Is the British Monarchy a ridiculous, “old fashioned” institution that simply refuses to die? Some Britons have looked upon this Monarchy as a “royal soap opera” so much useless pomp and ceremonial nonsense, so much Royal flummery. They view the Monarchy’s leftover Imperial trappings, as an expensive drain on the British taxpayer.
Others insist the British Royal Family plays an important and vital, if unenviable and (at times) thankless, part of Britain’s stability in this modern 21st century space age.
A royal wedding is a poignant reminder of the tremendous popularity of the British Monarchy. It is a reminder, too, of the awesome force of example.
On the very day that the coming marriage of Prince Charles to Lady Diana Spencer was announced, King Juan Carlos of Spain was personally engaged in suppressing an armed attempt to overthrow Spain’s first democratic government in nearly half a century. A member of the Spanish government coalition, Alfonso Osorio, remarked that Juan Carlos’ bold action had “proved the value of having a king.” It is no secret that the king has modeled his general line of conduct on that of the British Monarchy. No Britain King, admittedly, has faced such a challenge for 300 years.
In his book The English Constitution, historian Walter Bagehot had this to say of the Monarchy: “The use of the Queen, in a dignified capacity, is incalculable. Without her in England, the present English government would fail and pass away. The best reason why Monarchy is a strong government is that it is an intelligible government. The mass of mankind understand it, and they hardly anywhere in the world understand any other.”
In another passage historian Bagehot wrote: “A monarchy that can be truly reverenced, a House of Peers that can be really respected, are historical accidents nearly peculiar to this one island, and entirely peculiar to Europe.”
The House of Lords may not enjoy quite the prestige and acceptance that once belonged to it but reverence for the Crown, accompanied by the deep affection of the great majority of Britons, certainly remains.
The sovereign, again according to Walter Bagehot, has three rights: 1) the right to be consulted, 2) the right to encourage, 3) the right to wars. This is a neat and apt summing-up. The Queen today is consulted on all matters of state, and all government papers are laid before her. She naturally and effortlessly assumes the role of friend and, if need be, adviser to all of her prime ministers.
But this is only one way in which the “right to encourage” is exercised. It goes, of course, beyond prime ministers to all the citizens of Britain. In this respect, one need think only of her broadcasts to the people. The right to warn has been used by Monarchy with tact and discretion.
The British Crown today presides over a declining nation. This has been said often enough before and doesn’t need to be overstated now. But year after year Britain slides a little farther down the hill. In March of l981 (literally for the first time in British history) a British prime minister had to admit that she could not entrust members of her own Cabinet with the secret details of the annual budget. Walter Bagehot would turn over in his grave because this makes a mockery of ministerial responsibility.
And so, with declining national power, a declining national morale and the now alarming difficulty of the government trusting its own ministers, quite apart from government servants who seem to be perpetually on strike, the Crown has a bigger task than ever before. It must maintain standards of honesty and loyalty that are being everywhere undermined. The brilliant achievements of the British Monarchy should blind no one to the apathy, slothfulness and increasing inner divisions of the British community. The Royal Family soldiers on, its motto evidently to go on setting an example, in the belief that some day a great new nation can be re-created on the crumbling ruins of the old. A daunting task, indeed!
For neither the Queen, Prince Charles or any other member of the Royal Family can single-handedly pick Britain out of its present trough of moral lassitude, depression and materialism. But their sterling example will live on and some day, it will be followed.
It is sometimes forgotten that the British Monarchy has not always enjoyed the popularity it does today. Charles II, that “merrier monarch,” certainly won the affections of his people, perhaps as much by his outrageous amours as by his grace of bearing and ready wit. But his brother James II was apparently a pompous bore and William of Orange was a foreigner.
Then came the Hanoverians, renamed the House of Windsor only during the First World War. Several Hanoverians, spanning a period of well over a hundred years, were certainly not assets in the governance of Britain. Said Bagehot: “The first two George’s were ignorant of English affairs, and wholly unable to guide them, whether well or ill. The Prime Minister had, over and above the labour of managing Parliament, to manage the woman sometimes the queen, sometimes the mistress, who managed the sovereign. George III interfered unceasingly (and) he did harm unceasingly. George IV and William IV gave no steady continuing guidance, and were unfit to give it.”
George IV and William IV were ruthlessly lampooned by the caricaturists of the day. The Hanoverians failed to win the sentiment of religious loyalty, or the lasting affections of the powerful landed aristocracy. Perhaps the only popular performance of the early Hanoverians was that of George II, who fought gallantly at Dettingen. When his horse insisted on bolting the wrong direction, he dismounted and said, “At least my legs won’t run away with me.”
Even Queen Victoria went through a long period of unpopularity; perhaps as a result of what amounted to almost total retirement after the death of Prince Albert in 1861.Then in 1863 she grievously offended many of the public by appearing in deep mourning at the wedding of her son and heir.
In fact, it was only in the reign of George V that the British Monarchy began to establish its present popularity. He endeared himself by renaming the Royal House “Windsor” after that most English of castles. Once he refused medicine on his sickbed by asking, “Nurse, am I King of England, or am I not?”
The late Duke of Windsor’s short reign was a severe setback, and it was only under his brother, George VI, that the Crown consolidated the tradition set by George V of selfless service to the whole community. This shy, physically delicate man conquered his stammer and sense of insecurity and stood with his people in war. He paved the way for his immensely more glamorous and extroverted daughter to become the model Monarch of British history.
The British Monarchy has never been so popular as it is today, except, perhaps, for a few short weeks in 1660, when parliamentary rule was swept away and the fountains of London, allegedly, flowed with wine.
The Queen is the titular “Defender of the Faith” and in particular the Church of England. The assumption has always been that no heir to the throne should marry a Roman Catholic. This would automatically avoid the risk of the Royal Family becoming Catholic at some time in the future. A Roman Catholic Princess would have been an unacceptable bride for Prince Charles or Prince William simply because of her religion.
The title of “Defender of the Faith” dates back to the treatise written by King Henry VIII, which ironically defended the seven sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church. Henry, often wrongly supposed to have helped convert the people of his realm from Roman Catholicism to the Protestant faith, wrote his treatise in opposition to Martin Luther. It was accorded instant recognition by Rome. Henry remained a Catholic all of his days. He did object to the overlordship of Rome, and his real aim may have been the creation of an English Catholic Church, independent of Rome.
Walter Bagehot wrote that “The English Monarchy strengthens our government with the strength of religion.” The Monarch is “the lords’ anointed.” Nor was the belief in a “sacred line of sovereigns” ever forsaken. The sacred line became an English Protestant line.
There is a song sung in Wales, part of Britain but a small country in its own right: “Among our lovely mountains, and from our lovely vales, O let the prayer be echoed, God save the Prince of Wales.” The heir to the throne is traditionally titles: Prince of Wales. This has been true ever since 1301, when the son of King Edward I, aged 17, was officially invested with this title. (He was named Prince of Wales at birth, in somewhat ironic recognition of the King’s promise that Wales be given a Prince “who can speak no English”!).
Prince Charles the 21st Princes of Wales. His insignia dates from the so-called Black Prince, a coronet, a golden ring, a silver lining, along with a plume of white ostrich feathers and the motto “Ich diem,” the German for “I serve.” Perhaps this motto is the noblest feature of all.
Only the Monarch can decide when the heir to the throne should become Prince of Wales. Prince Charles investiture in 1969 was only the second since 1616, and the only one in this century to take place in Wales. There the prince paid homage to his sovereign: “I become your liege man of life and limb and earthly worship, and faith and truth I will bear unto you to live and die against all manner of folks.” Perhaps more important than the investiture is the personality of the man himself.
The Sunday Times Magazine referred to the British Royal Family as “the finest and most long-lasting Monarchy in the world.” Even though Queen Elizabeth is just the titular head of Britain and the Commonwealth, she and other members of the Royal Family exercise a powerful influence on their subjects. The trappings of Royalty are a necessary and potent influence on Britain, the Commonwealth and the world.
Many foreigners, in fact, see the lack of pomp and ceremony in their own countries and secretly envy the regal splendor surrounding the British Monarchy. The truth is, just as the peacock needs the beautiful plumage with which it is so generously endowed, so Britain is enriched by the pomp and pageantry surrounding her Royal Family.
There is enough dull, drab monotony in the lives of the British, and a dash of monarchical splendor here and there helps to make the ordinary, somewhat humdrum life of the average Briton more bearable and more interesting. The truth is that much of the world is also greatly enriched by seeing the pageantry of the British Royal Family on important state occasions like the royal wedding of Prince William to Lady Catherine when millions witnessed this moving ceremony via television worldwide. The British Royal Family is good for Britain and good for the world.