Last year’s death of Queen Elizabeth II and now the coronation of King Charles III have drawn the world’s attention to the ancient institution of monarchy. The devotion with which Elizabeth performed her royal duties to the very end won the admiration of legions. Princess Catherine’s sweet, gentle encounters with British school children drew tears from many who watched them on television. The gentility of the British royal family (the Sussexes and Prince Andrew excepted, of course) contrasts favorably with the coarseness of both Democratic and Republican politicians in the United States.
While the question may be entirely academic, could Americans learn anything about politics from the regime from which they separated after a long and exhaustive war in the late eighteenth century?
Monarchies are not created equal. The Mongol and Russian crowns had virtually no constitutional limits (although they were severely limited by space and time). In contrast, even the most powerful European monarchical regime placed constitutional limits on the power of the throne.
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The French monarchy has often been described as absolute, but that word poorly describes the actual regime. Many government responsibilities lay beyond the authority of the throne. While the French king was the only source of legislation for the entire realm, the king’s decrees only became efficacious when they were registered by the Parlement of Paris; thus, at the very least, the wishes of the king could be delayed. Both the British and French monarchies had to obtain the approval of the Parliament and Estates General, respectively, to collect new taxes.
The ideology of popular sovereignty could also be invoked to limit the ruler. The authority of the Roman emperor derived from the Roman people. The Senate played an important role in the formation of the empire in the first century B.C. What essentially happened was that the old republican magistracies were invested in a single magistrate, namely the imperator or the princeps, by acts of the representative body of the Roman people, namely the Senate.
In the Middle Ages, kings were in theory elective. Succession to the throne came partially by dynasty, that is, upon the death or deposition of a ruler, a close relative usually succeeded. However, the successful claimant had to obtain the approval of the princes of the realm.
In 1356, the Golden Bull ordained that the ruler of the German Empire had to win the election of the seven electors (four secular princes, three bishops). After the long reign of Frederick III (1440-1493), the imperial throne remained in Habsburg hands until 1918. In the meantime, however, several successions required that eldest surviving sons not inherit the throne.
In every kingdom, nobles and great towns served as breaks on the power of the ruler. Dukes, counts, and marquises/margraves possessed great estates, and they often possessed large military entourages to maintain order within their principalities. If they united (which sometimes happened), they could thwart royal initiatives. In every kingdom, nobles and great towns served as breaks on the power of the ruler. If they united (which sometimes happened), they could thwart royal initiatives.Tweet This
How would a monarchical regime begin? The ancient writers Aristotle and Polybius believed that monarchical regimes grew out of highly disordered states. In the Greco-Roman view, widespread violence and cultural decay presented the opportunity for an ambitious (probably ruthless) leader to capture the loyalty of the military and the body politic by restoring order. As the examples of Queen Elizabeth and now King Charles show, monarchs must also possess civil manners.
The current attraction to monarchy, however, is also a consequence of current political tumult and disfunction. The most powerful attraction of monarchy today is leadership above politics, which is something that a critical mass of the body politic can rally around. Tory, Labor, and Liberal Democrat can all support the British monarchy because it has largely been above politics.
Modern European monarchies survive because of the distinction between the offices of head of state (the crown) and head of government (prime minister, or equivalent). Working British royals rarely comment upon legislation being debated in the House of Commons or initiatives pursued by government ministers. Rather, they visit hospitals and schools and visit the nations of the British Commonwealth (over which they reign) on goodwill tours.
The strength, then, of monarchy comes from the embodiment of the body politic in the ruler. The peasantry of old were, for this reason, the most royalist cross-section of European society. When asked by a Western journalist what Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria-Hungary believed to be his most important responsibility, he replied, “To protect my people from their government.”
Americans traditionally equate monarchy with tyranny (think Wilson at the end of WWI). But a sober reading of history shows that few monarchs would really qualify as oppressors of the people. Those who were determined to overthrow monarchy were most inclined to denounce Charles I, Louis XVI, and Nicholas II as tyrants. As Edmund Burke once observed, no one speaks well of those they wish to plunder.