From Bayeux to Guernica: The Depiction of Power, Destruction, and Suffering in War Art

See the PDF of the slides used in my talk


In this talk I want to compare and contrast two important works of art about war, the “Bayeux Tapestry” (or the “Canterbury Embroidery”) (henceforth BT) which is perhaps the “creation” of Odo Bishop of Kent and Bayeux, which was done in the 1070s, and Pablo Picasso’s painting “Guernica” (1937). Even though they are separated in time by some 860 years they have some common elements and themes which suggest that there is a universal human response to war and violence which we should take not of.

Let us begin by looking at other people looking at these works on public display in museums, before turning to looking at these works ourselves in more detail.

Our “looking” will be done via the digitigised images of these works which are available online. I have use two sites and modified them for my purposes on my own website. They are a version made by the medieval historian Carolyn Schriber who divided the Bayeux Tapestry into 35 discrete “events” which I have modified slightly:

“The Bayeux Tapestry (c. 1070) (Carolyn Schriber Version)”

And the higher quality version made available by the Bayeux Museum, which I have modified slightly on my website as well:

the official Bayeux Museum version: “Official digital representation of the Bayeux Tapestry – 11th century. Credits: City of Bayeux, DRAC Normandie, University of Caen Normandie, CNRS, Ensicaen, Photos: 2017 – La Fabrique de patrimoines en Normandie.” <official Bayeux Museum version

my version “The Bayeux Tapestry (c. 1070) [Bayeux Museum Version]” my version

As we look at these works we should ask ourselves the following questions:

  1. What do you see in this picture?
  2. How big is it?
  3. Why is it this size?
  4. What is it depicting / telling us?
  5. Who is telling us about what is being depicted?
  6. What is the purpose of this depiction / telling?
  7. Who was the intended audience?
  8. Is it “art” or is it “propaganda”?
  9. How should we interpret it?
  10. What do they have in common?
  11. How are they different?
  12. So what?

An Overview of the Works

Let us begin our “looking” with an overview of the works, beginning with the BT.

The Bayeux Tapestry, or rather “Canterbury Embroidery”, was commissioned by Odo Earl of Kent and Bishop of Bayeux, William’s maternal half-brother. It was created in Canterbury, England during the 1070s, probably by monks, in order to celebrate the invasion and conquest of England in Sept. 1066 by the Normans. It is 50 cms high and 70 metres long.

It is difficult to know who exactly was the “creator” of this work as it was a collaborative work administered by William’s half brother Odo. He must have had a team of people working under him, but who created the overall design of the work, how this work was delegated to others to complete, the sequence of events which were to be depicted, and how they were to be depicted, remains a mystery as no record was kept or survived. It is also unknown who organised and designed the very large number of smaller, often animal, images above and below the main middle panel.

We have two images of Odo in the TP itself, one of him eating and talking to William before the battle (P44) (sitting on the left under the roof of some kind of building or shelter) and another of him in battle on horseback wielding a club (P54).

My interpretation of this images is given at the end of this essay.
One way to look at the BT as a whole is a montage of all 35 panels/”events” of Schriver’s online edition.

Or even better, to go to the Bayeux Museum website to see the “long ribbon” or “panorama” of images (some 58 numbered “panels” and scroll across them from one end to the other: panorama

Compare this panoramic view with the view of just one of these panels which contains considerable detail. One such panel is Panel 53 which shows injured horses in battle with the typical added details of images in the top and bottom smaller panels (in most cases animals but here injured and dead soldiers as well):

Now for an overview of the second work “Guernica”.

The creator is definitely the famous and great “Cubist” painter Pablo Picasso (1881-1973).

The painting “Guernica” was a mural which was commissioned by the Spanish republican government for the International Exposition held in Paris between May and November 1937. It was intended as a protest of the bombing of the Basque town of Guernica on 26 April 1937 by planes from the German (Nazi) air force to aid Franco during the Spanish Civil War. It is 3.49 metres high and 7.76 metres wide.

A Brief Interlude

This is a heads-up of what is to come: a montage of 5 common elements of the works with 1 example from each work:

  • dead and decapitated soldiers
  • an injured horse
  • a burning building
  • a light
  • a woman

A more detailed discussion of each work follows, in reverse chronological order.

II. Guernica

The finished painting can appear confusing to first-time viewers because of the jumble of images and the cubist style used by Picasso:

This early sketch from 6 May 1937 as Picasso was planning the final form of the painting gives a simpler idea of what he had in mind:

In my analysis of the painting I have identified ten major components:

The painting has a pyramidal structure (red lines) and contains the following components:

  1. the bull
  2. the grieving woman with her dead child
  3. the fallen statue of a warrior, with its head broken off
  4. the bird flying from the wound in the side of the horse
  5. the image of the sun or electric light
  6. the wounded horse with a gash in its side
  7. the sprouting flower
  8. the woman with the lamp leaning out of the burning building
  9. the woman fleeing the burning building
  10. the woman falling from the burning building

The significance and meaning of the various images within the painting are not entirely clear and there have been different explanations offered by art critics and historians over the years.

My summary interpretation is that Picasso is showing us the effects of a bombing raid on innocent civilians and animals in a small town, by shining some light on these appalling events, in the hope that this will arouse outrage and opposition among the public, and that this is a warning of what might happen to the rest of Europe if fascism/nazism is not stopped.

Let us examine each one in more detail.

1.) the bull and 2.) the grieving “weeping” woman with her dead child – the bull might be a symbol of the Spanish people and their strength in opposing injustice and misfortune. It seems to be standing in a protective stance to shield the inhabitants of the town; the women is weeping as she holds her child which has been killed in the bombardment of the town. Note that Picasso did many pictures of bulls and horses in his studies of bull fights, and many pictures of weeping women.

3.) the fallen statue of a warrior, with its head broken off – in the sketch shown above the warrior is a real man but here he is a statue which has been knocked over in the blast and broken into pieces. The head has been separated and the arm holding a sword has broken off and is in pieces. This could represent the local armed forces which should have protected the town from attack but did not. The statue and the bull are the only male figures in the painting. The others (4) are women.

4.) the bird flying from the wound in the side of the horse – this might represent the soul of a living creature which is departing the dead or dying body.

5.) the image of the sun or electric light – Picasso is illuminating the events of the bombing with three sources of light; the lamp held over the town square by the woman leaning out of the burning building; the flames of the burning building itself, and this object which is part sun and part electric light bulb. The meaning of the latter is not clear.

6.) the wounded horse with a gash in its side – Picasso did many drawings of horses as part of his studies of bull fights. They are shown as noble animals who serve humans in farming, transport, and entertainment.

7.) the sprouting flower – perhaps a sign of hope for the future if people heed the warnings made in the painting

8.) the woman with the lamp leaning out of the burning building – she has a look of horror on her face as she leans out of the building holding a lamp to illuminate what is happening below.

9.) the woman fleeing the burning building – one of the innocent victims of the bombing is trying to escape the fate of the many others who have been injured or killed. She is running towards the centre of the painting.

10.) the woman falling from the burning building – it is not clear whether she has fallen as a result of the blast or jumped to escape the flames. In either case she will be severely injured or will die as a result.

I. The Bayeux Tapestry / Canterbury Embroidery

Let us remind ourselves of the scale and complexity of this work of art before we look at some of the details:

We need to keep in mind that there are several “stories” being told in this 70 meter long work. The main story is told in the larger middle panel where the main events are the invasion and conquest of England by the Normas in 1066. There is another “story” being told in the form of the “titula” or “titles” which are in Latin and provide some description of what is happening and who the figures are. The Bayeux Museum version provides a transcription and translation of these “titles”. The third story, or set of stories, are shown in the smaller panels above and below the main panel.

Here there are pictures of animals, scenes of people working in the fields, other people, religious symbols, and towards the end fallen soldiers and horses.

These smaller images were often ignored, or thought to be mere decorations or “doodles” which added nothing to the main story. Closer analysis has shown that they play an important role in the story. I will discuss the meaning of some of these in what follows.

To begin with the main story line, we can identify some recurring themes in the 35 events (Schriver) or 58 panels (Bayeaux Museum):

  1. Kings and Lords in Discussion
  2. Banquets before and after Battle
  3. Travelling in Boats
  4. Getting Ready for Battle
  5. Battle
  6. Animals and other interesting and curious images

Here is a sampling to look at (the Part number refers to the Schriver version):

1.) Kings and Lords in Discussion

Part 1. Harold Godwinson confers with King Edward the Confessor and sets out on his journey.

Part 8. Harold and William return to Normandy, where William’s daughter Aelfgifu is betrothed to Harold.

Part 12. During the victory celebration William knights Harold, and Harold takes a solemn oath to become the man of William.

Part 15. Harold is crowned King of England. 
(Look for Haley’s Comet.)

2.) Banquets before and after Battle

Part 2. Harold and his men prepare for a sea voyage with a final prayer and meal. Then they board their ships, taking dogs and falcons with them.

Part 23. William and his lords (Odo is on the left of the group of three in the middle) celebrate at a banquet.

3.) Travelling in Boats

Part 3. Their landing on the coast of France is met by the hostile Guy of Ponthieu.

Part 17. William orders the Normans to begin building a fleet.

Part 18. The ships take on their supplies.

Part 19. The horses board, and the ships set sail.

4.) Getting Ready for Battle

Part 24. The Normans build their camp and prepare for battle.

Part 25. The Norman army assembles.

Part 28. The Normans attack on horseback.

Part 29.The Anglo-Saxons meet their attackers on foot.

5.) Battle

Part 31. The battle rages.

Part 34. Harold is struck in the eye by an arrow and dies.

Part 35. The Normans are victorious.

The Tapestry ends suddenly. The end piece seems to be missing.

6.) Other Interesting Images

A. Medieval Technology

Some of the panels are very interesting to historians because they reveal something about how life was lived in the 11th century. Such as tilling the fields, the kinds of weapons and armor used, the building of boats, and cooking food for banquets. Some are shown in the bottom panel (farming) and others in the main larger panel.

Tilling the field (P10)

Armor and Weapons (P37)

Boat building (P36)

Cooking (P42)

B. Injury and Death in Combat

Since this is a work depicting the invasion and conquest of England by the Normans it is not surprising that images of battle take up considerable space, especially towards the end (Panels 48 to 58).

To link back to Picasso’s painting “Guernica” I want to point out the many images in the BT of dead and injured soldiers and horses, the presence of which suggests that the creators of the Tapestry were sensitive to the cost of war to those “little people” (i.e. not noble) who suffered the consequences.

This one of “Two Dead Soldiers” from the bottom panel of P52 reminds me of the fallen statue of the warrior in “Guernica” which has been decapitated and has its sword broken:

Here is the full panel from which this detail comes:

Because armor and swords were expensive items they were “recycled” by stripping the dead for use by replacement soldiers. Here is a detail from P57:

Here is the full panel from which this detail comes:

We forget that until very recently (up to and including WW1) horses played a very important role in war as vehicles for the transport of men, food, and other supplies. Their injury, death and suffering is depicted in the BT in graphic detail, as these images show.

Here are two horses which have been up-ended in combat as their riders are pulled to the ground by soldiers (P53):

Here is the full panel from which this detail comes:

C. Animals and other curious images

For a long time historians did not understand or appreciate the meaning of the images which appear in the narrow panels above and below the main panel.

Halley’s Comet

One that was quite obvious early on was the propitious appearance of the “stella” (star) or Halley’s Comet which appears above the Coronation of King Harold, which indicates that he has the blessing of God (P. 32 and 33).

Mythical Beasts

There are also many images of mythical beasts which are often shown beneath or above the King and the Dukes. They have powers above that of ordinary animals and act as guardians who protect or warn the King of coming dangers or threats.

Here are some examples:

The Centaur was neither man nor beast, it was an ungoverned creature which was in need of some superior power to guide it and authority to make this creature acknowledge the True Faith.

Here are two Centaurs below Harold and his pack of hunting dogs as he sets off to Normandy. Note he his holding a hunting falcon on his arm. (P3).

Note also that there are many noble beasts in the smaller panels: vultures who are bowing their heads in recognition of his authority, and “pards”(big cats which are not lions (which represent kingly power) but which represent the lesser nobility).

The Wyvern was a two legged, half-lizard, half-bird, with a forked tongue and which spat poison.

The larger image (P13):

Guy has arrested Harold and then takes him to William: there are vultures (predatory birds) and camels (symbols of strength and endurance) above; and a naked “Adam and Eve” ( a symbol of sinful humans) and Wyverns below. Note that one Wyvern is spitting at Guy and the other at William, but there is a crucifix in between them.

The Gryphon was a guardian of the souls of the dead (especially those of royalty). It had the body, tail, and back legs of a lion; the head and wings of an eagle and talons on its front legs.

In this panel (P14) William takes Harold to his castle:

Above are lions (symbols of kingly power), Gryphons, and peacocks (also symbols of royalty and nobility).
Below are bowing vultures and pads, with crucifixes interspersed.

D. The “Fabulous Animals” of Aesop and Phaedrus

A very curious but important set of animal images were ignored or misunderstood by historians until relatively recently. They are based upon the stories of Aesop whose fables feature talking animals whose actions are used to teach moral lessons to their readers. Aesop was a Greek slave who used animal stories to indirectly criticize the injustices of his own day. He had to do this in order to avoid punishment, death or sale by his owner.

Many of these stories warn how naive, powerless, gullible, and stupid people can lose their property or even their lives at the hands of those who are more ruthless and powerful than they are. The weak are portrayed as a lamb, or a hare, or a beetle; and the powerful as a lion, a fox, or an eagle. Their use in the panels of the BT seems to be deliberate references to these fables by the monks who stitched the stories onto the linen cloth. It is possible that the young monks who did the stitching had leaned their latin by reading Aesop’s fables and had absorbed the meaning of their moral lessons.

It is hard to know who these people were or why they did this. Did they do this on their own initiative, or did they have permission from those who were supervising the project (like Odo, or his subordinates)? Whatever the reason, these Aesopian stories seem to undermine other parts of the story being depicted in the main central frame, that of the legitimacy of the invasion and conquest of the English by the Normans.

The appearance of the wise, cynical, and often subversive Aesopian animals would seem to undercut the pro-monarchical narrative provided by the plethora of lions, pards, eagles, and vultures among the existing beasts, and the gryphons, wyverns, and centaurs among the mythical beasts. The Aesopian lambs, crows, cranes, goats, dung-beetles, and donkeys provides us with a counter-narrative for another reading of the events being depicted in the main panel.

There are a number of “classic Aesopian fables” (possibly 8 or 9) which are scattered throughout the 70 meter length of BT and appear dozens of times. Five of these classic fables are depicted alongside each other in Panels 4-5, so very early on in the story, and would therefore seem to be of some importance. The predators are the fox, the wolf, and the lion (the lion of course representing monarchical authority); those oppressed and hurt are the crow, the lamb, the bitch, the crane, and other smaller animals (representing ordinary working people).

Here are the full panels (P4 and P5):

Beginning from left to right we have:

1.) The Fox and the Crow: the fox sees that a crow has a piece of cheese in its beak which it wants to steal; he tricks the crow into opening his beak by telling it that he has heard that crows can sing beautifully (which is not true); the vain crow opens its mouth to sing and drops the piece of cheese; the fox then steals and eats the cheese. The moral of the story is that the more powerful can get their way by tricking those who are gullible and vain and who too easily surrender their property without a fight.

2.) The Lamb and the Wolf: the wolf falsely accuses the lamb of having insulted him; he says he overheard her saying bad things about him while she was drinking from the stream not knowing that he was downstream from her and could hear what she was saying; she denies this was the case and provides evidence to show that it could not have been her; the wolf becomes angry with her vigorous defence and his inability to rebut her, so eats her anyway. The moral is that even if the weak are able to defend themselves well through reasoning and argument, the powerful will ignore this and take want they want anyway.

3.) The Bitch and her Puppies: a bitch lends her lair to a pregnant friend who takes advantage of her generosity; after she has given birth to her pups and has raised them to a healthy age she refuses to let her friend have her lair back. The moral is that one should be on guard against being taken advantage of, even by one’s own friends.

4.) The Wolf and the Crane: the wolf has a bone caught in his throa; he sees a crane with a long beak and asks it to help him, in return for which he promises the crane a reward; the crane uses its beak to remove the bone from the wolf’s throat and asks for its reward; the wolf reneges on his promise and there is nothing the crane can do about it. The moral is that the powerful cannot be trusted, and that if you do something for them there is no guarantee that they will reward you for it, and will more than likely go back on any promise they made.

5.) The Lion and the Animals: soon after the Lion King made himself king of all the animals he wanted to win the trust of his subjects by saying he would give up his habit of eating meat (i.e. eating them) and would distribute justice equally and without favour; after a while he reverts back to his old habits and devours all the animals anyway. The moral of the story is that predators cannot and will not give up their predatory habits, so it is foolish to trust them when they say they will.

In addition to these 5 canonical fables which are referred to early on (P4-5) and several times again, there are other fables which we should note.

6.) The Lion’s share (P7-8). This story is found in the Panel where Guy arrests Harold upon his arrival in Normandy and then is taken prisoner to his castle. In the story the Lion asks some of his subjects to help in hunting for prey; in return for their help he promises them an equal share in what they catch; the hunt is successful but the lion claims the first portion as his right as king; he then claims the second portion as his share of their partnership; and then the third share because he is the strongest, and then finally the fourth because he sees that no one will challenge him. The moral is that one cannot trust the word of the powerful.

There are also a number of more radical Aesopian fables which are alluded to in the BT where the less powerful animals fight back and resist their predators, or undertake a form of passive resistance. These include stories about a goat, a dung-beetle, and a donkey.

7.) The Wolf and the Goat (P6-7). This story is found in the Panel where Harold arrives in Normandy and is arrested by Guy. A wolf catches a goat and allows her to pray before he kills her; she tricks him by calling out for help very loudly; nearby hunters hear her shouts, and they and their dogs hunt down the wolf and kill him. The moral is that a weak but quick thinking person might be able to outwit a predator and call for help (and perhaps get that help) and thus defend their rights.

8.) The Eagle, the Hare, and the Dung-Beetle (P49). As the armies of Williams and Harold are about to confront each there is an interesting pairing of these two radical Aesopian stories. To the left is this one; to the right is the one about the Old Man and the Donkey. In this story the hare is escaping capture by an eagle; the hare asks the dung beetle for help and asylum; the beetle courageously intervenes to beg the eagle to spare the life of the hare in the sacred name of Zeus and the right of asylum; the eagle brushes the beetle away and devours the hare; the beetle is so outraged by the eagle’s behaviour in not acknowledging the right of asylum that he follows the eagle back to its nest and destroys all of its eggs in revenge. This happens several times until Zeus intervenes and castigates the eagle for violating the right of asylum claimed in his name. The moral is that sometimes when a less powerful creature stands up to a more powerful one the “Gods” will intervene to defend the weak against the strong. But usually not.

9.) The Old Man and the Donkey. In this story (which appears twice in the BT) the old man learns that an invading army is approaching and tells the donkey they will have to flee. The donkey tells his owner that he does not care who is his master, him or the soldiers of the invading army, as they are all the same and will both mistreat him whatever he does. He prefers to stay where he is and refuses to go with the old man. The moral is that one should be cynical about the nature of power that the strong have over the weak, and that a change of master will not necessarily improve one’s situation in life. Perhaps the best one can hope for is to refuse to obey orders unless one has a compelling reason to do so.

It is interesting that both these stories are referred to in the same panel (P49) which is reproduced below:

The two armies are facing off against each other and the battle is bout to begin. In the narrow panel above, we have the usual symbols of royal power (deferential vultures, lions, and pards). However in the narrow panel below we have a symmetrical arrangement of animals bookended by the “Eagle, Hare, and Dung-Beetle” on the left and “The Donkey” on the left. In between these are 2 vultures, 2 pards, 2 crucifixes, 2 more volumes. What this means is hard to tell but it seems to have been deliberately chosen and arranged.

Naked People

I will end with a strange but amusing collection of “naked people” who are scattered throughout the BT. The meaning of these is not clear and I do not have time to go into the matter here. I will just list them, have a chuckle, and move on:


I will conclude by returning to the collection of images from the two works of art which show some interesting similarities in the images of death and destruction chosen by the two different “creators”:

  • dead and decapitated soldiers
  • injured horse
  • burning building
  • a light
  • a woman

Here its also an appropriate moment to look at the depiction of the “creator” of the BT in the BT and reflect on the possible meaning of the animal symbols which surround his depiction:

Recall that the first is of him eating and talking to William before the battle (P44) (he is sitting on the left under the roof of some kind of building or shelter) and the second is of him in battle on horseback wielding a club (P54).

Above Odo and William are from left to right, a Gryphon, a vulture, and two lions. Below are a pard sucking its tail, two vultures and another pard.

In this panel (P54) where Odo is on horseback wielding a club in battle we see at the top on the left a vulture pointing, on the right a vulture bowing head, and in the middle two pards (not lions); and on the bottom on the left and right are fallen soldiers and their shields, in middle is a large horse and a soldier defending him with shield.

One might interpret this to mean that Odo, perhaps the creator or administrator of the TB project, was a senior noble who was valiantly and successfully defending his brother the King in battle, and his legacy and memory in the form of the BT, even though there are many other visual references which are literally interwoven into the tapestry which might be seen to cast doubt on the legitimacy and worth of this endeavour.

Further Exploring and Reading

The Bayeux Museum

At my website:

“The Bayeux Tapestry (c. 1070) Bayeux Museum Version”

“The Bayeux Tapestry (c. 1070)
Carolyn Schriber Version”

“Pablo Picasso (1881-1973): From the Spanish Civil War to Vietnam”

“Images of Liberty and Power: the Art of War and Peace”

At my blog “Reflections on Liberty and Power”:

“Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica” (1937)” (25 June, 2015)

“Picasso and the Anti-Vietnam War Movement 1969” (12 July, 2015)

Mao waves “hello” in his Bathrobe

My wife bought me a wonderful statue of Mao in a flee market in Shanghai, which has become one of my prize possessions and has a plum spot in my study. It was of Mao in his bathrobe after he had swum the width of the Yang-tse River. Here is a photo of my statue:

Like any good dictator Mao wanted to show that he had superior physical powers and therefore was worthy of ruling China. He used to swim the width of the Yang-tse river unassisted (supposedly?) and then emerge, wrap himself in a bathrobe, and acknowledge the universal acclamation of the adoring Chinese people. The image of him dressed in this fashion was used for propaganda purposes as this poster indicates.

Here is another:

See a larger version of this image – 800px wide

My advice to Scott Morrison and Dominic Perrottet is to swim across one of the flooded NSW rivers for a similar photo op. This might (or might not) increase their chances of re-election.

An Allegory of War and Peace

The Dutch legal theorist Hugo Grotius (1583-1645) published the first edition of his important book on the Laws of War and Peace in 1625 while he was in exile in Paris. His second edition of 1670 was published in Amsterdam and came with two etchings, one of himself and another which was an allegorical etching of Justice, War, and Peace (or Bounty) which served as the frontispiece of the book.

The engraver was Romeyn de Hooghe (1645 – 1708) who was a Dutch painter and engraver who made political prints in support King William of Orange (1650-1702). See Romeyn de Hooghe – Wikipedia.

Romeyn de Hooghe (1645 – 1708)

The portrait of Grotius:

See the larger version 1781×3042 px

The allegorical etching is a very interesting visual summary of Grotius’ book. A printed summary of his ideas can be found in Grotius’ “Prolegomena” to his book which I have made available in HTML.

That body of law, however, which is concerned with the mutual relations among states or rulers of states, whether derived from nature, or established by divine ordinances, or having its origin in custom and tacit agreement, few have touched upon. Up to the present time no one has treated it in a comprehensive and systematic manner ; yet the welfare of mankind demands that this task be accomplished. …

Such a work is all the more necessary because in our day, as in former times, there is no lack of men who view this branch of law with contempt as having no reality outside of an empty name. … Of like implication is the statement that for those whom fortune favours might makes right, and that the administration of a state cannot be carried on without injustice. …

Furthermore, the controversies which arise between peoples or kings generally have Mars as their arbiter. That war is irreconcilable with all law is a view held not alone by the ignorant populace ; expressions are often let slip by well-informed and thoughtful men which lend countenance to such a view. Nothing is more common than the assertion of antagonism between law and arms. …

Since our discussion concerning law will have been undertaken in vain if there is no law, in order to open the way for a favourable reception of our work and at the same time to fortify it against attacks, this very serious error must be briefly refuted. …

Man is, to be sure, an animal, but an animal of a superior kind, much farther removed from all other animals than the different kinds of animals are from one another; evidence on this point may be found in the many traits peculiar to the human species. But among the traits characteristic of man is an impelling desire for society, that is, for the social life—not of any and every sort, but peaceful, and organized according to the measure of his intelligence, with those who are of his own kind; this social trend the Stoics called ‘ sociableness’. …

This maintenance of the social order, which we have roughly sketched, and which is consonant with human intelligence, is the source of law properly so called. To this sphere of law belong the abstaining from that which is another’s, the restoration to another of anything of his which we may have, together with any gain which we may have received from it; the obligation to fulfil promises, the making good of a loss incurred through our fault, and the inflicting of penalties upon men according to their deserts. …

From this signification of the word law there has flowed another and more extended meaning. Since over other animals man has the advantage of possessing not only a strong bent towards social life, of which we have spoken, but also a power of discrimination which enables him to [ix] decide what things are agreeable or harmful (as to both things present and things to come), and what can lead to either alternative: in such things it is meet for the nature of man, within the limitations of human intelligence, to follow the direction of a well-tempered judgement, being neither led astray by fear or the allurement of immediate pleasure, nor carried away by rash impulse. Whatever is clearly at variance with such judgement is understood to be contrary also to the law of nature; that is, to the nature of man. …

Least of all should that be admitted which some people imagine, that in war all laws are in abeyance. On the contrary war ought not to be undertaken except for the enforcement of rights ; when once undertaken, it should be carried on only within the bounds of law and good faith. Demosthenes well said that war is directed against those who cannot be held in check by judicial processes. For judgements are efficacious against those who feel that they are too weak to resist; against those who are equally strong, or think that they are, wars [xii] are undertaken. But in order that wars may be justified, they must be carried on with not less scrupulousness than judicial processes are wont to be.

Let the laws be silent, then, in the midst of arms, but only the laws of the State, those that the courts are concerned with, that are adapted only to a state of peace; not those other laws, which are of perpetual validity and suited to all times.

See a larger version of 1800×3050 px

My analysis of the allegories used in the picture follows:

Standing on a round temple is Justice (she holds the scales of justice in her right hand) above Mars (war) who holds a sword in his right hand, next to whom is Peace or Abundance who holds a compass in her left hand (to measure out quantities), over which is draped a snake which is biting its own tail in a circle (a symbol of eternity), and who holds in her right hand the cornucopia (the horn of plenty). On either side of them and slightly behind are some shadowy figures whose meaning is not clear. Mars’ sword points to the left and in the distance is Neptune with his trident and his chariot pulled by horses. Since Holland and England were both aspiring sea powers this may be a reference to this fact. At the foot of the temple at the right are two figures, a man wearing a helmet who is holding another snake over a fire with his right hand (perhaps here a symbol of evil) and with his left holding a woman around her waste; she is a peasant girl who is wearing a bonnet and a yoke around her shoulders (a symbol of submission) and in her left hand an hour glass (a symbol of the passage of time and of death). At the left is a bearded man in the shadows who is also holding a snake over a fire. At the very bottom of the picture is a dead boar (a symbol of lust and ferocity) which has been sacrificed.

For further material by Grotius see:

  • the main page for Hugo Grotius (1583-1645) which has links to the facsimile PDFs of the 1625 and 1670 editions in Latin
  • an incomplete English translation done at the time of International Peace Conference at The Hague July 4th, 1899, with an introduction by David J. Hill, Assistant Secretary of State of the United States; and with a dedication “To the Memory of Hugo Grotius in Reverence and Gratitude from the United States of America” HTML
  • and an 1925 edition edited by James Brown Scott for the Carnegie Institution, from which I made an HTML version of Grotius’ Prolegomena to the Three Books on The Law Of War And Peace” (1625, 1925)

The Myth of a liberal “Australian Way of Life”

[Note: This post is part of a series on the History of the Classical Liberal Tradition]

Some conservative/liberal groups in Australia have adopted a slogan first used in the US, namely the “Australian Way of Life” modeled on the notion of the “American Way of Life”. It implies that such an “Australian” way of life was and possibly still is a “liberal” one, when in fact, if there is anything such as “the” Australian way of life (which I doubt) it is more likely to be a socialist, statist, or paternalistic one. Or “progressive” in modern parlance.

The idea of an implied “liberal” “Australian way of life” has become part of the Institute of Public Affairs’s mission and sense of itself, and hinted at most recently in the party platform of the newest Australian political party with the very awkward and oddly name of “Australia’s Representatives” (or “AusReps”). I think this is unfortunate and misleading because it fudges over significant issues of Australia’s very un-liberal heritage and history, especially its founding as a penal colony in 1788 and its national founding as a “progressive” and socially “advanced” state in 1901. (In addition, we should mention the founding of an explicitly “Liberal Party” in 1944 by Robert Menzies et al. which I would describe as “LINO” or “liberal in name only” rather than a “true” classical liberal party (free trade anyone?), but this is the topic for another post.)

The “American” Way of Life

The adoption of such a statement, “to maintain and enhance the Australian Way of Life”, with the implication that Australia’s “way of life” was then and is now (or should be now) a “liberal” one, might have made some sense in America where the founding of the American nation state was a product of a war of liberation against the British Empire, a successful act of secession from an irresponsible tax regime, and the writing of a new constitution based upon ideas of natural rights to life, liberty, and property (with the obvious very un-liberal proviso that it did not apply to black slaves). Even in America, there were some “original sins” against liberal principles committed by the “founding fathers”, such as the attempt to dismantle the truly decentralized and “con-federative” nature of the Articles of Confederation and impose a much more centralized national state with a president with powers more like an elected monarch, with growing powers of taxation, the creation of a National Bank and a “national debt”, and economic policies which necessitated considerable state intervention (the so-called “American System” of Hamilton and Clay), and then the high tariffs of the late 19th century.

But the unravelling of the “liberal” (in the “classical” not the modern American sense) “American way of life” accelerated in the 20th century with the creation of the Empire (after the Spanish-American War), the creation of the foundations of a welfare state under FDR in the 1930s and Johnson in 1964, and a massive “national security state” during and after WW2. Now, what remains is what I call a kind of “folk libertarianism” where the rhetoric of individual liberty is still part of public discourse but it has been largely emptied of much content and meaning under these very changed circumstances.

The Manifold “Original Sins” of the Founding of “Liberal” Australia

In my opinion Australia, by contrast, was founded in a state of “origin sin” against liberal principles, or rather several waves of “original sin”, in spite of the claims to the contrary by David Kemp in his multi-volume history of “A Liberal Nation”. [On the rather jarring juxtaposition of statist and liberal images on the cover of this volume, see below.] “Australia, or rather “New South Wales,” began as a military penal colony based upon the principles of a labour camp, with minimal voluntary labour or exchange relations between individuals which were limited to the small but growing number of “free” settlers and not the convict “forced laborers”, a form of military socialism where the governor and military officers controlled the store of provisions with all the problems of a “command economy” or what Mises called a “Zwangswirtschaft”, and a system of land ownership where the entire continent had been claimed as “the property” of the crown, or what I would call a kind of “monarchical or crown communism.” This control of land by “the crown” resulted in the legal and practical dispossession of the native inhabitants and the creation of a system of “crony” land ownership by means of land grants, sales, long-term leasing, and so on. There was the practice of “squatting” on tracts of land, or what the Americans termed “homesteading” which was the established liberal “Lockean” way in which unowned land was converted by use and occupation (“mixing one’s labour” with the soil) into justly owned and legitimate private property. However freehold title was not the most common form of land ownership and the system of “crown land communism” especially in mining leases is still the common practice in Australia.

By the mid-19th century the colonies began to get some tokens of self-governance (what I would call some aspects of “political liberalism” with the development of colonial legislatures) but this was limited throughout the rest of the century and well into the 20th after so-called “independence” by Imperial control of foreign and military policy which meant that Australia never became a truly independent country or nation like the US until after WW2. This very limited form of liberalism in Australia was based upon the “new” liberalism which had emerged in Britain (Hobhouse and Green) which had dramatically revised the more “radical” kind of liberalism which was the foundation of the actions of reformers like Richard Cobden in the 1830s and 1840s. The “antipodean” form of liberalism which was prevalent in Australia in the late 19th century was defined by extensive government involvement in the ownership and supply of key infrastructure activities like ports, railways, and other public transport (trams), as well as grain storage and delivery. This was described at the time quite correctly as “colonial socialism” and to this was added from “the left” the very unliberal views of the “labour movement” which resulted in the formation of the Labor Party in the last decade of the 19th century.

One should also mention the great split which had emerged as industrialization took place between the supporters of liberal free trade (concentrated in Sydney) and un-liberal protectionism (concentrated in Melbourne). The success of the protectionists in getting their policy adopted as a cornerstone of the economic policy of the new “Commonwealth of Australia” in 1901 added to the growing list of “original sins” against liberal principles which lay at the very heart of the “new nation”: this included compulsory wage arbitration, the exclusion of certain races from immigrating (the “White Australia Policy”), continued government ownership and control of significant infrastructure, and soon after Federation the adoption of a country-wide land tax which evolved into an income tax. Given these activities, it is not surprising that Australia at the beginning of the 20th century had one of the highest levels of government spending and taxation as a percentage of GDP of the more advanced economies in the world, possibly twice that of the US. For this and other reasons Australia was commonly regarded as an advanced “progressive” country where the practicality and desirability of many socialist principles were being showcased as an example for the rest of the world, which would follow in due course.

One might also add to this toxic brew of government interventions that of the willingness of many Australians to get involved in foreign wars which posed no direct threat to Australia but were directly connected to maintaining the power and prestige of the British Empire. I have in mind the Boer War in South Africa (another war of independence the British opposed) and the First World War which one might describe as a brawl between European Empires which Australia would have been well advised to avoid. To the “myth of a liberal Australian way of life” might be added that of “the myth of ANZAC” which was the way many Australian’s judged themselves as “fit” to be a (semi-)independent nation by their prowess to wage war and kill other people, admittedly as stoically as possible under considerable hardship.

The 20th Century: LINO (liberal in name only)

The history of the growth of the state and its increasing intervention in the economy and over people’s individual lives throughout the course of the 20th century is only another long and very sad chapter in the history of liberal Australia which I cannot go into here in any detail. I have limited my remarks in this post to the “original sins” of Australia’s foundation and not their subsequent development and expansion. But one could conclude from this brief history that contemporary classical liberals/libertarians cannot get any solace in talking about “the Australian way of life” if by this they mean a “liberal” way of life. To paraphrase Robert Menzies and John Howard, the truly “forgotten people” of Australia are not the ordinary taxpayers and “battlers”, but the small handful of true or radical liberals who have popped up from time to time in Australia’s history, disappeared, and then promptly forgotten. [See my collection of some of these “forgotten” true Australian classical liberals and libertarians here. I have also put online Menzies’ radio “fire-side chats”, including “The Forgotten People” talk of May, 1942.]

Note on the “socialist” Sydney Habour Bridge vs. the “liberal” Surf Life Saving Association

The front cover of David Kemp’s third volume of his history of liberalism in Australia – A Liberal State: 1926-1966. How Australians chose Liberalism over Socialism (Melbourne University Press) – has a jarring juxtaposition of images which goes some way in explaining the strange and conflicted nature of “antipodean liberalism”. In the background there is the iconic image of the Sydney Harbour Bridge (completed 1932) which is statist and illiberal in its funding and its construction; and an equally iconic image (in the foreground) of a member of the Surf Life Saving Association which is a private and volunteer association and hence very liberal in its significance.

The Bridge in Curve (1926) painting by Grace Cossington Smith

The Sydney Harbour Bridge was built by a government body (the NSW Dept. of Public Works) and funded by taxpayers (and tolls) rather than by a private firm using its own funds. It cost A£6.25 million and required the coercive confiscation of over 400 private homes and commercial buildings without adequate compensation. It then took 56 years to pay off the loans incurred to build it (1932-88). It thus is a symbol of the worst features of government intervention in the economy (also broadly known as “socialism”). See Sydney Harbour Bridge – Wikipedia

In the foreground we see figures dressed in the distinctive clothing of the privately funded and voluntarily organized Surf Life Saving Association. In “liberal Australia” in 1902 it was illegal for anybody to go into the ocean during daylight hours! Only after this illiberal and prudish law was challenged in the courts that surfing and surf swimming became popular and the need for surf life saving clubs appeared. The Surf Bathing Association of New South Wales was formed on 18 October 1907. I would argue that the SLSA is thus a symbol of the best features of a voluntary, free market society (also known broadly as “liberalism”) and that the image sits rather jarringly in font of the Sydney Harbour Bridge on the cover of the book. See Surf Life Saving Australia – Wikipedia

However, I’m sure Kemp is not asking us here to make a choice between the “socialism” of the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the “liberalism” of the Surf Life Saving Association. Rather, he seems to think that the two go together seamlessly as part of the one “liberal state”. A view I do not share.

“God save us from the King”: or the Problem of Regal Vice

[Also see my post on “James Gillray on Debt and Taxes during the War against Napoleon (23 February, 2021).]

Last Monday (14 June) was “celebrated” here in Australia with a public holiday in most of the country. For some reason the eponymously named state of “Queensland” missed out. Perhaps they wanted to avoid the charade played by the rest of the country by “celebrating” her birthday on her real birthday (21 April 1926).

Not that it really matters for us republicans and libertarians as the “pomp and circumstance” of the modern monarchy (birthdays, royal weddings and births) merely hides the unpleasant truth about how monarchs got their power and authority in the first place (one of their ancestors was the dominant warlord of the day), and whether or not they acquired their vast property holdings and wealth in a legitimate fashion (through conquest and forcible seizure, subsidies from taxpayers) not by making voluntary exchanges of justly acquired or produced goods and services. [For a corrective, see the historical analyses of the origin of monarchies by Thomas Paine, Gustave de Molinari, and Franz Oppenheimer.] Instead they live off the interest and rent they receive from these holdings, along with a negotiated bequest or donation from the taxpayers (via Parliament) to cover the costs of their “official duties”. [Again, for a corrective see the work of the English radical Individualist John Wade who, in the Extraordinary Black Book (1832) collected the data concerning who got what from the British taxpayers as part of the “Civil List”.]

Furthermore, much of what we today associate with the “pomp and ceremony” and the “mystery” of divine or semi-divine rule, what has been called “royal tradition” is in fact a modern invention, perhaps started by the savvy Queen Victoria (1819-1901, reigned 1837-1901).
[See, The Invention of Tradition. Ed. Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger (Cambridge University Press, 1983).] I have argued elsewhere that public ceremonies (whether monarchical or presidential) are a powerful means of instilling reference for and obedience to authority in the minds of the people. See the series of lectures I have given on “The Culture of Liberty vs. the Culture of Authority”; “Propaganda and Obedience to the State”, “Political Propaganda and the State: On Seeing through the Culture of Authority”.] And more recently, I have posted on the older work of Étienne de la Boétie on why people voluntarily submit to this form of “servitude” under a so-called constitutional monarchy, which is mostly of the mind, but which sometimes intrudes into “real politics” when the “crown” or his/her representatives start sacking governments (such as the dismissal of Gough Whitlam in 1975).

So it is a relief to sometimes go back into the past when monarchs were treated with much less fawning admiration and respect, such as the decades of the late 18th and early 19th centuries when the British political caricaturist James Gillray (1756-1815) was cutting lose with his witty and very sharp “cartoons” which showed the more grasping and repulsive behaviour of royals such as King George III and Queen Charlotte and their dissolute son George which would later become King George IV. One can only hope that our era might spawn its own Gillray to mock and expose the shenanigans of the current extended “royal family” which “rules” the U.K. along with its satellites and dependencies like the Commonwealth of Australia.

With this in mind, I have assembled a number of Gillray’s cartoons to serve as an example for contemporary cartoonists, as well as to help me temper my politically grumpy mood and assuage my troubled republican soul. These images are critical of several things which apply even today to the royal family:

  • the sheer cost of supporting such an extended family and their hangers-on at taxpayer expense when ordinary people were suffering hardships and deprivation as a result of the economic impact of war (the wars against France in America in the 1740s, and then the American war of independence in the 1770s, and the war against the French Republic and then Napoleon in the 1790s)
  • that behind the façade of upright and exemplary behaviour (supposedly as the head of the established Christian church) lay appalling personal behaviour which brought the state and the church into disrepute
  • that royals could and should be represented as just like ordinary people and therefore not worthy of being regarded as any way superior or “chosen by God” to lead their subjects and act as “head of state”

How Royals want to be depicted in Official Portraits

[King George III (1738-1820) – reigned 1760-1820. Alan Ramsay’s depiction of George in his coronation robes.]

[Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz (Sophia Charlotte) (1744-1818) who was queen by marriage to King George III. Painting by Thomas Gainsboroguh 1781]

[King George IV (1762-1830) – reigned 1820-1830 (regent from 1811). He was the eldest child of George III and Charlotte.]

The Sordid Business of Royal Weddings and Births to continue the Line and Boost the Family Budget

The marriage of their sons to suitably wealthy European monarchs was a strategy used by George III and Charlotte to increase their wealth independently of the whims of Parliament. In “The Introduction” (22 November 1791) we see an ecstatic King and Queen literally leaping out of their thrones in anticipation of a huge dowry to be paid by the Prussian King for the marriage of his daughter Princess Frederica Charlotte to their son Prince Frederick, the Duke of York.

George cannot believe his eyes when he sees the bags of gold being offered and has to use his spy glass to make sure he has not made an error (this was a common trope by Gillray as George III’s eyesight was deteriorating). Charlotte stretches out her apron in order to receive the coins being carried by Frederica and a large mustachioed Prussian soldier who is escorting the young couple (the bags being carried by the soldier have the sum of £100,000 written on them). George and Charlotte are also happy because Frederick’s marriage was the first legitimate marriage of any of their sons and might produce an heir.

However, the reported amounts of the dowry were exaggerated but the newly wed Prince Frederick, the Duke of York, was granted an additional £18,000 a year from Parliament, and the George III contributed £12,000 a year out of the Civil List. This was in addition to the money he received from the established church in Ireland of £7,000 a year and the revenues generated by the Bishopric of Osnaburgh.

One could usually not accuse Gillray of being subtle, but on occasion he was, as this drawing “Fashionable Contrasts” (1792) demonstrates.

Five years before the birth of George’s (the Prince of Wales) daughter Charlotte, the marriage of his younger brother Frederick (the Duke of York) to Frederica Charlotte, the oldest daughter of the King of Prussia, became the subject of a media frenzy. Perhaps because she was very short, plain looking, and quite plump and thus without the hoped for “aristocratic bearing” one might want to see in a member of the royal family, the press fixated on the size of her feet, which were very small or “dainty” in polite speech. There was also the hope that this couple might produce a legitimate male heir to throne without the complications created by his older brother of an illegal marriage to a catholic or children conceived out of wedlock by one of his many mistresses.

Gillray’s contribution to this media frenzy was to depict two pairs of feet, one pair clearly male with buckles and quite large, lying atop another pair clearly female which were pink and bejeweled and very small. The full title of the drawing was “Fashionable contrasts; – or – the Duchess’s little shoe yielding to the magnitude of the Duke’s foot.”

“The Presentation – or – the Wise Men’s Offering” (9 January 1796).

The son of George III, also a “George” (the future IV), was forced into a loveless marriage to his cousin Princess Caroline of Brunswick in order to get a dowry to pay off his considerable debts. They had one child (his only legitimate child and thus the presumptive heir to the throne), Charlotte, who was born on 7 Jan. 1976, before they separated and George went back to his mistresses.

Gillray has drawn a disheveled and presumably drunk George who has just arrived and is presented with his child (wrapped in swaddling cloth’s like Christ) by an old woman who may be the well-known prostitute and madame “Mother Windsor”. The gathering is of members of the Whig party who are trying to ingratiate themselves with the Prince. Two of their leaders, the two wise men of the party, Charles Fox and Richard Sheridan, are ostentatiously “ass kissing” the baby princess Charlotte. The message appears to be that everybody involved is “prostituting” themselves for something or other.

George III and Charlotte also had a daughter, Charlotte Augusta, or the Princess Royal, to marry off. After many years of negotiation for suitable terms, a marriage to the hereditary Prince Frederick of Wurtemberg was announced in 1796. Gillray immediately seized upon certain physical attributes of the Prince to satirize which appeared in the drawing “For Improving the Breed” (Oct. 24, 1796).

He was physically huge, being rather corpulent (as the size of his belly indicates), very tall for the period (some 6 feet 11 inches or 2.1 meters), and weighed 440 pounds or 200 kilos. For a family as sickly looking as George’s and Charlotte’s this German prince was seen by Gillray as a wonderful breeding opportunity to improve the English royal bloodline. One should also note the obviously phallic handle of the sword protruding just under his belly. The only thing missing is an image of his teeth to complete the picture.

In “The Bridal Night” (May 18, 1797) the extended royal family and their entourage are seen escorting, almost triumphally, the bridal couple into the bed chamber in Windsor Castle on their first night together.

I say “triumphal” as the picture on the wall behind the procession is of an elephant with a cupid sitting on its head blowing a trumpet with the title beneath “Le Triomphe de l’amour” (The Triumph of Love). The word “Love” may also be meant sarcastically as beneath the picture we can see Prime Minister Pitt with a sack of money labelled £80,000 which is the amount Parliament voted for her dowry (thus freeing George III and Charlotte from having to come up with the cash for the wedding to proceed). Thus the title should probably read “The Triumph of Money and Power”.

There is so much detail in the drawing that I will just quote the British Museum commentary on the image:

An elaborate design. The Prince of Würtemberg, grotesquely corpulent, conducts his bride in the procession (right to left) towards the bridal chamber which is led by the King and Queen. George III, plainly dressed and wearing a hat, partly concealed by a pillar, hurries forward; in each hand is a candle-stick holding a guttering candle-end (cf. BMSat 8117). The Queen, covered with jewels and her face hidden by a poke-bonnet, carries a steaming bowl of ‘Posset’. On the back of the Prince’s coat are slung five ribbons from which dangle the jewels of orders; three garters encircle his leg; a star decorates the bag of his wig. The Princess gazes at him from behind her fan. Round her waist is the ribbon of an order, to which is attached a jewel containing a whole length miniature of her husband, which exaggerates his corpulence.

Behind the Princess is a group of princes: the Prince of Wales, in regimentals, is fat and sulky. Prince William of Gloucester stands with splayed-out feet as in BMSat 8716. The Duke of Clarence (caricatured) puts a hand on the right arm of the Prince of Wales. Behind is the more handsome head of the Duke of York. These four heads are clever juxtapositions of variations on the family features. Behind them is the grotesque profile of the Stadholder with closed eyes. The sharp features of Lady Derby tower above the Stadholder. Next him is the Princess of Wales, not caricatured. Two princesses hold up their sister’s train, and, behind, a sea of feathered headdresses recedes in perspective under a lighted chandelier.

Salisbury (left), the Lord Chamberlain, standing stiffly in profile to the right, much caricatured, with wand and key as in BMSat 8649, holds open the door through which the King is about to pass. Pitt, on the outskirts of the procession, carries a sack inscribed ‘£80,000’ (the amount of the Princess’s dowry). On the wall is a large picture, inscribed ‘Le Triomphe de l’Amour’, of an elephant with a little cupid sitting on his neck blowing a trumpet.

It is not clear from the drawing how far into the royal bedchamber the procession is intending to go and how long they will stay. It is amusing to speculate.

Economising on Royal Expenditure: Faux and Real

After fighting and losing the war to prevent the independence of the American colonies the British were forced to capitulate and sign a peace agreement known as the Treaty of Paris in September 1783. This left the British state with massive debts to pay off which was done by levying taxes of all kinds on the ordinary working people of Britain. In this drawing, “A New Way to Pay the National Debt” (1786), Gillray shows how, while ordinary taxpayers were made to suffer, the elite and the Royal family profited from enormous grants authorized by Parliament.

The immediate political background to the drawing was the introduction by Prime Minister William Pitt of a bill in Parliament on 3 April 1786 to reduce the size of the debt, and the continuing refusal of George III to assume responsibility for the large personal debts run up by his son George, the Prince of Wales. Pitt submitted his bill before Parliament and debates began 5 and 6 April, 1786. One of the clauses of the bill concerned a supplementary grant to the “Civil List” (the annual payment to the Royal family and their entourage) of £210,000 to discharge their personal debts. By one estimate, the war against the American colonies had cost the government about £80 million which had increased the size of the national debt to about £250 million. To raise additional funds, the Pitt government imposed taxes a range of goods such as the following: wine, windows, spirits, tobacco, bricks and tiles, gold and silver plate, imported silk, men’s hats, women’s ribbons, perfume, hair powder, horse and carriages, and sporting licenses.

The drawing shows the arched entrance of the Royal Treasury outside of which are gathered in a semi-circle around King George and Charlotte a group of uniformed men playing their instruments and who have their pockets overflowing with coins. They represent the “placemen” who have received sinecures from the Crown and are now “playing George’s tune”. George III and Charlotte stand before a wheel barrow filled with sacks of money and their pockets are literally bulging with coins. George is holding a sack of money on which is written £100,000. Charlotte is also seen taking snuff out of a gold box. The Prime Minister William Pitt, also with pockets bulging with cash, is handing George III yet another large sack of money. On the wall behind them are wall posters and flyers with revealing slogans and titles on them. The central group is framed by a poor armless and legless beggar (possibly a disabled naval veteran) sitting on the ground to the left with his begging hat sitting empty between his legs; and to the right is the figure of George, the Prince of Wales, disheveled and wearing torn clothing receiving a supplementary bag of money with a note which reads “Accept £200000 from your Friend Orleans”, from a well-dressed Frenchman who perhaps is a representative of the French aristocrat, the Duc d’Orléans).

Although depicted as disheveled and impoverished, George the Prince of Wales had received and continued to receive substantial amounts of money from Parliament to fund his decadent lifestyle. When he turned 21 in 1783 he was granted a one off payment of £60,000 from Parliament and an annual income of £50,000. This generous amount was insufficient to cover his gambling and racing debts, and the expensive renovations to his home. To cover these additional expenses Parliament granted him a further £24,000 in 1787 to cover them.

Below the drawing are some amusing dedications, such as “Designed by Helagabalis” (a profligate Roman emperor), “Dedicated to Mons. Necker” (the French Minister of Finance who tried, and failed, to reorganize the French taxation system before the French Revolution), and “Executed by Sejanus” (the head of the Praetorian Guard under emperor Tiberius).

Concerning the posters on the rear wall, one commentator has deciphered them as:

To the left of the arch, for instance, is a notice headed with a violin and bow, announcing the arrival of large assortment of musicians from Germany for the royal entertainment. (Music was one of George’s passions.) This is juxtaposed to another notice containing “Last Dying Speech of Fifty-Four Malefactors executed for robbing a Hen-Roost,” suggestive of the plight of a desperate and starving British populace. The juxtaposition of the two may be intended to recall the cruel emperor Nero who, in the popular phrase, “fiddled while Rome burned.” A third notice suggests that charity from such a king is “a Romance,” an implausible fiction.

To the right of the arch, the handbills lament the spending of the King and Court with “Oeconomy, an old Song,” and suggest the feelings of the British electorate, imposed upon by Pitt’s succession of taxes with: “British Property a Farce,” and “Just published for the benefit of Posterity: The Dying Groans of Liberty.”

The British Museum entry for this drawing notes further that:

On the Treasury wall is a number of placards and torn shreds of paper: ‘Charity A Romance’ (torn); ‘God save the King’ (torn); ‘Last Dying Speech of Fifty-Four Malefactors executed for robbing a Hen-Roost’, headed by a number of bodies hanging from a gibbet (an allusion to the king’s farming activities at Windsor, see BMSat 6918, &c.); a bill headed by a violin and bow and inscribed ‘From Germany just arrived a large & Royal Asortment’ (on the king’s fondness for German musicians); ‘Œconomy an old Song’ (torn); ‘British Property a Farce’ (torn); ‘Just publish’d for the Benefit of Posterity: The Dying Groans of Liberty’; a placard with the Prince of Wales’s feathers and the motto ‘Ich Starve’ (torn), in place of ‘Ich dien’, and another with two clasped hands and the word ‘Orleans’ (torn). The last two are above the heads of the Prince and the Duc d’Orléans.

In the drawing “Frying Sprats, Toasting Muffins” (28 November 1791) Gillray mocks the supposed parsimoniousness of the King and Queen who, despite their vast wealth, cook meals for themselves (sprats or small fish, and muffins which were regarded as food which the poor would eat) over an open fire in order to save money. This is belied by the bulging sack of coins tied to the Queen’s waist. Their claim to be poor was a ploy to justify not spending their wealth on improving the lot of the poor of England or paying off their son’s very large debts, which they expected the Parliament to cover in a grant.

Another drawing mocking the frugality of the King and Queen was “Temperance enjoying a Frugal Meal” (28 July 1792) where George eats a couple of boiled eggs and the Queen a simple green salad.

Other indications of their frugality is the pitcher of water (not wine) standing beside the table, an empty picture frame on the wall showing that they do not spend money on frivolous artistic decorations, and the fact that the King’s britches have been mended with a patch.

The Physical and Moral Deficiencies of the Royals

One of the great myths of monarchy was, and still is to some degree, that those who were destined to rule over us are somehow physically, morally, and spiritually superior to us normal, mortal creatures, that they were somehow chosen by god, by destiny, or by history to assume this important role. But, given the behaviour of the royals in the 1790s and 1810, it was not difficult for Gillray to demonstrate the exact opposite, that they were gluttons, had serial mistresses, fathered children out of wedlock, amassed huge gambling and other debts, and had various physical disabilities, the least of which was being feeble sighted and the worst being feeble minded or even insane in the case of George III (after 1811).

George III was a gift to caricaturists given his many physical weaknesses and obsessive behavior. For starters, he was obsessed with saving money (parsimoniousness) on trivial matters (symbolized by him re-using half finished wax candles) when the regime was in dire financial straits because of the massive cost of the wars waged during his reign. His health deteriorated, his eyesight began to fail, he suffered from dementia, and ultimately was declared unfit to rule, thus ushering in a period of regency after 1811 when his dissolute son, the future George IV ruled in his place. So it was an open invitation for caricaturists to link his physical weaknesses and failures to his political ones.

In the following two drawings Gillray links George III’s physical nearsightedness to his inability to see the two kinds of threat to his regime. One from the Republican or Cromwellian threat from within; and the second from Napoleon from without.

In “A Connoisseur Examining A Cooper” (18 June 1792) we see depicted George III squinting, even under the bright light of his stub of a candle (used to save money), to see the details of a small picture of Oliver Cromwell, who had ruled England as “Protector” between 1653 and 1658 following the overthrow and execution of Charles I in 1649. The picture of Cromwell had been painted by Samuel Cooper and George is supposed to be a connoisseur of fine art, hence the title of the drawing. The North American colonies had of course seceded from the British Crown in 1776 and the French had deposed King Louis XVI in September 1792 and executed him in January 1793. Many in England thought George might be next, including Gillray perhaps, as his very speculative though detailed drawing of a meeting of post-revolutionary British politicians planning the next step in “L’Assemblée Nationale, or Grand Co-operative Meeting in St. Ann’s Hill” (18 June 1804) seems to show (see below).

In the quite similar “The King of Brobdingnag and Gulliver” (26 June 1803) we have George III dressed in a military uniform examining through a spy glass a miniature Napoleon whom he is holding in the palm of his hand.

Gillray depicts Napoleon as Gulliver (from Jonathan Swift’s novel Gulliver’s Travels (1726)) and George as the King of the fictional land of giants named Brobdingnag. The speech bubble is a quote from the novel where the King replies to Gulliver’s description of what English society and government was like:

My little friend Grildrig, you have made a most admirable panegyric upon Yourself and Country, but from what I can gather from your own relation & the answers I have with much pains wringed & extorted from you, I cannot but conclude you to be one of the most pernicious, little – odious -reptiles, that nature ever suffer’d to crawl upon the surface of the Earth.

The joke of course might be that Gillray has reversed matters and that King George is the “Lilliputian” and Napoleon the giant. Napoleon would not be cut down to size until a few years after this drawing was done in 1803, when his invasion of Spain (1808) began to fail and then his disastrous invasion of Russia in 1812 led to the complete route of his massive army.

The moral deficiencies of the royal family were numerous and often the subject of Gillray’s barbs. One particularly damning drawing focused on four of the royals’ ”deadly sins” or vices, namely avarice, drunkenness, gambling, and debauchery – “Vices Overlook’d in the New Proclamation” (1792).

The drawing was a direct response to George III’s crackdown on the dissemination of revolutionary republican tracts like Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man which appeared on the streets of London in March 1791 and February 1792. The King issued a “Royal Proclamation Against Seditious Writings and Publications” in which he made a personal appeal to the people of England , his “faithful and loving subjects”, to resist such seditious material and to the magistrates to hunt down the authors, printers and distributors of such “wicked and seditious writings.”

Gillray used this drawing to point out the hypocrisy of the King acting against the “vice” of sedition while ignoring the vices committed by him, his wife, and his three sons, which he made explicit in the statement at the bottom:

To the Commons of Great Britain, this representation of Vices, which remain unforbidden by Proclamation, is dedicated, as proper for imitation, and in place of the more dangerous ones of Thinking, Speaking & Writing, now forbidden by Authority.

In the first panel is shown the vice of “avarice” in which the King and Queen are hugging large sacks of money while seated at a table in their pyjamas. The queen has two sacks each marked as containing three million pounds, while the King has two five million pound sacks. Open on the table is an account book on which is written “Account of Money at interest in Germany”, a reference to the rumor that the Queen kept secret accounts in banks in her native German state of Mecklenburg.

The second panel, called “drunkenness” shows a very drunk George (their eldest son, the Prince of Wales) being escorted out of a tavern cum brothel which serves strong “Neat Wines” (i.e. not watered down) by two burly looking nightwatchmen. The third panel shows another son Frederick, the Duke of York, standing at a gambling table surrounded by other gamblers getting further into debt. The fourth panel, called “debauchery”, shows Prince William Henry, the Duke of Clarence, wearing a naval officer’s jacket and striped pants, on a divan with his mistress Mrs. Jordan, whose name also appears as the title of picture on the wall, “A Jordan”, of a chamber pot.

Gillray thought that the excesses of George, the Prince of Wales (or Whales as he was sometimes derisively called) deserved a drawing of its own. In “A Voluptuary under the Horrors of Digestion” (2 July 1792) we have a picture in which large circles predominate, thus emphasizing the circumference of his bloated belly in the middle of the picture.

George is reclining on a chair at his dining table having finished his meal. He picks his teeth with a fork, which is also part of his coat of arms hanging on the wall behind him – a crossed knife and fork surrounded by a wine bottle and wine glass each holding a candle. Beneath that is a multi-level cake server with all the medicines his diet and lifestyle requires – remedies for venereal disease, piles, and bad breath. Beneath that in turn is a chamber pot overflowing with his excrement which acts as a paper weight for all his unpaid bills.

On the floor are dice and some books about horse racing and gambling. Through the window at the top left of the picture is the outline of the unfinished and hugely expensive renovations he demanded for his home.

The Dangers faced by Royals when Living in a Revolutionary and Republican Age

“Taking physick – or – the news of shooting the King of Sweden!” (1792).

George III and Charlotte are brought the news that yet another monarch has been killed (“done over”) by revolutionaries – this time the King of Sweden. They are both sitting in the lavatory literally shitting themselves in fear.

If a political assassination did not remove George III then another possibility was an uprising to install a constitutional monarchy. Gillray satirically imagined such a possibility in the very detailed and quite complex drawing of a meeting of an English equivalent of the French National Assembly of 1789: “L’Assemblée Nationale, or Grand Cooperative Meeting in St. Ann’s Hill” (18 June 1804).

Among the throng of people who were supposed to be the leaders and supporters of a new English Republic we can see in the centre Charles Fox and his wife. They are hosting a reception attended by the two major parties of the Opposition, the supporters of Fox and the supporters of Grenville, who might form a “coalition” or “co-operation” to run the republic. There is also a suggestion that with George III out of the way, his son might be persuaded to join the group as a figure-head. The half-figure on the right, dressed in a blue jacket is George (the Prince of Wales). He might be bought off to support the coup if they agreed to pay off his considerable gambling debts. For a more detailed description and attempt to identify all the figures present see the commentary at the British Museum website.

For those who like trivia, some of the incidental detail in the drawing is quite interesting. For example, the Prince of Wales has a paper in his back pocket on which is a quote from Shakespeare’s play Henry IV Part I, where Prince Hal says how he will appear to go along with their “unyoked humour” until such time as he decides to throw off “this loose behaviour” and redeem himself:

I know you all, and will awhile uphold
The unyoked humour of your idleness.
Yet herein will I imitate the sun,
Who doth permit the base contagious clouds
To smother up his beauty from the world,
That, when he please again to be himself,
Being wanted, he may be more wondered at
By breaking through the foul and ugly mists
Of vapors that did seem to strangle him.
If all the year were playing holidays,
To sport would be as tedious as to work;
But when they seldom come, they wished-for come,
And nothing pleaseth but rare accidents.
So when this loose behavior I throw off
And pay the debt I never promised,
By how much better than my word I am,
By so much shall I falsify men’s hopes;
And, like bright metal on a sullen ground,
My reformation, glittering o’er my fault,
Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes
Than that which hath no foil to set it off.
I’ll so offend to make offence a skill,
Redeeming time when men think least I will.

And adorning the back wall of the room are some interesting pictures described at the British Museum page as follows:

The room is palatial. The centre decoration of the wall is an elaborately carved candelabra on a bracket: Napoleon, crowned, naked, and grotesquely emaciated, supports on his shoulders a terrestrial globe, straddling across his large inverted Republican cocked hat (see BMSat 10247, &c.). He looks intently down at Fox. On the left. and in shadow is an oval bust portrait of George III, ‘Pater Patriae’. The frame is decorated with palm-branches. On the r., in a tropical landscape, Indians kneel or prostrate themselves with gestures of adoration before an enormous rising sun. They are ‘Worshipers of the Rising Sun’. The ornate frame is garlanded with grapes and surmounted by the Prince of Wales’s coronet and feathers.

The “Big Picture” of Kings, Politicians, and Emperors carving up the world for their own benefit

By 1805 when these two drawings were made Gillray had come to realize that the behaviour of kings and emperors, and politicians were very similar whether they were dealing with internal matters or foreign affairs. They behaved like “epicurean” diners who were willing to carve up the world for their own or their party’s (and supporters) benefit.

In “The Honors of the Sitting!! a Cabinet Picture” (January 30, 1805) we see George III sitting down to tea with the Tory politician Henry Addington who had been Prime Minister between 1801 and 1804. Peering anxiously through the window is Willam Pitt who had been PM between 1783-1801 and then again after Addington between 1804-1806. George is clearly playing one politician off against the other for his own benefit. At the table he shows Addington a multi-level serving platter with examples of all the kinds of “political goodies” he has to offer if Addington would come over to his side.

Addington had been made a Viscount and was now known as Viscount Sidmouth, which could be twisted to mean “Side-Mouth” or even “Side Board”. The commentary on the British Museum page) for this drawing describes the offerings as follows:

On the table stands a four-tiered dumb waiter. On the top-most shelf is a ducal coronet below are earl’s coronets, a star, and a ribbon; below again are (?) patents’ and on the lowest and largest shelf are loaves and fishes. Sidmouth sits grasping a knife and fork; on his plate is a fish, beside it a ‘loaf’ and a bottle of ‘Imperial Tokay’, the bottle stoppered with a crown. The King says: “Help yourself Doctor [cf. BMSat 9849] there is every thing you can wish for on the Side Board”. Addington answers, glancing sideways towards it, “They are indeed very inviting I cannot help turning a Side-mouth to them.” Pitt, outside a window immediately behind him (r.), looks into the room registering angry alarm; he says, “Zounds that Fellow will get all the Pickings.”

When transferred to the international sphere the political game of “the victor taking the spoils” is much the same in principle only with larger stakes. In “The plumb-pudding in danger: -or- State Epicures taking un Petit Souper” (1805) Pitt is back in office as Prime Minister and is show having dinner with Emperor Napoleon carving up a large plum pudding shaped like the earth.

Since Britain was the great naval power, Pitt has a fork shaped like a trident and is shown carving up the Atlantic Ocean to the west of Britain and including the West Indies. Napoleon, being the leader of a great land army uses a sword to cut off a large section of Europe including France Holland, Spain, Switzerland, Italy, and the Mediterranean, but leaving Sweden and Russia behind. Below the title at the top there is a quote from Shakespeare’s The Tempest iv. 1. : “the great Globe itself, and all which it inherit” with the further comment that it “ is too small to satisfy such insatiable appetites.”

In Act IV, sc. 1 of The Tempest Prospero finally gives his blessing to the marriage of Miranda and Ferdinand and then angrily and somewhat sadly reflects upon “this insubstantial pageant” which so preoccupied rulers to build and rule over “cloud-capp’d towers, gorgeous palaces, solemn temples, (and) the great globe itself”:

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Ye all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep. Sir, I am vex’d;
Bear with my weakness; my, brain is troubled:
Be not disturb’d with my infirmity:
If you be pleased, retire into my cell
And there repose: a turn or two I’ll walk,
To still my beating mind.

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