“[OLDEN] times were full of trouble,” Rowland Walker wrote in Stories of British History (1928). “Our poor country was like a piece of iron being hammered on the anvil. And the man who could hammer the hardest generally became king. You see the word ‘king’ means the man who can. And the strongest man seized the crown for himself until a stronger man came . . . and took it from him.”
Nearly 50 years after my historical biases were shaped by this thrilling story book, I checked the etymology of the word “king” in The Oxford English Dictionary. Sadly, it does not mean “the man who can”, but the idea that it did is always in my mind when I reflect on monarchy.
To say that someone “can” encapsulates both ability and potential. Kings get things done. Any Game of Thrones fan will tell you that monarchs do not all need the same kind of power (military, political, intellectual, physical, etc.), but they do all need some kind of outstanding quality, even if that quality is nothing better than ruthless self-interest.
WHAT really is buried in the etymology of “king” is “kinship”: in other words, inheritance by right of birth. If we want to know what distinguishes a monarchy from other forms of rule by a single person, the answer is that it is heritable. It is expected to pass from parent to child.
Until recently, this did not actually bar women from being monarchs, but they were certainly the faute de mieux option, resorted to only when no male of equally high birth was to be found. It was only in 2011 that a change was made in UK law to allow a first-born female the right to become monarch ahead of any younger brothers — not that it matters for the foreseeable future, with three males (Charles, William, and George) in line to keep the institution going. The consequence of this change has yet to be carried through to the nobility of this realm.
For many people in the UK, it is the heritability of monarchy which causes most disquiet. If we believe in equality of opportunity, and the equality of all people under the law and before God, it becomes difficult to defend the principle that some people live lives of privilege, with personal wealth, exalted status, and celebrity — all because of their parentage.
Celebrity is the most perplexing of these apparently desirable factors. News and social-media coverage of celebrities suggests that people of little talent and no achievement of distinction can become famous with a bit of luck and the right media management. The attractiveness of such status apparently lies in the privileges that it attracts. But, for most people, the downside — incessant intrusive attention — would outweigh it. The royal family is not noted for enjoying the attention of the world’s media, although Prince Harry looks set to buck that trend.
The basic objection to a hereditary monarchy in a modern democratic state is that it is unfair.
TO UNDERSTAND this situation, in which the future of the British monarchy must somehow find a way to be supreme, high, majestic, sovereign, and divinely graced, without being elitist and unequal, we have to understand how it has come about.
Preferential treatment on the basis of parentage and upbringing sounds absurd, nowadays. What ruler in 2022 would say: “I have a right to rule the nation, or to enter this social sphere, or to be patron of that organisation, because my mother or [more likely] father held that position before me”? Yet in time past it sounded perfectly reasonable.
To survive and make sense, the monarchy needs to be a reflection of the nation. In all centuries but the most recent, the hierarchical structure on which the monarchy depends was tied to a social structure in which it appeared natural for some people to be “better” than others. The very word “betters” was used to mean people of superior status. They had more money, power, property, education, opportunity.
If we believe that expanding people’s opportunities enriches their lives, we cannot be surprised if many people with reduced opportunities have narrower horizons (if only because they are being realistic).
By being a hereditary monarchy, the British Crown inevitably lays itself open to judgements based on the wider family as well as the individual who is, “by divine providence”, monarch. Our present Queen has been beyond reproach in her public demeanour and handling of her unique position. By the grace of God, she is what she is, and God’s grace to her has not been in vain (1 Corinthians 15.10). With her great age has come increase of dignity, as her years of experience extend beyond all elected politicians and into a past that few personal remembrances can now reach.
The same is not true of her family. Their feet of clay have been exposed in newspapers, and picked over online, to a disturbing degree. It is as if we feel that they deserve our resentment and contempt because they have been set above us without our consent. Perhaps, from their point of view, the monarchy is a system that imprisons them within a limited field of occupations (the military, charity work) which also reinforce gender and other social stereotypes. It may be that both sides, the people and the wider royal family, are dissatisfied with their monarchical deal.
STILL, monarchy is a form of government with ancient roots. It has one great virtue that we neglect at our peril: continuity. This engenders predictability, and a sense (even if illusory) of social stability.
Another reason that republicanism is still a niche element in British politics is that people see the value of the monarchy as providing a perspective that is not tied to party politics. The House of Lords may once have embodied another form of this, but the inclusion of Russian oligarchs and questionable businessmen has diluted its integrity.
The monarchy is embedded in our national life, so that, if we want to understand it, we do well to begin from social structures, especially hierarchies.
“Hierarchy” is a label that we use for any form of control or command in which the direction of authority is “one-way”. School, company, charity, college, organisation — they all have individuals embodying the position of leader, with a structure of delegation of their authority to make the system work. In families, too, there is hierarchy: some members hold responsibilities of care and nurture, and manage financial resources, from which other members benefit.
THE Church has been a social organism — akin, in its interconnected complexity and diversity, to a siphonophore — for roughly double the length of the British monarchy’s existence. It has been at home with hierarchy, itself having its own system of ecclesial authority. Bishops have theoretical power over just about everything, though I doubt that many of them — any more than the royal family — feel as if that is true in practical terms.
Yet we are now living in times of marked discomfort with the concept of hierarchy. We take it for granted that “all men [sic] are created equal.” Our problem is deciding whether this statement has any real meaning if, from creation onwards, a “man” is at the mercy of powerful forces of inequality. Parental status and what used to be called “good breeding” still matter.
Where does this leave monarchy? Looked at theoretically, the “rule of a single person” is a strange phenomenon. For a single person to exercise authority over all others in a group, the group must consent to be ruled. Alone, one person is easy for any group to crush. So those who lead must have certain attributes: from charm to ruthlessness, awe to fear; they have to rely on other people to put their will — or whims — into action.
Sometimes, they need support. At other times, inertia and indifference are enough. Perhaps it takes comedy to highlight the paradox. I think of Dennis, the constitutional peasant, from Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975):
King Arthur: I am your king!
Dennis: Well, I didn’t vote for you.
Dennis prefers the model of members of an anarcho-syndicalist commune taking it in turns to act as “sort-of-executive officer for the week”. In Pythonland, Arthur’s system and Dennis’s both sound daft.
WHEN we think about origins of political theory we naturally turn to ancient Greece, from which modern democratic systems draw their principles. The options are monarchy, oligarchy, and democracy: the rule of one; the rule of a few; the rule of the (whole) people. The dangers of monarchy are never far from mind. The Greeks once used two different words for “king”. One was basileus, from which basil — the king of herbs — is named. The other, tyrannos, developed strong negative connotations because of the way in which those who held the title exercised their power.
When it came to Roman politics, the same negative potential is even clearer. To the Romans, “king” (rex) was a dirty word from the moment the last king of Rome, Tarquin the Proud, was driven out of the Republic. After him, there were no more kings until the times of Julius Caesar — who was accused of planning to make himself king, and was assassinated as a result.
AlamyD.G. R.E.G. F.D.: Dei Gratia Regina Fidei Defensor: “By the Grace of God, Queen, Defender of Faith”, a coin struck for the diamond jubilee
This did not happen only because the Romans were suspicious of hierarchy. They were a warrior aristocracy, driven by competition for the prestige of high office; so they were aware that competing for supreme power could be damaging to the common good, or common-wealth (for which the Latin is res publica — our “republic”).
They had tried “Dictator”, a temporary form of emergency leadership; but Caesar had used that as a wheeze to shore up his absolute control. Eventually, they ended up with the ultimate monarchy, in which a man’s personal name became the title of his monarchy: “Caesar” (our modern “czar”). Monarchy lies in the structure, not the label, of a system of rule.
THE first Christian monarch was the Emperor Constantine, in the fourth century. He inherited his kingdom (the Roman Empire) and, in turn, bequeathed it to his sons. Like many absolute rulers, he dedicated himself to imprinting his presence on the world, in the manner of Shelley’s Ozymandias, though with greater long-term success.
If monarchy is about concrete achievements, and getting grand things done, Constantine’s greatness was spectacular. But, in the modern world, which rightly values equality and fairness, less grandiose objectives are both more palatable and more honourable.
The achievements of our Sovereign Lady Queen Elizabeth are not monumental building programmes, lavish expenditure on personal display, or flaunting of possessions. She may have buildings, hospitals, ships, and towers named after her, but she did not demand to have them built for her. She is surrounded by priceless objects and property. But she appears to value them for their history more than for their price. In this, we might say that she is content to be a custodian. So, although there is much that she legally possesses, she seems not to be possessed by her possessions: a truly Christian trait.
What have been her achievements in terms of Britain’s place in the world? The Commonwealth has certainly been high on Her Majesty’s agenda throughout her 70 years as monarch. Now that her reign must, in the nature of things, be drawing to its close, cracks are appearing in the unity of that Commonwealth. As head of the Commonwealth, as Defender of Faith, and as Supreme Governor of the Church of England, she has not driven through policies or imposed her inclinations on others by exercising the dominance of power and prestige.
It was once observed to me that one does not always take on chairmanship of a committee to get big things done. Sometimes, the real priority is to stop wrong decisions and actions, to keep the show on the road. That in itself is a major achievement. And it has rightly won her admiration, respect, and devotion, within and without this still fairly united Kingdom.
I HAVE no connection at all to the British monarchy. But I think I do understand one aspect of the double dilemma of having, and being, a royal family. Distinguished people, coming to the end of their careers and looking for an interesting final challenge, are sometimes attracted by a head-of-house job as Master (the most common title) of a Cambridge college.
But, when they arrive to take charge of their historic institution, they discover that they may be “Master”, but they are not master of anything. They are really employed to chair committees and make speeches.
Most of what they do is administration: tedious, intricate, and often baffling. But they have two further functions, both nebulous, unquantifiable, which are much more intriguing: to be a figurehead, and to keep the show on the road — just like the British monarchy.
Some of those distinguished people are shocked when they become Master and discover that, besides being the most important person in the college, they are also the most powerless. It takes real skill, and some self-sacrifice, to embody that position with dignity and integrity.
NO CAMBRIDGE college can work well without its Master. Someone has to referee the bickering, reconcile competing interest groups (staff, Fellows, and students), turn the face of an institution (which often looks like a little fort) outward to the world, and — without a rule-book, yet bound by a mass of conventions and traditions (that phrase again) — keep the show on the road.
For all this, they get to have their portrait painted and be photographed a lot. Also to live in a nice lodging with some posh furniture, like a tropical fish in a well-appointed tank.
My own Cambridge college was a religious foundation in honour of the Annunciation. Religion is still one of its statutory purposes. But it now welcomes people regardless of faith, nationality, or background. It lives with the tension between ancient and modern, looking from the outside (to some) like an anachronistic elite, but being radically egalitarian within.
It has only one criterion of entry: academic ability. That is something that people are born with. It can’t be bought. That isn’t “fair”. But it makes sense. I hope that, in the future, we will be more troubled by the potential damage of grooming a child for a life in which he has such restricted freedom and so little choice than by the elitism of monarchy; more concerned at the damage that can be done to all parties by making one sibling more valuable than the others in a family. In the Bible, the families of the patriarchs were dysfunctional, and the root causes (preferential treatment) are not hard to find.
FOR most of us, the future is a blank page that we are free to write on as we choose. It would hardly feel reasonable if the script of our lives were written for us, and we were then told that people resented us for being so lucky and so privileged. Although it is natural, when we are thinking about the systems that govern us, to want to iron out inequalities in society, it may be more constructive to think in terms of a balance of advantages and disadvantages.
Our present monarch has not accrued all her prestige and stature simply by living to the age of 96. In this year of Her Majesty’s Platinum Jubilee, our Government is headed by a Prime Minister who is a scruffy, undignified liar with alley-cat morals. If monarchy saves us from having such a person as the face that our United Kingdom shows to the world, then this is the best of times to be celebrating the paradox of a modern constitutional monarchy.
The Revd Dr Cally Hammond is the Dean of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge.