Without a creed or dogma, what else binds us? As we mourn the passing of our Queen, any appreciation of her life must surely recognise that she did; in our increasingly fractured society she was a steady and unifying force. The Queen’s platinum jubilee celebrations this year bear witness to this, with people in all parts of the UK coming together as one nation in communal festivities to honour our monarch.
The origin of the jubilee year concept is in the Old Testament, where every 50 years land was to be redistributed to the poor, all those who since the last jubilee had lost their land. It is was so radical, this promise was rarely enacted, but the jubilee celebrations were adopted by the monarchy as a celebration with street parties and joy of community and family – our own families and our national family.
From the divine right of kings to constitutional monarchy
In contrast to the role of the monarch in our present-day constitution, in past centuries kings and queens exercised absolute power. The political doctrine created to defend this in medieval Christian times was that the authority of monarchs came directly from God. A tenet of this view was that the subjects of the crown, in an act of humility before God, willingly submitted to His choice of the soul that would be their ruling monarch, accepting therefore that he or she ruled by ‘divine right’. The phrase ‘by the Grace of God’ has historically been attached to the titles of reigning monarchs ever since.
By contrast, their subjects, the people, had no rights, while the divine right of kings was used to excuse the wielding of powers that were often harsh and cruel over them. Revolutions occurred when this status quo was no longer tolerable.
The Age of Enlightenment, a philosophical and intellectual movement in Europe spanning the 17th and 18th centuries, turned out to have global reach. Many movements trace their intellectual thought to the heritage of the Enlightenment and its encouragement of religious tolerance and opposition to the fixed dogmas of the church. Many chose to leave these shores and start afresh in America – the so-called ‘land of the free’, where people are citizens, not subjects.
So, what does all this mean for us now as a nation? What, in particular do young people make of our constitutional monarchy? Unlike the French, we did not chop heads off, bar one of course, but we are currently questioning our way forward.
In the service of the divine
Over the jubilee weekend I discussed this with my son-in-law – a left-leaning republican. His criticism of the current system was that any suggestion of a ‘divine right’, with its implication of entitlement, was undemocratic. I understand that, though my counterargument was one of faith, rather than divine right. In other words, I believe that for the Queen her Christian faith was her motivating influence.
During the service of thanksgiving for her reign, I was struck by the Archbishop of York suggesting not that she had a divine right, but that she felt unquestionably ‘called’ to the service of the divine. She always talked about serving her people. Yes, the monarch is privileged, with wealth and status; yet the Queen always maintained that serving her people – doing what they needed – was her role in life and she would commit to that.
A girl becomes a queen for an age of constancy and change
I came across this lovely poem written for this year’s jubilee by the poet laureate Simon Armitage. At the centre of the poem is the coronation, a wonderful description of the ancient and spellbinding rituals that, as he says, made a girl into a queen. Woven into this is a look ahead to the remarkable things that would come about during the Queen’s reign – but set against those that never change, a theme characterised in the line “It is constancy and it is change”:
The age of clockwork morphs into the digital age But the song of the blackbird remains the same … Man will walk on the moon, great elms will fail and fall But a knife’s still a knife and a fork’s still a fork … And indestructible towers will atomise in a blink. The God particle will be flushed from its hiding place. The sound barrier will twang with passenger planes. Civilisation will graft its collected thoughts onto silicon wafers, laureates will pass through court … But Taurus, the Bull, on its heavenly tour, Will breach the same horizon at the given hour.
And, as we know all too well this year: “Love is still love is still love and war is war.”
There is an astute reference to motherhood and womanhood, and how the Queen juggled, like other ordinary women, the demands of her growing family and her work – her other family, the nation.
I well remember after the death of Princess Diana that, with the same conflicts as all of us who have every worked and juggled, the Queen prioritised her grandsons over her job, staying in Balmoral to care for them, resisting returning to London to be with her people. Controversial, and human.
A time of change
This is a time of great change for us all – the pandemic has made us rethink our lives – how we live as individuals and how we move forward as a nation – how united we are, and what we want from our monarchy.
It may be the case that in most people’s minds the Queen was the monarchy, the monarchy was the Queen, and it is the Queen who continued to sustain the status quo. Will that now change?
The young are looking for new ways of living. They want goodness and fairness; they detest duplicity and misuse of power; their reverence for Mother Earth has led them to start movements that protect the planet. Does the monarchy continue to have a place in their world view, or will they reject it as my son-on-law does?
However we feel about the monarchy, and we will all feel different things for sure, let us hold the image of Queen Elizabeth as the highly respected and unifying presence in our lives that she became. Someone who went through all the tumultuous changes of our times and who shared with us our brightest days – who can forget her ‘jumping out of the plane’ with James Bond?! – and our darkest ones, for example as she resolutely and poignantly sat alone at the funeral of Prince Philip.
The new King’s promise: “loyalty, respect and love”
The Queen has been both an archetype and a real person, her life, as Armitage puts it, “a truthful fantasy”. Her values and commitment have been steadfast, and she has been a noble standard bearer for our country.
The crown now passes to her son, Charles. Let’s hope he fulfils his promise to serve “with loyalty, respect and love”. From what we know of him, he may be just what we most need at this time: a Green Man who reveres the planet and holds it sacred.
That is, of course, if we need a monarch at all. In this controversial respect, the reign of King Charles may well see more change than constancy.