Somewhere north of the Firth of Forth

Macbeth and Banquo encounter the witches for the first time (Wikipedia)

On this date in history, July 27, in 1054, Birnham Wood came not to Dunsinane. Nor had three witches prophesied Macbeth’s rapid rise and sudden fall as far as we know. Very little is clear about his life including where he lost that 1054 battle to Siward, Earl of Northumberland “somewhere north of the Firth of Forth”. But if the witches made any such forecast, they needed some fresh toe of newt because in fact the historical Macbeth, whom Shakespeare would not have recognized on the street, was king for 17 years. On the other hand, on July 27 of 1054 he did lose a battle to the English that helped set the stage for his demise, albeit three years later. Which is probably little consolation to his much-maligned shade.

Now I’m a huge fan of Shakespeare generally and Macbeth in particular. On one memorable cottage evening a group of us actually read the play aloud in biscuit-tin-Scotsman accents that would have provoked fury from John O-Groats to the Firth of Forth. It is full of vivid characters and images that live on and rightly so, from the witches to Lady Macbeth to the slippery nature of predictions like the one about Birnham Wood to the phrase “screw your courage to the sticking point”. Or place, actually, but who’s quibbling?

Well, me. It seems that as he did with poor Richard III, young Will Shakespeare took liberties with history that were far from random. You see, by the time he came to write and perform this play the king of England was James I, nee James VI of Scotland, who was descended at several dynastic removes from the Malcolm III “Canmore” (which unglamorously means “big head” though apparently in the sense of “very impressive head of state” not “guy encumbered with outsized noggin”) who finished Macbeth off in 1057, Macbeth’s whole royal line becoming extinct shortly thereafter.

For all that Shakespeare was a brilliant dramatist, whose tale of twisted ambition transcends time and place. And that he happened to set it where and when he did is largely accidental; if I were going to indict him for twisted history in service of his own ambition, or perhaps just survival, it would be for the far more specific misrepresentation of Richard III to justify the Tudor usurpation in the Wars of the Roses just one dynasty back, not for blackening the reputation of a foreign king dead over half a millennium.

Let the shade of Macbeth come haunt me, I should specify that he does seem to have been a good king, who offed Duncan in battle not a sneaky murder. As his ghost might pointedly observe were it to shake its gory locks at me, lots of people did the same including Canmore to him. And doesn’t even the Bannockburn memorial admit that Robert the Bruce murdered John Comyn to take the throne? And he’s a hero for the Bannockburn victory among other things. (To be sure some Scottish sources say if ever a man needed murdering it was Comyn, while English accounts are less flattering to the Bruce including in this regard.)

I suppose it’s nice to be famous even after you die. But ideally you’d want to be remembered for things that resemble those you actually did, with advantages, not pillored in an unjust and entirely invented way a weak murdering got-his-comeuppance wretch.

At least Macbeth died in battle in the play and in real life. But when that’s the good news, you’d probably glide ectoplasmically from the theatre hurling spectral insults.


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Free the trade 35 million

In my latest National Post commentary I say it’s nice that the premiers have again promised to remove the internal trade barriers they themselves put in place. But (as Brian Lee Crowley, Robert Knox and I argued six years ago) the feds have the legal and moral authority to compel them if they don’t follow through, and should make clear that they will.


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Like baseball except slower

A 1779 cricket match played by the Countess of Derby and other ladies. (Wikipedia)

To say that I do not understand cricket would be an understatement. Clearly it’s exactly like baseball except incomprehensible and, by comparison, slow-moving. Which takes some doing. Oh, and the bats have been squished somehow and the pitching was devised by the ministry of silly walks. And the scores have one too many number in them.

OK, OK, hold the angry letters. I’m not here to be snide. Instead I want to make a comment related to cricket to the effect that if you think women’s rights were invented by Gloria Steinem or Betty Friedan this may upset your wicket or whatever it is they do when the funny sticks go flying. July 26 is the anniversary of the first ever women’s cricket match.

Yes, that’s right. Women’s sports, and a game in which the players were hailed in the press as having “bowled, batted, ran and catches as well as most men could do in that game.” And it was played in 1745. Indeed the local newspaper, with perhaps a touch of hyperbole but no sign of condescension, called it “The greatest cricket match that was played in this part of England”. Again, snidely, that may not be saying much. Just kidding. I’m sure it’s a very exciting game that as an added bonus you can watch for hours on end. Over many days. Longer than a baseball double-header, and never a triple play. But I digress.

The point is that women were playing organized cricket in England in the 18th century, sometimes for prizes such as lace gloves but on other occasions for beer in large quantities, and for sizeable prizes. Before sometimes rowdy crowds. And after an unfortunate setback involving embezzling that demolished the Original English Lady Cricketers, it also flourished in the late 19th and early 20th century, and then spread to Australia. And yes, they still play.

So don’t think we invented women’s rights or women’s athletics. And don’t be too sure those 18th-century players would applaud everything we did invent including in gender relations. They might regard some of it as a distinctly sticky wicket.

Whatever that is.


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A bad plan with legs

On July 25 of 1554 English queen Mary I married Philip II of Spain. It wasn’t just a bad plan. It was a bad plan with legs.

Mary is of course “Bloody Mary,” infamous for her efforts to restore Catholicism in England and the first link in an apparently strong chain connecting Catholicism with tyranny outside England and threats to English security and freedom.

To Catholics this association is not merely a mistake. It is an infamous calumny. And I have some sympathy with their position. But let me first state the case for the prosecution.

Looking at European history it can be difficult to think of a nation that successfully combined Catholicism with political liberty. Certainly neither France nor Spain did so. Indeed they didn’t make much of an effort, becoming instead geopolitical threats to England and its unique system. Ultimately, as Daniel Hannan notes in his superb Inventing Freedom, the Anglosphere developed a powerful self-understanding as free and Protestant in which the two were intimately connected. But of course that brings us to the one major nation that did combine Catholicism and freedom. England.

Yes, England. It can be hard to recall given the powerful English-speaking identification of political liberty with Protestantism from the 17th through the late 19th century. But the England of Alfred the Great, of Magna Carta and of the development of effective Parliamentary institutions and control of the power of the purse was entirely and uncontroversially Catholic.

It was also very resistant to any effort by the Pope to meddle in its affairs. The writ of Praemunire loomed over anyone who attempted to suggest that the pontiff could dictate political matters and kings and parliaments alike were resolute in rebuffing any such initiative. But for all that they were also staunchly Catholic right down to that determined “Defender of the Faith” Henry VIII, awarded that title by the Pope for his defence of the sacraments in particular against Martin Luther.

Um, that is, until he realized he was secretly the English pope, seized the monasteries and dumped his first wife for another… and another… and another… and…

Henry’s conduct was deplorable and also in a very important way unlawful. In dissolving the monasteries he was obliged to return their lands and other assets to those who had donated them, not bag them for himself. (It also did a great deal of damage to the private welfare system on which many of England’s poor depended, but that’s a topic for another day.) And under Henry and subsequent monarchs other than “Bloody Mary,” Catholics were subjected to violent persecution that intruded on matters of conscience and seem to me especially obnoxious because people were deprived of property, liberty and sometimes life itself not for challenging the established order but for upholding the faith that had been central to English life since the seventh century and which showed no sign whatsoever of being incompatible with or indeed in any way detrimental to the unique English flourishing of political liberty.

Had Richard III won at Bosworth field, had the Tudor usurpers never come to power, there is no reason to suppose that Parliament would suddenly have been crushed, Magna Carta repealed or liberty in any other way threatened. Indeed, by any rational measure Henry VIII was as dangerous to liberty as anyone since Bad King John.

Certainly one thing that has dismayed me at various sites in England is the way Henry’s thugs reduced ancient establishments to ruins including at Winchester where the bones of many Anglo-Saxon kings had lain undisturbed for six or more centuries. It seems impious, even if you disagree with the specific doctrines, thus to vandalize marks of man’s search for the transcendent.

For all that, the odd thing is that Henry’s actions did not destroy liberty. They did violate it for Catholics, which remained a problem in England for many hundreds of years. But there’s an important complicating factor.

From the sixteenth century on, the most serious threats to English national security and political system did arise from Catholic monarchs. Some were foreign, like Louis XIV. But some were domestic, including Charles I and James II, to say nothing of Guy Fawkes. And then there was Mary’s extraordinary decision to marry Philip of Spain, he of the Armada, in what was surely intended in her husband’s mind to be an unequal partnership personally and politically, with Spain and its king dominant. If Catholicism was not inimical to political liberty, its more powerful adherents did very little to make this truth evident.

There is a great deal more to this story than one marriage. And if Mary was “Bloody” for her treatment of Protestants, what of various other Tudors’ martyring of Catholics? But Mary’s decision certainly put restoration of Catholicism under a dark cloud of suspicion at the very outset, a cloud from which that faith and English Catholics did not really emerge until the 20th century, in part because threats to freedom by that point were coming from very different sources, from the Protestant Prussia-dominated Germany Empire to neo-pagan Naziism to atheist Bolshevism.


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Planter une croix pour la France

Should we cheer? It’s hard to be sure. On July 24, in 1534, Jacques Cartier stuck a cross on the Gaspé Peninsula and claimed it for France.

On the one hand, yay Canada. On the other hand, boo European imperialism on unceded native land. But yay Quebec and the French fact. Except that sticky business about the cross, still oddly belted out in our national anthem in the name of political correctness (you know, the bit where “ton bras sait porter l’épée,/ Il sait porter la croix” that rushes in where “all our sons” no longer dare tread). So on the whole it’s a date we no longer celebrate, preferring instead to ignore it and hope everyone else does too. I do not think we should.

For one thing, I am among those who regard the settlement of the Anglosphere nations of North America and the South Pacific as a powerful blessing for mankind even while deploring the dispossession and demographic catastrophe that struck the original inhabitants. Without Britain I do not believe the world would have self-government, and without Britain’s former colonies I do not believe it would have survived the 20th century.

Liberty is a great thing for everyone of every race. We cannot undo the past but we can now extend its benefits to everyone in Canada without regard for race. Especially as I do not subscribe to the politically correct idea that before Europeans showed up, the inhabitants of the Americas were peaceful, tolerant or ecologically sensitive. They were like people pretty much everywhere for better or worse and there’s a good deal of “worse” involved.

The territories they inhabited when the Europeans showed up had not been in the continuous possession of any particular group for very long, and had not been acquired by peaceful negotiation, purchase or right of first possession. They had been seized in chronic low-intensity warfare. I find it absurd that many people argue that the land should be put in the hands of the descendants of those who happened to hold it when Europeans first arrived and made records of the situation, without the slightest interest in who had been dispossessed of it a few decades earlier.

For all that, I cannot contemplate the disruption and disaster, including the most important catastrophe caused by diseases passed on unwittingly, without profound grief. Europeans were bound to cross the Atlantic with an enormous, overwhelming advantage in technology and organization for reasons that (as Jared Diamond analyzes in Guns, Germs and Steel) date back to the end of the last glaciation and were driven by geography and ecology rather than any inherent difference between the inhabitants of different continents. And when they did, the diseases which had bred first in extensively farmed fields and then in crowded cities were bound to devastate those still living in far more scattered communities or as hunter-gatherers. And yet it is a tragedy.

Would you, then, have the continents remain forever separate? I have elsewhere suggested that without the “Little Ice Age” that destroyed Norse settlements in an arc from Scandinavia to the northern British Isles to Iceland and Greenland, the process might have been slower and less catastrophic. But if it had to happen, far better even for the locals that the free people of the British Isles should have been the dominant element than to be conquered even by the Spanish or Germans, to say nothing of various other possible colonizers.

As for the French, their empire failed in large measure because it was bureaucratic and unfree. I do not regret the existence of Quebec, but unlike Jean Chrétien I would not have wanted to wake Montcalm in time for him to win the Battle of the Plains of Abraham. Nor do I believe that if he had, the far greater dynamism of British North America would not have prevailed.

So knowing the downside I do still salute Cartier’s courage and enterprise. Yet I also celebrate a Canada with a Constitution similar in principle to that of the United Kingdom despite now needing some rather urgent repairs.


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Wish I’d said that – July 24, 2016

“Red in tooth and claw, we come at last to a fierce and painful city, to the bloody, unobliging reciprocity in which life lives by death, but still insists that death is robbery. But more, We come home…”

Robert Farrar Capon The Supper of the Lamb


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Chios: Obscure yet important

This is the anniversary of the naval Battle of Chios in which the Knights Hospitaller laid a serious beating on the Beylik of Aydin on July 23, 1319. Which might sound like the kind of dustup only the mothers of people who were there would care about. But it’s an interesting lineup of combatants.

Not the Beylik of Aydin, one of many low-rent half-pirate border subsidiaries of the Seljuq Turks as they gradually wore down Byzantium. Rather, the Knights Hospitaller or, more properly, the Order of Knights of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem, a once-mighty outfit headquartered in Jerusalem, Rhodes and later Malta (in the Maltese Falcon they are conflated with the Knights Templar who they had by then absorbed).

The Knights went into something of a decline with the Reformation though a number of groups claim descent from them including the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta which is now headquartered in Rome and is widely still considered a sovereign entity. But I digress. Sort of.

The point is that Western civilization, with its extraordinary capacity for decentralization that does not lapse into anarchy but instead generates a flexible, resilient extended order, was marked by various such groups. They were not sovereign states per se, were often nominally subordinate to sovereign states while retaining much freedom of action, frequently claimed a particular territorial base without being tied to it, and were devoted to nobler causes than mere plunder even if their conduct did not always match their aspirations. Indeed the Knights Templar were at one point a mighty financial rather than military outfit, naturally attracting the attention of secular rulers and a Pope very interested in bagging their cash.

So no, the Battle of Chios wasn’t big news in the grand scheme of things. It only involved a few dozen ships and the outcome, and several subsequent victories, only slowed the advance of the Aydinids, though they were decisively walloped by 1351. And the Ottomans obviously continued to advance, capturing Constantinople in 1453. But then they were stopped, at Lepanto and other places, by coalitions of the same decentralized yet effective sort in which the West specializes.

In that sense battles like Chios do matter despite their obscurity.


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