For the past several weeks, Valarie and I have been watching on DVD a recent BBC series called A History of Britain, hosted by Columbia University professor Simon Schama (don't worry, he's a Brit). So far we've watched nine one-hour episodes out of fourteen, going from the early days of Edward the Confessor and William the Conqueror, on to Edward I (known as the British Julius Caesar for seeking to unite Britain for the first time), as well as various Richards and Henrys, including Henry VIII of course, and then his daughter Elizabeth I - with war and plague and numerous religious issues playing out all along the way.
Last night, however, we got to what is arguably the most dramatic period in British history: the execution of King Charles I after revolution swept Oliver Cromwell and his New Model Army to victory in a long-standing battle between the crown and Parliament that at least temporarily eradicated the monarchy.
The revolution ought to have been a great moment for democracy. After all, it gave Parliament rule of the country and, in theory at least, allowed the people to govern themselves for the first time. Besides, Charles I was really asking for it. More so than even most of kings and queens that preceded him, Charles was very rigid and uncompromising when it came to the notion of cooperating with Parliament. In many ways he was really a despot, a tyrant.
So why is it that I found myself rooting unequivocally for Charles I when revolution came, not Cromwell and the Parliamentarians? After all, even if this is all ancient history, so to speak, I was siding with the dictatorship and not with the cause of democracy, which at first was a little unsettling.
But look closer and the reasons become clear. First of all, for Cromwell and his followers, democracy was little more than a sham. When some of the soldiers who had fought for the New Model Army demanded a say in the new government after the war, Cromwell ruthlessly had them killed, sometimes even after they had been disarmed. And second, Cromwell was insufferably puritanical. His rhetoric sounds surprisingly similar to today's religious right-wingers in America's Republican party or Britain's Conservative/Tory party. In essence, then, Cromwell stripped away all the majesty that had come with the crown, but he wielded power in an even uglier manner.
When Cromwell finally died of natural causes a decade after becoming "Lord Protector", the monarchy was of course restored with Charles II (son of the martyred Charles I) returning from exile in France to assume the throne. And as it happens, Charles II was quite the hedonist, sleeping with scores of women and throwing wild parties, a 180-degree switch from pious stick-in-the-mud Cromwell.
Valarie and I found ourselves chuckling when this portion of Schama's DVD came onscreen. Despite it being 350-year-old history, watching Charles II replace Cromwell felt as if Bill Clinton were taking over for George W. Bush instead of the reverse.
I believe in God and I'm not necessarily an advocate for debauchery, but I'm all too happy to accept the reckless womanizing of a leader if he can at least be reasonable when it comes to leading the nation.
And as much as I believe in democracy, I have to say: if there were some way of guaranteeing that only good kings and queens took the throne (which of course there isn't), I actually might support the kind of constitutional monarchy that came with Charles II and, to a greater extent, William and Mary down the road a few years.
Noble and fair as democracy is in theory - the voice of the people and all that - it's always clouded by politics, special interests, and the difficulty of building consensus. Much as it would freak out many Americans, I can't help but daydream of King William of the Clinton monarchial line taking the throne.