David Cannadine

David Cannadine, who teaches at Princeton, is president of the British Academy and editor of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. His books include The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy and Victorious Century: The United Kingdom 1800-1906.

Last Night Fever: The Proms

David Cannadine, 6 September 2007

Like many ostensibly ancient British rituals, the Promenade Concerts were founded towards the close of the 19th century, shortly after the Queen’s Hall opened as a new musical venue in 1893. As such, they may be regarded as a classic instance of what is sometimes called ‘invented tradition’, where venerable antiquity is less in evidence than is often popularly supposed; and...

Downsize, Your Majesty

David Cannadine, 16 October 1997

‘A family on the throne,’ observed Walter Bagehot, in one of those honeyed phrases which may mean more or less than they seem to, ‘is an interesting idea.’ Indeed, it is. But during the past two hundred years of British royal history, it is an idea which has embodied itself in two very different human forms. The first version, which has generally been preponderant, has been the ‘happy family on the throne’. Think of George III and Charlotte, with their large, playful, gurgling brood, immortalised in Zoffany’s delightful conversation pieces. Think of Victoria and Albert, happily ensconced at Osborne, all Gemütlichkeit and Christmas trees, with Landseer and Winterhalter conveniently to hand to paint them. Think of George V and Queen Mary, an inseparable couple, who did so much to uphold decent family values in the rackety era of the Bright Young Things. Think of George VI, Elizabeth and the two young princesses, ‘we four’, as the King observed with characteristic precision, ‘the royal family.’ And think of Elizabeth and Philip, whose domestic felicity was proclaimed to the world in the BBC documentary which was inevitably entitled Royal Family.

Social Workers

David Cannadine, 5 October 1995

The second chapter of the Gospel according to St Matthew records the most celebrated example of royal generosity in human history, as the Three Kings, atop their camels, and guided by the star in the east, bear their gold, frankincense and myrrh to Bethlehem. As this story makes plain, monarchs are customarily supposed to be vastly richer than ordinary mortals, and to give with truly regal generosity to those many unfortunates huddled at the opposite end of the wealth, power and status spectrum. But there was more to this mangered and magical moment than supererogatory royal beneficence. Even in the cosy, impromptu confines of the Christmas stable, the gift relationship was more subtle, complex and ambiguous. For there was also in it an implicit challenge, and a reciprocal presumption, that such exceptional presents, which were hardly of immediate relevance or practical utility, would eventually be matched by exceptional behaviour on the part of the recipient. And while those who offered these gifts were themselves only reputedly royal, the infant to whom they were given was unquestionably so, being none other than the future King of Kings himself. Monarchs, this story reminds us, not only make benefactions they also receive them – which adds a suggestively majestic connotation to the otherwise plebeian notion of ‘give and take’.’

What Is He Supposed To Do?

David Cannadine, 8 December 1994

The Prince of Wales was in his mid-forties, with his youth long since behind him, and his throne still many distant, tantalising year away. His childhood and schooldays had been lonely and unhappy, and they were made harder to bear by his distant mother, his disappointed father, and his more robust and much-preferred sister. He had married a woman renowned for her beauty rather than her brains, largely because he had been told it was his duty to do so. By her he had promptly fathered two healthy sons, after which he soon sought comfort, consolation and companionship elsewhere. There was criticism in the press of his wayward and unfocused life, but the idea that he should be given serious employment such as a proconsular posting did not secure the necessary approval. At his country house and in London, the Prince set up what was virtually an alternative court in waiting. The trouble was that his mother remained in excellent health, with every prospect of celebrating both her Golden and her Diamond Jubilees. The most the Prince could realistically look forward to was that he would inherit the throne as an old man, and reign for a few tired, belated, sunset years. But there were some who feared, and others who hoped, that the Queen might outlive her eldest son, so that he would never become king at all.

Odd Union

David Cannadine, 20 October 1994

The task of rescuing women from the chauvinistic condescension of male posterity has thus far been unevenly undertaken and incompletely accomplished. Writers and actresses, suffragettes and nuns, servants and prostitutes, have fared relatively well. But upperclass women – Clio’s own sisters, cousins and aunts – have received much less attention. Studies of aristocratic ladies are few and far between; feminist biographies of queens and princesses are in conspicuously short supply; and royal mistresses have rarely been emancipated from the boudoired and bodiced banalities of Georgette Heyer and Barbara Cartland. Yet from the Restoration in 1660 until the early 20th century, the only English monarch who was both male and monogamous was probably King George III. Put the other way, this means that from Nell Gwyn to Mrs Keppel (and beyond), the courtesan was an integral part of royal history. But while much is known about such women as the Duchess of Portsmouth, Elizabeth Villiers, Henrietta Howard and the Countess of Warwick, no serious attempt has yet been made to write that alternative version of royal history which their lives and loves collectively constitute.’

‘There is nothing so enervating,’ Andrew Carnegie wrote in 1891, ‘nothing so deadly in its effects upon the qualities which lead to the highest achievement, moral or...

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Writing for the centenary celebrations of the Trafalgar victory one hundred years ago, Joseph Conrad produced a remarkable, and peculiar, essay arguing that Nelson was a great, and a modern,...

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The British Empire attained its maximum extent just after the First World War, but the peak of imperial visibility and imperialist sentiment at home was arguably reached two or three decades...

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Footing the bill

Jonathan Parry, 9 June 1994

The eighth Duke of Marlborough was ‘rude, erratic, profligate, irresponsible and lacking in self-control’, his son was ‘a paranoid and anti-semitic reactionary’. Randolph...

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Principal Ornament

Jose Harris, 3 December 1992

Until this week I had read no work written by G.M. Trevelyan since my schooldays. No Cambridge supervisor that I can recall ever recommended any of his books, and I have certainly never...

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Lawrence Stone, 22 November 1990

For reasons which are obscure. 1989-90 seem to be the years in which mega-books of history, none them less than six hundred pages, have become best-sellers: for example, Simon Schama’s

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Is it a bird, is it a plane?

Peter Clarke, 18 May 1989

Sometimes in the London Review of Books I find the sort of review that grabs me by the throat: a review that bowls me over, staggers and stuns me, dazes and dumbfounds me, astounds and astonishes...

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Rodney Hilton, 21 January 1988

This is a collection of fascinating studies, ranging from Babylon to 20th-century Ghana, from China to Madagascar. David Cannadine, in his Introduction, says that the topics covered are mainly...

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Urban Humanist

Sydney Checkland, 15 September 1983

The young Wordsworth, standing on Westminster Bridge, felt the wonder of the city. He did not try to comprehend it as a scientific phenomenon, for it was not his job to provide a systematic...

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Sidney Pollard, 2 April 1981

The survival of aristocratic wealth and power into the late 19th and early 20th century, when their agricultural base had been in relative decline for over a century, is something that has...

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