Winter of discontent

In one of last week’s biggest news stories, researchers and archaeologists in Britain managed to find and identify the body of one of the most notorious British monarchs, Richard III, whose remains were found beneath a parking lot in the middle of the city of Leicester. Although the historical significance of the discovery is arguably dubious, with historians already debating on that point, it is undeniably fascinating as a window into the not-so-distant past. While many have said that if it had not been for Shakespeare, Richard would have vanished into the mists of time, the Shakespearean depiction has given us such cultural touchstones as “Now is the winter of our discontent” and “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!”, not to mention one of the greatest mysteries ever written,the Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey. Consequently, Richard III has lived on in popular culture as a sort of grotesque caricature of the absolutely corrupt product of absolute power.

In reading up on Richard (and picking up the Daughter of Time for a long-overdue reread), it is easy – especially for the attention-deficit-addled modern mind – to rapidly bounce through royal history and what-ifs that raise plenty of interesting questions. Richard III was, of course, the last of the House of Plantagenet, as well as being the last English monarch killed in battle.

This led me to wonder about subsequent royal houses and their extinction. The Tudors succeeded the Plantagenets, and were extinguished with the childless death of Elizabeth I, with successive royal houses including Stuart, Hanover, Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, and Windsor (in actuality, the last two are the same, but the name was changed in response to anti-German sentiment during the First World War). There is also the fact that Jacobitism is alive and well, with the Royal Stuart Society still fighting the (by now doubtlessly lonely) battle against the “illegitimate” succession to the throne that followed the deposing of the Catholic King James II following the Glorious Revolution in 1688. For what it’s worth, if the Jacobites had their way, instead of Queen Elizabeth II, we would instead have Franz Bonaventura Adalbert Maria Herzog von Bayern (that’d be Franz, Duke of Bavaria to you) as King Francis II.

The legal implications of a potential (and altogether improbable) usurping of the throne are too complicated to even comprehend in this space, but the library does actually have a few interesting works on succession. Apropos of the Glorious Revolution, we have the 1795 edition of Some considerations on the law of forfeiture, for high treason : occasioned by a clause in the late act, for making it treason to correspond with the Pretender’s sons, or any of their agents in both hard copy and (should you feel compelled to check it out for yourself) microfilm, in which the implications of fraternizing with the Old Pretender or Young Pretender (aka Bonnie Prince Charlie) are made altogether very clear. The 1810 Tracts on various subjects in the law and history of England has sections on treason and succession (it is unlikely that the correlation is an accident). We also have The old English constitution: in relation to the hereditary succession of the crown, antecedent to the revolution in 1688 from 1709 in microform.

Thankfully, the days of monarchs being hacked to death by their successors are (hopefully) behind us, but their capacity to fascinate lives on.

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