The history of Britain is the history of the monarchy.
Edwardians, Victorians, Georgians, Stuarts, Tudors–that takes us back 500 years. Beyond that lies the Middle Ages–a historical melange to many, but made recognisable by the names of its great kings, the Richards and Henrys immortalised by Shakespeare. Before that, there’s 1066 and all that. Yet still further, Alfreds and Aethelreds. Cnut. Even our pre-history is defined by our monarchs: furthest back of all, under some misty West Country hill, lies Arthur, King of the Britons.
Queen Elizabeth II now rests, at last, among them all. She is history. It is still occurring to us Britons, in fits and starts, what will change. At random intervals across the radio coverage last night and this morning, people would announce some matter of small but inestimable consequence: “and of course the coins will change”; “the barristers have been told they are now King’s Councilors”; “what about all the postboxes?”
The British monarchy in the twenty-first century seems a mystical thing–irrational and ancient, in its way indifferent to you and your thoughts on it, like a mountain or the weather. Other nations have either done away with their monarchies entirely, or downsized and modernised them to create a very different kind of institution. Ours has done something unique. Whereas other monarchies have painted themselves as embracing “progress” in pursuit of some distant, ill-defined modern telos, the British monarchy has simply adjusted its feet as it has circled around its purpose, keeping it ever in its grip, rather than pretending to feel it has drastically fallen short of it. Our monarchy is a wrestler, not a runner.
No monarch has pulled off this remarkable feat of adjustment and accommodation as magnificently as the late Queen Elizabeth II. That is not to downplay the achievements of her predecessors in keeping their crowns (and their heads) since the long 18th century. But the sheer pace and scale of change in her lifetime is hard to grasp. What else in British society apart from her was the same in 1952 as it was in 2022?
The justification of monarchy today defies argument. Britain is not a nation started from scratch. It’s not a bright idea scribbled out on the back of a napkin in a bar by some idealistic upstarts, like America, Russia, or France. Britain is not written down. It is defiantly and frustratingly extant–there, like it not, like a thumb in the eye. Slowly, over a thousand years and more, it has become what it is, shifting imperceptibly together like tectonic plates forming a landmass: the Norfolk broads, grouse moors, fish and chips, common law, sheep in the Dales, Christianity, the exhaustion of London, crowds on the south coast, tastelessly placed Union Jacks, Coronation Street–and the monarchy.
Saint Augustine famously defined “a people” as “the association of a multitude of rational beings united by a common agreement on the objects of their love.” To some, “common agreement” cries out “referendum!” But we all know that is not how, by and large, most agreements in life work–certainly not agreements in those most intimate and important relationships. And, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that we knew the queen collectively rather than individually, the nature of the monarch-subject relationship is far closer to that of spouses than that of employer and employee. Work relationships–especially today–are tirelessly mediated by formal agreement and paperwork; most spousal agreements, however, are settled into at length and in silence. And at length, and in silence, the monarchy has become a common object of love.
Yet more significant than the monarchy as a love object in itself is this: it has become the conduit, the channel, through which we relate to all the other common objects of love acquired throughout our history, because it is the only thing in British society which has been present and involved with all those things. In the latter half of the 20th century, WW2, our finest hour, came to replace the British Empire as the “maternal figure” in the British imagination. It is no small thing, then, that the Queen was regularly spoken of as “our last living link to WW2.” And, by virtue of her bloodline and inheritance, she was our link to all those eras named after her ancestors, and everything else in our history which makes Britain great. What else could pull all those things together?
Some defenders of monarchy may say the Queen’s longevity and impeccable character have in fact done more harm than good–that she lived too long and reigned too well, meaning people now attribute to the person the respect which should be attributed to the office. Had she died a few decades ago, perhaps the monarchy per se would loom larger in the public consciousness.
Talk has swirled for many years about the reckoning that may come to the House of Windsor upon the death of the Queen. She remained universally popular throughout her lifetime–the other members of her family less so. Although King Charles has improved his public image in recent years, things are still precarious in some regards: the scandal of Prince Andrew is fresh in the memory; Harry and Meghan lie over the water, gathering an army of podcast listeners. Once the period of national mourning has passed, voices calling for a reconsideration of the monarchy’s role in our national life–even its abolition–will return with renewed vigour.
The question that rises up to meet them however is this: with what would you replace it?
Because replaced it must be. A people cannot exist without some centre–a chief common object of love. Perhaps people would like to elect one particular aspect of British history as our new, chief love object. More likely, we would try and project some spurious concept of “British values” back into our long, checkered past: one of the new gods like “Diversity” or “Progress”, things which will look as dated and ill-judged in a few decades as the architecture of post-war town centres does to Britons today. Yet to pin us down to just one or a few things (like the French with their liberté, égalité, fraternité) would excise so many of the other things which are able to live on within a hereditary monarch, who can contain multitudes. And any new, elected head of state–a President of the United Kingdom–would be divorced from all such things. Check the bottom of their foot and you would find “Est. 2022” written there, in perpetuity.
What’s more, any new centre would need to be ceremonial. Ceremony is utterly irrational, and yet utterly sensible. There is no argument for it, yet we know we cannot do without it. The Queen’s death brought that home immediately yesterday. One friend in London went straight to Buckingham Palace with the crowds, and noted how, unlike any other crowd in his life, it was strangely quiet–people desperately wanted to be told what to do. Another friend saw the news on a plane, flying to LA (thankfully he was over Canada at the time). He stood up and announced to economy class “Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II is dead. God save the King.” These were moments of ceremony, ad hoc. We are now in a period which will be rich with ceremony: silence, titlings, symbolism, reporters in black, cancelled play at the cricket, all before the eventual coronation of King Charles III. We mustn’t pretend that everything we’ll see is as old as the hills–there will be some things only decades or a century or two old. Yet other parts go back a millennium. That which is new has been added piecemeal, part of the monarchy’s great wrestling match.
Yet the very arguments which would seek to dethrone the monarch as an irrational and unjustifiable hangover from the past cannot justify the existence of ceremony. If there is no rational reason for a monarch, what rational reason is there for national ceremony? Yet a nation without ceremony is no nation at all.
When King Saul, his destruction imminent, summons the ghost of Samuel from the grave, the prophet’s indictment is this: “the LORD has torn the kingdom out of your hands” (1 Sam. 28:17). Saul had trodden where he had no right to tread as king, and found that, in the end, the kingdom did not belong to him.
This is true of all of us: the kingdom is not in our hands.
This is not to say that a people are not self-determined–of course not. Contrary to caricatures about the history of Christian monarchy and the divine right of kings, Christian political thinkers (especially those since the Reformation era) have long confessed that monarchy is ultimately chosen by a people. Whilst the monarch has authority, this is an authority delegated upward by the people, even if it comes about in an unspoken and unwritten way. The people do, however, in the end, have the right to determine governance by other means. Yet would anyone ever back themselves to say that they know with enough certainty that changing the course of the ship of state in such a way is right, or even wise?
The kingdom is both in our hands, and not in our hands. It is certainly not in my hands, or yours, or the next person’s. It is in our hands–the great “our” of the Britons. Yet this does not mean simply those of us fortunate enough to be alive and eligible to vote in a referendum tomorrow. It includes what G.K. Chesterton called “the democracy of the dead”, as well as the democracy of those yet to be born, who may emerge onto the deck of a ship of state shorn of ceremony and ask us why we ever changed course.
The monarchy is, for better or worse, what we have. Other nations do not–but we do. It is, undeniably, a living, formal, and ceremonial link to the history of Britain in all its hope and glory, as well as in all its shame and infamy. In itself, it is an object of love for the vast majority of Britons. Yet, even for those who have no love for it on its own terms, it is our sole collective link to all the other things we love in our nation’s past. The monarchy puts Britain in touch with the unprovable yet undeniable goods which define human society, “[our] appointed times and the boundaries of [our] lands” (Acts 17:26). In Britain, our appointed times have been all those eras and epochs we’ve spoken of, from Arthur to Elizabeth. Our boundaries have been these British isles, and even those nations which still gladly remain in the Commonwealth. These things command our love, telling us that the Good, the True, and the Beautiful are real things–things worth living, fighting, and dying for; things worth building a society around; things worth passing on to our children. Nationhood opens us up to these goods, but it is the monarchy which, in Britain, opens us up to nationhood. It is the object of our common love through which we access all our other objects of common love.
Christian readers will know, from the Acts reference quoted, that it is our sense of these goods which points us up to the Good, God himself, since God appoints each nation’s times and borders “so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out and find him, though he is not far from any one of us” (Acts 17:27). There has been a palpable shock across the nation in the last 24 hours or so. In the death of our good and glorious Queen, we have been forced to reckon with much: time, change, death. Many have been surprised at their own reactions–both their high and noble feelings for Queen and country, as well as the depth of grief at her loss. These are cosmic forces. We live in an age which long thought it could do away with the irrational, the numinous, the mysterious. Various ructions in Western society over the last few years have caused us to wonder if this was, in fact, highly mistaken. The death of our Sovereign has, perhaps more than anything else in recent years, enlivened us to the fact that there can be Something which exists beyond justification, beyond reason, beyond us. And, as a nation and commonwealth mourn, and the world with them, that Something is not far from any of us.
The Queen is dead.
God save the King.
Augustine, City of God, 19.24 ↑