David Starkey: Image Of Monarchy In His TV Series Ignores Critics
Hywel Williams, The Guardian (London), 03 Nov. 2004
The history of England is, alas, also the story of her monarchy. Out of this equation have grown some of the most powerful English myths - those of national Blitz-like solidarity, of smoothly purposeful institutional evolution, and cheerfully harmonious relationships between the classes. This being so, monarchy is a good subject for a historian who asks the central question: how did Alfred's successors manage to get away with it and still be here?
The survival has involved adroit literary propaganda and use of the visuals. England's only clever queen taught her court and people to see her as a return of the Virgin. Elizabeth I was England's new protectress and was portrayed in those precisely calculated iconic terms for a newly Protestant population starved of the Catholic imagery it had once rather liked. Even as the skin sagged, so the white facial paste was layered on as she was wheeled before her audience. And it is to this terrain of royal power that David Starkey now returns with his 20-part television series, Monarchy.
His mission statement is that monarchy in England was always consensual. Forget rebellious barons and despotic kings. English rulers knew that they relied upon their subjects - and especially on those warrior-chieftains known to posterity as the aristocracy - in order to exercise their power. The fully evolved medieval parliament gave the nobility their formal constitutional role -but centuries before, in Anglo-Saxon England, this was already an informal governmental truth.
With 17 parts to go, the argument's evolution is already evident. We have returned to the land of the Whig interpretation of history, where England is seen as the subject of a kindly providential dispensation - peaceful and, either implicitly or explicitly, parliamentary. Basic to this success story is the survival of monarchy. If we recognise our luck then there will always be that kind of England. Elizabeth II, her heirs and successors, will continue to prevent the shedding of doctrinal blood on the streets.
While still an academic historian of Tudor court politics, Dr Starkey was finely iconoclastic about this stuff. He started as a pupil of the late Sir Geoffrey Elton, who had an immigrant's indulgence towards the land that made him. That great historian escaped from Prague to England in the 1930s, and his work was one long paean of praise to a country which saw property rather than the holding of correct ideology as the basis of liberty. But as Starkey established a necessary distance from his mentor, he concluded that Elton romanticised English continuity and served up Whiggery reheated.
History is always a raid by the present on the past - and so bears the personal imprint of that foray. Anglo-Saxon history lost its greatest scholar recently with the death of Patrick Wormald whose sublime scholarship showed that the common law of England was not the invention of Henry II's 12th-century reign but evolved in the reign of Alfred the Great in the ninth century.
In a way this was a highly intellectual version of late 20th-century Euroscepticism because it was so concerned with the tenacious roots of England. But Wormald's The Making of English Law (1999) also involved sustained analysis of how and why Alfred had to interpret his rule in providential terms - building on Bede's idea of the English as a chosen people. In that exercise Alfred could rely on Asser, the Welsh monk who came to court for a job and wrote the ruler's life in order to explain to his fellow Welsh why it was right to pay homage to the king of Wessex. Asser, the first great English biographer, is also the first important Welsh creep.
The real historian of England's exceptional royalism should truffle away in such facts of propaganda cunning and colonial power. For the royal survival is not the result of some national genetic necessity but a story of chance and luck (for them) - and any interpretation should expose its credentials.
If historical argument always reflects the present it is important to know which version of the present is being adopted. This series exists because there is an audience for it in a country still unhealthily obsessed by the Windsors - as there is also a reliable market in histories which show England's exceptional, and un-European, nature. Such partial truths of present power politics are then reified and presented as a"natural" national condition.
But what of the series that shows England as a land of blood and of conquest - the country which is only exceptional in its propagandists' ability to sanitise those facts. Or of the country that went to war over highly doctrinal issues of democracy and theology in the 1640s? What of the history of English heretics from Milton to Blake who thought monarchy stank and bishops polluted the air. And what of the history of English violence against Welsh and Scots and Irish in the name of a new Britain? All these are relevant histories too - but not ones I suspect that Starkey, the upwardly mobile Whig, will delight us with as he travels towards the knighthood which, I fear, is now all but inevitable.
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