In Windsor, in the waning days of the eighteenth century, in the early hours of the morning, a king was wandering about Windsor shouting at the top of his voice.
We know instantly, the moment the story opens , that there is something wrong. For a start, kings are generally not up and about early on a Summer’s morning on the road outside this lovely rounded hunting castle which believes it is a village, nestling in its own riverside town.
And then there is the shouting.
I have no doubt kings through the ages have done a lot of shouting and even more authoritative strutting about. Why, occasionally their lives even depended on it.
But it was what this king was shouting which was unsettling. He was hollering “Knight! Knight!” through the shutters of a well-known Windsor bookshop. Knight’s was the local bookshop: and Knight was its proprietor.
The king was, of course, King George III, the monarch who is thought to have suffered from porphyria – a surfeit of chemicals called porphyrins which could cause physical symptoms like abdominal pain, vomiting and mental disturbances like hallucinations, paranoia, anxiety and depression.
How the king was, this particular morning, history records no more than this small story.
Knight roused himself and came downstairs: he knew the King’s voice well. He had just recently been down to open the shutters and King George had already made his way inside, taken the nearest reading material at hand, and sat, reading silently and intently.
And what he read filled the humble bookshop owner with dismay.
The night before a package had arrived from Paternoster Row. Here, all London’s greatest printers plied their trade: the latest books could be procured ready for an eager audience further along the Thames.
The package had been opened in readiness for the morning. And open on the top was the most controversial text possible: a tract addressing the touchy subject of the French Revolution.
It was called Rights Of Man, and it was by a man called Tom Paine.
And thereby hangs a tale, a story so long and winding it could not possibly be done justice here. For it is the story of one man, two continents and three countries; the story of a mind which would brook no boundary.
Paine was born a Quaker’s son in Thetford and his trade was making corsets. But a mind like his was made for the time, and it was in political tracts that he showed his extraordinary abilities.
He cut his teeth on a tract asking for better pay and conditions for those working in the customs and excise business. Four thousand copies were distributed to Parliament.
At the age of 37 Paine made for America.
In 1776 an anonymous pamphlet was published. It was called ‘Common Sense’. And it has since been described as ‘incendiary’ by historians: plain speaking, clear thinking, it offered simple straightforward arguments for freedom for America from British rule. It was written, it transpires, by Paine.
He wrote America through her revolution – George Washington had one pamphlet read aloud to thousands of American soldiers – and then he made for France where unrest was in the country’s veins.
It is mooted that Paine met and negotiated with the French King as part of an American mission.
He made many friends in those Gallic lands and there were few better placed to argue a new way of proceeding than Tom Paine. And out of his expertise and ability grew the ‘Rights of Man’: the anti-monarchist words which lay at the King’s disposal that Summer day long ago.
Paine argued that nature has accorded humans rights: and that any charter of rights must limit that natural order.
“It is a perversion of terms to say that a charter gives rights. It operates by a contrary effect — that of taking rights away. Rights are inherently in all the inhabitants; but charters, by annulling those rights, in the majority, leave the right, by exclusion, in the hands of a few . . . They . . . consequently are instruments of injustice.
“The fact, therefore, must be that the individuals, themselves, each, in his own personal and sovereign right, entered into a compact with each other to produce a government: and this is the only mode in which governments have a right to arise, and the only principle on which they have a right to exist.”
The book was subsequently banned, and its author tried in absentia for seditious libel.
The King read the text in front of him, with all its sedition, apparently spellbound, for half an hour as the birds sang and the carriages began to clatter outside.
And then he rose, and walked away, without a single word.
The bookseller was never reprimanded. The King never expressed himself displeased, and continued in his own idiosyncratic way to patronise Knight’s of Windsor.
King George III’s behaviour was unpredictable. There were times of lucid calm, and others of confusion and distress.
Which one manifested itself on this beautiful Summer’s day, I leave it to you, Reader, to judge.