Home > History, Monarchy, UK Constitution > The Monarchy and British History

The Monarchy and British History

“The monarchy is a political referee, not a political player, and there is a lot of sense in choosing the referee by a different principle from the players. It lessens the danger that the referee might try to start playing.”

— The Rt Hon. Conrad Russell, 5th Earl Russell

People measure the origins of the monarchy in different ways.  1066, when the Norman King William I seized power; or 924, when King Aethelstan of Mercia became King of the English in name and in law; or 886, when Alfred the Great first claimed sovereignty over England, even if it wasn’t complete; genealogically, we could trace it to at least 519, when Cerdic founded Wessex (and who, incidentally, claimed inheritance through the ages directly from Odin himself).  The monarchy’s roots of course are also Scottish, going back at least to Kenneth I, founder of the Kingdom of the Picts in 843, and tracing far back into Pictish and Irish origins. The monarchy, clearly, is old.

While other countries often have a major historical event, such as a revolution, unification or independence as their symbol, Britain has never had a nation-defining revolution and never had to seek independence from a foreign power.  While a Union was formed in 1707, the Union has never caught the imagination of the people in the same way as, for example, the Risorgimento in Italy or Confederation in Canada.  Britain’s monarchy, on the other hand, has been at the forefront of all the major nation-defining events in British history; the forging of England by Alfred the Great; the birth of Scotland under Kenneth MacAlpin; the first parliaments; the creation of the state churches; the Scottish Wars of Independence against England; the Union of the Crowns; the Civil Wars; the Glorious Revolution; the Act of Union, and tons more.

But what, historically, was a monarch for? In some instances a local tribal chief would seize control and become king by force; in other occasions the monarch was elected from among local tribal leaders to lead them all collectively. In England and Pict/Scotland for many centuries, the king would be elected from among powerful nobles to be entrusted with the safety of their subjects and to act as overseer of the laws. A monarch, then, doesn’t have to be hereditary. Normally, though, they are monarch for life (with the possible exceptions of the President of France and the Yang di-Pertuan Agong of Malaysia).

Ancient societies put great store in inheritance. In decaying Roman Britain, besieged military garrisons relied increasingly upon sons of veteran captains who would have been trained under their wing.  For example, “Old King Cole” is at the head of many ancient Welsh royal genealogies, and appears to have been a Roman commander at Hadrian’s Wall called “Coel Hen”, or there’s Dumnagual, who appears to have governed in the Stratchclyde region at around the same time.

The enormous turmoil in the fall of Rome and the destruction of huge swathes of public and private property with successive waves of barbarian invasions uprooted many settled and wealthy peoples and focussed responsibilities for defence on the few figures of authority that remained. With the decline in stable government and property rights, the concepts of property and inheritance eventually transferred to politics and power.

Additionally, the spread of religion reinforced the notion of family in British societies. The idea of God the Father was coupled with the notion of the King being God’s national delegate and father of the nation. Ergo, the monarchy was head of the national ‘family’, and inheritance of the reigns of power made sense from this point of view.

The monarchy served a useful function in early Britain, as chief executive and source of state power and justice. The power of the monarchy ebbed and flowed during the Middle Ages, chiefly against the power of the nobility. The rise of the Tudor dynasty established England’s early modern centralised state. The rise of this modern state led some to question how appropriate it was for such enormous power to be held by one person, potentially threatening to the ancient rights of the people.

The brutal conflict of the 1640s, commonly known as the English Civil War, more accurately called the War of the Three Kingdoms, was fought throughout Britain to answer this question. The republican experiment proved it wasn’t simply its inherited status that was the problem, but a matter of effective accountability and checks to sovereign power. British society became nostalgic for the rights and freedoms monarchy had guaranteed, and the monarchy was restored in 1660.

The civil war and the republic that followed was still a fresh memory for many in Britain when the constitution again fell into the balance in 1688, and the framers of the Glorious Revolution wanted to avoid the concentration of power as happened with Oliver Cromwell. Rather than abolish the monarchy, Parliament brought the monarchy under its formal control, knowing that the Crown could still serve as a force for good in Britain. The monarchy remained an executive monarch for another few years, but by the mid 18th century the modern concept of parliamentary government was established and the monarch took on a new role, that of symbol and of watchdog.

Republicanism has peaked and troughed in fortunes throughout early modern British history; after the Civil Wars, in the midst of the French Revolution, during Queen Victoria’s years of mourning for Prince Albert, with the rise of communism, and now has become fashionable once again in the modern era, particularly in, for example, Australia.  The fact that each period has been followed by a period of heightened loyalty to the institution shows a number of things.  Firstly, there is nothing ‘inevitable’ about the abolition of the monarchy.  The monarchy has survived countless threats to its position and there’s every cause to assume republicanism will diminish again in the future; secondly, that throughout the modern era monarchy has proven flexible to these challenges and has adapted to new roles as the constitution has grown and matured; and thirdly, that the monarchy needs to continue to adapt and to find a role to serve the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth of Nations if it is to survive.

  1. April 10, 2013 at 4:16 am

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