contributor perspectives

Finding a Moment of Royal Reassurance in a Messy World

Ian Morris
Board of Contributors
11 MINS READApr 10, 2019 | 05:00 GMT
Princess Elizabeth (later Queen Elizabeth II) holds her daughter, Princess Anne, at Anne's christening in Buckingham Palace on Oct. 21, 1950. Elizabeth's grandmother, Queen Mary, left, and her mother, Queen Elizabeth are also pictured.
(Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Princess Elizabeth (later Queen Elizabeth II) holds her daughter, Princess Anne, at Anne's christening in 1950. The British monarchy sometimes seems to be everything the United Kingdom's democratic institutions currently are not -- calm, reassuring and reasonable.

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Highlights
  • The modern British monarchy is often viewed as a form of soft power — an attractive national image to the world. A recent brush with British royalty suggests the monarchy can also offer a steadying hand at a time of instability for democratic institutions.
  • The job of a British monarch isn't what it once was, of course. Thousands of years ago, royal authority likely grew out of a feedback loop between military success and religion, and throughout history monarchs have claimed to stand closer to the gods than their subjects.
  • Despite the regular embarrassments that individual royals cause, the institution itself links the United Kingdom in the age of Brexit to a 5,000-year-old tradition. With Parliament offering anything but calm and reassurance, the "dignified" branch of the British constitution has a lot of work to do to preserve the constitution's legitimacy.

Her Royal Highness Anne, the Princess Royal, eldest daughter of Queen Elizabeth II, is 13th in line to the throne of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Last week I met her in London as she handed out awards (not to me) to mark the centenary of City Lit, the world's largest institution of adult education. This is not the kind of thing I do every day; when my wife told a friend what I was up to, the friend assumed it was an April Fools' Day joke.

In our age of assertive egalitarianism, events like this can be anxiety-inducing. Do I wear a tie? Do I speak first? What do I call her? Fortunately for me, Buckingham Palace dislikes ambiguity and sent out a detailed protocol sheet. (The answers: Yes, no and "Your Royal Highness" or "Ma'am.") Some participants did interpret the dress code of "Day dress/Lounge suit" to include leggings and denim, but on the whole, the event was a moment of unusual clarity in an otherwise messy world. For a few hours, rules were rules, and Her Royal Highness followed them more carefully than anyone. She worked her way methodically around the reception, giving each guest exactly the same amount of her time — except for the award winners, who got double. She is very good at her job.

But what is that job? When I was a teenager in Britain, the answer seemed obvious to my friends and me: She was there to prop up an unfair system, blinding the workers to the real conditions of their existence with a pageant of ritual and mummery. Older if not wiser, I still think there is something to this, although it no longer seems a sufficient answer. Strategists prefer to say that modern monarchy is a form of soft power, offering an attractive national image to the world and enticing foreigners to want to like the royals' country. Recruiting such glamorous new members as Kate Middleton (Duchess of Cambridge) and Meghan Markle (Duchess of Sussex) into the royal family has certainly been a soft power triumph for Britain, and TV dramas like "Victoria" and "The Crown" do no harm either.

However, seeing Princess Anne in action at City Lit suggested that right now there is more to her job than just selling soft power. She is quiet, calm, reassuring and reasonable — everything that Britain's democratic institutions currently seem not to be. The price royalty pays for staying above the fray is, admittedly, that they can say very little at all about state affairs. So low is the bar, in fact, that when Queen Elizabeth observed in her 2018 Christmas speech that "Even with the most deeply held differences, treating the other person with respect and as a fellow human being is always a first good step," some Brexitologists saw it as a political intervention.

In these uncertain times, though, monarchy's very distance from the mudslinging is becoming its greatest strength. All across the West, democracy is facing the most serious challenges to its legitimacy since the 1930s, and much may yet depend on the ability of such non-democratic institutions as royalty to preserve a sense of order, sanity and stability in the face of histrionics, prejudice and extremism.

The Foundation of Royal Power

Princess Anne's job is very different from the work done by royalty throughout most of the institution's history. As far back as written records go (which is about 5,000 years in the Middle East), monarchs have always claimed to stand closer to the gods than the rest of us. This has always been the principle behind royal rule: The gods made the world, so if one man knows better than the rest of us what the gods want, who but a fool would decline to do what he says?

Just how the earliest kings managed to sell this idea to everyone else remains a mystery, because the deal had normally been done long before writing got going. The best clue we get in fact comes from quite late in the story. Alexander the Great was King of Macedon between 336 and 323 B.C, but the Greeks whom his father had conquered saw him not as a king at all, but as a mere barbarian warlord. Alexander, needing Greek acquiescence to his plan to conquer the Persian Empire, therefore embarked on a vigorous propaganda campaign, and by 326, with his armies standing on the banks of the Indus River in what is now Pakistan, his spin doctors began promoting a powerful new message.

Alexander, they claimed, had rounded up a group of Indian philosophers ("naked philosophers," the Greek text calls them) and asked them the biggest question of all: "How can a man become a god?" One of the philosophers answered him simply: "By doing what a man cannot do." It is tempting to imagine Alexander scratching his head and asking himself, "Do I know anyone who has recently done something that a man cannot do?" The answer was obvious: "Yes. Me. I just conquered the entire Persian Empire. No mere mortal could do that. Obviously I'm a god." Two years later, he ordered the Greeks to worship him as divine. At first, people made a joke of it, but within a generation, godlike kings were accepted all over the Greek world.

All royal history comes down to a series of deals between Samuels, Sauls and Davids.

Although we will never know for sure, many archaeologists guess that royal authority all over the world grew out of a feedback loop between military success and religion. Victory persuaded people that a warlord was superhuman; belief in his divinity persuaded people not to resist him. Kings and people made a deal. In return for obedience, kings pledged (a) to protect their subjects against violence, especially the violence that the king himself might direct at them, and (b) to mediate between them and the gods. The oldest political testament in the world, set up by King Uruinimgina of Lagash in what is now southern Iraq around 2360 B.C., spells it out. Thanks to the king, "the widow and the orphan were no longer at the mercy of the powerful. It was for them that Uruinimgina made his covenant with (the god) Ningirsu."

In some places, above all ancient Egypt, rulers went further, claiming not just to have a special relationship with the gods but to be gods incarnate themselves. But regardless of the theological niceties, religion was everywhere the foundation of royal power. As a result, fierce conflicts often broke out within ancient elites between the kings themselves and the priests on whom they relied to run the religious institutions that bolstered royal power. After all, if gods make kings and if priests do the day-to-day job of finding out what the gods want, then priests effectively get to decide who is king.

In the Hebrew Bible, for instance, when the Israelites are losing their war against the Philistines and decide that they need a king to organize them properly, they go to the religious expert Samuel and ask him to get God to pick one for them. Despite his qualms over this plan, Samuel tells them that God has chosen Saul. But when Saul's behavior turns increasingly erratic, the Bible tells us, "The LORD said to Samuel … 'I have rejected him from being king over Israel. Fill your horn with oil and set out'." Doing as he is told, Samuel soon meets the young shepherd David and anoints him with holy oil as a replacement king.

All royal history comes down to a series of deals between Samuels, Sauls and Davids. Only a local version of Samuel can say whether God really wants a local Saul as king; and Saul must then keep Samuel sweet (or scared) to stop him from deciding that God prefers a local David.

A Royal Retreat

For the last 1,400 years, Princess Anne's predecessors have generally understood this. The Anglo-Saxon chiefs who carved up England in the seventh century A.D. converted to Christianity precisely so they could make such deals: Only God made kings, only the pope in Rome could say what God wanted, and only the archbishop of Canterbury — God's man in England — could anoint a king with holy oil. But once the archbishop did so, that king was raised above everyone else.

"Not all the water in the rough rude sea," Shakespeare wrote in Richard II, "Can wash the balm off from an anointed king. / The breath of worldly men cannot depose / The deputy elected by the Lord." As Shakespeare knew well, Richard was in fact deposed and probably murdered in 1399 by usurpers who cut a backroom deal with the archbishop of Canterbury. But the usurpers could never cleanse themselves of the taint of being king-slayers, which left them even more dependent on the church than Richard had been. Henry VIII tried to break loose in the 1530s by appointing himself head of an independent Church of England and claiming that he now reported directly to God rather than to the pope — only for his successors to find that growing numbers of their subjects thought that this left them too free to report directly to God, and even to judge for themselves whether their king was adequately righteous.

A civil war in the 1640s, fought largely over this question, proved that while no king could rule England without the approval of his godly subjects, neither could godly subjects rule England without a properly anointed king. Not even total defeat on the battlefield could force King Charles I to accept terms from Parliament, so in 1649 a group of radicals beheaded him. By 1660, his son was back on the throne. The lesson, worked out over the next half-century, was that while the nation could not function unless authority flowed from a king chosen by God, no king could survive unless he compromised with his people.

Despite the regular embarrassments that individual royals cause, the institution itself links Britain in the age of Brexit to a 5,000-year tradition.

By the time Princess Anne's own ancestors took the throne, in 1714, a Bill of Rights had robbed royalty of the "power of suspending the laws or the execution of laws by regal authority without consent of Parliament" and that of "levying money for or to the use of the Crown without grant of Parliament." A long process of royal retreat was underway.

Symbols of National Unity

British monarchs eventually gave away almost everything, but they got a good deal in return. Between 1911 and 1922, every major dynasty on earth — the Qing in China, the Qajars in Iran, the Ottomans in Turkey, the Habsburgs in Austria, the Hohenzollerns in Germany — was overthrown, but not the British Windsors. Instead, they had remade themselves as a symbol of national unity, tactfully shedding their own German name in 1917.

Even in 2019, Queen Elizabeth remains Britain's head of state. In theory, parliamentary decisions only become law when she assents to them, although this "royal prerogative" is — as a Parliamentary Select Committee on Public Administration recognized in 2004 — "a notoriously difficult subject to define adequately." In his wonderful play King Charles III, produced in 2014, Mike Bartlett imagined what might happen if a monarch did indeed withhold assent to a major piece of legislation. The results were not pretty, and in reality, it is hard to imagine any king or queen being so reckless.

British monarchs are no longer very godlike, and I certainly did not feel the presence of divinity at City Lit last week. I did, though, feel the presence of solidity and seriousness. Despite the regular embarrassments that individual royals cause, the institution itself links Britain in the age of Brexit to a 5,000-year tradition.

More than 150 years ago, the constitutional theorist Walter Bagehot called the monarchy the "dignified" branch of the British constitution, serving "to excite and preserve the reverence of the population," in contrast to Parliament, which he called the "efficient" branch. Right now, with Parliament looking anything but efficient, the dignified branch has a lot of work to do to preserve the constitution's legitimacy. Fortunately for British democracy, the monarchy has tremendous respect: According to Ipsos/Mori polls, approval ratings have stayed above 70 percent through most of the 2010s.

But Britain is far from being the only country where democracy seems to be under pressure, political polarization is increasing and venerated institutions are struggling to cope — and few of the other democracies facing these challenges have anything like the British dignified branch. In the United States, for instance, Gallup polls in 2018 reported that only 37 percent of citizens had either "a great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in the Supreme Court (down from 56 percent in the late 1980s). It is 243 years since Americans decided that they did not need the British monarchy. Let us hope that they do not come to regret the absence of a steadying hand like Princess Anne's before the Republic reaches its 250th anniversary.

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