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Response to Review no. 48

One of the more interesting and useful trends in historical studies has been the growing reaction against “exceptionalism,” the notion that national histories are essentially unique. In this respect, Robert Oresko’s review of my work is an extremely beneficial reminder that the problem of monarchical succession in Stuart England was not sui generis, and that uncertain succession was the norm, not the exception, throughout seventeenth century Europe. This broadening of international perspective, detailing the many continental parallels to England’s succession difficulties, is not as directly relevant to the history of England as the corrective offered by the a “three kingdoms” approach to the English civil wars of the mid-century, or the interconnections with England of the Dutch, French, and Scottish dimensions of the “Glorious Revolution,” but it is nonetheless important–and certainly welcome–for the context it provides.

As to the English succession itself, Dr. Oresko’s generous approval of my analysis and argument affords me a wide canvas for gratitude, but limited scope for response. In respect of the former, I am particularly pleased to be regarded as a scholar sensitive to mentalité, albeit the mentalité of the political élite. It is an approach to the past that I would like to think has characterized much of my work. In respect of a critical response to Oresko’s review, I would take specific issue with only one small point, the implications for the infant prince of James II’s “abdication.” Whereas Oresko raises the critical question of whether the king’s abdication could be read as a renunciation of the right of succession of his son, it was a question that the Convention never needed to address. The convenient fiction of the supposititious birth made the question effectively moot. Interestingly, a similar question, more broadly posed, did have relevance to the Exclusion debates of the previous decade, when it appeared uncertain whether the attempted disqualifying of the Catholic James, duke of York, might suggest the consequent disqualification of his Protestant daughters, Mary and Anne.

Although much on my mind when I wrote The Right To Be King, I avoided any comment or speculation on the succession prospects of the current heir apparent. For obvious reasons, that study would have been an inappropriate place to discuss the relevance of the topic to the constitutional politics of the present day. Nor am I intending to do that here. The format of Reviews in History does, however, allow me to state the observation that at the end of the 20th century there is still room to question the certainty of the “rule” of monarchical succession. In the wake of the Princess of Wales’s death, the extensive public discussion of the succession, especially of the possibility of its skipping a generation, is testimony to several of the points made in the conclusion of my book: the mutability of the rule of heredity, the belief that the succession ought to be subordinate to the public good, and the reality of the sovereignty of parliament.