This long-read article was written by Edward Eves for the 2022 Robinson College essay competition, and was highly commended.
Estimated read time of essay: 15 minutes
The twentieth century was a disaster for royalty. In July 1900, King Umberto I of Italy was assassinated at Monza and in July 1946, his son, Vittorio Emmanuele III, scampers from the throne. In 1908, King Carlos of Portugal suffered the same fate as Umberto and two years later, the Portuguese monarchy was abolished. In 1913, the King of Greece was also murdered. As Leonard Woolf writes, the period was “a holocaust of emperors, kings, princes, archdukes and hereditary grand dukes” . The most notable extirpation was in Russia, where the last Tsar and his family were murdered in the basement of their home on July 17, 1918. In each case, the killings were marked as prerequisites to the building of democracy in Europe. However, in almost every European nation which was ruled by monarchy, the void left behind was filled by an ambitious dictator. Was this really the solution the people envisaged when they ousted their monarchies? Now in the twenty-first century, there are only 12 European monarchies that remain. What do all these monarchies stand for? What did they stand for in the past? And what will they stand for in the future?
Since Charles I, considered the last absolute monarch of the United Kingdom, the monarchy in the United Kingdom has suffered a steady decline in political power. In the modern day, their role exists as unbending support for the party in power, whoever it may be, while they still hold various smaller roles such as the weekly meetings between monarch and Prime Minister. Such meetings have been fruitful for Prime Ministers, with Clement Attlee, a former Prime Minister, commenting,” Yet another advantage is that the Monarchy is continuously in touch with public affairs, acquires great experience, whereas the Prime Minister might have been out of office for some years.”  This experience and knowledge from an alternate perspective remains important as advice and counsel for each Prime Minister that holds office. Another common characteristic amongst surviving monarchies is subtlety. Their ability to exist as symbols of their state, whilst, in almost every nation, the people are more concerned with government than the monarchs themselves. As Amman, editor of The Economist magazine, writes of Queen Elizabeth II,” Indeed, one of her greatest achievements is that she has never said anything of any interest in public.”  Amman refers here to the Queen’s propensity for remaining unremarkable in opinion, and thus, unoffending towards the people. The monarchies that remain, remain as emblems of the nations they shepherd. Their role is not to disturb the public opinion, rather to remain neutral and in full support of their nation’s political leaders. In doing so, they can allow democracy to take its proper shape whilst their position on the throne avoids the threat of dictatorship that we have seen in other European nations.
Alongside political discretion, the pageantry associated with monarchy provides tremendous joy and a vivid sense of community for the people every year. From performers to military parades, to street parties and live music, events such as the Queen Elizabeth’s platinum jubilee this year provide an enormous feeling of patriotism and pride in one’s own nation. Johnathan Welch of The Critic perfectly sums up the essence of these events, writing” Yet our need for solidarity remains. For want of battle, we can find such solidarity in festival. In days such as these, that need is met through celebration of a person who embodies our whole nation” . In bringing the nation together in celebration and festival, the monarchy underlines its importance to national pride. Inevitably, there are those who do not buy into the occasion and the collective buzz of pageants. The same article from The Critic writes,” To the cynic, perhaps this all tells the sorry tale of cultural decline. Of a people lost at sea, searching without rudder for cohesive cultural identity” . A growing portion of the population have fallen out of touch with the monarchy and Welch highlights the increasing feeling of cultural uncertainty around the surviving monarchy and its unnecessary ceremonies. Nonetheless, whether foraging for cohesive cultural identity or painting a thick facade over a nation’s cultural decline, the value of national parties in celebration of the monarchy cannot be understated.
In the UK, the Queen and other members of the royal family are patrons of over one thousand charities and organisations in the UK and the Commonwealth . This staggering number of charitable organisations that the royal family continue to support highlights their desire to aid those who are less fortunate. The late Prince Philip alone was associated with 992 charities in one capacity or another throughout his 99-year-long life. A testament to his remarkable devotion to his people and a strong example of all surviving monarchies and their capacity for charity. A strong argument amongst those in opposition to the continuation of monarchy throughout Europe is their extreme wealth and the flouting of this wealth while there are those who live in desperate poverty. However, the distribution of this wealth via charity and support of over a thousand organisations helps to distil this animosity. In addition, it must be noted that whilst monarchies are of a particular burden to the average taxpayer, in the UK, for example, in 2021, the Sovereign Grant to the monarchy was £86 million  while the estimated income via tourism alone due to the monarchy every year is around £500 million. Therefore, while growing numbers of republicans are particularly offended by the wealth and extravagance of the monarchy, there is strong evidence to suggest that the monarchy is highly profitable, especially in the UK. Considering these figures and the sheer number of charities that the British royalty continue to support, the influence of monarchy over social and financial equality is a crucial element of their existence in modern times.
Moreover, Britain’s Royal Family and its Armed Forces have a special relationship which goes back centuries. As sovereign, the Queen is the official Head of the British Armed Forces, and this is extremely important. Paxman emphasises this, “armies work by cultivating emotion…To do so requires the development of an instinctive loyalty. Military organisations act upon commands, so they need a hierarchy, at the top of which will inevitably sit an individual – the monarch.”  The army has a very strong commitment to the queen and their loyalty towards her is unmatched. Further on Paxman quotes The Commandant of Sandhurst who states that he “never, ever heard a soldier say that he is fighting for Britain. They’re fighting for the Queen.”  For many soldiers, simply fighting for their own country is not enough motivation, but to fight and defend their Queen, and their monarch is an honour. More to this effect, the Royal Navy has particularly close ties with the Royal Family with numerous members of the House of Windsor such as George V, Edward VIII and Prince Charles all attending naval college and training to become sailors. The idea was for these future monarchs to gain important virtues like punctuality and self-reliance that would be required as future kings of the country. This idea highlights the monarchy’s respect towards the Armed Forces and the close connections which continue to exist between the two prove to be extremely beneficial for the spirit of the Armed Forces and the defence of the United Kingdom.
Similarly, the monarchy is hugely beneficial for the Church of England. As ‘Defender of the Faith and Supreme Governor of the Church of England’ the Queen is a vital figure and essential for the promotion of faith in the UK and the Commonwealth. The Queen’s strong association with the Church was symbolised at her coronation when she was anointed by the Archbishop of Canterbury and took an oath to “maintain and preserve inviolably the settlement of the Church of England” . The strong ties to religion and faith add to the mystical aspect of the monarchy which convinces many that they are almost “above human’’. Additionally, with the advice of the Prime Minister, the Queen appoints Archbishops, Bishops, and Deans of the Church of England, who then swear an oath of allegiance to her. Furthermore, the Queen is known to be a devout Christian who regularly attends services with other members of the Royal Family. This is regularly documented and is the perfect advertisement for Christianity and other faiths in England where atheism is on the rise. Once more, the close ties to the monarchy bring huge benefits for religion and particularly the Church of England, with the Queen a perfect image of hope and faith.
However, beside all their current roles and functions as monarchy, one question still remains. What will the monarchy be for in the future? With Queen Elizabeth II turning 96 this year, it is only a matter of time until her legacy is passed down to her first son, Charles. The Queen has endured the longest reign ever seen in the United Kingdom and has rightfully earned the undying support of the majority of her people. How will this change when she dies? The Queen’s death will mark a new age for the monarchy and Prince Charles will have to adapt the monarchy’s function in order to remain relevant and maintain the majority backing from the British public. In his support for global conservation and as a champion for environmental concerns, Charles has found his cause. In a world where global warming is on the rise, serving as a serious threat to human existence, Charles will garner huge support in his campaigning for the protection of our planet. The most important balancing act for the monarchy continues to be staying in touch with the people whilst staying far enough ahead to be marvelled at and admired. In championing conservation across the globe, Charles can connect with the people whilst remaining an idyllic figurehead of our nation. This is only one example of how King Charles may wish to lead his country when the crown arrives on his head, but the central problem that will no doubt outlive his reign, will be how the monarchy, an ancient system of rule, can survive in the twenty-first century.
To draw to a close, in the twenty-first century there are still may roles that remain for monarchies. Arguably the most important, is the devout support for government and the increasing modesty and discretion of modern monarchies which allow democracy to thrive. In the UK, the Queen’s roles as Supreme Governor of the Church of England and Head of the Armed Forces prove vitally important for the sustained popularity of the Church and the strength of will of the British Armed Forces. Lastly, monarchy’s numerous roles in charity and their importance for tourism in modern states continue to provide enormous benefits to their economies and contribute heavily towards social equality. As we look ahead into the future and the rest of the twenty-first century, the problem that surviving monarchies face is their relevance and suitability in modern governments and economies. Their ability to modernise and adapt to the current climate whilst preserving their enchantment of their people. However, for now, the monarchies prove to be tremendous symbols of devotion and commitment to their nations and whether they are removed or not, they will remain hugely important figures of history.
 Woolf, After the Deluge, (London: Penguin, 1. Jan 1937), pp. 71-2.
 Paxman, On Royalty, (London: Penguin, 2006), p.112
 Paxman, On Royalty, (London: Penguin, 2006), p.113
Amman, ‘How monarchies survive modernity’, The Economist, April 27 2019; online edition,[ https://www.economist.com/international/2019/04/27/how-monarchies-survive-modernity , accessed 27 July 2022 ]
Johnathan Welch, ‘The power of the pageant’, The Critic, June 5, 2022; online edition, [ https://thecritic.co.uk/the-power-of-the-pageant/ , accessed 25 July 2022 ]
‘What is the role of the monarchy?’, UCL, The Constitution Unit, [ https://www.ucl.ac.uk/constitution-unit/explainers/what-role-monarchy , accessed 27 July 2022 ]
‘Royal Finances’, Institute for Government, June 1, 2022, [ https://www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/explainers/royal-finances , accessed 28 July 2022 ]
The Week Staff, ‘How the world’s monarchs are adapting to modern times’, June 16, 2019; online edition, [ https://theweek.com/articles/847076/how-worlds-monarchs-are-adapting-modern-times , accessed 23 July 2022 ]
Jeremy Paxman, On Royalty, (London: Penguin, 2006)
A.Purdue, Unsteady Crowns – Why the world’s monarchies are struggling for survival ( Cheltenham: The History Press, 2022)
Andrew Marr, Elizabethans – A history of how modern Britain was forged, (London: William Collins, 2020)