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A Royal Mess

The happy couple looks not just fabulous, but very English as they make their way through the ceremonies steeped in tradition like a cup of very strong tea.  A proper Royal Wedding may seem like a bit much to most people, including 80% of Brits according to one poll, but it’s much more than that.  To me, it’s a cheap excuse for a history lesson – a reflection on not only what it means to be English, but what we as Americans inherited from the grand mess.

I have to warn you though – it’s not particularly glamorous.

To a large extent the UK as we know it dates from Henry VIII, who in 1534 separated England from the Catholic Church and declared himself the Supreme Head of the Church of England.  It’s generally attributed to his desire to divorce his pious wife Catherine of Aragon, an act forbidden by the Pope.  It also allowed him to seize the vast land held by the church after refusing a compromise of the deliverance of 24 parishes, their deeds sent in a pie shell (“Four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie”).  From then on, England was officially Protestant.  But it’s much more complicated than that.

The Evolution of the "Union Jack" as the emblem of the UK

Henry was a terrible king in many ways, leaving his nation nearly bankrupt and with no clear heir.  His eldest daughter Mary had first crack at it, but her attempts to restore Catholicism left the nation ripped apart (giving her the name “Bloody Mary”).  A coup was arranged and the Protestant Elizabeth I was installed.  All was well for a while.  When she died without an heir in 1606 the Scottish king James VI became James I of the United Kingdom of England and Scotland.  Protestantism was cemented throughout this larger land by his translation of the Bible into English so that everyone could read it.

Protestants, however, have never been an easy lot to lead.  The more radical ones, called Puritans for their desire to purify the church, fled in part to America to start Massachusetts in 1630 to escape official condemnation.  The ones who stayed behind kept organizing, and in 1642 started a civil war behind their top general, Olliver Cromwell.  By 1649 they seized power and beheaded King Charles I, melted down the crown, and declared that Parliament would rule the lands.

Cromwell was ruthless in his efforts to root out ungodly behavior, especially in the nominally English controlled lands in Ireland where Catholicism was still very strong.  His despotic and bloody rule held through his death in 1658, but within two years Charles’ exiled son came back to be Charles II.  The monarchy was restored, but Parliament has ruled the United Kingdom ever since.  Charles II was uneasy as a figurehead and came to loathe the Protestant majority of his kingdom.  On his deathbed he converted to Catholicism.

Charles’ brother James took up the crown as James II, but trouble started immediately.  James was unashamedly Catholic, which didn’t set well with most of the Kingdom.  Another civil war erupted where the Protestants backed William, from the House of Orange in the Netherlands.  James fled to Ireland to raise an army of loyal Catholics, but was cornered at the Battle of the Boyne on 12 July 1690.  William III  became King of the UK and Ireland was fully subjugated as never before.

During all this an astute young man owed a debt by the monarchy for support through the Cromwell years had enough of religious struggle.  William Penn, himself a Quaker, asked for land in America and founded Pennsylvania on the principle of religious freedom.  Shortly afterward Lord Baltimore founded a haven for Catholics just south of that called Maryland.

That still wasn’t the end of the religious and succession trouble for the UK, however.  The Scots had a tendency to follow their own ideas about Protestant faith, called Presbyterianism, but they were tolerated as long as they didn’t get too uppity.  Many were given lands in Ireland on the assumption that they would be more loyal than the Catholics and could help subjugate the land, especially in Ulster (Northern Ireland).  The crown never did make completely good on their promises, staying wary of Presbyterians in general, and a few rebellions took place over the years – when many of the now-called “Scots-Irish” fled to America.  Ireland was not formally absorbed by the UK until 1801.

The lack of clear heirs and the need for loyal Protestants steered Parliament to periodically scour Europe for distant relatives who would be pliable periodically.  In 1714 George I was brought over from Hanover, and the crown has been held by German nobility ever since.  The Royal Family changed their name during WWI from “Saxe-Coburg-Gotha” to “Windsor” to sound more English, but they are entirely German in descent.

Where does that leave us today?  The UK has its figureheads who preside over elaborate ceremonies as if they are truly English, but they are not.  The United States was a land built on religious turmoil and a need to get away from the nasty religious politics of the UK.  Ireland won its freedom through the Anglo-Irish War in 1922, largely because of support from Irish ex-pats in the US.

Back where it all started, the ceremony and pomp continues as if everything is right with the world.  That’s the power of a figurehead monarchy, after all.  You can gloss over all the nasty bits and enjoy a good show, if you’re up for it.

17 thoughts on “A Royal Mess

  1. History fascinates me. The royal families fascinate me. They have been a very disfunctional family over the centuries. 🙂 I watched the Royal wedding before work this morning. I thought it was lovely.

  2. Pingback: A Royal Mess | Barataria – The work of Erik Hare - Christian IBD

  3. Gwen, it was lovely and I wish the young couple the very best. They both seem like very good people. But I just had to post this today, largely because I don’t think Americans know just how screwed up everything got – and how important it was to the creation of this nation as we know it.

    Separation of Church and State was not just some great intellectual ideal – it was an absolute necessity to people who had seen the alternative twist through a history of terrible bloodshed and disaster. It’s something I think we should all remember well.

    But all my best to Will and Kate. I’m always rooting for the UK, even if I do think we’re better off without all this stuff. 🙂

  4. What a strange history! I didn’t know most of this. Why aren’t we taught this in school? It does explain more about us than the English I think. It’s like they are in denial or something but I guess I don’t know them that well. If it really is this sordid it makes the stuff about affairs seem pretty tame.

  5. By leaving out the ravages of imperialism this cannot be considered a complete history of the UK. However, it is impressive in its scope and ability to explain that the royal house is a house of cards. I would hope you would consider this to be one chapter and further explain how this nation came to dominate and twist the world to its own designs.

  6. I’m not impressed by all this show – it seems like it was made for TV more than being some great tradition. Just glad I’m not paying for it.

    I was wondering if its really fair to say that modern England starts with Henry – I agree he was a terrible king but you are giving him way too much credit aren’t you?

  7. Anna: This is never taught in US schools, but I think everyone in the UK knows all about it – even the bad stuff.

    Sharif: I’ve talked about Imperialism other places, so I’m not shy about it at all. You probably gleaned that I am Irish so I can see why you went easy on me. 🙂 It is rather amazing that a nation this ripped up on religion was able to form such an empire, but I do think that concentrating on external politics makes internal politics easier very often – so perhaps the great empire is not such a mystery after all. It may have been a diversion just as the royal family is in the end.

    Jim: I say it starts with Henry VIII not just for the Reformation but because he lost the last traces of land in France, forcing England to look towards the British Isles to claim its territory. They ceased being a continental power pretty much forever – and aren’t really to this day. You can always argue the point, of course, and perhaps I shouldn’t have included it. 🙂

  8. When she died without an heir in 1606 the Scottish king James VI became James I of the United Kingdom of England and Scotland.

    No he didn’t – James VI of Scotland became James I of England, two separate kingdoms, ruled by the same Monarch who kept his permanent residence in London, but with separate Parliaments and legal systems.
    The United Kingdom of Great Britain was created by the Acts of Union 1707 under Queen Anne

    The UK has its figureheads who preside over elaborate ceremonies as if they are truly English, but they are not.
    Well, they were BORN here – no monarch has been born outside the UK since George II who died in 1760. I’m a republican but I do find this characterisation of the royal family as German rather distasteful – especially since all “Anglo-Saxons” must come from German & the low countries by definition. How would it be if all immigrant families who came over in the 18th century, lived and intermarried here (and with people born abroad, like Prince Philip from the royal family of Denmark and Greece) where considered not British / English? People, especially those who call themselves liberal, should really drop that kind of thing.

    (I won’t go into the English Civil War / War of Three Kingdoms, because I know you’re just doing a humorous gloss)

    The UK has a soap opera bigger and better than Dallas (and just as classy 😉

  9. David: Thank you for the allowance of a bit of slop – I was trying to cram this into 800 words for people who knew nothing about it at all (but, to my mind, really should). I didn’t quite make it to 800 words, but I came close. Yes, many details were glossed over as succinctly (and cheekily) as possible.

    But missing the Act of Union in 1707 was just wrong and thank you for the correction.

    I know, British people (even republicans) hate it when I say the Windsors are of German descent, and I suppose that I shouldn’t note that. The UK is a very diverse nation and there is room for everyone. My apologies for any offence.

  10. I’m not just British, I’m Scottish so I’m legally obliged to correct any errors in any history of the process of Union with England (which most English people are rather hazy about) you pulled off your summary very well otherwise.

    I’m not offended / hate having the German ancestry of the Windsors pointed out – that’s just historical fact – and the complaint isn’t aimed as you as much as the trope it’s self: “the Queen is another fucking German tourist” as Johnny Rotten had it, which is forgiveable as a piece of punk shock propaganda, but people often use it as if it were a serious argument against monarchy which it is not. Since you’re American you may not appreciate the casual anti-German prejudice that is constantly tossed around in England – the first connotation of German is really still Nazi over here. It’s a sickly and opportunist bit of nativism, that people would not of course use against Bernard Katz or Hans Adolf Krebs, just to take a couple of random British Nobelists (rather the opposite, in fact.)
    … and it irks me, it does… can you tell? 😉

  11. You write, “The Royal Family changed their name during WWI from “Saxe-Coburg-Gotha” to “Windsor” to sound more English, but they are entirely German in descent.” An odd comment, coming from an American brought up in the ‘melting pot.’ And technically incorrect, I think. While George III may have preferred conversing in German to English, George VI, father to Elizabeth II, was thoroughly British by culture, and married Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, a Scot, making his daughter, Elizabeth II, half British. Elizabeth II married Philip, who was only half German, with the other half being largely Danish, with some Greek tossed in. So that makes Prince Charles a nice mongrelly combo of many European nationalities. Charles married Lady Diana Spencer, whose bloodlines I’m not going to take the time to research, but who is very probably largely, if not entirely, British. So that makes their son, Prince William, more and more British than his forebears. William has married good ol’ middle-class Britisher Kate. If they produce the expected heir, that child will be even more British than his pretty-darn-British papa. But enough of ethnic pedigree-ing. My point is, we are all largely what our culture forms us to be. And most of the good things, as well as the bad things, that develop from historical events are the collateral effects indirectly resulting from previous actions.

  12. It would seem that during the English Civil War some of the eastern seaboard colonies would have been on opposite sides, but I’ve never heard of armed conflict between, say, Virginia and Massachusetts during this time. How did they handle it?

    The UK may be gradually dis-uniting, or un-uniting? Eire is eventually going to be reunited as an independent nation. Scotland and Wales have national assemblies for the first time in hundreds of years. There is a significant nationalist movement in Cornwall. At least some talk in Yorkshire. And look at this: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1535193/Britain-wants-UK-break-up-poll-shows.html

    But the historic role of monarchy in the last couple of hundred years or so is to separate the duties of the formal head of state from political leadership. Thus, Queen and Prime Minister. (Queen Elizabeth is formally the head of state in Canada and Australia.) Many countries such as India do this without a monarchy, having both a President and Prime Minister. Is it useful to spread the load this way? Maybe so…..

  13. Alan, excellent question as to how the English Civil War played out in North America – I’ve never seen *anything* on that topic! There had to be at least some nastiness.

    As for the UK splitting, I think that a “federal” solution is in the works. With a regional Parliment in Scotland, Wales, and Ulster all they need is one for England to start serious devolution. That could be interesting! I don’t know about Cornwall, tho – that is an interesting development that we’ll have to see. But it’s not my nation, so we’ll just have to let them think through what they want.

    I have a longer response to David K, who really made me think, that I hope to get to later. There’s some interesting stuff when people share as much as the US and UK do – we learn a lot from each other, I think.

  14. looking forward to the longer response

    RE: English Civil War in the North American colonies – according to wikipedia the colonies only had c.50,000 colonists (excluding slaves and indentured servants) in the 1640s as against 5 1/4 million in England at the same time. With so few people in such a large area, and so remote from the action – a months sailing time – I doubt it would have been drawn much into the conflict.

  15. I agree a “federal” solution seems to be in the making. And I think the “british” political system is flexible enough to find–peacefully–a solution that works. What the outer boundaries of it will be is interesting to think about. Last week the Scottish National [independence] Party won a majority in the Scottish parliament (69 of 129). An independence referendum is likely to follow.

    Still, the idea of both an English Parliament and a British Parliament is a little hard to get comfortable with…..

    In the run-up to the American Revolution, the notion of giving seats in Parliament to the colonies was discussed extensively. The Brits never got comfortable with an “imperial” parliament….

  16. I don’t believe that Elizabeth the First was put on the throne via a ‘Coup’ – Mary certainly had to contend with Lady Jane Grey – the so called 9 day queen, but Elizabeth was the legitimate Heir to Mary so didn’t need a Coup, if anythng her problem was avoiding one to put someone else on the throne. You are wrong about us English though (even me of Irish extraction) , we wouldn’t mind if the United Kingdom split up, in fact after suffering under the Scots Labour party for the past 10 years I know of few Englishmen except our Leaders who would mind the UK breaking up – we certainly don’t see a ‘federal’ solution – and nor do the SNP is Scotland for that matter. If anything a break up of the UK may allow us English to get out of the EU and avoid being yet another ‘bone’ for Europe. Off its coast but not in it, suits me fine. The problem is that the Scots, the Welsh and the Northern Irish aren’t stupid – leave the Union and they have to support themselves – mind you maybe the US would be willing to help Northern Ireland? The Scots may then have their own problems with the Scottish Isles – I hear that many of them aren’t keen to leave the Union and be ruled by Scotland. Then we have Wales, I believe that is a de-facto union itself, the North and the South. I think it may even be true to say that the largest Majority for Scots independence resides south of the Border.

  17. John: Thank you for your comments!

    I call the removal of Lady Jane Grey a “coup” for the simple reason that she was executed. That may seem a bit thin to you, but I’m trying to summarize a long history and establish patterns that many of my readers don’t know about in just 800 words. Did I take a bit of license? Yes, I did. I hope you will find that this is the least of my problems (I say this knowing there are others!). But your point is well taken – Elizabeth I of England was clearly the legitimate heir by just about any reckoning. I still don’t fully understand how the “Nine Day Queen” got there in the first place, to be honest.

    As for your contemporary politics in the UK, I will plead ignorance and throw myself on your mercy. Clearly, everyone I talk to has a different opinion and that’s as well as it should be. It’s clearly a complicated subject and a foreigner like me really has little business wading into it. However, in a certain sense you aren’t going through anything that we aren’t going through in the US except you may be a bit further along than we are in this sense. The proper role of a nation state and a centralized government in this day and age is very much up in the air in many places around the world, as it should be.

    Thank you again for your addition to my humble post. I do hope that we can all learn from each others’ experiences and keep talking as we try to work all this national / multinational / global stuff out. I honestly don’t want to see the UK break up, but I can’t tell you exactly why or have a credible story as to why I should care at all. I do think we’re all at some kind of inflection point in history for many reasons and the future could look very different than our past has. We shall all see, eh? In the meantime, the more we hear from each other the better.

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