The Role of British Monarchs in Imperial History

The role of monarchs and their relationship with the British Empire changed over time. In fact, there is something of an indirect correlation between their power and their prestige. Over time, but with some important exceptions, the relative power of monarchs to influence policy steadily diminished. However, even though actual power has declined for monarchs, their status as icons representing the imperial adventure has generally travelled in the opposite direction. The decline in power is related to the rising importance of democracy whilst the rise in prestige may partly be as a result of being increasingly isolated and removed from policy decisions, and therefore mistakes, but also due to improved communications and the ability for monarchs to be more widely known and even to travel to the far corners of the globe by the Twentieth Century. The monarchy of the 21st Century is a very different institution from that of 500 years ago, but the seeds for change and its evolution had already been sowed.
The Medieval Period
The Royal Family
Magna Carta
The Medieval period had already seen England take an unusual step in limiting and restraining the absolute power of her monarchs with the Magna Carta in 1215. Despite being a Medieval document, the limitations of the Magna Carta would later have a profound effect on the English people's perception of what a monarch could and could not do. Although not fully understood or appreciated at the time, it would ultimately lay the foundations for English ideas on liberty and would start what would often be a painful journey to a 'Constitutional Monarchy'. Unlike most European monarchies, English Kings (and later Queens) understood the concept of limits of power and authority and that compromise and realistic expectations were pre-requisites to being a successful monarch. Those who forgot these axioms would have serious difficulties ruling over the English.

Having said all that, at the end of the Medieval period, the monarch was still the prime decision maker in the kingdom. He appointed a variety of trusted office holders to help with the day to day running of his kingdom, but he ultimately made all the decisions. Over time as the complexity of running a nation state became more and more obvious the King would come to rely more and more on his appointed officials. His biggest restraint was often financial. The Magna Carta restricted the ability of the monarch to raise money without the consent of what was referred to as 'parliament' (from the French verb - Parler - to talk or negotiate). Originally it was envisioned that the parliament was made up of the King's Lords - these were the same Lords that had made King John sign the Magna Carta in the first place - and the clergy. Increasingly, non-nobles, especially from the newly enlarged towns and boroughs, were consulted and asked to give the King their advice. These were known as the commoners and were not admitted to the 'Upper Chamber' of the Lords and Bishops but still advised the King and expected to be consulted on financial matters. Over time, this 'Lower Chamber' would become the most important of all the organs of state, although this would take a few centuries and a couple of Civil Wars and Coup D'etats to sort out. In the meantime, the monarch ruled but required the help and assistance of the Lords and Commoners - especially when it came to raising money.

The House of Tudor
For argument's sake, this site will start examining monarchs from Queen Elizabeth I. It must be remembered that before 1707 we need to use the term 'English Empire' as the Act of Union had not yet joined Scotland with England and Wales. The reason for starting with Elizabeth is that her reign saw England depart somewhat from the European scene and turn towards a more global enterprise. It could also be argued that her Catholic half-sister, Mary, presided over the loss of England's more ancient Continental Empire when she lost Calais in 1558 - which makes for a convenient dividing line between the Medieval period and the early modern one.

The Royal Family
Drake Goes West
As a Protestant, Elizabeth would take the fight over religion to the Catholic sea-faring nations and allow her subjects to harass and harry their ships in the New World and beyond. Exploration and bases soon followed and the beginnings of a nascent Empire came into being. The fact that England survived the Spanish Armada threat in 1588 confirmed to many that England was fast becoming a serious maritime power. Her long reign also solidified the Protestant nature of her kingdom and largely settled the religious division between Catholics and Protestants. By her death in 1603, England's horizons had expanded markedly. Colonies may not have been claimed or settled, but the English were aware of a far larger world than had previously been known and were active participants in its exploration and exploitation.

The House of Stuart
The Royal Family
The 1606 Union Flag
The Seventeenth Century was dominated by the Stuarts who took over as heirs on the death of the childless Elizabeth. It was the Stuarts who tested the relationship of the monarch to the established constitution of England to breaking point - and on more than one occasion. It must also be remembered that the Stuarts were a Scottish Royal Family and so they were responsible for the idea of two United Kingdoms even if the Constitutions and Parliaments remained separate until the very tail end of Stuart rule. It was James I who came up with the concept of a combined Union flag as far back as 1606.

Money and religious problems bedevilled the Stuarts throughout the Seventeenth Century. In the field of finance, the Scottish Kings assumed that they had the rights of an absolute Scottish monarch when ruling over England. When English ministers tried to make clear to James I and later Charles I that they had far more limited rights to taxation and raising money the advice was often poorly received or ignored. Consequently, the Stuarts lurched from financial crisis to financial crisis. James tried to find some freedom from these financial constraints through the granting of 'Charters' to companies in the newly discovered lands of the gentlemen explorers in the New World, the Caribbean and Africa. These 'Charters' often provided the legal basis for the colonisation process - although the returns from these investments were usually less than all the investors had hoped to receive. A lack of infrastructure, diseases, wars with local inhabitants all reduced the profitability of these ventures. James never did gain the financial independence he desired. His son Charles got into even further financial difficulties. He was so exasperated at the restraints imposed upon him that he even went so far as to suspend parliament and try to raise money directly by himself. This was seen by many Englishmen as being a sign of despotism and would urge them to rise up in open defiance of their King.

The Royal Family
Cromwell in Parliament
The issue of religion was similarly poison to the Stuarts as their brand of Anglicanism was seen as too High Church and removed from the Protestant Reformation. Arguments over the rights and prerogatives of the established Church of England ultimately led many to leave the Anglican church and set up their own Protestant churches in what would be become known as non-Conformist churches. Arguments over the form of Protestantism in England would lead, however accidentally, to the creation of one of the most famous Seventeenth Century colonies - the Plymouth Colony. The Mayflower saw the newly named Puritans seek sanctuary from the High Church of Anglicanism, first in Holland but then in the newly discovered lands in the New World. It is a paradox that the religious freedom being sought by these pilgrims was being bought from one of the Chartered Companies set up to finance the Stuarts in the first place! Once again though, it was the religious policies of his son Charles that collided with the expectations of the ever increasing Protestant nature of his kingdom that combined with financial difficulties to create the seeds for Civil War in the 1640s and ultimately the execution of Charles in 1649. He was charged with treason for breaking the agreements of Magna Carta some four and a half centuries earlier.

England then spent an unusual decade as a Republic. This period saw Oliver Cromwell continue colonial enterprises usually under the guise of religious wars to defend or expand the role of Protestantism. There were notable expeditions in the Caribbean and in the Pacific Ocean, but the most important theatre was closer to home as he tried to reduce the power and influence of the Catholic Church in Ireland. His heavy handed policies there would see him demonised by the native Irish population, but he would also create the conditions that helped speed up the Protestant transplantations from Scotland and England to the North of Ireland in particular. These policies would have long lasting consequences for the island of Ireland but also for English relations with the Irish. One surprising new enemy for the English was to be their co-religionists the Dutch. The Commonwealth of England believed that the Dutch had taken too many commercial and colonial advantages over the English whilst they had been fighting the English Civil War. They tried to take on the commercial and maritime power of the Dutch in a series of wars that would last on and off for the next thirty years.

The Royal Family
Restoration of Charles
The Restoration of the Stuarts in 1660 with Charles II would see England make peace with its historic rival France, for at least a while. However, its wars with the Dutch continued unabated. The Dutch were able to ensure that the English were unable to make serious inroads into their highly profitable spice trade. The English East India Company was relegated from buying spices in the Pacific to what was thought at the time to be the relative backwater of India. Interestingly, when Charles II married Catherine de Braganza in 1662, she came with a Dowry that included Tangier and Bombay. The former was occupied and used for a while but was found to be too dangerous to the health for English administrators and soldiers, but the latter would, over time, become one of the most important imperial cities in the Empire. At the time it was thought to be just another trading fort but its position on the West side of India was to give it a perfect location for trading goods to and from Europe.

The deal between Charles II and Parliament began to establish the complicated relationship between monarch and the all important institution of the army. The King was suspicious of the army as it had been created largely to overthrow Charles' father. However, it had been the army under General Fairfax that had invited the King to return to England. So the King needed the army but he did not fully trust it. He made sure that members of the Royal Family were given ceremonial roles as Colonels in Chief of more and more regiments. He wanted to ensure that there was a family connection binding the soldiers of the regiment to the Royal Family. This is a tradition which has lasted down to the present day. It was largely instigated as many of the Colonels of the regiments were parliamentarians. By putting family members in these roles, he hoped to make it less likely for the army to rise up and overthrow him or his heirs in the future. At least that was the hope, but the decisions of his brother undermined the authority of the Stuarts once more.

The Royal Family
William's Invasion Fleet
It was to be Charles' brother James who tested the religious toleration of the English to breaking point once more. This openly Catholic monarch was tolerated as long as he and his elderly wife did not produce a Catholic heir. However, when his wife gave birth to a son, there were moves made to oust the monarchy before the Catholic family could be embedded indefinitely. There was effectively a coup against the King when Protestant nobles invited his vehemently Protestant brother-in-law William of Orange to jointly rule England with James' protestant sister Mary. The English army effectively stood aside and allowed a Dutch invasion of Britain to take place in 1688. At the time it was hailed as the 'Glorious Revolution'. One of the conditions for inviting William to the throne of England was that he would grant and extend further powers to the Houses of Parliament. William was not too bothered by this as long as he could gain access and control of the army for use in his anti-Catholic wars in Europe. One of the fist of which was to put down James' attempt at recapturing his throne through Ireland. The Battle of the Boyne and the surrounding Irish campaign once again demonstrated Protestant ascendency in political terms in Ireland. His actions in Scotland actually undermined his authority. He claimed to be joint monarch through his Stuart wife. However, he was not convinced of the loyalty of all the Scottish Highland clans and sanctioned the massacre of the McDonald clan by Campbell loyalists in 1692.

Mary died in 1694 from Smallpox and William died in 1702 due to a riding accident, but their period as joint monarchs was fundamentally important to the future direction of the kingdom. The Glorious Revolution reaffirmed the ascendency of the Protestant Church in England and in fact made it illegal for a Catholic to ever ascend the throne again. It also affirmed the power of parliament in a range of important governmental fields. Furthermore, the Anglo-Dutch rivalry was put to bed once and for all and in fact England would gain access to many of the Dutch financial and maritime innovations which would strengthen England considerably in the coming years.

The last Stuart monarch, Anne, would see the old rivalry with France return to the fore with the War of the Spanish Succession. The war was primarily over whether the thrones of Spain and France would be united under a Bourbon family which England vehemently opposed as they did not wish to see such a dominant power on the Continent of Europe. The war was primarily a European war, and included the capture of Gibraltar by the Royal Marines, but it did spill over into the New World with what became known as Queen Anne's War. The fighting in the New World, raged from Florida to the Arctic and saw Britain solidify its holdings in the New World and allowed her to assert a dominant position in Acadia and Newfoundland.

The Royal Family
Act of Union, 1707
It was during this period of fighting that Anne's two kingdoms of Scotland and England combined in 1707 in the Act of Union. The Scottish kingdom was suffering economic hardships, especially after the disastrous Darien investments, and many Scottish protestants were wary of a Jacobite restoration through James' Stuart line. Consequently the two kingdoms were combined to ensure a Protestant kingdom with securer finances. The old Roman colony name of Britannia (referring to the Celtic Ancient Briton inhabitants) was resurrected as 'Britain' to signify this combined political construct.

The timing was certainly prescient for those concerned at a Jacobite Restoration as Queen Anne was to be most unfortunate in not seeing any of her children grow to adulthood. She therefore died without an heir in 1714. There were Stuart candidates for the throne but as they were Catholic they were deemed to no longer being eligible of becoming monarch of Britain - so a foreign, Protestant royal successor was deemed to be more appropriate than a Scottish, Catholic one living in France.

The House of Hanover
The German protestant George I was related to the Stuarts, through his mother being the daughter of the first Stuart King James I. Having said that, there were at least six people ahead of George I with a superior claim to the throne of Britain. Consequently almost at once there was an attempted Jacobite uprising centred in Scotland as dissatisfied anti-Unionists and Catholics demonstrated how aggrieved they were at having another 'foreign' King forced upon them. The British army was able to reassert authority but they were also helped by the death of Louis XIV who had been James Stuart's primary backer. James was forced to leave France for the sanctuary of Rome. For protestants in Britain, this was a sign of his true allegiance. In reality, it signified a severe setback in the political and military help that he could expect to receive in the future. The failure of the 1715 Jacobite uprising allowed the Hanoverians to assume the throne of Britain.

Once again though George I would cede yet more political power to parliament in return for there support in being the legal monarch of Britain. His primary backers were the Whigs who characterised themselves as being protestant loyalists. Whereas the Tory opposition were linked to Jacobite sympathies, at least in the first half of the Eighteenth Century. The Hanoverians came to depend on the Whigs who increasingly did the ruling for the monarch. He relied on them and in return he offered Royal patronage to them. It is during this period that the term prime-minister began to be used for the first time. The prime-minister represented for many the 'effective' leader of the country as the idea of a 'reigning' monarch pulled away from a 'ruling' one. The Whig Robert Walpole dominated the political scene for much of the first half of the Eighteenth Century and is generally regarded to be Britain's first prime-minister. It was a mutually beneficial arrangement between the King and the Whigs and it lasted for most of the Century.

The Royal Family
Changing Landscape
The Hanoverians were fortunate to come to power at a time that Britain was fast becoming a major political and economic power on the European and World stage. A combination of increasing wealth from the colonies (all be it primarily through the slave trade), the arrival of the industrial revolution and improvements in agricultural efficiency all came together to elevate Britain's relative power. Much of this wealth was invested into Britain's Royal Navy and in her maritime fleets and so her ability to project power on a global base only increased as the Eighteenth Century progressed. Furthermore, her industrial advances would give her increasingly important technological advantages.

When Britain became involved in the War of the Austrian Succession in 1740 it would find its forces fighting not only in Europe but all over the world; against the French in the King George's War in North America and India; and against the Spanish in the War of Jenkin's Ear in the West Indies and Florida. But it was to be the reigniting of the Jacobite Wars closer to home in Scotland that nearly finished off the Hanoverians once and for all.

The Royal Family
The Fugitive Jacobite
When Bonnie Prince Charles landed in Scotland in 1745, few people gave him much of a chance in unseating the thoroughly entrenched Hanoverian Royal Family. But a series of victories at Falkirk and Prestonpans changed this perception and people flocked to the Jacobite colours in Scotland at least. Not content with recapturing one of the two old Stuart kingdoms, Charles marched South to try and retake the other. His forces got as far South as Derby but he did not see the same patriotic support in England as he had seen in Scotland. When informed that a large army lay between his forces and the Hanoverian King in London, he gave the order to retreat back North. He was not to know that a Hanoverian spy had fed him false intelligence and that the road to London was wide open as the British Army was still being hurriedly disengaged from fighting in Europe at the time. By the time the British army was ready, Charles had returned to Scotland, which allowed the British to land at Inverness and engage the Jacobites at the last battle fought on British soil, the Battle of Culloden. The victory sealed the Hanoverian succession once more. Interestingly, the Hanoverians had commissioned the writing of what was the world's first National Anthem (God Save the King) as a patriotic spur to defend the Royal Family from the Jacobite threat. The song became an important nation binding tool and was soon copied and used by other nations for similar patriotic purposes.

The Royal Family
The Death of Wolfe
Although Britain was a rising political and economic power in the first half of the Eighteenth Century, France was still regarded as being the superpower of the era. That would start to change with the Seven Years War (1756 - 1763). This was a truly global war that raged from North America to India to West Africa to the Philippines and of course in Europe. Britain's only ally was Prussia on the mainland but her maritime power had grown greater than anyone had expected. This massive investment in naval power was largely thanks to innovations in the banking system such as the creation of the Bank of England and a national debt to fund this investment. This allowed the relatively small country of Britain to field and sustain a remarkable war machine. Colonies were no longer simple pawns on a global map, they were becoming important economic and military targets. The Royal Navy was able to ensure that few reinforcements could be provided from France or Spain to their far flung colonies. Whereas, the British had the luxury of moving resources from one part of the world to another just as the strategic demands required. The net effect was that Britain was able to isolate the considerable French possessions along the St. Lawrence River in Canada and deal them a mortal blow at Quebec. The East India Company was able to use the Royal Naval's command of the seas to isolate the French in India and remove them as political actors on the sub-continent. The British were able to land armies in Havana, Manila, Guadelope, Martinque and Senegal. The only setback was the loss of Minorca in the Mediterranean. Other than that, the British were triumphant on the global stage whilst Prussia was able to hold its own on the continent. A new series of heroes would take their place in the pantheon of imperial gods: Wolfe of Quebec and Clive of India.

George II passed away during the Seven Years War and was replaced by his grandson George III. George III would gain massively in prestige and perceived power, but the cupboard had become bare due to the effort and investment put in to winning the war. It had been a rude awakening to the French to see just how powerful their industrialising neighbour to the North was becoming, but she did not realise that it was largely done through debt and borrowing. So when the British authorities tried to impose new taxes on the colonists in North America to pay for the victory and the forces required there was uproar which turned into open rebellion. George III took this as a personal afront to his authority as King and dug his heels in. He refused any concessions until it was too late. The French and Spanish happily took advantage of the British difficulties in North America and supplied arms, money and troops to the revolutionaries. On this occasion, with weakened finances and no allies on the continent to tie down French and Spanish resources, the British were on the strategic back foot. They were forced to recognise American Independence for the 13 colonies, but were at least able to hold on to the Canadian provinces. The only bright side for the British was that the French and Spanish received almost nothing tangible for their efforts.

In fact, the French monarchy was soon to pay a very heavy price for a century of continued warfare. The French Revolution burst on the scene in 1789. The effect on Britain and its Royal Family would be profound. For the first time in a long time, Britain found itself fighting a war on a matter of principle rather than for strategic advantage or gains. The execution of the French Royal Family and much of France's aristocracy horrified the Royal Families of Europe - including Britain's. Britain would wage an almost perpetual war against Revolutionary France in an attempt to try and contain the contagion of Revolutionary ideas and prevent them from spreading to Britain's shores. The ultimate aim of the British was to destory the Revolution and return a monarchy and the pre-revolutionary status quo to France. At times, Britain had many allies in these aims, but as Napoleon increasingly galvanised the revolutionary spirit into a remarkable fighting force, Britain found itself in a more and more precarious situation. The one redeeming feature for the British was its continued control of the seas - despite the fact that the French were able to take control of the Spanish and Dutch fleets (amongst others) and add them to their own fleet. The British investments into its maritime infrastructure paid dividends as Britain was able to keep control of the seas for the duration of the war.
The Royal Family
Napoleon Leaving Waterloo
This naval advantage would also allow her to hoover up French and her enforced allies' colonies all over the World. Britain ended up taking colonies such as Mauritius, Seychelles and most importantly of all the Cape Colony. The fighting in Europe was a much more prolonged and difficult affair, but the wealth coming through industrialisation helped to sustain Britain and finance various allies for this long period of warfare. Eventually, Britain was able to wear down its great rival. The defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo ended the struggle once and for all. The Revolutionary ideas were never completely put back in their box, but for the time being the British Royal Family could rest easy with the defeat of Napoleon and the restoration of Royal privileges throughout Europe.

Although it was George III who was technically King at this time, he had been suffering from severe porphyria in addition to having gone deaf and blind. Therefore, his son George IV took over as Regent from 1811. He was a very different monarch from his austere father and, upon victory in the Napoleonic Wars, launched a massive upgrading of Royal buildings and estates - including Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle. However, this extravagance in material goods would obscure the fact that the King was involved less and less in the actual running of government or the military. Professional politicians, bureaucrats, soldiers and sailors were running the Kingdom as the industrialising nation expanded massively in terms of complexity, size and capabilities. The monarch was becoming less of a ruler and more of a symbol. As George IV and his brother William IV busied themselves with the appearance of grandeur, the physical power of the monarchy was diminishing rapidly. The political groupings of Whigs and Tories that had been created to support or oppose the King in the Eighteenth Century had become well oiled political affiliations with ideologies and resources of their own. They would defer to the monarch less and less as the Nineteenth Century progressed and take their legitimacy from the expanding electorate instead. Indeed, the giants of the political stage were now the prime-mnisters rather than the monarchs.

The Royal Family
Indian Servants
Queen Victoria's accession in 1837 would not have seemed particularly relevant at the time, but with hindsight, her reign came to personify the convergence of British power in a number of fields: Economic, Industrial, Scientific, Artistic, Marine Power to name but a few. She was queen long enough to see a number of phases of imperial expansion but these were due to the policy decisions of prime-ministers based on their political beliefs, judgement and ideologies rather than following any active direction from Victoria herself. Hence, the see-saw approach from activist policies under Palmerston, Disraeli or Salisbury to a more hands off approach under Melbourne, Russell or Gladstone. The Queen was effectively elevated to a respectable figurehead of a growing Empire. She was far more sober and hard working than her immediate predecessors and her religious, protestant values were very much in tune with public opinion. Her husband found a role for himself in promoting science, technology and commerce through sponsoring events such as the Great Exhibition. After his death, Victoria withdrew from public life for many years and it was not until Disraeli prepared a new imperial role for her as Empress of India in 1876 that she began to be drawn back into the public sphere. She soon became an active imperialist advocate despite never setting foot on any of the colonies. She did, however, reproduce parts of the Empire back in Britain as she became fascinated with all things Indian. Her closest servant was an Indian called Abdul Karim, she frequently requested Indian soldiers as her bodyguard, had Indian paraphernalia decorating her palaces and even had a Durbar Room designed for her in her holiday home on the Isle of Wight. Her Golden and Diamond Jubilees became showcases for the diversity of the Empire, with troops from every corner of the globe represented in processions and parades. Her name became synonomous with Empire, but the tail-end of her reign also showed that Britain was becoming dangerously isolated and that new rivals were threatening her pre-eminence. When the Boer War broke out in 1899, Britain was surprised to find just how hostile the world had become to its cause and position in the world. The Queen was to die before the war had been resolved and so it was left to her son to forge new friendships and alliances so that Britain was not to face the world alone.

The House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha
Edward came to the throne very late in life and was very different in style and temperament to his mother. He had been waiting a long time to ascend to the throne and had been something of a wild child. He took the surname of his father which explains the change in the family name.

The Royal Family
Delhi Durbar, 1903
Imperial pageantry took on a high point with the Delhi Durbar of 1903 to celebrate Edward's accession. Edward did not attend personally but the event was a staggering example of self-belief by Lord Curzon, the Indian Viceroy, on the King's behalf.

Edward did play one very important role and showed that Royal power was not completely for show. He was something of a Francophile and took it upon himself to bring France and Britain together as allies in the face of rising German military, economic and political power. He was a very sociable King and showed considerable diplomatic tact in convincing the French that the two countries had far more in common than they had as adversaries. The Entente Cordiale would help bring Britain out of the diplomatic refrigerator and brought Britain back into the European orbit of politics. This Entente was swiftly followed up with a rapprochement with another arch-enemy - Russia. The Great Game had worried strategic planners in India for decades, but this was set aside as the core threat to Britain had identified as being Germany's rise in Europe. Britain was no longer a beleagured giant, it had become a critical member of the Triple Entente and largely due to the actions of its monarch.

The House of Windsor
The Royal Family
Off to the Races
George V was to be King during the dark days of the Great War. When it broke out in 1914, few anticipated just how deadly and vicious the fighting was to become. Likewise, few realised what an impact the long attritional war would have on many of the age-old Royal Families of Europe. The war was to topple three of the great dynasties - The Romanovs in Russia, the Hapsburgs in Austria and the Hohenzollerns in Germany. George was related to all of these in some form or other. At one point, the Romanovs requested sanctuary in Britain only for it to be denied. They would all be murdered within a year of that denial, this event would haunt George who felt at least partially responsible for failing to save his relations. The suffering in Russia unleashed the ideology of Communism which was to be so influential (and so anti-royalist) for much of the Twentieth Century. It was during the war that George V dropped the Germanic name of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha in favour of the much more English sounding - Windsor - which was based on the name of one of his favourite palaces. The German name was not thought to be appropriate whilst Britain was engaged in mortal combat with Germany. Many shops or individuals were being attacked for having German sounding names and even Daschunds were kicked on the streets for being 'too German'.

The Royal Family
Ramsay Macdonald
Despite the suffering brought about by the war, Britain was on the winning side and was able to divide much of the German and Turkish empires with France so that the British Empire reached the largest size it would ever attain. However, Britain was a paper tiger by this time, its empire may have been large, but her resources had been exhausted by the four year long total war. Furthermore, political stances were polarising as the left became a substantial element in British politics for the first time. Socialists and Communists were inherently more suspicious of royalty and aristocracy and many in the upper classes were only too aware at what had happened to Russia's aristocracy during the Revolution. Few of these aristocrats were able or willing to differentiate between these two left-wing ideologies and both were treated with suspicion or outright hostility. Whilst most of these upper classes were likely to belong to the Conservatives, some did gravitate further along the political spectrum towards Fascist ideas. Oswald Mosley is one example, but the Prince of Wales (Edward) was thought to harbour Fascist tendencies himself. The 1930s further polarised opinion as the Wall Street Crash gave way to a world wide depression. This depression particularly hurt those colonies that produced primary goods - which was most of them. World-wide demand for products collapsed across the board. Britain's democratic model seemed to have no answer to the economic problems at hand. Many on the left looked towards the Soviet Union for inspiration whilst many on the right looked enviously at the seeming advances in Fascist Germany and Italy. With this dangerous economic and political backdrop, Britain's Royal Family was about to be plunged into its biggest constitutional crisis since the Glorious Revolution.

The Royal Family
Edward, Mrs Simpson and Hitler
When Edward VIII ascended the throne on 20th January 1936, many were already suspicious of his political beliefs and his personal morals. Something of a playboy, he hung around with some very unsavoury characters. But what offended the establishment the most was the fact that he was romantically attached to an American divorcee and seemed determined to marry her. This crisis affected the entire Empire and the leaders of all the Dominions were consulted for their opinion - the overwhelming consensus being that the principles involved were more important than Edward as an individual. In particular, it was the fact that the monarch was the head of the Church of England and so as spiritual head of the Anglican Church it would be wrong for him to marry a divorcee whose husband was still living. Edward refused to compromise and became even more determined to marry Mrs Simpson. He therefore abdicated in favour of his younger brother George. Edward's Fascistic sympathies were confirmed to many as he and his wife visited Germany at the invitation of Hitler in 1937. He was further thought to be a liability to Britain during World War II whilst living in France. When the French army collapsed and the country was on the verge of being overrun by the German Army, the British had to evacuate him and Mrs Simpson somewhat against their will and certainly against their better judgement. The British Government was concerned that he might fall into the hands of the Germans and be used as an alternative Fascist-friendly monarch after the Fall of France. As it was, Edward and Mrs Simpson were removed to Bermuda to try and keep them out of harm's way for the duration of the war.

Whilst all this turmoil was occuring, it felt to George VI to try and rebuild trust in the institution of monarchy during the period of worldwide depression political tension and ultimately war. And all of this had to be achieved whilst he suffered from a severe stammer. His attitude towards hard work and service and his young family of princesses did much to restore the monarchy's credibility at this crucial time. There was never a suggestion that he held Fascistic sympathies or that he considered surrendering during the darkest days of the Second World War. Rather, he gave a solid account of himself and backed the judgement of the Prime-minister, Churchill, to the hilt. He visited blitzed cities, troops in the field and countless factories to help boost morale and production levels. He even requested to join the British forces landing at D-Day - but he was over-ruled as the venture was thought to be too high-risk. His wartime role and demeanour contrasted sharply with his elder brother's attitude towards the monarchy and the nation. Britain and the Empire was fortunate that events panned out as well as they did.

George was privately saddened when he was required to surrender his title Emperor of India with its independence in 1947. He was the first monarch to have to preside over a wholesale dismantling of colonies and the empire. And, although he did not enjoy seeing the institution weakened, he understood that he should follow the recommendations of the Labour government and try to maintain friendly relations with those countries being granted independence. It was hoped that transitioning the Empire into a more equal organisation entitled the 'Commonwealth' would allow the monarch to still play a role in holding together such a diverse collection of nations in a meaningful manner. Furthermore, members of the Empire were given permission to come and work in Britain for the first time. It was hoped that the empire could provide manpower and expertise to a country that needed to massively increase its industrial output in the aftermath of World War Two. Previously, the vast majority of migration had been from Britain to its colonies, but the post-war period saw this trend reversed.

The Royal Family
Off to the Races
It did not help that George's personal health was declining rapidly in the post-war period. He supported the Labour government with its 'Festival of Britain' in 1951 which tried to boost and promote British trade and productivity on the centenary of the 'Great Exhibition'. But it was clear to all that Britain was no longer the workshop of the world and that its role was economic, political and commerical power were declining markedly. The issue was how to manage this decline especially in the face of the rising Superpowers.

The 1950s saw the old war hero Churchill back in power but also a new and fresh faced monarch; Queen Elizabeth. She actually learned of her accession whilst on an African tour in Kenya. In an era when international travel was easier than it had ever been, it would become a hallmark of Elizabeth's reign to visit so much of the Commonwealth. Despite holding far less power than most of her predecessors, Elizabeth forged a far more personal relationship with the remaining dominions and colonies and helped to keep relations warm with those nations who gained independence during her reign. Using Royal yachts and jets, she criss-crossed the world with her husband and children. Churchill envisioned the Empire being reborn into a 'New Elizabethan Empire' and for a brief period in the 1950s it seemed as if he might get his way as people flocked to see and meet this young monarch on her tours. Indeed, it was this newly found confidence in a Commonwealth future that helped Britain decide not to join the European project being formulated in Rome. Unfortunately for Churchill, his successor Anthony Eden would soon preside over the disaster at Suez which revealed to the world just how weak Britain had become in the post-war World. The Empire and Commonwealth never really recovered from this humiliation and a stampede for independence occurred in Africa before spreading throughout much of the rest of the Empire in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The Queen played the role of a gracious monarch and helped maintain cordial relations with many of these newly independent nations. She agreed to remain Head of State for many of the former colonies and also the Head of the Commonwealth.

Her long reign gave stability to the monarchy at a difficult time for Britain politically and diplomatically. Her tact and discretion helped Britain to decolonise in the relatively peaceful way that it did. Her manner has certainly allowed Britain to have maintained friendly relations with a remarkable number of former colonies, especially those in Africa and the Caribbean. The Commonwealth may not have lived up to the high hopes of old imperial warhorses like Churchill but it has allowed the previous imperial members to maintain a network of formal and informal connections that continues to this day. Britain did end up joining the European project in 1973 and this seems to have severely dented the relevancy of the Commonwealth as Britain turned towards the Continent of Europe often at the cost of its former Dominions and Colonies. Commonwealth migration was one of the casualties of this change - to be replaced by easier European migration. Britain's trade patterns were shifting - no longer did she require the primary resources that much of her former empire produced, and Europe's members tended to have far larger markets and far richer customers to produce goods for. The Commonwealth is not without its uses though and there is a waiting list of countries that wish to join it, but it is no longer the primary focus of Britain's diplomatic activity.

The monarchy has had to adapt itself markedly over the centuries. It played an integral part in the construction, running and dismantling of the Empire. Monarchs found themselves increasingly constrained by the demands and policies of British governments. These governments were themselves becoming increasingly democratic and reflective of at least the British public - if not that of the colonies'. Whilst power slipped away, stature and prestige remained important. Ironically, it was this stature that appealed to proponents and opponents of empire alike. Those in favour of the British Empire saw the Royal Family as a figurehead representing the institution as a whole. Whereas, for those who opposed the Empire, the Royal Family represented privilege, excess and was the head of the military and police forces that imposed British rule on subjagated peoples. The Royal Family encompassed all that was beneficial to some and all that was wrong to others. It could be a source of bonding people together but also provided a focus of opposition to others.

The monarchy is not just an institution and the monarch is not merely a puppet of forces outside of his or her control. It was important who the monarch was and their choices and decisions did have enduring effects. Personal authority has been maintained by the more recent monarchs precisely because they have left the political arena to the politicians and so can appear above the fray and divorced from unpopular governmental decisions. Queen Elizabeth encapsulates this very nicely, her personal prestige is enormous even as her personal powers have declined to little beyond the ceremonial arena. It will be interesting to see if her heirs continue her legacy or if they will try and chart another path even more likely have a new direction chosen for them? We started with examining Elizabeth I and have finished with looking at Elizabeth II. However, the powers, capabilities and privileges of these two Elizabeth's have changed beyond all recognition. Interestingly, the empire has travelled full circle through the intervening years of the two Elizabeths. It went from a Kingdom of England, Wales, bits of Ireland and the Channel Islands, through to the the World's largest ever Empire and then pretty much back to the United Kingdom of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. There are hints of this intervening Empire in that Elizabeth II is the Head of State of 16 former colonies and dominions and is the Head of the Commonwealth. The one other title that the two Elizabeths held in common is their role as the Head of the Church of England, but otherwise the two Elizabeth's would have a hard time recognising the palaces, powers and privileges of each other. They are linked by history and tradition but not so much by genetics or family connections - despite what Royal genealogists might claim. However, it must be remembered that Britain's Royal Family is one of the few to have survived the turmoils of the intervening years. Plenty of their fellow Royal Houses collapsed, were overthrown or dissolved during the last 400 years. As we have seen, England even overthrew its own family at one point and has gone out of its way to choose alternative monarchs on at least two other occasions. So, Queen Elizabeth does represent an important imperial institution but one that has evolved, responded and updated itself regularly in order to remain relevant and useful. It's ceding of power was not a gradual process, but rather one of fits and starts with sudden lurches and changes that could have been fatal to the institution of monarchy. But, the monarchy is still around, which, given the forces it has had to deal with and react to is something of an achievement in itself.

Picture Name Year
Elizabeth I 1558 - 1603
James I 1603 - 1625
Charles I 1625 - 1649
The Commonwealth 1649 - 1660
Charles II 1660 - 1685
James II 1685 - 1688
Mary II and William of Orange 1689 - 1702
Queen Anne 1702 - 1714
George I 1714 - 1727
George II 1727 - 1760
George III 1760 - 1820
George IV 1820 - 1830
William IV 1830 - 1837
Victoria 1837 - 1901
Edward VII 1901 - 1910
George V 1910 - 1936
Edward VIII 1936
George VI 1936 - 1952
Elizabeth II 1952 -

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by Stephen Luscombe