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Historian Identifies Time When Politicians, Not Footballers, Were Heroic and Popular


New research from the University of Warwick reveals the celebrities and heroes of 17th century England were politicians, not footballers. The study into ballads of the 1600s reveals that the Duke of Monmouth, James Scot, the illegitimate son of Charles II, was hailed as a true hero in ballads, the equivalent of today’s pop music, and despite his flaws, as the people’s Royal he could do no wrong - very much like England’s most recent darling, David Beckham.

In the 17th century the general public- and especially young people- really cared about parliamentary politics, so much so that they sang about political events and figures all the time. Political issues appealed not just to young people’s heads but also to their hearts.

The study entitled “‘England’s Darling’ or ’Senseless Loon’” examines over 30 ballads about the Duke of Monmouth to show that he achieved immortality in black letter ballads, the tabloids and popular media of their day, as Protestant Prince, England’s Glory and Brave and Valiant Hero.

Just as Beckham is hailed as a hero by men and lusted after by women, Monmouth was adorable and much loved by women. One ballad ’Young Jemmy or The Princely Shepherd’ claimed ’he with glances could enslave the heart’. Endless songs celebrated the fact that he was young, handsome, romantic, and a courtly lover of the ladies. Ballads lamenting their love for ’Jemmy’ were particularly common.

Monmouth had a portfolio of virtues - he was a handsome young Royal, military hero and Protestant champion. In traditional ballads that appealed to the lower end of the buying market, he remained an idealised hero, despite the ups and downs of his career. Monmouth was wildly popular, drawing adoring crowds wherever he went, particularly during unofficial ’tours’ in the West Country and Cheshire in 1680 and 1682.

One ballad ’Englands Darling’ describes him as the most loyal of subjects, willing ’to spend his life and fortune/ to support the Church and State’ and calls upon him to ’restore/the ruins of our nation’. His connection with royalty meant Monmouth had the benefit of a ballad convention of freedom from criticism.

Despite disclosures about alleged affairs Beckham remains a national hero. Monmouth was also a man that could do no wrong in the eyes of the public, at least according to traditional ballads. Despite the fact that Monmouth had several mistresses and even allegedly cuckolded his best friend Lord Gray he remained untainted.

There was a ballading battle over the heroism or villany of the Duke of Monmouth, but this only took place in elite metropolitan ballads, bought by the more discerning and informed punter. At street level black letter ballads represented him as an ideal political figure and hero and refused to be swayed by the attacks of his enemies, or the fact that he was, at best, an unlucky politician. Even at the height of the exclusion crisis and after leading a rebellion Monmouth was neither condemned nor attacked.

Angela McShane-Jones, from the University of Warwick, said: “Whereas today footballers win the hearts of the youth, in the 1600s it was politicans that commanded loyalty. Black letter ballads were ’political pop songs’ that were chanted again and again. Perhaps we can learn something from this about how institutional politics and politicians have become detached from the affections and the interests of younger voters today.”

The study also reveals that the power of popular media was present in the 17th century. By the end of the 1600s the broadside ballad could build or destroy a person’s public image. Ballads were a highly accessible print item, and through public performance they could overcome literacy barriers and widely engage in the denigration or commendation of public figures that had caught the popular imagination.

Jenny Murray | University of Warwick
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