The Royal Wedding — A History Lesson
Many of us old queens, as well as young queens here in the States, along with aspiring princesses and other assorted fantasy dwellers in the LGBT community are eagerly following the wedding of Prince Harry to Meghan Markle. The latest production by our favorite theater company, the British Royal Family. Far fewer however, understand what’s behind it all.
Dissenting voices can be heard all over the internet and read on the comment threads of many websites, calling the monarchy useless, out-dated, and even “white privileged, hetero-normative oppressive,” to quote one rather virulent hater commenting on an article in the New York Times. The haters are just as clueless as the facile fawners. Neither extreme has the slightest notion regarding what the monarchy is actually about. Let’s see if I can clear up some misconceptions.
Monarchy 101: First, the professor’s qualifications – a Master’s Degree in British History and a lifetime of further study
Part 1 – The Job: The monarch and members of the royal family represent the United Kingdom as living symbols of the history and prestige of the nation when acting in the official capacity. The operative political theory is that of “The King’s Two Bodies,” which distinguishes between the monarch in “body natural” and “body politic.” This means that the inevitable infirmities and wrongdoings of a human being do not affect or take away from the prestige and authority of the monarch when acting officially as the wearer of the crown. Human beings make mistakes, get sick and die. The crown never does. This means the symbol of state authority is untarnished and immortal. This is what is literally meant by the cheer heard at the coronation “may the king (or queen) live forever.”
Comment: A hereditary monarchy, wrapped in 1500 years of history and tradition, has a prestige that no elected politician can ever aspire to. That is an observable fact that the whining and complaining of levelers and advocates of a republic cannot overcome. Compare for example, the dignity of being awarded a medal by Queen Elizabeth to having one tossed in one’s general direction by President Trump. Compare a state dinner at Windsor Castle to sitting down with a crew of Trump’s sleaze ball cronies. Ask yourself which scenario better demonstrates the dignity of the nation.
Part 2 – The Powers:
The monarch has two kinds of powers; active and residual. The active powers include the right to be informed. The monarch is promptly informed of everything the government is doing or proposes to do. The right to consult and advise. The monarch meets weekly and confidentially with the prime minister who must listen to and consider his or her advice. Prime ministers come and go but the monarch remains for life, accumulating valuable experience and a breadth of knowledge. The importance and value of this has often been commented upon by prime ministers serving Queen Elizabeth.
Active powers also include the right to select the prime minister (done from a list provided by the majority party, with the favored candidate noted). Another active power is the royal assent to legislation. No law is in force until signed by the monarch. The royal assent has not been withheld since 1708 and in modern practice the monarch always acts in accord with the advice of the government in power.
However, in an extraordinary and possibly revolutionary situation the assent could be withheld and the threat to do so could by itself be an effective tool to resolve a crisis. The hit play “King Charles III” seen recently in both London and on Broadway is predicated on just such a situation.
The Residual Powers are those that exist but are not used. Among these, the monarch has the right to dismiss the prime minister, prorogue parliament and call for a new election. Such a cataclysmic action could only be taken in the most extraordinary circumstances, but it has reportedly been threatened at times during the 20th Century. During the Curragh Crisis of 1914, though the role of King George IV in forcing the government to find a solution, while rumored to have been decisive, has been kept secret to this day. Space forbids going into details about this event. It can be easily Googled by anyone interested.
An intriguing power stems from the fact that officers of the army and navy swear allegiance to the person of the monarch, not to the government or the nation. The nature of the oath was stipulated in the agreement by which Charles II took the throne following the end of the Puritan Interregnum in 1660. At the present time there is no practical significance to this. But one might imagine possible future situations where it could play an important role.
Comment: There are other residual powers. But the really important power is that of simply being in place at the top of the pyramid. No prime minister can become a fascist dictator, as has happened in other countries, while the monarch remains watchful on the throne. Neither can the monarch become a dictator while parliament remains watchful. It is a balanced system that has worked well ever since The Restoration.
Part 3 – The Cost:
Regardless of its lavish trappings, the British Monarchy costs a whole lot less than the American Presidency. The millions upon millions Trump has spent taking Air Force One to Florida, weekend after weekend, are breathtaking. It makes the cost of a royal wedding seem like mere pennies. In fact, very little taxpayer money goes to the royals. Most of the expense comes from the income from crown lands. The crown is the largest landowner in England and all of the income goes into the treasury, from which the monarch receives an allotment determined by parliament. The balance of the income becomes part of the general treasury funds. Further, the income generated by royalty-watching tourists and by the stimulation of British business created by royal advocacy and ambassadorship, while impossible to precisely calculate, is generally acknowledged to be very substantial. Keep in mind the palaces, carriages, costumes and jewels were all paid for a long time ago and would require upkeep, monarchy or no.
Comment: Compared to the presidency, the monarchy is bargain basement.
Are you confused?
Herein we will quickly resolve some issues that confuse many Americans.
1: Meghan Markle will become a princess by virtue of marriage. Her correct title will be Princess Harry of Windsor, though it is unlikely she will normally be called anything but Princess Meghan, though this is technically incorrect. However, to be correctly called Princess Meghan, she would have had to be born a princess in her own right. In the event of divorce or the death of her husband she would normally keep the title Princess by dispensation of the monarch, though not if she re-marries.
2: In the unlikely event Prince William and his children are whipped out by some catastrophe, Harry would be heir to the throne. In that event Meagan would then become
Queen Consort. Queen Elizabeth is Queen Regnant, meaning she inherited the crown in her own right and is monarch. Her husband, Prince Phillip, is Prince Consort. The husband of a queen regnant does not get the title king, whereas the wife of a king does get the title queen.
3: Shouldn’t Harry be marrying an English woman? Not necessarily. In fact, over the centuries the great majority of royal marriages have been to foreigners. In the past it was for the purpose of cementing international alliances. That is no longer the case; leaving royals to marry any suitable person they choose.
4: What do you mean by “suitable?” It has to be someone who can accommodate herself to the stringent demands of royal life and does not have scandal in her background. Among the many things Meghan will have to get used to is keeping her mouth shut about anything relating to politics. Meghan will use only palace approved social media. She will be constantly pursued by paparazzi and will be constantly harpooned by the tabloids (British tabloid newspapers are notoriously a congress of vultures with no moral scruples whatever).
Meghan will also have to get used to a complex etiquette peculiar only to the royal establishment. For example, when in the company of Her Majesty, you do not go to bed before she does. At meals you do not begin eating until she does. You stop eating when she does.
Some aspects of royal life may surprise Meghan. For example, she does not have the right to vote. By law, the royal family does not vote. Meghan will also need to learn a great deal of British history very quickly. In visiting Ireland, Wales, or Scotland, she will really need to know the history of British association with those regions in order to avoid saying or doing the wrong thing. For the rest of her life, every word she says and every step she takes will be scrutinized.
5. The Queen seems pleased by this unusual marriage, and has evidently welcomed Meghan without hesitation. Why is that? The answer involves a number of levels. First, do not underestimate Her Majesty. Though she is very old, and dresses in a style that hasn’t changed much since the 1950s, she is a very astute, highly intelligent and very well informed person. She has a keen sense of which way the wind in blowing.
Meghan Markle is beautiful, poised and intelligent
Meghan Markle is beautiful, poised and intelligent. She has popular appeal and her bi-racial heritage is going over very well indeed with British citizens of color, many have not previously had much reason to be attached to the monarchy. The primary function of the monarchy is to ensure its own continuance and Meghan looks like a real potential asset. Further, the House of Windsor is diversifying its gene pool. Well aware of what inbreeding has done to some European royal families, the British threw out the old rule about Princes only marrying royal princesses a long time ago.
6: Will Meghan go everywhere in a carriage? (Someone actually did ask me this question) The answer is no. The carriages all belong to the Queen and are only used on official occasions.
Finally, “If I ever meet Meghan, what should I call her?” On first meeting you address her as Your Royal Highness. You only say that once per encounter. After that you address her as Ma’am. And — yes — if female, you curtsey. If male, you bow slightly — from the neck, not the waist.
And finally, “suppose Harry wanted to marry a boy? “ Well, that would be legal in the U.K. but what the titles and etiquette would be, who knows? That is unexplored territory. Issues of this sort are normally ruled on by The College of Heralds, with the Queen having the final say,. No issue of this kind has as yet arisen, though in time it surely will.