A spring date has been set for King Charles III’s coronation. How fitting it is that the season of renewal has been chosen for the latest grafting onto the ancestral trunk of the British monarchy. As he solemnly walks towards the sanctuary in Westminster Abbey, where he will be crowned, towering above the King and the rest of the congregation will be the church’s vaulted arches, which resemble a grove of Gothic trees rendered in stone. This arboreal imagery is loaded with symbols of rebirth and rejuvenation best epitomised in the yew trees that are a feature of so many traditional British cemeteries. When their limbs eventually droop to the ground, they can take root and form into new trees, giving the Yew the appearance of immortality through continual regeneration. And so it is in a way with the British monarchy, which simultaneously exists as something ancient yet capable of seemingly endless revival.
As spectacles go, little can match the combination of solemnity and solace, and of Christianity and kitsch, that is unique to the British monarchy. The pageantry – vast in scale, kaleidoscopically coloured, and deeply rooted in archaic tradition – helps to prop up the perception of the monarchy’s other-worldliness as well as its durability. And maybe that is precisely what we need. After a seven-decade reign, the great sense of continuity that Elizabeth II brought to the institution came to an emotional close in September this year. The coronation of Charles III in part will be an act of re-establishing that certainty in the institution’s endurance, and grand rituals form a significant part of that process.
There will be grumblers, though. ‘Why is all that pomp and parading necessary?’ they will ask. ‘After all, the monarchy has no real power anymore’. Such views bring to mind Charles Dickens’s emotionally sterile character of Thomas Gradgrind in Hard Times. Gradgrind was a ‘man of realities…who with a rule and pair of scales, and the multiplication table always in his pocket [is] ready to weigh and measure any parcel of human nature’. Anything decorative, idiosyncratic, or emotional was to be banished. Through Gradgrind, Dickens illustrated how it was possible to be both right and wrong at the same time. Such a fixation on ‘Facts…nothing but facts!’ while apparently correct, came at the expense of aesthetic pleasure or spiritual elation. So while it remains true that our constitutional monarchs retain no hard power, their role is not without any purpose whatsoever.
The great eighteenth-century historian, Edward Gibbon, seemed to be on the side of those tilting towards a more calculating criticism of kings and queens. He is sometimes quoted by republicans for his disdainful opinion of hereditary monarchies, which he described as presenting ‘the fairest scope for ridicule’. But too few read further to see how Gibbon developed this idea. While acknowledging that monarchies offer enormous opportunity for satire and criticism, he went on to note that serious thinkers realised the importance of a system that was ‘independent of the passions of mankind’, and which deprived any one group in society of making themselves supremely powerful. The checks and balances of a monarchy – however far they have since shifted from substance to symbolism – can still fulfil that ambition to some extent.
In its modern form, our constitutional monarchy does not demand a transactional relationship with its subjects. Any respect that we direct towards the King is not done out of the burden of obligation, let alone from some form of legal arm-twisting. Instead, it is precisely the fact that our monarchs are now tightly hemmed in by constitutional conventions that makes our allegiance to them all the more surprising. The outpouring of grief over the Queen’s death was not the choreographed public display of the sort forced on citizens in those totalitarian states when their dictator dies. Rather, it was much more heartfelt and spontaneous. Adherence to our system of monarchy is not bound by the strictures of an ideological commitment, but instead, exists because enough people see something virtuous in it.
History looms large over our perceptions of the monarchy – the sort of history where memory and materiality mingle. This is a defiant fact in an age where, increasingly, we are inclined to repudiate the past as being somehow inferior. Too easily, we can fool ourselves into thinking that we have reached the apex of human thought and development, and institutions such as the monarchy are constantly at risk of gradually retreating into irrelevance, neglect, and finally, disappearance. The Victorian poet Mathew Arnold warned of such a process affecting old certainties as modernity continued its relentless advance: ‘But now I only hear/ Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar/ Retreating, to the breath/ Of the night-wind’.
There has been plenty of chatter about Charles III’s accession to the throne heralding the beginning of the end of the monarchy – part of the kind of long withdrawal that Arnold lamented – but something about the British monarchy stubbornly refuses to allow itself to be dislodged from the consciousness of millions of its subjects. Instead of turning our backs on history and allowing ourselves to be captured by what George Orwell feared would be an ‘endless present’, the fact of the monarchy, with its intricate and turbulent history, invites us to survey the past as an act of recovery of our collective memory.
There is an inherent risk in this, however. Even though the sun has long since set on the British Empire, it can be too easy simply to face the other direction, still relishing the glow of past grandeur, and shielding ourselves from more informed understandings of what the monarchy once stood for – the sort of understanding which illuminates the historical landscape in a much harsher and more critical light, and which exposes the jingoism of Empire for the self-delusional thing that it often was.
Charles III’s coronation will incorporate the recurrence of rites and rituals that in some cases extend back over a millennium. In a sense, it is like a metaphorical umbilical cord, nourishing our connection with these aspects of the past. It is a common argument that such perceptions of history – embodied in the ceremony of the coronation, and personified in the King – somehow give meaning to our laws, systems of government, and constitutional relationships, in a way that little else can.
Constructing the edifice of any state takes a long time. The maturing of its institutions occurs over several decades, whereas the accretion of respectability and even reverence for branches of the state such as the monarchy can take centuries to emerge. Such expansive concepts of time – encompassing entire eras – can easily escape those caught up in the delirium of progress for its own sake, and for whom the past has little to offer for the future. However, it is precisely from this long and heavily-marbled history – however messy and painful it may sometimes be – that the architecture of our identity is formed, and which enriches our sense of community. One of the features of the Queen’s funeral is how so many of the things that normally divide people were transcended, even if only for a few hours. It is at such moments that we come to see that our constitutional monarchy can serve purposes that no other branch of government can ever emulate. The monarchy can gird our sense of having something in common with everyone else, despite all our differences. It offers the chance to express a form of collectivism that does not require us to dissolve our individual identities into a single amalgam, and yet which also fights back against the modern trend to ever more isolating (and selfish) individualism.
Of course, I am aware that such a sanguine view of our monarchy is already congealing for some people. Opinion polls reveal what many of us already intuitively sense: that younger generations feel much less affiliation to institutions such as the monarchy, the church, and even a society which elevates values such as collectivism, service, and loyalty. But when the old institutions have been swept away in the promise of progress, what will fill the void? For all its shortcomings, the monarchy allows up to relish what T. S. Eliot described as ‘the pastness of the past’. This is neither an indulgence in a nostalgic illusion, nor an effort at what he calls ‘archaeological reconstruction’. Instead, it requires people to see how they are part of a long paternity of history. It is only though doing this, he argued, that a person can become ‘conscious of his place in time, of his own contemporaneity’. And what better institution than the monarchy to enable us to achieve this on such a scale? The calls for republicanism may begin to groan more loudly now, and there might even be a mood of inevitability about some members of the Commonwealth heading down that path. This is a decision the many countries may eventually have to confront, but before the thought begins to germinate in the collective imagination, perhaps it would be worthwhile to take one more glimpse over our shoulders at the legacy of the monarchy that we currently have – ‘warts and all’ (to quote Cromwell, of all people) – and ponder on whether its absence would make us better in any way, or would it instead somehow diminish us.
Paul Moon is Professor of History at Auckland University of Technology