"The Royals" and the British Monarchy - an Englishman's view.
Buckingham Palace, London 2009. The official residence of HRH Queen Elizabeth II
The Royals - a new show from E!
The Royals is a new show from E! channel about a fictitious British royal family. Although the show itself hasn’t reached our shores as yet I have already seem some reviews of the first show and already know about the goings-on at the court of good King Simon. There have been some reviews of the first show in the British press. Reactions have ranged from bemusement to the predictable outrage of the more conservative papers. But it is early days. I’m sure the new show will do well. I gather that a second series has already been commissioned. But I suspect that the reality of our present Royal Family will always be somewhat stranger to anything a drama series writer could dream up.
HRH Queen Elizabeth II in 2007
The strange nature of the British Monarchy
The British Monarchy is an institution full of paradox and contradiction. In the TV show, Queen Helena (played by Liz Hurley) describes herself as the Queen of England. HRH Queen Elizabeth II, the real Queen of England, is not only Queen of England, she is also Queen of the rest of Britain and also Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, Pakistan, Ceylon, Jamaica, Barbados, the Bahamas, and goodness knows how many other smaller Commonwealth countries. That is a lot of territory! And yet, while the Queen may officially “rule” this vast amount of territory, her real constitutional power is almost non-existent.
In Britain, the Queen performs the state opening of Parliament and, every year, reads out a Queens Speech, outlining the legislative program of the government of the day. She refers to the government as “my government” but she has no practical influence over anything the government actually does. She may have to read out things which she totally disagrees with. Maybe at some future date the Queen, or future King, will refuse to endorse a government’s program. Unlikely, I know, but it is possible. What would happen then? Who knows.
The Palace of Westminster, on the banks of the Thames.
Since becoming Queen at the age of 25, Queen Elizabeth II has devoted her life to the performance of one ceremonial duty after another. Although she operates entirely at the “ceremonial” level, her work is regarded as a matter of the highest importance, both by herself and her subjects. And this leads us to the greatest paradox of all. Although, by any “normal” standards, the Queen is immeasurably wealthy and powerful, her personal freedom is severely curtailed. She cannot express political opinions. She cannot vote. She cannot wander around London on her own, do a bit of shopping and pop round to a friend’s house for a cup of tea. She cannot enjoy many of the freedoms which we “ordinary” people take for granted.
Why does she do it? Because it is not a job, it is a way of life. Being Queen isn’t merely doing a job. It requires a total identification with the role. And this is one reason why the present Queen commands such affection and respect. She has performed her role for over sixty years and in all that time has never slipped up. From her, there have been no gaffes, no embarrassing outbursts, no scandals of any kind. Just patient and efficient performance of duty. Yet what does it really amount to? She “rules” where she has no practical power, she is at the head of governments over which she has no control and she is the head of a church in which she has never served as minister. She is an excellent performer of an impossible role. Her predecessors have not always been so level-headed.
Walton's Crown Imperial march. Written for the coronation of George VI in 1937
King Edward II
Wacky Monarch # 1. King Edward II
King Edward II ruled from 1308 to 1327. In that fairly short reign he managed to alienate all his supporters, firstly by bestowing extravagant favours in a young commoner called Piers Gaveston and then, after Gaveston got himself murdered, by his patronage of the Despencer family. It was said that the king and Gaveston were lovers. Whatever the case, he can’t have been a very good husband. His wife Isabella defeated him in battle and ruled in his stead. Edward II was murdered. It is said that the method of his killing was a red hot poker inserted into his anus. A more horrible way to die can hardly be imagined.
King George III by Allan Ramsay
Wacky Monarch # 2. King George III
The reign of George III was long and eventful, lasting from 1760 to 1820. What everyone remembers about it now is the fact that intermittently, and towards the end of his life, George III was afflicted by a mental illness, the cause of which remains unknown. Movie lovers will have seen The Madness of King George and will remember the extraordinary performance of the role of King George by the late Nigel Hawthorne.
Song # 7, from Eight Songs for a Mad King, by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies. A musical depiction of the madness of King George.
Why does the British Monarchy remain so popular?
In America, Australia and elsewhere, the British Monarchy is seen as part of a common cultural heritage. Visits by members of the Royal Family usually create considerable interest and excitement. But I speak as an Englishman. When working on-line, using drop-down menus, I am sometimes required to state my nationality as “British” and my country of origin as the “UK”. Where possible I give my nationality as English and my country as England. This is not because I disown the rest of Britain. Far from it. Wales, Scotland and Ireland have their own distinctive cultures which I deeply respect but cannot lay claim to. English people continue to hold the Queen in the highest affection and regard, and if there we were put to the vote we would always vote for the continuation of the British Monarchy. But I suspect that the real reason is that our country is in decline. On the world’s stage we are no longer anywhere near as important as we once were. There is a sense, real or imagined, that increasing multiculturalism is somehow diluting our distinctive Englishness. The British Monarchy provides a link back to our once glorious past. It is a living link to Agincourt, Waterloo and Dunkirk. It thereby makes us proud to be who were are and it reminds us of who we once were.