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Wednesday
Jun152011

How to Govern England in the 1700s

It's worth remembering that the time set of Defoe's ROXANA is one of great political (and by default, given the historical moment, religious) upheaval in England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, and even on the Continent.

Back behind the novel, several decades before it opens, we must note the beheading of Charles I by Oliver Cromwell and the Protestant Puritans in 1649, less than a generation after Shakespeare. The monarch's dandified son fled to the Continent to live in exile. But not to France where he had hoped to set himself up as a favorite of the court, landing in Normandy in the guise of a peasant to try to make his way to Paris, encumbered nonetheless by cases and cases of clothes. The wily French court instead aligned itself with Cromwell for sheer political spite at their mortal, British foes; the Dutch likewise aligned themselves with Cromwell, this time for more Protestant reasons. So the young Prince Charles had to settle in far less urbane Spain on a decidedly non-royal income, provided secretly by the Scots. (Scotland was Presbyterian, not Puritan, and if there's one thing a Protestant hates more than Rome, it's a Protestant of another stripe.) Meanwhile, Cromwell established the Commonwealth (that is, the Republic) and ruled England, Scotland, and Ireland with a bristling iron fist, ruthless in his authority and finally meeting his own headless fate in 1658.

In 1660, that bonny but impoverished prince was brought back to England and recrowned Charles II. The two-year gap had been filled by Cromwell's son Richard, a particularly inept man who made hash of everything, eventually losing standing with just about every politician and titled aristocrat in the land. In fact, there was no abiding love for Prince Charles over in Spain, but there was even less for more-Puritan-than-this-father Richard Cromwell. Thus, Parliament chose the better part of valor--that is, the wigged gadabout.

Charles II made up for his lost time in continental poverty with incessant whoring, lavish parties, and ridiculously flamboyant clothes. In his day, he was thought extremely ineffectual, both because he seemed to pick random fights with Parliament and because he filled the court with dandies and other layabouts. To compound the problem, the queen was unable to produce an heir. Charles II sought to alleviate his barren plight with at least seven mistresses, by whom he fathered dozens of children, many given landed titles as recompense. The Dukes of Monmouth, Cleveland, Buccleuch, Grafton, Richmond, and St Albans were all created to give his various sons legitimacy.

Most historians now view Charles II as a rather loveable rogue. Theaters were reopened in his day--"restoration comedies" with sexually explicit themes became all the rage. Public drunkenness was rampant. Illegitimate births rose exponentially. To say the least, morality was loose. His foes blamed the king. John Wilmot, the second Earl of Rochester, wrote: "Restless he rolls from whore to whore, a merry monarch, scandalous and poor." That soon become his unofficial title: "the merry monarch." Charles II was no model for much of anything except the high life.

However, all was not gaiety. The plague ravaged London in 1665, offing over 100,000 people, about twenty percent of the population of London and surrounding areas. Then in 1666, the Great Fire hit the city, destroying over 13,000 houses, over 80 churches, and even St. Paul's.

And then more trouble. In 1685, Charles II died without an heir. (His last words are classic dandy: "Sorry, gentlemen, that this is taking so long.") The crown then passed to his (horrors!) Catholic brother, James II, the last Catholic to hold the British throne--who was himself forced off it within three years in what's been termed the "Glorious Revolution" and in favor of married first cousins, a rather obscure William of Orange and James II's über-Protestant daughter Mary, both of whom spent their time trying to hold the peace, brutally subjugating those Presbyterian Scots, and otherwise endowing universities in the new world and remaining darlings of the London populace. As a side note, Mary died of small pox in a 1694 winter so bitter that even the Thames froze solid and her body was held in state for months before it could be put in the ground.

As if to repeat an old story, William and Mary failed to produce an heir; so the crown passed to James II's other über-Protestant daughter, Anne (on the throne from 1702 to 1714). Anne is most noteworthy for finally--and unilaterally--uniting England, Wales, and Scotland under a new political alignment called "Great Britain," no longer a disparate set of countries with a single monarch. She was the last of the Stuarts and--yes--left no heir. (These people weren't very good at the one job they needed to be good at.) The crown then passed over the water to the various Georges, few of whom had any interest in it--or Great Britain, for that matter. George I, the monarch when Defoe was writing ROXANA, spent over half his reign back over in his beloved Hanover; he never learned to speak a word of English.

Turbulent times, to say the least. But there were things to fill the gap: Parliament, particularly the House of Commons, and the rising middle class. Of which Roxana is a shining (or perhaps not) example.

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