Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Jonathon Swift and his times

A quick summary of the dates to start with.(The entries marked with an asterisk* refer to Swift in person. Those with quotation marks" refer to his published writings)

1667 *Swift born; an orphan, brought up by his uncle
1686 *Graduates from Trinity College, Dublin
1688 *Leaves for England; enters service of Sir William Temple. The Glorious Revolution: James II deposed, William III King
1690 Battle of the Boyne; defeat of Catholic forces in Ireland
1691 Treaty of Limerick ends Irish war
1692 *M.A., Hertford College, Oxford. *Ordained Anglican priest
1693 National Debt established
1694 *Parish priest at Kilroot, Antrim. Triennial Act. Bank of England chartered
1696 *Returns to Englnd; begins to write many books and pamphlets
1699 *Death of Temple. *Returns to Ireland as vicar of Laracor, Meath
1701 Act of Settlement gives succession to Hanoverians. Death of exiled King James II; Louis XIV recognises his son, James Edward Stuart (The Pretender) as King
1702 Death of William III; accession of Anne. War of Spanish Succession begins: Britain, Austria and Holland against France *Doctor of Divinity from Trinity College, Dublin
1704 Tories sacked from govt. Marlborough-Godolphin-Harley triad in power.
Battle of Blenheim
“Battle of the Books” and “Tale of a Tub”, both written earlier
1706 Battle of Ramillies
1707 Act of Union with Scotland.
*Visit to London to press claims of Irish clergy
1708 Attempted French-Jacobite landing in Scotland. Battle of Oudenarde.
Harley sacked from government. Whig election victory
“Argument Against Abolishing Christianity”
1709 Allied defeat in Spain. Bloodbath at battle of Malplaquet
1710 *Begins to work for Harley. “Journal to Stella. Sacheverall trial. Whig ministers sacked. Harley forms Tory government; wins landslide election
1711 “Conduct of the Allies”. Marlborough dismissed; replaced by Ormonde.
Britain begins to pull out of the war
1713 *Scriblerus Club; with Pope, Gay and Arbuthnot
*Appointed Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin
Peace of Utrecht. Another Tory election win
1714 Tory ministers sacked. Death of Anne; accession of George I
*Returns permanently to Ireland
1715 Jacobite rising
1719 Declaratory Act for Ireland
1720 South Sea Bubble
1722 Atterbury Plot.
1724 “Drapier’s Letters”, attacking proposal known as ‘Wood’s Ha’pence’
1726 “Gulliver’s Travels”
1728 *Death of Stella
1729 “A Modest Proposal …”
1742 *Suffers a stroke; health never recovers
1745 *Swift dies

Jonathon Swift was born in Dublin in 1667. He was an orphan child, who would never have known either of his parents, but was fortunate enough to be brought up by an uncle, who financed his education at Trinity College Dublin, an entirely Anglican institution which was the only university in Ireland. In those days, the only way a young man of abilities but no money could fulfil his ambitions would be to enter the church and attach himself to a great man. Many did both, since most church patronage was controlled by the great nobility; and this was the path followed by Swift. He left Ireland in 1688, thus avoiding the violent conflicts there over the next few years, graduated from Oxford University, and was ordained a Church of England minister. He also joined the service of Sir William Temple, a retired diplomat with contacts at the very highest levels: through him, Swift was even able to meet the new King, William III. Equally important to Swift on a personal level was his position of tutor to a young girl called Esther Johnson, the fatherless daughter of a servant in Temple’s household. They remained the closest of friends for the next forty years: Swift called her “Stella” and wrote to her incessantly. There are even stories that they may have been married, but if so, they never lived together.

Thanks to Temple and other influential contacts, Swift was appointed a parish priest in County Antrim back in Ireland, and a few years later obtained a better living at Laracor in County Meath. Since there were hardly any Anglicans in Ireland, Swift’s parishioners numbered no more than about fifteen; so he was left with plenty of time to write his earliest pamphlets: “The Battle of the Books” and “The Tale of a Tub” were both composed at this period. He was also able to travel back frequently to England.

This was an age of tremendous political turbulence and ferocious rivalry between the political parties, all played out against the greatest war Britain had fought for centuries. King William III had died in 1702, and was succeeded by his sister-in-law, Anne; but before his death William had forged a “Grand Alliance” of Britain, Holland, the Austrian Empire and various small states to resist the overweening ambition of Louis XIV of France in the War of the Spanish Succession. Now John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough, was sent to the continent to command the allied armies, and was to prove himself the greatest general of the age. In 1704 Marlborough led his forces down the Rhine and across Bavaria to the Danube, where he annihilated the French at the battle of Blenheim. It is difficult nowadays to fully appreciate the impact of Blenheim: it was the first battle English armies had won on the continent since the Middle Ages, and the first defeat suffered by the French for a century. The myth of French invincibility was broken. Marlborough the returned to the Netherlands, where he won two more great victories over the French; at Ramillies in 1706 and Oundenarde in 1708. Queen Anne granted him the land and the money to build the gigantic palace in Oxfordshire that is named after his most famous achievement.

But on the political front things were not necessarily going smoothly. There were two political parties at the time: the Whigs and the Tories. Their original division had been over religious matters: the Tories were above all the party of the Church of England; hostile to any further concessions to the nonconformist churches: the Presbyterians, Baptists and Quakers; whereas the Whigs were the party of religious toleration. Now further divisions emerged. Originally all politicians except a few of the most extreme Tories had supported the war. Marlborough had commanded the armies, his brother-in-law Lord Godolphin, the Lord Treasurer, had raised the necessary funds, and a moderate Tory, Robert Harley, had managed the House of Commons. But as the war dragged on, doubts began to surface on the Tory side. It was not just a question of bloodshed, but also of money. Godolphin was financing the war with borrowed money, through the medium of two recent innovations: the Bank of England and the National Debt. An entirely new phenomenon emerged: the great money-men of the City of London, who were raising the money for the war. Soon the National Debt was running at over £50 million, thirteen times the government’s annual revenue from taxation; and this at a time when the entire non-military expenditure of the government was not more than £1 ½ million. The country squires who made up the Tory party in Parliament wondered how these debts could ever be settled. Should not a compromise peace be signed before the country became irretrievably bankrupt? Conversely the Whigs, with their enthusiasm for fighting to total victory, were seen as the party of the City wide-boys with their dubious financial practices. In 1708 Harley, sensing the mood of the country was changing, left the government and began to campaign against the war.

By 1709 the war party was in serious need of another Marlborough triumph to rally support. What they got instead was an appalling bloodbath at Malplaquet; the fourth and least satisfying of the Duke’s victories. It was a preview of a First World War battle, where the Allied armies slammed head-on into a strongly-defended French position. Almost 30,000 men were last in a single day, the majority being on the Allied side. At the same time Allied forces were expelled from Spain, leaving only Gibraltar in British hands. Now Queen Anne decided she had seen enough; she sacked her Whig ministers and appointed Robert Harley in their place, with the aim of negotiating a peace treaty. Next year the great Duke of Marlborough himself was sacked from command of the Allied armies, with a letter from the Queen that was so rude that he threw it on the fire. He spent the rest of the reign in exile, fearing prosecution for corruption.

All this sparked an unprecedented wave of political pamphleteering, involving the finest writers of the times. Daniel Defoe gave his services, Addison and Steele backed the Whigs, but it was Swift who proved himself the great master of propaganda. He was a Tory in sentiment, and he attached himself to Robert Harley. He wrote for, and for a while edited, a Tory periodical, “The Examiner”, denouncing the Whigs and revealing vicious hatred of Marlborough. His most famous pamphlet, “The Conduct of the Allies” was published in late 1711, and sold 11,000 copies in the first month. In it he denounced the stupidity of not making peace earlier, but instead continuing the futile war in Spain. He denied that Britain was gaining anything from the war; it was being fought purely for the benefit of the Austrians and particularly the Dutch, whom he especially despised. Undoubtedly this struck a chord in the country, and was enormously influential. He further served the cause with pamphlets like “The Public Spirit of the Whigs”, and with personal attacks on the Whig leaders. Swift was rewarded for his political services by being appointed Dean of St. Patrick’s cathedral in Dublin. He would have hoped for a Bishopric, but it is said that this was vetoed by Queen Anne, who was shocked by the scatological nature of much of Swift’s writing.

The new Tory government, with Harley (now Earl of Oxford) as Lord Treasurer, and another friend of Swift, Henry St. John (Viscount Bolingbroke) as Secretary of State, won huge majorities at two successive General Elections and set about negotiating peace with France, which finally bore fruit in the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, and set the European frontiers for a generation. But it was a murky business, for Britain’s allies were not consulted, and indeed their troops were left holding the front line against the French when the British army was secretly ordered to withdraw.
This created new problems for the ministers, because among the allies involved was George, Elector of Hanover, and he was furious. Queen Anne was now in poor health, and she had no surviving children. Under the Act of Settlement of 1701, George was heir to the English throne, which specifically laid down that under no circumstances could a Catholic become King; thus excluding James Edward Stuart, son of King James II who had been driven from the throne in 1689, and now a client of Louis XIV of France. James’s supporters were known as Jacobites (from “Jacobus”, the Latin version of James). The Tory party had always had a Jacobite wing, but James’s Catholicism had proved an insuperable obstacle to winning mass support. Now the ministers had every incentive to turn Jacobite, and secret overtures were made to James. Undoubtedly Swift knew nothing about this: he was never a Jacobite, and he hated Catholics. The plans came to nothing, for James refused to change his religion. The government began to disintegrate under the pressure, with the leaders trading public insults. Finally at the end of July in 1714 Queen Anne had had enough: she sacked her ministers, and moderate Whigs and neutrals were appointed in their place. Two days later the Queen died, and without any fuss George was invited to come to England and accept the crown. Next year, unsuccessful Jacobite risings in Scotland and northern England finally discredited the Tories.

The fall of the Tory government marked the end of any hopes Swift might have had for any further Church preferment. He returned to Ireland, to live “like a rat in a hole” as he sourly put it, and thenceforth seldom visited England. But he continued to write as vigorously as ever. Many of his later works specifically deal with the problems of Ireland, such as the “Drapier’s Letters” and the “Modest Proposal”; but of course there was also “Gulliver’s Travels”, published anonymously (like almost all his writings) in 1726. It was an immediate hit, being quickly translated into several languages, and was the only work which earned Swift any money. It is safe to predict that its fame will continue as long as books are read.

Swift must have been devastated by the death of his beloved “Stella” in 1728. His own health declined from the late 1730s, and his behaviour caused many people to think he had gone mad (he probably suffered from Meniere’s disease). He died in 1742, by which time he must have seemed a relic from a bygone age.

(The next Blog entry will examine some of Swift's writings)

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