Martyr King or tyrant?

Today we remember Charles I, executed this day in 1649.

At 2 o clock in the afternoon Charles went through the open middle window of the great Banqueting Hall on Whitehall, to stand on the scaffold that had been erected. He handed the jewel of the George and Garter to Bishop Juxon and laid his head on the block. At four minutes past 2 pm the executioner wielded the axe as the crowd watched in silence.

The decision to kill the King had not come easily or swiftly to the revolutionaries. Cromwell himself was a late convert to the cause. The purge of Parliament left only 26 MPs prepared to vote to put the King on trial, with a further 20 voting against. Many of the 135 Commissioners appointed by Parliament refused to serve. Lady Fairfax shouted down from the gallery during the trial that Cromwell was a traitor. Charles himself attended the court, set up in Westminster Hall, but rejected its jurisdiction. In an attempt to rally his supporters, he argued “ The King cannot be tried by any superior jurisdiction on earth. But it is not my cause alone., it is the freedom and liberty of the people of England”. Some agreed with him, but not enough in the corridors of power, purged of royalist support.

Cromwell found it difficult to persuade many to sign the death warrant, as he tried to involve as many of the senior politicians as possible to spread the blame and create the impression of wide support for the deed.

It was a huge event in English history. In a strange way it may even have been an important part of the reason why monarchy survived. Soon after the death stories circulated that were far more favourable to the martyr King than anything that people had thought whilst he was still alive. Eikon Basilike, the ghosted account of his meditations in his last days, was a popular work that fanned the more favourable impressions of the dead monarch. As the English Revolution went on its middle class way, based on the alliance of Parliament with the much improved English army, the navy and the City, it suppressed the more radical and democratic ideas of the Levellers and ultra puritans. Cromwell assumed more and more the powers of a King, and followed a policy of conquest in Ireland and commercial expansion and anti Dutch activity overseas.

<a href=’’ title=’Charles I’><img src=’’ alt=’Charles I’ /></a>

The final Restoration of Charles II completed what some of the MPs had set out to achieve – a more limited monarchy that usually needed to govern in consultation with Parliament. The death of the King in 1649 was a step too far not just for royalists but for many moderates. The absence of a King for 11 years made it more likely the monarchy would be restored on terms acceptable to the people with power in society, the merchants, the landowners, the City and the military establishment. Charles had pushed the nation’s patience too far and had ignored Parliament for too long in the 1630s. The revolutionaries went too far by killing the King for the good of their own radical ideas. We should mourn the savage death of the man, and be grateful for the very English compromise that emerged in 1660.

TODAY TOWER COLLIERY CLOSES ? 13 years after the Coal Board pronounced its death

When I was Secretary of State for Wales, the National Coal Board was embarked on a substantial pits closure programme. In each case they reported to the Energy Minister and Secretary of State (DTI) that the particular pit was worked out. They claimed to have surveyed it accurately, and discovered either that there was no more coal to be extracted, or that whatever coal remained could not be worked for a sensible cost.

One of the pits they decided to close was Tower Colliery in South Wales. I was suspicious of the Coal Board’s view. Experience had taught me that they were not great managers of our national resource. They had a glittering legacy of losses, subsidy demands, closures, redundancies and poor employee relations to their credit. Their safety, productivity, profitability and social records were far from perfect. I was not inclined to believe them that so many pits had suddenly become uneconomic. Looking at their accounts, the high overheads they imposed on their mines was a striking feature.

I was therefore delighted when I was told by my private office that miners representatives from Tower Colliery wished to come to see me to put the case for keeping open the mine. I was even more delighted to learn that they believed their case so strongly that they were prepared to take the pit over and mine it themselves, if the Coal Board would give them the chance. The bad news was the Coal Board refused consent, and the Energy Ministry backed the Coal Board’s judgement.

When the miners arrived in my office, I think they were surprised by my enthusiasm for their cause, and by my explanation that their task was not to persuade me, but to work with me on our joint case to the Energy department and Coal Board to give them the opportunity to run the mine. As it meant being allowed to prove the Coal Board wrong it was not going to be easy, but I felt that between us we could do it.

So was forged a partnership in British politics that none had predicted. I joined forces with Tyrone O ‘Sullivan, the charismatic Lodge Secretary and leader of the buy out team to persuade Coal Board and government the should give the miners a chance. I was the only person who saw nothing strange in the alliance. I had always believed in workers participation and employee ownership. Here was a chance to show its magic in an industry that had been gravely damaged by the them and us mentality of the large corporation.

After correspondence and conversations tackling the obduracy of the Coal Board position as retailed by the government, our view finally prevailed. What harm could there be, I argued, in letting the men have a try. If they were right the community would be saved and jobs would remain. If the Coal Board were right and the coal was not plentiful a valiant attempt would have to be abandoned. Nothing was lost – other than some Coal Board pride – by letting them have a go. I was always supremely confident that they would succeed, because they had impressed me by their enthusiasm for the cause and I was sure the cost structure of the Coal Board was wrong for their pit.

It was joyous day when I learned our view had won. The announcement was made to the Conservative Conference in the autumn, and the miners became the preferred bidders to buy the pit. Much of the consideration was to be deferred, to be payable if they were right and the pit had a future, which seemed fair. The leading miners still had to put up £8000 each for the down payment, which was a substantial sum for them. Their wish to do so was further proof of their belief. I accepted that only because I share the miners’ confidence. By the end of December 1994 the deal was done.

I was delighted for them when they took possession of their mine, improved conditions and wages, and set about demonstrating that there were 13 years of profitable workings left. Today I will be sad that this great enterprise has come to an end, but pleased that they made some better paid jobs and shared in some profits over the later years of that mine.

I like to think it will be a model for the future. One day I hope and expect more mines will be opened again in our country, to produce the coal for clean coal technology uses. I want those mines to be ones where there is more machinery, more safety protection and a share in the profits for all who venture underground. If that turns out to be the case, I hope people will remember the pioneering work of the Tower miners. They showed grit and determination. They took a personal and financial risk. They proved the Coal Board wrong. They showed you can mine successfully, with miners playing a leading role in the management of their pit.

After the miner’s strike, I tried to persuade Margaret Thatcher to allow the sale of pits more generally with substantial free shares for miners so they became co-owners in the project. Whilst I got the support of John Moore, an early leak of the scheme unfortunately led to its demise. Had we gone ahead with co-owned pits in the eighties I think we would have had a much bigger and more successful mining industry today.

January 12th 1912 – Scott reaches the South Pole

On 17th January 1912 Captain Robert Scott of the Royal Navy reached the South Pole. On his arrival he discovered that his Norwegian rival Amundsen had made it a month earlier, claiming the title of first man to set foot on the southern most place on earth.

This event became one of the most heroic quintessentially British feats, because Scotts failure to reach the Pole first was transformed by tragedy and his diary into a gripping story. The tired, hungry and defeated British team turned from the Pole after their brief visit on 17th January to attempt the journey back.

They encountered atrocious conditions. They finally had to stay in their tents on the Ross Ice Shelf because the weather was sp bad and they were so weak. One of Scotts last deeds was to write the memorable words of his ??Message to the public??:

??I do not think human beings ever came through such a month as we have come through??.I do not regret this journey, which has shown that Englishmen can endure hardships, help one another, and meet death with as great a fortitude as ever in the past??

When Apsley Cherry-Garrard found the three frozen corpses of the Pole team in their tent on the Ross Ice Shelf in the November of 1912 he discovered the diary. Its publication gripped the imaginations of Edwardian Britain, making the brave adventurers instant heroes.

Because their suffering had been so intense and Scotts prose was so arresting in a way they became more heroic than the successful Amundsen who had proved the superior tactician in fighting the elements.

Subsequent research has suggested that Scotts team were likely to fail because they did not eat enough to sustain them in their battle with the cold and snow, a problem compounded by the inadequacy of their clothing and the difficulties of their transport.

There is something very British ?? or as Scott would have said, very English ?? about the heroic failure of this memorable expedition. The resilience in the face of adversity, the philosophical approach to danger and death, the wish to achieve the improbable if not the impossible are all part of that unconquerable spirit which has led to the triumphs of our islands story. This is one of several examples of how glorious and tragic failure are better remembered than the glittering successes ?? it ranks alongside the Charge of Light Brigade and the much larger and strategically much more important retreat from Dunkirk in the folk memory.

Charles I and the power of the Crown

On January 4th 1642 Charles I attempted to arrest five Members of Parliament in the Commons.

The day before the Kings Attorney General had accused Lord Mandeville, and the five members, of High Treason in the Lords. As a result John Pym MP, John Hampden MP, Arthur Haslerig MP, Denzil Holles MP and William Strode MP were alerted to the Kings intentions. The Kings agents made the mistake of not arresting the peer and the five members immediately they made the accusations.

A day later, on January 4th, the five MPs remained in the Commons, with people outside watching the Kings movements for them. They attended the morning session, adjourned for lunch and resumed their seats in the afternoon. At about 3 pm news came that the King himself was on his way, backed by his own armed guards.

As Charles approached from Whitehall Pym asked the Speakers permission that he and his friends could leave. They left by river barge and went to the City.

Charles himself arrived a little later in the chamber of the Commons, accompanied by his nephew, the Elector Palatine. Charles took off his hat and asked the Speaker to vacate the chair. Charles assumed the chair and asked if Mr Pym was there. Speaker Lenthall fell on his knees and said it was not his part either to see or to speak but as the House desired. ??Tis no matter?? said the King ?? I think my eyes are as good as anothers.??????All my birds have flown??. (based on C.V.Wedgwoods account)

Why did this extraordinary event happen, and why did it matter?

It happened, because in John Pym and his associates Parliament had developed a formidable opposition to the executive power of the Crown. They had planned and plotted their way to such a day. They had passed the Grand Remonstrance on 23rd November, setting out a list of errors in the Kings policy over his reign. They were hinting at impeachment of the Queen. They were determined to force the King into a clumsy move which would alienate moderate opinion and inflame the excitable London mobs against him. The attempt to start a Treason charge in the Lords against five in the Commons, and then to arrest them in the very Chamber itself, was a huge mistake by Charles, given his failure to execute the plan.

It mattered, because it was an important moment in the long seventeenth century struggle for Parliament to limit the power of the Crown and to have influence over the conduct of policy. Pym and his allies fought for Parliament to have control over raising taxes. They fought for the Protestant and puritan religions, seeking a foreign policy that was both anti Spanish,allowing themselves and the City ample opportunity to extend Englands colonies and trade overseas. They fought for the principle that Parliament should expect redress of grievances from the government before voting extra taxes. The failure to arrest and prosecute them for treason alienated the King from both the City and Parliament and prefigured his defeat inn the civil war..

Parliament grew strong by opposing Kings and establishing some democratic control over policy and taxation. Those of us who thought these arguments had been settled over the centuries have been shocked to discover Parliament giving up so many important powers it had won for democracy by previous brave actions of men like John Pym. As government cedes powers to the EU,it is time to remember John Pym and his four honourable friends, who chanced their lives for Parliament.

1st January 1801 and 1st January 1973 – the story of 2 Unions.

Today is the anniversary of two different unions that have had a profound effect on the UK and its people.

The first was the Union of Ireland with England, Scotland and Wales on 1st January 1801. It was a union that many Catholics never wanted. Its early years were made worse for the Catholic majority in Ireland by Pitts failure to deliver the promised catholic Emancipation measure through the United Kingdom Parliament. This Act of Union may have had the agreement of the Irish Parliament of the time, and did lead to 100 Irish MPs appearing at Westminster, but it also ushered in a century and two decades of unrest culminating in the creation of the Irish Free State in 1921. It showed that if you do not base Unions and governing arrangements on overwhelming support, and the consent of the governed, the system will be unstable. The support of many Protestants was not enough: there needed to be common agreement to a system of government seen to be fair by both sides of the religious divide.

The second was the entry of the United Kingdom into the European Economic Community on January 1st 1973. This ushered in years of argument of a non violent kind over how the UK should be governed and who should have the right to make decisions. The government of the day did not gather the whole hearted support of the people for the original entry. A subsequent government did allow a referendum in 1975 in order to conceal its own major split on the issue, but in the debate over the referendum the ??Yes?? to Europe side concentrated on extolling the virtues of freer trade and more jobs, playing down any suggestion that significant power would be taken away from the British people to govern themselves. Unsurprisingly the ??Yes?? side won easily, defending the status quo by inviting people to vote ??Yes?? to staying in the EEC and ??Yes?? to more jobs. There was little debate about the meaning and significance of the Treaty phrase, seeking ??ever closer union??.

The fact that this consent is now 32 years old means that many of todays voters have had no chance to express their views on how much power they want the EU to enjoy. The fact that the consent at the time was regarded by most who voted ??Yes?? as consent to freer trade and more jobs, not to ever more power of self government being removed, has left many of those who did vote ??Yes?? feeling uneasy. Above all ,the transformation of something called the ??Common Market?? in the referendum debates of 1975 into a fully fledged EU with powers over most parts of government activity should in itself trigger the need as well as the demand for a new referendum.

The 1st January is an important reminder to governments who care about public opinion that enforced Unions can go horribly wrong. It is also a reminder that the European Union has not been established in the UK with the full hearted consent of the current electorate. The overwhelming majority think there should be a vote on the latest proposed transfer of power, and believe that too much power has already been transferred. It is high time the government made the case and trusted the judgement of the people.


??1066 and all that?? told us there were only two memorable dates in English history, 55 BC (Caesars invasion) and 1066 (The Norman Conquest).

By the same standard there is only one memorable day and month date in English history ?? the 5th November (Gunpowder Plot).

The present government has had a very poor understanding of history. It seems to divide it into the veiled years ?? anything before 1979; the Thatcher years ?? have a free hiss before passing go; the Major years ?? blame it for anything you do not like about today ; and the New Labour years of glory and enlightenment. There are some signs of revisionism creeping in, as friends of Gordon seek to divide the New Labour years into the years of mistaken ideology, the Blair phase, and the sunny uplands of the Gordon regime.

Anyone seeking to understand the present, and to have some sensible view of what the future might hold, needs to understand the past in all its complexity. The past may be another country, but it was peopled by our predecessors who contributed to the folk tradition, or by ourselves even if we were behaving and thinking somewhat differently from today. A society is influenced and constrained by its past, and only wants to change so much at a certain pace.

I thought it would be a good idea to draw attention to some of the events of British history that have had an impact on our island story, as their anniversaries come up during the course of 2008. By seeking birthdays for events I will be forced to mention more battles and treaties than processes or actions that took place over many days. There is a commemoration day for Trafalgar but not for the Industrial Revolution, but each anniversary will allow comment on the wider issues that lay behind the memorable event.

I will also seek to show why these events still have some relevance today, or how they reflect something in the British character and approach to government and to our place in the world that still holds true. I will use the modern or Gregorian Calendar even where contemporaries were using the Julian which would bring the date forward. If you wish to improve on the policies and approach of a government that seems to have little understanding of history, you need to demonstrate how sensitivity to the past can avoid present and future pain. If only this government had, for example, understood the strong objections to Cromwell’s Major Generals, maybe they would have taken a different view on much hated regional government today.

Murder in the Cathedral – an old struggle to govern these islands

As dusk fell on 29th December 1170 the four knights came into Canterbury Cathedral from the cloister. The monks had barred the doors against them,but Becket had them unlocked, with the words ??I will not have the Church made a castle??. The Knights accused him of treachery to the King. Becket responded ?? I am no traitor, but the Archbishop and Priest of God??. His words were provocative to ears wanting reassurance that he accepted the King’s authority.

The knights were convinced of Beckets guilt and proceeded to attack him. His last words were ?? For the name of Jesus and the defence of the Church, I am willing to die??, as he was hacked down in the north west transept of the great church. He had picked a fight with the power of the Crown which he largely lost when alive, but extracted some concessions from the monarch when dead. He gave to Canterbury a Saint and a story which led to large numbers of pilgrims and the business they brought in for 368 years.

This dark event on a dark day late in the year 1170 has left its scars. Its shadow has a long cast. To this day there is a huge empty space behind the high altar of Canterbury, the Trinity Chapel and its marble pavement, where Becket shrine shone adorned by gold and jewels until Henry VIII had it removed and plundered in 1538. Even today Becket is clearly too contentious a figure to justify some reconstruction or commemoration of the tomb in the prominent position where it lay for so long.

Henry VIII, like Henry II before him, saw Beckets allegiance to God, to the Pope and to the Catholic Church as treachery to the King who had sponsored him and nominated him for the archbishopric. He wanted all record of Beckets allegiance to a higher or non English power expunged, as well as welcoming the redistribution of wealth which the plundering of the monasteries and the shrine permitted.

When Henry VIII completed his reformation of Church-state relations, he ensured that no Archbishop of Canterbury could appeal again to the Pope and his secular allies on the continent in the way Becket had appealed between 1162 and his death in 1170. The struggle between Church and State was also a struggle between English and continental power, with Becket appealing to foreign Kings as well as to the Roman curia.

When I first had the story told to me on a dark winter evening in the cloisters of the Cathedral the conflict seemed to be one of the past. I was born into what appeared to be a settled country where power came from an elected Parliament, which could decide the laws and run the administration without foreign interference. Whilst I hated the butchery and barbarity of the knights, I had some sympathy with the Kings wish to be master in his own kingdom. The murder of Becket meant the most powerful monarch London had seen had to put on sackcloth and wend his way in sorrow as a penitent in Canterbury. The man who was King of England, Duke of Normandy, Duke of Aquitaine, Count of Anjou and Maine, and lord of much of Ireland was damaged by the violent acts of his supporters. It deflected him for a bit from getting more control over clerical matters, but did not stop the wish in England to establish authority here at home. It is only in more recent years the secular authority has been casual with our right to self government through its signature of several centralising EU treaties.