What Are Monarchs For? by Justin Champion

There has been some considerable debate in recent days about the public purse bearing the cost of refurbishing Buckingham Palace to the tune of £369 million while the rest of the country endures austerity, the NHS budget is trimmed and the number of homeless rises. Unsurprisingly, an exploration of the historical the relationships between Crown, finance and the public purse provides us with some valuable context for this discussion.

In the past, kings and queens exercised their majesty through a conspicuous display of wealth and power. The right to rule was represented and reinforced by the sheer opulence of the monarch’s dwelling places and possessions. Magnificent courts, sumptuous homes, golden carriages, the largest jewels, the finest horses, the most splendid paintings, were not just the trappings but the foundations of regal power. Wealth was the cause rather than a symptom of power. Historically there were intellectual dimensions to this material majesty. Kings were thought to be appointed by divine right, the keystone in a natural hierarchy celebrated in a culture of deference. Simply put, the king stood just beneath god in the natural order, and this exalted position was reflected by his extravagant wealth.

The same question is more difficult to address with clarity today as debates about heritage and national identity get mixed up with constitutional issues. Whether the current monarchy is a greater asset for the nation as part of the tourist industry, or simply because defending it seems to save us the time of thinking of an alternative, is still a debatable point. For some, even raising the question implies sedition, subversion and immorality. Certainly beyond those die-hard loyalists, besotted with the ineffable mystery of the crown, and firmly wedded to principles of deference reinforced by royal hierarchy, it is difficult to contrive a robust philosophical defence of the institution today. If we pose the same question in the historical sense – what were monarchs for? – it is perhaps easier to arrive at plausible and persuasive answers.

In the past kings and queens were warriors, symbols and enactors of military might, dispensers of justice, makers of law, and, very commonly, representatives of God on earth. From its foundations in the act of William I’s conquest, through to the Imperial majesty of Victoria, the English monarchy has acted as if they were the centre of political power. Competing with the Papacy and later the Church of England, the monarchy erected a powerful jurisdictional claim to be not only the source of morality but also the arbiter of true religion. Despite two revolutions in the seventeenth century, (one, in 1649, which saw the most radical act of anti-monarchical reform in the act of decapitating Charles I; and the other in 1689, a more decorous affair, but nevertheless clear evidence that kings and queens were reliant upon a broader political constituency than simply God) claims to divine right legitimacy have still not been discarded by ardent monarchists, even though the political constitution finally abolished the notion in 1701. It is quite clear that one cannot engage with the English past without considering the nature and power of the monarchy. The powerful material remnants of the institution lie all across the land: castles, forests, parks and ancient and relatively modern placenames. The Royal imprimatur can also be found on everything from caviar to toilet paper. Almost silently these monuments, buildings and spaces plead a royalist cause.

execution-of-charles-i-barnards-history-of-england-c-1781
Execution of Charles I in Whitehall, January 1649 [Barnard’s History engraving c. 1781]
In the past apologists for monarchy adopted a number of justifications. Many of these were based on appropriating the most effective political document of the pre-modern world – the Bible – to the case for the defence. Arguments in favour of legitimacy included radical claims for political dominion based on conquest, the Biblical figure of Nimrod being a particular favourite. Others claimed even as late as the seventeenth century that since God had given all dominion over the world to Adam, and all kings were direct descendants of the first father, so they had supreme power. Although kings might be morally bound to govern in the reasonable interests of the community, the subject had no claim against arbitrary behaviour. The difference between absolute authority and arbitrary power was quite subtle. Despite a conceptual distinction between ‘tyranny’ and monarchy, many defenders of kingship furiously underscored the principle of both passive obedience (put up with what ever happens without complaint) and non-resistance (never, even in the most extreme circumstances, even imagine raising a finger against the king). This world was shattered in 1649 with as much cultural trauma as the attack upon the Twin Towers in New York. Killing the King was understood by contemporaries as a blasphemy equivalent to the sacrifice of Christ. English republicans have struggled with this legacy ever since.

The strongest claims for the monarchy appear to be those that invoke tradition, historical continuity and the sanctity of the ancient constitution. A thousand years of regal majesty, evident in the still robust and bewitching spectacle of Royal funerals of Lady Diana and the Queen Mother, seems an almost unanswerable argument. We should remember that despite invoking the sonorous authority of tradition, the past is as much a projection of present-centred aspirations, an invented tradition, as it is a persisting truth. Put another way, celebrating the past does not necessarily mean living in it. Turning to the past may however give us something with which to compare current institutions. By asking historical questions – What did kings and queens do in the past, what was their function in the polity? How did subjects understand their duties and obligations to regal figures? Where did their authority to rule come from? – it might be possible to raise legitimate questions about the nature and function of the modern institution. However, the mere act of broaching these issues has commonly been dismissed as insolent and inappropriate mischief.

Members of Republic demonstrate near Tower Bridge, in central London, during the Diamond Jubilee celebrations.jpg
Republican protest at Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee River Pageant, 2012

It has never been fashionable to be a republican in England, even in the heady days of the 1650s when the country was ruled by a Lord Protector in the name of the sovereignty of the people. The history of English republicanism, despite the persistent charges of conspiracy levelled against successive figures such as Oliver Cromwell, Thomas Paine, the Chartists and Willie Hamilton, has not been a lineage of subversive king-killers. In fact, the history of English republicans have traditionally been more interested in making good citizens than neutering extravagant monarchs. The persisting cultural memory of 1649, mixed in with nightmarish images of French sans-culottes, the guillotine and 1789, as well as twentieth Russian and Spanish revolutionary traditions, has always successfully tainted republicanism with regicide. This political stereotyping has its origins in an eighteenth century tabloid creation known as the ‘Calves Head Club’ – a clandestine fraternity that gathered each January 30th to celebrate the execution of Charles the Martyr, in a drunken and impious manner. The Calves Head men, almost certainly an invention of the fevered imaginations of loyal clergymen became a powerful way of neutering any public political discussion of the rights, prerogatives and power of the monarchy. Any such discussion would lead inevitably to regicidal action. The same logic still applies today in many quarters. That it does provides simple proof of the enduring centrality of the institution of monarchy in England.

English republican thinking, even in its most radical years, was very rarely regicidal. Admittedly the great apologist of the English Republic, John Milton, defended the execution of Charles I in robust and comprehensive arguments. But the intellectual origins of the majority of these arguments were not necessarily ‘republican’. A defence of popular sovereignty (that the safety and common good of the community is more important than that of the monarch), a description of both the rights and duties of resistance to illegal government, were all central components of a ‘democratic’ theory of government which we all subscribe to today. Very few people realise that the trial of Charles I was as much a religious matter as a political one. Indeed, the Old Testament was as important a document in his condemnation as the writings of republicans.

Although Kings were subject to restraint, it should be noticed that one of the major targets of this republicanism was ‘tyranny’ – corrupt courtiers, corrupt government, self interested and immoral ministers were the targets of hostility. Bad government irrespective of institutional form, was tyrannous. In other words, one did not have to live under a monarchy to experience tyranny. The same is true today when any of us can have republican values and aspirations without starting with the immediate issue of kingship. Republicanism in the British Isles since the 1650s has very often been more concerned with making good citizens than punishing wicked kings. Indeed, for many thinkers and writers, the issue of monarchy after 1689 was a side show to the bigger business of eradicating inequality, deference and oppression. The distemper of deference, and the extravagance of the costs of supporting a monarchy, were sometime perceived as contributing to a more general political oppression, but the focus of ambition was turned (and continues to turn) on providing the political institutions that cultivate an active, virtuous, tolerant and just community. The problem with monarchy was not personal, or even financial; rather, it was resisted and criticised because it was a symptom of an ancient constitution riddled with anachronistic prerogatives and privilege. Given the extraordinary year that is now slowly drawing to a close, we may do well to remember that, in this view, the Houses of Parliament are just as corrupted and ‘monarchical’ as the Royal Family.

 

Justin Champion is President of the Historical Association and Professor of the History of Early Modern Ideas at Royal Holloway, University of London. His publications include The Pillars of Priestcraft Shaken. the Church of England and its enemies, 1660-1730, now in a second edition (University of Cambridge, 2014).

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