Sunday, 13 October 2013

Site Update

I know...not much has happened with this blog lately...But there is a good reason for it! I am actually working on my first book on the British Monarchy, which will be published as an ebook on Amazon! So, as I am doing all this in my free time, I have had to put this blog on hold for the moment, until the book is e-published.

In the meantime, please follow my royal Pic of the Day posts on my Twitter account (see right of page), and do follow me if you're a Twitterer!

Speak soon and God Save the British Monarchy

Alex David

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Summer Break...

Taking a small break for the summer. 
Will be back with an expanded and retooled website in September.

In the meantime, 
(see bar on the right)

Monday, 1 July 2013

Pageantry, Forgery, Faith and Muddles: An Overview of Tudor Coronations

I recently attended an interesting talk at the Hampton Court Palace learning centre given by Dr Alice Hunt, a historian from the University of Southampton. The topic was the history of Tudor coronations, and how the ceremony changed through 50 years of tumultuous Tudor change. Dr Hunt proposed that the idea of the coronation ceremony remaining unchanged since ancient times is a myth. In reality, although the main elements or ‘skeleton’ if you will, of the ceremony have remained the same since the first coronation in 973, the ceremony has often been changed to adapt the needs and circumstances of every age and every particular monarch. Tudor coronations, Dr Hunt proposed, are good examples of how this process of small changes over timeless practice works out in practice.   


Dr Hunt presented evidence from five different Tudor coronations from 1509 to 1559. The starting point was Henry VIII’s coronation which was the least controversial and most traditional of the lot. Henry was barely 18 at his crowning, his wife Catherine of Aragon was 23, and they chose Midsummer Eve 1509 as an auspicious date for their coronation. They were crowned like all the previous medieval monarchs, and Dr Hunt used this model ceremony as a way to describe what coronations always involve.

Henry and Catherine’s ceremony followed the plan set down in the Liber Regalis, a medieval manuscripts kept in Westminster Abbey that details down every aspect of the ceremony. This illuminated work was created in 1382 for the coronation of Richard II’s Queen, Anne of Bohemia, but the ceremonial order described within goes back to the year 973 when it was created by St Dunstan, the Archbishop of Canterbury at the time. The order of the service set down in the Liber Regalis is the ‘skeleton’ of the coronation ceremony that has been followed through the ages. It sets down which part should follow the other (oath, anointing, crowning, homage, etc), though it gives some leeway as to who should be involved in it. 

A rare contemporary woodcut from 1509 celebrating the joint coronation of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon. Henry sits beneath the Tudor rose of England, while Catherine sits beneath her own heraldic emblem of the pomegranate.

The key moment during the ceremony is not the crowning but the anointing. In fact, a monarch cannot be crowned until he is anointed beforehand. Anointing is a solemn religious ritual, recalling the anointing of biblical kings like David and Solomon, and it involves oiling different parts of the body including hands, chest and head. It is considered the holiest part of the ceremony, so much so that the ritual was hidden from the cameras even during the 1953 coronation. Through it, the monarch receives the personal blessing of the Holy Spirit and is considered transformed by it. The ritual was far more important to Tudor monarchs than the crowning itself and they always referred to themselves as being anointed monarchs, not crowned monarchs.

There is however some circular logic at work here because already by Tudor times a monarch was considered legitimate even before his anointing (which is why coronations often take place weeks or months after accession). What does the coronation do if it does not create a monarch? The Tudors tried to get around this paradox by theorizing that the anointing was a definite sign of God’s favour upon the legitimate heir. It created a personal bond between the monarch and Christ, and this idea was eventually used by Henry to assert his authority as the real shepherd of the English Church in place of the pope. 


Tudor coronations began to be tweaked from Anne Boleyn’s coronation on 1 June 1537. Anne’s coronation was unique in many ways, and also the last time in British history that a queen consort was crowned in a separate ceremony. It was a very extravagant affair, conceived by Henry VIII and planned by a committee working under the King’s strict guidance. The coronation festivities were said to have exhausted the treasury, the most lavish element being the procession from the Tower to Westminster Abbey, an integral part of coronation ceremonies from the 14th to the 17th centuries. The Tudor century saw the apotheosis of these processions when they got bigger and bigger and included rich spectacles along the way like, tableaux, recitals, speeches, and fountains flowing with wine.

The most conspicuous aspect of Anne’s procession was that she was paraded in the streets with her hair down, a traditional symbol of virginity, when in fact she was six months’ pregnant, and visibly so. But far from being a mark of shame the organizers used it as the main theme of the procession spectacles! Wafers inscribed with golden lines were thrown in the air as she passed by, and poems were declaimed along the way on the happiness and glory the unborn son would bring (everyone assumed the child would be male). There are conflicting reports on how the show was received. Edward Hall, a favourable Tudor historian, said it was a joyous and grand occasion while the partisan Imperial Ambassador, Eustace Chapuys, wrote that it was a chilly affair with the crowds jeering and laughing at Anne. The glorification of Anne’s unborn son of course came to nought since she delivered a daughter instead (though considering that her daughter, Elizabeth I, presided over a glorious kingdom and reigned as a man in all but gender we could say that the good wishes expressed at Anne’s procession were not in vain.)

Anne Boleyn's coronation procession, recreated for Old and New London, a history book published in 1878 by Walter Thornbury.

Anne’s own crowning was also unique, Dr Hunt revealed, since it is recorded that she was crowned not with a traditional Queen Consort’s crown but with St Edward’s Crown, the crown used for the coronation of the sovereign. This was the first and only time such a thing happened in British history and it is unclear why it was so. Perhaps a mistake was made, perhaps the Queen Consort’s crown could not be found, but Dr Hunt said it is possible that it was a decision on Henry’s part in order to ‘renew’ his own power as political and spiritual emperor over England following the break with Rome. It could also have been Henry’s way to emphasize that, after his divorce from Catherine of Aragon, Anne was now the undisputed Queen of England. 


Edward VI’s coronation heralded a revolutionary reign that saw Catholic rituals swept away and religious images destroyed. However the most memorable alterations in the ceremony were caused not by religion but by the age of the young, nine-year-old king. Planned for Shrove Tuesday 1547, the ceremony was shortened and the most tedious parts—including the homage at the end—were cut out so as not to bore the young king. Also interestingly, in a break with the past Edward wore three crowns at his coronation: St Edward’s Crown was used for the actual crowning, the Imperial State Crown was placed secondly as per usual, but then a small child-size crown was placed upon the young king’s head. It is not clear why the third crown was used—perhaps it was a mere matter of convenience since the Imperial State Crown was too heavy to wear down the aisle for the processional route. But whatever the reason, the ritual was picked up immediately by his successors Mary I and Elizabeth I who also had themselves crowned thrice with the same crowns. Roy Strong in his ritualistic tome Coronation ventured that this triple coronation might have been a deliberate riposte to the pope, who was famously crowned with a triple-crowned papal tiara, and to the Holy Roman Emperor who was usually crowned three separate times with three different crowns.

Edward VI's coronation procession, from a stained glass window in Mansion House, the City residence of the Lord Mayor of London.

One of the most famous alteration in Edward VI’s coronation however was supposedly motivated by religion. This was the first coronation since Henry VIII had proclaimed the English monarch as Supreme Head of the English church, and to emphasize this point Archbishop Thomas Cranmer is said to have told to the congregation during the act of anointing that ‘the oil is but a ceremony...the king is yet a perfect monarch notwithstanding as well as if he was inoiled.’ In other words, the anointing was just a mere formality, an empty Catholic ritual necessarily rolled over from the past. Edward VI was king by virtue of his position alone, with no need for oil to be applied. The problem is, Thomas Cranmer never actually said this!

It was an absolute surprise to hear Dr Hunt discuss that this account from Edward VI’s coronation was actually forged in the late 17th century by a man named Robert Ware, an Irish Protestant writing religious tracts during the last years of Charles II when anti-Catholicism was rampant. There is no contemporary evidence that Thomas Cranmer ever made those comments during Edward’s anointing. The fraud has long been exposed academically, yet the story keeps popping up in popular history and occasionally the serious historian’s work as well! The reality is, it is very unlikely Cranmer would have wanted to undermine the anointing, the most sacred aspect of the coronation ceremony which in fact bound the English sovereign to God in a similar way as the pope was bound to Christ. The opposite truth is instead that Cranmer actually over-anointed Edward, oiling him in more places that any medieval king. He added the wrists, elbows and feet to the traditional body parts, and he used both holy oil and chrism for each part!  

1553: MARY I

That Mary, Edward’ older sister, became Queen at all is actually remarkable since she had been declared illegitimate and barred from the succession as far back as 1533 when Henry divorced her mother Catherine of Aragon. Her place in the succession had been reinstated in the 1540s, but she had never actually been re-legitimized in law and this presented a problem when it came to planning her coronation. Parliament proposed that an act should be passed to re-legitimize Mary so as to make her coronation completely lawful, but this was a politically charged step as in effect it would have altered the constitution of England. If Parliament endorsed Mary's legitimacy as Queen before she could be confirmed monarch at her coronation, a precedent would be set whereby monarchs were subject to Parliament’s approval. Mary was understandably appalled by the idea and she refused to countenance the proposal, going ahead with her coronation without any Parliamentary re-adjustment to her birth status.

Mary’s coronation was also revolutionary since, by a combination of tragedy and sheer luck, she had become the first Queen regnant in English history. Dr Hunt pointed out that the most remarkable thing about the ceremony was that not much ritual was changed to accommodate a Queen Regnant. Mary was crowned with the same procedures mandated for a king in the Liber Regalis—a remarkable step in the history of gender equality. There were some reports that she was given both the kingly sceptre and the queen consort’s sceptre with the dove—as if she was being considered both king and queen at the same time—but this might have been a mistake from the Italian ambassador who reported this fact. (Another important precedent setting was the fact that her consort, Philip of Spain, was not crowned after their marriage, setting a tradition for royal male spouses that persists to this day.)

Mary's coronation, shown in miniature from the Coram Rege Rolls, a government record kept in the National Archives. The image is highly significant as it is one of the first representations of an English Queen regnant.

Ceremonially, Mary’s coronation harked back to the Catholic traditions of the Middle Ages, and was performed ‘according to the rites of the old religion’ according to the imperial ambassador. The whole service lasted 7 hours—the entire audience at the talk gasped when they heard this!—finishing at 4pm when Mary emerged from the Abbey crowned and ‘twirling the orb’ in her hand. She refused to be anointed and crowned by Thomas Cranmer, who as Archbishop of Canterbury had presided at the divorce of her mother. Instead, to perform the ceremony she released Stephen Gardiner, the Catholic Bishop of Winchester, from the Tower where he had been imprisoned under Edward VI—sending Cranmer to the Tower in his place. She also sent to Brussels for a new vial of holy oil, since the old anointing oil used on Edward VI might have been ‘contaminated’ during the previous Protestant ceremony. Interestingly however she did not remove the oath that now proclaimed the English sovereign to be the Supreme Head of the Church of England, and swore it even though she personally professed allegiance to the pope in Rome.   


Just as had happened for her sister, there was some suggestion on Elizabeth’s accession that Parliament should re-legitimize her, since her status had also technically never been legalized after she was reinstated in the succession. Elizabeth however vetoed the idea on the same grounds Mary had used, that of royal independence from Parliament, her council famously stating that “the crown taketh away all defects whatsoever” (including presumably the suggestion of illegitimacy). The issue of Parliament’s authority over the Crown would keep simmering for decades, eventually exploding with full force in the next century with the English Civil War. 

Royal hand-me-downs. Believe it or not, the coronation robes worn by Elizabeth in this famous painting were mostly recycled from her sister Mary's coronation (compare the similarities with Mary's picture above)

Elizabeth was crowned in golden robes, as shown in the famous painting in London’s National Gallery (see above) but surprisingly Dr Hunt revealed that those were mostly Mary’s robes, recycled for the occasion! Only the bodice was made anew for Elizabeth. She also wore her hair down, the ceremonial sign of virginity, like her mother Anne Boleyn had done at her own coronation in 1537, though of course in Elizabeth’s case the symbolism was appropriate. Not that Elizabeth was much interested in symbolism at that point in her royal life: the date she chose for her coronation was not any particularly important symbolic date in the calendar, but a humdrum January 15th, a day that had been recommended by her personal astrologer, John Dee. 

The Virgin Queen’s coronation was actually a very muddled affair, one of the most poorly documented coronations of Tudor England according to Roy Strong, partly because of the many particularities and irregularities that took place. Most of the high clergy of England had been appointed by Mary and they refused to take part in the ceremony, and Elizabeth ended up instead being anointed and crowned by the Bishop of Carlisle. Even he however proved troublesome when Elizabeth asked him not to perform the Catholic ritual of the elevation of the host during the Mass. He refused to comply, so yet another clergyman, George Carew, dean of the Chapel Royal, was recruited to provide Protestant rituals at certain points in the Catholic ceremony.

To muddle things even further Elizabeth herself made sure that the religious signals given during the ceremony would be hard to read. Although she chose the same Catholic ceremony that Mary had used, at the moment of the consecration of the Eucharist Elizabeth walked away from the centre stage and hid behind a curtain, leaving people wondering why she had done this. Did she disapprove of the Eucharistic consecration, as a good Protestant would, or did she think it so holy that she wished to retire in a private space to contemplate it, as a good Catholic would? This was no mere personal issue because no one was yet sure what position the new Queen would take in matters in religion. Was she going to reinstate Edward VI’s militant Protestantism, or keep Mary’s Catholic rituals? Dr Hunt called Elizabeth’s curtain trick an inspired move as it kept everyone guessing about Elizabeth’s real intentions, and gave her time to make up her mind slowly on the issue (which eventually struck a middle way between Edward and Mary’s religions). In retrospect it was just the first of many acts of political ambiguity that Elizabeth would use throughout her reign—and that allowed her to exercise real political wisdom.

The Future

Coronations might seem static and unchanging but they are in reality dynamic events that always change to reflect the times and circumstances. Through it all however, as Dr Hunt showed us, the essential things remain the same: the anointing remains the heart of the coronation and will continue to be at its heart at the next coronations also. In that regards, Dr Hunt actually had a few thoughts on the coronation of our next monarch. She said that the ceremony always needs to be planned carefully in advance and she believes that the issue is already being discussed unofficially and behind the scenes at Clarence House—despite any official denial. Forward planning is in fact essential if the next coronation is to be adapted for our own times and needs, as well as the needs and beliefs of the next monarch. She also ventured that, again despite Clarence House’s position, Camilla will be crowned as Queen, and that the public is slowly being prepared for it as the Duchess of Cornwall gains more prominence and gravitas. It will surely be interesting to see if she is right...

Dress Reharsal? Camilla might well be crowned at the next coronation.

For more information on Tudor coronations see Dr Alice Hunt's excellent book, The Drama of Coronation, available at Amazon.

To learn more about the history of coronation see Sir Roy Strong's magisterial book, Coronation, also available at Amazon.  

To learn more about the coronation service, visit this dedicated page on the Westminster Abbey website.

Monday, 17 June 2013

Trooping the Colour 2013: A Personal Photo Album

It was another great birthday for her Majesty this last weekend with the annual procession following the Trooping of the Colour, and the balcony appearance afterwards. This year I finally went to see the end of the proceedings in person. Even though I have lived in London for 13 years I had never come to see it before, partly because I don’t like crowds, and partly because...well, it is true that you never tend to visit where you live. In any case, I am glad I broke that rule since it was a great experience.

1. I arrived by the Palace towards the end of the proceedings, right as the carriage carrying Camilla, Kate and Prince Harry was passing by (so no pictures, :-( ), but I was just in time to see the Queen coming back in the Glass Coach.

2. Everyone was snapping pictures as the carriage got close to Buckingham Palace, above which fluttered a super-maxi size royal standard, the biggest the palace owns and uses for special occasions. The weather at that point was pretty cloudy.

3. Luckily there was a break in the clouds as her Majesty mounted a platform before the Palace for the final review of the Queens’ guards. Here she is before mounted members of the Household Cavalry Band, dressed in the colourful gold coats bearing the Queen’s cipher, EIIR, back and front.

4. Meanwhile, most of the royal family had already arrived back at the Palace and was watching the proceedings from the famous balcony. The senior members—The Duchess of Cornwall, the Duchess of Cambridge, Prince Harry, and Princes Andrew and Edward with their families—are in the middle, while extending outwards are the extended family, mostly made up of the descendants of George V.

5. The show below them included a small parade by the regiments of the Household Cavalry. First were the Blues and Royals—of which Prince Harry is a captain—then the Life Guards (you can just see one of them at the back in his white-plumed hat). 

6. Then came the mounted band of the Household Cavalry. The two drummers presented their salutes in their traditional way: crossing their drumsticks above their heads, while steering the horses’ reins with their feet.

7. The view of the royal balcony below the huge royal standard waving above the Palace was very iconic and patriotic.

8. The Queen seemed to enjoy herself, as she always does during military shows. She looked happy and smiling here, receiving a salute from a mounted guard. She is flanked by her cousin, the Duke of Kent, who was filling in for Prince Philip as the next most senior Colonel-in-Chief.

9. The Queen was still smiling as she joined the rest of the family on the balcony later on. The Prince of Wales and the Duke of Cambridge, who had ridden in the parade behind the Queen, also joined her. Princess Anne, next to the Queen, also rode in the parade in her uniform of the Blues and Royals.

10. Among the minor members of the Royal Family joining the senior royals was Edward, Duke of Kent, who actually this year had a prominent role replacing Prince Philip, and his wife Katherine Worsley, the Duchess of Kent. The 77-year-old Duke of Kent’s attendance is all the more remarkable as he was reported to have suffered a small stroke recently. He is a grandson of King George V via the Queen’s uncle, George, also Duke of Kent.

11. At the other end of the terrace there was the Duke of Kent’s younger brother, Prince Michael of Kent with his wife, Marie-Christine (first two from the right), and their daughter, Lady Gabriella Windsor, next to them. On the far left is Richard, Duke of Gloucester, another grandson of George V and cousin of the Queen. He is the son of the Queen’s uncle, Henry, the previous Duke of Gloucester.

12. The whole royal family then looked up to enjoy the military flypast over Buckingham Palace. From left to right: Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex, with his daughter Louise before him; Sophie, Countess of Wessex, laying a hand upon the head of their son James (a rare public outing for him); Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall; the Prince of Wales; the Queen; Anne, Princess Royal; Prince Andrew, Duke of York; Prince Harry; the Duchess of Cambridge; the Duke of Cambridge; Princesses Eugenie and Beatrice of York (Prince Andrew’s daughters).

13. A close up of William and Kate, with her visible baby bump. This was her last public appearance before retiring from the public eye for the impending birth.

14. A nice close up of Her Majesty standing next to the heir to the throne—and his second wife. It is amazing how much things have changed for Camilla in the last 10 years. She has by now earned the goodwill of a large part of the English public, and there seems little doubt at this point that she will become Queen when Charles accedes.

15. A nice photo showing how well Camilla has melded with the rest of the royal family: as the military planes are passing by, she turns to have a few explaining words with her little nephew James, who looks puzzled by what he is seeing.

16. The military flypast ended with the glorious sight of the Red Arrows painting a British tricolour in the sky...

17. ...before they flew over the Palace as people waved little flags in the palace forecourt (the one in the picture is actually an English flag, not a British one.)...

18. ...after which it was time for the royal party to leave the balcony and retire inside the Palace. 

19. After the festivities were over, Londoners set out to bring the area back to normal again. Here’s something you never see on TV: City of Westminster road workers are installing traffic lights back in the middle of the Mall.

20. The huge royal standard of course kept flying on the mast of Buckingham Palace for as long as the Queen was in residence inside. But it was quickly lowered down at about 2.30pm...

21. ...that’s when the Queen left the building. I was actually walking back by the Palace on my way home when I noticed a small crowd by the north gate who had obviously been tipped by the police officers on guard that Her Majesty was about to leave. A few minutes later she appeared, driven away in the back of a Range Rover.

22. Her Majesty waved to the crowd before the car turned into Constitution Hill, preceded and followed by motorcycle police escort. I learned later that she was on her way to visit Prince Philip who was still recovering in the London Clinic, and thence directly to Windsor Castle to take up residence there for Garter Day and Ascot Week (which is why the royal standard was taken down from Buckingham Palace.) It is always a real thrill to see Her Majesty upclose—I have seen her upclose before but never took pictures like these ones!

23. Finally, a non-royalty related photo (sort of). This young chap from the Welsh Guards was on duty before Clarence House, off the Mall, and seemed very eager to have his picture taken. He looked directly at the camera for this shot, the little bugger! They’re supposed to be solemn and impassive, you know! But I guess he was excited about the great day we’d all been having. A great day indeed. 

Monday, 27 May 2013

Unfit to Wear A Crown: A History of Royal Abdications and Depositions—Part 2

As we have seen in the previous post, relinquishing a crown in England has always been a painful event, both for the monarch and for the nation. In the Middle Ages depositions and abdications were abrupt events that were often followed by the secret execution of deposed kings. As the nation graduated from the Middle Ages however political thinking became more subtle and unwanted kings began to be disposed in much more creative ways. So creative in fact that two of the royal depositions of the last 400 years went on to influence the development of monarchy all over the world, while a third deposition was achieved with such a degree of subtlety that it remains masked to this day.

1649: Charles I

Charles I, the second of the Stuart monarchs, inherited from his father James I a belief in the divine right of kings but unfortunately he did not inherit any of his father’s subtle wisdom. Charles' determination to rule without parliament and his obsession with imposing religious uniformity plunged the whole of Britain into Civil War, King on one side, Parliament on the other. Parliament’s wish at the start was not to depose him but to impose its views and policies on him, but that changed when it was discovered that Charles was talking peace with one face while arranging an invasion by the Scots with another. This was considered treason and he leaders of Parliament and the Army set out to dethrone him, but the way did it involved one of the biggest revolutionary steps in European history.

Until this point in British history, monarchs had been deposed by force and then murdered in secret (See previous post). The British 17th century however was a time of great intellectual ferment and innovation, and Charles’ conquerors decided to embark on a radical new experiment. Instead of brutal force they would use the force law to depose the king, and it would be done in the light of day. Charles was put on trial for treason, and if found guilty he was to be publicly executed like any criminal. The notion was unprecedented both in England and the rest of Europe, and it was truly revolutionary because their intention was not just to try a king but to try the entire institution of monarchy, and to dispose of the crown together with the king. The plan was carried out with fervour and precision: Charles was tried, convicted, and executed in Whitehall on 30 January 1649, and less than 4 months later the monarchy was abolished, replaced by a virtuous republic, the ‘Commonwealth of England’.

The deposition that shocked the nation.
Charles I is executed in Whitehall, before the Banqueting House.

It was bold experiment, but it failed for two reasons. First, those who abolished the monarchy represented a small minority among the English people and their groundbreaking experiment was not generally welcomed. The public execution of Charles as a common criminal truly shocked the masses, and to make matters worse the republican government that followed developed into a brutal puritanical regime, eventually descending into a dictatorship by Oliver Cromwell ( who became king in all but name). People thought Parliament and the army had gone too far and brought the country into chaos. 

Secondly, the attempt to depose the monarchy failed because Charles, unlike his medieval predecessors, did not resign quietly to his fate. He refused to submit himself to the authority of judges at his trial, pointing out that there was no law allowing the king to stand trial. As his objections were swept aside he also warned the puritanical court that if the rights of the king himself were not respected then no one else in the kingdom could be safe from injustice (a rich statement coming from him, but nevertheless an accurate one). Finally, his calm and dignified demeanour at the time at his death convinced the English masses—half of which had sided with the king during the Civil War—that it was Parliament and the army who had become the real bullies. 

It is often said that the best thing Charles I ever did was dying, and it is true. Despite his many flaws and catastrophic mistakes, Charles’s royal defence at his trial and his dignity in death saved the crown in the long term. The English Republic soon declined into chaos, and a mere 11 years after the monarchy was deposed Charles’ son, Charles II, was recalled from abroad along with the entire institution. The failure of the English republic was a lesson the country never forgot and is still relevant today as England continues to prize stability over chaotic change. For the rest of the world however, this very creative act of royal deposition served as a model of how to kill kings under the guide of law, like during the French and Russian Revolutions. It is in fact ironic that the destruction of monarchies all across Europe over the last 200 years can be traced back to this short bygone experiment in deeply monarchist England. 

1688: James II

England was lucky to have Charles II on the throne when the monarchy was restored since he was, despite his fondness for carnal pleasures, a wise and prudent monarch. The same cannot be said for his brother and successor, James II, who inherited his father Charles I’s stubbornness and political blindness, not to mention his mother’s fierce Catholicism. Many in the country and the government considered him a threat and there were several attempts to exclude him from the succession even before Charles II’s death in 1685. Once King, James’ Catholicism became very overt, and his tendency towards absolutism a la Louis XIV left no doubts in people’s minds that England was in danger of becoming a Catholic absolutist country like France. There was some hope that his reign would just be a temporary aberration since James’ daughters and heirs, Mary and Anne, had been raised committed Protestants. However when a baby brother was born in 1688 the country was plunged into turmoil because the baby was going to be raised Catholic, guaranteeing so a continuation of James’ policies.

The situation was critical but James’ enemies were torn on how to deal with it since no one wanted to plunge the country again into turmoil after the recent chaos of the Civil War. In the end, the plan to dispose of James turned out extremely creative. It began with a small group of Lords sending a secret appeal to James’ elder Protestant daughter, Mary, and her husband, William, who were living in the Netherlands as Prince and Princess of Orange. The appeal included an assurance that “19 parts in 20 of the people in the kingdom are desirous of a change”, and therefore they were invitating William to invade England to get rid of James, and for Mary to take the throne. William seemed to take the bait and invaded England in November 1688. After a few skirmishes, James’ support melted away and, after sending his family ahead of him, he fled the country with his trousers stuffed with royal jewels. (There was actually a touch of farce at this point: James was recognized at a Kentish port while fleeing and was brought back to London, whereby William let James flee again, this time successfully.)

James II throws his royal seal into the Thames as he flees Westminster in the distance. An original drawing by Peter Jackson from Look and Learnmagazine.

James of course had not technically been deposed, he had merely fled for his safety intending to raise support to regain control of the country. But the Parliamentarian organizers of this ruse cleverly declared that by absconding abroad (and taking his baby male heir with him) James had ‘abdicated’ his throne, which was now vacant and could be offered to someone else, i.e. his palatable Protestant daughter Mary. It was a clever move indeed, but William turned out to be even cleverer. He declared to Parliament that he had not crossed the sea with an army to play Prince Consort to his wife. He expected to be rewarded with the main crown or he would sail back to Holland—and curiously his wife Mary backed him up in his request. This placed Parliament in a conundrum. Although William was a Stuart (his mother Mary was James’ sister, so he and his wife were first cousins) he was only fourth in line to the English throne after James. 

Parliament resolved the issue with a very creative constitutional compromise: they took advantage of William and Mary’s married status to declare them both monarchs in equal rights, the only time in English history when there were two monarchs on the throne at the same time, William III and Mary II. In return however, Parliament required William and Mary to grant a Bill of Rights, and to swear a new coronation oath that said they would govern "according to the statutes in Parliament agreed on, and the laws and customs of the same." This in effect gave birth to constitutional monarchy which modernized monarchy in Britain and continues to make it prosper today here and the rest of Europe. And James? He tried to recapture his throne with an unsuccessful military operation in Ireland, but it was to no avail. Like all his deposed predecessors, he found that once a crown is lost, it is gone forever. He died in France under the strain of harsh self-penitential practices in 1701.

1936: Edward VIII

We finally come to what is considered the only true abdication in British history, Edward VIII’s loving self-sacrifice in 1936 in the face of opposition to his marriage to Wallis Simpson. This is my chance to be controversial and propose that this was no voluntary abdication but a carefully orchestrated, subtly executed, royal deposition in disguise. The official line has always been that the King found himself forced to abdicate because his government convinced him that the country would never accept Wallis as his Queen. However, when you scratch beneath the surface you find out that the government had other reasons for wanting him to step down, which were actually more pressing than the issue of his marriage.

The most obvious of the others reasons is the fact that Edward was unfit to be king, or at least unfit to follow his father George V on the throne. While George had been dutiful, hardworking, modest and utterly committed to service, Edward was lazy, selfish, extravagant, and dangerously careless in his words and actions, the affair with Mrs Simpson being an example of some of these tendencies. In addition, he had demonstrated a quiet admiration for the work Adolf Hitler was doing in Germany, and this caused great confusion and embarrassment as England slowly realized that Germany was again becoming an enemy. These were far bigger worries than marrying a foreign divorcee since they threatened the stability of the monarchy and of the country as a whole: even though George V had strengthened the British monarchy through modernization in the 1920s there was still no assurance that our monarchy would not crash down like other monarchies across Europe had already. Faced with such unpalatable royal prospects, Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin and palace officials began to ask themselves: why put up with such a questionable king when we could have a safe, decent man with a solid family on the throne instead—like his brother?...

Poor, maligned Wallis Simpson was nothing more than a tool in the government’s hands.

The reality of what happened in 1936 is that Wallis Simpson was used as an excuse to force Edward to abdicate and replace him with his brother Bertie, so as to save the monarchy from the damage Edward would have caused to it. The love story between Edward and Wallis was merely an excuse, and it has subsequently become one of the greatest smokescreens in royal history because nothing blinds one to reality more than the light of love. The reality is that the ‘abdication’ stands as the smoothest, most successful coup d’etat in English history, and one that shows how far Britain had come in 1936 from the execution of Charles I in 1649, when Parliament had killed the king to destroy the monarchy: this time the government chose to destroy the man to save the throne. (Edward’s abdication speech, by the way, was a masterpiece of subtle allusions as he proclaimed that he had found it impossible to "discharge my duties as King as I would wish to do" and that Prime Minister Baldwin "has always treated me with full consideration".)

Ex-King Edward VIII covers his head in shame soon after his abdication.

The Abdication Crisis greatly impressed itself on the Queen, especially the damage that her uncle Edward almost did to the monarchy. Luckily, her parents were there to restore credibility and they passed on to her a deep sense of duty towards the crown. It is very unlikely the Queen will ever contemplate abdication and risk undoing the work of her parents. And it is also inconceivable that anyone would force her to abdicate since she has been and continues to be a huge asset both to the monarchy and the country. So there is no chance of Britain following the Netherlands’ example when it comes to adopting the tradition of peaceful abdication. As we have seen, this country has its own traditions when it comes to abdications and depositions. Living monarchs in England are never waved goodbye in celebration for a job well done. Living monarchs here only remove their crowns under duress as a punishment for a job badly done. Let us therefore be thankful that we have no reason to expect abdication from our own Queen.

Read also my previous post on why the Queen will not abdicate.

Beatrix and Bess: just because one is gone don’t expect the other one to follow.