I’ve chosen to treat these three novels as a single story, which they are, and not merely the story of Hal Burnaby, his sons and their extended family across a spread of almost thirty years. No, the Burnabys are our medium, through whom we see the great events of the Stuart century, from the Restoration to the Glorious Revolution. That’s what this trilogy is about: about the times, and how people thought and felt and feared and acted in the face of matters that first united, then divided, and then finally united England.
These are historical novels at their finest. They present the events and the period in detail, with Neill’s unimpeachable accuracy, and they place the richness of the story before the reader to offer an understanding of what it meant to be there when the history of the country changed.
Neill is on the most solid of ground, in a time when things that happened shaped a future that none could foresee..
The first of this trilogy, Crown and Mitre, was published in 1970, three years after the relatively unimpressive Witch Bane. The novel is the story of the Restoration of King Charles II. It covers a broad canvas, with a substantial cast of characters, both real and fictional, and Neill deals with the moods, opinions and happenings with immense skill, giving a voice to all viewpoints, and tracing the steps that led, in the last, to the request that Charles return to his country and take up settled Government again.
It is October 1659: Cromwell is dead, his son has resigned as Protector, the Rump Parliament has been dismissed. There is a political vacuum in England. The Army now rules the country, through its strongest officer, Major-General John Lambert. Lambert, second only to Cromwell as a General, can dictate what Government will next be established, and the King has sent a Royal Letter, urging Lambert to return to his duty, and promising rich reward for returning to his loyalty. The problem is that Lambert will not receive this, nor anyone trying to deliver it.
This is where Hal (properly Harry) Burnaby comes in. Hal, second son and heir to an impoverished estate on the Lancashire – Cheshire border, came out for Sir George Booth in August, in an abortive rising easily put down by Lambert. But he has come to Lambert’s notice, and has leave to approach him.
Hal has been in prison for ten weeks, until the news of Parliament’s dismissal so distracts his gaolers that he is able to walk out. This leaves him alone in unfamiliar London, penniless, friendless and conspicuous. By fortune, he falls in with Nick Culley, an even more fervent Royalist and Churchman, and also a noted Astrologer. Unlikely as it may seem, Culley, and his sweetheart Mrs Milford – an equally ardent Royalist, with a successful shop dealing in fashions and materia cosmetica – are involved with the King’s Agent, Sir John Grenville, in advancing the restoration of Crown and Mitre. Hal’s access to Lambert makes him a providential recruit.
Despite the risk to himself, indeed commanded to it by the King’s Commission to Grenville, Hal finds his way to Lambert. But Lambert will do nothing for the King: he is loyal to his beliefs, and to the men who have died for them, and will not support Government by a Single Person, a position he states eloquently and admirably.
Though he has, effectively, failed, Hal is asked to remain in London to aid the King’s cause in whatever other way it must proceed. This means his quartering with the moderate Presbyter, John Durand, first goldsmith and banker of London, and another who recognises that stable government now lies only in the restoration of a King. This also brings Hal into daily contact with Durand’s niece, Alison, an attractive and independent young woman of Hal’s age, and younger sister to Mary Milford. As usual, in Neill’s work, these two will end up marrying, although the fact that Hal’s duty to his estate being to find an heiress to re-enlarge it is one that is pressed upon him by his father as a hindrance to their romance.
With Lambert out of the picture, the other obvious figure to facilitate a Restoration is General Monk, currently based in Edinburgh. Though Monk has served the Commonwealth and Parliament faithfully, he has never fought the King and, behind his close-mouthed self-containment, is suspected of being a King’s man. Lambert takes an Army north, to sit in Monk’s way, if he should decide to move, but it is Nick and Mary who, surprisingly, come up with the information that can persuade Monk to move. Lambert may have a superior number of men, but his is an army that is not being paid, which cannot be paid as there is no money for it, and once Culley has obtained evidence of this from the Exchequer (by a means that sees Hal later being approached by a Clerk to the Tellers, Samuel Pepys) there is nothing for it but a long journey to Scotland, to deliver this information to Monk.
Hal’s journey is the pebble that starts the avalanche. Monk moves, ostensibly at least to support the supplanted Parliament. Lambert’s weakened army will not fight, and he is eclipsed, leaving Monk to advance on London and begin the endgame.
Neill deals with the moves that follow in depth, showing people’s thoughts, fears and speculations as Monk cleverly gives the factional opposition enough room to demonstrate that it is incapable of honestly handling authority, thus paving the way for a general acceptance of Charles’s return.
And there is still a part for Hal to play, even, at one point, as the properly designated deputy to Grenville, as the latter takes information to Charles in Brussels. This elevation even allows Hal to bring his father to London, where a formal betrothal with Alison can be contracted with her Uncle, John Durand, who will provide the dowry required to enable Hal to marry duty to love.
And between Grenville, and the efforts of Nick Culley, Hal’s part in all this is impressed upon the King, leading to sure token of advancement once the King is restored.
The greatness of this book is how Neill conducts the personal affairs of Hal, Alison, Nick and Mary against the momentous political events that envelop them, and the larger cast of this book, whilst turning the political events into an understanding of the turn and flow of events, in an affair that, from history, appears inevitable, but which in its time was far from that, and fraught with danger.
And, wisely, he ends the first part of his story before its ultimate end. Hal and Alison come to a formal betrothal, Nick and Mary are to marry the following day, and the new Parliament has voted to invite the King to return. A better future beckons everyone.
The Golden Days, first published in 1972, takes up the story twenty years later, starting in 1679, the same period we have already experienced in Moon in Scorpio. It’s subject is the Exclusion Crisis, a tempestuous time that, over a period of eighteen months or so, leads the country to the edge once more of Civil War, and whose conclusion, though bringing down the King’s chief opponent, is merely temporising.
Once again, Hal Burnaby is our eyes in this difficult period. After spending some time at Court, growing steadily disturbed at its loose morals, Sir Hal and Lady Burnaby have escaped north, and have spent the intervening decades restoring Hal’s family estate, and raising three grown sons, John, Nicholas and Harry.
But Hal’s distance from the concerns of the times is not allowed to stand. For all the restoration of peace and order, King Charles II has failed England in one crucial respect: he has produced no legitimate heir. On his death, the Crown will go to his brother James, Duke of York, an open Catholic who completely lacks the tolerance or subtlety that marks out Old Rowley.
The whole country is concerned about such a future, none more so than Lord Shaftesbury and his Green Ribbon Club and his Country Party, for whom the only answer is to exclude James from the Succession because of his religion.
A new Parliament is to be elected and Hal, reluctantly, finds himself subject to a virtual Royal command to stand, and to oppose the highly-organised, determined and polarising Country Party. He is duly elected, and takes his seat along with his neighbour and fellow representative of the Borough, Richard Gibson – a former Roundhead Colonel.
Where Crown and Mitre was single-minded in both its situation and sympathies, The Golden Days is much more alive to the arguments of both sides. Hal and Alison, Sir Nick Culley and his Mary, their sympathies lie of course with the King, but even the ardent Nick has some doubts about James’s accession.
Gibson, however, represents the other side, a Green Ribbon Club and Country Party man, and a Whig as their party comes to be known during the course of events, and he brings with him a different and, at times, inarguable case, not to mention a substantial addition to the cast of fictional characters. He’s not someone who Hal would normally seek as company, but between apologies as Lord of the Manor to Gibson when he’s attacked in Church by the Tantivy parson Allway, and their enforced links as Members, not to mention that John Burnaby seems to be paying a deal of attention to Doraty Gibson, the two men become friends, and the families become closer.
As with Crown and Mitre the history moves to and from centre stage according to the successive phases of the crisis. Parliament is prorogued and dissolved on multiple occasions, sending Hal and Richard back and forth between London and their homes. Both Samuel Pepys and Nick Culley, at different times and for strangely opposite reasons, spent time in prison thanks to their associations with James. The love story this time is John and Doraty, which leads to marriage before the end of the novel. It’s seen strictly from outside, for once, but it does serve as more than just a token, as much of the personal side of the novel is taken up with settling the next generation of Burnabys into courses of life.
John, the eldest, is gifted with a felicity for dealing with people which, when he is presented at Court, dubiously sees him invited to become a Gentleman in Waiting to James, Duke of Monmouth, the King’s acknowledged but illegitimate son, who is in way of becoming a puppet of Shaftesbury. Nick, who has a taste for fine distinctions and argument, goes to loyal Oxford to study Law, with the prospect of becoming a Barrister and, in time, a Judge. Harry, honest and straightforward, has his eyes firmly fixed on the Army, and is presented with his colours by none less than James, the future King.
When it comes, the climax is almost sudden: the King summonses Parliament again, but to meet in Oxford, not London, where Shaftesbury’s organisation and forces has little sway. There, he prorogues Parliament, yet again. But the secret news is spread, the the King is being financed by Louis XIV of France, his Royal cousin: enough to dispense with Parliament for at least three years.
So the crisis is ended by being put off to another time, and Shaftesbury’s power is broken: his eclipse follows. All is safe again: the Burnabys and the Gibsons may return to their lives, secure in the knowledge that they can stay neighbours and not become enemies. But the problem has not gone away.
Thus, in the final part of the trilogy, is the job left to be completed. This is the subject matter for 1975’s Lillibullero: the endgame. When the book begins, it is 1685: Charles is dead and James is King, and all the fears of Shaftesbury and his Whigs are slowly being realised, whilst the loyalties of Hal and Alison, even of Nick and Mary, are facing a testing for which they have no certainties.
As a novel, Lillibullero suffers in comparison with its predecessors, by being less certain of itself. In large part, this is from the history that it portrays: the book opens in the immediate aftermath of Monmouth’s Rebellion, bloodily suppressed, in the southwest, and ends with James’s flight to France, ending the Glorious Revolution in 1688. The book, which is shorter than its predecessors, has to stretch itself out to cover all the significant incidents of that three years, but it also has to deal with the intervening periods when nothing develops.
It also diffuses itself by splitting its viewpoint between Sir Hal, who gets the centre stage when it is important to the story to be in London, with Parliament, or else debating the strain put on the loyalty of loyal gentlemen, and his middle son Nick, who is in service in Wells in the opening scene of the novel, and who bears the brunt of witnessing much of the physical action of the story.
Nick’s too is the love story, with Judith, who he meets off-stage near to the beginning of the novel, and to whom he becomes formally betrothed, in the tradition stipulated by this trilogy. Along the way, there are many a frustration and a separation, required to balance out the personal with the political, but which strains that aspect of the novel to some extent.
Again, the whole of the cast, including the three Burnaby sons, are affected at one time or another in the scope of these events. John and Doraty, finding the countryside dull after their respective times at and near Court, take themselves once again into the heart of things when John resumes his role as Gentleman in waiting, this time to the Princess Anne and her amiable husband. Harry is usually in the thick of things where the Army is required to be, and Nick, clever and increasingly subtle, finds himself increasingly drawn into a Whig standpoint that, before the end of things, his father all but endorses.
Above all, the book draws together its picture of James II, a man unsuited to be King of a nation, a man incapable of hearing another’s opinion, a man determined that Royalty demands loyalty to what he requires, without thought for the reality of what a man, or a nation, can give.
With the exception of a tangential, and unelucidated reference to the Black Box (which purportedly contained evidence of Monmouth’s legitimacy), Neill again sets out everything with clarity and consistency. Though it is evident from his work in general, and from the first two books in particular, that he is himself a Royalist, in this work he is scrupulous to introduce and treat respectfully the views opposing the full Royalist cause.
Indeed, he must: the Glorious Revolution brought a permanent end to government in England by a Single Person, and our democracy of King or Queen in Parliament truly dates itself from the end of this book. And in the body of the story, Neill gives a finely-judged account of the tale of the Warming Pan: to everyone’s surprise, James’s Queen – whose supposed pregnancy is wholly unexpected – goes into an unexpectedly early, and officially unsupervised labour, from which a male heir (who will be tutored to be a Catholic King) is born. Was the baby brought in, already born, in the infamous warming pan? Neill lists all the suspicious circumstances, but only concludes that the Whigs have to believe it.
So, in the end, the Stuart Century reaches its conclusion. No matter that the dynasty did not die out for another quarter century, under the childless Queens, Mary and Anne, and no matter that the exiled Stuart Pretenders, Old and Young, would not cease to weave their spell for another thirty years beyond. The Glorious Revolution was the end of the story, as it is for Lillibullero, and for our cast of Burnabys, Gibsons, Culleys and others.
Taken as one long story, I would argue that the Crown and Mitre trilogy represents the peak of Robert Neill’s work. It hasn’t stayed in print as has Mist over Pendle, which is a real shame, but its strength lies from the fact that its roots form in the same spring: Neill sets out to, and achieves his aim of bringing to life events that occurred, centuries ago, to the same depth and detail as history itself, by using fictional figures to demonstrate how these things were lived.
In Pendle, he captured a resonance of myth and romance, in this trilogy he took political change on a massive scale, threatening the stability of the realm: a much broader canvass.
It makes all the more sad the decline in standards of his final two novels.