As all the world knows, Queen Elizabeth II died this year on September 8, the feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. At that moment, her eldest son, the Prince of Wales, became His Majesty King Charles III. Over the next few weeks, the Accession Council (at which Charles was formally proclaimed Monarch); the ceremonial proclamations of his accession by various government figures on national, provincial/state, and municipal levels across the Commonwealth Realms; and at last the old Queen’s funeral all took place. It was interesting indeed to observe how the politicians—many an atheist and/or republican among them—suddenly donned the mask of God-fearing subjects of the new Monarch, lustily shouting “God Save the King!” and singing the newly altered Royal Anthem. Certainly, for a few bright moments the inherent attraction of Monarchy emerged, unobstructed by the unnatural psychological blockages against it carefully erected within the modern mind. It was as with Isabel in Charles Williams’ novel, Shadows of Ecstasy:
she had felt a shadow of it at times; in the superb lines of Marlowe or Shakespeare, in the rolling titles heard on ceremonial occasions at Church or in local celebrations: ‘the King’s Most Excellent Majesty,’ ‘His Majesty the King-Emperor,’ ‘The Government of His Britannic Majesty.’
One cannot help but wonder of course what direction the new King shall try to take the Monarchy— something which his forthcoming coronation in May shall no doubt help to make clear. In the immediate, his Christmas speech was notable on the one hand for his proclamation of Jesus Christ as “Our Lord” and his recounting of his veneration of Christ’s place of birth at Bethlehem, and on the other, his attempt nevertheless to include all of his subjects of various faiths and none—in short, to show forth his own religion clearly while nevertheless being open to all under his crown. A tough thing, to be sure.
But to this writer, even more interesting was his choice of name. Some few years ago, it was bruited about that when the Prince of Wales eventually succeeded his mother, he would do so as George VII. The reasons given were that on the one hand it would honour his beloved grandfather, and on the other that the name Charles was too tainted by the Stuarts’ ‘anti-democratic’ legacy. A great deal of the Whig myth that has masqueraded as history in the popular mind holds that the current era of perfection was ushered in by the deposition of James II in the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688, and further secured by defeats of his son and grandson in 1715, 1719, and 1746. The ground for this was of course prepared by the triumph of Cromwell in 1645, which despite the victor’s cruelty and barbarism is seen as a triumph of ‘democracy.’ Nevertheless, the King has chosen to be called Charles; let us look at his predecessors, in hopes of finding some indication of where His Majesty might wish to go.
Charles I, considered a martyr by many Anglicans and some Catholics, inspires both deep devotion and fierce hatred even today, over 370 years after his death. Certainly his Catholicising religious policies and his period of rule without Parliament continue to generate controversy. That period saw him defending his poorer subjects against his wealthier ones through his opposition to the enclosure of common lands. It also saw an artistic, intellectual, and theological flowering of groups like the Cambridge Platonists, Caroline Divines, Cavalier Poets, and the community at Little Gidding; Catholicism under his reign and the patronage of his Queen, Henrietta Maria, saw a resurgence. As with King Arthur’s Court at Camelot, Charles I’s at Whitehall emerged from the dark, and vanished once more as the darkness closed in again, culminating in his judicial murder on January 30, 1649.
Nasty piece of work that Cromwell was, he did not pass on either his ruthlessness or his ability to his son Richard. The result was the Restoration in 1660, and Charles II’s return to his father’s throne. His court too was a centre of art and culture; if he was far less devoted to his Portuguese wife than his father had been to his French mother, he still allowed her to practise her Faith, and was received into it himself on his deathbed. Although having to play a careful game with Parliament—tacitly accepting its power while maintaining the appearance of supremacy—he did not fear to take the oligarchs on directly when defending his brother’s right of succession to the throne.
Of course that brother, James II, was driven off the throne and out of the country, and his son—James III, as we may say—tried twice from exile to regain his tights. But he carried on a shadow court, at first in France, and latterly in Rome (where he founded the city’s Protestant Cemetery for his non-Catholic courtiers, and where Keats ended up). There he raised his two sons, the first of whom, Bonnie Prince Charlie came closest to regaining the kingdoms of his ancestors in 1745-6. But while scholars to this day dispute how likely his victory would have been had he prevailed upon his lieutenants to march to London—and while the 42 years that followed until his sad death were dreary—his Scots adventure revealed several key elements in his character. The first was an extraordinary military intuition which, when he was able to enforce his decisions, led to such victories as Prestonpans, and might well have led him and his men from Derby to Oxford to Hampton Court. The second was the ability to inspire an intense loyalty that was not only exhibited when he was in triumph, as when holding court at Edinburgh, but also in desperate straits, as when hiding from his pursuers after Culloden. When his father died in 1766, he became de jure Charles III, although the current King could not have been expected to defer to his memory by calling himself Charles IV!
Taken together, in their disputes with their Puritan and Whig opponents, the Stuarts based themselves firmly in the deepest and oldest beliefs of each of their Three Kingdoms. As Murray Pittock observes in The Invention of Scotland:
Subsequently, it was to be “those who supported the Divine Right of Kings” who “upheld the historicity of Arthur;” whereas those who did not turned instead “to the laws and customs of the Anglo-Saxons.” Arthur remained a figure central to Stuart propaganda. Stuart iconography celebrated the habits and beliefs of the ancient Britons. In particular, the Royal Oak, still a central symbol of the dynasty, was closely related to ideas about Celtic fertility ritual, and the King’s power as an agent of renewal: “The oak, the largest and strongest tree in the North, was venerated by the Celts as a symbol of the supreme power.” It was thus fitting that an oak should protect Charles II from the Cromwellian troops who wished to strip the sacred new Arthur of his status. The story confirmed the King’s mystical authority, and also his close friendship with nature. Long after 1688, the Stuart dynasty was to be closely linked with images of fertility. In literature, Arthurian images of the Stuarts persisted into the nineteenth century. This “Welsh messiah, the warrior who will come to overthrow the Saxons and Normans,” was an icon of the Stuarts’ claim to be Kings of all Britain, both “Political Hero” and “National Messiah,” in Arthurian mould. Arthur’s status as a legendary huntsman (“the figure of the Wild Huntsman is sometimes identified with Arthur”) was also significant. The Stuarts made much of hunting: it helped to confirm their heroic status as stewards of nature and the land. In doing this, they identified themselves not only with Arthur, but with Fionn, the legendary Gaelic warlord who was in the eighteenth century to be the subject of James Macpherson’s pro-Stuart Ossian poems. Fionn, legends of whom abound in Scotland, was also, like Arthur, scheduled to wake and deliver the nation when danger threatened. In identifying with both figures, the Stuarts were able to simultaneously present themselves as Gaelic and British monarchs. This symbolism was used with peculiar adroitness in Ireland, where the Stuarts were almost never identified with Arthur, but rather with Fionn and heroes from Fionn’s own time. Charles Edward was compared to Fergus, Conall, Conroy, and Angus Oge, while his grandfather became for some a symbol of Ireland herself, a Fenian hero in the making, a foreshadower of the sacrificial politics of such as Pearse: “Righ Shemus, King James, represented the faith of Erin, and so became her comrade in martyrdom.” In famous eighteenth century songs like “the Blackbird,” Ireland was presented as an abandoned woman, waiting for the return of her hero-King. The same symbolism was used in Scotland. “The Gaelic messianic tradition” of Fionn suggested that the Stuart King would one day return to bring light and fecundity to the land. In the Highlands of Scotland, the events of Jacobitism themselves passed into folklore, like the older stories to which they were related. More educated Jacobite sympathisers compared the Stuarts to the heroes of the Roman Republic, to Aeneas, or to the saints. But the view of them as sacred monarchs of folkloric tradition and power was one which endured among all ranks.
It was for this reason that the Neo-Jacobite Revival of the late 19th century attracted so many well-known writers and artists to its ranks—even as far away as Boston, where Ralph Adams Cram served as prior of the Order of the White Rose, and Isabella Stewart Gardner hosted its meetings in her great house of Fenway Court (now the museum bearing her name). But in any case, while he was Prince of Wales, the opposition by professionals to his views on architecture, the environment, literature, and so on centred on being “realistic.” This is apparent from a revealing 21 January 1993 letter he wrote to Tom Shebbeare, director of the Prince’s Trust:
For the past 15 years, I have been entirely motivated by a desperate desire to put the “Great” back into Great Britain. Everything I have tried to do—all the projects, speeches, schemes, etc.—have been with this end in mind. And none of it has worked, as you can see too obviously! In order to put the “Great” back I have always felt it was vital to bring people together, and I began to realise that the one advantage my position has over anyone else’s is that I can act as a catalyst to help produce a better and more balanced response to various problems. I have no “political” agenda—only a desire to see people achieve their potential; to be decently housed in a decent, civilised environment that respects the cultural and vernacular character of the nation; to see this country’s real talents (especially inventiveness and engineering skills) put to best use in the best interests of the country and the world (at present they are being disgracefully wasted through lack of co-ordination and strategic thinking); to retain and value the infrastructure and cultural integrity of rural communities (where they still exist) because of the vital role they play in the very framework of the nation and the care and management of the countryside; to value and nurture the highest standards of military integrity and professionalism, as displayed by our armed forces, because of the role they play as an insurance scheme in case of disaster; and to value and retain our uniquely special broadcasting standards which are renowned throughout the world. The final point is that I want to roll back some of the more ludicrous frontiers of the ’60s in terms of education, architecture, art, music, and literature, not to mention agriculture! Having read this through, no wonder they want to destroy me, or get rid of me … !
That the king would want to reverse the settlement of 1688—or even like another predecessor he definitely admires, George III, to at least return the Crown to the position it held under Queen Anne, in order, as that Hanoverian wished, to defend his people from their oligarchs—is very unlikely. That he would like to use the charism inherent in his sacred office as did the Stuarts, as a means of renewing his realms in a manner above politics and beyond debate, is quite possible. If this is so, let us hope His Majesty succeeds in that quest.