2/02/2019

"Absalom and Achitophel" : Historical and Political Background.

Historical and political background   Absalom and Achitophel, written in 1681, arose directly from the political situation in the England of the time. History tells us that at the time, Charles II was increasingly being opposed by the Whig Party, led by the Earl of Shaftesbury. This party opposed Roman Catholicism, excessive arbitrary powers being vested in the King, and the alliance between Charles and Catholic Louis XIV of France. Charles II had no legal issue, and his brother, James, Duke of York, was due to succeed him. But Shaftesbury and his Whig followers were opposed to a Catholic ascending the throne of England. They thought Charles illegitimate son, the Duke of Monmouth, to be a suitable substitute for James in 1678, the situation was aggravated with the rumours of a Popish Plot. Titus Oates submitted before the King an account of a Jesuit conspiracy against the King and Parliament. Charles did not believe Titus Oates, but the evidence intensified popular hostility against James, Duke of York. In 1679, the House of Commons resolved that the Catholic plots against the King and the Protestant religion had been encouraged by the hopes of James' succession to the throne.  However, by 1681, Charles was in more favourable circumstances, and Oates and his supporters were discredited. The King dissolved the Parliament which met in March, and published his reasons for doing so. Whig rejoinders were answered by His Majesty's Declaration Defended most probably the work of Dryden as the official Historiographer Royal Shaftesbury was imprisoned in the Tower and accused of treason. Dryden's “Absalom and Achitophel” was published at this time of Royal victory. It was probably intended to prejudice opinion at Shaftesbury's trial. However, Shaftesbury was acquitted. The poem, in any case proved extremely popular.    Historical personages in the poem 1. Charles II, the King who 'restored' monarchy in England amidst popular jubilation in 1660, possessed acute political insight behind the veneer of carefree sexual licentiousness and witty brilliance as determined to keep his throne and achieve independence of Parliament-however, without precipitating a civil war. Secretly a Roman Catholic, he personally favoured a policy of tolerance towards all religious sects. But he soon realized that it was hopeless to try achieving civil liberties for the Roman Catholics in his nation. The Test Act excluded Roman Catholics from office; it also transformed the Earl of Shaftesbury from King's minister to leader of the opposition. During the last years of his reign, Charles showed his tendency towards absolute rule. He prorogued Parliament for fifteen months in 1676. It was convened again in 1677, after which it did not meet till 1680. The bill to exclude the Duke of York from succession on the basis of his being a Roman Catholic, was rejected by the House of Lords. After dissolving the 1681 Parliament, Charles ruled over England for four years without a Parliament, till he died in 1685.  Charles’ marriage with Catherine of Portugal produced no children, but he had several illegitimate children through his various mistresses such as the Duchess of Cleveland, the Duchess of Portland, Nel Gwynn, and Lucy Waters. The Duke of Monmouth was one of them.  2. The Earl of Shaftesbury. Anthony Ashley Cooper joined Parliament in 1644, at the age of 23. At the Restoration, he was placed in the Privy Council and made Baron Ashley, and Chancellor of the Exchequer. In 1672, he was made Earl of Shaftesbury and Lord Chancellor. He espoused Protestantism and was dismissed in 1673 and he joined the opposition. His violence led to imprisonment in the Tower in 1676. Later in 1678-80, he exploited the Popish Plot to bring about the murder of his personal enemy, Stafford. In 1679, he became Lord President; however, he was dismissed by Charles. Further instigation to rebellion led to his being charged with treason. But acquitted at his trial he left England for Holland in 1682 where he died in 1683. Macaulay says about him that he was a versatile, but strong-headed man with fierce and earnest ambition. A man of capacity and great intelligence, he was also full of self-interest. He had served and betrayed a succession of governments.  3. The Duke of Buckingham was a man of pleasure who amused himself with ambition as he did with music and architecture and playwriting. "He had, rather from fickleness and love of novelty than from any deep design, been faithless to every party”  4. Titus Oates, once a clergyman of the Church of England, led a vagrant life after quitting his benefice. He constructed a romance of a Popish Plot out of vague and wild talk he heard in Jesuit colleges on the Continent He declared that the Pope had entrusted England to the Jesuits who were to rise at a signal and massacre all their Protestant neighbours. A French army was at the same time to land in Ireland. Schemes had been formulated to assassinate the King. These lies found easy credit with the excited public.  5. The Earl of Halifax, who is Jotham in the poem, was a man of intellect with witty polished eloquence. When the Exclusion Bill was discussed, he defended the cause of the Duke of York in a series of speeches remembered as masterpieces of reasoning and witty eloquence. Indeed, his oratory succeeded in swaying the vote in favour of rejecting the Bill.  6. The Duke of Monmouth, or James Croft, illegitimate son of Charles and Lucy Waters, was given an indulgent treatment by Charles. Handsome, mild-tempered, polite and affable, he won the hearts of the Puritans. He was known to be party to the shameful attack on Sir John Coventry, but was forgiven by the Country Party. In the war with the Dutch, he proved to be an efficient and gallant commander of the English auxiliaries. On his return, he was received with great pomp and enthusiasm.  7. Laurenee Hyde (Hushai in the poem) had good diplomatic and parliamentary experience. But his unreliable temper detracted from his abilities. Negotiator and courtier, he was also boastful and insolent. He was a champion of the crown and the church, and hated the Republicans.

Absalom and Achitophel, written in 1681, arose directly from the political situation in the England of the time. History tells us that at the time, Charles II was increasingly being opposed by the Whig Party, led by the Earl of Shaftesbury. This party opposed Roman Catholicism,
excessive arbitrary powers being vested in the King, and the alliance between Charles and Catholic Louis XIV of France. Charles II had no legal issue, and his brother, James, Duke of York, was due to succeed him. But Shaftesbury and his Whig followers were opposed to a
Catholic ascending the throne of England. They thought Charles illegitimate son, the Duke of Monmouth, to be a suitable substitute for James in 1678, the situation was aggravated with the rumours of a Popish Plot. Titus Oates submitted before the King an account of a Jesuit conspiracy against the King and Parliament. Charles did not
believe Titus Oates, but the evidence intensified popular hostility against James, Duke of York. In 1679, the House of Commons resolved that the Catholic plots against the King and the Protestant religion had been encouraged by the hopes of James' succession to the throne.

However, by 1681, Charles was in more favourable circumstances, and
Oates and his supporters were discredited. The King dissolved the
Parliament which met in March, and published his reasons for doing so.
Whig rejoinders were answered by His Majesty's Declaration Defended
most probably the work of Dryden as the official Historiographers Royal
Shaftesbury was imprisoned in the Tower and accused of treason.
Dryden's “Absalom and Achitophel” was published at this time of Royal
victory. It was probably intended to prejudice opinion at Shaftesbury's
trial. However, Shaftesbury was acquitted. The poem, in any case
proved extremely popular.

Historical personages in the poem
1. Charles II, the King who 'restored' monarchy in England amidst popular jubilation in 1660, possessed acute political insight behind the veneer of carefree sexual licentiousness and witty brilliance as determined to keep his throne and achieve independence of
Parliament-however, without precipitating a civil war. Secretly a
Roman Catholic, he personally favoured a policy of tolerance towards all religious sects. But he soon realized that it was hopeless to try achieving civil liberties for the Roman Catholics in his nation. The Test Act excluded Roman Catholics from office; it also transformed the Earl of Shaftesbury from King's minister to leader of the opposition. During the last years of his reign, Charles showed his tendency towards absolute rule. He prorogued Parliament for fifteen months in 1676. It was convened again in 1677, after which it did not meet till 1680. The bill to exclude the Duke of York from succession on the basis of his
being a Roman Catholic, was rejected by the House of Lords. After
dissolving the 1681 Parliament, Charles ruled over England for four
years without a Parliament, till he died in 1685.

Charles’ marriage with Catherine of Portugal produced no children, but he had several illegitimate children through his various mistresses
such as the Duchess of Cleveland, the Duchess of Portland, Nel Gwynn, and Lucy Waters. The Duke of Monmouth was one of them.

2. The Earl of Shaftesbury. Anthony Ashley Cooper joined Parliament in 1644, at the age of 23. At the Restoration, he was placed in the Privy Council and made Baron Ashley, and Chancellor of the
Exchequer. In 1672, he was made Earl of Shaftesbury and Lord
Chancellor. He espoused Protestantism and was dismissed in 1673 and he joined the opposition. His violence led to imprisonment in the Tower in 1676. Later in 1678-80, he exploited the Popish Plot to bring about the murder of his personal enemy, Stafford. In 1679, he became Lord President; however, he was dismissed by Charles. Further instigation to rebellion led to his being charged with treason. But acquitted at his trial he left England for Holland in 1682 where he died in 1683. Macaulay says about him that he was a versatile, but strong-headed man with fierce and earnest ambition. A man of capacity and great intelligence, he
was also full of self-interest. He had served and betrayed a succession of
governments.

3. The Duke of Buckingham was a man of pleasure who amused
himself with ambition as he did with music and architecture and
playwriting. "He had, rather from fickleness and love of novelty than
from any deep design, been faithless to every party”

4. Titus Oates, once a clergyman of the Church of England, led a
vagrant life after quitting his benefice. He constructed a romance of a
Popish Plot out of vague and wild talk he heard in Jesuit colleges on the Continent He declared that the Pope had entrusted England to the Jesuits who were to rise at a signal and massacre all their Protestant neighbours. A French army was at the same time to land in Ireland. Schemes had been formulated to assassinate the King. These lies found easy credit with the excited public.

5. The Earl of Halifax, who is Jotham in the poem, was a man of
intellect with witty polished eloquence. When the Exclusion Bill was discussed, he defended the cause of the Duke of York in a series of speeches remembered as masterpieces of reasoning and witty eloquence.
Indeed, his oratory succeeded in swaying the vote in favour of rejecting the Bill.

6. The Duke of Monmouth, or James Croft, illegitimate son of
Charles and Lucy Waters, was given an indulgent treatment by Charles.
Handsome, mild-tempered, polite and affable, he won the hearts of the
Puritans. He was known to be party to the shameful attack on Sir John
Coventry, but was forgiven by the Country Party. In the war with the
Dutch, he proved to be an efficient and gallant commander of the
English auxiliaries. On his return, he was received with great pomp and
enthusiasm.

7. Laurenee Hyde (Hushai in the poem) had good diplomatic and
parliamentary experience. But his unreliable temper detracted from his
abilities. Negotiator and courtier, he was also boastful and insolent. He
was a champion of the crown and the church, and hated the Republicans.

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