How Elizabeth II created the role of the modern monarch

The Queen’s presence conveyed more eloquently than any words could that the ship of state had a firm anchor in her modern monarchy.

Queen Elizabeth II in her coronation robes, enthroned at Westminster Abbey, London after being crowned queen.
Queen Elizabeth II in her coronation robes, enthroned at Westminster Abbey, London after being crowned queen. Credit: World History Archive / Alamy Stock Photo.

The word ‘modern’ is not merely a neutral chronological concept but is heavily freighted with assumptions derived from the history of Europe. Ever since the decapitation of Marie Antoinette, it has been assumed that hope for the future has migrated from the transcendental realm and is now lodged in some species of democratic politics, informed by a restriction of public truth to what can be counted or measured. As Edmund Burke remarked, ‘The age of chivalry has gone. That of sophisters, economists and calculators has succeeded.’

The formula for desirable change is held to consist in dissolving old hierarchies, generating fresh economic resources, and adapting the educational curriculum to reflect a ‘modern’ understanding of the human project and to equip participants for a global market place. Certainly, in the Anglo-American world, there is a pervasive attitude that the past has passed and that our proper and only orientation is towards the future.

The survival of an institution which embodies continuity and some kind of vertical sense of hierarchy seems to demand explanation.

It is impossible to generalise about contemporary monarchies that differ so widely in their powers and significance. The monarchy of Saudi Arabia possesses both political power and great symbolic authority as Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques of Islam. The Emperor of Japan is also an elevated symbol of the nation and even semi-divine, but his role is largely ceremonial without much day-to-day political significance. Then there are the presidents in soi-disant republics that are disguised monarchies without recognised term limits, who present themselves as fathers of the nation as well as effective rulers.

The British monarchy, ‘so late in time and curiously surviving,’ is a particular and rather modern variation on the theme. It is many years since anyone seriously entertained the doctrine propounded by Shakespeare’s Richard II: ‘Not all the water in the rough rude sea can wash the balm off from an anointed king. The breath of worldly men cannot depose the deputy elected by the Lord.’ Nevertheless, Queen Elizabeth II was solemnly anointed in Westminster Abbey in a ceremony which commentators at the time described as an ‘act of national communion.’ The theatre of monarchy is antique and weaves the present into a story which, in its British iteration, goes back to 975 and the coronation in Bath of King Edgar the Peaceful. The back-stage reality is, of course, very different.

Hanoverian monarchs such as George III united in their persons both symbolic authority and real power. The king appointed the principal ministers of state, a process in which his personal and political predilections played a considerable part. He had a close connection with the armed forces and a fractious relationship with Parliament. The powers of the American president and his relations with Congress and the Pentagon are a surviving edition of the Hanoverian monarchy, with the crucial difference that every four years the president must submit himself to the judgement of the American people.

In the unwritten British constitution, while appearances are preserved, adaptation of the reality can be swift. During the nineteenth century, effective power passed entirely to ministers whose position depended on electoral success. In the early years of her reign, Queen Victoria resisted the erosion of her prerogatives but by the end even her control of episcopal appointments, about which she had very strong views, had largely passed to the prime minister.

The connection of most monarchies with the transcendent is significant. Victoria’s reign in this respect was crucial and, often much against her personal tastes, she became a symbolic focus of loyalty surrounded by increasingly elaborate ceremonial events, notably her golden and diamond jubilees.

Walter Bagehot, a Liberal Victorian economist, analysed the new case for monarchy in his 1867 book, The English Constitution. ‘The mystic reverence, the religious allegiance which are essential to true monarchy are imaginative sentiments that no legislature can manufacture in any people.’ Famously, he also declared that the constitution was divided into two parts, ‘first those that preserve the reverence of the population — the dignified parts … and next the efficient parts — those by which it, in fact, works and rules.’

The same could be said for the constitution of the United Kingdom. The monarch occupies a space beyond partisan politics and is charged with embodying the common values of the community. The space occupied by royalty is not available to anyone else and this has contributed to keeping populist sentiment respectable. Politicians and celebrities come and go but in her long reign, by rebuffing any attempt to make her into an idol, the queen became an icon of the discipline, devotion and duty on which any stable and creative public life depends.

She was sparing in speech but when she did speak her words resonated and were remembered. Her eloquence, however, went beyond words. Observing the queen in her myriad visits, her interaction with individuals, and perhaps, above all, in the annual wreath laying ceremony at the Cenotaph in Whitehall, St Bernard’s advice to a young abbot comes to mind, ‘Notice everything; keep silent most of the time; correct a few things and cherish the brethren.’

The role of the modern monarch is to cherish particular communities; to hallmark the importance of special occasions; and to recognise outstanding achievement on behalf of society as a whole. Elizabeth II communicated all this not so much by words as by a quality of presence and attention which brought depth and value to every encounter, however brief.

At events like the funeral of Lady Thatcher, amid the tensions and the complex emotions of the occasion, she stood with hieratic stillness on the steps of St Paul’s watching the departure of the coffin. She conveyed more eloquently than any words could that at the centre of national life there was a calm confidence and that the ship of state had a firm anchor.

In the work of the modern monarch, people are put in touch in a very personal way with the narrative of the nation, its past as well as its future. Some are irritated by continuities and look to realise some heaven on earth by keeping their attention firmly on the future. It is true that someone with a sense of history and no sense of destiny can be a very tedious fellow, but a person with a sense of destiny and no sense of history is undeniably a very dangerous fellow.

As the world seeks to rebuild after the ravages of the Covid pandemic, there is an uncomfortable resonance in the voice of the poet Li Qingzhao, as she lamented the blindness to history as the leaders of her own time confronted the challenges, ecological and political, which eventually overwhelmed the brilliant civilisation of the Northern Song.

You should have been more cautious,

Better educated by the past.

The ancient bamboo books of history

Were there for you to study

But you didn’t see …

Times change, power passes:

It is the pity of the world.

Elizabeth II played her part and interpreted the monarchical role in modern circumstances with rare discipline and self-restraint. It has been an awesome achievement.


Richard Chartres