The Monarchy In Britain
A brief guide
The Pomp and Circumstance
For some there is justification for this undemocratic institution in its deep roots. If it has existed for a thousand years it must be laden with meaning and power. To remove it would therefore be to take away something essential to the nation.
We have seen how the royal family in fact have their roots outside of Britain. But what is more, much of the pomp and ceremony which helps give the family an aura of antiquity and importance has been invented in recent times.
The Invention of Tradition is a fascinating guide to the process. In the chapter on the British monarchy David Cannadine writes that "Ceremonial which was badly performed has now become so well staged-managed that the British have been able to persuade themselves (despite overwhelming historical evidence to the contrary) that they are good at ritual because they always have been."
Much of the royal pageantry that seems ancient developed in early 20th century Britain in a context of international competition in state ceremonials. Music was specially commissioned for royal occasions, choirs were trained and clergy began to dress up as they had not before. Much of the music that now seems to belong naturally to royal occasions was newly composed by Elgar for these purposes during this period.
Cannadine writes that "the biographies and reminiscences of late Victorian and Edwardian prelates contain full accounts of elaborate preparations for the great royal ceremonials - something conspicuously lacking in similar books by and about their predecessors." Indeed, by the time of Liz Windsor's crowning ceremony in 1952 it was necessary to hire some of the horse-drawn carriages from a film production company, because there were not enough real ones available.
Reginald Brett, secretary of the Office of Works from 1895 to 1902, who was responsible for planning every major state occasion for many years, praised king Edward 7 for his "promptness, imagination and invention" in the promotion of royal grandeur. It was Edward who made the state opening of parliament an occasion of such grandeur once again after a break of 50 year, grandeur in which the monarchy still has a central part.
This king's funeral was marked by another ceremonial innovation, the lying in state at Westminster Hall of the dead monarch. In 1925 the death of the monarch's wife brought another novelty - she also was afforded a state funeral, including lying-in-state and a procession through the streets of London. A quarter of a century later the royal spouse's funeral was further enhanced by a lying-in-state in Westminster Hall, a new honour.
The importance now afforded the monarch's children in the royal entertainments was also puffed up in the twentieth century. The marriage of princess Mary in 1912 was made into a public occasion that it had not been before. The duke of York described it as ‘no longer Mary's wedding, but (this from the papers) it is the "Abbey Wedding" or the "Royal Wedding" or the "National Wedding" or even the "People's Wedding".’
"Jubilees," the periodic celebrations of a monarch's survival in office that are now a tiresome feature of life, are also took on their present importance in the last century. The jubilee to mark 25 years of office for George 5 had "no exact precedent" writes Cannadine. But suddenly the church service on jubilee day was "something very much like a Holy Communion" according to an admiring Ramsay Macdonald.
The investiture ceremony for the "Prince of Wales" is another example. Early in this century Prime Minister David Lloyd George decided to jazz-up an out-dated ceremony as a tactic to arouse national pride. According to the "Duke of Windsor" he "proposed that the ceremony be transformed into a spectacular Welsh pageant." A tailor was engaged to create "a fantastic costume . . . consisting of white satin breeches and a mantle and surcoat of purple velvet edged with ermine."
The BBC, ever a defender of the feudal system, has played an important part in ramping up support for the monarchical system with its reporting of ceremonial events. It's commentator, Richard Dimbleby, set the standard with an awed and reverential commentary on the lying-in-state of king George 5. Previous monarchs had not been assured of such a deferential attitude when they died. Television continued the process that radio began. Cannadine notes that while this medium has tended to point up the human foibles of politicians it has enhanced the "fairytale splendour" of the monarchy by bringing that splendour in full colour into the living rooms of the people.
Even the Royal Mail was a late comer to marking royal occasions. Only in 1935 did it begin to issue special stamps for jubilees, coronations and weddings.
The honours system, through which the monarch makes awards to loyal subjects, was also expanded in this period. The Order of Merit, and Companions of Honour are not ancient honours but recent creations.
The ceremony bolsters the monarchy, of course. But it can reinforce national self deception. At the time of the 1977 jubilee the Daily Mirror wrote, rather pathetically, "Britain may have lost out on a number of things, but we can still show the world a clean pair of heels when it comes to ceremonial." In 1952, when Liz was crowned, an American commentator had expressed that feeling rather less sentimentally. The show, he wrote, had in part been "put on by the British for a psychological boost to their somewhat shaky empire."
* David Cannadine’s "The Context, Performance and Meaning of Ritual: The British Monarchy and the ‘Invention of Tradition’, c. 1820-1977" published in "The Invention of Tradition."
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The BBC and the monarchy
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