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It’s The Fightin’ Temeraire, Guv

We all like a good vote, as we have seen again this week, and we all like a Top Ten that we can agree with or disagree with as we choose.  Back in 2005, when the world must have seemed a simpler and rather better place, the Today Programme on Radio 4 held a poll for listeners to decide on their best-loved painting in Britain.  Apparently, the final list was criticised for its conservatism – who would have thought? – and, more amusingly, as being unsuitable for the non-visual medium of radio.

Despite strong competition from obvious choices like Constable’s ‘The Hay Wain’ and Van Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers’, the winner was ‘The Fighting Temeraire, tugged to her last berth to be broken up, 1838’, more usually just called ‘The Fighting Temeraire’ for fairly obvious reasons, by J.M.W. Turner, which secured 27% of the votes.  By 2017, it was Banksy’s ‘Girl with Balloon’ that came out on top of a different poll, one which sounds rather more representative and wider in its range.

Turner’s initials of JMW stand for Joseph Mallord William, and I had always assumed that he must therefore be a man of wealth and leisure who had plenty of time to devote to his art – probably thinking he was M’Lord rather than Mallord.  I have not seen Mike Leigh’s film ‘Mr Turner’, starring Timothy Spall, of which I was unaware until I started looking things up to write this piece, but which I will certainly now make a point of watching.  Had I done so, I would not have had to wait to read Robert Lacey’s ‘Great Tales from English History’ before discovering that Turner was not posh at all.

He was in fact born to a poor barber-wigmaker father near London’s Covent Garden fruit and vegetable market, and a mentally fragile mother who ended her days in the Bethlehem hospital for lunatics – ‘Bedlam’ as it is usually known.  Turner apparently displayed a shrewd commercial spirit throughout his life, as well as retaining his gruff Cockney accent – hence the attempt at humour in the title above.  Every day is a school day, as they say, which can be hugely interesting but which also forces constant examination of what you thought was true and what was not.

As another example, you may perhaps have a very positive impression of Sir Walter Raleigh as an explorer, a discoverer and a gentleman who laid his cloak before Elizabeth I to keep her from getting her feet muddy.  But it turns out he was a bit of a scoundrel.  For example, as Lacey describes, in 1585 he presented to Elizabeth two native Indians, some potatoes and the curious leaf smoked by the natives called tobacco.  Sir John Hawkins had actually introduced tobacco to England twenty years earlier, but it was apparently typical of Raleigh to hijack the brand identity. 

Talking to the Queen one day, he boasted he could weigh tobacco smoke.  Not surprisingly, Elizabeth challenged him, and he called for scales.  Having weighed some tobacco, he smoked it in his long-stemmed pipe, then weighed the ashes to calculate the difference.  As a final flourish, he proposed that the land where this remarkable plant grew should be named in her honour – Virginia.  While he flourished during Elizabeth’s reign, he fell out of favour with her successor, James I, and was executed in 1618 for failing to obey the king’s orders to avoid conflict with Spain while he was exploring the New World.

The death of the childless Elizabeth I in 1603 brought the end of the Tudor dynasty.  She was the last of her line.  Her successor and every subsequent English and British monarch have taken their descent not from Gloriana, but from Elizabeth’s hated rival, Mary Queen of Scots, who was executed on her orders in 1587 to try to eliminate the very possibility that ended up happening.

Queen Anne became pregnant nineteen times following her marriage to her cousin Prince George in 1683.  She had thirteen miscarriages, five babies died in infancy and a son died aged eleven.  This tragic succession of misfortune left Anne an invalid for the rest of her life and presented Protestant England with a dilemma – after Anne, the next fifty-seven Stuarts in line to the throne were all Catholics.  Parliament’s solution was the Act of Settlement of 1701.  All fifty-seven Catholics were eliminated from the succession, which was handed to number fifty-eight, the Protestant Sophia, Electress of Hanover, a descendant of James I’s daughter Elizabeth.  She died just months before Anne, meaning the throne passed to her son, who became King George I, despite not being able to speak a word of English and having very little interest in his new kingdom.

Lacey’s book is filled from start to finish with similar examples.  We think we know what happened in our country’s history, but we usually turn out to be significantly wide of the mark.  If I were to say the name Dick Turpin, you would no doubt conjure an image of a gallant highwayman, maybe even with aspects of Robin Hood for good measure – robbing from the rich to give to the poor.  Surprise, surprise, you would be wrong again.

The death of Richard Turpin in 1739 was the subject of one contemporary pamphlet, but otherwise he died unlamented – one criminal among the thousands strung up on the gallows of Georgian England for offences ranging from petty theft to murder.  But a century later the novelist William Harrison Ainsworth devised the story of a Yorkshire country gentleman, one Jack Palmer, who lived a secret life as a highwayman.  Turpin had used the pseudonym Palmer in his later years, which Ainsworth used to embellish his tale, adding details borrowed from other stories, such as Daniel Defoe’s account of a dramatic ride from London to York by an earlier highwayman ‘Swift Nicks’.

In 1834 Ainsworth brought these different stories together in his bestselling romance ‘Rookwood’, which treated his readers to a dashing account of Dick Turpin riding north on his beloved mare, to whom the novelist gave the name Black Bess.  The rest, as they say, is history, and it turns out that all we think we know about Turpin was untrue, just as I highlighted a few weeks ago in relation to pirates and Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘Treasure Island’.

‘God Save the King’ was first sung in public in 1745, and by the 1800s it had become so established as the expression of patriotic sentiment that it became accepted as the ‘National Anthem’ – the world’s first, which other countries hastened to copy.  Prussia, Denmark, Switzerland, Russia and even the United States adopted the melody of ‘God Save the King’ for a period, setting it to words of their own, though they subsequently decided to go different ways.  However, when the England soccer team line up to play the tiny principality of Liechtenstein, the same tune gets repeated, because the Liechtensteiners never bothered to change it – or maybe they did not want to.  If you don’t believe me, just search YouTube.

Finally this week, and at a time when the role of prime minister is once again under close scrutiny, you may be aware that historians usually agree that the first Prime Minister of Great Britain and Ireland was Robert Walpole.  However, you may not know that he did not use the title of Prime Minister, preferring to be known as First Lord of the Treasury, which is the official title borne by prime ministers to this day.  Apparently, you will not find the words ‘Prime Minister’ inscribed on any formal government list – though, of course, you may yet see it on a few party invitations and some legal documents in the coming months.   

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