A word or two about the British monarchy…

One of the things that I kept sensing during the various discussions engendered by my last blog about the Regency was at root a thing about the monarchy.

It’s something in the way some non-Brits write about the monarchy, putting a spin on British history that we simply lack here.  Like, I’m not convinced they get it.

Because here’s the thing–with the exception of a small rump of media types and political republicans here (as opposed to monarchists), we don’t feel there’s anything inherently unequal about having a monarch–a person whom we refer to as His or Her Majesty.  We don’t bristle over that.

We don’t regard it as a slight on our equality in the eyes of God or the law or anything. We don’t regard it as a slap in the face to our personal freedoms.

Some monarchs are more popular than others.  Some were considered useless.  Some are utterly brilliant.  Some go in and out of popularity.

edward-viiEdward VII, for all that the press racked up more salacious stories about him than just about anyone under the sun, was surprisingly popular and it was he who turned the Victorian monarchy into the vibrant modern institution it is today–he it was who got out in his car and drove about, meeting and greeting his subjects.  And he was round and fat and jolly, just like them, and they were quite fond of him for just those reasons. (Though if you read some biogs of the poor fellow, you’d not know this…)

Anyway, as I’ve mulled over this little problem, I’ve become convinced it has something to do with sentiments of the American Revolution, and a misplaced conviction that we must have felt that way too, only we lacked to gumption to throw off those chains of tyranny or something.

So I thought I’d deal talk about that–rather than the news about Richard III.

To begin with, late 18th century Englishmen did not believe they were suffering under any tyrant’s boot.

They thought the opposite–they knew they lived in the freest society on earth.  They believed that to the core of their beings.  They had freedom of speech, freedom of the press and no need even for a police force to patrol them.

(Yes, yes, yes, there were some rabble-rousers like young Tom Paine–but have you read him?  Actually read him?  I mean the guy was as nuts as any bag of squirrel food!)

Ehem…

Indeed, by the late 18th century, British men were firm in their belief that the political vicissitudes inherent in a tyrannical system had been dealt with the abolition of the Star Chamber under Charles I’s rule, and subsequently, with the disposal of Oliver Cromwell, the republic’s dictator.

And it’s important too to remember that it was an Act of Parliament which invited Charles II back to England to sit on the throne.  He was there by populist choice–he wasn’t imposed on us.

And even when his younger brother, James II, proved such a kingly disaster, it wasn’t the monarchy that the people wished to get rid of, it was James.  I mean, they didn’t say, “Oi, this king business is rubbish, let’s have an anarcho-syndacalist commune” instead, did they?

No, they just opted to get rid of James and get in someone more to their taste.

And again, it was Parliament who wrote to William of Orange inviting him to come and be king here.  He ruled by popular consent.  And that is a significant point.  It’s also significant that after 1689, it is always a limited monarchy that is being spoken of–not an absolute monarchy as in France or Russia or Spain…

Also, Britain already had separation of the legislative and executive going back at least as far as Elizabeth–she couldn’t raise her own taxes, for example.

Robert Walpole was the first MP to use the title of Prime Minister–he took office in 1721–and he held that position until 1742–a period of unprecedented peace.  This is also the point at which the political power shifts from the head of state to the head of government.  Thus, Walpole was de facto head of the executive while the head of state was the absentee king, George I.

And–again, important to note–this was an elected government.  And whilst one might say it’s not democracy as we know democracy–they had rotten boroughs and all that–I’d just like to point out what was happening to our nearest neighbour–that would be the reign of Louis XV.  Ehem.

So, skipping along to George III…

imagesFrom the outset, he was immensely popular.  He had everything going for him.  For the first time in several generations, he, the king, had been born here in England.  English was his native language.  He looked and spoke like an English country gentleman.  And they loved him for it.

He married and was devoted to his wife.  He adored his children.

Indeed–though one frequently hears commentary to suggest that Albert and Victoria invented the image of the happy royal family and all that Victorian ideal–the fact is George III was the inventor of the modern family.

George played with his children, he was devoted to them, they were often seen with him in the carriage, or held high in his arms, and it was clear from his every movement and every word, that he sincerely loved them.  And this was a new thing–this engagement with one’s children.  And the people loved him for it.

He was also a tremendous patron of the arts, of manufacture and industry, of scientific study and invention.  A few years ago at the Queen’s Gallery, there was an exhibition showcasing his patronage of the arts and manufacture–and what an exhibition it was!  The range of scientific experimentation and instrument manufacture that had come about because of his support was jaw-dropping.

This was a guy who was constantly on the look-out for ingenuity and advancement, and when he found it, he threw the whole of his weight behind it.  He invited the author/inventor to come talk about it.  He commissioned a fancy prototype for himself.  And when he got hold of it, he shewed it to everybody at court and got them to invest in it…If George III took you up, you were made!  And they loved him for it.

He was like that about the agricultural revolution then sweeping England as well.  His letters to Coke of Norfolk and others are copious, and well-informed.  So the farmers of England (and that’s just about everyone) thought he was pretty sound too.

Then came the American Revolution–and this is a curious thing–because when encountering the colonial complaints and their cries of tyranny, the English living in England didn’t actually know what to make of it.  For a start, they couldn’t figure out what the colonials were talking about.

The cries about the tyrant who imposed unfair taxes, without representation, didn’t even make sense to an 18th century Englishman, because he knew that the king had no say over taxation.  The king didn’t and couldn’t raise taxes–he had nothing to say to the matter one way or another.

(And George III was remarkably frugal.  [There’s another word for it, and that would be nip-farthing…ehem…another reason his British subjects liked him…])

He didn’t have executive power either as stated previously.  So all that George III is a tyrant stuff–that was lost on us.

Anyway.

In the wake of the American Revolution, George III’s reputation did suffer–people here thought that he really should have sent over lots more troops and kicked some sense into the fractious colonials.

But, he and his ministers knew something too (had known something for some time)–and that is that the American Revolution had been paid for by the French crown; the American troops had been led by French officers, their food supplies sent from France, along with all their uniforms, their munitions, etc.

(For a detailed account of the French crown’s investment and Congress’s subsequent reneging of those massive loans–which incidentally caused France’s bankruptcy and hence its slide into Revolution–see Maurice Lever’s three volume biography of Beaumarchais, who in addition to being the author of The Marriage of Figaro, was Louis XVI’s agent in the affair.)

And once the Revolution was over in 1783, and British attention refocused on matters closer to home–as in across the Channel where Englishmen did a lot of their business–George’s reputation recovered.

Then came the first Regency crisis…

Prinny RussellUntil that point, Prince George had been your average rebellious prince, playing around with the naughty crowd–the Devonshire set–in moves designed to set his parents’ teeth on edge…but the Regency crisis changed all that.

And when George III recovered his wits, (just as the French Revolution was about to kick off…) there was more than a whiff of bad odour about the business.

There were, and there had been, echoes of Henry IV’s rage over Prince Hal’s ‘trying on the crown’ in the air (see Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part Two).

Prince George had been far too eager for power…And that was felt to be truly offensive…And I think it’s safe to say their relationship never really recovered.

Meanwhile, George III went back to kinging, to supporting the arts and manufacture, to farming which was his passion.  He may still have felt the loss of the colonies most keenly, but as the French Revolution unfolded and the genocidal violence reached its nadir, old George–devoted to his country, his family, his farm and his people–looked better and better.

He became a symbol of stability, of the English nation that would not bow to the tyrannical violence and bloodshed of Republican France.  Once Napoleon came on the scene and with his military might swallowed up most of Europe, George’s reputation smelled rosier and rosier.

As he aged–and soldiered on on their behalf–he was regarded with great affection by his subjects.  They truly loved him and truly felt great empathy for his physical sufferings and his final descent into blindness, deafness and madness caused by porphyria.

As for George IV, his reputation never did recover.  A disloyal child–to the Georgian mind–was one of the great banes of existence.   There were scores of disinherited children during this period… And George had crossed that line and was perceived as disloyal to his father and disloyal to the king and therefore to the country.

But what’s curious though is that whilst George IV, both as Regent and King, was hated–certainly by the London press–no move was ever made to get rid of him.

(Again, no suggestions of an anarcho-syndacalist commune…and this is important, because often when one considers the history of a place or period, what’s missing is as significant as what’s there…)

And had the problem been with the concept of monarchy, as some people imagine it must have been, Parliament might have stepped in.  They’d done it before…

But they didn’t.

And for all that the newspapers and cartoonists of the day loathed and mocked Prinny, what’s peculiar is the grounds for their so-called hatred:  his licentiousness and profligacy.  Because here’s the thing–as I’ve mentioned earlier, there are more saucy stories about Edward VII than about nearly everyone else put together.  But that doesn’t seem to have bothered either the press or the populace.  By comparison to Edward, Prinny was an amateur, a kindergartner…

And he did a number of quite innovative and good things.

He insisted that Britain should NOT participate in the art-grab when the allies were breaking up the vast collection of artwork in the Louvre, pillaged from all over Europe.  He wouldn’t accept any of those pillaged treasures as gifts either.  He was a patron of the arts and letters–particularly letters–his patronage meant a great deal to Sir Walter Scott and did much to transform the anti-Scottish sentiment which had been the norm in England.

He was the first British monarch since the 17th century to visit Scotland and he loved it there and did everything he could to promote it–so those kudos do not belong to Victoria and Albert either–George IV had already begun the work.

He was also the first monarch to appear in tartan dress.  (Yes, I know that a regular kilt requires 14 yards of fabric, and one for a chap with a 50″ waist just makes my eyes pop…but, well, he probably kept at least one tartan weaver in work for over year…)

When he died, he wasn’t mourned particularly.  The people had loved his daughter, Charlotte…But George IV’s brother, William IV, was much loved too.  He drank too much–they all did–but he was regarded with genuine affection.  And his reign had seen the beginning of many of the reforms that Victoria is often credited with…

And now?  Now we regard the monarchy and our dear Queen with affection and appreciation–probably just as his subjects regarded George III–so my advice to those writing about Britain–don’t infer that we regard our kings or queens with anything other than full-hearted gratitude.  Regardless of what the press are blabbing about.  And many of us sing with full gusto every time we hear the music, those famous strains of Handel’s coronation anthem:  “Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet anointed Solomon king.  And all the people rejoiced and said, God save the King!  Long live the King.  May the King live forever.  Alleluia!  Alleluia…Amen.”

And we mean it.  Every word of it.

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27 comments on “A word or two about the British monarchy…

  1. Annette White says:

    Very interesting.

  2. Nicola Slade says:

    Well said! Sometimes I get the impression that we’re supposed to apologise for being monarchists!

  3. Sharon Ferguson says:

    Im so glad you wrote this because I will need to keep this in mind when writing my 18th century hero.

    I daresay, in my own particular studies of our Founding Fathers, the majority of them weren’t necessarily seeking to throw off the chains of monarchy either…but for our side, there was a definite whiff of “out of sight, out of mind, until we [on English shores] needed the money” and some of the more successful gentleman farmers in the New World took exception to being excluded from the regular discourse of British parliamentarianism. Had inclusion expanded to the “constituents” of the New World, North America would look quite a bit different, I think, and the monarchy viewed with invincible good will. But that’s just my take as a silly old ‘murrican.’

    Slightly off topic: would England have been willing to go up against Spain/Mexico for access to Texas and lands west if they had been successful in keeping the colonies? Considering how things played out with Santa Ana, the self-described Napoleon of the West, I have to wonder if a breakage between Old England and new would not have happened anyway…

    • M M Bennetts says:

      I have often thought that if George III had been allowed to travel outside Britain and had he been allowed or even encouraged as a young man to visit the American colonies, the Rebellion would just never have happened. He was such a remarkable man, such an engaged listener, and had without a doubt what we’d today call the common touch. He put people at their ease.

      And I am certain that had he been travelling in New England for example, he would have been driving his coachman crazy (as he did here at home) with all his demands to stop and look at this field of wheat and that piggery and this drainage method and all his determination to talk to the farmers, asking them what they were feeding their piglets, and how was it working for them, and had they thought about draining that field or this…and could he write to them with some suggestions and he had a piglet he’d like to send them to breed from…

      The farmers from Massachusetts to Virginia would have loved him and he would have loved them. I’m convinced of it. And that would have taken a great deal of steam out of those Revolutionary pamphleteers, I think.

      Another aspect of the Revolution too is that it was for many families and counties, a civil war. Families were divided–brothers fought brothers. In Cambridge, Massachusetts, there’s a historic road, Mount Auburn, and if you look into the history of the families who lived there at the time, many of whom had built their fortunes by trading “the Golden Triangle”, you find that the Revolution just ripped these dear people apart…and in the end, the monarchists either went to Canada or the West Indies or back to Britain, never seeing their New England homes and families again.

  4. I know discretion stops you from telling us all what rubbish you have been reading written by non-Brits, but perhaps you could be more selective? If only the publishers were so, all would be as it should be. And perhaps, my dear and favorite author, you might have more time to finish your third book we await most patiently, “Ehem…”
    Actually, anything you write is entertaining, so I don’t mean to complain.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      Well at the moment, if I’m honest, I’m reading accounts of the Napoleonic wars that were written by Prussian generals and soldiers in 1815. (Obviously, I need to get out more.)

      As for the next book–maybe this is the right time to say that about two years ago, I was hospitalised with various and sundry dread diseases and had no hope of survival. First job, getting well enough to go home. Second job, learning to walk again. Third, to ride again. Fourth, to be able to focus on words and read again. And on it’s gone. So what I will say about this next book–and do you know what, I’m starting to get really revved up about it, I’m loving the story, I’m loving the characters who have come out of the woodwork–is that it’s happening. It is so happening! I’ve used the recuperation time to do masses of the most arcane and amazing research and now the book IS HAPPENING! *wink*

  5. dianawilder says:

    Interesting. I am not aware of great numbers of people over in the colonies viewing the British as being under the heel of a tyrant’s boot. I think ‘taxation without representation’ was the governmental action that started (in part) the American Revolution. I wonder what those revolutionaries would think of Congress now… Entertaining post, though.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      Certainly “taxation without representation” was a rallying cry. But here’s the funny thing. It was actually a complaint that the taxes were too low. The East India Company was having a bit of bother at the time, so Parliament, (many members of which had financial interests in the East India Company–being an MP was unpaid) decided to exempt East India Company Tea from the tax on tea.

      This made it a bargain, compared to the tea the New England shippers and merchants were importing, which was still taxed.

      Hence the throwing of the East India tea into Boston Harbour…which as others before me have pointed it, “made it unsuitable for drinking–even for Americans”.

  6. Debra Brown says:

    There are those who are against the monarchy- do you have any idea what the ratio is? And why don’t they understand the good the monarchy does them in at least the tourism industry? People flock to England to see the charming history and modern bells and whistles that surround the monarchy and have for a thousand years (since the Conqueror) and even before. Ending the monarchy would deflate quite a plump balloon. History would really, then become history. It would feel lost and gone- dead- and replaced with what? As it is now, history feels ongoing. People can come and be part of it, even if they can just look upon it. I think a deep depression would come over many people if the monarchy ended.

    Some didn’t want Charles on the throne. I hope that sentiment has blown away, because it just isn’t done that way. If they allowed George IV on the throne, they’d better allow Charles! He is the heir. And he is the victim of a strict old way, as well as the pivot upon which it changed. I’m in no rush to see Elizabeth go, but I do like Charles. There is much good about him.

    • Debra says:

      I never liked the Monarchy and I believe it is outdated. Also, I really believe in my heart that Diana and her lover were murdered. Charles could not stand the fact that she was more popular than him and to do her own thing and flaunt her nose at the monarchy cost her her life and those around her at the time it was pulled off. I feel bad for William and Harry they really loved their mom.

      • Debra Brown says:

        I did not say the paragraph above about the monarchy and Diana. Not me!

      • Debra says:

        No it was me. Debra L. I was replying to your comment about the current Charles and my thoughts. Way off topic I guess. Just my 2 cents worth!! Sorry.

      • Debra Brown says:

        No problem Debra, I just didn’t want it to be confusing with two Debras. 🙂

      • Debra says:

        Ok. Thank you

      • M M Bennetts says:

        I am, as you will have gathered, a great believer in the monarchy. Possibly the line the scriptwriters inserted into Queen Adelaide’s mouth in The Young Victoria describes it best when she’s talking about politicians always hate the monarchy because they are always replaceable while the monarchy endures…and I think those qualities of endurance and stability are more needed in our fracturing world than ever. Everything is happening so quickly, we are being required to live our lives at such a breakneck pace, and there they are, like oaks or London planes, standing for the centuries. I love that.

        I think too of the immense contribution to the war effort that George VI and the Queen Mother made–always out in London, always there, consoling their people…they were fantastic. Again, such fine examples of the stability and enduring strength of the best of Britain.

        I also, over the years, have grown to value the profound expertise of countryside matters which they constantly bring to the debates about our dear countryside and agriculture. Prince Phillip is a veritable encyclopaedia of knowledge about agriculture, conservation and land management. There is simply nothing he doesn’t know and he is always willing to enter into the most vigorous debate about how to best nurture and husband our wildlife and our farming practices. And his son is not far behind in expertise and hands-on experience. And I feel passionately that the loss of our wildlife habitats to overbuilding, our neglect of the farming industry and farmers themselves is a national tragedy–but these wonderful men are doing what they can…

  7. Debra Brown says:

    I didn’t mean tourists flocked to England for a thousand years- bad writing. I meant the history and bells and whistles have surrounded it for a thousand years. Good grief, Charley Brown.

  8. Tim Vicary says:

    Nice post. I don’t know about you, but I didn’t like the film about George 1 when he was ill, precisely because it made him look like an idiot, which, as you say, he wasn’t.

    I’ve just read a biography of Charles II, who was similar in many ways. Invited back into the country after the military dictatorship of Cromwell, very affable and personally popular – he used to take regular high-speed morning walks in St James’s Park, greeting all and sundry, not very interested in pomp and ceremony (unlike Louis XIV) – he once tried to popularise an all-in one ‘Chinese waistcoat’ which seems to have been a bit like a cross between a smock and the sort of jacket that Nehru wore. He was an inveterate scientific experimenter and founder of the Royal Society, and was universally mourned at his untimely death.

    And as for Queen Elizabeth II – she parachuted into the Olympics, didn’t she?

    • M M Bennetts says:

      I liked aspects of The Madness of King George…but no, he certainly wasn’t an idiot!

      I don’t know if you saw the exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery a few years ago of his collection of new navigational and manufacturing instruments…It was sensational. I had to go back three times just to take in how cool it all was. And it really transformed my view of the man!

      We’re big fans of Charles II here too–the Beloved being a bit obsessive in his study of the early years of the Royal Society. He has a newish biography of John Evelyn, whom he adores, as well as one about the founders of the RS by a physicist, which he says is really good…

  9. A very persuasive and well-reasoned post, dear lady. I’m a monarchist too and have become more so the more I have studied British monarchs and history.

    Judging by the huge appeal of the jubilee celebrations (though partly ‘bread and circuses’ I suppose) and the popularity of the Cambridges it actually looks to me as if the monarchy is if anything on an upswing. Perhaps the country is so fed up with the antics of its government that they have to have something positive to focus on, and not for the first time I suspect.

    The American war was engineered by a pretty small section of American society, but didn’t know to what extent it was encouraged and financed by the French. It’s a thing that almost didn’t happen, and I find it ironical that US nationalists of today hail it as a glorious revolution where the populace arose as one man to throw of the imperialist tyranny. Look at Mel Gibson’s ‘The Patriot’ (assuming you can stand it) for the most disgusting representation of this affair.

    A note about Prinny and highland dress: He first ordered one in 1789 and wore it to celebrations of the King’s recovery, and it required 35½ yards of silk plaid for the whole outfit (not just the kilt of course). I should know. See my blog on this here if interested.
    http://chasbaz.posterous.com/highland-dress

    Best wishes, and by the way, very inspired by your fight back to health and vigour. Bravo (or now aren’t we saying: ‘Brava’?)

    • M M Bennetts says:

      Okay, okay, I am laughing! I confess it! 35 and a half yards of silk tartan? I’m sorry. That is too too funny! That’s embarrassing. And if he wasn’t embarrassed, I’m embarrassed for him!

      The Beaumarchais biography detail the amounts spent by the French Crown, the circuitous channels Beaumarchais set up so that it wasn’t obvious (ha ha) that the French were funding the enterprise, the different ports the munitions and grain were shipped from, and the long, drawn-out attempts by the French to get Congress to pay back the loans after the war. Beaumarchais himself had invested almost all his own fortune in the business and he was ruined. It was quite simply the most callow and dishonourable behaviour on the part of the Founding Fathers that could have been imagined. I sat gawping as I read, I do assure you.

      And thank you. The words are “Huzzah and Thrice Huzzah!”

  10. […] A word or two about the British monarchy… […]

  11. […] Well, I don’t abhor it. I love it. And M.M. Bennetts explains why that’s okay… […]

  12. Medievalgirl says:

    Like this post, I may have to share it.

    It appears to me (and I may be wrong) that some jolly foreigners (especially among out friends across the pond) seem to believe that the Queen and Monarchy still wield a lot of power over the British nation and people.
    They do not seem to realize that the monarch just does not have any real political power or clout anymore.

    One thing that strikes me in some American novels and movies is the tendency to try and draw parallels between events in British history, and the American War of Independence. The Barons’ War of the thirteenth century might be seen as something of that calibre for instance, and the Magna Carta or Articles of Westminister as something akin to a Bill of Rights, with poor old Henry III typecast as a tyrant.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      Ha ha ha. It’s looking to me like you just put out a historical minefield for me to walk through. Ha ha.

      Yes, I think at base, we ALL project our own experience onto other nations and individuals; we assume that because we feel one way or the other, that that’s how they will react or feel. Which isn’t how it works, but we go on, expecting others to behave how we would in any given situation.

      I passed a great deal of time in New England, living and working there, and the whole historic/tourist sense of the place presents a picture of plucky colonials standing up to the evil tyrannical English. It makes a great story, don’t get me wrong.

      But then one encounters the truly gob-smacking amount of aid that France was pouring into the business, and one realises, “Hey! This was actually one of those mini-wars fought and paid for by other fellows, such as Russia and China were always indulging in during the Cold War. It wasn’t, for the French paymasters, anything at all to do with loving the ideals of freedom; it was all about socking one to Britain.” That was, for me, quite sobering.

      But equally, as I say, there’s this assumption on the other side of the Pond, that we would have got rid of the Prince Regent or George III if we could have done. I mean, yes, the press wasn’t keen on the pair of them at different times, so it would seem to a superficial examination, that that was the obvious solution. But the point is, Britain had already had its dalliance with being a republic and didn’t like it much. And it was by choice, by Parliament’s choice (!), that we reinstated the monarchy.

      And no, you’re absolutely spot on, the monarchy haven’t had lots of the powers which non-Brits assume they have going all the way back to Magna Carta. And certainly not since 1689.

      • Medievalgirl says:

        I do seem to have a penchant for controversy, for putting the cat amongst the proverbial pigeons, or just my foot in it!

        Indeed, we do have a tendency to read the history of others in the light of our own, and quite probably we Brits do it as much as anyone else.
        Whilst it makes a good story, perhaps there are some people who take it all a little too seriously. I recall reading a blog post by an American who feared for the erosion of liberty and did just keep harping on about how they had thrown of the yoke of British tyranny and comparing conditions in modern America to that very ‘tyranny’.

        With folks like that, I am inclined to remind them of much they owe to Britain in terms of liberty and freedom, or how some of the notions they hold dear took hold here first.

      • M M Bennetts says:

        You might be interested in Andrew Lambert’s fine history of the War of 1812, The Challenge, Britain against America in the War of 1812, speaking of cats and pigeons. The American point of view is that the plucky colonials whupped the overbearing full-of-themselves–it’s all part of their Manifest Destiny mythology–but as Lambert proves over and over again, the Royal Navy were just invinceable and their expertise and professionalism were just staggering. Also, the Americans were in cahoots with the French and had hoped to use Napoleon’s victory in Russia (which of course didn’t come to pass) as a launching pad to strike a weakened Great Britain. The only victories the Americans had were when they had a 200 gun warship take on a British schooner–that’s not a victory, that’s just silly. But as Lambert points out in his last chapter about the American mythology of the thing, they didn’t let facts stand in the way of national myth.

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