Former King Farouk of Egypt once said “The whole world is in revolt. Soon there will be only five Kings left —the King of Spades, the King of Clubs, the King of Hearts, the King of Diamonds, and the King of England.” Farouk’s quip left out a number of crowned heads on the continent and elsewhere, but nonetheless he recognized that the British Monarchy has a certain staying power not found among the many kingdoms that once dominated Europe. The British Royal Family is undoubtedly the most prominent, and Queen Elizabeth II reigns as dean of the small club of the world’s hereditary monarchs. But why has the Monarchy in Britain endured while so many of its cousins fell by the wayside?
You Keep the Crown, We’ll Keep the Power
The source of the House of Windsor’s resilience runs through the historical currents of English constitutional development, from the mid-17th Century Civil War (which led to the abolition of the monarchy, followed by its restoration), to the Glorious Revolution of 1688-89, to the happy circumstance of William III’s pragmatic Calvinism and willingness to cede royal prerogatives to Parliament in the interest of gaining finances for his war with France. The development of constitutional monarchy is ultimately the story of the Royals driving a hard bargain with the elected legislature. By the 18th century it was well-established in the British Constitution that the monarch reigns, but leaves the ruling aspect of government to the politicians.
One cannot understate how vitally important this arrangement has been to the survival of the British Monarchy. As the Enlightenment Era progressed political philosophers and thinkers elucidated the dangers of autocracy, and pushed for more representative forms of government. Queen Elizabeth II owes her crown to the wisdom of her ancestors. They slowly, but surely, ceded their power to Parliament, thus guaranteeing the continuation of the monarchical system to this day.
Father of the Nation
The apolitical nature of the monarchy is not the only cause of its survival, however. Monarchs like King George V also made the conscious choice to identify the institution more closely with the people than it had ever been before. Gestures such as changing the name of the Royal House to “Windsor” from “Saxe-Coburg-Gotha” and allowing his children to marry subjects may have been inspired by the First World War, but they were absolutely vital in making the monarchy a more firmly rooted popular British and Commonwealth institution. The King also adopted the “Father of the Nation” role with gusto, making the “Family Monarchy” the epitome of upright, middle class virtue. The Royal Family got down and dirty with the people, visiting coal miners, assisting with charities, and more generally seeking out the people in their ordinary lives. Once Queen Mary, consort of George V, was heard to snap at some complaining minor princess: “You are a member of the British Royal Family: We are never tired and we all love hospitals.”
Queen Elizabeth II is the living incarnation of her grandparents’ royal example. At her coronation she made a religious compact with her God and her people to serve as Head of State and Head of the Nation until she draws her final breath. Her unwavering commitment to her constitutional role has firmly implanted the monarchy in the hearts and minds of the people. This is why the monarchy endures. It remains to be seen how future King Charles III will acquit himself when his storied mother ultimately passes from the scene, but he would do well to emulate her, as well as the countless examples of monarchs long gone who did what needed to be done to preserve the monarchy as the locus of unity for the nation and the Commonwealth.
Photo Credit: Rushad Thomas