The Monarchy: More Ancient than Modern
Commentators repeat with regularity the claim that the Queen’s greatest achievement, besides simple longevity, is her modernisation of the monarchy. But, says Dan Jones, she still owes a great deal to her medieval predecessors.
Monarchists claim that the Queen has overseen a great leap forward in the conduct and culture of the royal family, particularly in the 15 years since Princess Diana’s death. Now, aged 86, Elizabeth II presides over a dynasty fit for the Facebook age: a family in which the first and second in line to the throne have married a divorcée and a commoner respectively; where the younger members of the family are not just at ease with the old media and the new media, but also with social media; and in which almost all the royals recognise charity, humility and public duty as the price owed for their position within the constitution.
Yet as the nation celebrates six decades of Elizabeth II’s reign – a landmark passed only by Victoria before her – it is worth taking the long view of monarchy, by asking not what is so modern about the Crown in the new Elizabethan age, but what remains ancient. For, as much as monarchy has adapted its shape to suit the world today, it is still to a significant degree defined by its medieval roots.
The first great portrait taken from life of an English king is the so-called Westminster portrait of Richard II, which hangs in the nave of Westminster Abbey. (This summer it will be loaned to the British Museum as part of the exhibition Shakespeare: Staging the World.) We do not know who painted it and many aspects of the original work from the 1390s have been distorted by restorations. But what is certain is that the portrait captures the outward nature of kingship as Richard and many of his successors wished it to be understood. The king sits dressed in ermine, accessorised portentously with the orb and sceptre, peering down his long nose towards the viewer. Crowned, enthroned and magnificent, there is something truly superhuman about it.
The painting is a treasure, whose value lives doubly in its depiction of Richard, the man, and the medieval office of monarchy at its most awesome. It is no coincidence that most subsequent royal portraits have mimicked aspects of its composition, from Hans Holbein’s paintings of the early Tudors to Anthony van Dyck’s vision of Charles I, from Allan Ramsay’s sumptuous image of George III to Sir George Hayter’s state portrait of Victoria.
The template is still followed today. Elizabeth II has been the subject of numerous painted and photographic portraits during her reign, since 1953, when Cecil Beaton virtually recreated the Richard II image by photographing the 27-year old enthroned at her coronation. Over the years some of the greatest living artists have come to court to capture her image. Some of those for whom she has sat, including Beaton, have tried to delve beneath the stately veneer of monarchy, to seek the queen’s humanity beneath the trappings of her office. (This reached its most exaggerated form in the portrait of Elizabeth that was painted by the late Lucien Freud: it is as ugly a thing as Freud ever painted; virtually a self-portrait, in which artist and monarch bleed into one another, differentiated only by the heavy, diamond-studded crown on Her Majesty’s head.)
Most artists, however, have been unable to resist capturing the regal singularity of Elizabeth’s monarchy – the same qualities, passed down the ages, that the anonymous Westminster painter found in Richard II more than six centuries ago. Take, for example, the two royal portraits produced in 2007 by the American celebrity photographer Annie Leibovitz. One captures the queen in state robes, enthroned and looking out to her realm from an open window from Buckingham Palace; in the second she stands outside in a dark cape staring imperiously out at the viewer, who is left in no doubt that they are a subject as well as an observer. Leibovitz’s images concern themselves with regality rather than scratching about for the old lady beneath the crown. The American had a more accurate understanding than Freud of royalty in the age of celebrity and she was also truer in her vision to the tradition of royal portraiture that began in the 1390s.
But what are the qualities that portrait artists since the Middle Ages have found in English kings and queens? Manifestly it is not simply the reality of power, for that has been dwindling, little by little, since John put his seal to Magna Carta in 1215. What small, purely theoretical, executive authority still rests with the house of Windsor does not compare with anything that rested in kings and queens from the houses of Plantagenet, Lancaster, York or Tudor. The monarch is no longer the supreme magistrate, nor even a carefully constrained governor; whereas her medieval predecessors ruled with terrible powers of life and death, Elizabeth II is in practical terms a diamond-encrusted public servant. This is not monarchy as any of her medieval forebears would have understood it.
There remains something sacred and mysterious in modern monarchy, which springs from the holy ritual of anointing. But what else does the 21st-century monarchy owe to the Middle Ages? The list begins on the lips. The terms of address still used to speak to the Queen derive, like the Westminster portrait, from Richard II’s reign. The last of the Plantagenets was the first to import to England the linguistic habits and customs of European kingship, when he demanded from the 1390s onwards that his subjects call him ‘Your Highness’ and ‘Your Majesty’, along with more grandiloquent written forms of address such as ‘most high and puissant prince’ and ‘your high royal majesty’.
When these terms were introduced they seemed preposterous, foreign and even a little tyrannical. The chronicler Thomas Walsingham called Richard’s preferred names ‘not human, but divine honours’ and ‘strange and flattering words hardly suitable for mere mortals’, yet they have endured, even into the decidedly non-deferential 21st century. ‘When conversing with The Queen, substitute “Your Majesty” for “you”,’ advises Debretts, and this is not some hollow piece of etiquette instruction of the order of how to hold your soup spoon. There is still a system of rigid, formulaic behaviour that is demanded of anyone presented to the monarch, and although it is unlikely that Elizabeth II would take the same offence as Richard did when protocol was breached, she is also unimpressed by errors.
Other medieval traditions endure, too. The heir to the throne, Prince Charles, may not have led troops into battle, but he holds an impressive array of military titles and his sons are both enthusiastic and active members of the armed forces. It is a stretch to see any of them as a modern-day Black Prince, charging headlong into battle to win their spurs, but the Windsors under Elizabeth’s leadership clearly see their military role as integral to their royal identity.
Rightly so, for royalty is at its roots a military office. The regnal numbers of English and then British monarchs are given in sequence since the military conquest of England in 1066 and the royal heroes in the historical canon are generally those who fought with valour and success. It is Richard the Lionheart, perhaps the least English king of England but arguably the greatest soldier ever to wear the crown, who is immortalised in a statue outside the Palace of Westminster. It is Henry V who provides the next-best model for martial kingship and his stunning victory at Agincourt is now – in part thanks to Shakespeare – synonymous with English triumphalism on the battlefield. These men brought military glory to the crown and it has been celebrated in the practice and pageantry of monarchy ever since.
Accordingly, although a professional army was not formed under royal auspices until the 17th century, the forms and institutions of medieval chivalry still surround the Crown. Many of the most prestigious honours bestowed by the Crown – knighthood, membership of the Order of the Garter, the Order of the Bath – are either direct continuations of medieval accolades, or else derive their symbolism from the Middle Ages. Even the name of the royal family – changed by George V by royal proclamation in 1917 from Saxe-Coburg and Gotha to Windsor – sings of the 14th century, when Edward III undertook the reconstruction of Windsor Castle as a monument to chivalric kingship and national unity under St George. It is telling that this was the golden age of militarised monarchy to which Elizabeth’s grandfather looked when he tried to recast the royal line in a quintessentially English form.
Small wonder, in that context, that Prince Harry in particular hankers to serve on the front line in Afghanistan. Despite the age-old obstacles presented by having a prince in the field – Richard the Lionheart’s imprisonment between 1192 and 1194 by the German emperor Henry VI would have nothing on the Taliban capturing Harry – the prince’s desire to fight overseas reflects a long tradition of active royal military service reaching back to the Hundred Years War, the Third Crusade and beyond.
The monarchy that has been tended and shaped by Elizabeth II, then, is suited to a state of revived fortune and popularity, respected, even loved by its supporters and tolerated begrudgingly by many who might formerly have wished its dissolution. Although British monarchy faces dismemberment – it is quite feasible, for example, that if Scotland manages to escape the Union before the next coronation, it will also abolish the Scottish crown – it has survived into the 21st century in far better shape than might have seemed likely in the late 1990s.
Yet what is so remarkable about this revised version of royalty is that it has somehow retained a sense of the ancient. The Plantagenet kings, who wore the English crown and sat enthroned in their splendour, would have been very unimpressed with the token powers that are enjoyed by their successors. But they would have recognised aspects of their kingship all the same, still going strong 600 years down the line.
Dan Jones is author of The Plantagenets: The Kings Who Made England (HarperPress, 2012).
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