Story Of London

English Monarchs: Part 2 – Development of the Monarchy

English Monarchs: Part 2 – Development of the Monarchy
by Bill McCann

These three articles set out to present a complete list of the monarchs that have ruled England since the end of the Roman occupation in the fifth century AD. Before defining the scope of the list, however, it was necessary to wade through the confusion that surrounds the apparently inter-changeable terms EnglandBritainGreat Britain, and The United Kingdom . This, was dealt with in the first article. In this, the second article we give a brief outline of the constitutional development of the monarchy from the absolutism of the Norman kings to today’s Constitutional Monarchy.

English Monarchs: Part 2 – Development of the Monarchy

by Bill McCann

We can usefully define monarchy as the undivided rule of a state by a single person. In what we know geographically as England, this definition does not actually apply until, perhaps, the reign of Alfred. Before the arrival of the Romans, the country was divided amongst a number of warrior aristocracies in the manner of the early Celtic extended family system described for us in the Irish oral tradition and vernacular literature. In this system, kingship is not based on primogeniture (succession of the first-born) but on an elective system in which the new king (or queen – women had substantial rights then) was chosen by the extended family. This system is known as Tanistry (pronounced Tawnistry) and, indeed, the Deputy Prime Minister of Ireland is still known as the Táiniste today.

On the departure of the legions, the Roman Province (which Wales but not Scotland) split up into several quasi independent kingdoms as the military and aristocratic castes rushed to fill the power vacuum. These were not generally derived from the original Celtic peoples but derived from the Angle and Saxon settlers and mercenaries who had arrived from what is today Northern Germany during the declining years of the Roman occupation. They tended to base their claims to rule on a supposed descent from the pagan gods and heroes, nevertheless, the succession was still largely determined by the system of Tanistry. However, the success of the Roman invasion and occupation had brought a new lesson in realpolitic – Might is Right. The post-Roman kingdoms vied with each other to dominate the old Roman Province. By the end of the tenth century this power struggle had been won by the Wessex dynasty, based central southern England.

Another lesson learnt from the Romans was the integration of religious and political power. This is a concept which was alien to the original Celtic peoples – religion as we understand today did not exist for them (the modern “Druids” as an abominable 19th century travesty of the truth). For them, nature was one and encompassed all living things. Sin and its accompanying sense of guilt did not exist. Death was not something to be feared, it was just a passing to the Otherworld – which you could do every year at Samhain (modern Halloween) anyway. Hence the great feasts and festivities which accompanied a death – the modern Irish wake is a surviving remnant.

It was not the arrival of the Romans that destroyed this system of belief (unless there was a clear threat to the political system, they never set out to destroy a native religion) but the arrival of Christianity. This infant religion, derived from the jealous and bellicose Jewish mythology, was pre-eminently about power and control. As such, with its cataclysmic treats of utter destruction in the afterlife and more immediate treats of ostracisation in the present-life, it was a system which no aspiring monarch could ignore. It comes as no surprise therefore to find that after the arrival of Christianity in the late sixth century, the Anglo-Saxon kings dominated the church as well as the State.

To ancestral descent was now added the notion of anointment. The king or queen reigned by God’s Grace and was no less than His Vicar in this kingdom. From the eighth century the monarch fulfilled both a political and a priestly office and this was reflected in the Coronation Ceremony where the monarch was anointed with holy oil and vested in eucharistic robes. This ceremonial has survived to the present, the current monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, went through just such a Coronation Ceremony in 1953.

The political hold of the House of Wessex on the whole of England was always somewhat tenuous. There have ever only been two “English” kings and of these the second (Harold) reigned for but a few months before he was killed and overthrown by the superior might of his Norman challenger in 1066. The Norman conquerors greatly strengthened the English monarchy with the introduction of the feudal system. They also institutionalised the system of (male) primogeniture. This new political system placed the monarchy at the apex of the power pyramid and throughout the entire mediaeval period it is impossible to separate the monarchy and government. There were dangers of course. This was a system in which the personal characteristics of the monarch played a vital role. Choice was gone, the only legitimate successor was now the eldest surviving male descendant of the last King. The system failed with Stephen and again with John. However, it was triumphant with Edward I whose thirty-five year reign was, arguably, the apogee of the medieval system of Royal government.

By the end of his reign in 1307, the inherent weaknesses of the system were beginning to assert themselves. The first, and greatest, of these was the aspiration of the most powerful subjects – the aristocracy. Many of these were of families who could claim collateral descent with the Monarch – a powerful impetus to human ambition. The other fundamental weakness was money. The feudal system was nothing if it did not seek to expand its area of control. Apart from prestige, the acquisition of more territory provided a way of controlling the ambitions of rival claimants to the throne. A rich Dukedom and a quiet life would always be an acceptable pay-off to any but the most ruthlessly ambitious of second-cousins. Territorial extension on an island did, however, present its own unique, if predictable, limitations. The only alternative was foreign conquest. The French origins of the Norman Conquerors provided rich picking here and the Mediaevel period saw endless wars in and with France which demanded more and more finance.

This ad to be raised by levy on monarch’s subjects and this meant dealing with their representatives – the Parliament. Edward III only managed to enhance the prestige of the monarchy and retain English control of Normandy by making sweeping concessions to both Parliament and the Aristocracy in order to finance his Martial successes in France. The Power of the Monarchy began to dribble away in this reign. His successor, Richard II, saw this and tried to reverse the trend but only engineered his own deposition. The Lancastrian claim was tenuous and the reign of Henry IV was more than ever dependent on the goodwill of the Aristocracy and Parliament. But the incapacity of his grandson Henry VI precipitated the Wars of the Roses when the monarchy was no more than a pawn in the game of the aristocratic factions.

The Yorkist Edward IV was both capable and popular but, then, he fought no expensive foreign wars and saw the monarchy enriched by new land revenues. His legacy went for naught on his unexpected death and the usurpation of Richard III. The reign of Richard III will always arouse questions. Shakespeare (or the author of those plays) certainly did a hatchet job but this was out of political and/or financial expediency – he was, after all writing during the triumphant reign of the grand-daughter of Richard’s vanquisher.

Bosworth brought the Tudor dynasty to Power. Unlike no other, this has gained a grip on the popular imagination and is today continuously milked for its financial potential. (The latest British television series fronted by David Starkey was both a trivialisation of history and a roaring commercial success.) All this apart, the Tudor century was the period when the tiny insular realm of England began to approach something like world power status. Henry VII’s claim to the succession was a weak one but he successfully eliminated all rivals and began to re-assert the power of the “Absolute Monarch”. His son and successor, Henry VIII, continued this whilst at the same time emptying the substantial coffers his parsimonious father had filled. Henry, of course, completely changed the course of English history by once again bringing the relationship between religion and the State into sharp focus. Whilst the idea of an anointed monarch survived, much political power had passed to the princes of the Church in the Mediaeval period. Even Henry II had problems with the distinction between the legal authority of the State and the Church. It was one thing for a monarch of Britain to claim that he was God’s anointed vicar but that was nothing with the claim of the Pope to be the successor of Peter, personally anointed by Christ incarnate – something universally accepted as historical fact in the mediaeval and early modern periods. By the beginning of the sixteenth century, the Church had asserted its independence of the “temporal” power and the archbishops of Canterbury and York wielded much power which may, or may not, be used to support the monarchy.

Henry’s basic problem was not, however, either legal or religious. It was sexual. He had an “old” wife who had given him no sons and, in his middle age, had developed a passion for the younger sister of one of his wife’s Ladies in Waiting. The young woman, Ann Boleyn, seems to have held out for marriage before she would gratify Henry’s sexual needs. Little did she know what her ambition or coquetry (we will never know which) would unleash on history. Increasingly frustrated at that time of life when hormonal changes make men begin to fear that their prowess is diminishing, Henry sought a legal separation from his wife and the right to marry again. None of the usual reasons for an annulment existed in his case: he was not too closely related to his wife, Catharine of Aragon, the marriage had been consummated (the Princess Mary was living proof of that) and his wife did not refuse him her bed. Henry fell back on the fact that Catharine had originally been married to his elder brother, Arthur, and his own marriage was therefore null and void. The Pope, rightly, said no to this also. Catherine and Arthur had been married as children and THAT marriage had not been consummated.

Heaping fire on the sexual frustration was the precarious financial situation of the Royal Treasury. Henry needed both money and a new wife. There was no shortage of advisors. The Church was rich and owned, in England, much property and land. Rid yourself of the meddling Pope and take control of the church in England, annul your marriage and marry your “young love”. All of this Henry did. He took upon himself the title Head of the Church in England, annulled his marriage, confiscated rich church lands to the crown and married Ann Boleyn. She too gave him but a daughter and also fell victim to the sexual imperative. Henry’s subsequent history was no more than the playing out of the tragedy of an aging but still sexually charged man who needed to provide a male heir.

Most people today think that Henry VIII was the radical who introduced Protestantism to England. Henry himself would be horrified at this – he died a Catholic and, in his own mind, a good Catholic. He was succeeded by his young and sickly son, Edward VI. By his own hand, Henry had written the Act of Succession which settled the kingdom on his three children Edward , Mary and Elizabeth or their heirs, in that order. Nobody expected Edward to survive his teenage years, much less produce an heir. Mary, then, was next in line to succeed. For Edward’s guardians, the effective rulers of the kingdom, this was a huge problem. Mary was a staunch, if not fanatical, Catholic who would reverse Henry’s usurpation of religious authority. Too many of the aristocratic class had made financial and property gains to be able to view this prospect with any degree of equanimity. The doctrines of Luther and Erasmus were therefore espoused and an anti-Catholic State religion established in this short reign.

Mary, did of course succeed and did try to reverse the heresies of her father and brother but time and the times were against her. She died frustrated and confused to be succeeded by her much clearer-headed sister, Elizabeth. The new queen was political to her fingertips and saw at once the advantages in restoring the ancient inseparability of Church and State. The evidence, so far as it goes, suggests that Elizabeth herself was indifferent to religion. This is not surprising as her most impressionable years were dominated by the religious arguments and posturing of people she knew intimately. To someone of her clear mode of thinking, the sham and pretence of it all would have been all too obvious.

The religious question aside, it is clear that the Tudors were strong but not absolute monarchs. They all did believe in the Royal Prerogative – the discretionary rights of the Monarch in matters of administration, economics, religion and foreign policy – but never sought to use this to place themselves above the law. In the Tudor view, Sovereignty was that of the monarch in Parliament, not of the monarch alone. Henry VIII and Elizabeth in particular successfully cajoled and influenced Parliament but it was never subservient to them and the did not try to make it so. In many ways, they were adroit political operators. The financial needs and legislative functions of the monarchy did require a dialogue with Parliament and this was supplemented with a judicious distribution of favour and patronage. This careful engagement with the politically active and conscious amongst their subjects was the rock on which stood the Tudor Monarchy and ensured itse popularity to the end.

That end, in Elizabeth’s childless death, brought significant changes to the constitution of England and a sharp alteration in the attitude of the monarchy to the political classes. James VI succeeded to the Scottish throne in 1585 on the execution of his Mother, Mary Queen of Scots. As Scottish king he had successfully extended royal authority over the nobility and seems not to have realised that this was not going to work in quite the same way south of the border. Both James and his son, Charles I, loudly supported the theory of the Divine Right of Kings – which held that, as kings are appointed by God, resistance to their rule is therefore always unlawful. This left little room for the kind of government which had characterised the Tudor century. The Parliament in England gradually became convinced that the “ancient constitution” was under attack and Scotland slid towards rebellion. Charles’ inability to retreat from the notion of Divine right led to the Civil Wars, his own execution and the abolition of the monarchy in 1649.

Most Englishmen were horrified by the regicide and the entire process was repudiated in Scotland. A repudiation which was effectively crushed by Cromwell’s victory at Dunbar in 1650. Once the military fervour had abated somewhat there was a gradual drift back to traditional forms of government during the years of the interregnum. Recognising this, the more astute Parliamentarians sought to raise the semi-monarchical Protectorate of Cromwell into a full-blown monarchy with Cromwell as the founder of a new royal dynasty. Cromwell refused and the way was open for the universally popular Restoration of the Stuarts in the person of Charles II in 1660.

The restored monarchy was based on the constitutional situation which had existed before the Civil Wars. Charles II retained control of administration and policy formation but he was financially dependent on Parliament and was therefore somewhat constrained in his freedom of action. The system of government under his rule was therefore more reminiscent of the Tudors than of his father and grandfather. However, the question of the succession was to pitch the final years of his reign into crisis.

Perhaps the only lasting legacy of the Puritan Commonwealth was the virulent anti-Catholicism which it engendered at the heart of the body politic in England. Charles II had no legitimate heirs and, on his death, the throne would go to his brother James – but James was a Catholic and any suggestion of his succession was anathema to many in the establishment. There was, therefore, a concerted effort by the Whigs in parliament to remove him from the Succession and replace him with Charles’ illegitimate son Monmouth.

This gave rise to the so-called Exclusion Crisis. Between 1679 and 1681 three successive parliaments attempted to pass Bills which would exclude James from the succession. They subsequently became known as the Exclusion Parliaments. Charles refused to countenance the proposal and repeatedly dissolved the parliament. The country at large supported the king and the concept of hereditary monarchy and James II duly ascended the throne on the death of his brother in 1685.

James II was a successful soldier and sailor but a hopeless politician. His religious conviction was real and he made no attempt to hide it. At first, parliament supported him when, within months Monmouth and the Duke of Argyll attempted rebellion. However, in the Autumn of 1685 when James insisted on the suspension of the Penal Laws and allowed Catholic officers to serve in the army Parliament became restive and James prorogued it. Thereafter there was an uneasy truce which lasted until 1688.

In that year the Archbishop of Canterbury and six other bishops petitioned the king to re-instate the penal code, arguing that he had no right to suspend it. James had the seven bishops tried for seditious libel but they were acquitted by a jury. On the day that James’ son was born, the Bishop of London and six laymen secretly met with William Prince of Orange and husband to Mary, James’ daughter. Claiming that the birth was an imposture designed to establish a permanent Catholic dynasty, the invited William to come to England and sustain his wife’s right to the succession.

Events moved quickly and the so-called Glorious Revolution saw the deposition of James and the appointment of William III and Mary II was joint sovereigns. Mary II died in 1694 and on William’s death in 1702 the throne passed to James II’s other daughter Anne. During thee reigns the long struggle between the royal prerogative and parliamentary rule drew to a close with the triumph of the latter. A number of measures which put severe restrictions and limitations on the future rights and actions of the crown were passed in these years.

They included the Act of Settlement which settles the succession on the descendants of Sophia of Hanover in the event that William III and Queen Anne should die without heirs. The whole point of the Act was to specifically exclude Catholics from the succession. At the time of its enactment in 1701, there wee fifty-eight persons whose claims to the throne were superior to that of Sophia – but they were all Catholics. The Act is still in force today.

Anne died without surviving issue and the Stuarts were replaced by the Hanovarian Dynasty. During the 18th century a new equilibrium between monarch and parliament gradually established itself. The monarch retained a voice in policy and also the right to choose ministers but this was effectively limited to those who could retain a majority in the House of commons. The initial transition to this “constitutional monarchy” was aided by the indifference of George I and George II neither of whom spoke English very well – if at all. George III was more involved and assertive but his periodic bouts of insanity limited his input. The indolent and self-obsessed George IV was roundly despised throughout the country and respect for the monarchy reached its lowest point in this reign.

The long reign of Victoria which saw the highest point of the British empire brought a new respect to the Monarchy and enshrined the constitutional limitations on the actions of the monarch. In her early years she was prepared to intervene and air her marked political prejudices but the tides of the growth in the political party system and the widening of the franchise were against her. At the beginning of the twentieth century the political role of the monarch had become all but non-existent.

The reigns of Edward VII and George V saw the virtual realisation of the theory of Cabinet government put forward by Walter Baghot in 1867. In this model the dignified parts of the constitution – the crown and legislature – attract the loyalty of the people while the efficient part – the cabinet – governs them. This is the effective model today. The constitutional crisis of 1936 in which Edward VIII was forced to abdicate by the executive wing of government was the final seal on the constitutional monarchy of modern England.

In the twenty-first century, the monarch stands as a symbolic representation of sovereign power and national unity and also acts as a personal link between the nations that form the British Commonwealth – the residue of te British Empire. The crown is no longer an independent political force but has three rather nebulous rights:

  • to be consulted
  • to encourage
  • to warn.

In all matters, the monarch takes the advise of Parliament, usually in the form of the Prime Minister. There is, however a residual and, so far, untested right. This is in the form of a duty to intervene in government in the interests of the public good should a political crisis arise in which such action was demanded.

English Monarchs Part 1- What is England?

English Monarchs Part 3 – Regnal Lists