On Monarchy

About two weeks ago, Helen Mirren appeared on Fareed Zakaria 360 to discuss her acting career, which includes playing Queen Elizabeth II in the 2006 film The Queen and in a stage play called The Audience that recently ended in New York City. Zakaria noted that it was ironic that Mirren had become so well-known for playing the queen, given that she is an outspoken small-r republican (i.e., opponent of the constitutional monarchy and proponent of a republic). Mirren replied that while she respects the queen as a hardworking women driven by duty to family and country, she can’t get behind the idea that the Windsor family is somehow special in a way that justifies putting them on such a huge pedestal. I suppose my sentiments on the House of Windsor could be summed up in this quote from the wonderful out-of-print book BAD TV by Craig Nelson, in which he criticized the 1992 documentary Elizabeth R that was intended to “humanize” the monarch during her infamous annus horribilis:

What the film shows in agonizing detail is that the UK is spending a fortune to have a family dress up in expensive gowns and crowns, appear in public, and make lots of small talk — and they can’t even manage these minor tasks.

Catholic traditionalists are really into monarchism, especially the “throne and altar” variety that characterized France’s ancien régime. This isn’t surprising, since Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, the founder of the Society of St. Pius X and essentially the “founder” of organized Catholic traditionalism, came from a monarchist home (although I think his political preference was corporatist fascism) and was contemptuous of liberal democracy. Across the traditionalist blogosphere, it’s not uncommon to find many people who think that the only “Catholic” form of government is monarchism, and liberal democracy is immoral because it puts things up for a vote, like same-sex marriage and abortion, that should never be up for discussion in the first place. There doesn’t seem to be any organized monarchist movements in the US (online daydreaming doesn’t count), but in a number of European countries with republican governments there are still fringe monarchist groups, arguing over which defunct royal house ought to be in charge.

We simply don’t view monarchy in the same way that people did during the days of absolutism. For example, there is a series of twenty-four paintings at the Louvre called the Marie de Medici Cycle that were commissioned by the wife of Henri IV of France. Many of the paintings depict the queen in highly metaphorical and allegorical situations that freely mix and match classical and Christian imagery, like the Fates plotting out the de Medici’s life before her birth or the Greco-Roman pantheon assembling to celebrate de Medici taking over the reins of government as Regent:


Could you imagine such a series being painted today with any of the modern European monarchs? I don’t think so. If, say, Queen Elizabeth II, decided to commission a painting of her coronation in which angels were descending from heaven and Neptune and Jupiter were bringing tributes from their respective kingdoms in the sea and the sky, people would laugh, and justifiably so, because such a painting would come off as hubristic and ridiculous. Or consider “the king’s touch,” the medieval ceremony found in England and France in which the monarch “cured” sufferers of scrofula (i.e., tuberculosis of the lymph nodes) with his “divine touch.” Could you imagine Queen Elizabeth II emptying the hospitals so she could show off her mad healing skills? The symbols of monarchy that worked in an age of divine monarchs and absolutism don’t work in 2015. The European monarchies that have survived into the twenty-first century have had to find ways to justify their existence that don’t involve religious or supernatural claims (I’m not including monarchies in Asia or the Middle East, which operate in a very different historical context). I think this explains why Paul VI “retired” the papal tiara and decommissioned the papal court, because he understood that 1. he and his successors were never going to exercise real temporal power again 2. the symbols of European absolute monarchy weren’t going to “shock and awe” the masses the way they once did. While many people may be interested in the pomp and ceremony surrounding monarchy, even that has been cut back on in many quarters simply because of the expense.

Today, the rationale behind monarchy, at least of the constitutional variety, is that it’s tradition, it helps the economy (i.e., people buying royal merchandise and the tabloids about royal misadventures), it’s a unifying symbol, etc. Rarely does anyone put forth the idea that the members of the royal family are particularly special or interesting, other than the composition of their family tree. Indeed, perhaps the most astonishing thing about the House of Windsor in particular is, despite having been blessed with one of the most rarefied family and the potential to attend the most exclusive schools on the planet, the entire family is completely average in every way imaginable, from looks to intelligence. Looking at one of those balcony photos of the British royals does more to discredit eugenics than anything done during the Nazi regime.

Part of the problem is that there’s no mystique to royals these days. While monarchs of the “throne and altar” period engaged in very public rituals about the most mundane of activities, the inner workings of their minds and politics were largely hidden from the average person, which could create the illusion that their rulers were a people set apart. Elizabeth II still has this mystique to some extent, but the public knows far too much about the personal lives of her other family for them that have that same kind of respect for her descendants. While Edward VII could get away with cavorting in French bordellos without the “common people” finding out about it, our TMZ/National Enquirer/Daily Mail world ensures that any time Prince Harry decides to play strip poker that we’ll know about it before he has time to win his clothes back.

Furthermore, many European royals have taken to marrying “regular people,” who aren’t royal or even aristocratic, which also dilutes the mystic of royals past: Prince Albert of Monaco finally decided to settle down with a former Olympian swimmer from South Africa; the wife of Crown Prince Frederick of Denmark is a middle class Scottish woman he met in a pub; the husband of Crown Princess Martha Louise of Norway is an author whose parents were Waldorf educators. Since many of Europe’s royal houses were destroyed after World War I, I suppose it makes sense that the remaining ones would have to widen their search for potential mates, but if the royals really are “just like us,” what’s the point?

Catholic traditionalist royalists remind me of the remnants of the hard Old Left, like the Progressive Labor Party, the Revolutionary Communist Party, and the Internationalist Socialist Organization, waiting for the counter-revolution/revolution that’s never going to happen. And because these groups have no hope of gaining any real power, they instead focus their energies on  quibbling over minor issues that are of no interest to anyone outside of that sub-culture. If the European monarchies continue to survive into the future, it will be because they figured out how to remain “relevant” to their subjects, whatever that might mean. If any of these crowned heads started adopting the language of “throne and altar,” then that would be a surefire way to ensure their demise.