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As long as there has been a monarchy, there have been questions about itslegitimacy. But for many people, it would be difficult to disentangle the royal family from British identity.
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By Sarah Lyall
Sarah Lyall reported this article from London, where preparations for the coronation of King Charles III are underway.
In a scene inthe 1975 movie “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” King Arthur roams around the English countryside attempting togather knights for the Round Table. When he declares, “I am your king!” to adeeply unimpressed peasant, her response is both absurd and blindingly obvious.
“Well, I didn’t vote for you,” she says.
As long as there has been a monarch in this country — for more than a 1,000 years — there have been questions about the legitimacy of the monarchy. As the nation prepares for King Charles III’s coronation on Saturday, in an elaborateceremony billed as an effort to bring modern flourishes to an ancient ritual, it is worth asking the question:
Why, when nobody voted for the monarchy and half the population under the age of 50 doesn’t think it should exist, does Britain still have one?
“One of the reasons that the monarchy persists is that we don’t often have serious conversations about why we have a monarchy,” said Alastair Bellany, a historian at Rutgers University specializing in 16th- and 17th-century Britain. “I think we should. I think a serious country has to look in the mirror. It’s a lazy assumption that the monarchy is our message to Britain and the world that this is who we are.”
Of course, for many people, it would be difficult to disentangle the monarchy from Britain’s general sense of itself, as hard as that might be to articulate.
“It’s just part of our lives, our tradition and our culture,” said Penny Convers, a 64-year-old teacher who was interviewed as she enjoyed a few moments of rare London sunshine this week. “Most of us just see them when they come on the TV,” she said of the royal family, “but they are part of our British way of living.”
Not for Jude O’Farrell, a 24-year-old pub manager from Southampton, England, who was visiting London for a job interview. He grew up in a house where his father often played “God Save the Queen” — the Sex Pistols’ version. (Sample line: “She ain’t no human being.”)
“The monarchy doesn’t really fit into my life at all,” he said. “It just exists. It doesn’t really do anything.”
Still, you can’t walk around Britain for more than five minutes without running into or experiencing something that shouts “monarchy”: stamps, coins, bank notes, street names, pub names, consumer products bearing official royal insignia, the national anthem.
The Royal Albert Dock in Liverpool; the Aberdeen Royal Infirmary; the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama; the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall; “The Crown”; the royal holidays. The list goes on.
Sure, there are implacable anti-monarchy campaigners like the Republic group, whose members regularly demonstrate at royal events. Recently, too, there have been increasing complaints from the former British colonies, which are demanding that the royal family finally face up to its colonial past by formally apologizing and making reparations.
But while the critics regularly surface with plausible grievances — the monarchy was built from the spoils of enslaved peoples; it is too expensive; it is racist, sexist, classist and out of touch; it automatically bestows power on people who can be shockingly unimpressive — those arguments have not gained serious political traction.
Neither of the two main political parties, known as “His Majesty’s government” and “His Majesty’s Loyal Opposition,” supports ending the system.
“The real question is not why they’re a monarchy, since, obviously, the royal family isn’t letting this go — they’re the wealthiest and most powerful monarchy that still survives,” said Brooke Newman, an associate professor of history, specializing in early modern Britain, at Virginia Commonwealth University. “The question is, why does the public continue to support them?”
“It boils down to emotional reasons,” she continued, “that people feel this intense pride in having a historic family with an unbroken chain through history.”
One way the family has retained its power and aura, Ms. Newman said, is by obscuring the extent of its past connections to colonialism and slavery. “There are a significant population of people in the U.K. who are opposed to talking about this,” she said.
Craig Prescott, an expert in U.K. constitutional law and politics at Bangor University in Wales, said one of the monarchy’s main functions is to transcend politics.
Even at a time of national turbulence, in which four Conservative prime ministers inseven years have presided over a fractious country rived by issues like Brexit, immigration and funding for the National Health Service, the monarchy can float above the fray, providing a kind of scaffolding that holds the system together.
“It creates a space for politics which is separate from the state, beyond the touch of day-to-day politicians,” Mr. Prescott said. “That means that no matter how feral and nasty politics can get, it’s not about the state; it’s about the government.”
“Politicians are here today, gone tomorrow, but” he added — and here he sounded almost as if he were describing Jeff Bridges’s iconic character, the Dude, in “The Big Lebowski” — “the monarchy persists.”
The monarchy is, in fact, tied to the will of the people, albeit indirectlythrough the money flowing to the crown via Parliament, Mr. Prescott said. Parliament’s political supremacy over the crown was established inthe 17th century, when the beheading ofKing Charles I set the stage for ashort-lived republic. When the monarchy wasrestored11 years later, Parliamentcurtailed the crown’s power through a Bill of Rights that ushered in a constitutional monarchy.
“It’s said that an ideal monarchy should always be changing and always be the same, maintaining tradition and keeping up with the times,” said Tracy Borman, the author of “Crown & Sceptre,” a history of the British monarchy, andthe joint chief curator of the Historic Royal Palaces.
“I think it has evolved to make as much sense as it possibly can,” she added. “That ability to adapt has been a saving grace of monarchy. Monarchies that refuse to adapt fall in dramatic fashion, like the French monarchy.” (See also the Russian monarchy, the Austro-Hungarian monarchy and the exiled monarchies of Greece and other European countries.)
One constant of the British monarchy has been the calls for its abolition, Ms. Borman continued. “Throughout history, it’s been very much a generational thing, with younger people as a whole having less interest than older generations,” she said. “Then, as they grow more mature, they become more interested. It’s cyclical.”
Bob Morris, an expert on monarchies at University College London’s Constitution Unit, said the British royal familyhelped maintain the nation’s interest by understanding the difference betweencelebrity and royalty.
“Celebritization is about attracting attention to yourself; royalty is about giving attention to other people,” he said.
In the year before the pandemic, working royals made 3,000 visits across Britain, he noted, drawing attention to civic groups, local organizations and charities.
One way the monarchyholds on to power, said Mr. Bellany, the Rutgers historian, who is British, is through the deft use of pageantry and ceremony, particularly in uncertain times. Charles’s wedding to his first wife, Diana, the Princess of Wales, took place in 1981, providing a spectacular distraction for a weary nation during a period of turmoil and division.
Even knowing that, Mr. Bellany said, he found himself unexpectedly moved last fall as he watched Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral.
“Part of me was annoyed, and part of me was very mistrustful of what I was seeing,” Mr. Bellany said. “But part of me thought: ‘This is very well done. This is powerful theater.’ I think we should never underestimate the power of that theater.”
A correction was made on
May 5, 2023
An earlier version of this article misstated where the Rutgers historian Alastair Bellany was born. He was born in Australia, not England.
How we handle corrections
Sarah Lyall is a writer at large, working for a variety of desks including Sports, Culture, Media and International. Previously she was a correspondent in the London bureau, and a reporter for the Culture and Metro desks. @sarahlyall
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