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The English have an amiable, if bizarre, fondness for eccentricity, especially if the eccentricity is peculiarly English. The English landscape is dotted with architectural follies, and English history is dotted with the sort of eccentric who would build them. Edith Sitwell , who was something of an ornamental oddity herself, wrote a book in the 1930s documenting these lovable and laughable eccentrics, such as the amphibious Lord Rokeby, whose beard reached his knees and who seldom left his bath.

Since I share with my fellow countrymen this predilection for the mildly preposterous, I was particularly taken by the story of the seemingly humble eccentric who caused quite a stir by claiming to be the true king of England. It is a story worth retelling.

The story begins seventy-five years ago, in the centre of Birmingham , England’s second-largest city. Picture the scene. It is a rainy night and about a hundred people are gathered round Anthony Hall, the "true king of England," as he raised his standard under a banner that read: "A New King, a New Country." Among the hundred people were two police officers, studiously taking notes. When reports of the "true king’s" words were reported to King George V, he agreed that the Pretender must be silenced. "King" Anthony was charged with "using quarrelsome and scandalous language" liable to cause a breach of the peace. Evidently, it was thought that the charge of "high treason" could be overlooked.

Sir Clive Wigram, King George’s private secretary, wrote: "His Majesty quite agrees that a stop should be put to his effusions but feels that it might not look very well for a man who is obviously demented to get six months’ imprisonment. He approves of the [legal] proceedings. So long as it is quite understood that His Majesty is in no way responsible for the initiation of them."

Hall’s claim to the throne was based upon his alleged descent in a direct male line from Henry VIII , apparently through a secret son born to Anne Boleyn before she became the second of his six wives. He considered James I to be an impostor and dismissed contemptuously the legitimacy of King George V and his German ancestors . He would have no hesitation "in shooting the King like a dog," he boasted during one of his rallies in Birmingham and West Bromwich, at which he sometimes attracted as many as six hundred people.

Motivated, in part, perhaps, by a dislike of the Germans , bred, no doubt, by his service as an ambulance driver at the front in the First World War, during which he was the victim of a poison gas attack during the Battle of Ypres , Hall complained that King George was "of pure German descent and . . . should have been kicked out in 1914 when the Kaiser decided to have a bid for the Crown of England. If the renowned King Henry VIII was here today . . . he would have King George working in his kitchen and would spit in his face." Perhaps "King" Anthony lacked the eloquence of Shakespeare’s Henry V or Richard II’s defense of "this royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle," but I think we get his point.

Looking to the future, "King" Anthony promised to pay off the national debt while building millions of homes for the working classes, whose houses would be of Tudor robustness and stateliness as befitted the dignity of the greatest nation on earth. He also promised to popularize portrait painting and planned to establish a ministry of pleasure that would revive public pageants, and would encourage manly pursuits such as boxing and wrestling. As a former police inspector in Shropshire , he claimed to have been the first policeman in the county to have secured a conviction on a fingerprint; he hoped to be the first policeman to become king, he said, and hoped also that he would become the first policeman to cut off the king’s head (presumably King George’s, not his own).

"King" Anthony’s desire to reign was quelled by the threat of two months’ hard labor in prison, after which very little else was heard from him. We know that his wife Ethel divorced him in 1938 for desertion and that he died in 1947, leaving no male heir. Such was the rather pathetic end to a rather grandiose, if neglected, dynasty.

As an Englishman who suffers eccentrics, if not fools, gladly, I am amused by "King" Anthony’s histrionics. I am not, however, amused by his history. The fact is that, even if he was who he claimed to be, his claim to the throne is bogus. One born outside wedlock is quite literally illegitimate; that’s the first objection. The second objection is that Anne Boleyn’s marriage to Henry VIII was also invalid because the king’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon had not been authoritatively dissolved. As such, Elizabeth I , strictly speaking, was also illegitimate, as indeed she was declared to be by her own father after he had beheaded her mother and had married his third wife, Jane Seymour , in 1536. Contrary to "King" Anthony’s claims, James I, as the son of the true heir to the throne, Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots , was legitimate. The last legitimate king to sit on the throne of England was James II, who was overthrown by the Inglorious Revolution of 1688.

Thereafter, the Jacobites tried in vain to restore the true king to the throne, but as "King" Anthony rightly laments, we’ve had a dynasty of German usurpers on the throne ever since. It might indeed be the sad truth that the English are destined to wait until Doomsday for the Return of the King, but it is at least consoling to know that several of the true kings in exile are now buried in St. Peter’s in Rome. If the English monarchy is really dead and buried, then what better resting place than in the company of the saints and martyrs.

I realize, of course, that this reading of history makes me somewhat eccentric. At least, as an Englishman, I am in very good company!

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