Saturday, 14 January 2012

Riots and Royalty

On the edge of Kings Norton Park, at the opposite end to the church, is a big old pub called The Camp. I have driven past there any number of times, but only recently found out that it takes its name from the fact that there was a Royalist army encampment here in 1643, during the Civil War, when Queen Henrietta Maria and over five thousand troops passed through the area on their way south to meet up with the king.

The circumstances of the visit make an odd contrast to the most recent appearance of royalty in Birmingham, when newly-weds Kate and William came to Winson Green last summer as part of their tour of areas affected by the riots.

When Queen Henrietta Maria arrived, the town had also recently suffered from looting and worse, but on that occasion it was at the hands of Royalist soldiers.

Despite the fact that Britain’s past is peppered with periods of bloodshed and brutality, the Civil War still stands out as a truly jaw-dropping episode. At its most basic it was a conflict between the Royalist ‘Cavaliers’, who believed that King Charles had a divine right to impose his will on Parliament, and the Parliamentarian ‘Roundheads’ who thought otherwise.

In reality this conflict was overlaid with a myriad of others - Protestant against Catholic, Puritan Protestant against moderate, Scots against English, Highland Scots against Lowlanders, one Highland clan against another.

It was as if every grievance that had been grumbling along in the background of life erupted all at once, and all against a backdrop of famine and plague.

Birmingham at the time was only a small town, but one which was developing a reputation both as a hotbed of Puritanism and as a manufacturer of weapons, which were being supplied to the Parliamentarians.

The town was duly identified as a target by the Royalists, and one that would have to be dealt with in order to clear a path for the Queen on her journey down from York. In April 1643, Birmingham was attacked by a Royalist force of almost two thousand, led by Prince Rupert, the Laughing Cavalier himself. Despite being outnumbered ten to one, the Parliamentarians put up strong resistance behind makeshift defences at Camp Hill, before eventually being overrun. The Royalists went on to burn and plunder the town at will.

There are no landmarks or memorials to remind us of any of this today, and in fact why should there be?

When the royals go on an offensive today it is of the charm variety, and the belief that they were appointed by God himself has long since disappeared.

But even in twenty first century Britain, vestiges of the sovereign’s ‘divine’ powers still remain. Any MP who refuses to take an oath of allegiance to our unelected monarch will find themselves barred from entering the House of Commons. And surely royal visits, such as that by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridgeshire, are meaningless unless there is still some background level of belief that the royal family are, for whatever reason, simply better than the rest of us?

With the Queen's diamond jubilee due to be celebrated later this year, maybe it is not too curmudgeonly after all to suggest that we ought to remember that the fledgling Birmingham was once torn apart by marauding soldiers trying to instil exactly this belief in blue-blooded superiority into the local population.

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