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14 September 2022

The history of the royals is tangled and bloody. But so is that of the nation they rule

The monarchy bears the fractures of the Union’s past, and underpins its present.

By Helen Thompson

The events of the past few weeks have demonstrated the importance of the UK’s constitutional monarchy to parliamentary democracy, the Union, the armed forces, and the liturgies of British nationhood. They have also highlighted the tangled history through which collective life has come to exist in the nation.

On 6 September Queen Elizabeth II accepted the resignation of one prime minister and appointed another, asking both to come to Scotland to meet her. Two days later, still at Balmoral, she died. Having laid in state at the Church of Scotland cathedral of St Giles at Edinburgh, her body has gone to London, where her Anglican funeral service will take place at Westminster Abbey, which was, until 1540, a Benedictine monastery. Meanwhile, the King, now head of the armed forces, and the new prime minister, now responsible for leading the government through Russia’s war against Ukraine, are visiting the two kingdoms, the principality and province that constitute the UK.

[See also: Why unionism needs the monarchy]

Even in its own rituals, the monarchy carries many conflicts from the past. Starting the monarchical line at William the Conqueror is the principal means by which Anglo-Saxon England is written out of national history. And yet the core of the coronation service comes from that performed in 973 for one of those forgotten kings, Edgar. The crown that will eventually be placed upon Charles’ head by the Archbishop of Canterbury is the St Edward’s Crown, even though Edward the Confessor’s actual crown did not survive the English republic of 1649 to 1660. Scotland’s history as an independent kingdom is also absent from the numbering of British monarchs. But the older, denied history will, again, reappear in the King’s coronation via the presence of the Stone of Destiny, a symbol of the old Scottish crown, under the Coronation Chair.

That the monarchy must uphold the hard ecclesiastical limits of the Anglo-Scottish Union has been on display too. The oath that the King took at the meeting of the Accession Council at St James’s Palace on 10 September was to defend the independence and security of the Church of Scotland. The promise is legally required by the 1707 Act of Union. Its historical necessity comes from the memory of the catastrophic fallout and civil war resulting from the first King Charles imposing the Book of Common Prayer on Scotland in 1637.

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Yet, although it bears the bloody fractures of the Union’s past, the monarchy also underpins its present as one of the two strong remaining symbols of Britishness, alongside the armed forces. This state of affairs is both recent and paradoxical, as relatively few of our monarchical dynasties have originated in the British Isles. The House of Windsor is a name devised by George V during the First World War to disguise the present dynasty’s continuity from the German houses of Hanover and of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. With the exception of Edward VIII, the Windsor royals have assiduously cultivated the Crown’s relationship with the armed forces. It is they who have effectively made the ceremonies of remembrance around the two world wars at least as important as the opening of parliament in the country’s calendar of annual rituals.

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The monarchy has long had to address its own foundational tensions. While looking like a hereditary monarchy, it still bears some of its origins in the explicitly elective Anglo-Saxon monarchy, where the Witan or king’s council chose the sovereign. In her 2013 essay “Royal Bodies”, Hilary Mantel noted that the history of Henry VIII and his wives is a story about “body parts” and whether they are “fit for purpose” or “diseased”. But in 1688, James II’s body being demonstrably fit for purpose was precisely the problem, as his newborn son promised a Catholic succession to what was supposed to be a one-off Catholic reign. And so a group of Protestant nobles invited William of Orange to invade.

The elective principle also lay at the centre of the 1936 abdication crisis. What might seem a protracted saga can be reduced to a simple fact: Edward VIII renounced the crown because the prime minister, Stanley Baldwin, told him that continuing to hold it was conditional on not marrying Wallis Simpson. Princess Diana offered a version of the principle of elective monarchy when, after their separation, she implied Charles was an unfit heir. And although the Queen was never going to allow the crown to pass directly to Prince William, that King Charles III will have to earn some of his legitimacy arises in part from this long-standing qualification to the hereditary principle.

Elizabeth II came into her own during the early years of the 21st century, a time when the New Labour governments were demonstrating their aversion to the historical constitution and their preference for national modernisation: Britain is a young country, said Tony Blair. Acting on that idea did not include getting rid of the monarchy or disestablishing the Church of England, but it did entail treating the historical ambiguities embodied in the monarchy as forces of conservatism that needed to be stripped of any living energy. But the national rebirth that Blair wanted did not take place. Instead, the monarchy in which all those tensions symbolically reside became stronger. Whether it will remain so resilient depends on how the King and the ministers he appoints each navigate the symbolic and non-symbolic burdens of a crisis-ridden future.

[See also: How Brexit changed us: Brexit belongs to a time when complacency still permeated UK politics]

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This article appears in the 14 Sep 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Succession