A right royal progress

Coronation mug 1953

Princess Elizabeth was proclaimed queen after her father, George VI, died early on 6th February 1952. I was only three at the time, living in the then Crown Colony of Hong Kong, so the occasion will have passed me by or, if communicated to me, instantly forgotten. I continued listening to child star Ann Stephens singing They’re Changing Guard at Buckingham Palace on my wind-up gramophone, oblivious to what it was all about.

A year later we were back in Blighty for my parents to buy a house in the West Country, and in early June we joined the crowds on The Mall in London to mark Coronation Day. “Where is she going?” I asked my mother after the young queen’s golden coach rapidly passed us en route from Buckingham Palace towards Admiralty Arch and Westminster Abbey. “Around the roundabout and back again,” was the reply, leading me to expect the sovereign’s speedy return.

What I wasn’t told was that the “roundabout” would in fact be the Abbey, that the coronation service, beginning at 11.15am, would last almost three hours, and that then her return journey was routed around central London, taking from 2.50 to 4.30pm. It was a long wait — around six hours — for a four year old, even one who was nearly five, and thoroughly confusing: why was the coach taking so long to get round the roundabout? Nobody told me.

Coronation procession 1953 (credit National Archives here)

I won’t say if this was the first step on my road to republicanism but, Her Maj aside, I have to say that the institution that is the Royal Family has been increasingly showing its inherent weaknesses in recent years, what with salacious scandals, for example, and stories about undue influence on government.

Naturally enough my childhood was filled with fairytales featuring royal personages and stories of the knights of King Arthur so I knew that royalty was supposed to be a “good thing”. And I enjoy a good novel about blue blood as much as a nonfiction critique or study: in fact I have A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett on a 2022 to-be-read list (yes, I know she isn’t a bona fide princess) along with The Prince, Machiavelli’s study of medieval realpolitik.

But I also know the old adage that Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Though the United Kingdom now has a constitutional monarchy the institution has had imperial pretentions since the time of that petulant tyrant Henry VIII (his Ecclesiastical Appeals Act of 1532 declared that England was “an empire” and therefore its head could do what he liked).

Those pretensions continued via the Stuarts’ notion of the Divine Right of Kings and the partial curbs of the Glorious Revolution well into the 20th century, as I discussed in a post about the Delhi Durbar of 1903. Benighted souls in today’s UK retain a nostalgic glint in their eye for when Britain had an empire on which the sun never set, an empire founded on the sole principle that Might is Right. I don’t hold with that at all.

The upshot of this meandering discussion is this: I’m not a royalist, and though I have respect for the Queen’s sense of duty in and her commitment as Head of the Commonwealth, I’ve always been uncomfortable with the whipped-up patriotic fervour focused on celebrations of Elizabeth II’s many anniversaries. So today’s Platinum Jubilee will not be marked by any flag-waving from me — even though I probably waved one nearly 69 years ago when the golden coach swept by and left me confused and bemused in its wake.

Sunset of empire. Photo: C A Lovegrove

38 thoughts on “A right royal progress

  1. A little while ago the plans for state mourning after her demise were leaked in Australia and there was widespread dismay. The idea that cinemas and shops would be closed etc took even the monarchists aback, I think. I mean, yes, ok, flags at half mast, and broadcast the funeral on TV, but anything else seems like overdoing it, especially since what most of us will be *really* upset about is the idea of That Wannabe Tampon becoming our King.

    I have no time for Boris Johnson, but I suspect the faux-outrage about his parties while the queen mourned Prince Phillip alone are an indicator that people even in Britain are not going to be respectfully devastated the way that they appeared to be in the past.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. This made me laugh, Lisa, particularly the line about even the monarchists being taken aback by the plan. I mean, surely in a circumstance like Liz turning up her toes, you’re either a monarchist or you’re a shopper! We’re a peculiar species.

      Liked by 2 people

    2. No, “respectfully devastated” isn’t what most of my family and friends are likely to be, Lisa — respectful probably but not devastated — she’ll have had a long life in service, one however that she’d taken on herself. (Imagine if Edward VIII had remained king, and how the revelations of a Nazi-loving monarch would’ve gone down with the public.)

      As for bumbly Prince Charlie, I find it hard to wholly accept that this fuddy-duddy old man is only a few months younger than me …

      Liked by 1 person

  2. It’s such a lot of nonsense, isn’t it? I remember being non-plussed by the silver jubilee. I was 6, got a weird silver coin and a cheap mug printed with Liz’s face in silver from school, neither of which I have any more, had to go to a street party when I just wanted to play out, and somehow acquired a small silver football, also with Liz’s face on it.

    I’m vaguely aware that they’ve mucked about with the Spring Bank Holiday this year and there’s some kind of pudding competition judged by the nation’s alternative queen, Mary Berry. It makes me tired, though, thinking about the inevitable enforced celebration.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Me too, Jan. What many British people liked about the silver and then the golden jubilee and various royal weddings was the chance to nostalgically recreate postwar jubilations with street parties and bunting, commemorative knick-knacks and the sense of being part of a wider communal celebration. I can’t see that happening with worries about coronavirus, anxieties about a worsening ecomomy’s effects on their well-being, and anger at the government’s gaslighting of the public.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. JJ Lothin

    An excellent piece, Chris! The delusions provoked by our imperial pretensions have an awful lot to do with the chaos that is Brexit …

    Or should I rather put it, the cynical preying on such delusions by money men well aware of the omnishambles into which this country might descend, who are now laughing their way to the hedge funds.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. If the UK was anything like, say, France, JJ, we’d all be manning the barricades, practising civil disobedience, boycotting firms run by Tory donors, and chaining ourselves to Tory MPs’ offices.

      Instead I’m shooting off mildly disappointed emails to my MP, signing any indignant petitions that come my way, commiserating with like-minded people on social media, and sensibly sticking to the rules. To quote a devastated Tory MP, “Does the government take me for a fool?”

      Liked by 1 person

      1. JJ Lothin

        I know – the apparent impotence makes it all so frustrating! And when you look at the way other European countries are, for example, dealing with the energy price hike in comparison with ours … I despair.

        I haven’t as yet written to my MP about the latest shenanigans. Given that he was parachuted into the (very safe Tory) seat in 2019 from Johnson’s Downing Street office – presumably on the grounds that, as the son of Prue Leith, he’d really reel in the Bake Off vote! – attempting to persuade him of the folly of his position seems like a bit of an exercise in futility.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Yes, an exercise in futility writing to our Tory MP, but she’s less of a waste of space than her Tory predecessor who was utterly arrogant in any communications with me: at least he was deprived of his seat as a result of a recall petition after falsely claiming for expenses.

          Liked by 1 person

  4. I did like the last jubilee thing we had, as we are a very diverse road and we had a street party but with everyone bringing dishes from their native country and having a chat, not about the queen! I was a bit upset at the contrast between her dignified mourning and Johnson’s partying, however much of a non-monarchist I am, but more about ordinary people I know who followed the rules and didn’t get to see loved ones at their hour of need, etc.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That was such a lovely response to your last street party, Liz, I entirely approve! I won’t get started on Partygate, though, but I do hope that it’ll ultimately prove impossible to defend the indefensible and that the whole shower will receive the whole censure available to the courts…

      Liked by 1 person

  5. The royals are a source of endless fascination for many of us Yanks, and I think quite a few here would feel a sense of loss, if all that we rebelled against 250 years ago were to suddenly go away! It definitely provides a lot of fodder for shows, streaming on our various devices. Hope you enjoy the Little Princess. So many criticize these works of empire for not adhering to our modern notions of equality, but I find them charming, quaint and mildly comforting. They give us a chance to pat ourselves on the back for the progress we’ve made, and also to realize humanity has changed very little over time.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. JJ Lothin

      … I forgot to mention the Little Princess in my earlier comment. I would hate to see how modern commentators would take apart such a staple of comfort reading!

      Liked by 2 people

    2. Hah, if the royals as an institution somehow cease to exist, Andy, the traditional revolutionary cry will have to change to “The British are going!”

      I’ve been looking forward to A Little Princess for a while, especially as I’ve read the unfinished fragment of a Charlotte Brontë story on which it was supposed to be based (reviewed here: https://wp.me/s2oNj1-emmax).

      Liked by 2 people

  6. In Abingdon where I live, we do bun throwing off the top of the County Hall into the market place below to celebrate royal occasions. I got stuck in the middle of the bun fight (literally) for the last jubilee, or was it Wills & Kate’s wedding. Anyhow, I didn’t enjoy the pushing and shoving, the upturned umbrellas trying to catch more than a fair share. It seems a quaint tradition and doubtless the news will report it as such, but is not nice in reality if you’re in its midst. Abingdon has another royal claim to fame – it was a house in my road that picked up the Camillagate phone conversation! While I’m not a monarchist as such, I do appreciate the Queen’s dedication to a life of duty, she had such a hard year.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I see the Abingdon bun-throwing tradition began with the coronation of George III back in 1761, not a ceremony I’d heard of before though I knew of similar traditions (like Honiton’s hot pennies event). I too would avoid such occasions as being too roughhouse for my tender sensibilities!

      Partygate, Camillagate … such labels are such wonderful shorthand terms, even if what they refer to are at the very least massively cringeworthy! But I agree about the Queen’s dedication, she has certainly taken her role seriously and consistently for those seven decades.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Pingback: A right royal progress – Glyn Hnutu-healh: History, Alchemy, and Me

  8. As an outsider, I’m so interested in the royal family because they seem so much more proper than the US President does, especially Donald Trump. I understand why as a member of the commonwealth why you’re not a royalist. I’m not very patriotic. I think it’s dangerous. Look at Germany between WWI and WWII. I’m not comparing the royal family to Hitler or anything, but I am comparing what’s happening in the US to what happened to Germany between WWI and WWII and it scares me. I hope that makes sense.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There’s a particularly strain of patriot that defines patriotism very narrowly, not as honest pride in the virtues of one’s country but as the capacity to blindly accept a prescribed package of outward symbols; these may be defined as flag or crown, say, and particularly the prevailing ruling power.

      This conflation is I think especially implicit in the phrase “My country, right or wrong,” an unthinking obedience to an authority however harmful and self-contradictory it may be, and to which those same symbols are firmly but improperly welded.

      And here’s the essential difference, it seems to me, between opposing parties in many democratic set-ups like both of ours: one, like Trump’s party or Boris Johnson’s, set value in slogans and symbols, while the other espouses values themselves, like the common good.

      The former, it’s often said, in fact know the cost of everything but the value of nothing. And you’re right to be scared of it: they’re not interested in the commonweal, they’re in it purely for themselves.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Really enjoyed your post and the thought-provoking discussion in the comments – also, just as an aside, I too spent a part of my childhood in Hong Kong just before the handover, lots of fond memories!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I feel very sorry for Hongkongers now that Beijing is clamping down on liberties and free expression, and can’t see myself ever being in a position to revisit the former colony. I expect it will have changed a lot for you too since the 1990s. Our son was able to make a lightning visit there about ten years ago and in the few hours available was able to get to Prince Edward Road in Kowloon where we had a flat for three years or so.

      Anyway, glad you liked my rambling post — certainly I enjoyed the discussion after!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Absolutely – I follow the news in Hong Kong via the HKFP news site and it’s very sobering. I have been lucky enough to visit a few times since we moved back to Ireland, most recently on my honeymoon in 2013, but things have really changed since then.

        Liked by 1 person

  10. As an American I’m duty-bound to kind of disapprove of monarchies, so it’s probably not surprising that I agree with you completely. (Although lots of Americans are avid royal-watchers!) I have quite a bit of respect for the Queen for her dedication, but the rest of them can go jump in a lake for all I care, and it would be ridiculous to close down when she inevitably goes the way of all the earth.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think most of us have admiration for the Queen because she has shown huge dedication to what she regards as her duty, and has kept steadfast to it all for seventy years. But as for many of the others — a certain Prince in particular — I’m not at all edified by the title-tattle, scandal or even alleged criminality attached to their names. As far as they’re mostly concerned, you and I are the little people.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. I think all the people of my age (or thereabouts) that I know who have got awfully excited about royal events and processions are from overseas. I understand the allure of the pageantry; and I have a great deal of respect for how Her Maj engages with what is objectively a very odd role, but I’ve got very little investment in the monarchy itself (although I have a habit of wading in when people say “why should we fund it with our taxes”, because we don’t; the Crown Estate incomes fund it – and she gives most of that income to the government. Whether she _should_ own / gain income from half the country is a separate discussion entirely, but I’ve disappeared down this tangent long enough and should put my soapbox away)

    We shall skip the enforced celebrations in June by virtue of being in another country, all going to plan (or possibly – and possibly better – in the air on the way home).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Being somewhere abroad during a jingoistic jubilee sounds like excellent planning arranged with cunning forethought! I understood (even if I wasn’t invested in it) the national grief surrounding Diana’s death — that felt spontaneous and genuine — but what you call “enforced celebrations” born from whipped-up patriotic fervour (when in fact we increasingly have little to feel proud of given the sordid depths the national psyche has plunged to) are not anything I want to be part of.

      And, given the scandals surrounding Andrew’s sexual predilections and cash-for-honours allegations linked to Prince Charles’s charity the Prince’s Foundation, there’s a feeling the Royal Family has outlived its usefulness as paragons of rectitude.


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