Oxoniensis on the blog Seventeenth Century History responds to Professor Richard Overy's gloomy despair about academic history. The blog is considerably more hopeful. Tory Historian cannot help thinking that Professor Overy is completely wrong when he considers academic history and what he disdainfully terms "the heritage industry" to be in direct competition with each other.
It is curious how much fuss there is about the possibility, however remote, of foreign lobbying having some influence on British politics. By foreign Tory Historian does not mean the European Union, whose legislation is British legislation, but countries and organizations outside it.
Yet in the days of Princess Lieven such influence and interference was taken almost for granted, if somewhat resented. Indeed, it was resented a good deal more towards the end of her stay in Britain as the Russian ambassadress or, rather, the extremely active wife of the Russian ambassador, than at the beginning of it.
Professor Charmley’s book, which Tory Historian has finished, details a number of instances. When George Canning became Foreign Secretary after Castereagh’s suicide in 1822 the Duke of Wellington found himself considerably out of sympathy with the new foreign policy and unhappy about the role he had been made to play at the Congress of Verona. Castlereagh had managed to keep the Continental powers happy through his obvious sympathy with the idea of affairs being run by a system of congresses though he always managed to steer clear of any direct involvement, pleading the need to placate Parliament and the people.
Canning was made of different stuff and his immediate aim seemed to be to break up the Congress system. Wellington, who, like most military men, dreaded the thought of another war, thought Canning’s policy was likely to lead to one. Princess Lieven found the same policy unhelpful to Russia and to Austria (at that time in close alliance, not least through her relationship with Metternich) so she persuaded the Duke to show the Cabinet dispatches on Spain, where there was a revolution brewing, to her, her husband and the Austrian ambassador. The Duke may not have been particularly happy with that idea but as he was even less happy with Canning’s foreign policy, he saw nothing terribly wrong with that. He had to prove that the Cabinet was not in agreement with the Foreign Secretary.
Eventually, Canning’s policy became more helpful to Russia. Indeed, over the Greek rebellion against the Ottomans, he may have gone too far in agreeing to Russian intervention. Canning did not live long enough to have to deal with the outcome of his policy and it was the Duke of Wellington, now Prime Minister, who had to face the ever growing power and, in the shape of the Princess Lieven, insolence of Russia.
She, for herself, realized that the Duke was unsympathetic and intrigued mercilessly against him, not just in her letters to her brother Alexander Benckendorf, Nicholas I’s head of secret police and Count Nesselrode, the foreign Minister, but in constant communication and plotting with the leaders of the opposition, Earl Grey and Viscount Palmerston. Again, they apparently saw nothing wrong in conducting domestic politics through the medium of a foreign power’s representative, though an unofficial one.
Indeed, matters went so far as to make the Princess Lieven one of Earl Grey’s advisers when he was putting together his Cabinet in 1830. Indeed, she claimed to have been the person who got Palmerston his position as Foreign Secretary.
The Belgian imbroglio turned Grey and Palmerston against the Russians and the Princess now set herself the task of getting rid of the latter in order to have a more pro-Russian British Foreign Secretary. She failed because she underestimated Palmerston (not the first nor the last person to do so). The outcome was the Lievens’ departure from London back to St Petersburg, a place she hated, being more of a fervent Russian patriot when she was out of that country.
It is possible that this sort of meddling could be done only by a person who had Dorothea Lieven’s peculiar combination of charm, intelligence and bare-faced cheek but there is, nevertheless, something odd in the notion that the wife of a foreign ambassador, herself extremely active, should have so much say in British domestic politics.
Today is, as every school child ought to know, St George's Day, the Patron Saint of numerous countries, cities, regions and organizations. Tory Historian has noted this in the past here and here. But of all the many countries that claim St George only one had William Shakespeare, the man who may well have been born on April 23 (baptized on April 26) 1564 and died on April 23 1616.
So, let us combine the two. Here is that famous speech from Henry V (Act 3, Scene 1, outside Harfleur):
Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;
Or close the wall up with our English dead.
In peace there's nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility:
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger;
Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,
Disguise fair nature with hard-favour'd rage;
Then lend the eye a terrible aspect;
Let pry through the portage of the head
Like the brass cannon; let the brow o'erwhelm it
As fearfully as doth a galled rock
O'erhang and jutty his confounded base,
Swill'd with the wild and wasteful ocean.
Now set the teeth and stretch the nostril wide,
Hold hard the breath and bend up every spirit
To his full height. On, on, you noblest English.
Whose blood is fet from fathers of war-proof!
Fathers that, like so many Alexanders,
Have in these parts from morn till even fought
And sheathed their swords for lack of argument:
Dishonour not your mothers; now attest
That those whom you call'd fathers did beget you.
Be copy now to men of grosser blood,
And teach them how to war. And you, good yeoman,
Whose limbs were made in England, show us here
The mettle of your pasture; let us swear
That you are worth your breeding; which I doubt not;
For there is none of you so mean and base,
That hath not noble lustre in your eyes.
I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
Straining upon the start. The game's afoot:
Follow your spirit, and upon this charge
Cry 'God for Harry, England, and Saint George!'
Tory Historian returns after an unconscionably long period of silence with news of a book, published in 2005 and bought in one of the few remaining second-hand bookshops in Charing Cross Road.
The Princess and the Politicians subtitled Sex, Intrigue and Diplomacy in Regency England is a biography of the Princess Lieven by one of our conservative (and Conservative) historians, John Charmley.
Tory Historian recalls the intriguing (in both senses of the word) character of the Princess Lieven appearing in history books as a minor character. That, says Professor Charmley, is how she has, quite erroneously in his opinion, viewed by historians who have too often assumed that politics remained an exclusively male sphere for the centuries before women had the vote.
Feminist historians, on the other hand, have not been particularly interested by aristocratic ladies who played a very large part in political life in Britain. As Professor Charmley does not add (perhaps he is being uncharacteristically charitable) this attitude has prevented many feminist historians from perceiving women's achievements in the past.
Nobody could call Professor Charmley a feminist (or any other kind of -ist) historian. His task here is to restore an important historical figure to her rightful place of which she has been deprived by being female, foreign and of somewhat lose morals.
More reports of the book will follow as Tory Historian progresses with the reading.
Today is the birthday of one of the greatest of the great British inventors: Isambard Kingdom Brunel. By a strange coincidence, yesterday was the anniversary of the launch of the Great Western, Brunel's transatlantic ship. It left Avonmouth on April 8, 1838 and "with 600 long tons (610,000 kg) of coal, cargo and seven passengers on board. Brunel himself missed this initial crossing, having been injured during a fire that took place aboard the ship as she was returning from fitting out in London. The crossing of the Atlantic took 15 days and five hours, and the ship arrived at her destination with 200 long tons (200,000 kg) of coal still remaining, demonstrating that Brunel's calculations were correct."