The rules of succession
This week: your cut-out-and-keep guide to primogeniture. Also: do we really need those marbles anyway? And just how big is Brazil?
There are two places in London famous for their dinosaurs. One is Crystal Palace Park, whose 15 extinct animal statues have been there since 1854, are wildly incorrect by modern scientific standards, and are, slightly bizarrely, classified as Grade I listed buildings. The other is the Natural History Museum, where Dippy the Diplodocus skeleton has been greeting visitors for decades. One of my earliest memories of a trip into the city as a child involved my delight at not only encountering a real dinosaur, but my delight to learn it was on the same tube line as my house.
Dippy, though, is not actually a real dinosaur at all: it’s a plaster-of-Paris replica of a skeleton housed at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, donated by the eponymous Scottish-American industrialist back in 1905. Dippy may be less cartoonish and more scientifically accurate than its cousins in Crystal Palace Park. But it is just as fake.
I didn’t know this, as a child, but I’m not sure it would have bothered me if I had. I was, after all, just as excited by the blue whale hanging from a ceiling in one of the other display halls, and that was quite obviously not real. The reality of the model itself wasn’t the point: the point was what it communicated, that a creature so vast did or could exist. It was brilliant.
Anyway: this week Rishi Sunak has got himself into a pointless diplomatic squabble with a NATO ally, cancelling a meeting with the Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis at almost no notice, just because he’d stated his country’s position that the Elgin Marbles should be returned to Greece. It is unclear, at this juncture, how such a long-held stance can have come as a surprise to Downing Street, or whether the suggestion that Mitsotakis meet with Oliver Dowden instead was meant to be as insulting as it looks. “One theory,” notes Rob Hutton in the Critic, is that it’s a “dead cat”, to distract people from Sunak’s weakness on the domestic front by reminding people that he’s also crap abroad.”
The affair seems to sum up the entire style of Sunak’s leadership, a softly incompetent peevishness aimed at achieving literally nothing at all. The fact the education secretary, Gillian Keegan, apparently doesn’t realise that governments can change the law raised a weary eyebrow, too. But it hardly seems likely to be bothering our consciousness much by the weekend, let alone to affect the election. In a cost of living crisis, nobody is voting based on whether some bits of fancy rock should reside in London or Athens.
That doesn’t mean there’s no argument to be had, however. In Conservative Home, Henry Hill does an annoyingly good job of putting the case against repatriating such stolen treasures: in brief, that museums make better curators than governments, that stable countries don’t always remain so, that some returned items have ended up part of private collections rather than remaining on display, and that it is better not to set the precedent. Such arguments, though, assume that Britain could never fall prey to the kind of instability or rapacious elites he identifies elsewhere in the world. And I just can’t get away from the fact that we all automatically refer to some carvings made in Greece in the 5th century BCE by the name of the 19th century Scot who stole them. It just feels wrong.
More than that, though, I find myself wondering whether the authenticity of these artefacts actually matters anyway. The rise of 3D printing technology makes accurate copies easier to produce than ever before, and there’s political capital to be had in returning these items to places from whence they were plundered. It’s all very well arguing, as Hill does, that it’s easier to tour world history via grand buildings in London or Paris than by visiting a dozen different national museums. But would the world’s tourists even know that they were looking at copies, rather than originals? Would they even care? They didn’t, when it was a dinosaur.
The rules of succession; or, how to pick your prince
The recent Channel 4 documentary about the new adventures of Ricardian car park botherer Philippa Langley has got me thinking about the Wars of the Roses. It’s a bit of English history so complicated that it kept Shakespeare busy for eight entire plays: the conflict’s causes include, but are not limited to, noble ambitions, royal incompetence, and the exciting discovery, in 1399, that if you deposed and replaced a king then god would not, in fact, stop you.
But what struck me when I found myself reading about it this week was the difficulty of assessing, from this distance, which of the two rival factions actually had the better claim. Both were what are known as “cadet branches” of the Plantagenet dynasty, descended from younger sons of Edward III: the third (John of Gaunt) in the case of the House of Lancaster, the fourth (Edmund of Langley) in that of the House of York. One reason that two lineages so far down the apparent pecking order were in contention at all was that Edward’s second surviving son, Lionel of Clarence, was foolish enough to only produce a daughter. Another was that the son of the first, Edward the Black Prince, who predeceased his father, was Richard II: the king whose deposition by Henry Bolingbroke – Henry IV – started this madness in the first place.
At any rate, one cause of the instability was that, although the Lancastrian and Yorkist lines had stronger claims than anybody else, neither was particularly strong. Another, I suspect, is summed up by this sentence on the House of York’s Wikipedia page:
Compared with its rival, the House of Lancaster, [the House of York] had a superior claim to the throne of England according to cognatic primogeniture, but an inferior claim according to agnatic primogeniture.
I don’t know what that meant. I decided to find out.
First things first. Primogeniture – the system of leaving a realm to its ruler’s eldest child – is neither natural nor inevitable. The early Frankish kingdoms used partible inheritance, which means dividing things up between claimants: this is why, half a century after Charlemagne put so much effort into rebuilding the Western Roman Empire, it had already been split into half a dozen fragments once again. There have also been many monarchies – Anglo-Saxon England; the Papacy; the Holy Roman Empire – which used an elective system, in which a group of senior nobles get together and pick their next boss. (The Holy Roman Empire technically remained elective right up until Napoleon abolished the place because he found it annoying even though, for century upon century, those electors mysteriously ended up electing the next Habsburg in line every bloody time.)