« AnteriorContinuar »
ties of fire and pestilence, which overwhelmed London, seemed a visible judgment of God upon the new regime.
If Charles' troubles had been only domestic, it is probable that he might have lived over them, without the desperate struggles of the Popish Plot and the Whig reaction. But England was, by this time, drawn into the whirlpool of European politics. It was no longer possible to pursue the peaceful course of Charles I, or to fight out our own battles without interference, as we had done during the Civil War. France, our ally during the Commonwealth, was now threatening to dominate the Continent, and Dutch trade rivalry was still acute. Spain had now definitely ceased to count as a first-class European power, and it was with France and Holland that our policy was mainly concerned. A patriotic Englishman might have hesitated, at the beginning of the reign, which of these to oppose. As the situation developed, it became more and more apparent that the real enemy was Louis. However much we might quarrel with Holland, it had already become the fixed and traditional maxim of our policy that the Low Countries must not fall into the hands of any great Continental power. The Dutch Republic was evidently the prize at which Louis XIV was aiming. While the Dutch army was going to pieces under the De Witts, and the forts, which were the sole protection of that exposed frontier, were being neglected, the great professional host of France. was preparing to strike once, and strike no more. only remained for the equally formidable diplomacy of Versailles to isolate the victim, and if possible, to find some ally to crush the sea power, which might, on the outbreak of war, sweep French commerce from the sea.
It was a different France from that of the cardinals that now confronted our diplomacy. They had been content to pursue a safe and prudent policy, strengthening their country without unduly alarming the rest of Europe.
But the personality of Louis soon changed all this. From his earliest years he had found himself the centre of unbounded adulation; he was the most renowned monarch in Europe, and everybody told him so. The many portraits of him tell but one tale, that of a high and sensitive spirit, warped and stunted by the Satanic pride which hardened round him like a shell. His will was God's law, and nothing was fit to stand in its way. With an ability vastly inferior to that of the cardinals, for the magnificent Louis had the talent of an industrious office clerk, he plunged into a policy of aggression, which they had been too wise to adopt. Even the Pope was not exempt from his bully's violence.
It was not at Holland, but at Flanders, that his ambition was at first directed. He even gave a niggardly support to the Dutch in their war against England. This war, which was the heritage of the Commonwealth, first revealed the unsatisfactory nature of Charles' Government, and made men sigh for another Oliver. It was a struggle of the same desperate nature as the first Dutch War, and, as far as bravery went, there was nothing to choose between the two sides. The four days' battle in the Downs was one of the most desperately contested fights in all history, and ended in our fleet getting considerably the worst of it. The war, however, had been fairly satisfactory from our point of view, until an utterly unexpected and humiliating disaster showed England to what a pass we had been brought by the King's Government. Negotiations for peace were already proceeding, and England had asked for an armistice, which was refused. In spite of this, our Nell Gwyn Defender went calmly on with a policy of retrenchment, and actually laid up the ships which should have been watching for every movement of De Ruyter. We know what followed; the ominous news that a great fleet had appeared off Harwich, and then that they had arrived in the Nore,
stormed Sheerness, and were burning the King's ships up the Medway, even threatening London itself. Never had a powerful country been subjected to a more exasperating reverse, and the King himself, so far from being heartbroken at the catastrophe, was hunting moths to the delectation of his mistresses. No wonder that the London citizens, driven almost to distraction, were calling out in the streets for Parliament to be summoned. And no wonder that poor Clarendon, already unpopular, had to bear the blame of a situation for which he was only partially responsible.
The navy had sadly degenerated since the days of Blake. This was not altogether the fault of Charles, who found his naval administration, on his accession, crippled by debt. But apathy and corruption were allowed to do their work here, as elsewhere. The experiment of making soldiers into sailors had answered surprisingly well, but it was not the same thing as making captains out of courtiers, whose sole qualification for the post was their bravery. From the Duke of York downwards, these courtiers went to sea, much to the prejudice of the old genuine sea-captains or tarpaulins. Not that the service was bad for the courtiers themselves, since even the gross Dorset caught a breath of clear sea air and seamanly spirit, in the swinging song he indites to the ladies on land:
Should foggy Opdam chance to know
The Dutch would scorn so weak a foe,
And quit their fort at Goree,
For what resistance can they find
From men who've left their hearts behind?
With a fal-lal-lal-lal-la!”
But there was admiration for the tarpaulin, even in Court circles. Wycherley's masterpiece, the "Plain Dealer," is clear proof of this. Macaulay, who treats of the play in one of his essays, has characteristically failed
to appreciate the character of the hero, in whom he can only see a ferocious sensualist, the worst even of Wycherley's creations. Captain Manly is certainly neither a moral nor an amiable person, but he is genuinely in love with his profession, and he is ready to sacrifice himself for his duty. This is, and is intended to be, the redeeming feature of his character. He has obtained his command
by honour, not interest," and he has chosen to sink his ship rather than let her fall into the hands of the Dutch. He gives his last twenty pounds to his boat's crew: "What," he says, "would you have the poor brave honest fellows want?" This trait in Manly shines brighter by contrast with the prosperous City alderman, whose only concern with the war is that it spoils his trade.
It would have been well if something of Manly's spirit could have been infused among the Court. The case of the sailors and those who worked in the docks was pitiable. The navy was kept manned by unsparing use of the press, which sometimes was reduced to the scriptural expedient of laying hold on the halt and maimed, and compelling them to come in. Pepys' Diary is full of the sad cases of men of every rank who were perishing from want of pay. To such a pass had things arrived, that many English sailors actually took service with the Dutch, who paid in ready money, and not in promises. When De Ruyter's fleet was in the Medway, some of these traitors were actually heard calling upon their old shipmates to join them.
The descent upon the Medway was of the nature of a humiliation rather than a disaster, and the peace concluded at Breda was by no means unfavourable to England. So far the royal policy was, in its aim, perfectly defensible from the patriotic standpoint, and for its bungling execution it was possible to find a scapegoat. The King and the nation alike were only too glad to be rid of Clarendon, and the wildest accusations were levelled
against him. He had negotiated the Portuguese marriage in order to place the succession to the throne in his own family, he had built a palace for himself from the proceeds of Dunkirk. The cry was:
"Three sights to be seen,
Dunkirk, Tangier, and a barren queen,"
all three charges, significantly enough, being levelled at the Minister's pro-French policy, of which the Portuguese marriage had been part. Already the nation was beginning to recognize its real enemy.
Louis was now showing his hand. The death of Philip IV afforded him a pretext for enlarging his frontiers at the expense of the inert and helpless Spanish Empire. Nothing could have suited his purpose better than strife between the two Protestant powers. His two great commanders were soon at work; the Franche Comté fell before Condé, Turenne was capturing fortress after fortress in Flanders. Then a dramatic check was put to French ambition by a policy worthy of Cromwell himself, which united the three Protestant powers of the north, and gave Louis to understand that so far he might go, but no further. For a short time England, Holland and Sweden are found standing together, and even opposing Louis with a hauteur equal to his own.
It was high time that something of the sort should be done. The third great struggle between Protestant and Catholic was obviously beginning. France had now definitely broken with her anomalous attitude as leader of European Protestantism. Her great Catholic rival had dropped out of the running, the Austrian branch of the Hapsburgs was fighting for its life against the Infidel, and Louis had stepped into the place of Philip II and Ferdinand. He had, thanks to Louvois, an army so much superior to any other that could be brought against it, as to seem for all practical purposes invincible; he was beginning to create a navy; under the auspices of Col