The First Georgians: The German Kings Who Made Britain; Tigers About the House; The Birth of Empire: The East India Company

The First Georgians: The Kings Who Made Britain was a series presented by Lucy Worsley which ties into an exhibition at Buckingham Palace this year to mark the 300th anniversary of George I taking the throne. The series (and presumably exhibition?) focussed on Georges I and II who are often overlooked a bit in the rush to get to George III and the madness and loss of the American colonies. As well as the two monarchs Worsley also looked at the other important members of the family during this time – starting with the Electress Sophia of Hanover, who was the originally designated heir to Queen Anne. Sophia didn’t live long enough to take the throne, so it was her eldest son George who did. Other members of the royal family discussed were the spouses of the two Georges: Sophia and Caroline; and Frederick Prince of Wales (son of George II and father of George III).

The Hanoverians were brought in as monarchs of the United Kingdom by an Act of Parliament designed to avoid the “disaster” of a Catholic monarch. This of course was fertile ground for conflict – which boiled over in 1715 and 1745 with the Jacobite rebellions. As well as being Protestant they had another advantage – they were a family, with more than one heir already lined up! It was hope this would usher in a period of a stable Protestant monarchy. And it did, in one sense, but they were a pretty dysfunctional family. George I’s wife spent the last 30 years of her life locked up after having an affair, George I and George II did not get on, neither did George II and his son, Frederick. As well as all their disastrous fallings out the family also had some problems with being accepted by the populace of their new country – they were seen as foreigners, and George III was the first of the dynasty to be born in England! Both George I and George II were seen as more interested in Hanover than they were in the UK, Frederick was the first to truly put the UK first – mostly as it would annoy his father.

This was a time of great change in British society, and Worsley’s thesis was that some of this was due the trickle down effect of the Georges’ on the society around them. For instance in George II’s reign the concept of “the opposition” in parliament began to rise. This is because Frederick provided a secondary focus for the politicians – a place in the political system where you could disagree with the King whilst still being loyal to your country.

A good series about a couple of Kings I often overlook at bit, and it has definitely made me want to see the exhibition.

Tigers About the House was something completely different 🙂 Giles Clark is a zookeeper who is in part of the team who look after the Sumatran tigers in a zoo in Australia, and for the first couple of months of the lives of a pair of cubs he was bringing them up at home. The tigers in the zoo aren’t ever going to be reintroduced to the wild, and are handled often by the keepers (and sometimes by the public) so this was a good way to familiarise the cubs with humans while they were young. But it wasn’t in any way domesticating them – it seemed more like the keepers ended up as friends of the tigers (whilst still respecting them). As well as the strand of “ooooh, cute tiger babies” the programme also had a message about conservation. One of the reasons this Australian zoo is so keen to have their tigers handleable, including by the public, is that this encourages people to contribute to conservation funds. Sumatran tigers are being hunted to extinction by poachers in the wild, because their bodies are used in traditional medicines and as luxury goods – there are only a few hundred tigers left in the wild, and they may become extinct in the wild in the next few decades.

A very cute series, which did its job at raising awareness of the tigers plight in the wild.

The Birth of Empire: The East India Company was a two part series presented by Dan Snow looking at the history of the East India Company, and how they accidentally established the British Empire. It was full, as you might expect, of British people behaving poorly towards the Indians. But different phases of the history had different sorts of poor behaviour. Snow split it into two halves for the two episodes – in the first part of the history the Company was wholly independent from the British Government, and wholly concerned with profit. Going to India as a member of the East India Company was a good way to become spectacularly rich – providing you survived the climate and the diseases that came with the climate. It also seemed to have less formalised racism – men who went to India with the Company frequently married or otherwise had relationships with local women, and could take on some of the local customs (including but not limited to polygamy). But profit was the main focus, and this lead to the spectacularly poor management of a famine in Bangladesh (including selling food out of the region in order to make a profit rather than feeding the people) that appalled the public in Britain. The Company was brought under the oversight of Government after this, and the second phase of its history began.

This phase was to see the rise of the civil service and also increasing education of the the Indians. But it also started to move from trade with India to ruling India. In part because the Government oversight was back in London and couldn’t really do much to restrain the ambitions of the men on the ground in India. This era also saw the rise of a much more racist attitude towards the Indians, regarding them as innately inferior. And it was this attitude that lead to increasing tensions between the Indians and the Company – and this boiled over in the Indian Mutiny (otherwise known as India’s First War of Independence) in 1857. There were atrocities on both sides, and public sentiment in Britain was that the Company had been at fault in letting it happen. This was the catalyst for the British Government taking over ruling India and the end of the East India Company.

An interesting series that reminded me (again) how little I know of the history of India – I need to add a book about the subject to my (huge) list of books to read 🙂

Over the last couple of weeks we’ve also watched:

Episode 4 and 5 of Secrets of Bones – series about bones, their biology & evolution.

Episode 1 and 2 of Tropic of Cancer – repeat of a series where Simon Reeve travels round the world visiting the countries that the Tropic of Cancer runs through.

The Secret Life of the Sun – one-off programme with Kate Humble and Helen Czerski looking at the sun and the solar cycle. Lots I didn’t know or only had a vague idea about (like how long it takes for photons to get out of the sun!).

ISIS – Terror in Iraq – Panorama episode about the disintegration of Iraq and the rise of the ISIS Islamic state. Thoroughly depressing, full of atrocities committed by ISIS – the conclusion seems to be that as they want to spread throughout the world the question isn’t if the West end up in conflict with them, but rather when.

Britain Underwater – Panorama episode that aired in February about the flooding in the Somerset Levels (and other areas of the UK). Depressing, and looked at how there are no long term answers that will keep everybody from being flooded.

Fit to Rule; The Road to El Alamein: Churchill’s Desert Campaign; Why the Industrial Revolution Happened Here

The last episode of Fit to Rule backed up a bit from the end of the second episode (post) to a time when George III was still on the throne and the future of the Hanoverian dynasty looked secure. His granddaughter, Princess Charlotte (daughter of the future George IV), had married and was expecting her first child. Worsley told us that in a departure from previous royal matches Charlotte was marrying for love, she was also looking forward to a life of familial bliss. She was a tremendously popular Princess, and all seemed bright for the future. Sadly, this wasn’t the case. Worsley showed us the detailed notes taken by the celebrated male midwife who was overseeing the delivery of the royal baby. After 24 hours of labour there had not been much progress, and then there began to be signs that not all was well with the baby. Finally after 50 hours the Princess was delivered of a stillborn boy. Disaster, but not yet catastrophe – that was to come during the night after when the Princess herself went from seeming fine immediately after the birth to dead. The midwife never recovered from the guilt he felt at presiding over the deaths of 2 generations of the royal family and killed himself a few months later. The nation was in mourning for Charlotte – Worsley showed us the commemorative teapots made as morbid souvenirs. The comparisons with Princess Diana are obvious, and Worsley told us that Charlotte had even been referred to as the English Rose just as Diana later would be.

Charlotte hadn’t just been the first legitimate grandchild of George III, she was the only legitimate one. So now the race was on for an heir – all the other sons of George III married (most just had mistress at this point …) and tried to be first to produce a child. Worsley quoted us a satirical poem of the day, which I’ve unfortunately forgotten. Prince Edward & his wife Victoria won the prize with the birth of the future Queen Victoria in 1819. Edward didn’t live long after that, so Victoria was brought up by her mother & her private secretary Sir John Conroy. In some ways bits of their regime made sense – Victoria was trotted around the country & shown to the public in carefully controlled publicity events. This was to give her a base of popularity for when she took the throne, an important thing to have given the unpopularity of her uncles who reigned before her and her family in general (saving only the dead Princess Charlotte). However that was the only good bit – the rest of it, the isolation of Victoria from her father’s family & from any children and the way they tried to control her every thought & deed, was not good. They tried to ensure her future obedience for after she became Queen, but in doing so over-reached themselves and meant that she shook off their influence as soon as she could.

The unhappy childhood of Victoria shaped her personality – she was imperiously keen to get her own way and prone to temper tantrums when she didn’t. (I guess because she never wanted to be controlled again, Worsley didn’t spell it out.) She was industrious in the performance of her royal duties at first, tho after her marriage this began to take a backseat to her pursuit of a happy family life. She, like Charlotte before her, had married for love. And she & Prince Albert had a brood of children, who they brought up in a “private house” on the Isle of Wight – the dynasty was secure and the Queen was mostly popular, much better than the last few decades would’ve suggested. However their eldest son, Bertie, gave them concern – he seemed slow & lazy. Victoria & Albert turned to the pseudo-science of phrenology to try & figure out what was “wrong” with him. Phrenologists believed they could tell a person’s character & capabilities by examining the bumps on his or her skull. Worsley said that the practitioner they turned to thought that Bertie had inheritied his lack of intellectual capability from his mother … but was too polite (and sensible) to tell Victoria & Albert this.

Bertie finished his education at Cambridge University, and also indulged himself in a life of luxury there. He slept with an actress, and when his parents discovered this they were horrified – Albert went off to Cambridge to have a word. Albert & Bertie made up in the course of a long walk, but soon after Albert’s health went downhill. When he died Victoria blamed the stress of dealing with Bertie’s bad behaviour for his illness. She went into deep mourning, which she never came out of – and for several years she did pretty much none of the duties of the monarch, having her doctors write medical reports saying she wasn’t capable. This came close to finishing the monarchy, after all if the Queen could just ignore her duties & government could continue without her what use was she? Worsley said that actually if Albert had remained alive it probably wouldn’t’ve helped avoid a crisis, but in that case it would’ve been because Albert was becoming more & more powerful (he did most of the work of the monarch, not Victoria).

Victoria did show herself from time to time, but never recovered from the depression she entered after Albert’s death. Her court was small & very concerned with morals, while Bertie continued to live it up. When Bertie ascended the throne it was thought that he wouldn’t make a good king, but as Edward VII he actually did a good job in restoring the public image of the monarchy. He might not’ve had as much power as his predecessors but he could put on a show and provide pomp and ceremony. He didn’t reign for long, and was succeeded by his son George V. Who even changed his name during the First World War, as a PR exercise really – no longer the German surname of Saxe-Coburg, now he was George Windsor.

Skipping over George V as being healthy, presumably, Worsley moved on to his son Edward the future Edward VIII who abdicated. From the outside Edward looked like he was going to be a splendid King. He was sent on tours of the Empire and other places for PR purposes, and brought a fresh informal style to various events. But inside he was not having fun At All. He hated all the meet & greets, and the media interest. He hated being away from whichever married lady was his mistress of the time. Worsley read bits from his letters back to his mistress that were particularly angsty & full of baby talk, he seemed somewhat emotionally fragile. This all came to a head when he became King – he had become involved with Wallis Simpson, who was married and now divorced. Somehow he hadn’t really thought that this affair would hit the press, and when it did it caused a constitutional crisis ending in his abdication. And this is where the series finished – obviously one can’t dissect the Queen’s medical history yet, and her father is clearly also a bit too recent!

An interestingly different way to look at the various monarchs of the last 500 years, with Worsley concentrating on different people and different events to the normal story we’re told. However I was uncomfortable that the sexuality of the monarchs was part of the narrative – particularly given the subtitle was “How Royal Illness Changed History”. I think I can see why they did this, because it’s part of the lives of the monarchs that was usually kept private & out of the official history and because it could affect the succession. But it’s still wrong to lump it in with “illness”.

The Road to El Alamein: Churchill’s Desert Campaign (which was presented & written by Jonathan Dimbleby) was exactly what you’d expect: a programme about the events leading up to the pivotal Second World War battle at El Alamein in late 1942. This is the event about which Churchill said “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end, but it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” Before it the Allies had been doing badly, afterwards they went on to win.

Whilst Egypt was technically independent by the time of the Second World War, it still had a very large British colonial presence and was strategically important to the British Empire. The ports on the Mediterranean coast (like Alexandria) were important for control of the Mediterranean and the Suez Canal was vital for maintaining contact between Britain & territories such as India. The initial attacks were made by Italian troops from Libya in early 1940 – Dimbleby said this was Mussolini’s attempt to prove he was one of the big boys, to make sure he’d get a sufficiently large slice of the pie in the peace treaty. At the time it seemed that Germany was poised to conquer Britain so Mussolini had to act fast. Libya was ruled from Italy at the time, and was the obvious base for the operation but the army that crossed the border into Egypt was poorly trained & far too cautious – they were easily pushed back deep into Libya by the British forces (under the command of Wavel at this point).

This caused consternation in Germany because Italy was supposed to be securing Germany’s southern border, so if they collapsed & were defeated then Germany was at risk. So Hitler sent Rommel with some German Army divisions to help out the Italians. Rommel acted decisively taking the British forces by surprise and pushed them back to the border with Egypt. There’s now some back & forth over the next couple of years but in general Rommel wins more battles than the British do.

When things are going poorly Churchill blames the generals for not doing their job. He sacks Wavel, installing Auchinleck in his place. Later (after the first battle of El Alamein in early 1942) Auchinleck is also sacked, and Montgomery is put in command. The difficulties between Wavel & Churchill were partly a personality clash – Wavel was a taciturn man who was suspicious of politicians, Churchill was bombastic and suspicious of generals. Never going to work out well. But in both cases the fundamental difficulty was that Churchill would send orders that attack must be pressed, why weren’t the army doing something?? And the generals would feel that the troops they had available weren’t adequately trained nor ready to actually win the battle. So they would delay, and ignore Churchill’s orders, because to’ve blindly followed them would mean certain defeat (and they were running into enough defeats as it was).

There were also other theatres in the Mediterranean and until late 1942 the British forces were losing in those too. There was an ill-fated attempt to invade Greece, which pulled troops away from the front in Egypt at around the time that Rommel was really starting to press forward. And they were defeated in Greece too, it was “another Dunkirk” with the British army forced into a humiliating retreat. Malta was another key place in the Mediterranean – it was under British control and played a vital part in restricting the flow of supplies to Rommel’s troops. It was captured by the German forces whilst the campaigns in Egypt and Libya were underway, and this contributed to the defeats of the British. Just before the second battle at El Alamein (the pivotal one) Malta was back under British control & so Rommel’s supply chain was once again disrupted.

Churchill was under a lot of pressure from politicians during this period – it seemed like he was presiding over a losing war, and motions of no confidence were called more than once in Parliament. This probably contributed to his pressure on the generals out in Egypt to act more decisively. He was firm in his belief that winning in North Africa was a prelude to winning the whole war, and kept pressing that in both domestic & international politics. In terms of international politics Churchill was fighting an up hill battle both to bring the US into the war despite a complete lack of public support for this in the US, and also to get them to fight in North Africa first. Eventually Pearl Harbour tipped the balance (and Dimbleby quoted from Churchill’s diary at the time where he’s quite gleeful about it, which I didn’t really think was appropriate when what he’s talking about is a lot of dead people even if it does mean he gets what he wants finally). Even after that the US wanted to fight in Europe first, but eventually Churchill wore them down and that pivotal battle at El Alamein was the prelude to the first Allied operation (which came at the Libyan based German & Italian divisions from both sides and defeated them).

I’ve missed out loads in this summary – things like the various battles for Tobruk, the anecdotes about how badly prepared the various armies were, the details of the political situation. All of it was also illustrated with quotes from soldiers as well as the generals & politicians involved. Dimbleby didn’t forget the human cost, either – talking about the horrific casualty figures & visiting the graveyards where the soldiers are buried.

The version of Why the Industrial Revolution Happened Here that we had recorded turned out to be a cut down version of the full thing (20 minutes instead of an hour). But it was still interesting, if rather brisk. Jeremy Black talked about both what it was about Britain that made it fertile ground for the Industrial Revolution to get started, and how it changed society.

The driving force for the start of the Industrial Revolution was coal. Before Britain had used wood for fuel, but this was beginning to become scarce. Coal was plentiful in Britain & easily accessible near the surface. It also turned out to be a better fuel than wood. As coal mines got deeper, they drove the need for machinery to keep them operational which started the process of mechanisation of various industries.

The political & social conditions in Britain at the time encouraged entrepreneurs & inventors. Black was saying that the Parliamentary Monarchy of Britain meant that there was more stability of government. Also important were the network of societies & coffeehouses where men could meet to discuss the scientific & engineering discoveries of the day. And not only educate themselves but contribute their own ideas. It was also possible to become rich by inventing new machinery – which is a great incentive to do so!

The programme then moved on to the ways that the Industrial Revolution changed Britain. Black talked a bit about Wedgewood, who isn’t just someone who made china dinner services but also in effect the inventor of modern marketing. The demands of new mass produced goods and factories for raw materials drove the creation of a better road network, and the creation of the canal system. (And presumably the railways, but that wasn’t covered – a bit too late perhaps? or maybe it is in the full programme.)

A shame I only found the 20 minute version when I recorded it, I’ll have to keep an eye out for the full thing.