TT: The Illusion of Inherited Power

Looking for the Wednesday Wandering?  Page back one for a wander through a land of diversity and craziness.  Then come back here and join me and Alan as we take a look at whether power can be inherited or not.

Heir Apparent

Heir Apparent?

JANE: Last time we started out discussing the naming of kings and ended up with discussing how power is inherited, even when it isn’t.  You promised to reveal how with a monarchy power only appears to be inherited.

ALAN: Indeed I did, but I think we need to sneak up on that idea when it isn’t looking, so that we can take it by surprise. Let’s begin by assuming that it’s just human nature to want to pass accomplishments on to those family members who come after you. Though, as an aside, I strongly suspect that it’s much harder to follow that path when inheritance doesn’t come as a birthright, but has to earned by merit (or at the very least by popularity) instead. Sometimes the voters can be hard to convince – witness the problems that Ted Kennedy had. But it certainly doesn’t harm your cause if you have a solid background of family achievement to build upon.

JANE:  I agree.  Now that I think about it, I suspect your parliamentary system might stop a succession of Prime Ministers. Remember, our political parties are more like clubs than real power groups.   Teddy Roosevelt got so tired of the established parties that he founded his own Bull Moose Party to back him on his final run for president.  It did not survive his charismatic leadership.

Anyhow, although our political parties can back candidates, they cannot say “This guy is going to be head of our nation.” I can see a UK party deliberately NOT wanting one family to provide several Prime Ministers. After a while, it might be too much like having another king.

ALAN: Quite right. Our Prime Minister is not elected by the people. The office is occupied by whoever leads the party that is voted into government, and I suspect that political parties are very likely to look askance at anything that smacks of nepotism.

JANE: However, at least in our system, people with connections, money, and a highly recognizable name (Adams, Roosevelt, Kennedy, Bush) – are more likely to get elected than those without.   Mind you, in at least one case, the father-son relationship became an apprenticeship for public office.  John Adams took his son, John Quincy Adams, with him on diplomatic visits and even used him as a secretary so, when John Quincy Adams was elected, he had a very good idea of what his office entailed – including that it did not automatically make you popular.  Poor John Adams was not popular in his lifetime, although his posthumous reputation is very high indeed.

Surely you have the same things happen with your own elected offices!

ALAN: Strangely, I don’t think so. I suspect most family members observe the terrible toll that the responsibilities of office take on the office holder and decide to do something else with their lives.  I can only think of two examples.

JANE: Looking at the toll, rather than the glory?  That’s positively un-American.  Oh…  Wait…  <grin>  You’d better go on with those examples.

ALAN: In my own lifetime there was Maurice Macmillan, who was the son of English Prime Minister Harold Macmillan.  (We’ve discussed Harold before on 1/11/12 – TT: Lord Byron? Baron Byron? George?).  Maurice followed his father into parliament, but he never amounted to anything. He never held cabinet office and eventually he lost an election and that was the last anyone ever heard of him.

The other, and much more famous example took place in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. William Pitt (known as Pitt the Elder) was Prime Minister from 1766 to 1768 and his son William Pitt (known as Pitt the Younger) was Prime Minister from 1783 to 1806 (though he was briefly out of office from 1801 to 1804).  These days, Pitt the Younger is chiefly remembered as the man who invented Income Tax in order to finance the war against Napoleon. This onerous tax was only supposed to last for the duration of the war. Once Napoleon was defeated, the tax would be dropped. Clearly Napoleon has not yet been defeated. Death is obviously no obstacle when you are a megalomaniac…

JANE: William Pitt? Was he the one who kept trading Prime Minister slots with Fox, or am I in the wrong time period?

ALAN: That’s him. Pitt the Younger. And both the Pitts were Prime Minister during the reign of King George III. You might have heard of him…

JANE: Ah…  The evil demon of every American history textbook, the horrible despot whose negligence led the put-upon colonists to revolution!

More seriously, though, a point that was left out of the school history books when I was a kid – wasn’t George III the one who went mad?

ALAN: That’s him. Which reminds me, have you heard of Alan Bennett? He writes plays and TV shows. Among other things, he wrote the stage play “The Madness of George III” which later became the very successful film “The Madness of King George.” Bennett wrote the screenplay for the film as well.

JANE: Yes.  I’ve heard of him and of his work…  Although, I will admit, I have seen neither the play nor the film.

ALAN: The film is superb – I’m sure you’d enjoy it. There’s a rather amusing story attached to the making of it.  Bennett records in an essay that he came under great pressure to change the title for the film. The producers were worried that if the film was just called “The Madness Of George III” American audiences would stay away in droves because, since they hadn’t seen the first two movies in the trilogy, they wouldn’t want to come and see the third one either. Somewhat bemused by this, Bennett gave in to the pressure, added the word King to the title and removed the III. I think that’s a lovely little story — I’d heard it several times and I always thought it was an urban legend until I read Bennett’s essay and realised it was true!

JANE: I really have a lot of trouble believing that, even if Bennett does say so…  If there is one British king most Americans would recognize from their schoolbooks it would be George III.  And that “III” is always part of his name, even if we know nothing at all about the earlier two Georges.  Still, adding “King” was definitely a good idea.

Maybe the film people were British…

ALAN: I have no idea. But I do enjoy the story.

Anyway – last time you suggested that only people with the proper bloodline could succeed to the monarchy. These days that’s a true statement because the monarchs are just figureheads. But in the days when the monarchy did actually hold real power, that power could be (and often was) removed at the point of a sword. And then a new family took over. Amusingly, we had eight kings called Henry who came from four different families. One of them was the son of William the Conqueror, three of them were Plantagenets, two of them were of the house of Lancaster, and two of them were Tudors. Uneasy sits the head that wears the crown… Charles I had his chopped off, poor chap.

If you wanted to be cynical, you could claim that these days power shifts are accomplished through the ballot box rather than the sword. But the effect is just the same. Though when you look at what is currently happening in Egypt, you have to wonder about the fragility of the mechanisms for the transfer of power.

JANE: Indeed…  I’ll take our system, even if we do have some problems.

Now, what you said above got me interested in all those Henrys.  If it wasn’t for Shakespeare’s plays, I wouldn’t know as much – which is really very little – as I do.  Seems like a fertile field for more discussion…

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8 Responses to “TT: The Illusion of Inherited Power”

  1. Louis Robinson Says:

    OK, to get the ball rolling: _5_ of the Henry’s were Plantagenets. V & VI were, respectively, son and grandson of IV, if they were Lancasters, so must he have been. as, in fact, he was – Henry of Bolingbroke was the son of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. however, the whole lot of them were Plantagenets, just like their Yorkist rivals.

    Ask Alan to explain how the descendants of Edward III’s 4th son could plausibly claim to be senior to those of his 3rd son in the succession – and how that claim could equally plausibly be denied. In the end, the case had to be decided in the courtroom of the Judge of Princes.

    • janelindskold Says:

      Oh, dear… That sounds scary! Alan???

      But I love the term “Judge of Princes.” That would make an excellent title. Must remember that.

    • Alan Robson Says:

      I presume you are talking here about Lionel, Duke of Clarence and John of Gaunt? I’m not sure what you are referring to when you talk about the claim that had to be settled in the courtroom, but certainly Lionel’s Yorkist descendents used their ancestry to lay claim to the throne. And the descendents of John of Gaunt (who did actually hold the throne) were Lancastrians. That particular family squabble was known as the War of the Roses…

      You are quite correct that both the Lancastrians and the Yorkists were Plantagenets, in the sense that they were all related. However I doubt that they thought of themselves in those terms (though because of the relationships it’s almost impossible to say where the Plantagenets stop and the Lancastrians begin). Certainly in my history lessons at school the Plantagenet connection was quickly dismissed.

      I was born in Yorkshire and trust me, our hatred of the Lancastrians is still very much alive and well, though these days it tends to manifest itself in cricket matches rather than in sword fights.


      -Alan

      • Louis Robinson Says:

        Oh dear, I thought Jane, at least, would pick up on that one: Tomanak, the God of War and Justice in one of David Weber’s universes, is known, among other things, as the Judge of Princes. His courtroom is the field of battle.

        At least outside Yorkshire, Richard III is widely regarded as the last Plantagenet king. It’s a bit hard to be sure how any of them regarded themselves, since it seems that family names were still primarily used for the _family_ at the time, not individual members. So while current histories and genealogies will speak of Henry or Richard or Edward Plantagenet, as I understand it their contemporaries would think of Henry of Bolingbroke, Richard of York or Edward of Woodstock. My own suspicion is that the whole House of York/House of Lancaster business was invented by the Tudors as part of the propaganda scaffold put together to shore up what was a _very_ shaky claim to the throne.

        Hmmm… sorry, I seem to have pre-empted your discussion of Henries. I should let you do it your own way 🙂

  2. Heteromeles Says:

    Just a note: In the US, Great Performances on PBS is running The Hollow Crown a TV adaptation of Shakespeare’s Richard II. For the Shakespeare-philes.

    • Louis Robinson Says:

      That’s the first of a series – An Age of Kings. A BBC adaptation, and very well done. Watching it lo! these many years ago cemented my taste for Shakespeare. [the editors limited it to the good parts 🙂 ]I wonder if they’re doing the whole thing?

  3. janelindskold Says:

    Hey, Louis… I read _The War God’s Own_ and sequels a long, long time ago. Can’t remember every fictional deity, not even always in my own works!

    • Louis Robinson Says:

      you read War Maid’s Choice long ago? some people have all the luck 🙂

      forgetting your own deities must get awkward.

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