The agonising intrusion of Royal labour pains echo around a London bedchamber as a crowd gathers; eventually, an heir is born and the continuation of the dynasty is seemingly guaranteed. It’s not May 2015, though; it’s June 1688. The mother is not a future Queen, but the Queen; the baby is not fourth in line to the throne, but the heir apparent; the chamber is not in St Mary’s Hospital, but at St James’ Palace; and the crowd awaiting the birth is not a collection of vaguely unhinged middle-aged Windsor groupies wrapped in the union flag, but a hand-picked clique of prominent courtiers, clergymen and ministers on hand to uphold a tradition.
It was a hot summer, and the Queen requested the baby she’d just delivered be taken to a more airy room before any of the invited dignitaries had even laid eyes upon it. Thus was born a rumour the heir had been stillborn and a substitute put in his place when he was finally publicly unveiled. The reason for rumour and suspicion was that this child, the son of King James II, was a Catholic heir for a Protestant country that had endured more than a century of Reformation, persecution, republicanism, religious fanaticism and murdered martyrs before eventually exploding into civil war. The obstinate younger brother of the late Merry Monarch had done himself few favours by refusing to hide his Catholic leanings, even though his two daughters from his first marriage, Mary and Anne, were resolutely Protestant, with the former marrying the Prince of Orange as if to confirm it. As things stood, Mary was next in line to the throne and even her father’s suicidal intransigence couldn’t alter that fact. However, a second marriage to a Catholic Princess could well alter that fact, and it did.
The birth of James Francis Edward Stuart in the summer of 1688 wasn’t a sugar-coated soap-opera event provoking a collective ‘aaah’ from the nation’s grannies and fawning media coverage; it caused a constitutional crisis that led to the abdication of the King, a deep division between a father and his daughters that was never healed, the last invasion of Britain by a foreign power (albeit an invited one), the last battle in which two rival claimants for the English throne fought for the crown – one that also laid the foundation for the Troubles in Northern Ireland – and the official end of Absolute Monarchy and Kings anointed by God in the British Isles as the concept of the constitutional monarch was inaugurated. Even more than the execution of Charles I, 1688 was the moment at which power passed from sovereign to Parliament, and the head of state was reduced to little more than a symbolic figurehead.
The oblivious babe born to rule in June 1688 was taken from his homeland and across the Channel by his fleeing mother when he was barely six-months-old for his own safety. Bar one aborted attempt at establishing Jacobite rule in 1715, when the boy who became known to history as ‘the Old Pretender’ struggled to provoke a Scottish rebellion, the self-styled King James III was to spend the rest of his life in continental exile, a sad casualty of a changing age. Had his reign been allowed to progress as was intended, he would have enjoyed a longer reign than any other monarch in British history, longer than George III, longer than Victoria, and even longer than our very own Brenda. That he was denied his place in history says a great deal about the transference of power within the British social hierarchy that took place at the end of the seventeenth century, a change that continues to dictate the purpose of monarchy to this very day.
Some of the media commentators on the birth of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s daughter last week mistakenly credited the newborn as being the latest addition to an ancient line stretching back to William the Conqueror, when if anything, she is a descendant of the House of Hanover. When Prince George of Hanover succeeded Queen Anne in 1714, his connection to her in terms of shared blood was slim; fifty-six far closer potential successors were excluded on the grounds of their Catholicism. Yes, if one had a spare aircraft hangar and were free to spread out a family tree of Stuarts and Hanoverians that also encompassed those of the Tudor and Plantagenet persuasions, a connection would be evident, but so distant as to make any direct line claims spurious to say the least.
But it could be that tracing the new Princess Charlotte’s lineage all the way back to 1066 is an ongoing operation to maintain the illusion of uninterrupted continuity, to emphasise the traditional ties between the British people and their sovereign. Ever since the Diana saga, there has been a careful and coordinated project to remind the public that the Royal Family amount to more than a mere expensive (not to say anachronistic) luxury. Prince Charles has inherited his father’s talent for putting his foot in it, and he in turn has passed this on to his second son; but the PR department of Buckingham Palace largely manages to balance any occasional faux-pas, and has made a shrewd signing with Kate Middleton, someone who appears to have taken the spotlight away from the clumsier members of the firm; and now she has fulfilled her constitutional duties by delivering a couple of heirs, justifying her transfer fee.
The fatal blow to the lingering (if increasingly archaic) prestige of Royal power was the First World War, laying waste to many Royal Houses of Europe as the German, Russian and Austro-Hungarian dynasties were dismembered. The British benefitted from the disappearance of their extended family in that ours being one of the few monarchies to survive the carnage has helped shape our cultural identity in the century since that conflict; the curious juxtaposition of a modern democracy retaining a Royal head of state has served to cement our somewhat eccentric international reputation. The Americans and French, both of whom dispensed with Royalty via revolution, can’t get enough of ours; the tourism industry is heavily dependent on Royal residences attracting overseas visitors; and the Commonwealth as a body maintains its sentimental ties with the old colonial masters by keeping the Queen as its overlord.
Were all that to suddenly vanish, there’s no doubt it would seem weird. I have looked at the Queen’s face virtually every day of my life, if only on a stamp, a coin and a note; I’m not sure I’d want to be confronted by President Cameron every time I post a letter or withdraw some lucre from the cash machine. Quentin Crisp once remarked that if he were Queen he’d waltz around in ermine all day and would never remove the crown, and there is an undoubtedly attractive element of that simple visual majesty that makes every photo of the Queen attending an official function in a ‘normal’ dress and hat disappointing. If we are to have a monarch, then at least make them look like one. The only Royal personage I’ve ever been within touching distance of was the late Princess Margaret, who opened a nearby school when I was ten; I saw her black vehicle pass by as I stood on the pavement alongside my classmates and was granted a glimpse of the Queen’s feisty sister at the window, radiating the aura of a Hollywood screen Goddess. The eternal appeal of the Tudors, as recently emphasised by the success of ‘Wolf Hall’, is probably based in part on the fact that Henry VIII is every inch what we expect a sovereign to resemble. Ditto Elizabeth I, where the clothes never fail to maketh the monarch.
In a nutshell, image is everything where Royalty is concerned, even if there’s little substance or significance beneath that image. The removal of Absolutism over 300 years ago was virtual castration for the monarchs that had to adapt to it in the first half-century after the Glorious Revolution, but subsequent sovereigns have accepted it as their role. To be born into that role is an unquestionable privilege; but just as poor old ‘James III’ can hardly be held responsible for provoking the most seismic shift in just who holds true power that this country has ever experienced, Prince William can hardly be blamed for being born to rule. And an accident of birth is different from a meglomaniac ‘commoner’ reaching for the kind of power a future monarch is constitutionally denied. As long as there is enough popular demand for this deliberately distracting soap opera on the wallpaper of the nation, it will continue. And as long as its members head charities, open hospitals and recognise their limitations, I’ve no real problem with it.