The Bookman – Aug 1912
* “The Life of James, Duke of Ormonde,” by Lady Burghclere.
Lady Burghclere has written a most attractive biography. It would be pleasant to add that she has written a fresh and judicial history ; but it would not be true. She has attempted to give us here (despite the modesty of her title) not only the life but the times of Ormonde, and, while the life is a great success both in interest and in portraiture, the times are a success only in interest. Lady Burghclere seems to have made no deep study of seventeenth-century Ireland. She light-heartedly entitles the fifth chapter in her first volume ” Massacre and Rebellion,” for instance, thus giving an entirely false conception of the nature of the rising of 1641. It is surely time that responsible historians should cease to perpetuate an ancient calumny originally invented for political reasons. Lecky was no partisan of the native Irish, but he has stated it as his deliberate judgment that ” the rebellion was a defensive war, entered into in order to secure a toleration of the religion of the Irish people. … It may boldly be asserted that the statement of a general and organized massacre is utterly and absolutely untrue.” Unfortunately, Lecky only touched seventeenth-century Ireland in passing : not until we have someone to do for Ireland of the seventeenth century what Lecky did for Ireland of the eighteenth century, are writers such as Lady Burghclere likely to cease repeating the old prejudices and errors. But, even without another Lecky, it is strange that she should permit herself to say of a people who were fighting for the freedom of their religion and the repossession of their homes that ” it was no exalted patriotism, but pillage and revenge that commended the war to the natives of Ulster.”
More original, as an instance of Lady Burghclere’s failure to grasp the realities of seventeenth-century Ireland, is her condonation of Wentworth’s attempt to suppress the Irish woollen industry.
“[Wentworth] has frequently been reproached ” (says the author)” for wilfully destroying the cloth manufacture, in order that the Irish, who, as regards hare necessities, were a self-sufficing people, should be kept dependent on England. But Free Traders should hesitate before they endorse this accusation, since his action consisted in repealing the prohibition to support wool.”
Unfortunately for Lady Burghclere, the ” accusation ” against Wentworth of undermining the woollen trade of the Irish for English ends is made on the strength of his own letters on the matter : ” for,” he wrote, ” they [the Irish] might beat us out of the trade itself by undeiselling us which they were able to do.” There may be theories of Imperialism according to which Wentworth’s action is defensible. But to defend it on the ground of Free Trade is like defending some of the great assassinations of history on the ground of eugenics. It is to ignore equally the larger consequences of the deed and the motives of the perpetrator.
In spite of the gaps and errors in the historical background against which we see him, however, Ormonde stands out in the present volumes with a wonderful reality and spell ; the fact that, in comparison with nearly all whom he served, he was so much the man of honour, gives his figure an abiding interest of nobleness. Exceptional in strength, witty, judicious, tolerant, fearless, a ruler of men, he was for long the bulwark of the Stuart power in Ireland—the very model of the best sort of Cavalier. His loyalty to the Stuarts seems to me one of the psychological puzzles of history. As a youth, he saw his family robbed and ruined by one Stuart and one Duke of Buckingham : as an old man, towards the end of a life of service, he found himself ignored and ostracized by another Stuart and another Duke of Buckingham ; yet never for a moment did his loyalty to the throne waver. He accepted the service of the monarchy as a sort of religious duty. ” However ill I may stand at Court,” he declared in a fine sentence, ” I am resolved to lye well in the chronicle.” Both in his notion of duty and in his thirst for fame he is like a character out of the Heroic Age. It would not be far from the truth to say that he served king first and conscience afterwards. Yet there was not a servile inch in his body. When the all-powerful Wentworth ordered peers and commoners alike to lay aside their swords on entering the Parliament in Dublin, Ormonde alone resisted the officer’s attempt to disarm him at the door and told him that ” if he had his sword it should be in his guts.” It was a dangerous piece of independence, and it was doubtful for some time whether it was going to ruin Ormonde or to make him. And though, nearly forty years after this, he was submissive enough under the slights of Charles II., he was good-humouredly, not cravenly, so. When, during this period, Colonel Cary Dillon came to ask him to further his interests with the king, observing that he had no friend at Court but God and His Grace, the Duke replied with a whimsical cynicism : ” Alas ! poor Cary, I pity thee ; thou couldest not have two friends that had less interest at Court, or less respect shown them there.”
There is no period of his life when Ormonde shows more attractively than in those times of misfortune. He was born to be a figure of romance, but he becomes doubly so when King Charles publicly frowns upon him and when Buckingham’s scoundrels, Flood and the others, set upon him at night in St. James’s Street and gallop him off towards the gallows at Tyburn with the intention of stringing him up there. Lady Burghclere excels in giving us a vivid narrative of adventures of this romantic sort. She brings out the quality of the man clearly, too, by the method of her narrative—his tolerance, his serenity, his unfailing humour, his outspokenness, his fidelity to what will seem to most people nowadays a narrow conception of public duty. His extraordinary Cavalier loyalty is seen in his perfectly sincere reference to the dead Charles II.—-the King who ” had used him, laughed with him, flouted him, and leant on him “—as the ” best King, the best master, and (if I may be so saucy as to say so) the best friend that man ever had.” It was because, little of a mystic though he was, he had a kind of religious loyalty to kings in his blood, that he who might have revolutionized Ireland never did anything bigger than carry on the King’s Government in it. He was a great Cavalier, even a great governor, rather than a great statesman. It is fitting that he should have been buried in Westminster Abbey for he faithfully represented the English and not the Irish interest in Ireland. At the same time, even those who hold that his ideals were absolutely wrong must respect him as the noblest of the moderate men who appeared on the other side in the age of the Stuarts.