Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Comment
17 September 2022

The royal family aren’t meant to be like us mortals – that’s their power and their problem

Holiday parks will close and hospital operations cease without anyone even needing to ask. This is what having a monarchy is.

By Jonn Elledge

If you follow the late Queen’s family tree back, past Victoria and William the Conqueror and Alfred the Great, you will eventually come to Cerdic, the first king of Wessex. He lived in the early 6th century, which is about as far as the more plausible genealogies can take you. A less plausible one, though, can be found in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: this traces Cerdic’s own ancestry back to Wōden, who also goes by Odin, and who fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe may recognise as an actual Norse god.

This was almost certainly an attempt to construct a post-hoc justification for why one particular set of Wessex-based warlords should be elevated above all the others. Alas, according to EnglishMonarchs.co.uk, this “pedigree resulted from a process of elaboration upon a pedigree borrowed from the Anglian kings of Bernicia, and therefore… has no historical basis”. You know what I really like about that sentence? The way it inadvertently suggests the Anglian kings of Bernicia really were descended from Odin.

The Queen of course did not believe a word of this (it would surely have meant some challenge to her Christian faith). My point – laboriously made because, a week and a half into this, I would love to be writing about almost anything besides the current royal jamboree – is that it is built into the very structure of monarchy that these are not mere mortals like you and me. I’ve no idea how far back you can trace your family tree, but I bet it’s not several dozen generations and I bet that it includes precisely no gods. The royal family, though, are different from us in an important yet ineffable way – and like it or not, this assumption is embedded in the very workings of the state.

So: Monday 19 September, the day of the Queen’s funeral, will be a bank holiday. As a result, it will be accompanied by the cancellation of a vast number of things that would normally be considered important. “There is growing criticism over the decision to cancel hospital appointments, close food banks and postpone family funerals,” the Telegraph reports, with the passive voice of a paper that would like us to forget it is itself a major source of that criticism, and the fact that it’d likely be pretty damn critical if things didn’t stop, too.

Anyway, the palace is appalled. “There have been no blanket instructions from the Royal Household for cancellations of events, services or transport links,” said one source. “None of this is at the request of the palace,” said another. That may well be true – but if you call a bank holiday, a lot of things will close, not least among them schools, and a lot of people will not be going into work. And if the actual, literal king really wanted national life to go undisrupted by an unplanned royal bank holiday, surely there is something he could do?

Select and enter your email address Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
I consent to New Statesman Media Group collecting my details provided via this form in accordance with the Privacy Policy
THANK YOU

He probably thinks no such thing: his ideal, I imagine, would be a world in which those who wanted the day off to mourn could have it, and yet there would somehow be no unplanned closures. In the same way, I don’t imagine there was anything malicious about the decision by his former household Clarence House to issue redundancy notices to 100 staff in the middle of the mourning period: it’s merely that, well, that household will no longer exist, so surely this is the time. I’m not saying spending your life as the heir to the British throne can entirely protect you from the link between actions and consequences, but Odin knows it must help.

Content from our partners
How industry is key for net zero
How to ensure net zero brings good growth and green jobs
Flooding is a major risk for our homes

There are plenty of other things happening that both flow from and reinforce the sense that the royals exist in a different realm from the rest of us. The plentiful supply of police officers who have not let ignorance of the law prevent them from acting on their vague sense that it’s wrong to criticise the monarchy. The fact that it took a week for the nation’s biggest TV channel to even think about returning to normal. (Whoever it was who first christened BBC One “MournHub” must surely now be in line for a CBE.)

And then there’s the queue to see the Queen lying in state: at time of writing it’s four miles long, with plans in place for it to extend to ten, a distance it’d take the better part of four hours to walk even if you weren’t in a queue. (If it actually gets that long, we’re told, the wait will be closer to 30.) Few of those making this very slow pilgrimage would credit their decision to do so to the mystical power of the monarchy – bigger factors are surely the sheer longevity of the Queen’s reign, and her genuinely impressive ability to act as an apolitical and unifying symbol, even while occupying an inherently political and potentially divisive office. Nonetheless, it’s hard to imagine that this mystical status plays no part. Many of us have lost someone. Our bereavement did not look like this.

All this is clearly ridiculous – but it is also, I think, inevitable. The role the Crown has tried to play since the time of Queen Victoria is to represent the nation in miniature, to act, somehow, as a mirror to us. But they aren’t us: the world rearranges itself around them. Holiday parks will close and hospital operations cease without anyone even needing to ask, and friendly coppers and helpful newspapers will be on hand to crush dissent. You don’t need to be a committed republican to see that this is what having a monarchy is. We cannot all claim descent from gods. 

[See also: Death for her was a political act: why the Queen chose Scotland]