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History Of The British Monarchy

Ceiling painting depicting the divine right of kings, by Peter Paul Rubens at Banqueting House, London

When Elizabeth II was crowned in 1953 the enthusiastic Archbishop of Canterbury, Geoffrey Fisher, claimed that she was "God-called " (see The Queen by Ben Pimlott). The idea that monarchs had supernatural legitimacy has a very long history. Monarchs needed all the help they could get to maintain their position in a turbulent world. Even with the idea that they had been chosen, and were protected by God, many English monarchs have been deposed by opponents. King John was virtually hounded to his death by the nobility, Edward II was murdered, as was Richard II, Henry VI, and Edward V. Richard III was killed in battle by his domestic enemies. For most monarchs life was one long struggle against those who wished to replace them. Previously in history leaders had tried to defend their position not by suggesting they had been appointed by God, but by actually claiming to be gods. Roman emperors, for example, were supposedly divine figures placed on Earth. According to some writers this idea of leaders as gods or supported by gods, may have come about during the last ice age 20,000 years ago. At around this time an egalitarian hunter gatherer society appeared to switch to a hierarchy. Early in the period known as the Upper Paleolithic huts on the Russian plain seemed to be clustered around a central pit, suggesting an equal sharing of resources, typical of hunter gatherers. Later each hut had its own pit, and some pits were bigger than others. Hierarchical societies tend to be more sophisticated than strictly egalitarian ones, since they are more suited to people specialising in certain skills and roles. But hierarchical societies trade sophistication for stability. If society had crystallised into a hierarchy, the people at the top needed a way of defending their position. Olga Soffer suggests that religion evolved to maintain the strength of leadership, since sacred information is the easiest to control. As Soffer says: "If I were to tell you that there were reindeer over the next hill, you can climb up and see for yourself. But if I tell you that I speak to God and he speaks to me, how are you going to prove me wrong?" (Quoted The Neandertal Enigma by James Shreeve P 317.)



Helmet found at the burial ground for Saxon kings at Sutton Hoo


So for millennia leaders were more or less divine figures, hoping that this would maintain their position. But by around 300AD the idea of a leader as a god seemed to have had its day. By this date Christianity was becoming increasingly popular, and as Christians believed in a single god their belief threatened the emperor cult. Efforts to stamp out Christianity were unsuccessful. Roman emperors did not learn the lessons of later European rulers, who got round the problem of leaders clearly not being gods by claiming that they were appointed by God. By 380AD the Cult Room at Lullingstone Roman Villa, parts of which survive in Kent, had been converted to a Christian chapel. Only a few decades later the Romans left to try and defend their crumbling continental empire, and the former province of Britannia entered a chaotic period of division. In these centuries there was no such thing as England, and no monarch. Invasions by Germanic tribes caused the break up of Roman Britain into a mass of chaotic statelets. The transformation of these small, fluctuating kingdoms into larger units took hundreds of years. By 655 there was an uneasy pattern of seven kingdoms - Kent, Sussex, Wessex, Essex, Northumbria, East Anglia, and Mercia. Warfare between the heptarchy states was constant for the next two hundred years. Nevertheless one of the kings generally held precedence over the others, and this man was known as Bretwalda. The Anglo Saxon Chronicle lists eight Bretwaldas, beginning with Aelle of Sussex, who defeated the great British stronghold at Pevensey Castle in 491. Following Aelle, the Chronicle lists Caewlin of Wessex, Ethelbert of Kent, Raedwald of East Anglia - commemorated at Sutton Hoo - Edwin, Oswald and Oswin - all of Northumbria, and Egbert of Wessex in the ninth century. Ironically because of the Northumbrian/Wessex bias of the Anglo Saxon Chronicle the most powerful Bretwalda of all, King Offa (757 - 796) from Mercia is not mentioned. It was during Offa's reign that the first entity that might loosely be termed Saxon England came into being. According to Norman Davies in The Isles Offa is the first person to be recorded as having the title "King of the English", and to be treated as such by European monarchs.



Offa probably brought about as much unity as Saxon England was going to get. His son and successor, Eagfrith died in the same year as his father, 796. The usual divisions reopened, and this time Wessex, under Egbert became the dominant power. Unless something came along to shake up the whole pattern of England, things could have gone on like this endlessly. But then a huge life changing catastrophe took place. The Vikings arrived. They were eventually to kill all of England's kings, except one, Alfred of Wessex. Alfred and his descendents were to fight a long war with the Scandinavians, which did not so much end, as develop into an amalgamation of two peoples. Interestingly, religion, specifically Christianity, was important in this amalgamation. At the Battle of Edington in 878 Alfred scored an unexpected victory over the Viking leader Guthrum. Perhaps even more significant than the military victory was Alfred's diplomatic initiative that followed: he invited Guthrum into his tent, won him over and persuaded him to accept baptism. This proved the basis of an alliance, which endured long enough for Alfred to ensure the survival of Saxon England, which slowly evolved into a more united country. And part of the basis of this developing unity continued to be religion. In many ways the Christian religious ritual and tradition surrounding the English monarchy has its roots in the panicky rule of Alfred's grandson, Athelstan, who ruled 924 - 939. We might even credit him with a major role in developing the idea of the divine right of kings as it applies to English monarchs. It all goes back to an insecure king facing a bewildering ethnic concoction of a kingdom. The link between religion and English monarchy made so much of by Athelstan reached a culmination two reigns later on Whit Sunday 973. On this day Edgar the Peaceable was crowned in a ceremony in which many of the coronation rituals that survive today were first used. Edgar was not crowned so much as anointed, as if he were a priest.



Windsor Castle

The idea of a monarch appointed by God endured for many centuries. William the Conqueror arrived in England in October 1066 with religious relics hanging around his neck, feeling that only God could grant him a new kingdom. There were occasional monarchs who didn't seem to take the religious basis of their power too seriously, the Conqueror's son William II for example. But for the most part religion was the main stay of royal power. There were sometimes disputes between monarch and Church, the tension between Henry II and Archbishop Thomas Beckett in 1170 being perhaps the most famous example. But generally speaking Church and monarch worked together, each buttressing the power of the other. This only really began to change in the tumultuous events of the seventeenth century. Following the English Civil War, Charles I, an enthusiastic defender of the divine rights of kings, was deposed, and then executed by Parliament in January 1649. Slowly, by fits and starts, royal power began to decline. Following the French Revolution in the 1790s, monarchy generally began to seriously weaken. This decline gathered momentum during the nineteenth century, and by the reign of George V from May 1910 to January 1936, five emperors, eight kings and eighteen minor dynasties disappeared in Europe. But the British monarchy endured. It is interesting to speculate why this was so. Suggestions have been made about the fact that Britain had escaped invasion since 1066. Perhaps a more crucial factor is the Industrial Revolution which began first in Britain in the nineteenth century. Industrialisation was driven by demand and consumption, and as always royalty was a major trendsetter of fashion. Edward VII who ruled in the early twentieth century, and his wife Alexandra, set many fashion trends through their famous country house weekends. The king was booked up years in advance by cities, town authorities, and by industrial concerns, who all knew that a visit by the king would make them a great deal of money. The monarchy, quite frankly made enough money for enough people to make it worthwhile. The same is true today. As Penny Junor points out in her book The Firm, tourism is the sixth most important industry in Britain, and royalty is one of the main attractions. The top five royal attractions, Tower of London, Windsor Castle, Hampton Court, Buckingham Palace, and Holyrood Palace are visited by four million people every year. Penny Junor also points out that the Crown Estates, the royal family's vast land holdings, make roughly £150 million a year, which goes to the exchequer. Around £37 million is then given back to the royal family in the Civil List (figures for 2005). In 2011 the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton generated very traditional profits. The Centre for Retail Research reported a boost in trade of £515.5 million for retailers, with souvenirs accounting for £222 million. It does not take complex calculations to see that the monarchy is a profitable concern for Britain generally (see You'd be a mug to sneer at royal wedding souvenirs, in BBC History Magazine April 2011).




Statue of Elizabeth II in Windsor Great Park

But apart from the financial aspect of royalty, the sense of religious mystery also endures. The Westminster Abbey coronation ceremony which was used to crown Elizabeth II in 1953 involved the splashing of holy oil taking place under a shielding canopy. This canopy is a physical manifestation of the illusion and mystery on which monarchy has depended for so long. During Elizabeth II's reign it might seem as though royal illusion was ruthlessly stripped away by the media. This process gained ferocious momentum in the early 1980s with problems faced by Charles, Prince of Wales, and his wife Diana. But the monarchy as a semi-religious authority beyond all others somehow survived. A poll run by insurers Hiscox in April 2009, of 2000 people, put the Queen at the top of a list of celebrities and politicians ranked in terms of personal trustworthiness. This was published in The Sun newspaper, which has long been the scourge of the royal family. The queen's position has, then, survived endless scandals amongst her family, and even endured the crisis following the Paris road accident which killed Diana in 1997. The royal family continues to link power and religion, a link which has been a source of institutional strength for millennia. Richard Eyre, director of the National Theatre has written on accepting his CBE: "The English really are in the grip of the religious passion for monarchy. How can it change? It can't if people like me go on accepting honours" (quoted in The Firm by Penny Junor P301).

It seems there is still a place for the type of leader described by T.E. Lawrence in Seven Pillars Of Wisdom. In this memoir of the First World War in Arabia, Lawrence comments on Arab tribes who are "hostile to merit, or its acknowledgement." They require a leader "whose supremacy should be based on an idea: illogical, undeniable, discriminant: which instinct might accept and reason find no rational basis to reject or approve." The person filling this role should be "an Emir of Mecca, a descendent of the prophet, a sherif... an other-wordly dignitary, whose sons of Adam might reverence without shame". Leadership by merit is highly unpredictable, with the constant threat of divisive argument. In contrast the kind of leader favoured by Arabian tribes gives a better chance of stability, or in the words of Lawrence "an effective, if imbecile unanimity" (Seven Pillars Of Wisdom P241). It seems there is still a place for this kind of unanimity. While the monarchy makes money, and while it continues to tap into a sense of unity which is missing in modern forms of government, it is probable that Britain will retain its monarchy.