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Dynastic questions

13 November 2015

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WHO was the only king to live in Rome, second in social precedence only to the Pope? For several decades, it was, in fact, the British monarch James III and VII.

Unfortunately, his countrymen, by and large, refused to admit that he was their king, solid in their allegiance to the Protestant George I: to them, he was the Old Pretender. The Stuarts in Exile (BBC4, Tuesday of last week) gave sharper focus and broader context to what most of us relegate to a historical footnote.

It is a good subject for speculation: what if the ’15 or the ’45 had been successful? Would our current street-café, opera-loving, emotionally incontinent culture have arrived centuries ago? Would the Bishop of London be a Cardinal?

Whigs at home painted the blackest possible picture of the Stuarts’ Roman Catholic degeneracy and ruthlessness, fomenters of violence conclusively demonstrated by another of last week’s anniversaries, Guy Fawkes’s plot. Yet, in fact, James’s Roman court was welcoming to Protestants, and he had insisted that, when restored to the throne, they would have freedom to worship.

The historian Clare Jackson provided us with some particularly telling vignettes: James’s son Bonnie Prince Charlie was by no means universally beloved, even in Scotland — in Glasgow, all the bells were rung to rejoice at the news of his decisive defeat at Culloden.

The burghers of Glasgow, like nearly all other British cities, preferred dull Hanoverian security, and economic and trading success to whatever personal glamour the Roman Catholic monarchy might bring. What are our key political and social criteria? Heaven forbid that we would ever let financial calculation trump all finer consideration.

In Colour: The spectrum of science (BBC4, Wednesdays), Helen Czerski demonstrates that a close look at a selection of 15 colours reveals no less than the story of life on earth. Everything, she says, “begins with light”; so at least the Bible got that right. The sun is not yellow: above the earth’s atmosphere, the sun is milky white.

Sunlight was thought, for philosophical and theological reasons, to be white, and absolutely pure, until Newton’s spectrum proved that it is white, because it is the mixing together of all colours, all of which remain contained within it. There is a sermon in there somewhere.

The most expensive medieval and Renaissance hue was blue, properly made from ground-up lapis lazuli; only that was good enough for the Blessed Virgin’s cloak. I look forward to her explication of my favourite colour: “violet, or Lenten array”.

The sitcom currently receiving all the critical plaudits is Catastrophe (Channel 4, Tuesdays), a particularly sophisticated (that means consistently sweary and sexually explicit) account of family life in the metropolis. Sharon (Irish) and Rob (American) are a beautiful couple, with gorgeous babies and house, and well-paid jobs.

I suspect that their inability to live happily will be of little comfort to those who enjoy none of their advantages; but it is clever, witty, and cringe-makingly funny.

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