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.

READ MORE: Ten weird facts about Hitler

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.

FIND OUT MORE: The maddest rulers in history

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…

Maddest rulers in history

Who were the maddest rulers in history? We’ve not been short of a few in my lifetime. Though some have been insane but wily while others had become incapacitated through mental illness. Colonel Gaddafi is a good example of insane but wily. While poor old Boris Yeltsin seemed increasingly unstable in his last years.

Dynastic systems breed the maddest rulers

When you have a political system where somebody inherits the top job, you’re not always assured of the best person for the role. That’s especially the case when the new king or queen is completely insane. Yet that’s exactly what has happened many times in history when the mad have taken over.

Charles VI of France (1368 to 1422) believed he was made of glass and wore protective clothes to prevent his body being shattered. Think what happens to the Night King in Game of Thrones and you get the idea. In one incident while out hunting, Charles was convinced he was under attack and killed four of his own retainers before being restrained.

The reign of Charles VI was very long because he took power when he was very young. And there seems to be a connection between assuming the throne in infancy and coming under tremendous mental strain. Think about it. You have had no preparation for absolute power and when things go wrong, it comes as an overwhelming shock.

Maddest rulers: Henry VI and his fits of deep depression

So, child monarchs don’t tend to have happy reigns. Henry III, Richard II and Henry VI in England are good examples of this. Henry VI suffered what looks like fits of depression that made him completely unable to rule for periods of time. Stress seems to have rendered him like a rabbit in headlights – he froze while his advisers around him panicked.

FIND OUT MORE: Was Queen Victoria a drug addict?

Juana La Loca (literally Joanna the Mad) was Queen of Castille, part of modern Spain, in the early 16th century. This was when Spanish power around the world was reaching its height with colonies in the Americas, across Europe and Asia. But Juana was way too mad to be allowed to rule any of that so she was “secluded” (locked away) in a castle.

Maddest rulers from the bible and ancient Rome

The biblical monarch of Babylon Nebuchadnezzar exhibited symptoms of a disorder known as boanthropy where an individual believes they might be a cow! Now it’s hard to know if this was propaganda used against him or the truth. But the condition certainly exists.

The Roman Empire threw up an extraordinary number of mentally unstable emperors almost from the start. The second emperor, Tiberius, retreated to the island of Capri where he reportedly tortured people in some pretty horribly ways.

He was then succeeded by Caligula whose madness is disputed by some historians but accepted by most. One of his oddest acts was to announce the appointment of a new consul, which turned out to be a horse called Incitatus.

In the 6th century CE, the Byzantine Empire was ruled by Justin II. A chronicler called John of Ephesus described how he was possessed by an evil angel that made him impersonate animals!

For suddenly it destroyed his reason, and his mind was agitated and darkened, and his body given over both to secret and open tortures and cruel agonies, so that he even uttered the cries of various animals, and barked like a dog, and bleated like a goat; and then he would mew like a cat, and then again crow like a cock: and many such things were done by him, contrary to human reason, being the workings of the prince of darkness…

Ecclesiastical History – John of Ephesus – Book 3

The only way to calm Justin down was to have organ music played all day and night, which must have driven his courtiers round the bend. He also had to be pulled through the palace in what’s described as a throne but I think a baby cart would present a truer picture.

And then no blog post on mad monarchs could leave out the maddest of them all – King George III. The king of England who lost America and his mind. Experts are still debating what the nature of his disorder was and views seem to change every year.

But the poor man was completely incapacitated for periods and would do things like greeting trees and shaking their branches as if they were human. You will all be familiar with the famous stage play and movie on this life story.

Scandal ridden Princess Margaret

Princess Margaret was the freewheeling, fun loving sister of Queen Elizabeth II who mired the Royal Family in scandal after scandal. She might have been forgotten since her death in 2002. But then along came The Crown and now she is remember once more.

Princess Margaret was Queen Elizabeth II’s younger sister and scandal plagued her entire life. Poor old Princess Margaret never seemed to find happiness despite a series of high profile romances.

DISCOVER: Maddest rulers in history

Whereas her sister the Queen has always been a paragon of virtue and self-control, Margaret was the hard drinking, chain smoking, vivacious princess. I talked about Margaret this month in the first episode of a brand new series on UKTV/Yesterday called Private Lives.

We charted her stormy life. Frustrated as a young woman because of her role as the permanent second fiddle to Elizabeth. Unable to marry the man she really wanted to be with because of Britain’s arcane view of who a Royal should choose as a spouse.

And then her revenge which seemed to involve hooking up with men who were definitely unsuitable. A way of cocking a snook at the stuffiness of the Royals. All of this accompanied by a an incessant flow of booze, cigarettes and partying in London and the Caribbean.

It all ended badly for Margaret. Broken physically and operated on for lung cancer followed by a debilitating stroke. The Princess of scandal cut a sad and diminished figure at the end. To some she was a charismatic libertine and free spirit. To others, a spoilt and insufferable brat who was selfish and self-centred.

Napoleon and Hitler – Private Lives

In 2019, I appeared in every episode of Private Lives broadcast on UKTV’s Yesterday channel in the UKTV and other channels around the world such as the Smithsonian. Historical subjects included Napoleon and Hitler.

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Presented by Tracy Borman, curator of the Royal Palaces in England. I covered the private lives of six fascinating historical characters:

  • Princess Margaret – the late sister of the present Queen Elizabeth II. Margaret never stuck to the rules and caused constant scandal during her life. She’s featured in the Netflix series The Crown
  • Edward VIII – the king of England who gave up his throne to marry an American commoner and divorcee Wallis Simpson. The British Empire was rocked by Edward’s decision but what really lay behind it?
  • Napoleon – the diminutive French emperor who conquered most of Europe but was destroyed in his attempt to take Russia. His passionate affairs, tempestuous marriage and crushing defeat by the English exposed
  • Hitler – you’d think there was nothing left to say about Hitler but we delve into his fascination for teenage girls, frustrated artistic ambitions and the corrupt ambition that brought him down
  • Al Capone – the gangster known as Scarface terrorised Chicago but also had a great many admirers. The establishment seemed powerless to act as this street punk made vast profits from racketeering but eventually they got him on tax evasion
  • Peter the Great – the mightiest tsar that ever ruled Russia. A very odd character who loved dwarves, heavy drinking and women. His parties were notorious. His cruelty, even to close family, was highly disturbing.

Happy viewing – and hope you learn more about Napoleon and Hitler!!

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Royal Weddings – tragic and comic events

Today saw the wedding of Prince Harry and Meaghan Markle and the run up wasn’t without incident and scandal. But that was nothing compared to the bizarre events that have hit royal weddings in the past.

Royal wedding ends with a dead king

Take for example, King Harthacnut. He was a Viking who ruled England between 1040 and 1042. He succeeded his equally warlike brother Harold the First, often referred to as “Harefoot”.

Harthacnut was rather upset about the way his brother had executed a rebel called Alfred Atheling and so had Harold Harefoot’s body dug up, beheaded in public and then chucked in a marsh.

Harthacnut was in his early twenties and fighting to control his kingdom in England and in Denmark from rebellious nobles and rival kings. To relax from all this, he attended the wedding of a friend Tovi the Proud in Lambeth. Unfortunately, Harthacnut drank way too much and the king of England, aged only 23 or 24, had a stroke and died.

George IV turns up drunk to his royal wedding

Fast forward eight centuries… George IV, who ruled England between 1820 and 1830, was certainly no paragon of virtue before and after becoming king. A hopeless gambler and womaniser with a gargantuan appetite. But eventually, his parents demanded that the 32-year old prince get hitched…to his first cousin Caroline. This was not as unacceptable as it is today.

George had never met Caroline and wasn’t too keen on the match. So he did what any gentleman in this predicament would do – he got completely drunk. He was so legless in fact that his friends had to prop him up throughout the ceremony.

Throughout the wedding service, George eyed up his mistress Lady Jersey and hardly paid any attention to Caroline. Then when they got to Brighton for their honeymoon, he passed out in front of the bedroom fireplace. However, when he regained consciousness in the morning, George did the decent thing and a baby was born nine months later.

Boy Jones – stealing the underwear of Queen Victoria

What would possess any sane teenager to break into Buckingham Palace and steal the underwear of the reigning monarch. Queen Victoria has to suffer the indignity of a mischievous youth referred to as Boy Jones who kept doing exactly that.

Boy Jones had boasted many times to his workmates that he was going to stage a break in at the palace. Nobody really expected him to do it until….he was caught red handed, in the queen’s private chambers with her knickers stuffed down his front.

Why he targeted that particular garment – I’ll leave to your imagination. At the time, Queen Victoria was still a young woman of child bearing age. Not the dumpy old lady we see celebrated on countless statues and images. But a vivacious character deeply in love with Prince Albert.

Boy Jones and Queen Victoria

By all accounts, Jones was a very filthy and pretty ugly specimen. He was apparently mistaken for the chimney sweep. It’s not known exactly how many times he got into the palace but it’s like to have been more than the three times he confessed to.

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Scaling the walls became a strange obsession. It was a pattern of behaviour he didn’t seem able to break. Maybe he came to believe he had some kind of special relationship with the queen having got so close. And not even a spell in prison could stop the Boy Jones from coming back for more.

There were repeated attempts by the authorities to get rid of him – normally bundling Jones on to a ship bound for somewhere far away. But he kept returning.

Eventually, he ended up in Australia working as the town crier in Perth and with a big alcohol problem. It was during a drunk episode that he fell from a bridge and was sadly killed.

Here I am on UKTV’s Private Lives of the Monarchs discussing Jones:

How Anne of Cleves kept her head!

Divorced, beheaded, died. And repeat. That’s how we were taught to remember how the six wives of Henry VIII died. Anne of Cleves was the fourth wife that Henry VIII hated from the moment he clapped eyes on her.

But….figure it out…she was divorced. So – how did she survive?

Henry divorced Catherine of Aragon and ended the power of the Pope in England in order to do so. Then he fell out with Anne Boleyn, his highly intelligent second wife incapable of giving him a son. Wife three was Jane Seymour who had a son but then died shortly after childbirth.

And along came Anne of Cleves.

Dowdy Anne of Cleves. It’s always said that Henry saw a portrait of her by the artist Holbein and decided to marry her – convinced she was stunningly gorgeous. Unfortunately, she wasn’t quite so pretty in real life. In fact, Henry described his new Germanic wife-to-be a “Flanders mare”.

They later divorced.

But Anne is more fascinating than people give her credit. She complied with the request for a divorce and bent over backwards to give the king an easy exit out of the marriage. In contrast – Thomas Cromwell, the leading adviser at court who had recommended this union, lost his head.

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And Henry seems to have been rather nice to Anne afterwards. He showered her with castles and a state pension, gave her access to his children and referred to her as his “sister”. When you consider that the next wife – Catherine Howard – would be executed, Anne must have played the situation very well.

And there is the possibility that Anne of Cleves was not as ugly as depicted by Henry’s propaganda. In fact, the real problem might have been his inability to consummate any marriage by this stage in his life.

I explain further in this episode on Henry VIII from Private Lives of the Monarchs on UKTV – Yesterday TV.

Ten places of execution in London

London has always had its interesting landmarks but none could be so ghoulish as its regular places of execution. They are not always easy to spot now but let me give you some ghoulish clues!

Up until the 19th century, there were certain places where you could be guaranteed to catch a hanging, burning or beheading – should you wish.

Unfortunately, many Londoners did wish – as it was viewed as a macabre form of entertainment. So – where would you have seen such a dreadful spectacle? Where are the places of execution in London?

  • Tyburn. If you were a commoner, then it was off to Tyburn to be hanged high in the air dancing at the end of a rope for a vast crowd. The location of the triple gallows that entertained so many Londoners was on what is now a traffic island at the intersection of Oxford Street and the Edgware Road. Oxford Street was called Tyburn Road up until the 1700s and the area was semi-rural, effectively the edge of London. This was probably the most popular place of execution in London.
  • Tower Hill. If you were an aristocrat, you could avoid the shame and humiliation of dangling at Tyburn by being beheaded on Tower Hill. Your end was swift provided the executioner was good at his job – and that wasn’t always guaranteed. But for an aristocrat, this was the place of execution for you in London – not the shame of the tree at Tyburn.
  • Lincoln’s Inn Fields. One of the lesser well known places of execution in London. Those conspiring against the life of the monarch might be dispatched at Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Such was the fate of Anthony Babington who plotted against Elizabeth I. Her day out was ruined however by his persistent screams of agony while being hanged, drawn and quartered. He made such a racket that the Queen decided just to behead everybody else involved in the conspiracy.
  • Smithfield. Now being heavily redeveloped, the meat market near Farringdon tube station once rang to the shrieks of Protestants being burned for their faith by Queen Mary Tudor aka “Bloody Mary”. The Catholic Queen was out to reverse the religious reforms of her father Henry VIII using the flames to consume those who had rejected the pope’s authority.
  • Execution Dock. Pirates breathed their last here – in a London location for execution deemed to suit their crime. They had lived by stealing on the waters – and so they would face their end by the river with the tide submerging their bodies. Captain Kidd was hanged at this location.
  • Banqueting House, Whitehall. King Charles I stepped from a first floor window and on to a wooden scaffold to lose his head. When his son Charles II became king, he hunted down those who had signed his father’s death warrant and had them executed a stone’s throw away at Charing Cross. The diarist Samuel Pepys, a bit of a royalist toady by then, wrote an inappropriately merry account of one of those hanging, drawing and quarterings.
  • Kennington. This was south London’s main place of execution. I’ve blogged before about two unfortunately gentlemen who were hanged for the crime of being gay. It surprises me that given the large LGBT population in the area, there is no monument to this injustice.
  • Stratford-le-Bow. Now I knew nothing about this London execution site until recently. But this is where Queen Mary Tudor burned another load of Protestants as part of her ongoing and ultimately unsuccessful attempts to turn Britain back to Catholicism. Thirteen men and women were burned in front of 20,000 people on 27 June 1556.
  • Shooters Hill Crossroads. Little bit further out of town towards Woolwich is where highwaymen were hanged. This was presumably to warn any wannabe Dick Turpins heading towards London that they would meet a grim fate.
  • St Thomas-a-Watering. Right next to the Thomas-a-Becket pub on the Old Kent Road, famous in the 20th century for playing host to gangsters and boxers, was the place of execution for a small group of Catholic friars in 1539. As with Marble Arch and Tyburn, you’re going to need to summon up those powers of imagination to picture the scene now.