The universal realities of life, love and death are at the core of the strength of the monarchy
This article is taken from the June 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.
“Not all the water in the rough rude sea can wash the balm from the anointed King.”
Richard II. Not the best king to model the indelibility of kingship, you might think. But Shakespeare uses this line to frame not only his play about the doomed child king, but the dynasty of usurpers that followed him and the marks left — on their reputations and souls — by Henry IV’s washing off the balm from the anointed Richard II.
In a funny way, we’re exploring the issue ourselves right now, albeit in a much less Wars of the Roses way. The State Opening of Parliament last month saw three narratives promulgated at the same time by very different people, all of which (deliberately or not) betray a fundamental lack of understanding of monarchy.
The first, by the Left, saw an attempt to heap ridicule on the rituals of the ceremony: of the procession of the Imperial State Crown, of the uniforms worn by those involved.
The second, by a more centrist kind of commentator, asked whether it was fair or just to have as our Head of State a woman of 96 who is no longer able physically to take part in major ceremonies.
The third, by the pro-Putin end of the Right, saw continued attacks on Prince Charles, whom they seem to have anathematised because he likes the environment. The political categorization is a tad crude, and I’m sure you’ve seen overt and covert republicans using all of these lines over the last few years.
What’s interesting about these attacks is that they unintentionally highlight the strength of monarchy, not its weakness. the ritual is not meaningless; it unveils layers of history. The Commons slamming the door in the face of Black Rod tells of the struggles between Parliament and the King which have been settled in our constitutional framework of the Crown in Parliament.
The Crown has the history of the nation woven into it, bearing within its frame St Edward the Confessor’s sapphire, the Black Prince’s ruby, the Stuart sapphire, and the Cullinan diamond.
Each tells a little bit of the past that brought us to today. In the chamber we have elected parliamentarians, peers, senior judges, bishops: an interweaving of the different perspectives and professions which collectively set the political culture. This will change over the years as the nation changes, and this too will be good.
Ritual is not empty; it tells a story, and all nations have their rituals and their stories. If you are embarrassed by monarchical ritual, I caution you not to cross the Channel and find yourself in Paris for Bastille Day or Moscow for Victory Day. Losing your monarch does not remove your need for ritual and story. What you lose, though, is an embodiment of that story.
But if our ritual needs the person at the center of it all, how does this hold when it appears she is too old to take part? The human realities of life, death, love, marriage, childbirth (and betrayal, hurt, and divorce) are at the core of the strength of monarchy. They are experiences we all share.
The raising of vast sums to be able to stand for election, the sitting around with focus groups determining which policies to front at an election, the devoting of wet Saturday afternoons to knocking on doors: these are the experiences of a rarified few. Monarchy, no matter how set-up in trappings of ritual, is a profoundly human institution. Its rhythms are human, as are its failings.
The cycle of monarchy will roll safely forward, with her legacy safe and secure
Which means we don’t get a say on who inherits. Occasionally we will get a genius, occasionally we will get a dud, most of the time we will get someone in between. The Sovereign’s views are irrelevant, because the policies of the nation are set by those who have devoted wet Saturday afternoons to knocking on doors, and when delivering the speech from the throne, it is never the Sovereign’s own policies being delivered but those of the dripping door knocking variety.
So why not be rid of the Crown and its rituals? Because they hold the space at the center of our national life, preventing it from being held by a politician. No Trumps for us, no preening Macrons, no sour-faced Putins, no German Steinmeier with his terrible legacy of appeasing Russia. The center holds, while the political world swirls around it.
Over this month we will be celebrating the Queen’s personal achievements across her 70-year reign, but we will also be celebrating the institution which she has embodied these many years, and doing so by marking in great state that most natural and human of all things : the passing of time.
We know that it will not be the water in the rough rude sea that will wash the balm from our anointed Queen, nor will the politically-obsessed republican commentators. It will be time, and the Lord whom she has served so well these 70 years. And the cycle of monarchy will roll safely forward, with her legacy safe and secure.