Why does Britain have a royal family?

Once upon a time, virtually every country in the western world had some sort of king and royal family. Over the years, however, the sensible and clever ones grew out of them. That, at least, is what people will tell you in republics like France, the United States or the previous Soviet Union.


Monarchy-lovers will respond that the really clever countries kept hold of their monarchies with all their pomp and circumstance, their humanity and fallibility. They argue that royal families embody their country’s human roots and identity – and that they help keep alive a sense of history. Brave kings and queens often become symbols of their nation’s unity in times of war or crisis, because when they are doing their job properly – and it is a job – there is nothing like a family to help define and exemplify the human values that a country stands for. For instance, the Queen’s father, King George VI, became a symbol of Britain’s national fortitude in the Second World War – as did the young Princess Elizabeth herself.

How and when did the British royal family start?

In 1215, the impoverished King John had to turn to his people for money. His Great Charter or ‘Magna Carta’ was the start of the houses of Commons and Lords – the elected Parliament in Westminster which, by 1649, was powerful enough to cut off the head of a king (Charles I) who had resisted and attempted to dissolve their power.

The following centuries saw the development of England’s ‘constitutional’ monarchy, which came to include Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and – with the expansion of the British empire – countries as distant as Australia and New Zealand. Today there are 15 of these former British colonies, now known as ‘Commonwealth realms’, which remain happy to acknowledge Queen Elizabeth II not just as head of the Commonwealth, but as their own particular head of state. So in North America, sitting above the great republic of the United States, is a monarchy – the Commonwealth realm of Canada.

What does the royal family do?

Royal people smile a lot – and wave. In their role across the Commonwealth today, they are morale boosters, often bringing glamour to the opening of the new power station or hospital wing.

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Younger members of the family are expected to join the armed forces or participate in some obviously useful social service, heading up worthy charities. Making too much money is considered taboo.

Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex attend a ceremony to mark the centenary of the Royal Air Force on the forecourt of Buckingham Palace on 10 July 2018 in London, England. (Photo by Max Mumby/Indigo/Getty Images)
Prince William, Duke of Cambridge; Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge; Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex attend a ceremony to mark the centenary of the Royal Air Force on the forecourt of Buckingham Palace on 10 July 2018 in London, England. (Photo by Max Mumby/Indigo/Getty Images)

Royal folk present medals to valiant soldiers and cups to victorious sporting teams, and in every field they enter they are expected to ‘set a good example’. This has often made for a deluge of media headlines when they do not – from Prince Philip crashing his car at the start of 2019, to the serious issues raised at the end of 2019 by Prince Andrew’s widely criticised attempts to defend his friendship with the convicted US sex offender, Jeffrey Epstein.

How much power does the royal family have?

The essence of a representative people’s monarchy is that the people have all the power and the monarch has none – though the proliferation of crown and robes and sceptres makes the balance look exactly the opposite.

The British royal family are not supposed to express political opinions, although they are allowed to support football teams

When Elizabeth II reads out the policies of ‘Her’ government in the Queen’s Speech at the Opening of Parliament [which marks the start of the parliamentary year], her finery ‘represents’ the power of the people whose votes put the prime minister of the moment into office. As the mouthpiece of that government, she theoretically has no opinions of her own – and the same goes for her relatives. The British royal family are not supposed to express political opinions, although they are allowed to support football teams (Prince William cheers on Aston Villa).

Why do people care about the royal family?

People identify with people. Politicians come and go, but over the generations a successful royal family creates a sense of human continuity at the heart of a society. People get to know their royals – the ones they look up to and the ones they do not.

History has shown that rebels and non-conformists in the family can actually generate more affection than the ‘goody-goodies’. From 1981 to 1997, for example, Princess Diana, the maverick Princess of Wales, topped many of the royal popularity polls – not just in Britain, but all over the world.

How much money do the royals bring in via tourism?

British taxpayers fund the royal family through the annual Sovereign Grant and Sovereign Grant Reserve, which totalled £82.2m for the financial year 2018/19 – at a cost of some £1.24 per person in the United Kingdom.

This paid for more than 3,200 royal engagements at home and abroad, with over 160,000 guests being welcomed at royal palaces for events like garden parties and investitures. It also financed the start of a major reservicing of Buckingham Palace that will amount to some £85m over the next five years, while Prince Harry and the Duchess of Sussex’s renovation of their Frogmore Cottage home also made headlines for its cost.

Tourists are seen at St Jamess Park and outside Buckingham Palace in London, on August 21, 2019. (Photo by Alberto Pezzali/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Tourists outside Buckingham Palace in London, August 2019. (Photo by Alberto Pezzali/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

That is a lot of money, but in 2016 alone more than 2.7 million tourists visited Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle, the Palace of Holyrood and other key royal attractions, boosting Britain’s tourist revenues for the year by some £550m.

What is the line of succession to the throne and who is next?

The present Queen inherited her title in early 1952 from her father, George VI, whose own claim went back through his father, George V, to Queen Victoria (of the House of Hanover) and her husband, Prince Albert (of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha).

In 1917, at the height of the bitter and deadly First World War against Germany and its allies, King George V decided that all these treble-barrelled names and German titles sounded unpatriotic. He subsequently renamed the family after the English market town where they spent their weekends – Windsor, 25 miles west of London on the River Thames in Berkshire.

Today, the line of succession of the House of Windsor runs down through Prince Charles (1), to his son Prince William (2) and then to his eldest son, Prince George (3).

GLOUCESTER, ENGLAND - JUNE 10: (EMBARGOED FOR PUBLICATION IN UK NEWSPAPERS UNTIL 24 HOURS AFTER CREATE DATE AND TIME) Princess Charlotte of Cambridge and Prince George of Cambridge attend the Maserati Royal Charity Polo Trophy at Beaufort Park on June 10, 2018 in Gloucester, England. (Photo by Karwai Tang/WireImage)
Prince George of Cambridge – third-in-line to the throne – with his younger sister, Princess Charlotte. (Photo by Karwai Tang/WireImage)

For centuries, males took precedence over females in the line – with monarchs like Queens Elizabeth and Queen Victoria only taking the throne when no male heirs were available. But the law was changed in 2015 for members of the royal family born after 28 October 2011. This means that Prince William’s daughter, Charlotte (4), born in 2015, now takes precedence over her younger brother, Louis (5), born in 2018. Places (6) and (7) in the line are occupied by Prince Harry and his son, Archie, with Prince Andrew at (8) and his daughters Beatrice and Eugenie at (9) and (10) respectively.

How do the royal family’s titles work?

Fans of William Shakespeare will know that many members of the medieval royal family often took their titles from the English shires – York, Lancaster, Gloucester, Cornwall – and the same applies today.

Prince Charles is Duke of Cornwall, Prince Andrew is Duke of York, and Prince Edward is Earl of Wessex. In the next generation of royals, Prince William is Duke of Cambridge and Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex.

The Queen's three sons – Princes Charles, Edward and Andrew – in June 1999: (Photo by Anwar Hussein/Getty Images)
The Queen's three sons – Princes Charles, Edward and Andrew – in June 1999. (Photo by Anwar Hussein/Getty Images)

In the Middle Ages, the royals often held handsome estates in the shires whose titles they bore, but nowadays the regional connection only gives the Scout troops and Women’s Institutes of those counties a marginally prior call on that particular royal’s timetable.

The one exception is the Duchy of Cornwall, which has lucrative estates that currently support Prince Charles as heir to the throne and will be passed on to William when he becomes heir.

In terms of precedence, the five male titles of the peerage are Duke, Marquess, Earl, Viscount and Baron, with Duke being the highest and most exclusive.

What are the arguments against the royals, and why do some people want to get rid of them?

The institution of the monarchy is essentially old-fashioned, say its critics, artificially maintaining the privileges of a bygone era and leading to numerous practices that have no place in a modern age.

When any young royal joins the armed forces, for example, they are automatically made officers – they never start from the bottom. The deference shown to the royal family, it is argued, perpetuates inequality, hierarchy and general unfairness – both in reality and, more dangerously, inside people’s heads.

Others have complained that royals do insufficient work for the tax-payers’ money they consume. They live rent-free in fancy digs, with some royals wearing ritzy clothes given to them by designers for the sake of the publicity.

Constitutionally, it has been argued that the splendour of the monarchy allows unscrupulous politicians to hide behind unearned 'palace prestige'.

Even supporters of the monarchy might feel that the pages and hours dedicated by the media to the reporting of trivial royal activities diverts national attention from more substantial topics.

Yet another argument is advanced by atheists, agnostics, and free-thinkers: they condemn the endorsement that the royal family gives to the Church of England and organised religion.

Why has the British monarchy survived while others have failed? What happened to the French monarchy?

Despite the powerful theoretical arguments against them (see above), the British royal family has survived by being more open and flexible – and yes, more democratic – than many others.

Despite the powerful theoretical arguments against them (see above), the British royal family has survived by being more open and flexible

The French monarchy was destroyed in a blood-bath in the 1790s, in part because it allied itself with a rigid and oppressive aristocratic upper class which unashamedly exploited ordinary people. At that same date, while far from perfect, the British royal family was consorting with merchants and entrepreneurs and was encouraging scientific research through institutions like the Royal Society. British kings had their whims and their favourites, but they ultimately accepted the will of the people as expressed through parliament.

What would happen to the British royal family if the monarchy were to be abolished? And how likely is that?

It seems highly unlikely that the British royal family will be sent packing. Queen Elizabeth II is immensely more liked than any political, TV or entertainment figure. In 2019, she topped YouGov’s list of Britain’s most admired women with 22.61 per cent of the poll – ahead of Michelle Obama (13 per cent), Judi Dench (7.66 per cent) and JK Rowling (6.77 per cent).

LONDON COLNEY, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 20: Queen Elizabeth II presents the Chatham House Prize 2019 to Sir David Attenborough (not pictured) at the Royal institute of International Affairs, Chatham House on November 20, 2019 in London Colney, England. (Photo by Eddie Mulholland - WPA Pool/Getty Images)
In 2019, Queen Elizabeth II topped YouGov’s list of Britain’s most admired women with 22.61 per cent of the poll. (Photo by Eddie Mulholland - WPA Pool/Getty Images)

A study by the Brand Finance Network estimated that in 2017 the monarchy generated a gross uplift of £1.766bn to the UK economy. This was calculated by taking into consideration the Crown Estate’s surplus, plus the indirect effect of the monarchy on industries such as tourism, trade, media and arts – along with the benefits to British charities and the advertising value of extra coverage around the world for ‘Brand Britain’.

If, however, Britain’s royals were ever to be shown the door, it is fun to imagine an alternative existence in which we might discover some of them setting up lucrative dogs’ homes – with others, perhaps, finding jobs on reality television...

Historian Robert Lacey recounts and analyses the historical background to The Crown Seasons 2 & 3 in his latest book The Crown: Political Scandal, Personal Struggle and the Years that Defined Elizabeth II, 1956-1977 (Blink Publishing, £20)


This article was first published by HistoryExtra in November 2019