7. ‘Greater advantages than any Prince before him ‘
GEO/ADD/32/116, ‘Henry VIII’ in Richard II to Henry VIII, from A Short History of England from ye Earliest Times to ye accession of the present Royal Family, with remarks on ye Govern[ment] Laws & Constitutions, with ye various alterations they have gone thro’, during this long Period. [1756-1780]
The selection of papers referred to as the ‘History Essays’ typically explore key events in the reign of each English monarch from the Anglo-Saxons through to the House of Stuart. Individuals who had a more prominent role in history appear in multiple essays, and accounts of their reign are often offered from different perspectives. This is most true of Henry VIII, about whom George not only wrote a series of notes, but also two essays (GEO/ADD/32/118-125, and 32/139-151). The first of these is more inclined toward politics, while the other focuses on matters of religion and interactions with Rome.
In a series of three schoolboy-like exercises (GEO/ADD/32/115-117), George can be seen learning key facts about the Tudor monarch as he considers how ‘Henry VIII came with great advantages to the Crown’. These papers are strikingly similar to one another and only present subtle differences as each document lists a series of points explaining why Henry VIII was a great monarch. Presumably this was a memory test set by his tutor as two of these documents (116 and 117) are almost identical.
Yet George’s papers on Henry VIII also have a playful element, and the subtle linguistic changes that take place in each successive rewriting echo the tone of the character sketches of prominent politicians and even monarchs found elsewhere in the collection. Hence, we find that Henry VIII was ‘a very good scholler, considering the times’ — a rather backhanded compliment, particularly as an earlier version bestowed more praise, and described Henry VIII as a good scholar and a learned man! Similar backhanded compliments are found throughout the essays on Henry VIII. A manicule drawn in the margin next to a passage that discusses a 1523 parliament and taxation has the word ‘nonsense’ jotted above it — it is not clear if this is a judgement on Henry’s policies or on George’s interpretation of them (GEO/ADD/32/119).
Interestingly, while Henry VIII features prominently in the history essays, neither of the essays about him is finished. At the bottom of the first essay, in a different hand (possibly that of the Earl of Bute), is the note ‘here wants the kings death’ (32/118-125, at 125). The second essay on Henry VIII, while supposedly offering an ‘Abstract of the History of Englan’ [sic] also omits this key life event. Whereas the essays on other monarchs are rounded off with a death-bed summary of their character, the papers on Henry VIII are far more interested in the turbulence of the Reformation and seem to find little of use in the latter years of the king’s reign. Are these simply unfinished schoolboy exercises, or did George fail to draw any worthwhile lessons from the final years of Henry VIII’s life?
To consider the history papers as schoolboy exercises, look out for corrections in different handwriting in the following papers:
“A Chronological Abstract of the History of England”
“Edward VI to Charles I”
“History of France”
8. ‘Indolent, effeminate, & much given to Vice’
GEO/ADD/32/47-54 To death of John 1216, from A Short History of England from ye Earliest Times to ye accession of the present Royal Family, with remarks on ye Govern[ment] Laws & Constitutions, with ye various alterations they have gone thro’, during this long Period [1756-1780]
The essay known as ‘To the death of John’ is something of an outlier within the history papers. This title has been given to these papers in cataloguing and yet internal features point to the essay on King John having a life both as a stand-alone piece of work and as part of a broader survey of the early English monarchy. Pagination is continuous with the essays grouped in the ‘Pre-Roman – Henry II’ section; however, the essay on John is housed separately, and has historically had a stand-alone title. It is striking that the essay is known in relation to the death of its subject as, with the exception of Henry VIII (see above), each monarch is the subject of an essay that spans the period between their ascension to the throne and their death. Viewed in this light, the essay on John is part of a larger project to provide ‘A Short History of England from the Earliest Times to the accession of the present Royal Family, with remarks on the Government, Laws, and Constitutions, with the various alterations they have gone through during this long Period’ as well as a work in its own right.
In light of this full title, the papers that we refer to as histories could just as easily be categorised in the revenue and taxation or constitution sections of the collection. What separates them from these other categories is the way each monarch is characterised, and their histories inflected with George’s personal opinions. Concluding with a reflection on the character of King John, this essay demonstrates that there is a creative element to the history papers, and that they are offering George’s interpretation of events rather than simply being a process of learning facts, figures and dates – something that is supported by the large number of crossings out and reworkings in these papers! While the main point of these papers is to learn English history, and so show that he has a right to be the British King, there is also a sense in which the history essays function as a guide to kingship. A successful ruler will not succumb to the temptation to be tyrannical, nor will he commit such nonsensical acts as those acknowledged in the essay on Henry VIII.
In contrast to the reign of King John, this essay also includes the history of Richard Cœur de Lion, who is described as having ‘a great deal of natural eloquence, cheerful enough in conversation’, and being of an ‘open generous disposition’ and ‘true to his word’. The difference between the two characters could not be more pronounced. An interest in character writing came to characterize many of George’s papers with three essays in the ‘Revenue and Taxation’ papers actually offering character descriptions — or rather character assassinations! — of several key political figures. Written out time and again, the characters become more nuanced as the same figures are subjected to George’s ire over and over again.
To explore some of George’s character sketches see:
“Draft essay on the characters of key players in government during the time of King William III”
“Essay on revenue and Parliamentary sessions during the first year of the reign of William III and Mary II”
“The Civil War to Charles II”
“Characters of the most eminent Persons in the Reign of King William”
9. European Allies and a Global Economy
GEO/ADD/32/2454-2457, Drafts of an essay on the geography of Russia [1756-1766]
As well his learning the history of England and its European neighbours, the ‘Essays’ also show George grappling with European geography. There is a clear parallel between the history and geography papers as major countries appear in both parts of the collection. However, there are subtle variations, as some countries that are absent from the history papers are explored in the geographical essays. These additions are Bohemia, Hungary and Norway. Germany is also given a place in the geographical papers, but its history is explored in the papers on the Holy Roman Empire.
Unusually for the ‘Essays’, the geography papers are fairly systematic, and share the same basic structure, suggesting that this was an exercise set to learn key information about each country with a view to being able to ‘compare and contrast’. Fair copies of these essays all have the same pattern: moving through the geographical borders of each territory and setting down their longitude before turning to consider mountains, rivers, key states or counties, and eventually outlining their benefits as a potential trading partners for Britain. The essay on Russia, however, breaks this model and offers a unique case within the geography papers as it encroaches on the realm of history, and even turns to anecdote.
A digression on the history of trade with Russia commences with an exploration of commerce during the reign of Edward VI. After an outline of trade and affairs with the Dutch East India Company, the figure of Peter the Great appears, and the essay recounts his journey to learn the Arts and Sciences so that he could begin to turn his hand to the art of ship building. Gaining knowledge of waterways is in keeping with the essay’s interest in trade and is a natural extension of George’s interest in the lakes and rivers that cross Russia. These digressions allow for a closer engagement with matters that captured George’s personal interests. Conscious of the way these self-indulgent moments prohibit a factual engagement with geographical features, George checks himself and returns to the task at hand of exploring the benefits of European trade.
To explore the similarities between the geography papers see:
“Drafts of an essay on the geography of Sweden”