It’s hard to imagine our lovely, white haired, grandmotherly Queen acting unilaterally; that is, being autocratic. You cannot see her declaring war willy nilly, befriending other countries at the drop of her exquisitely tailored hat, or spending months and months sat at Balmoral twiddling her thumbs. But if you think about it, it wasn’t all that long ago that monarchs were doing just that. By this, I mean the war declaring and the thumb twiddling sort of stopped in the 1700s when the monarchy became more public property than the elevated elite. And yet, up until the 1920s (and some may even say the 1950s) royal authority was able to twist arms, bend ears and ruffle feathers. The changing face of the monarchy is something remarkable; from the despotic warring Plantagenets, through the arrogant, deaf-to-all-sense Stuarts and right up to the public serving, self-perpetuating Windsors, the monarchy has been a constant (even with the slight hiccup of the Protectorate but we will gloss over that, naturally).
Don’t get me wrong, to say that the current incumbent of the throne is completely devoid of power is bordering on the non-sensical. You’ll hear nay-sayers and monarchy-bashers declaring: “What’s the point of the monarch retaining power if she never uses it”… well that’s barmy. The power retained in the monarchy is something we can be proud of as it means that there is always, albeit to a small extent, a check, a final “here” where the buck must stop. The government is Her Majesty’s government, every piece of legislation has to have royal assent, parliament sits at The Queen’s privilege, the monarch selects who will become Prime Minister, the Army swears allegiance to the Sovereign…the list goes on. Now I know that these are all ceremonial and should the Royal Train be held up by a points failure at Orpington then yes, the business of government would continue. But the fact that these powers still exist, that someone hasn’t come along and said “Oh, what’s the point”, genuinely gives me reason to heave a sigh of relief.
Power and monarchy, even today, have to be closely linked. Otherwise, what is the point of having one? But it’s intrinsic for power to rest with a monarch. The monarchy’s existence in this country is due to conquest, subjugation, and interesting names like Æthelred. The idea of shared powers and people’s representatives, if you think about it, is a genuinely new concept in this country. Speaking generally, the first true parliament wasn’t birthed until the 13th century, and we didn’t have a true Prime Minister until 1730 when Robert Walpole became a sort of First Minister. By this point the monarchy had been ruling and reigning for over 800 years.
As can only be expected, there were checks on royal power throughout these centuries; The Magna Carta, Barons’ Wars and the occasional beheading (sorry Charles I) were all used to curtail a monarch’s power. However, as stated above, the monarch was still able to act without a care in the world until quite recently. George IV (1820-1830) constantly overspent on his royal allowance and constantly demanded more, and William IV (1830-1837) dissolved parliament due to the Reform crisis of 1831. Then when we look at the self-exclusion of Queen Victoria, actively putting her own wishes and desires over that of the sacred office she held, we see another example of a monarch breaking one of the main ‘rules’ of the monarchy ever since the Restoration: be seen and do ‘good things’.
Now obviously the ‘Widow of Windsor’ locking herself away and crying over Albert’s shirt tails is a far cry from declaring war on your own people (nice one again Charlie I) or raising taxes or locking up one’s nephews in the Tower of London, but it does demonstrate the nature of power and how that nature has changed over the vast expanse of history that our wonderful monarchy covers (again, with the exception of the Protectorate but we will come to that in later posts).
I would like us to look at the way that power and its trappings have changed over the 1,000 years that it’s been in existence. Now, despite the quiet knitting of red flags and the gentle hammering of barricades, the monarchy still holds strong with an approval rating of over 80%, so I wouldn’t start sharpening your guillotines just yet!
But what alarms me a lot of the time is when people say that the monarchy itself has no role, no power and therefore no point. The fact that it still exists and in the 21st century we still have hereditary privilege and a Royal Prerogative is remarkable, nay; fantastic! So long as our Queen, with her white hair and a smile that would melt even the most Robespierre-esq Republican hearts, retains even a grain of sands worth of power, the further we are kept from Anarchy, or worse…a President.
The changing face of the monarchy is a series of blogs which will examine the way that the monarchy has grown over time since its existence. Whilst not always chronological, it will always be relevant. Remember; things are always more exciting when a monarch’s involved!