Book review: English Rebels and Revolutionaries

For as long as England has existed, there have always been a brave and stubborn minority who have been prepared to stand up and challenge the existing order in the hope of changing people’s lives for the better. That, in essence, is what this collection of essays is all about. Where would we be now if the barons had not risen against King John, leading to Magna Carta? Or without Wat Tyler and the peasants who revolted against the tyranny of Richard II in the 14th century? Or without the Civil War which briefly unseated the English monarchy and beheaded King Charles I in 1649? In truth, some of these English rebels and revolutionaries were more effective than others. Wat Tyler’s rebellion, for example, appeared to achieve very little at all at the time, but it did at least show that the common people could stand up and rise up against the King. Indeed, it is no coincidence that Richard II was overthrown forever not long afterwards. But, we should always remember, history is not about things staying the same. It is all about change. And every one of the rebels and revolutionaries described in this book, played some part in transforming England from a medieval feudal tyranny into the democratic constitutional monarchy of today.

Book review: Radical Victorians, by James Hobson

The Victorian era is sometimes remembered as a stuffy, prudish period when radical ideas were either not proposed or not listened to. This is not entirely true. Here, author James Hobson details the lives of nineteen ground-breaking Victorians who boldly blazed a trail for various ideas and positions, which in most cases, were not widely adopted until much later, if at all.
Of the nineteen figures included not one, except perhaps Labour Party founder, James Keir Hardie is well-known today. Hobson’s interest is not in those who like Charles Darwin, saw their radical theories widely absorbed into mainstream society during their lifetimes. The book is more interested in the outliers: the often lonely figures who stuck to their guns in the face of almost universal indifference, hostility and sometimes hatred.
None of the nineteen figures lived to see their arguments become popular. Some of their outlandish notions, such as gender equality, freedom of the press and the notion of cremating the dead, have become widely accepted since. Others, such as socialism, vegetarianism and republicanism remain significant minority opinions, which are at least tolerated today. Others, such as spiritualism and eugenics have largely fallen out of favour.
Th figures included are a mixed bunch. For example, whatever good points they may have had, the vegetarian, Anna Kingsford,, socialist Henry Hyndman and scientist, Francis Galton were all undeniably very racist by modern standards. And while the author keeps an open mind, it is difficult to read the chapter about spiritualist, Florence Cook, without concluding she was some sort of fraud. Many of these figures were eccentric. Some were deeply flawed. All were very unusual.

But some undeniably great things and did much to improve the lives of large numbers of people. The 19th century temperance movement has developed a reputation for hypocrisy and cant. In the chapter on Ann Jane Carlile, Hobson reminds us that this wasn’t always the case and was, at any rate, tackling an extremely serious alcohol problem which was destroying thousands of lives. Josephine Butler, likewise, did invaluable work in combatting the sexual double standard enforced by the odious Contagious Diseases Act. Even Francis Galton, today notorious as ‘the father of eugenics’ was justly celebrated during his lifetime for his very real scientific achievements. His ultimately wrongheaded ideas about selective breeding were shared by many on both the left as well as the right at the time. They would become inextricably linked to the horrors of Nazism, but this would only happen long after Galton’s death in 1911.
In short, this book presents a fascinating portrait of a society tentatively taking the small but essential stepping stones towards the world we know today.

Book review: Radical Victorians: The Women and Men who Dared to Think Differently, by James Hobson. Published: May 30th 2022, by Pen and Sword.

Book review: The Elder Sons of George III

George III was the longest reigning king in British history. Given this fact and that he and his wife Charlotte produced no less than fifteen children, it’s difficult to see how he could have done more to ensure the survival of the monarchy and the House of Hanover. Despite this, the final years of his sixty year reign which ended with his death in 1820 were clouded not just by his own insanity but by a succession crisis. Some of it was bad luck. Some of his children and grandchildren died before reaching adulthood. But his remaining offspring, prone to adulterous liaisons, overeating and drinking, fighting duals and other bad habits, were also genuinely terrible at the primary Royal function: producing heirs and spares themselves. This is the story of his four oldest sons, all born in the 1760s and thus all in their fifties by the closing years of their father’s long reign.

The first, George, was a fat waste of space who became Prince Regent and then George IV between 1820 and 1830. His own daughter, Princess Charlotte died in 1817. Then came Frederick, the Grand Old Duke of York of nursery rhyme fame. He predeceased his older brother after a long military career blighted by scandal. ‘Old melon head’ William, Duke of Clarence was next. Never expected to be king, he was put into the navy as a child but became King William IV between 1830 and 1837. His head was indeed an odd shape. A hostile bystander once threw a rock at it but he was protected by some padding he’d added to make his hat fit on his oddly shaped cranium. Finally, Edward, also something of a disappointment. He died in 1820, shortly before his father. Yet it was he who in his final year would become father to the baby girl who would famously rule the empire for the last sixty years of the century and whose great-great-granddaughter sits on the throne today. These are just the highlights. Catherine Curzon tells the story so much better in this thorough and very readable volume.

Book review: The Elder Sons of George III: Kings, Princes, and a Grand Old Duke, by Catherine Curzon. Published by: Pen & Sword (2020)