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The Sacrality of Monarchy by James Bogle

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The Sacrality of Monarchy

The Platinum Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II commences this weekend early with Thursday and Friday as declared holidays in the United Kingdom. It is 70 years since Her Majesty processed into Westminster Abbey and was crowned in a ceremony that is a replica of the ceremony that was used for centuries to crown the Holy Roman emperors.

Since the days of Charlemagne, all Christian monarchs gradually came to emulate the ceremonies approved by the Church to crown the Christian Roman Emperor, originally with the sacred Roman diadem but, after Charlemagne, with the ancient Imperial Crown, now still to be seen in the Imperial Schatzkammer, or Treasure Chamber, in Vienna, close by the Hofburg or Imperial palace.

The English Monarchy was no exception and, though it may have abandoned Roman Catholicism, in all other respects, everything from the Catholic past was retained, particularly in ceremonial, the coronation ritual being the prime example. Even her worst enemies (and it is hard to believe that she can possibly have any) could not but admit that the Queen has not put a foot wrong in all of those quite remarkable 70 years of royal service. Even if some critics, like Dr. David Starkey, think she should have asserted herself more, most agree that she acted more prudently in staying within conventional bounds, particularly as convention is the keystone of our British Constitution.

The Queen’s record is an unprecedented one, unmatched by any other head of state anywhere, any time. Queen Elizabeth swore oaths in the most liturgically splendid of ceremonies—all, of course, originally based upon, and founded within, the traditional Roman Latin rite of the Catholic Church and, apart from the religious service now being that of the Anglican Church, remains, as I say, otherwise entirely unchanged. She has kept every last syllable of those solemn oaths and promises, unblemished, unaltered, unerringly, uncorrupted, for fully 70 years. 

The Queen is universally renowned for putting her duty before her own wishes and desires (unlike certain other members of the Royal family who will remain nameless). What other head of state or political leader can even begin to meet such a boast?

Ever since she processed into the Abbey to the strains of Hubert Parry’s great anthem, I was glad, the ceremony’s solemnity and seriousness have clearly marked her spiritually and psychologically, so that she has felt it her most solemn duty to keep faith with her promises and oaths—and she has done precisely that, unfailingly.

It must have been quite terrifying for such a young lady to enter the Abbey, to take on such a huge responsibility, in those days not merely for Great Britain and Northern Ireland but for a huge range of nations within what was then still the British Empire and Commonwealth. For those unfamiliar, here are the words of Parry’s famous anthem, a setting of Psalm 121 (122), with the vivats interpellated for the coronation service:

I was glad when they said unto me

We will go into the house of the Lord

Our feet shall stand in thy gates,

O Jerusalem!

Jerusalem is builded as a city 

that is at unity in itself.

Vivat Regina Elizabetha!

O pray for the peace of Jerusalem!

They shall prosper that love thee!

Peace be within thy walls 

And plenteousness within thy palaces!

What a daunting prospect! And yet she has lived up to it, every syllable, for 70 years, openly, publicly, avowedly, unashamedly, and consistently a Christian monarch above all, to the last. Such, perhaps, is the power of solemn liturgy, of ancient tradition, Christian ceremonial and ritual, royal and imperial dignity and pageantry, poetry, music, art, architecture, and noble vesture all emanating from the genius of Christianity and its Gospels.

These features very strikingly mark and emphasize the moral and filial obligations imposed upon any hereditary monarch especially when combined with the knowledge of a lineage of ancestors stretching back through the mists of time, with all eyes on her wondering how will she do? Will she betray the solemn trust to her country, her peoples, the Constitution, the Empire and Commonwealth, bequeathed to her at birth and at her coronation? Or will she live up to it? As all can hardly deny, honour has been more than satisfied in the person of our present Queen, and quite remarkably so.

The anthem, Laetatus sum (“I was glad”), has been sung at the entrance of the monarch at every British coronation since that of King Charles I. Settings for more recent coronations were composed by Henry Purcell and William Boyce, among others. Thomas Attwood’s setting was written for the coronation of King George IV in 1821 (just as Handel wrote Zadok the Priest for that same coronation, also sung at our Queen’s coronation on 2nd June 1953; Zadok is a setting of 3 Kings 1.32-34 telling of the coronation of King Solomon). Parry’s version was composed for the coronation of King Edward VII in 1902 and revised in 1911 for that of King George V, when the familiar introduction was added.

Apart from the imperial splendour of the music, the chief innovation is the incorporation in the central section of the acclamations “Vivat Rex…” or “Vivat Regina…” with which the King’s or Queen’s Scholars of Westminster School have traditionally greeted the entrance of the monarch since the coronation of King James II in 1685, the coronation of Britain’s last Catholic king.

I suppose there might be something in the ceremonies used at the entirely secular ‘inauguration’ of the entirely secular president of the avowedly secular United Stated of America, or, indeed, other secular presidents around the world. But do these really even begin to compare with the quite breath-taking and extraordinarily majestic beauty, dignity, and edifying solemnity of a Christian coronation, the last real remaining example of which is the coronation of a British monarch?

How does the glitzy, amplified, Hollywood production sung by an infamous character of disreputable life and manners that was performed at Biden’s inauguration even begin to compare with the Christian coronation ceremony of a sacral monarch? Let’s be frank. It doesn’t.

Men and women are moved to give their lives for a Christian monarch and country. Who wants to give their life for a mere politician who has climbed the greasy pole of political ambition and is feted at a mere ‘inauguration’ by the latest ‘pop’ star crooning a bowdlerised version of a revolutionary ditty, celebrating an illegal and immoral rebellion against legitimate authority?

The higher feelings and noble sentiments engendered by legitimate monarchy were perhaps best described by Irish prelate, Archbishop John Healy of Tuam:

The character of kings is sacred; their persons are inviolable; they are the anointed of the Lord, if not with sacred oil, at least by virtue of their office. Their power is broad-based upon the will of God, and not on the shifting sands of the people’s will… They will be spoken of with becoming reverence, instead of being in public estimation fitting butt for all foul tongues. It becomes a sacrilege to violate their persons, and every indignity offered to them in word or act, becomes an indignity offered to God Himself. It is this view of kingly rule that alone can keep alive, in a scoffing and licentious age, the spirit of ancient loyalty, that spirit begotten of faith, combining in itself obedience, reverence, and love for the majesty of kings which was at once a bond of social union, an incentive to noble daring, and a salt to purify the heart from its grosser tendencies, preserving it from all that is mean, selfish, and contemptible.

His Grace puts it admirably well. And let’s face it, those who wish to abandon this Christian monarchy for a secular republic chiefly wish to do so because they want to abandon Christianity for secularism. But as a political move, such has almost invariably been a disaster. 

After a corrupt election in which the Labour Party secured all seats in the national legislature (yes, every last one!) so that the country is now about to become a one party state, Barbados has now also decided to abandon the Monarchy and deliver all power into the hands of corrupt politicians. Will they be any more successful than was Zimbabwe when Robert Mugabe took his country down the same route? Need one even ask the question? The answer is obvious.

Other countries would do well to think on it and consider what will serve them best—a constitutional monarchy impartially preserving their constitution and protecting the people from corrupt politicians, or a republic that will deliver the constitution and the people into the very hands of those same corrupt politicians.

A king was once asked by a cheeky reporter, “but what is the point of a monarchy?” “Well,” answered the king, “to protect the people from their politicians.”

Indeed so. That puts it admirably and succinctly, your Majesty.

James Bogle is a writer, historian, barrister and former army officer.