Oh ! Sir Harry Vane ! Sir Harry Vane !… the Lord deliver me from Sir Harry Vane !
He annoyed Cromwell. But Cromwell didn’t kill him. Today is the 354th anniversary of the execution of Henry Vane – one of Britain’s most interesting republicans and an authentic political martyr. Vane hated all forms of religious as well as political tyranny, opposed any idea of a state church or religious discrimination. Milton admired him and wrote him a sonnet.
Though originally an ally of Cromwell, he opposed Cromwell’s personal rule – firmly believing in the supremacy of parliament. He therefore stands as an idealist caught between Stuart and Cromwellian absolutism. Though he had played no part in the trial or execution of Charles I, the restored Stuart regime decided that he was far too charismatic and persuasive a republican to be allowed to live. He was given a show trial with no legal counsel or time to prepare his defense. It is said that moments before his death, drums started pounding away to prevent him from addressing the crowd – the traditional right of every condemned criminal. Those standing close to him overheard him murmur that monarchy must be a very weak and fragile cause if it couldn’t permit the possibility of a few words spoken in opposition to it.
The same insecurity is frequently demonstrated by modern monarchists. If we lived in a country that actually cared about its own history, Sir Henry Vane would be a name known to all schoolchildren. Oddly enough, until the end of the nineteenth century, republicans like Vane, Hamden and Sydney loomed much larger in the public imagination than they do now. I blame Disraeli and his invention of populist monarchy and pre-fabricated pageantry. Instead, Britain became a country that thinks it’s more exciting to celebrate the fact that someone has outlived a parent by sixty years.
Oh and today is also the anniversary of the sudden murder of Wat Tyler and the collapse of the peasants revolt. The poor peasants, although they were prepared to blame John of Gaunt and the Archbishop of Canterbury for their woes were still inclined to trust the boy king Richard himself, believing him to be wise and good and “on their side really”. They were soon to be disabused of this naive notion and were politely informed “Villeynes ye were and Villeynes ye shall remayne.”
Vane also lived and died trying to make some kind of inspirational sense of that document (or documents) known as Magna Carta. Whatever the original thirteenth-century intentions of Magna Carta’s baronial framers, by the seventeenth century it was being used to try to construct a concept called “Rule of Law” – the notion that law governs everyone rather than just being a partial instrument of oppression. This wonderful aspiration seems as distant as ever in the twenty-first century.
Much to ponder.