Friday 5 October 2012

Long to reign over us: A brief history of the British monarchy (Part 2)

Her Majesty the Queen is the second-longest reigning  monarch in British history, so far. She acceded to the throne following the death of her father, King George VI, in 1952 and she celebrated her Diamond Jubilee in 2012.

James VI of Scotland did not have an easy start in life. As parental dysfunction goes, James had parents who made Jason and Medea's marriage look like the front cover of House and Garden. When he was still a baby, his father Lord Darnley was found dead amidst the smoking ruins of a house on the outskirts of Edinburgh. Who authorised Darnley's assassination is probably one of the most famous unsolved murder mysteries in British history, but at the time suspicion fixed on James's mother - the ethereally beautiful and scandal-prone Mary, Queen of Scots. Mary was already unpopular with many of her subjects; most of them had embraced the new hard-line form of Protestantism known as Presbyterianism and so they subsequently resented their stunning young queen for her French upbringing and Catholic faith. Shortly after James's first birthday, she was overthrown in a Presbyterian-led coup and fled to neighbouring England. Nineteen years later, she was executed for her alleged complicity in plotting the murder of her Protestant cousin, Queen Elizabeth I.

Robbed of both his parents, little James VI found himself king before he could walk or talk. The Scottish monarchy was pitched into another period of prolonged instability, with coups, rebellions and counter-coups shaping the young king's life. It's hard to doubt that James's adult obsession with defending the Divine Right of Kings sprang from his childhood experiences, in which he had seen the consequences of a monarchy that had been reduced to being the plaything of ambitious politicians. Everywhere he went, James's personal skills were limited by the all-powerful Presbyterian Kirk and the aristocrats who supported it - the so-called "Lords of the Congregation." James himself was phenomenally bright and very well-educated, but he had precious few opportunities to employ his talents and even his personal life was subject to the whims of his Presbyterian minders. As a young teenager, he fell violently in love with his French cousin, the handsome and sophisticated Duke of Lennox, but the Presbyterian lords around him disapproved; they lured James to Ruthven Castle where they kidnapped him and then banished Lennox back home to France. Lennox died eighteen months later, allegedly of heartbreak, and James wrote a poem in his memory called An Ode to a Phoenix, in which he allegorised Lennox as a beautiful bird killed by the envy of others.

Six years later, James did his duty and married Anne, the daughter of the King of Denmark and Norway (then ruled by the same monarchy.) Anne of Denmark (left) was a vivacious and fun-loving blonde, who found life in Edinburgh almost as difficult as her husband did. Presbyterians have never exactly been famous for being flash with their cash and Lutheran-raised Anne resented the fact that her allowance as queen was so restrictive. Despite James's teen obsession with the late Duke of Lennox, as an adult he produced seven children with his Danish queen - Henry-Frederick, Elizabeth, Margaret, Charles, Robert, Mary and Sophia. In 1603, James received news that his elderly cousin, Queen Elizabeth, had passed away in London and he was now King James I of England and Ireland. He and the queen travelled south to London, where they were duly crowned and Anne was finally given free rein to spend as she liked in the magnificent palaces of the English royals - Whitehall (the largest palace in Europe at the time), Richmond, Greenwich, Hampton Court and Windsor Castle. Not content with these and the turtle-shell bed she felt was an essential purchase, Anne eventually decided she needed a little chez of her own and the King duly built the pretty riverside mansion called Queen's House in Greenwich for her, which stands to this day and was the sight for some of the equestrian events of the 2012 London Olympics. Dripping with jewels and spending like a maniac, I don't think Anne of Denmark missed life in the shadow of the Kirk too much. The lairds would have been even further riled to know that, in London, Anne openly expressed sympathy for the persecuted Catholic minority.

James, however, struggled with his new role as king of a united Britain. He had several key political aims - the first was to create a united British state, the second was to maintain the monarchy (rather than parliament) as the dominant political power in Britain and the third was to end England's long-running war with Spain. In the latter, he was certainly successful; with Elizabeth I and her old adversary, Philip II, both dead, their successors, James and Philip III, were able to end the hostilities that had persisted since the defeat of the Spanish Armada. With peace concluded, there was even talk of marrying James's son to Philip's daughter, Maria-Anna. (The talks fell through when pious Maria-Anna point-blank refused to marry a Protestant.) However, in his aims to create Great Britain, James was thwarted. England, Scotland and Ireland may all have had the same king, but each of them had their own parliaments that met in London, Edinburgh and Dublin; they had their own customs, needs and laws and they were reluctant to unify under one parliamentary system. Even the subject of a British flag was unpopular, despite James's enthusiasm for the idea. But perhaps his greatest failure as monarch was in trying to ameliorate the power of Parliament. Everything he did seemed to antagonise them.

As far as James was concerned, kings and queens were closer to God than they were to rest of mankind. Parliament's role was therefore simply to advise the king, but he was under absolutely no obligation to take that advice. When Parliament attempted to force the king to do things that he didn't want to do (like harsher measures against Catholics or an end to the extravagance of the royal court), then James would react with apoplectic fury. Where the late Queen Elizabeth had deftly manipulated Parliament by flattering them into voting her the money she needed, James I harangued them and demanded, not requested, their financial assistance. By the time James died in 1625, after twenty-two years on the British thrones, relations between Parliament and the monarchy were at an all-time low and James's twenty four year-old son, Charles I, inherited a particularly unenviable situation. 

It would therefore be easy to write James VI/I off as a political failure. However, whilst the British Isles could not be united legislatively, they had been united by the monarchy and it would be this unity which eventually gave birth to the United Kingdom and, through it, the British Empire. He was also responsible for the mammoth cultural task of translating the Bible into perfect English - thereby giving the world the hauntingly magnificent King James Bible. He had survived the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, which aimed to blow up the King, his heir and the Houses of Parliament in retaliation for the penal laws in place against English and Welsh Catholics. He had been clever enough to balance the very different religious requirements of his kingdoms - he had been raised in the Calvinist-Presbyterian tradition in Scotland, but wisely did not attempt to impose the more liberal Anglican view of Christianity on them once he became Governor of the Church of England in 1603. He had admittedly done nothing to end the legal discrimination against Catholics or Puritans in England and Wales, but he had not caved in to populist demand that he start a kind of Protestant Inquisition against them, either. He had fathered heirs with his wife, despite the fact that he was far more attracted to his own gender. (After Lennox, he was obsessively devoted to the Earl of Somerset and, after him, the King got all in a fluster over the muscular legs of the gorgeous Duke of Buckingham, whom everybody else seemed to find insufferably annoying.) He had been a great patron of the arts, music, architecture and literature (Shakespeare received more backing from James I than he ever did from Elizabeth I.) He had overseen the expansion of British colonies in Ulster and America. And he had attempted to impose the new view of monarchy, prevalent with most European philosophers in the seventeenth century - that royal power should be absolute, that regional characteristics must be subordinated to a centralised culture and government, and that only a unified state could be a strong one. It's undeniable that James blundered and made many errors, but to dismiss his entire reign as a grotesque embarrassment is to misrepresent it. Whatever his failings, James I had arguably made the monarchy central to the emerging notion of being British. In doing so, he had successfully tied the Crown to a sense of national identity; the monarchy was, and arguably still is, far more central to the emotional identity of the British than parliament ever could be.

On the surface, James's son, Charles I, was his father's opposite. Where James had been loud, slightly sloppy and prone to scandalising people with his open affection for his male favourites, Charles was handsome, quiet, fastidious and impeccably proper. However, he shared his father's political beliefs and he clashed with parliament within months of becoming king. It set the tone for the reign. In 1629, a mere four years after succeeding, Charles I shocked the nation by undoing nearly four centuries of political precedent: he disbanded parliament and declared his intention to rule without them from now on. It was an attempt to turn Britain into an absolute monarchy again.

For eleven years, Charles was relatively successful in his task. He was clever and conscientious, and despite the fact that the move had not been a particularly popular one, there were few inclined to disloyally question their King so long as the system he'd created was working. (His personal rule only collapsed when he had to recall parliament in the face of economic downturn and a Scottish uprising after he stupidly attempted to force the Anglican prayer book on the Presbyterian Kirk.) Charles's court soon became celebrated throughout Europe as a centre of the arts. Its first lady was Charles's glamorous French wife, Henrietta-Maria, Louis XIII's youngest sister. Initially, the royal marriage had not gotten off to a rocky start. Henrietta-Maria was a fun and outgoing as her husband was serious and shy. One early argument between them had resulted in the Queen punching her fist through a palace window and screaming obscenities at people in the courtyard. But, in time, their arranged marriage grew into a deep and passionate love affair, resulting in their children Charles, Mary, James, Elizabeth, Anne, Catherine, Henry and Henrietta-Anne (known as "Minette" within the family.) As a Catholic and a foreigner, Henrietta-Maria was regularly demonised by Protestant politicians, who claimed she was encouraging her husband's toleration of Catholics and his hatred of Parliament. In fact, Henrietta-Maria did not really involve herself in politics and she actually urged her husband to be more lenient towards radical Protestants. It was true that she interceded for the rights of Catholics, including those in Ireland, where she successfully persuaded the King to lift the ban on Catholics going on pilgrimage up the holy mountain at Croagh Patrick. However, she did not encourage Charles's attempts to force Anglicanism on his Scottish Presbyterian subjects and he certainly didn't need any encouragement to promote absolute monarchy at parliament's expense. The Queen was, ultimately, little more than a scapegoat for the monarchy's opponents. 

Charles's reign, as everybody knows, ended in civil war and his execution. It also resulted in the temporary destruction of the monarchy and the eventual establishment of a republican military dictatorship, headed by Oliver Cromwell. The human cost of the civil war was terrible and the events were so controversial that, even today, historians are apt to pick sides between the Royalists and "Roundheads"; between Charles and Cromwell. In some sense, it's ridiculous to do so. A clear line between villains and heroes is usually tricky in history and the English civil war is no exception. Most Parliamentary supporters did not want to rebel and only felt pressured into it by King Charles's refusal to concede on anything. They felt he was financially irresponsible, tyrannical, dictatorial and religiously untrustworthy. Charles, too, did not want to fight and instead believed that Parliament was attempting to blackmail him into doing whatever they wanted. He felt it was morally abhorrent for a king to become a puppet. Both sides therefore went to war over a principle and it's perfectly possible that if Charles had lost early on, the result would have been similar to the medieval rebellions against John and Henry III, in which the monarch's powers had simply been clipped. As it was, by the end of the 1640s, the parliamentarian armies had been hijacked by a dangerous combination of political opportunists and Protestant fundamentalists, who wanted to sweep away the monarchy and the decadent Anglican church it protected. The tensions between Crown and Parliament had been brewing for centuries, but there was no need to believe that they would ever have exploded so violently had it not been for the stubborn personality of the King and the religious zealotry of those who opposed him.

Charles I was beheaded outside the windows of his own banqueting house in Whitehall in January 1649. He died with martyr-like bravery and the Anglican faith soon canonised him as the only saint created by that church after the Reformation. Even today, the Anglican communion keeps a saint's day in Charles's honour and he remains the "martyr-king" in many people's hearts and minds. His wife and all-but one of his children had managed to flee abroad - 15 year-old Elizabeth Stuart died in prison, allegedly been found dead on top of her Bible. Both Scotland and Ireland refused to accept the new republic, since it was created by England's parliament. Scotland was brutally punished for attempting to put Charles's twenty year-old son, Charles II, back on the throne; Ireland, which had been a festering cauldron of political tensions before the civil war, was invaded by Cromwell in retribution for overwhelmingly siding with the monarchy. (Irish Catholics knew that Charles's monarchy was preferable to Cromwell's Calvinist republic.) The invasion resulted in Cromwell's army perpetrating horrific massacres on the pro-royalist Irish towns of Drogheda and Dundalk; the events still live on in Ireland's cultural memories as examples of British cruelty and disregard for human life. 

Britain's disastrous experiment with republicanism came to an end in 1660. Cromwell had died in 1658. He had been a strong man, with iron convictions and a repulsive inability to compromise. For all the latter-day left-wing praise for him as the man who brought down the monarchy, his behaviour in Ireland reflects the true (disgusting) nature of his personality. Charles I's thirty year-old son was brought back from his decade-long exile in Europe and proclaimed Charles II. He was a swarthy man, with an eye for the ladies and a love of parties. He was also deceptively clever and determined "never to go on my travels again." In short, he was prepared to do whatever it took to make sure there wasn't another war. Or another republic. His people took to him and nicknamed him "the Merry Monarch."(Below) He was a cheerful sinner, with numerous beautiful mistresses and a bevy of illegitimate children. After the dour years of Calvinist-Puritan-Presbyterian politics, people seemed to quite like the sight of the King's brazen mistress Barbara Castlemaine posing with her breasts out in her portraits or of his Cockney prostitute lover, Nell Gwynne, cheerfully referring to herself as a proud "Protestant whore" from her carriage windows. (A little piece of trivia - the figure of Britannia on the 50p piece is based on the figure of the beauteous Duchess of Richmond, whom Charles loved despite her refusal to sleep with him. Charmed by her virtue, he didn't hold her rejection of him against her and instead the two became close friends.)

It was during Charles's reign that the rapid expansion of Britain's overseas empire really began. He married the King of Portugal's sister, Catherine of Braganza, and part of her dowry included ports in Africa and India, which immeasurably helped Britain's policy of expansion in those areas. The power of Spain and the Netherlands were both declining and Britain stepped up to become the dominant global imperialist power. Charles, with his love of theatre and parties, also oversaw the creation of a new golden age of British literature and helped legalise the first theatres that allowed women to perform on stage. (Two of his mistresses were actresses; one tried to destroy the other one's career by feeding her laxatives right before her date with the King. Which I think sounds frankly hilarious.) Charles II's mother, wife and sister-in-law were all Catholics and he abhorred sectarianism; it was to his great distress that there were such savage outbursts of it in England and Ireland during his time as king. (He himself secretly converted on his deathbed.)

In the 1670s, the news broke that Charles's younger brother and heir, James, Duke of York, had publicly embraced the Catholic faith; his subsequent marriage to an Italian princess only inflamed feelings against him. In the face of virulent anti-Catholicism, King Charles had to fight tooth and nail for his brother's right to succeed to the throne. Charles II died of kidney failure in 1685, having successful managed the bitter legacy of the civil war and overseen the restoration of the monarchy after one of the most traumatic episodes in its history. Despite the fact that he is best known today for his bed-hopping love life and for forming the physical inspiration for James Barrie's Captain Hook in the Peter Pan story, Charles II is perhaps one of Britain's most under-rated and successful sovereigns. 

Charles's Catholic brother, James II, lasted only three years on the throne. As a young man, James had been considered the royal family's tall, handsome, blond war hero. But his conversion to Catholicism turned him into a pariah amongst the rest of London's political class and there had been a decade-long smear campaign in Parliament which aimed to bar him from the succession.When he did inherit the throne at the age of fifty-one in 1685, Catholicism had come to occupy a place in the seventeenth century public's mind that was roughly comparable to how Communism was viewed by many twentieth century Americans. It was the terrifying and seditious "other." The last Catholic ruler of England had been Mary I thirteen decades earlier, demonised in Protestant culture as "Bloody Mary" for her execution of 283 Protestants. Unlike Mary, James had no intention of forcing Catholicism upon his subjects, but stories of the Spanish Inquisition, the brutal massacre of Protestant settlers in Ireland in 1641 and the French monarchy's recent decision to revoke its Protestant subjects' civil rights had poured metaphorical kerosene a sense of anti-Catholic paranoia. As far as many Britons were concerned, James II's only saving grace was that he didn't have a son. His Protestant daughter, Mary, was married to her Dutch cousin, Prince William of Orange, also a Protestant. Despite misgivings about his religion, most British people were therefore grudgingly prepared to let James stay on the throne until his death, whereupon the throne would pass back to the next generation of royal Protestants. Then, in 1688, James's Catholic wife, Maria-Beatrice of Modena, finally gave birth to a son. Like both of his parents, he was christened into the Catholic faith and Protestants reacted with horror at the idea of a line of Catholic kings stretching far into the future.

The birth of that little baby to James II and Queen Maria-Beatrice changed the history of the English-speaking world. The only way to prevent the creation of a Catholic monarchy was to play on people's fear. Protestant politicians shamelessly spread the outrageous lie that the new prince was a changeling; smuggled into the palace by the Queen's priests. Perhaps most disgustingly of all William of Orange helped fund the campaign, despite knowing it was a lie. Riots swept London and the royal family fled into exile in Catholic France. Ensconced at Versailles, Louis XIV vowed to help them regain their throne; meanwhile, William and Mary arrived in London and were proclaimed joint rulers. The final showdown between William and the father-in-law he'd betrayed took place in Ireland at the Battle of the Boyne. William was triumphant and James fled back to Paris, where he died a decade later.

William of Orange, the Dutch prince who became King William III in 1689.  Known as "King Billy" in Northern Ireland,  he died after falling from his horse in 1702. 

Due to the fact that William III is still held as a hero by the Orange Order in Ireland today, it's his legacy in Ireland that usually receives the lion's share of attention. Despite the fact that he'd come to the throne by whipping up fear of Catholic rule, William himself was an opportunist, not a bigot. He tried desperately to prevent Ireland sliding back into the sectarian venom of the previous generation, but the Protestant Ascendancy who had helped secure his victory at the Boyne were hysterical in their hatred of the Irish Catholics and "like a company of madmen" they bullied the King into introducing the Penal Laws that stripped Hibernian Catholics of many of their basic civil liberties.

The King, you see, could now be bullied. William III had come to power through the invitation of Parliament. He had been made king by Parliament's will and in return, Parliament demanded legal proof of their final victory over the monarchy. The Bill of Rights turned Britain into a fully constitutional monarchy. Whilst the monarchy would continue to have great influence for the next century and a half, it would forever after remain politically subordinate to parliament. Kings or queens who looked like they were trying to overstep the limits of their office were often accused of behaving like the Stuarts kings, whose political vision had been crushed at the Boyne. The other legacy of 1690, of course, was that Catholics were barred from the succession - and still are. When William III died after falling from his horse at Kensington Palace in 1702, the throne passed to his rotund sister-in-law, Anne. Anne had nearly killed herself trying to give the country a living heir, but when she died in 1714, she had failed in that task. (Her reign had, at least, completed the Stuart dynasty's dream of politically united Scotland and England under one parliament.)

Anne's last few years had been tormented by letters from her estranged stepmother, Maria-Beatrice, who wrote tearfully from Versailles begging Anne to right the wrong done in 1689 and not to rob her Catholic brother of his inheritance. A devout Protestant and a monstrously self-righteous figure, Anne refused and because of this, her death in 1714 brought the Stuart monarchy to an end. The throne passed to a distant relation, George of Hanover, a German princeling with an unsavoury private life. (He had locked his wife up in a castle tower and allegedly had her handsome lover murdered and buried beneath the floorboards.) Unpleasant, unlikable and uninspiring, George I was indisputably Protestant and it was on that criterion that the reign of the House of Hanover began in Britain.

The Hanover kings were the Georges - George I, George II, George III and George IV. The Georgian period is fondly remembered in Britain because of its gorgeous architecture, romantic literature and perhaps because it was the period in which Britain secured her place as the greatest power on Earth. There were, of course, setbacks - namely the loss of the American Colonies in the 1770s. George III was devastated at the creation of the United States of America, but the loss of America did not prove to be the beginning of the end of the British Empire as many predicted. If anything, it kept going from strength to strength and by 1801, political unity had at last been achieved at home. All parliaments had now be subsumed into one national political authority - which met in Westminster. It was also during the eighteenth century that Parliament's newfound dominance led to the rise of a new kind of political authority - the Prime Minister - beginning with Robert Walpole, future Earl of Orford, in 1722.

The economic boom and unruffled confidence in progress that characterised Britain's eighteenth century experience was shattered in 1789 when a French mob stormed the Bastille prison in Paris and kick-started the French Revolution. George III did not have a particularly high opinion of France's beleagured monarch, King Louis XVI, ever since Louis had helped fund America's struggle for independence from the British. However, events soon spiralled so rapidly out of control in Paris that national rivalries were quickly forgotten. George's devoted wife, Queen Charlotte (above), had been pen-pals with Marie-Antoinette and when she heard of the violence occurring in France she wrote, "I often think that this cannot be the 18th century in which we live at present, for ancient history can hardly produce anything more barbarous and cruel than our neighbours in France." The execution of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette horrified the British elite and the spread of revolutionary ideas, including a rebellion in Ireland in 1798, fired up patriotic determination to crush the French republic. In his 2012 book, the commentator Ian Hislop has suggested that British revulsion at mob emotion in the French Revolution led to Britain's proverbial fear of showing emotion; it became associated with the revolution's excess. So, if you like, the storming of the Bastille birthed the stiff upper lip.

The Hanoverian kings may have presided over a period of unmatched growth and prosperity, but they were not universally popular. For a start, the first two kings - George I and George II - had been born in Germany and spoke German as their first language, rather than English. George III, although respected for his hard work, decency and Christian faith, ruled for sixty years and suffered mental health problems during the latter part of his life; when he was unwell, executive power was held by his son, George, Prince of Wales (right). Nicknamed "Prinny," the Prince was his father's opposite - wild, liberal, self-indulgent, extravagant and promiscuous. His parents had been devoted to one another; George took numerous mistresses and even entered into a secret marriage with a Catholic commoner that violated the Royal Marriages Act of 1772. As he grew fatter and fatter, he became less and less popular. By the time he became King George IV in 1820, he was widely loathed. His private life had dragged the monarchy's respectability into the mire: if it wasn't his stream of loose-living mistresses, it was over-the-top coronation ceremony, his expensive private homes, his mania for jewellery and fashion, his estrangement from his wife Queen Caroline, his girth, his drinking. Everything about George IV seemed designed to offend the British public. Nor did his brothers help things. Like many children born to strict, religious parents, the sons of George III ran wild in adulthood. By adulthood, they all seemed to be as unpopular as they were ugly. (An unhappy combination.) The second son, the Duke of York, was such an ineffective military commander that his indecision was immortalised in the nursery rhyme "The Grand Old Duke of York." The Duke of Clarence spent twenty years living in sin and producing ten illegitimate children with an Irish actress called Dorothy Jordan. The Duke of Sussex eloped in Italy. The Duke of Cumberland was detested, particularly after public opinion blamed him for his valet's suicide. George IV's delicate sister-in-law, Adelaide, Duchess of Clarence, was so terrified that her family's excesses would lead to a revolution in Britain that she convinced herself she was going to die on the guillotine and began praying that she would be able to die with the same courage as Marie-Antoinette. 

Yet, even through all this, Britain did continue to grow, and to improve. When George IV died in 1830, he was followed by one of his brothers, who became William IV - known as "Sailor Bill" due to his love of the Navy. In his reign, full civil rights were restored to British Catholics, slavery was outlawed in the British Empire three decades before it was in the United States and poor laws were enacted to attempt to tackle urban poverty. As Britain industrialised and gave birth to the factory and the steam engine, her place as the world's leading empire was only further re-enforced. By the time of William IV's death in 1837, his empire had indisputably become not just the largest, but also the wealthiest, in human history.

When William IV died, the throne passed to his 18 year-old niece, Princess Victoria. Upon being woken in the middle of the night to hear that she had become queen, the young woman apparently responded, "I will be good." She was fresh-faced, pretty, virginal and pure. She was therefore the perfect antidote to the last generation's crotch-thrusting, wine-swilling mistakes. She also had the good fortune to come to the throne at a time of unmatched prosperity and national pride. When she married her handsome cousin, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, and produced nine children, the royal family could be projected as beacons of the domestic idyll, rather than domestic dysfunction. The Queen, the Prince Consort and their tribe of children became the ultimate icons of the Victorian era's obsession with a happy family life and public morality. Prince Albert was also determined to make the royal family useful again and he threw himself into promoting education reform, health improvements, urban planning, scientific exhibitions and engineering developments.

The middle of Victoria's long reign was not quite so successful. Her husband's death plunged her into a deep depression that took years to lift. In that time, she avoided all public appearances and this led to a rise in the British republican movement, who claimed the monarchy was no longer doing its job. Of course, the notion of abolishing the monarchy at the height of the British Empire was a total non-starter, despite the attention the idea received in the press. The throne was the glue that held the colonial system together. In many places, loyalty to the Queen outstripped loyalty to the motherland. The monarchy had come to be seen as the incarnation of the empire; it was the symbol of the national pride. Now slightly removed from politics, it could unite the people in a way that day-to-day politics never could. The monarchy reminded the nation that their sense of political identity was not solely dependent on each new election. It symbolised a sense of purpose, dignity, pride and tradition that superseded democratic politics, ideology and political parties.

As long as the Empire remained strong and the royal family remained united, it could continue to play the role that Albert and Victoria had carved out for it. Victoria's Golden and Diamond Jubilees in 1887 and 1897 saw scenes of near-hysterical national rejoicing. Her funeral in 1901 was enormous. Her son, the fine-living but politically brilliant Edward VII ruled for nine years until his death in 1910, in which time he devoted himself to promoting peace in Europe and to offering much-needed assistance to Prime Minister Herbert Asquith and his Liberal coalition government; his son and Victoria's grandson, George V, acceded in 1910 and although he lacked his father's charm, he did not lack his popularity. Driven by a strong sense of duty and conservative social values, George V's major political mission in the first years of his reign was to use the Crown's prestige to soothe the mounting political tensions in Ireland - a country he had always had great affection for, since spending time in Cork as a young man.

Now is not the time to go into the immensely complex reasons for, and divisions within, Irish politics in this period. Suffice to say, in 1910 the major split centred on the so-called issue of "Home Rule." Home Rule was not an attempt to gain Irish national independence; it was not republican. It was a desire for Ireland to have legislative control over her own internal or domestic affairs, whilst still remaining part of the British Empire's imperial and foreign policy; crucially, it also continued to support the continued presence of the monarchy in Irish life. In a sense, Home Rule was inspired by the Austrian Ausgleich of 1867. The Austrian Empire ruled over an array of central European cultures, groups and languages, but it was unmistakably the Austrians' empire. The name, and the political superiority enjoyed by the Austrians, irked the Hungarians - a country proud of its own ancient traditions and culture. Hungary did not want to rebel against the Austrian emperor, Franz Josef, nor end the rule of his family, the Hapsburgs. Instead, they wanted (and they got) equal political status with the Austrians and their own domestic parliament in Budapest. Every time there was a new monarch in the re-christened "Austro-Hungarian Empire," he would receive two coronations: one as emperor of Austria in Vienna and another as king of Hungary in Budapest. At least initially, that is what many Irish nationalists were proposing as a solution to the Irish problem. The parliaments would separate, but the Crown would remain and a separate coronation ceremony could be held in Dublin to make the monarch and his wife King and Queen of Ireland.

But this, fairly moderate, proposal was objected to by the Irish Unionists - who were particularly strong in the Protestant population of Ulster, Ireland's northernmost province. Fear and hatred of Catholicism led to many Ulster Unionists characterising Home Rule as "Rome Rule," in which the southern Catholic majority would legislatively discriminate against Ireland's Protestants and Ulster's more industrial-based economy. By 1912, the issue had reached such a fever pitch that both sides were illegally importing arms to the country and paramilitary groups were springing up to resolve the issue by force. The King and his Prime Minister were distressed by these developments and in 1914, the King personally arranged the Buckingham Palace Conference, which aimed to peacefully negotiate a settlement between the two sides.

By 1914 there were, of course, many Irish nationalists who despised the British monarchy and who wanted an independent republic, not an Ausgleich-inspired Home Rule. But before 1916, they were clearly in the minority and the point of all this is to show how deeply entrenched respect for the monarchy was in the 1900s. In part, this was because of the personalities of the last three sovereigns - Victoria, Edward VII and George V - all of whom were felt to have done an excellent job. Even in India, where a separatist movement was also growing, it was rare to find direct criticism of the King or his family. New Zealand, Canada and Australia, which did enjoy legislative independence, remained strongly loyal to the Crown - as their exemplary service in the two world wars would show. The monarchy was felt to be a good thing: embodying public decency, devotion to duty and a sense of imperial pride.

The monarchy was also, indisputably, member of a royal club that only added to its sense of stability. This club was partly genetic. Queen Victoria had nine children and George V's mother, Alexandra of Denmark, was also part of a large family. This meant that George V was first cousins with Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, King Christian X of Denmark, King Haakon VII of Norway and King Constantine I of Greece. On his father's side, his other first cousins included Tsarina Alexandra of Russia, Grand Duke Ernest of Hesse, Queen Marie of Romania, Crown Princess Margaret of Sweden, the Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, and Queen Victoria-Eugenia of Spain. It was no wonder that Queen Victoria had been nicknamed "the Grandmother of Europe" and that this cousinhood of kings gave the royal families of Europe a firm belief that, between them, they could fix anything.

It was also political reality, as well as familial networks and royal personality, which may have created the unconscious idea that trying to go without the monarchy was impractical. In 1901, when Queen Victoria died, there were only three republics in Europe - France (the arch-heretic as far as most of European royalty were concerned); lilliputian San Marino and the age-old federalist republic of Switzerland. Everywhere else had a monarchy and it must have seemed to everyone, opponents and supporters alike, that the hereditary system was unshakable. However, by 1914, the monarchy was standing on the edge of a precipice, along with the rest of the Western civilisation.

In June 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the next in line to the Austro-Hungarian throne, was assassinated by a Serbian terrorist on a state visit to Sarajevo (above). His death tripped the wire of imperialist paranoia. One by one, the great European empires allied against one another as the tensions of a generation of economic competition and empire-building were brought into the open. Fearing German expansion, Britain allied with France and Tsarist Russia; millions were deployed to the battlefields of Belgium and France to turn back the German invasion. Millions, of course, were slaughtered there in the bloodiest war in human history.

Make no bones about it, the First World War was the crucible of modernity. It changed everything it came into contact with - political boundaries, technology, warfare, economics, gender distinctions, transport, ideologies and concepts of national identity. The conflict shattered the pre-war generation's sense of security and unstoppable progress. As the casualty list mounted, the British monarchy's foreign connections all of a sudden became a liability. The most damaging relation of all, of course, was Kaiser Wilhelm II, whose mother Victoria had been a British princess. Apart from Wilhelm, who became the British media's number one hate target and subjected to a degree of criticism that even Osama Bin Laden did not face, George V also had a whole host of German relatives and he himself had quite a lot of German ancestry. (His mother, mercifully, was Danish and viscerally anti-German, but not only had the royal family originally hailed from Germany back in 1714, but until after Queen Victoria, the monarchs had all married Germans too.) Whipped up by the media and the hysterical xenophobia of the war years, the public began to turn against the monarchy. The novelist H.G. Wells called it "alien and uninspiring," to which King George responded with sledge-hammer honesty that "I may be uninspiring, but I'll be damned if I'm alien!"

In 1917, with rebellion in Ireland, millions dying on the Front and unrest sweeping Europe, the King finally bowed to patriotic pressure and changed the royal family's surname. They became the House of Windsor, a wholly fictitious but thoroughly English-sounding name; the ghosts of the Hanovers and the Saxe-Coburg-Gothas were banished. But even this did not seem to be enough to stop the rising spread of socialism in the country or to quell George V's quiet paranoia about his throne's future. In March 1917, his cousin Nicholas II (an ally of Britain's during the war) was overthrown in a revolution and placed under house arrest. The new de facto president of Russia, Alexander Kerensky, was a republican but he bore no hatred against the deposed tsar and his family. He feared for their lives in the context of Russia's political instability and he contacted the British embassy to arrange for them to be transported to safety in England. Nicholas II clearly believed they would be allowed to go and for a time, he began preparing his luggage. The Tsar's faith was understandable; his mother and George V's mother were sisters and the two men had been very close their whole lives. They looked like brothers (below: photographed on the Tsar's holiday to England in 1909.) Nicholas's wife, Alexandra, was half-British and two families had even holidayed together in the years before the Great War.

However, Russia's monarchy had been one of the last defenders of absolutism in Europe. So while George V and Queen Mary may have been aghast at what had happened to their Romanov relations, the reaction in Britain's newspaper (even the right-wing ones) was one of general approval - if not downright triumphalism. Democracy, which Britain seemed to regard as its gift to the world, had clearly spread to poor, down-trodden Russia and the Romanovs deserved to find themselves on the scrapheap of history. With so much suspicion about the royal family's loyalties and prominent socialist demonstrations in London, George V panicked and denied his cousins asylum. A few months later, the democratic republic in Russia collapsed and the Bolsheviks seized power. The Tsar and his family were moved into Siberia and in July 1918, they were all murdered by the Communist secret police. The youngest of the victims, the Tsar's son Alexei, was just thirteen years-old. George V was so consumed by guilt and horror at what he had done that for years the royal family never spoke about it. Indeed, some of them actively lied and shifted all the blame onto Britain's then prime minister, the left-leaning Lloyd George. However, archival evidence now shows that the decision came from a badly shaken-up George V and that the prime minister would never have stood in his way, if he had wanted to bring the Romanovs to Britain. (Realising his mistake, George did eventually grant asylum to  his aunt Marie, Nicholas's mother, her two daughters and other extended members of the Romanov clan, when they were evacuated from Russia on a British warship in 1919.)

The First World War ended on 11th November 1918, still commemorated today across the United Kingdom by the wearing of poppies and a minute's silence. The monarchical system lay in ruins - with the empires of Russia, Austria-Hungary and Germany destroyed. The war had exacerbated differences in Ireland and by 1921, there was no longer any feasible alternative but to partition the island into separate north and south, conceding de facto independence for the south. In the new bleak and impoverished post-war environment, the King and Queen had learned a valuable lesson. There could be no mistakes, no stumbles and no more foreign associations. From now on, the younger generation of royals did not have to marry foreign royalty. By the King's express permission, they could - and should - marry British girls.

In 1923, the first big royal state wedding occurred with the King's second son, the Duke of York, marrying the vivacious Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, daughter of Scotland's Earl of Strathmore. (She went on to be better known to this generation as the Queen Mother.) Early state visits by the couple to Belfast and Australia were triumphant successes and the birth of their two daughters, Elizabeth and Margaret-Rose, helped the Yorks assume the position that Queen Victoria had once enjoyed: the perfect national family. By 1935, when King George V celebrated his Silver Jubilee, the world had changed beyond all recognition to the world of 1910, when he first came to the throne. Yet the monarchy had once again shown its adaptability in facing down the challenges of modernity and the First World War; it had also championed social causes, like rejuvenating working class districts hit by the Great Depression of 1929, and when George V passed away in his sleep in 1936, he was given one of the largest state funerals in history.

To a very large degree, George V was the king who solidified his grandmother Victoria's legacy and set the monarchy upon the course it has held to this day: devote yourself to public service, make "duty" your watchword, adapt when necessary, do it with dignity and don't court the media. There was admittedly a wobble when, ten months after George's death, his eldest son Edward VIII caused global shock-waves by giving up his throne so that he could marry a divorced American called Wallis Simpson. His family, Prime Minister Baldwin and the Archbishop of Canterbury were appalled. Whether Edward VIII's abdication was the "greatest love story of the twentieth century," or the act of a spoiled dilettante who was unwilling to dedicate himself to a life of putting the country first, is still a matter of debate. What is undeniable is that the throne now passed into the far more capable and steady hands of his younger brother Bertie, who took the regnal name of King George VI.

George VI and his wife, Elizabeth, took the monarchy's role as spiritual leader of the nation to its apotheosis during the dark days of the Second World War. They were indefatigable in their public appearances, in their support of the government and of the war effort; Queen Elizabeth's unique brand of star quality and her ability to bolster Britain's morale led to Hitler calling her "the most dangerous woman in Europe." Although George VI was naturally shy and struggled all his life with a debilitating stutter, he was admired for his dedication to his country and his exemplary family life. Worn out by stress and suffering from lung cancer, he died prematurely in 1952. His wife, now the Queen Mother, was devastated and his 25 year-old daughter became Queen Elizabeth II. She heard the news in a tree house in Kenya. As a sign of respect, the press corps lowered their lenses as she drove past.

The Second World War had been described as Britain's "finest hour" by Winston Churchill. In many ways, it was. For three years, Britain had single-handedly faced down Nazi aggression and bombs had rained down on London, Belfast, Cardiff, Birmingham, Liverpool, Plymouth, Bristol, Hull, Swansea, Southampton, Coventry, Glasgow, Manchester and Portsmouth. Although America had eventually come to help and victory had been secured, the economic cost for Britain was ruinous. Rationing continued for years after; even Princess Elizabeth's wedding dress to Prince Philip was partly rationed. The British Empire rapidly disintegrated, because the motherland quite simply lacked the men and money to maintain it. Time would show that it may actually have fallen apart far too quickly, but at the time there was something poetic about the fact that the empire had faded into history after sacrificing itself in pursuing a noble war against one of the most murderous and depraved regimes in history. It was far more complicated than that, of course, but as far back as the nineteenth century liberal imperialists had always justified the British Empire by claiming that, when the time came, it would retreat into history, having served its purpose.

What to do with the vacuum, though? The Commonwealth was created in the empire's place, to promote a brotherhood of nations, rather than a paterfamilias, with Britain at the head of the table. Again, without doubt, it was the monarchy that provided the emotional glue that held the whole thing together and there is absolutely no question that Elizabeth II takes the Commonwealth very, very seriously. (It was allegedly one of the reasons she clashed with her 1980s Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, who viewed most of the Commonwealth countries as ungrateful scroungers.) Yet for nearly a century, having the largest empire in human history had helped define how Britain saw herself. To be British was to have won the lottery in life, as Rudyard Kipling had proclaimed - without a hint of jest. Now, Britain's position as the world's superpower had been usurped by the United States and the Soviet Union. The empire was gone and, with it, an entire sense of national purpose.

It was into this void that the monarchy stepped with sublime self-confidence. It had to; there was nothing else left. The Queen's coronation in 1953 saw widespread national rejoicing and all the old symbols of imperial pomp and majesty were on display, as if nothing had changed. The coronation was televised before a global audience of millions. (The cameras did reverently turn away when the devoutly religious Queen prostrated herself before the altar, fulfilling an ancient ritual that stretched back to the Dark Ages, reflecting the monarchy's sacral note as custodian of the national interest.) As a young woman, Elizabeth II had promised to devote herself to serving her people and, without fail, she has continued to do so ever since. In an age of soundbite, celebrity and public displays of gratuitous sentimentality, the Queen has remained resolutely unglamorous. She is not touchy-feely, nor is she given to the kind of "have a beer with me" faux modesty of American presidential candidates. She does not reduce herself and she does not pander to the media circus. She is not Evita; she is not a politician. Instead, the Queen symbolises continuity over change and age-old certainty over fads of the moment. For years, pundits have been declaring that nobody really cares about the monarchy and that the royals are personally unpopular. Yet, the outpouring of national affection for the Queen's Golden and Diamond Jubilees in 2002 and 2012 indicate that they are very, very wrong. Whatever Elizabeth II is doing, it's clearly working.

That is not to say that her reign has been without challenges - far too many of them flung upon her by her own family. Like her grandfather, George V, whom she nicknamed "Grandpapa England" as a child, Elizabeth II has lived through a period of huge change. The world in 1952 is radically different to the world in 2012. The civil rights movements, the Northern Irish Troubles, the rise of Thatcherism, the fall of the Soviet Union, feminism, gay marriage, the end of Apartheid, thirteen prime ministers, twelve American presidents, the spread of television, the invention of the Internet, the spread of air travel, the car becoming commonplace, the relaxation of the censorship laws, the 24-hour news cycle, the Cold War, the public acceptance of divorce - these have all happened in Elizabeth II's reign. The Queen herself, who has been complimented on her political brain by everyone from Winston Churchill to Vladimir Putin, managed to weather these changes with surprising alacrity. How many other institutions retain the same kind of affection in 2012 as they did in 1952? A case in point is the Christian Church, which has failed, spectacularly, to keep the British public's interest or affection in the twenty first century. It's generally seen as an obsolete and vaguely silly dinosaur.

Yet, in the early 1990s, Elizabeth II was beset on all sides by a media circus focusing on the marital woes and overspending of her children. Three of her four children are divorcees. Her gorgeous sister Margaret (left) was pilloried for her extravagance, her love affairs, her drinking and her expensive holidays on exclusive Caribbean islands. The Queen's daughter-in-law, Sarah, Duchess of York, was photographed having her toes sucked by her financial adviser. The Prince of Wales was illegally recorded having an intimate conversation with his married lover, Camilla Parker-Bowles. The Queen's second son, the Duke of York, was regularly criticised for his spending habits and, of course, her daughter-in-law, Princess Diana, endured years of personal misery before trying to use the media to undermine her estranged husband, Prince Charles. Beautiful and dazzling, Diana failed to grasp the hydra-like nature of the media until it was too late. They tortured the latter years of her life, particularly after her divorce. In 1997, they drove her, quite literally, to her death. As she lay dying in the mangled wreckage of her Mercedes, they continued to photograph her rather than call for help.

Since then, the monarchy has once again learned valuable lessons. It engages better with popular culture and the media is handled both more firmly and more intelligently. The Crown is seen as relevant again. Jokes about the royal family are no longer staples on the comedy circuit and it's uncertain now how they'd even been received if they were delivered. The Queen Mother's centenary birthday celebrations, her state funeral in 2002, the marriage of Prince William to Catherine Middleton, and the Queen's Diamond Jubilee in 2012 are proof of how successful the British monarchy has been in adapting to the challenges of the twenty-first century. The chances of the monarchy vanishing in our lifetime are slim-to-none. People have been predicting it since the 1870s, but in some sense, the British crown has proved itself to be the ultimate survivor and the savviest of political animals.

Two hundred years ago, Marie-Antoinette remarked that she could never understand how people could emotionally invest in a republic. Her rationale was that in a monarchy the people know their ruler from birth; in a republic, they don't. Part of the British public's long-term support for the monarchy over the next generation will be because of their emotional investment in the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. The couple are genuinely liked and they have managed to fuse the Windsor mission of public service done with dignity, with the modern monarchy's awareness of friendliness and managing the media. People feel an emotional connection to the future King William V and Queen Catherine; that connection will extend to their future children. That, coupled with the high level of respect and affection enjoyed by the current Sovereign, is the short-term reason for the monarchy's continued prosperity. (It now seems melodramatic to talk about its "survival," as one did in the mid-1990s.)

The long-term reasons, however, stretch back both in time and in psychology. The monarchy is in some ways an illogical institution or, rather, an incongruous one. It was, however, born out of realpolitik. It was essential in the Middle Ages and it validated all of that era's societal mores. To be without it was unthinkable. In the twenty first century, to be without the monarchy is no longer unthinkable. It is, however, unwise. The fate of countries who have abolished their monarchies are not exactly enviable, either in the long-run and much less in the short. The monarchy gives a sense of continuity. In an age of disillusionment with politics, the monarchy has been able to provide a sense of national leadership that is separate from questions of party and politicians. Britain's ambivalence, or hostility, towards its elected leaders makes it fundamentally unlikely that they would ever take well to someone who not only led the government, but also led the country. A combined head of state and government would most likely meet with derision in Britain. We quite simply don't have Americans' sense of hope and excitement about our new executive leaders. We're too snobbish and too skeptical  And, I suspect, we're too sentimental as well. Marie-Antoinette was right to say that the cradle-to-grave nature of royal life is part of monarchy's unending selling appeal. It taps into our belief in fairy tales, but more importantly it links the past to the present and it gives a sense of stable hope for the future. It removes the uncertainty of what's coming next; it provides figures of national interest, who can serve their country without worrying about currying for votes; the royals don't have to win anything, they can simply do. The monarchy gives people something to cheer about, to talk about, to identify with. It's by no means a perfect system, but I can't help but feel that it's still one of the best. Like Elizabeth I said five hundred years ago, it's a kind of marriage to the nation and in some ways, to me at least, that idea is still magnificent.


  1. This 2 part history was the best condensed history of the British Monarchy I've read. Your entire blog is great. I started reading on Saturday (don't remember how I even got here) and didn't stop till 4am this morning. Well, except for the body's necessities. I've been an Anne Boleyn follower for nigh on ten years now, not sure how I missed your blog in all my 'studies' (read obsession). Thanks for a fantastic blog. I'll be checking back regularly!


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