Why I prefer Roundheads to Royalists

America had its revolutionary war in the 18th century – at the same time as the French Revolution. But a hundred years before, England had a war that pitched defenders of parliamentary democracy – Roundheads – against defenders of absolute monarchy – the Royalists.

The issues were not entirely dissimilar to what would be played out in the new United States in the future. If you want – the English Civil War between Roundheads and Royalists was a dress rehearsal for George Washington versus King George III.

Roundheads against Royalists – whose side to pick?

BBC Four is broadcasting a new series titled Charles I: Downfall of a King telling the gripping of how a divinely anointed king of England in the 17th century was toppled and eventually executed by beheading in front of a London crowd.

His overthrow was the result of a civil war that divided England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland into two camps: Roundheads who opposed the king and Royalists who fought for him.

Which rather begs the question – which side would any of us have been on?

Royalists or Roundheads then?

Watching the programme last night, I found my inner Roundhead stirring. Here was a pint-sized monarch painted to look like a victorious giant with a decidedly mean streak when it came to his own subjects.

In one letter read out on the programme, he cheerfully orders troops to go and shoot at those who dared to question his divine right to rule.

And let’s be clear, since Magna Carta was signed over four hundred years earlier, kings and queens had been forced to take on board the views of the aristocracy, clergy and wealthier citizens as opposed to ruling like an all-powerful pharaoh.

That was something French kings did – exercising absolute power and accountable to nobody.

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How power mad monarchs provoked Roundheads to fight Royalists

But Charles and his father James I had sought to enforce the notion of ruling by “divine right” – that is they were not monarchs because of human decisions but because God had chosen them to rule. England’s parliament was justifiably angered by such a notion.

But so too were religious dissenters who opposed Charles trying to enforce one version of Christianity on the whole kingdom.

Scotland rose in revolt when Charles tried to impose his authorised prayer book and Anglican bishops. There was a strong suspicion among puritanical Protestants that Charles was seeking to create the kind of Catholic influenced monarchy you could see across Europe with its accompanying Inquisition and blind obedience to the pope.

Patriotic Roundheads and treacherous Royalists

This suspicion was fuelled by the fact that Charles was married to a French woman, Henrietta Maria. And she was undoubtedly of the view that her husband should clamp down on both political and religious opposition.

England had experienced a Reformation a hundred years before to throw out the pope, monks and friars – and there was no appetite to turn the clock back. Charles was swimming against the tide of progress and reform. Once defeated at the end of the civil war, he resorted to petty scheming and plotting, even with foreign powers, to get his untrammelled power back.

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Cromwell and his Roundheads vanquish the Royalists

Once Charles was deposed and then beheaded, Oliver Cromwell became Lord Protector of the Commonwealth – an early experiment in republican rule. He’s been reviled and demonised by royalists ever since. In fact, Cromwell’s reputation is far worse now than it was under the Victorians a hundred years ago – who regarded him as a champion of parliamentary democracy and the rule of law.

But Cromwell was everything that Charles wasn’t. A solid Englishman from the shires who inspired others by his leadership and rejected royal pomp and extravagance. When he was painted, the Lord Protector ordered that the painter depict him “warts and all”. Unlike Charles who was made to look gigantic and his wife Henrietta Maria whose teeth were apparently like “bullwarks” but appears to us as a rare beauty.

I’d be interested to know whether you see yourself as a Roundhead or a Cavalier…

The filth and stench at Versailles

The opulence and splendour of the Palace of Versailles isn’t a place you’d immediately associate with rank filth. But the three hundred year old royal residence was smelly beyond belief at its height.

Built by the so-called “Sun King”, Louis XIV, it was intended to bring the whole aristocracy of France together in one place – where the king could keep a close eye on them. But with all their servants and retinue – plus no toilets – it was soon coated in filth.

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Nobles waiting to see the absolute monarch were forced to relieve themselves behind the curtains, in the corridors or along the staircase. Meanwhile, servants carried buckets round allowing dukes and duchesses to take a pee and continue to wait.

One visitor said they felt like retching as they approached the palace. “The squalor inside was unspeakable”. The pervading odour even permeated wigs, cloaks and undergarments.

The reason for all this filth at Versailles was that as a working palace in a very centralised kingdom – with power concentrated around the king – the palace was a magnet for politicians, petitioners and ordinary people.

They flocked to Versailles to raise their concerns and questions with the king. And they came from all classes. The palace was surprisingly open by our standards so serfs, workers, merchants, soldiers and nobles rubbed shoulders – and spread their filth.

They queued for hours on end to see King Louis and were terrified of losing their place. So when nature called, the visitor to Versailles held their place in the queue by dropping their load there and then!

You may have seen the BBC drama series Versailles about the scandal and decadence revolving around King Louis XIV and his court in the late 17th century.

He built a vast palace at Versailles into which the French aristocracy were forced to take up residence so the king could keep a beady eye on them.

On a UKTV programme Private Lives of the Monarchs I detail what a stinking hellhole Versailles was. People and their pets relieving themselves while they waited to see the king – behind curtains and in piss pots.

Georgian London

A horrific day trip to Georgian London!

Imagine you have decided to take a day trip to London two hundred years ago. What do do? Well, let me be your guide as we take a horrific day trip to Georgian London!

If you enjoyed the BBC series Taboo – you’re probably wondering what London was really like at that time. Could it really have been so bleak and awful. Well, in large part it certainly was.

That violent drama is set in 1814, the late Georgian period, and as luck would have it, I own several guides to London from the first two decades of the nineteenth century. One from 1804 is especially descriptive and I’ll quote liberally below.

These books were intended to guide a visitor around the city taking in places of interest, like a prison for example or a mental asylum. Yep, you really could pay to go and gawp at criminals and the insane. So – here’s a selection of oddities from the period of Taboo.

YOUR DAY TRIP TO GEORGIAN LONDON STARTS HERE!

Visiting a prison: You’ve arrived in London and wondering what to go and see. How about a prison? You could pop along to Newgate prison – where the Old Bailey now stands – and pay the “turnkey” two or three shillings to go in and stare at the unfortunates behind bars. One guide I have to London laments the overcrowded part of the prison for debtors, who were treated worse than thieves and other felons. Those who were condemned to death were normally held in irons, which must have been a thrilling sight for the Georgian tourist!

Then watch a public execution: My 1804 guide bemoans the attitude of Londoners to the growing number of executions. They’d become quite indifferent to them! “Among the many nuisances which disgrace the metropolis, there is not perhaps one which excites more horror than the frequency of public executions. The numbers of unhappy culprits that annually forfeit their existence by violation of the laws, afford sufficient proofs that an ignominious death is no longer our safeguard. Six, eight and ten criminals executed in the public streets, even in the heart of the metropolis, in the broad light of day, before the eyes of the multitude, scarcely excite emotion.”

You’re a victim of crime during your visit to London: There’s no police force at the time of Taboo so having been robbed, beaten up or defrauded by a fortune teller – you could take your case to one of the places where magistrates were in session every day of the week like the Mansion House, Bow Street, Hatton Garden or Guildhall. In a “summary way” they would deal with everything from murder to “disorderly houses”, “persons of ill fame found in avenues to public places with an intent to rob” and “vagabonds”.

Pop into a workhouse: In the early 1800s, Dr Hooper was the resident doctor at the St Mary-le-bone Workhouse and was happy to show any gentleman round if they were interested. There was also the St Martin’s Workshouse in Castle Street, near Leicester Square (roughly corresponding to the National Portrait Gallery). In my 1804 guide to London, it’s pointed out that one of the inmates was 104 years old! If you made a proper application to the master of the house or the churchwardens they were prepared to “readily gratify the curious”.

Strange entertainments: Like today, Londoners loved the theatre. Some of it was very bawdy while other houses put on fine operas and plays. Then there was just the plain bizarre. For example, Mr Cartwright could be found at the Lyceum putting on a display of “philosophical fireworks” while Miss Cartwright played the musical glasses. In the absence of movies, you could also go and watch The Phantasmagoria  – also at the Lyceum. Basically, images projected on to a screen from a “magic lantern”. No CGI I’m afraid.

Moral societies for bettering Londoners: If you were aghast at the depraved ways of Georgian London, you could join a society to improve things. In one guide to London I own the author recommends The Society for giving effect to His Majesty’s Proclamation against Vice and Immorality founded in 1787. There was also The Society for Promoting Religious Knowledge by distributing books among the Poor and The Society for Preventing Crimes by prosecuting Swindlers, Sharpers and Cheats, based in the Strand.

Observe the diseases killing Londoners:  In 1802, Londoners died of an interesting variety of ailments. Nearly six thousand had perished before reaching two years of age; 266 died of apoplexy; 3,503 died of “convulsions”; 559 were spirited away by measles; 1,579 succumbed to small-pox and 107 died of the condition that hit heavy drinkers of port wine – gout.

Cheer the chimney sweeps!: Children were still being sent up chimneys at this time. And there were plenty of chimneys to clean with most houses using filthy fossil fuels. There was a growing awareness that this was a terrible thing to do to young kids but nobody seemed to have come up with an alternative. Still, once a year, the chimney sweeps of London – on MayDay – dressed up in their finery (whatever that amounted to) and paraded through the streets to the cheers of London’s citizens. Only to be sent back up the chimneys the following day.

Top ten medieval TV series!

Here comes the Top Ten medieval TV series!!

We’ve been spoiled with historical TV series on Netflix, History and HBO. So, choosing the top ten medieval TV series is tough. But here goes!

THE LAST KINGDOM

A drama series set at a terrifying time in English history when the very idea of being “English” was being defined. Saxons and Vikings have divided the realm seizing territory and slaying each other viciously. This is a period of history that was largely ignored when I was a kid. We skipped from the Romans to the Tudors. But these days, the so-called Dark Ages are being mined for great drama and documentaries. A light shone on this amazing and compelling time.

VIKINGS

You can’t really go wrong with the Vikings. Blood, guts and battles. If you enjoy the History series, try watching some older movies for a different perspective. The 1958 movie The Vikings is a good Sunday afternoon watch over biscuits and coffee!

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PILLARS OF THE EARTH

Pillars of the Earth brought us a murderous romp from the civil war that engulfed England under the reign of King Stephen. It was a period called The Great Anarchy that tore families apart and reduced some aristocrats to outlaw status. This was at the beginning of the Templar era and a very violent time for England. I loved this series – absolutely faultless.

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IVANHOE

Going a big vintage here. But this late 1950s/early 1960s TV adaptation of the novel Ivanhoe by Walter Scott deserves an honourable mention. Scott revived interest in the medieval period among 19th century Victorians. However, he cast the Templars as baddies. Scott saw them as enforcers for a cruel Norman nobility in old England.

KNIGHTFALL

How Knights Templar looked forward to this series from History. The first season struggled to find its feet and Mark Hamill of Star Wars fame was introduced in season two as a hardened old Templar master. But it’s not done as well as it should have. And that surprises me because the subject matter is truly compelling. What seems to be the problem is a lack of confidence in the whole project. I’m praying for a third season but it truly needs a kick up the backside to get to where it should be.

GAME OF THRONES

It’s mythical, Tolkein with attitude and full of gory violence – but strangely, it captures the flavour of the Middle Ages quite well.  Full of court intrigue and belief in strange beings that dwell in the forests, what’s not to like as a medievalist? I’m always of the view that the Targaryen family are basically the long reigning Plantagenets of England who went a bit off the rails with Richard II. The dynasty ended with his murder and a usurper Henry taking over. Sounds familiar?

WORLD WITHOUT END

Like Pillars of the Earth, this comes from the pen of Ken Follett – only now we’ve moved about 150 years ahead. This is the reign of Edward III and again, it’s after another civil war. The last king, Edward II, has been killed….or has he?  Edward II, by the way, was the last king to preside over the Knights Templar before they were crushed.

THE WHITE QUEEN

BBC drama series takes us to the War of the Roses – the bloody end to the Middle Ages in England when the aristocracy tore itself to pieces. This focuses on the strong women who emerged in this conflict.

MERLIN

Merlin had a long grey beard when I was a kid but the BBC re-imagined him as a youth for this very dynamic and rather scary kids series.

THIBAUD

This was a 1960s French TV series about a crusader – I just like the theme tune to be honest! It’s a classic depiction of the Templars all neatly laundered white tunics and long flowing hair. Nobody seems to ever get filthy and dirty in the battle scenes.