And how does the institution retain its popularity? Sarah Gristwood investigates…


The royal family (so the theory used to go) ride into the 21st century atop a tidal wave of British tradition. They represent, for better or for worse, the nation’s love affair with the past. Every time we see Queen Elizabeth II wearing a centuries-old crown, walk through the Houses of Parliament to celebrate the even older deal struck between Commons and Crown, we reach for another digestive biscuit to dunk in our mug of English Breakfast tea.

In recent years the theory has been modified, to acknowledge the changes that have come to the British monarchy. The strength of our royals – so this theory runs – is that they are prepared to change when necessary. Yes, even their head, a queen who in 2016 celebrated her 90th birthday. She pays taxes, she sends a token tweet, she joins her grandson Harry to play a prank on the Obamas. Remember the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games? She even took part in a James Bond movie.

A performer dressed as the Queen parachutes into the Olympic Stadium during the opening ceremony of the London Olympics in 2012. (Photo by Press Association)
A performer dressed as the Queen parachutes into the Olympic Stadium during the opening ceremony of the London Olympics in 2012. (Photo by Press Association)

There is, of course, much truth in both these theories. We love tradition, especially when it is softened by a little flexibility. But maybe the real secret to the long success of the British monarchy is its connection, not to the stodgy old ways of the stately home, but to the aggressive, thrusting, young nation that we used to be.

By this theory, the reason we’ve never had a lasting revolution [against the monarchy] is that we got there so early. We executed King Charles I at a time, 1649, when the major states of Europe hardly knew an alternative to monarchy. After that we were immunised against revolution, and the immunity has lasted until the present day.

Magna Carta

Looking back, of course, one sees a long chain of events that have shaped – curbed, coloured – the British monarchy. We’ve celebrated one in recent years – King John’s sealing of Magna Carta in 1215, requiring the king to rule only under law. (Scotland in 1320 saw the Declaration of Arbroath, which while primarily a declaration of the nation’s independence seemed also to suggest that a monarch might be made by popular choice.)

And although in many ways the kings of England actually assumed more authority during the few centuries that followed, this is an idea that has never gone away. Even in the days of that earlier, authoritarian, Queen Elizabeth I, the bishop John Aylmer could write that England was governed by a ‘rule mixte’ of prince, peers and people – assuaging fears of a female monarch with the assurance that she did not in any case rule autonomously.

The Stuart kings tried to assert their ‘divine right’ – and the end of that story is very well known. Except, of course, that the execution of Charles I was not the end. This was an age that could see little alternative to the hereditary principle: even Oliver Cromwell, while publically refusing the role of king, tried to arrange that his own descendants should succeed him. Then in 1660, little more than a decade after his father’s death, Charles II was invited once more to take up Stuart rule.

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Oliver Cromwell, c1645. (Photo by R Walker/Getty Images)
Oliver Cromwell, c1645. (Photo by R Walker/Getty Images)

All the same, a line had been crossed. In 1688 the country’s ruling class and ruling body could decide that the unpopular and Catholic James II and VII should be replaced by his daughter Mary; and when it was clear not only Mary but her sister Anne would die without a living child, it was parliament’s voice that invited Anne’s third cousin, the Elector of Hanover, to become George I, ignoring a host of heirs closer in blood.

The 1689 Bill of Rights placed strict limits on the monarch’s power, which continued to dwindle under successive Hanoverian kings as parliamentary reforms saw their rights of patronage whittled away. But though the French Revolution may have scared, it could not really shake the British monarchy. And after all, Britons wouldn’t want to do anything our ancient French enemy had done – not in the days of Napoleon’s threat, certainly.

The model family

William IV and Victoria after him were horrified to learn they could not even choose their own prime minister. It was the great Victorian Walter Bagehot who wrote provocatively that Britain was “a secret republic”. But that was the secret of the royal family’s survival, perhaps. And it was Victoria’s husband, Albert, who carved out for the crown another, a moral, kind of authority as the nation’s first and model family – one which, in spite of any evidence to the contrary, they have retained almost until the present day.

But the royal family has embarked on several major changes even more recently. It was in 1917 that the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha changed its name to the less ‘Hunnish’ House of Windsor, the same summer that saw the Tsar of Russia swept from power (to be subsequently killed, with his family). Germany, Austria-Hungary and Turkey all lost their monarchies with the First World War – a side effect of their having been on the losing side, maybe.

But other monarchies went, too, in the first half of the 20th century – those of Italy, Yugoslavia, Portugal, followed later by Greece. King Farouk of Egypt declared that by the turn of the century there would be only five kings left in the world – “the king of hearts, clubs, diamonds and spades – and the King of England”. He was wrong about the monarch’s gender, and Europe still boasts a handful of other monarchies, notably in Scandinavia and the Low Countries. (And in Spain, which first replaced and then recalled their monarchy.) But his basic point holds good, and there is no easy single answer as to why.

The royal family in the 20th century has seen some real downturns in its popularity, many of them during the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, however eager we may be to celebrate that reign today. But somehow, whether by good judgement or good luck, the ‘firm’ (as Prince Philip has called it) retains as its trademark a blend of change and consistency that keeps it bobbing along, indomitably.

The popularity game

The dawn of the 20th century had brought a new readiness among the royals to be seen – though not necessarily heard – as often as required. Before the First World War, for example, royal weddings had long been private ceremonies. After the war all that changed, and such occasions became valuable crowd-pleasers – while, conversely, its detachment from party-political affairs allowed the monarchy to remain above the Westminster fray. It allowed it to provide, in the words of the Buckingham Palace website “a focus for national unity”.

Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon leaves her home for her wedding to the future King George VI, in 1923. After the First World War, royal weddings became "valuable crowd-pleasers" says Sarah Gristwood. (Photo by Central Press/Getty Images)

Not that the royals won’t change the tradition and trim the privilege, when necessary. The Queen’s decision to pay taxes and to cut down the Civil List is only part of that readiness seen in 1917 to play the popularity game. To try to be whatever we want them to be. The change in tone that followed Diana’s death may be the ultimate example – and, indeed, she may have played a role she never intended in reshaping the monarchy. While the furore around Diana’s death finally proved to the royal establishment the need to adapt, she also gave us, in her sons and now her grandson and granddaughter, royals better equipped to give the institution a successful 21st century.


This article was first published by HistoryExtra in 2016


Sarah GristwoodHistorian, biographer and broadcaster

Sarah Gristwood is a best-selling biographer, historian, and broadcaster, and a regular media commentator on royal and historical affairs. Her latest book is 'The Tudors in Love: The Courtly Code Behind the Last Medieval Dynasty' (2021)