The British Monarchy

Jeremy Black

Much has changed and stayed the same with the modern monarchy.
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The British Monarchy

The trial and execution of the king represented total failure, but in Britain they were seen in 1649 and not in the modern age. Indeed, while the reigns of George V, George VI and Elizabeth II saw monarchy end across much of the world, from China to Spain, Austria to Russia, Egypt to Iraq, that was not the case in Britain. Major constitutional changes or possible changes in recent decades, from joining and then leaving the European Union to debating Scottish independence, did not lead to any upsurge in republicanism nor to it being considered as a possible solution. So far so satisfactory.

Yet, the situation was in practice more conditional. Across much of Ireland, independence eventually meant republicanism, and so also for most of the empire. Indeed, both processes look likely to continue, with, under Charles III, Northern Ireland possibly to join the Republic, while more of the former colonies look set to dispense with empire.

If the conditional question today is of what form, whereas in the past it has largely been of the power of individual monarchs and the authority of the monarchy, it is nevertheless the case that contingent factors are to the fore. Any account of the history of the British monarchy repeatedly delivers this point. Thus, an Edward I could be more impressive than an Edward II. Deaths had an effect, from Edmund Ironside to the Maid of Norway. The limited ability of James II and VII to cope with crisis was crucial to the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688-9 and to its subsequent working-out in Ireland, where James was defeated at the battle of the Boyne. George IV, in spoilt and self-absorbed petulance was not the man to keep monarchy strong. For the recent past and present, although different positions might have altered character and conduct, contemplate an Edward VIII who would not abdicate; a Margaret I instead of an Elizabeth II; an Andrew I not a Charles III; and a Prince Harry as eventual monarch and not a William. These offer parallels to past issues such as the deaths of the elder brothers of Henry VIII, Charles I and George V, or of Frederick, Duke of York before William III. The history of monarchy necessarily is full of such contingencies and counterfactuals because it is so much to do with individuals and personalities. The tight-packed group of barons around a feudal monarch has now been replaced by the intrusion of the camera and the democratisation of opinion, but there is a similar exposure to vulnerability and a form of accessibility.

William IV in naval uniform.

The interaction with politics is clear. Thus, monarchy was a key element in the Union of England and Scotland, but there was also much that was pertinent to interests, alignments and concerns, whether economic, political or strategic, that were autonomous and, to a degree, deployed monarchs. The history of monarchy therefore is crucial to that of Britain but it does not exhaust the subject. The extent to which the nation united to commemorate the life of Elizabeth II demonstrated this point because Britain in 2022 is highly divided politically and socially, and not in any way defined by the public duty and dedication of the late Queen. Indeed, in many respects, it was the very unusual nature of the Queen’s service that attracted attention: far from defining the age, she was in a way exceptional. And, allowing for other contexts, so also for the role of earlier monarchs.

The debate over monarchy in Britain will probably become stronger in the shadow both of concerns over the House of Lords, as a result of possible changes in status for Australia, Scotland and Northern Ireland, and with changes over the generations. These points will emerge without, as it were, necessary reference to the qualities, views and actions of the individual monarchs.

The extent to which this will lead to a reconsideration of the past of monarchy is unclear. In reality, there is no need to debate the future in terms of the past but that is not the way of the world. Instead, history is readily politicised and that continues to be the case. Thus, the role of William IV as a naval officer in the Caribbean in the 1780s will probably attract attention.

Guilt by association is generally ahistorical in the extreme. In practice, the British have been very fortunate in their monarchs since 1689. If William III, George I and George II were overly committed to Continental power-politics, so also were many of their British ministers. George II and, even more, George III have been positively re-evaluated over the last quarter-century, William IV repaired the damage to reputation under George IV, Victoria provided change as well as continuity, and responsiveness as well as stubbornness. George V and George VI were very good war-leaders, and Edward VIII accepted his fate. Elizabeth II had a brilliant run. We have been very fortunate.

Jeremy Black is the author of A Brief History of the British Monarchy: From the Iron Age to King Charles III.