Stamping out Cromwell
June 17, 2010 § 8 Comments
A couple of days ago, I was scrolling through Guardian headlines when this one stopped me cold, a piece by staff writer Stephen Moss: We cut off the head of Charles I – so why are we putting it back on a stamp? Even if you’re not into civil war history or stamps, that tart headline is hard to resist. The subtitle’s even more deliciously mean: “He was a hopeless monarch. The stamp should be second-class only…or relegated to heir mail.”
Moss was reacting to Tuesday’s issue of seven stamps commemorating the House of Stuart, one for each sovereign, issued in a set that arranges them chronologically. (See below.) But look at the stamp prices. At the top of the hierarchy you have the first-class James I and Charles I. Then there’s the 88p Queen Anne, the 67p-each William and Mary, and at the bottom of price scale Charles II and James II, who rank 60p. It’s amusing and perhaps instructive to read the decreasing stamp values as a contemporary assessment of monarchical worth, in which the second round of Stuart political management is trumped by the wisdom of William, Mary, and Anne.
But Moss’s real objection is commemorating rulers–especially bad ones–at all. Paying them tribute just perpetuates the conception of history as a sequence of piquant or harrowing narratives about the rich and famous. The Stuart stamps are the fourth in a series representing the British dynasties of the Yorks and Lancasters, the Tudors, and the Stewarts of Scotland. Next up: the Hanovers and Windsors.
Moss doesn’t mention that despite its conservatism, the Royal Mail does attempt to temper its old-style history approach with companion sets of stamps representing significant political and cultural developments of the times. So instead of sticking a 60p Charles II on your envelope, you could go for an 88p John Milton, a first-class William Harvey, a 97p Castle Howard, or a 60p Battle of Naseby stamp, on which a triumphant Lord Fairfax sits atop an equally pleased-looking horse.
Crudely speaking, politically, that’s two for the Parliamentarians—John Milton and Naseby. One for the Royalists, considering that William Harvey doctored the first two Stuarts and plenty of wounded Royalists. And one draw, although you have to admit that Castle Howard (aka the Brideshead Revisited house), built after the civil wars, looks like the kind of place where the rich and famous would lead piquant or harrowing lives.
All of this is another reminder how difficult it is to conceive of the history of the English civil wars without resorting to dichotomies—the individual versus the communal, king versus commoner—and to polemics like Mr. Moss’s, which, don’t get me wrong, I got a kick out of. Besides, he has a point. I did only three seconds of research, but as far as I could determine Oliver Cromwell continues to be stampless in the United Kingdom, despite his having improved the reach and routine of mail delivery.