The adherents of Starkeyfied history talk as though history belongs to dynasts and courtiers. Top down stuff. Alternatively, the most inspirational, important, challenging and fascinating episodes from the history of the islands of north-west Europe involves the conflict between the rulers and the ruled. Time and time again, the monarchy has placed itself on the repressive, reactionary and (thankfully) losing side of History.
Today, August 16th, is the anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre. On August 16th, 1819 at St Peter’s Fields in Manchester, a crowd assembled to hear “Orator” Henry Hunt give a speech in favour of democratic reform, a speech which advertised many of the freedoms that any self respecting polity now takes for granted. Local magistrates called out troops to arrest people on the platform. These troops drew their swords, spurred on their horses, and cut a path through the crowd, killing around fifteen and injuring hundreds
The Prince Regent intervened to personally congratulate those responsible for the slaughter. He wasn’t advised to offer congratulations by his ministers, and he wasn’t merely adding his signature to an official government missive. He was making a very personal, very political intervention on his own initiative. And the official line, coming from the top was very clear: people who are curious to learn about democracy deserve to be chopped to pieces.
Although as a younger man, the prince had been a drinking buddy of reformist whigs like Fox and Sheridan, largely in order to irritate his own dad, after 1811 and the assumption of the regency, his elderly dad was too demented to be irritated by anything rational and Prince George became an arch reactionary.
Why should anyone continue to celebrate the mere longevity of a dynasty that has proved the historic enemy of the highest aspirations of the people, instead of celebrating freedom’s martyrs such as those killed in Manchester all those years ago today? Peterloo serves as a reminder that democratic reform has not been graciously conferred upon people by generous and far seeing governments but has been wrested from the unwilling hands of nervous elites.
But enough of me. More of Shelley…
Rise like lions after slumber In unvanquishable number ! Shake your chains to earth, like dew Which in sleep had fall'n on you : Ye are many — they are few.