburst of radical pamphleteering by quasi-socialist Levellers such as John Lilburne fuelled the arguments at Putney. Some of the pamphlets were quite as scurrilous as the gutter press today, but their more serious arguments are echoed by modern republican journalists such as the Guardian's Jonathan Freedland, who would prefer to celebrate the lives of these earlier defenders of our liberties rather than hereditary monarchs.

Recently, however, Jonathan Freedland conceded that in this year of the Queen Mother's funeral the royalists are on a winning streak. So the historian Simon Schama, BBC's Burkean commentator at the funeral, could argue persuasively that only monarchy can provide this kind of "tribal totemic spectacle" for which there is a deep-felt need.

Spectacle is the key word. Sixth-form students can be asked why they think the apparently rational republican position so far has not prevailed against the supporters of hereditary monarchy. Are our fantasies of a glittering fairy story stronger than we realise? Royal image-makers, from the sumptuous portraits of Van Dyck to the air-brushed photographs of Cecil Beaton, have bolstered these fantasies. The Stuarts from Mary Queen of Scots to Bonnie Prince Charlie have been particularly well served. Students of history do well to note the huge popularity of the Eikon Basilike, the work published in 1649 soon after Charles I's execution, which purported to be the autobiography of the "sacred" king, whose death was a martyrdom. Eikon basilike, literally translated, means "the image of the king".

Lesley Le Claire was formerly librarian at Worcester College, Oxford and has a specialist interest in the Putney Debates

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