Adaptation or Abdication?
“God save the queen!” (or King) is something that I have heard on nearly every TV show depicting a British monarch. There are portraits and other artistic depictions of various Monarchs at nearly every historical site and museum that I have visited while on my travels here in Great Britain. The current monarchy is on the cover of newspapers being given away outside of tube stations. The monarchs of England, past and present seem to be inescapable. They are simply everywhere. How is it, that an archaic institution has had such a monumental impact on British identity and survived today?
If you look back through British history, one of the first Monarchical groups that had an especially large impact on British identity was the Tudor Family, who reigned for 118 years. This impact began with King Henry VIII, who separated England from the Catholic church to divorce his wife, Catharine of Aragon who had not provided him with the son and heir he wanted so much. This changed the entire religious makeup of England because he created the Anglican Church. He made it the national church, made himself the head, and then destroyed many of the Catholic religious sites throughout England. Here we have a monarch who made a decision based on his personal situation to benefit none other than himself and yet it shifted the way his people saw the Papacy, their own faith, and the divine power their monarch held. One man influenced the entirety of a nation’s religious convictions, and it has survived through time, as the Anglican church still thrives today. Henry VIII was able to adapt to the changing social climate and secured power and influence through this adaptation. Though Henry VIII separated from the church for his personal reasons, he did so in the midst of religious reformation, with bibles being printed in the vernacular, Martin Luther’s 95 thesis, and protestant sectors popping up throughout Europe, displaying his necessity to adapt to remain in power.
This royal impact on British identity only continued through the Tudor period, through Queen Elizabeth I’s reign, during which she established England’s reputation as a strong literary force. She helped do this with the patronage of playwright William Shakespeare, during a time when without a patron, the arts had a difficult time flourishing. Elizabeth saw this and adapted to the changing artistic social climate with her own support of the arts. Elizabeth I also reigned during a time when there was an especially large amount of poor people in her realm. Elizabeth adapted to this by establishing the Elizabethan Poor Law of 1601, which provided various reliefs to the poor that were spread throughout her nation and is the basis for welfare systems in England today. She adapted to provide relief to all the people of her kingdom, not just the wealthy ones, and the monarchy lived on.
Later in British History, the people tried their hand at having no Monarch, allowing Oliver Cromwell to lead their nation, because the King who preceded him, King Charles I, ruled with idea that monarchs deserved absolute power and he ruled without flexibility. Charles I did not adapt along with the time he ruled in and consequently lost his power and influence over British identity.
By the time Queen Victoria was seated on the throne, the monarchy had been changed from the main political power to celebrity-like public figures that still continue to influence the people of their nation. With this sort of status, Victoria influenced an entire era with her vast expansion throughout the world and her enthusiasm of the arts, which was spreading as fast and far wide as her empire was. Her white wedding dress went so far as to influence the color we wear when we are married.
In my European Studies class, I had the opportunity to learn about a few schools of thought that discuss various ways that identity is introduced to a nation. One, that I’d like to consider in relation to the influential English monarchy, is called the Primordial school of thought. This theory entertains the idea that identity is an “ancient, natural phenomenon” similar to the ancient, natural tradition of an English monarch.
Since nearly the beginning of their history, the British have needed a Monarch to look to, and the Monarchy has always been an inherent force of English identity. I’ve seen this personally when we toured Westminster Abbey, the place of government in England. In that parliamentary building, there are depictions of monarchies scattered all throughout the House of Lords, showcasing that the Monarchy have been an ever-present force who are necessary even today to help British identity along by opening parliament and signing bills and laws.
The monarchy learned that to keep the power they had been given, they needed to adapt to the social climate that was progressing with time. Even during the French Revolution, when monarchies across Europe were being abolished because of inflexible and absolute monarchs, the British Monarchy remained as an powerful influence over national identity. It seems to me that the historical and ever-present monarchy of England is its identity, as there are no cultural influences that have influenced British identity more than they. Though it has adapted, the monarchy has always been there, as the primordial identity-driving force. From Henry VIII to Elizabeth II and all the monarchs in between, they have been the driving force of Britain’s evolving identity by adapting to the advancing social climate, becoming the life-force of British Identity and surviving.