I took the photo above, looking down onto the Dordogne River in France, from the ruined battlements of the Château de Beynac.
I was reminded of this view now because of its perhaps-surprising place in English history. As I’ll explain below, my thoughts were prompted by the recent media coverage of the forthcoming British Royal Wedding, which will take place on the 19th May. Given that I was born in Britain, perhaps some would imagine that I’d be enthusiastic about such an event. After all, as Canadian actor Mike Myers said of his own Liverpool-born father a few years ago (and as reported in the Liverpool Echo):
There’s no-one more English than an Englishman not living in England
Well, I’m sorry to have to admit that I don’t fit that stereotype, at least if it applies to a fondness for royalty and certain other British institutions.
I can’t say that I’ve ever taken any great interest in the activities of the Royal Family. When I was starting my engineering apprenticeship at Ferranti, back in 1981, the nation’s attention was focused on another “fairy tale” royal wedding; that of Charles and Diana. There’s probably nobody in the world who doesn’t know how badly that “fairy tale” ended, for all involved. Sadly, from what we know now, the whole business seems to have been a fraudulent façade from the start.
When I came to live in the US about 30 years ago, I was rather surprised by the level of interest shown by the American media in British royalty. Didn’t they fight a war to free themselves from those overlords? Of course, I now realize that most of the interest really stems from the unhealthy practice of celebrity worship, and not from any actual desire to be ruled by the House of Windsor!
In the latest case, things already seem to be going ”off the rails”, according to reports like this one (from the San Jose Mercury), indicating that the bride’s father is causing embarrassment and confusion.
English Royalty or French Royalty?
I’m not sure how many people outside Britain realize that what’s now the Royal Family traces its roots to William I, a prince from Normandy (France), who in 1066 famously invaded England, killed the English king, and claimed the country as his own.
William then embarked on a ruthless campaign to suppress resistance throughout the country, removing many of the former English lords and replacing them with his own supporters. The Harrying of the North was so cruel that many areas were left uninhabitable for decades afterwards.
Given that William also reigned over lands in what’s now France, his conquest of England led to centuries of strife over the rulership of the territories. This culminated in the Hundred Years War, by the end of which the King of England lost most of his French principalities.
At one point during the Hundred Years War, the border between English and French territory was the Dordogne River. In the photo above, the land from which I took the photo was at that time French, while the land that’s visible on the other side of the river was English.
The photo below shows the Château de Beynac from below. The road from which I took the photo runs along the North bank of the river.
The photo below shows an evening view of the central plaza in the commune of Domme, a few miles from Beynac. Domme is a bastide like Beynac, but, being on the opposite bank of the Dordogne, was in English hands during the Hundred Years War.
Off with their Heads!
One notable (if unsurprising) fact about those medieval wars is that nobody ever asked the populations of the disputed territories who they would prefer to be ruled by. The pretenders to the thrones, and their personal armies, simply fought among themselves, and it was taken for granted that the populace would accept the outcome.
Ideas of government have certainly come a long way since then, and (despite some major shortcomings) one of the world’s most successful experiments in democratic government must surely be the USA.
Unfortunately, in contrast to the US case, many attempts to overthrow monarchies and replace them with democratic governments have not been successful. Amid all the current Royal Wedding fuss, it’s easy to forget that such a revolution once happened in England, as the outcome of the English Civil War. In 1649, the English monarchy was bloodily terminated when King Charles I was publicly beheaded. Unfortunately, the dictatorship that replaced him (led by Oliver Cromwell) was so unpleasant that the monarchy was eventually restored by popular demand!
Thus, while I’m no fan of monarchies anywhere, I’m well aware that the alternatives may sometimes be much worse!