The durability of the English monarchy is one of its most widely remarked characteristics. Of all the great imperial monarchies of pre-1914 Europe, the British alone survives. The history of the British monarchy has not been without vicissitudes. It was temporarily displaced in the general crisis of the mid-17th century. In the present Queen’s reign criticism has been voiced of the junior members of the royal family. Not since the 1688 Revolution, however, has a serious challenge been mounted either to the person of the king or the institution. Never in modern England has there been a mighty Revolution like France’s after 1789. The monarchy remains part and parcel of British political life.
Many reasons have been advanced for its durability. Victoria’s long reign did much to strengthen the identification of the monarchy with the aspirations of the people. Before that, the embourgeoisement of royal life under George III did much to recommend the institution to the new middle class created by the Industrial Revolution. The monarchy, over the years, has shown a remarkable ability to adapt and respond to the challenges of modern times. Yet in many ways its fortunes had been decided before the beginning of the modern period. Long before 1832 the monarchy had been reshaped as a constitutional one; and well before the 18th century its powers had been limited by law. In many ways, the key period for determining the future course of the British monarchy (as it was to become) was the late medieval. In the centuries from 1215 to 1500 the foundations were laid of a polity in which king, lords and commons all co-operated for the common good. The links which were forged then between “head” and “members” of the body politic contributed to political stability in the long term.
How did Magna Carta change the monarchy?
The event in the middle ages of the greatest significance for the monarchy’s fortunes was King John’s acceptance of Magna Carta in 1215. John’s submission to the barons signified the monarchy’s willingness to accept the restraint of law. Until John’s reign the authority of the crown had known few restraints beyond the merely practical. Angevin kingship, powerful and predatory, had been government by the king’s will. The king made and enforced the law, but could also, when it suited him, override it. Magna Carta changed that for ever. From now on, the king had to recognise the principles of good government laid down in the Charter. It is true that King John had little intention of abiding by the Charter for longer than was necessary to buy off the opposition. The circumstances of the minority of his son Henry III, however, were to make the Charter permanent. What the minority government under William Marshal did was take over the Charter, shorn of its most controversial clauses, and reissue it under the authority of the new king. In this way it became, as it is so often described, the first English statute.
A copy of Magna Carta and the seal of King John. (Photo by Mansell/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)
Its effect was to place the monarchy under written law. As the legist known as Bracton was to say in the 1230s, the king is below God and below the law. Elsewhere in Europe, there was no precise equivalent to this relationship between king and legal structure. Kings might, and did, issue charters of liberties to their subjects. In most cases, however, these documents were regional and local in nature. In no polity was the king limited by law in his dealings with all of his subjects. It is especially noteworthy that there was no equivalent to Magna Carta in France. In the Capetian-ruled kingdom the king made the law and also stood above it. In England, by contrast, royal authority was embedded in the fabric of political society. The king’s subjects had the assurance of knowing that he was bound by the same rules as they themselves were. Regularity of legal procedure was assured.
For the king’s subjects, Magna Carta provided a touchstone of good government. By itself, however, the Charter did not bring about the growth of limited monarchy. The English monarchy was powerful, assertive and ambitious. In the late 13th century Edward I was to yield nothing to his contemporary, Philip IV of France, in the range, depth and intensity of his government. In Edward’s later years, after 1300, the signs were that it was the English monarchy which would develop the characteristics of autocracy. A hundred years later, however, the roles were reversed. It was the French monarchy which was dressed in the trappings of absolutism, while its English counterpart was acquiring the habit of negotiation with its subjects. What brought about the change was the different way in which war interacted with the two national polities.
In Edward I’s later years, there were signs that the English monarchy which would develop the characteristics of autocracy. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
The wars of the late middle ages, notably the conflict later to be known as the Hundred Years’ War, created unprecedented demands on both sides of the Channel for manpower and money. By the early 14th century it was no longer possible for a king like Edward I or Edward II to meet the cost of warfare solely from his ordinary revenues – feudal incidents, the profits of justice and the income from the royal lands. A system of public finance had to be developed. In both England and France the institutions of financial administration were already in existence. Both had a central treasury into which taxes could be paid and an exchequer which would ensure the accountability of officials, while locally there was a network of officials who could be relied on to collect and spend national resources. What was needed, to supplement these, was a body of ideas to justify the ruler making financial demands on his subjects.
When did Europe’s other monarchies fall?
Charles X (Bourbon) abdicated 1830
Louis Philippe (Orleans) abdicated 1848
Napoleon III (Bonaparte) abdicated 1870
Wilhelm II abdicated 1918
Karl II abdicated 1918
Nicholas II abdicated 1917
Michael I abdicated 1947 and the monarchy abolished
Karl II abdicated 1918
Peter II expelled in 1941 and the monarchy subsequently abolished
Manuel II abdicated 1910
The monarchy abolished in 1946 and Simeon II goes into exile
The monarchy rejected in a referendum in 1946; King Humberto goes into exile
Sultan Mohammed VI deposed 1922
King Constantine fled, 1967; the monarchy subsequently abolished
Alfonso XIII abdicated 1931; the monarchy restored on Franco’s death in 1975
What was the ‘community of the realm’?
In England such a body evolved in the late 13th and 14th centuries. In the concept of the “community of the realm” thinkers found a means of bringing together ruler and ruled in mutual obligation. The king had a duty to provide for the common profit, while his subjects were reciprocally obliged to assist him in that duty. In the event of a threat to the common profit – increasingly identified with war – the king, it was said, could demand the financial assistance of his subjects for which, since the danger touched the whole realm, the consent of a representative assembly was required. This assembly was to become “parliament”. The granting of taxation took place in the framework of the Roman law doctrine of necessity. This meant that once a necessity – a threat to the realm – had been recognised, complete refusal of taxation could not be admitted; bargaining could take place only about the size of the grant. Nonetheless, as the king’s demands grew in regularity and intensity, parliament and, more particularly, the lower house within it were able to use the power of the purse strings to strengthen their position. The crown might be the symbol of the realm, yet it was parliament which emerged as the institutional expression of the realm, adjudicating the ruler’s demands in the common good. Through the development in parallel of a doctrine of national representation, those elected to the lower house of parliament were given the power to speak for those they represented. Electors and elected were bound together.
King Henry VI (above) was deposed in 1461 by the Yorkist Edward IV, who claimed a superior legitimacy. Challenges to kings in the Wars of the Roses took the form of challenges to their title, not challenges to the institution of the monarchy. (Photo by Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
In France the demands of war finance were no less regular or intense, and the ideas of the theorists no less developed, yet the institutional means for the securing of assent to public taxation were a good deal less sophisticated. There was no omnicompetent national assembly on the lines of the English parliament. The Estates General, a body which met only irregularly, might assent to a grant of taxation to the king; if that grant were to be made locally effective, however, the king would have to bargain with local assemblies in addition. Because the French state preserved within its shell the fabric of older regional identities, it was at the local level that the process of negotiation was most crucial. By the 15th century this ramshackle and inefficient structure was found to be incapable of responding to the needs of the moment. With the kingdom threatened with conquest by the English, Charles VII (1422–61) began collecting taxes without consent. Citing the common danger as his justification, he presented himself as the personification of French identity, claiming a loyalty which in the past had often been seen in regional terms. The estates and assemblies of the kingdom offered him no resistance. Jealous in defence of local liberties, they found it difficult, if not impossible, to co-operate to resist royal assertiveness. In the absence of any doctrine of public representation, moreover, they lacked the direct links with those they claimed to speak for which made the English parliamentary Commons so effective.
By the late 15th and 16th centuries the French king was, to all intents and purposes, ruling without popular consent. In the short term, it could be said that this made the monarchy stronger. In the longer run, however, it contributed to its weakness, and ultimately to its demise. In time of popular discontent, as in the late 18th century, there was no readily available mechanism by which the king’s subjects could seek redress. The only remedy was to remove the monarchy altogether.
10 pivotal monarchs in Britain’s history
Stephen seized the crown on Henry I’s death in 1135, plunging the Anglo-Norman world into a 15-year civil war, “when the saints slept”. His rival was Henry’s daughter, Matilda, widow of the German Emperor. The settlement of the war was that Matilda’s son would become king – the future Henry II. So began the Angevin line.
John’s ill repute has withstood all attempts at rehabilitation. He was slippery, cruel and capricious. By 1215 his rule had provoked a massive rebellion which led to the making of Magna Carta. By the time of his death the struggle between the two sides had been renewed. Only his death saved the country from prolonged civil war. What would have happened had he lived? Would he have become the first post-Conquest king to be deposed?
Henry III (1216–72)
The reign of John’s son, Henry III, culminated in crisis, upheaval and civil war. However, he was more sinned against than sinning; he was actually a well-meaning man, whose main fault was undue generosity to his friends. In Simon de Montfort he faced an implacable and self-righteous opponent. De Montfort was killed at Evesham in 1265, and the reign ended in peace.
Henry VI (1422–61)
Arguably England’s most disastrous monarch, he became king aged nine months and went from infancy to insanity without much in between. He was deposed in 1461 by the Yorkist Edward IV, who claimed a superior legitimacy. Challenges to kings in the Wars of the Roses took the form of challenges to their title, not challenges to the institution of the monarchy.
Richard III (1483–5)
A close rival to John for the accolade of England’s worst king. His defeat and death at Bosworth provided a fitting indictment of his rule. Richard’s seizure of the crown split the powerful Yorkist establishment. In this way, Henry Tudor was given enough of a power-base to pitch a bid for the crown himself. The absence of plausible alternative claimants after 1485 helped Henry to restore political stability.
Charles I (1625–49)
The Civil War was the monarchy’s gravest crisis since the Norman Conquest. The outcome was Charles’s execution and the abolition of the monarchy. He had been a poor king, but made a good martyr, with churches dedicated to him. Paradoxically the years of Interregnum which followed showed the popular appetite for monarchy. Cromwell was asked to assume the crown but declined. If he had accepted, England would probably have had two rival royal lines, as France was to have with the Bourbons and Bonapartes.
Charles II (1660-85)
The “merry monarch” has been fortunate in his reputation. In reality, he was duplicitous, with leanings towards French-style absolutism. His heir was his Catholic brother James, on whose succession he insisted. James was deposed after three years. The establishment of two co-rulers – James’s daughter Mary and her husband William of Orange – provided a veneer of dynastic legitimacy.
George IV (1820–30)
Extravagant and self-indulgent, George chalked up huge debts, then asked the taxpayer to pay them off. As Prince Regent, he was king-in-waiting for a decade. He spent most of his reign as a paranoid recluse. Conscious of his monstrous figure, he hid from public gaze in the lodges of Windsor Great Park. The monarchy, however, could survive his eccentricities – by George’s reign, the king was little more than a figurehead.
Edward VIII (1936)
The abdication crisis, the British monarchy’s greatest 20th-century crisis, actually raised a very old question: was the king to rule in accordance with his own will or, rather, on the advice of his ministers? Edward wanted to marry Mrs Simpson; his ministers, however, thought otherwise. In England the question of what the monarch should do had been settled years before: he had to follow the advice of his ministers. Edward, therefore, had to go.
Elizabeth II (1952– )
The issues raised in the present reign are also, in a sense, very old ones. First, there is the obvious question of how the king-in-waiting is to be kept usefully employed; in the past, impatience has bred resentment and instability. Second, there is the problem of the antics of younger members of the royal family. Earlier monarchs kept siblings usefully employed in commanding armies or running the Empire – such options are no longer available. But the present Queen’s combination of experience, dignity and good sense has always saved the day.
Monarchies and the burden of taxation
The very different financial histories of the English and French monarchies have relevance to our theme in a different connection. In France the incidence of direct royal taxation was far narrower than it was in England. One of the most cherished privileges of the French nobility was exemption from taxation; the upper classes did not pay the taille (the land tax), the fouage (the hearth tax) or the gabelle (the salt tax). In consequence, the largest share of the burden of taxation fell on the poor. The origins of noble exemption were to be found in the medieval concept of the three estates: those who fought, the knights; those who prayed, the clergy; and those who worked, the commons. The knights – the nobility – maintained that since they were engaged in the task of fighting (that is, national defence), they should not also be asked to pay for the same. In the 13th and 14th centuries the monarchy was too dependent on noble support to resist; and so noble exemption was granted.
In England, by contrast, the nobility were always included in the tax net; it was a mark of the power of the English monarchy that it was able to make the incidence of taxation universal. The consequence of the French nobility’s exemption from taxation was that they lacked any interest in resisting royal demands, for they always knew that it was the lower orders who would pay. By the 16th century, French royal government was increasingly predatory in character, burdening the lower orders with ever heavier imposts. As a result, the lower orders became resentful, and French society was polarised between an impoverished majority and a privileged aristocracy bound in close alliance with the monarchy. At the same time, the monarchy found it increasingly difficult to meet its expenditure from taxation. The cost of war was rapidly increasing. Under Louis XIV the military budget rose from 54 million livres in 1687 to 103 million two years later and 138 million in 1692. When the wealthiest contributed little directly, and the poor were ground into poverty, there was no prospect of increasing income at anything like a corresponding rate. Thus the monarchy found itself heading for bankruptcy. It was financial ruin which precipitated the outbreak of revolution in 1789.
A side effect of the cession of fiscal relief to the French nobility was the need to establish just whom the nobility comprised. It was important that, if tax exemptions were to be granted, such exemptions be limited. Thus it came about that the nobility acquired the character of a legally defined caste. Aspirants to nobility had to show that they led a noble lifestyle, had noble kin, had borne arms in the royal army, and did not practise any trade or craft incompatible with nobility (dérogeance). Once these qualities were proved, they would be granted letters of ennoblement and they became members of an elite whose privileges were hereditary. This meant that if a man was of noble estate, all his sons would be noble too. In France nobility ran in the blood; France had a noblesse.
England’s enterprising nobility
In England the concept of nobility was very different, even if the lifestyle was similar. With no exemption from taxation, there was no need for nobility to be legally defined. Those with wealth could count on eventual elevation to the peerage; those who lacked it would remain excluded; their lot would be to compete for election to the lower parliamentary house. This difference in conceptions of nobility made for a much larger difference between the countries’ social structures. Society in early modern France was founded on rank and privilege to a greater extent than in England. In France rank was cherished; those with rank avoided doing anything which might bring about dérogeance. This had the effect of discouraging noble enterprise in commerce or industry.
In England, by contrast, the nobility and gentry were uninhibited by such restrictions. They showed themselves both able and willing to engage in enterprise. In the north Midlands in the 16th century both the Willoughbys and the Cavendishes were active in exploiting the coal seams on their estates. England’s more open and fluid social structure was thus a major factor in the creation of a cohesive and politically stable society. North of the Channel, birth and social standing raised no obstacle to entry into the highest ranks. The ablest could, and did, rise to the top. English society, moreover, was not only more open; it was also more integrated. In the community of the realm “head” and “members” were linked in a relationship of mutual dependence. The levying of taxation, rooted in common consent, recognised the obligations to each other of king and people. The creation of a broadly based, well integrated society in the late medieval period did much to give England its distinctive political character.
King George VI and his daughter, later Queen Elizabeth II, have bolstered the monarchy’s reputation. (Photo by Studio Lisa/Getty Images)
The test of a successful monarchy is whether it can survive the periodic reigns of inadequate or incompetent monarchs. England, or, later, Britain, has had its share of hopeless monarchs (though rather fewer than, say, Russia). Stephen, Henry VI, Charles I, George IV have all in their different ways posed problems. In the present Queen’s reign, the marital problems of junior royals have caused tensions. The House of Windsor has at times produced soap opera plots beyond the wildest imaginings of any TV producer. Yet the British monarchy still ranks as the most stable and successful in the world.
The present strength of the monarchy owes a great deal to the achievements of monarchs of the last century. King George VI successfully restored the prestige of the monarchy after the abdication crisis of 1936 while, more recently, Queen Elizabeth II has shown extraordinary sureness of touch in her long reign. However, the long-term reasons for the success of our monarchy go much further back. If Britain is the outstanding example of a successful constitutional monarchy today, it is in large measure because of social patterns that were established half a millennium ago.
Nigel Saul is formerly a professor of medieval history, Royal Holloway, University of London and now Emeritus Professor. He is the author of The Three Richards: Richard I, Richard II, Richard III (Hambledon and London, 2005)
This article was first published in the May 2006 issue of BBC History Magazine