Charlie boy apparently wants to destroy the monarchy

The Times hints at the gory details:

The Prince of Wales, who celebrated his 60th birthday on Friday, has told confidants he would like his role to “evolve” so that his knowledge and experience are not wasted once he inherits the crown, Jonathan Dimbleby, his friend and biographer, reveals today.

Translation: he wants to have his cake and eat it.

Look, it’s not that fucking complicated. Take all the enormous and unearned benefits of being born into the Royal Family and keep your mouth shut, or abdicate and campaign on your pet issues as a private citizen.

His charity work is generally unexceptionable, and he sells excellent biscuits, beer and sausages and gives the profit to his charity, so those things help me try to feel positive about him; but when he sticks his nose into politics it drives me completely nuts. If the official duties, the charity work, running the Duchy of Cornwall, the painting, the gardening and the polo aren’t enough to keep him busy, he’ll just have to take up knitting.

Democracy: it’s really not that difficult to understand.


More medievalish London

In my last Thames Path post, I commented that London’s medieval history is rarely visible except in the shape of a few street names. Which reminded me of something. When the Queen Mother (gbh) died in 2002, her coffin was laid in state in Westminster Hall for people to go and pay their respects. I was going to meet some friends for lunch, and when I arrived at London Bridge, I was startled to find myself at the end of the queue, which started in Westminster, went over the river, and ran all the way along the south bank. There was something about that moment that struck me as weirdly medieval; not just the fact that thousands of people were queuing to view the coffin of a dead royal, but the idea of a queue stretching from Westminster Abbey to Southwark Cathedral.

I know some people who think that the ceremony surrounding the Royal Family — the gold and ermine and glittery carriages — is the best reason for having them. And I can see the argument; it adds a bit of colour and texture to British life which is broadly harmless.

But it makes me twitchy. As long as the royals confine their activities to opening museums, launching ships, inspecting troops and so on, they don’t bother me at all. But all that pomp brings out the Oliver Cromwell in me. The symbolism of it all, of crowns and sceptres and thrones, of aristocrats in red robes and bishops in big hats is, well, medieval. In a bad way. And I know that very few people would admit to taking that symbolism seriously — it’s just a historical relic, right? — but it must surely have a powerful subconscious impact.

Though having said that, the massed pipes and drums of the Scottish and Irish regiments playing appropriately dirge-like music at the Queen Mother’s funeral were just fabulous.

» The photo is of the waxwork in Madame Tussauds. ‘The Queen Mother (Gawd bless’er)’ was posted to Flickr by xrrr and is used under a CC by-cc-sa licence.

Culture Other

George III and the Mad-Business by Ida Macalpine and Richard Hunter

I highly recommend this fascinating book; it seems to be out of print, but there are lots of second-hand copies on Amazon. As the title suggests, it’s about poor mad George III. And even Americans, brought up to think of George III as a tyrant, might have a little sympathy for him after reading this.

detail of Hogarth

It starts with a detailed account of his illness—or his illnesses, really, since he initially suffered from relatively brief bouts, separated by long periods of good health. Having offered a diagnosis of porphyria, which is a hereditary condition, Macalpine and Hunter examine the medical histories of George II’s relatives and demonstrate that porphyria can be identified, with varying degrees of confidence, in a startling number of them; most notably perhaps in James I, Mary Queen of Scots and Frederick the Great of Prussia.

detail of Hogarth

The book then moves on to a survey of C18th psychiatry, both in terms of its theoretical basis and treatment, and looks at the way it developed. Not surprisingly, George’s illness had a huge impact on the mad-business because of the publicity surrounding it. The idea of a king being forcibly confined in a strait-waistcoat focussed people’s minds on the treatment of the insane. The book traces developments in the treatment of patients and the law surrounding insanity, both in terms of treatment and things like criminal responsibility. Finally it looks at the way developments in psychiatry have affected historians’ portrayal of George III.

mad ‘king’ in Bedlam

It is, as I say, fascinating. The account of his illness is remarkable, not least because of the political chaos around it. It was just the moment when, although Britain was increasingly recognisable as a modern democracy and decision-making increasingly rested with the Prime Minister and parliament, the king was still an important enough figure that his incapacity led to a crisis. And since the question of whether or not to establish a Regency depended on it, and a Regency would mean a change of government, his treatment was incredibly politicised. His doctors issued regular bulletins about his status, which were pored over by all concerned; his doctors themselves became associated with different political factions and found it very difficult to agree on anything.

Meanwhile the king was kept from his loved ones, frequently confined to a strait-waistcoat, and was subjected to a variety of unpleasant and intrusive treatments—bleeding, cupping, blistering, emetics—none of which, we now know, did him any good at all. And at least one aspect of his treatment, a ‘lowering’ diet without any meat in it, will have been actively making him worse.

detail of Hogarth

Still, interesting though all that is, it was starting to get a bit repetitive—thoroughness is a great quality in a historian, but doesn’t always make for riveting reading—and I was glad to get past the details of George’s case and onto the broader stuff, which I found fascinating. For example, as psychiatry increasingly worked under the theory that mental illnesses are self-contained and separate from physical illnesses, the king was retrospectively diagnosed with ‘manic-depressive psychosis’ , and all of his various and violent physical symptoms—pain, fast pulse, colic, sweating, hoarseness, stupor—were interpreted as hysterical, or even as invented by the Court to disguise the truth of his condition.

detail of Hogarth

And because it was assumed that he must always have been manic-depressive, the diagnosis colours historians’ portrayals of his whole personality:

Watson, in the standard Oxford history of the reign, writes : ‘He lacked the pliability and easy virtue of less highly strung people. When his obstinacy encountered an immovable obstacle, all his resources were at an end and the black humour claimed him… Madness was but this mood in an extreme form.’

The book quotes a whole series of similar descriptions. But the king’s early biographers presented a completely different picture, and in fact, we now know that between bouts of illness, sufferers from porphyria can be very healthy. Macalpine and Hunter are pretty scathing about psychiatry generally; the book was written in 1969, and it would be interesting to know whether they thought there had been any progress in the meantime.

» the pictures are details from ‘The Interior of Bedlam’, the final scene in Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress. It predates the king’s first bout of madness, so the fact that one of the inmates thinks he is the king is not a jibe at George III. I got the picture from this site about the history of Missouri’s first state mental hospital.

Culture Other

Elizabeth by David Starkey

I’ve just been reading Elizabeth by David Starkey, a book about the early life of Elizabeth I. It covers the very start of her reign, but most of it is about her relationships with Henry VIII, Edward VI and Mary Tudor.


It raises the question: when little girls want to be princesses, what kind of princess are they thinking of? The modern princess, who gets to live under relentless, unforgiving media scrutiny and has no possibility of publicly expressing any opinions? Or the medieval type, with a bunch of scheming old men arranging her a dynastic marriage to a corrupt, inbred foreign prince – if she’s not imprisoned or disposed of by the monarch as a potential threat to the succession.

The book was also a fine example of how toxic the mixture of politics and religion is. That period of English history would have been messy anyway, because of the lack of a clear line of succession, but the switching back and forth between Catholic and Protestant certainly didn’t make it any easier for anyone.

It’s a good book – Starkey knows how to tell a story – and an interesting period of English history. I’m just glad I didn’t live through it.


Pop Princess

I caught a bit of the build-up for the Concert for Diana earlier and it was a weird experience, seeing them try to present Diana’s taste for anodyne mainstream 80s pop music (Elton John, Queen, Duran Duran, Wham, ABBA, Chris de Burgh) as though it was a revealing personality trait.


I’m not knocking her taste (except for Chris de Burgh, obviously); as a child of the 80s I have a soft spot for Duran Duran and Wham myself. But it’s not actually very interesting, is it? I suppose a senior member of the Royal Family listening to Wham on her Walkman around the palace was symbolic of a culture clash of a kind, but that says more about the Royal Family than about Diana. And the fact that she enjoyed meeting pop stars doesn’t exactly represent a deep engagement with music.

I don’t know. It just seems odd to project such significance on to one of the least interesting things you could say about anyone: she listened to Radio 1, you know. I suppose having a charity concert in her memory with music she liked is reasonable enough; it’s the soft-focus halo of what, sanctity? reverence? earnestness? forelock-tugging? that weirds it. But then the whole idea of a ‘people’s princess’ was always kind of creepy and parasitic.


Presidents and small gods

I’m always puzzled by the fact that, in discussions about abolishing the monarchy, so many people assume it would be necessary to replace the monarch with some kind of president.

To me, ‘king’ suggests a small god. A slight odour of divinity attaches to the idea of a monarch which is sets it apart from other kinds of leader. Many cultures have made this explicit: Egyptian pharoahs were believed to be reincarnations of the god Horus, Roman emperors were often declared as gods after their death, and the Japanese imperial family are descended from the goddess Amaterasu.

Christianity makes it theologically awkward to claim that the king or queen actually is a god, but much of the symbolism remains. The royal touch is no longer regarded as a cure for the King’s Evil, and you don’t often hear anyone arguing for the Divine Right of Kings, but the monarch is still anointed by the Archbishop of Canterbury during the coronation*. For that matter, the throne, crown, orb and scepter are hardly subtle.

[Coronation portrait of Elizabeth I]

The government is known as ‘Her Majesty’s Government’, and the Queen is also Supreme Governor of the Church of England, Head of the Armed Forces and, best of all, Fount of Justice (really, I’m not making this up). So that makes her ultimate source of all power, justice, and temporal and spiritual authority in the country. And of course she’s the Head of State: the very physical embodiment of the United Kingdom. If these are not the characteristics of a god, it’s hard to know what would qualify.

Since, by convention, the Queen does not in fact attempt to govern the church, order the army around or interfere with the decisions of the government or the courts, this is all pretty harmless. What I don’t understand is why anyone feels that, if we got rid of the monarchy, all this symbolism would need to replicated.

For me, that’s what a president to act as Head of State would be: a king substitute. You can see it to some extent in the American convention that while it’s acceptable to criticise the President as an individual, you have to respect the office of President of the United States. Really, what does that even mean? If the presidency is just a (very important) job, what does it mean to ‘respect’ it in some abstract way? Things like the imperial-looking presidential seal which gets plastered all over the place, and the way that ‘President’ is retained as a title for life, suggest that it’s not just a job; that the inauguration is a lot like a coronation.†

People criticising the institution of the monarchy tend to focus on the fact that the monarch is unelected — which is, of course, appallingly undemocratic. But would an elected monarch be any better? Perhaps the problem isn’t that the Queen is unelected, it’s that she’s a queen.

I’m actually not in a hurry to abolish the monarchy, just because of the fuss that would be involved in doing it. In eight years since they got rid of the hereditary peers, Parliament still hasn’t managed to come to an agreement about the composition of the House of Lords. Can you imagine how much discussion it would need for them to decide how to replace the monarch? But if we did decide to ditch the monarchy, I can’t see any need to replace it at all. The Prime Minister can keep running the government, and we can just declare that we don’t have a Head of State. What do we need one for anyway? There’s the occasional state dinner that needs to be hosted, but that hardly requires a monarch; a maitre d’ would be perfectly adequate.

I suppose one worry is that in the absence of a monarch to act as a decoy, there would be some pent-up reservoir of idolatry that would attach itself to the Prime Minister by default and give him ideas above his station. But I’d like to think we could get used to the idea of living as a nation of equals.

*Bonus fact: this, too, represents a kind of divine descent. The Archbishop’s authority descends from the first Archbishop of Canterbury, St. Augustine, who was granted it by the Pope, whose authority ‘descends’ from St Peter and so from Christ. It’s not quite like being a direct descendent of a sun-goddess, but I think the parallel is interesting.

† Just as a comparison, it would be really weird to talk about respecting the office of Prime Minister in the same way. And far from having an inauguration ceremony, the new Prime Minister just moves into 10 Downing street the day after the election. I’m not claiming any kind of British superiority here, btw: we’ve still got a Queen.