London and the Modern Monarchy

Penelope Corfield explores the interdependent relationship between crown and capital from the 17th century onwards that the monarchy ignored at its peril.

When Charles I stepped from the first floor of the Banqueting House in Whitehall to his execution in January 1649, it was an epoch-making moment. The powers of anointed kingship were challenged in the most explicit way. This was no secret murder but the public removal of a king who was adjudged a traitor to his own people. Nor did the event happen hastily on a battlefield. The execution took place at Whitehall, the political nerve-centre of the rebellious capital city, praised by the republican Milton as the very ‘mansion-house of Liberty’. More pointedly, the King was executed before the very Banqueting House that his father had first commissioned in 1619, to beautify the royal palace of Whitehall. Kingship was felled amid its own splendour, before the gaze of the London crowds.

Restoration, when it came in 1660, was designed to restore the old ways. The status of monarchy was, however, irrevocably changed, as was confirmed at the Glorious Revolution of 1688-89. Thereafter kingship had to function in an evolving political environment, without either the trappings or the reality of absolute power. A suitable responsiveness to public opinion was thus required.

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