For over a millennium, the investiture of our monarchs has been attended by a cadre of nobles who, without their wives, currently number 808. The temptation to swap out the congregation for an audience of celebrities, global elites and ‘cultural ambassadors’ must be enormous. There are 8,000 seats in Westminster Abbey (2,000 if modern safety laws are heeded). This will be the first test of a continuity which the King will swear to protect. If the monarchy can’t hold the line against the hustlers it attracts it will inevitably be co-opted into branding, thence politics, thence obscurity.
Up and down the country, old men are throwing up the lids of japanned steamer trunks. Amid confetti plumes of mangey moth and ermine, they rifle childhood dressing-up boxes for silver baubles lost, perhaps, in a 1960s game of marbles. Down at the Duke and Crown, an ancient tab is settled; a pawned mace unbolted from above the bar.
Yet I fear a catastrophic mistake in the works.
It’s never been this long since a coronation. If the nation retained a visual impression of what the ceremony looks like (the Saxon Abbey a red velvet sea of darkly glinting coronets), it would be harder to turn it into what it now risks becoming: a corporate event with the vibe of a celebrity wedding. Those drawing up the guest list of 2023 may think it a blessing that the footage from 1953 is in black and white.
On the day itself, a small miracle will take place. For a few hours, the guillotines of modernity, meritocracy and secularism will fall silent. Presidents of avowed revolutionary republics shall signal their respectability by ducking their postured principles to pay homage to the ancien regime. Many will be totally unable to distinguish what they see from a Hollywood celebrity cult, but their reverence will be real.
What they revere, then, is up to us.
The King and his nobles exist in a legal ecosystem almost entirely outside the political sphere. Noble dynasties are created (and, occasionally, dismantled), at Windsor Castle – whose old walls have stood for longer than those of our parliament. Nevertheless, those who rise through the ranks of the state machinery are sworn into office by taking an oath to preserve the sovereign. This displaces the centre of British public life from politics and orders the governing hierarchy towards the centre of the nation rather than any ideological trend.
Perhaps it oughtn’t to work, yet the enlightened world yearns against its delusions for the authenticity which our system produces. The fountain and source of all dignities, honours, patents and patronages flows not from the marginal consensus of the ballot, but the mythos of our past – its hereditary nature placing it above any need to seek approval.
Naturally, some seek destruction of that which makes the highest ranks unattainable purely on terms of fashionable virtues. Though the ordeal of the British anti-monarchist is roughly that of an atheist who wanders into a friendly evangelical church, wander in they do. As elected members of parliament renewed their vows to serve King Charles, the House of Commons had to forbid this lunatic fringe from crossing their fingers behind their backs. Might the monarchy yet be betrayed with a politician’s kiss?
The college Trotskyist Tony Blair fought a clever, indirect, offensive against the crown. Whipping up the sanctimonious egalitarianism of those beneath the social mean, his movement found the support to banish lower nobles who sat in parliament by birthright. Shakespearian names were hurtled from the Pugin corridors. On the river terrace, a new level of conversation bays the victory of modern standards.
The full effect of the Blairite purge, however, was to challenge the crown to exist in a vacuum.
Should King Charles indicate that his un-seated nobles are to be sidelined for their political irrelevance, he will bring his approval of the radical Blairite trend to those functions that the crown retains outside parliament. The ‘slimmed down monarchy’ that is rumoured, alas, will be a political monarchy – settling the moot question about who holds the veto on state power. Royal letters patent being only be as good as the (often loathed), government of the day, the Crown will become little more than a compliant PR machine.
Theoretically, the King could forestall embarrassment by writing us (perhaps I should have been clearer about my own stake in this earlier), out of law. But there’s a problem with that too: the UK and most of the commonwealth still point to Magna Carta as a foundational part of their constitution. By what authority does Magna Carta exist, then, if not the contract between a hereditary monarch and hereditary barons?
Anti-monarchist fringes cling to such technicalities just as sedevacantalists emerge among unbelievers who argue that the system is only as good as the performance of its rites. Nobody listens to them, of course – and neither will I – but if the monarch himself should seem sympathetic to the modern version of meritocracy and credentialism, a jolt will go up and down the line. Village fetes will no longer be opened by some red-faced ‘squire, but rather some petty oligarch on the town planning committee. Eventually, some seedy democratic leader will gamble his slim majority by asking parliament whether the country really needs to support its king when it struggles with its own gas bills?
Then the population will be divided into Parliamentary and Royalist factions. Please, God, save the King from being seduced by transient commercial and cultural pragmatism. His subjects have been so well led for so long that we may be unable to discern the right path for ourselves.
UPDATE: About six hours after I submitted this article for publication, the draft plans for the coronation appeared in the British press (leaked, in my opinion, to gauge the public reaction before things are finalised). I can only re-iterate – the world’s eyes will be on us. We’d better get this right.
God Save the King!