April 09, 2010

Bulstrode Whitelock's tragedy


Recently in my meanderings at the British Library, I've been reading Bulstrode Whitelocke's Memorials of English Affairs. For those who don't know the text, Whitelocke was a senior lawyer and politician during the interregnum, a conservative he was close enough to Cromwell to have been nominated as Ambassador to Sweden and to serve in several of the Republican Parliaments. His Memorials, the edition of which most people use was published in 1853 in Oxford, is a basic list of what happened during the civil war: I'm using it for the occasional comment that Whitelocke gives on his own views about events. One particular comment that I came across fascinated me and is not part of my main work, so I thought I'd discuss it here. It is Whitelocke's comment on the death of his wife in 1649: he says

This was the saddest day of all the days of my life hitherto; my brother William Willoughby brought me the direful news that my wife was dead. When we first met it was upon terms of affection only, without consideration of portion or estate or settlement or those common provisions or discreet care of friends; she was of a very honourable and ancient family; her father the lord Willoughby of Parham, whose ancestors were barons near four hundred years together, and matched into great and noble families, her mother was daughter to the Earl of Rutland lineally descended from a sister of King Edward IV and so from King Edward III and that great name and line of Plantagenet. (Whitelocke Memorials Vol III p. 35)


Why is this interesting? Take a look at the first part where Whitelocke comments on the affection between him and his wife and then consider whether love really was invented in the twentieth or nineteenth century. Whitelocke's comments are plainly about his own feelings- the give away is that he mentions a 'portion', normally a portion was what a woman brought into her marriage and he says that he didn't care for that when he chose his wife. Furthermore Whitelocke explicitly ties the success of his marriage to the fact that he and his wife chose to marry, no friends arranged it and there were no provisions for failure. They married because they were in love, no more, no less.

Secondly take the next paragraph. The first thing that strikes me about it is how much it reminds me that the world of the seventeenth century was closer to the fifteenth than to today's world. Charles I was closer to Edward V than to Elizabeth II. The second thing though is Whitelocke's stress on the heritage and inheritance as key concepts: he believed that his wife's lineage mattered. This matters because Whitelocke was a conservative figure in a very radical Parliamentarian faction, he was left of centre in the politics of his day and possibly one of the most radical establishment figures around in the English Revolution and yet he believed that lineage mattered. Partly this is a matter of character: Whitelocke never knowingly underplayed his own importance, but partly this reflects that the culture of the time was much more interested in hierarchy and lineage than is our own culture. His conservatism on this point, and many others, suggests how different the world he lived in was from our world- but it also suggests something about that world.

One of the questions I always get asked when I say that I study the seventeenth century is why the revolution of 1649-60 failed? In part the answer is that the revolution failed because the English could not imagine a system of government that lasted a long time which was not monarchical (there are plenty of other reasons, but that is for another day and possibly a long book!): Whitelocke's description here demonstrates one aspect of that. In a culture so concerned with lineage, so concerned with the noble stock of the Plantagenets (remember Whitelocke wrote those lines in the year that the King was executed by a regime he ended up supporting), the attractions of monarchy were very very great. Whitelocke's words to me suggest two things: firstly the shock of the disruption of 1649- the break down of a system depending on lineage for its legitimacy- and secondly the difficulty of erecting any system in seventeenth century England that did not depend to some degree upon lineage for its support.

A leading Republican politician in the seventeenth century believed that the second most important thing to say about his wife was that she was descended from royalty: in that paradox I think you can see a part of the reason that Republicanism did not survive and part of the reason by the execution of Charles I was such a cataclysmic moment for his contemporaries.

2 comments:

Tode said...

Not so far from the present as you seem to think. The idea that lineage or "breeding" is a useful indicator of moral quality was alive and well in the time of Kipling (Stalky and Co). People still believe it in the context of nation and race. If we bred people the way we breed animals it would perhaps even be true, and of course doing this was a popular idea not so long ago.

dr rob said...

To state the obvious, the idea that lineage or 'breeding' is in some way important is likely to subsist so long as we have a hereditary monarchy and a partly unelected House of Lords.